Nun – The Primeval God
mythology tends to start with the primordial origins, and in Egyptian
mythology, that scope is covered by the ancient Egyptian gods Nun and
Naunet (the feminine form). In essence, the ancient Egyptians perceived
Nun as the watery abyss that basically held the universe by which the
sphere of life was borne. This watery mass was endowed with enigmatic
characteristics by the Egyptians – with its depth epitomizing both
nothingness and infinity, while also serving as the source of all
aspects of divine and earthly existence.
So in many ways, Nun,
like Tiamat – the Mesopotamian primordial goddess of the oceans, was
associated, albeit neutrally, with the forces of chaos. And in terms of
his physical attribute, Nun was often represented as a bearded man with
blue or green skin (thus suggesting his connection with the watery mass
of Nile and fertility). On occasions, he was also depicted as a frog or a
frog-headed man (as part of the Ogdoad system practiced at Khmunu or
Hermopolis) or even a hermaphrodite with discernable breasts.
Amun, Ra, and Amun-Ra – The Ancient Egyptian gods of Sun and Wind
Often considered among one of the most important ancient Egyptian gods, Amun was the divine entity who represented the air and the sun. Sometimes portrayed as the king of gods, Amun was also the patron deity of Thebes, the royal capital during the impressive New Kingdom era of Egypt, circa 16th century BC to 11th century BC. In fact, in the earlier centuries, Amun was a minor god, and as such played second fiddle to ‘war gods’ like Montu. However, the New Kingdom period brought forth the ascendancy of the diety, who was venerated as the ‘Self-Created One’.
on the other hand, was considered as one of the powerful ancient
Egyptian gods who was associated with the Pharoah – so much so, that by
Fifth Dynasty, almost every ruler was symbolically hailed as the son of
Ra. He was also associated with the earlier sun god Atum of Heliopolis.
And over time, especially during the New Kingdom, the thriving Amun cult
merged the two entities Amun and Ra into a composite god known as
Amun-Ra, who was hailed as the “Lord of truth, father of the gods, maker
of men, creator of all animals, Lord of things that are, creator of the
staff of life.” According to many scholars, Amun-Ra sort of symbolized
the combination of the invisible force (of wind) with the visible
majesty (of the life-giving sun), thus establishing an all-encompassing
deity who covered most aspects of creation.
Hathor – The Cow Goddess
ancient Egyptian goddess of joy, feminine love, and motherhood; Hathor
(meaning – ‘Domain of Horus’) was closely associated (or was the
successor) to Mehet-Weret, the primeval divine cow entity/goddess who
was perceived as being responsible for bringing the floods to the Nile,
thus in the process fertilizing the land. Continuing with this possibly
pre-dynastic concept, Hathor was also regarded as the mother of the sun
As for her name referring to the ‘Domain of Horus’,
Hathor possibly comes from the Egyptian myth of Horus – one of the
prominent Egyptian gods (discussed later in the article), and how he
entered her mouth to rest and then again come back at dawn. Considering
these aspects, suffice it to say, Hathor was regarded as a protective
and benevolent deity who often personified kindness. She was also
closely associated with matters of womanly love and health, so much so
that many women beheld her as the counterpart to Osiris in the
And as for her physical attributes, Hathor was
often depicted as a woman with the head of a cow or having an entire cow
form. Later on, the bovine features were relegated in favor of a
woman’s face (but still with cow’s ears or horns). She was also
represented with the sistrum rattle-like musical instrument that was
used to drive evil from the land – a facet that was later applied to the
Bastet/Sekhmet – The Feline Goddess
ancient Egyptians certainly shared a proclivity for domesticating cats,
and this cultural affinity was mirrored by the native Egyptian
mythology and religion that popularized the worship of Bastet (or Bast),
at least since the Second Dynasty period (post 29th century BC). A
goddess of the home, love, fertility, joy, dance, women and secrets,
Bastet with her cat-like head and woman’s body was considered as a
Given such propensity for feline
symbolization, cats were uniquely sacred in Egypt – so much so that the
punishment for killing a cat was death by stabbing. According to
Herodotus, Egyptians was so fond of their cats that they preferred to
save their cats instead of themselves when trapped inside a burning
building. Some cats were also known to be mummified in a ceremonious
manner with jewelry – as was the case with many noble people.
