Want to know more about the main animal-headed gods of ancient Egypt? Understand the stories and myths behind Ra, Osiris, Horus, and Anubis?
You've come to the right place: specialists and enthusiasts of Egypt, we have prepared an article gathering the myths and attributes of each of the gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon.
The Egyptian pantheon includes all the gods created by the falcon-headed Sun god Ra. Egyptian gods include many gods with animal heads (Horus, Set, Anubis, Thoth, Bastet, Sekhmet, Ra) and others with human heads (Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Amun).
We will see together in this article:
- The gods Ra, Apep, Aten, and Sekhmet involved in the creation of the Universe
- The gods Set, Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, and Horus involved in the tragedy called "myth of Osiris"
- The gods Anubis, Thoth, and Ammit involved in the judgment of the Egyptian dead
- The other important gods: Khepri, Amun, Ptah, Taweret, and Sobek
Let's begin without further ado by discovering the first of these gods and the creator of the Egyptian world: Ra, the falcon Sun god.
I) The creation of all the other gods by Ra
Ra is the god of gods of ancient Egypt: according to Egyptian mythology, he is the creator of the Universe and all the divine or mortal life forms that inhabit it.
Originally, there were only two elements in the entire Universe: an infinite ocean covering the lower half of the Universe and the "Void" covering the other half of the Universe.
After an infinite number of contacts between the original ocean and the original Void, an entity representing the desire for creation emerged: Atum. Atum was too weak to single-handedly shape the Universe. However, he tried all the same and used all the energy he possessed to bring a tiny island out of the ocean.
On this tiny island, a falcon-headed god appeared on his own, carrying the Sun on his head. Indeed, Ra had sensed the great distress of Atum, who had not been able to create the Universe on his own.
Thus, Ra immediately created the conditions that would allow life to come into the Universe. By harmoniously mixing the ocean and the Void, he gives birth to air (in the form of the god Shu) and heat (in the form of the goddess Tefnut).
Shu and Tefnut will have two children: Geb (the incarnation of the earth) and Nut (the starry sky). As for them, Geb and Nut will have four children: Osiris, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.
II) The primordial function of Ra in the Egyptian Universe
Immensely proud of the family of gods he has created, Ra lets a tear escape from his left eye. From this tear will be born all forms of mortal life: humans as well as animals and plants of all kinds.
In order that all these life forms may live, grow and prosper, Ra will set himself the task of illuminating them with the Sun he carries on his head. To achieve this end, every day Ra travels the world from east to west (the Sun rising in the east) to bring mortals the light they need.
Because the world is flat according to the ancient Egyptians, at night Ra must pass beneath the Earth to return to his original position (the east of the Earth). It is on this journey through the Underworld that he encounters each day the evil god we will present now: the serpent god Apep.
Apep is a giant snake from the Void that has always existed and will always exist.
Apep's goal is to return the world to the state it was in before the coming of Atum and especially of the creator god Ra.
To this end, every night when Ra enters the underworld where the dwelling of Apep is located, Apep tries to eat Ra and the Sun that he carries on his head. However, because Ra is defended by other gods (notably, the chaos god Set and the cat goddess Bastet), Apep never achieves his goal.
Counterintuitively, according to Egyptian myths, it is Apep who causes eclipses.
Indeed, during those, Apep succeeds in swallowing Ra by surprising him in the middle of the day and swallowing him. Nevertheless, eclipses never last long because Set and Bastet always help Ra by opening the stomach of Apep, which allows the Sun to illuminate the Earth again.
Aten is the personification of the Sun that Ra wears on his head (and that other gods linked to Ra like Bastet and Sekhmet may also wear on their heads).
Aten is also often represented in the form of a solar disc with multiple hands. In this second form, Aten held a very special place in Egypt because he became the single god of Egypt throughout the reign of the "heretic pharaoh" Akhenaten.
After having replaced all the other gods for the 18 years of Akhenaten's reign, Aten became a god like the others. Indeed, Akhenaten's son, Tutankhamun, reconnected with the ancient animal-headed gods of Egypt after his father's death in 1337 BC.
In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is the god sent by Ra as pharaoh to rule over the first inhabitants of Egypt, along with his sister and wife Isis. Osiris was wise, intelligent, and benevolent. He led mankind on the path to greatness, joy, and prosperity in just a few centuries of reign.
Nevertheless, Osiris' success was not appreciated by all: Set, Osiris' brother, became very jealous of Osiris and planned to assassinate him.
Thus, in order to take the power of Osiris by force, Set traps Osiris by organizing a great contest during a banquet organized in the honor of Osiris and Isis. During this feast taking place on the banks of the Nile and welcoming many guests, Set brings a pretty chest decorated with rich jewels that he proposes to offer to anyone who would be able to enter fully into it.
Surprisingly, none of the guests manage to do so. But if no one can get into Set's chest, it's for a very simple reason: Set's chest is specially designed so that only Osiris can enter inside.
When it is the Egyptian ruler's turn to try to get into the chest, Set immediately welds the openings in the chest. He then throws the chest into the Nile, killing Osiris by drowning.