enough, according to a legend, the Persians took advantage of this
seemingly unhealthy feline fascination of the Egyptians by positioning
many such animals and Bastet images (painted on their shields) in the
front-lines at the Battle of Pelusium in circa 525 BC. The adorable
critters ranging from cats, dogs to even sheep, dissuaded the
animal-loving Egyptians from firing their arrows – thus allowing the
Persians to take the initiative and win the battle.
all the talk about battles, it should be noted that Egyptians also
venerated Bastet in the form of her ‘alter-ego’ Sekhmet – the warrior
lioness. She was often given the epithet of ‘Sekhmet the Powerful’ and
represented as the fiercest hunter in all of Egypt whose very breath
formed the desert (while her pedigree was also associated with the Solar
deity). Given such regal characteristics, it doesn’t really come as a
surprise that many Pharaohs regarded her as their protector in battles.
Maat – The Goddess of Order
The ancient Egyptian goddess of truth, justice, and, the cosmic order (alluding to the Egyptian concept of ma’at), Maat (or ma-yet) was responsible for regulating both the stars and the seasons. Venerated as an important deity during the Old Kingdom period (circa 27th century – 22nd century BC), she was considered as the daughter of Atum (or Ra), and as such implied the superiority of order, justice, and even harmony.
to these aspects, the ma’at was envisaged as a guideline for human
behavior that would conform to the will of the gods, thus in the process
establishing a universal order. This cosmic balance was also reflected
in the studies of the ancient Egyptian astronomers who charted the
Earth’s orbit with the celestial paths of the stars and other planets.
Simply put, this ambit of balance was perceived as a principle that was
to be adopted by Egyptians in their daily lives, which in turn
established the virtues of truth, family life, and the belief system
centered around the various deities.
And when it comes to her
physical appearance, Maat was often depicted as a winged woman with an
ostrich feather on her head. The latter apparel had symbolic
significance since the feather of Maat was the instrumental object in
the Weighing of the Heart ceremony in the afterlife. The Egyptians
believed that after their death, the heart of their soul was to be
weighed against the feather in a ‘scale of justice’, which would allow
the sections of their spirits (or life force) to be ultimately released
to Akh (the composite soul).
Ptah – The Creator God
One of the Egyptian gods who formed the triad of Memphis (along with his spouse Sekhmet and daughter Nefertum), Ptah was the personification of creation. In essence, Ptah was perceived as the ultimate creator who not only fashioned the universe but also ‘breathed life’ into the entities populating the world. Suffice it to say, Ptah was a widely popular god in ancient Egypt – so much so that the very name Egypt derived from Greek Aigyptos, was originally borrowed from Amarna Hikuptah, corresponding to Egyptian Ha(t)-ka-ptah or ‘temple of the soul of Ptah’, the god’s religious sanctuary in Memphis.
Ptah was also
hailed as the ‘self-created one’, thus suggesting that his role in
specific creation as opposed to the all-encompassing nature of the
aforementioned Amun-Ra. To that end, Ptah was regarded as the patron
deity of sculptors, painters, builders, and other artisans. This
allusion to his ‘master architect’ status possibly also played a part in
inspiring a few aspects of Christian theology and Masonic elements.
for his physical nature, Ptah was often depicted as a mummified bearded
man with green skin. His arms were kept free to hold a scepter, and his
overall profile contained the three powerful symbols of ancient
Egyptian religion: the Was scepter, the sign of life, Ankh, and the
Djed pillar. These motifs suggested the combined essence of his creative
prowess, – the power, life-giving ability, and stability.
Isis – The Magic Goddess
Probably the most famous of all Egyptian goddesses, Isis was initially associated with Hathor, thus being heralded as the personification of many of the ‘motherly’ qualities. However, she further rose in significance during the Old Kingdom period, as one of the prominent characters of the Osiris myth, in which she not only resurrects her murdered husband, the divine king Osiris but also successfully gives birth and protects his heir, Horus.
This narrative was
symbolically mirrored in the affairs of the ancient Egyptian state, with
the very name Isis being derived from Egyptian Eset, (‘the seat’),
which refers to the throne. In essence, the Egyptian goddess was
perceived as the divine mother of the kings, while Horus (discussed
later in the article) was associated with the Pharaohs themselves. This
analogy of the throne was also prevalent in the very depiction of Isis,
with her original headdress carrying an empty throne that signified the
seat of her slain husband.
Over time, Isis was given various
epithets like Weret-Kekau (‘the Great Magic’) and even Mut-Netjer (‘the
Mother of the Gods’). Judging by these titles, it doesn’t come as a
surprise that Isis overtook all the previous Egyptian goddesses in
popularity, so much so that later on some of them were relegated to mere
aspects of Isis. Moreover, the adoration of the goddess also reached
beyond the traditional boundaries of ancient Egypt, to account for a
persistent cult that was spread across the later Greco-Roman world.
Osiris – The Dead God
One of the major ancient Egyptian gods during and after the Old Kingdom period, Osiris – the husband of Isis, the father of Horus, and the brother of Set, was often perceived as the king of the underworld. A part of the later-formed Abydos Triad (comprising him, his wife, and his son), Osiris was possibly the only Egyptian deity who was directly referred to simply as a ‘god’, thus alluding to his immense prominence among the ancient Egyptian worshippers (many of whom considered Osiris as the first king of Egypt).
In addition to his role as the
lord of the underworld – a title that was passed to him after his murder
by his brother Set, Osiris was also regarded as the god of transition
(since a death in itself was not seen as an absolute condition) and even
regeneration. Furthermore, Osiris also fulfilled his duty as the Judge
of the Dead, as he was the central figure who decided the deceased’s
fate after the aforementioned Weighing of the Heart ceremony (see the
Maat entry). Interestingly enough, in such cases, we can comprehend the
pragmatic nature of ancient Egyptian gods and religion – since as
opposed to advocating puritan morality, the deceased was only expected
to live a ‘balanced’ former life.
Finally, coming to the
physical attributes of Osiris, the god was often depicted as a mummified
bearded king with a green or black skin – to represent both death and
resurrection. And as a living god, Osiris was represented rather
ostentatiously as a handsome man in the royal attire wearing the crown
of Upper Egypt (a headdress known as the atef), while carrying the crook
and flail, both symbols of kingship.
Horus – The Falcon God
most well-known of all ‘avian’ Egyptian gods, Horus was also possibly
one of the first known national Egyptian gods, who was worshipped in
various forms and aspects from the Predynastic period to the Roman Egypt
epoch. However, there are at least six known Horus entities that are
mentioned in Egyptian mythology – and we will only talk about the deity
otherwise hailed as Horus the Younger, the son of Osiris and Isis, and
the rival of Set, his father’s murderer.
Completing the Abydos
Triad, Horus was regarded as a powerful sky god who was designated as
the divine protector of the pharaohs. His legacy is also fueled by his
epic mythical battle against the adversary Set, from which Horus emerged
victorious, thereby uniting the two lands of Egypt, albeit after losing
one of his eyes. In essence, the avenging Egyptian deity was also
perceived as a god of war whose name was frequently invoked before
actual battles by the rulers and commanders.
As for his
physical attributes, Horus, especially when combined with the sun god Ra
to form Ra-Harahkhte, was usually depicted as a falcon-headed man
wearing the pschent, the symbol of kingship over unified Egypt. On the
other hand, his restored eye, personified as the Eye of Horus, was the
ancient Egyptian symbol for protection and sacrifice. Quite
intriguingly, the Ptolemaic dynasty favored another form of Horus known
as Harpocrates (or ‘Horus the Child’), who was depicted as a
winged-child with a finger on his lips – suggesting the virtue of
silence and keeping secrets.
Seth – The Antagonist God
the Osiris myth, Set was portrayed as the antagonist among the Egyptian
gods responsible for murdering his brother Osiris. However, if we
consider the historical evidence, Set was the perceived as a divine
entity since the Predynastic period (before 3rd millennium BC), with his
center of worship possibly originating from the town of Nubt, which is
one of the oldest settlements in Upper Egypt. And interestingly enough,
Nubt served as the gateway to the eastern desert and its gold deposits,
which possibly explains the association of Set with the deserts of
In any case, Set was originally regarded as a
more-or-less benevolent and esteemed entity who sometimes served as an
ally of Ra, and was tasked with the protection of oases in the deserts.
But over time, he was also associated with peculiar and frightening
phenomena like eclipses, storms, and thunders – thus suggesting a dark
side to his personification. Once again, reverting to history, some part
of this scope possibly had to do with the foreign Hyksos, who adopted
Set as one of their gods – which could have fueled a reactionary measure
from the future native Egyptians who saw Set as an agent of evil. Other
historians have hypothesized that the battle between Set and Horus, as
opposed to a confrontation between good and evil, was rather a symbolic
representation of the struggle to unite Egypt under one ruler.
the ‘strange’ nature of Set as one of the dualistic ancient Egyptian
gods is also manifested by his depictions. They often showcase a
creature which is simply known as the Set animal, which could be a
composite of an aardvark, a donkey, and a jackal (or a fennec fox). A
few scholars have argued that the Set animal possibly represents a
giraffe, though ancient Egyptians seem to have differentiated between
giraffes and the enigmatic hybrid creature. And the Late Egyptian period
(post 664 BC) artists tended to depict Set exclusively with a donkey
Anubis – The Jackal God
of the most visually recognizable of the ancient Egyptian gods, Anubis
(or rather Anpu or Inpu in Egyptian language) was represented as a
jackal-headed entity associated with the rites of embalming the deceased
and the related afterlife. And like many contemporary Egyptian gods,
Anubis did have other aspects, but his core attributes were seemingly
always related to the matters of death. For example, even during the 1st
Dynasty period (circa 3100 BC), Anubis was perceived as a protector of
graves – possibly to endow a positive aspect to the propensity of
jackals who tended to dig up shallow graves.
To that end,
Anubis pertained to one of the rare ancient Egyptian gods, who in spite
of his ancient legacy, was not venerated in dedicated precincts and
temples (at least according to archaeological evidence or lack thereof).
On the contrary, the tombs and mastabas of the dead were seen as his
‘places of worship’, including a particular shrine at Anubeion which
contained the mummified remains of dogs and jackals. Suffice it to say,
Anubis was often intrinsically related to the rites associated with
death, and thus he played the role of the deity who ushered souls into
the afterlife. Over time, he might have even overtaken Osiris as the
main ‘judge’ in the Weighing of the Heart ceremony – as depicted in the
scenes from the Book of the Dead.
Now in spite of his visually
striking features and frequent ancient artistic depictions – that as we
mentioned before, consisted of a black jackal’s head, Anubis played
almost no part in the actual Egyptian mythology. And while the color
black itself symbolized both desolation and rebirth, Anubis was possibly
also associated with the god Upuaut (or Wepwawet), another deity with
canine (or dog) features but with grey fur.
Thoth – The Ibis God
Another one of the ancient Egyptian gods who was worshipped from the Predynastic period to the Greco-Roman times, Thoth was an important deity of writing, magic, wisdom, and the moon. He was also closely associated with the principles of balance and equilibrium, which was often symbolized by his title ‘Lord of Ma’at’ – and as such, Thoth was also portrayed as the husband of the goddess Maat, the deity of truth, justice, and the cosmic order.
Quite interestingly, Thoth had
many origin stories in the Egyptian mythology, with the older lore
mentioning how Thoth was either born from the lip of Ra or was
‘self-born’, as an ibis, which lays the cosmic egg that holds all of the
creation. Later origin myths established Thoth as one of the characters
of the Osiris saga, wherein the deity was oddly born when Set
accidentally swallowed Horus‘ seed. In any case, given his stature as
one of the major Egyptian gods of balance, Thoth equally healed and
aided both the parties Horus and Set in their epic battle.
As for his physical attributes, Thoth was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or sometimes even a seated baboon (in his A’an aspect). And considering his academic qualities, Thoth was widely perceived as the patron deity of scribes, astronomers, priests and some rulers (like Thutmose meaning ‘Born of Thoth’). He was also credited as the inventor of the alphabet, mathematics, surveying, geometry and even botany.
Taweret – The Hippo Goddess
The ancient Egyptian goddess of childbirth, Taweret (meaning ‘she who is great’) was regarded as the divine protector of women and children. And interestingly enough, her veneration by the ancient Egyptians was possibly inspired by the ecological scope of the realm before the Early Dynastic Period (pre 3000 BC), when the locals observed how the female hippopotami staunchly defended their young offspring from harm.
time, Taweret was also worshipped as an apotropaic god who had the
power to ward off evil influences. To that end, it is known that
Egyptian mothers carried amulets that were carved with the symbols or
images of Taweret to invoke her protection. By the time of the New
Kingdom, her likeness was also designed on objects related to feminity,
like cosmetic applicators, jewelry, headrests, and vessels.
her veneration possibly stemming from the observance of hippopotamus
behavior in Egypt, the physical attributes of Taweret also followed
suit, with the Egyptian goddess often portrayed as a bipedal pregnant
hippopotamus who carried the protective sa sign. However, her limbs were
strikingly feline in nature, while her rear end resembled a Nile
Aten – The ‘Controversial’ God
considered as an aspect of other ancient Egyptian gods, namely Ra, Aten
personified the disc of the sun as visible from the earth. And like
other aspects following the likeness of the main deities, Aten was
usually worshipped as a falcon-headed god, thus mirroring the image of
Ra. On occasions, Aten was also hailed as the silver disc, thus
suggesting its aspect of the moon.
However, during the reign
of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV – who was later known as Akhenaten, the Pharaoh
proclaimed that Aten was to venerated above the other Egyptian gods. In
essence, Akhenaten declared a monotheistic (or possibly henotheistic)
mode of religious affiliation across all of Egypt, with the worship
centered around Aten. Such a radical promulgation had deep-reaching
effects on the Egyptian society and culture.
Pertaining to the
latter, the royal city of Amarna boasted revolutionary architecture
centered around the worship of Aten. For example, most of the temples
were constructed without any roofing, thus symbolically allowing the
unobstructed passage of the effulgent rays of the solar deity on the
worshipers inside. But such measures ultimately resulted in
counter-implementations of the traditional pantheon system – with the
legacy of Akhenaten and Aten being intentionally wiped out by his
successors after the defiant pharaoh’s death. Even the city of Amarna
was razed by the later ‘traditionalists’, though some structural
segments did survive to provide a historical glimpse into the royal city
(watch the reconstruction here).
Honorable Mention – Khepri, The Beetle God
connected to the scarab beetle, Khepri was one of the rare Egyptian
gods who was usually depicted as a man with a beetle head in Ancient
Egyptian funerary papyri. There was a symbolic side to the whole affair
of Khepri worship – with the entity epitomizing the forces that moved
the sun across the vast expanse of the sky. This connection was derived
from the action of scarab beetles when they rolled balls of dung across
the rigorous desert surface – while the young beetles emerged from
inside the dung, from the eggs laid by the parent. This is in fact
related to the Egyptian word ‘kheper‘, which roughly translates to – to
change, or to create.
In any case, Khepri was also considered
as being subordinate to the more exalted sun god Ra, which on occasions
also translated to Khepri being one of the aspects of Ra. For example,
Khepri was perceived as the personification of the morning sun, while Ra
was seen as the more effulgent midday sun. The people also regarded
Khepri as one of the Egyptian gods of rebirth, possibly since the
Egyptians believed beetles appeared out of nowhere and yet were able to