Isis is the goddess of magic and secrets. Isis is also, as we said above, the sister and wife of Osiris.
After the great deception of Set causing the death of Osiris, Isis leaves desperately in search of her brother and lover.
Isis quickly finds the body of the late monarch of Egypt. She then attempts to resurrect Osiris, but only succeeds in reviving him for one night (the night she becomes pregnant with a son, Horus).
However, before Isis can begin longer preparations to bring Osiris back to life permanently, Set discovers the body of Osiris (which Isis had previously hidden by the Nile) during a hunting expedition.
Fearing that the rightful ruler of Egypt would be brought back to life, Set dismembers his brother's body into fourteen pieces. He then hides the fourteen pieces in various caves, mountains, and bodies of water around the world.
After a long and laborious search, Isis manages to find 13 of the 14 pieces of her lover. However, the moment she sees the 14th piece hidden at the bottom of a lake, a large fish eats and digests it instantly.
In spite of the disappearance of this last part of the body of Osiris (a part which was his penis), Isis starts the ritual aiming at bringing back to life Osiris.
However, since he has been resurrected without all his pieces, Osiris is no longer a "whole god". As a result, he can no longer rule over the world of men. Thus, Osiris, the former ruler of the world of the living, becomes the ruler of the world of the dead. As for Set, he begins a reign over Egypt, which he negligently directs, leaving it to fall into almost total anarchy.
Horus is the falcon-headed god known as the protector of Egyptian pharaohs.
In the myth of Osiris, it is Horus who restores peace and harmony in Egypt by confronting his uncle Set. Indeed, as a child, seeing from afar the cruel and disastrous reign of Set over men, Horus wants to restore Egypt to its greatness.
As an adult, Horus will find the divine jury composed of the gods Ra, Shu, and Thoth to assert his rights to the succession of Osiris.
Shu and Thoth, well aware of the unjust and problematic reign of Set, agree with Horus without delay. Shu and Thoth are thus ready to support Horus to force an abdication of Set without delay.
Nevertheless, Ra is very upset that his opinion was not sought first (because he is the creator god and the father of all gods). Ra therefore orders Set and Horus to compete in a long series of tests to decide between them.
The trials between Set and Horus begin. However, in each of these challenges, Set uses cunning and deception to win. He operates so well in both areas that he wins all the first trials.
This situation worries Isis a lot, and she decides to help her son. During an apnea test in the Nile between Set and Horus (who were previously transformed into hippopotamuses), Isis creates a magic harpoon to bring Set to the surface of the water, which would make him lose the test (the ancient Egyptians had a lot of imagination!).
Isis' plan works, and Horus wins his first trial. However, Horus is angry about his mother's lack of confidence in him and tears off his head before throwing it away (fortunately, a little later, Thoth will bring Isis back to life).
The jury of gods is very unhappy with this action because raising one's hand against one's own mother is not a normal act that can be easily forgotten. Ra, Shu, and Thoth thus agree to give an advantage to Set. The latter will have the right to choose the next trial, which will also be the ultimate trial that will determine whether Set or Horus will rule Egypt.
In this last test, Set is very sure of himself. He therefore declares that the last event would be a boat race with a small specificity: the boats should only be made of stone.
Horus begins to fear defeat in this final event. For the first time, he cheats to win the race. To do so, he builds a wooden boat but to meet the criteria for boats set by Set, he paints the wood with pieces of crushed rock to simulate a boat entirely made of stone.
Horus is a good and honest god: his only motivation for cheating is the fear of seeing Egypt in the hands of a ruler as evil and unreasonable as Set.
On the day of the event, Set does not arrive with a boat but with a plan: he cuts the top of a mountain to make a boat out of it. However, when he launches his "ship", this piece of mountain immediately sinks to the bottom of the water. Horus is thus declared the winner by Ra.
As a bad loser, Set jumps on Horus to try to kill him. With Horus on his ship at this very moment, the ship of Horus is shattered under the two gods' weight. Horus' deception is revealed to the council of the gods.
Not knowing who to choose between the bad loser and the deceiver, Ra, Shu, and Thoth go to find the very wise Osiris, now Egyptian god of death in the Egyptian underworld.
Osiris takes a stand for his son: because Set seized power by duping and then killing his own brother, he has no claim on Egypt. Moreover, to force the hand of the council, Osiris calls the stars, the Moon, and the Sun (some of his good friends) into his underworld kingdom, depriving the whole world of all sources of light.
Unable to see the world wither away, Ra, Shu, and Thoth agreed with Osiris and named Horus pharaoh of Egypt.
Set, deprived of the immunity conferred by his status as pharaoh, is tried for the murder of Osiris and banished to the desert.
Set (or sometimes Seth) is the god of chaos, storms, and desert.
After his defeat against Horus, Set begins a long repentance for the murder of Osiris. During this repentance, Set was called to help Ra in his mission of solar illumination of the Universe.
Set now fights every night against Apep to protect Ra from a snake that wants to eat him and the Sun on his head.
It is for this tale of repentance that Set is particularly loved by the pharaohs. Indeed, by fighting Apep, Set represents the struggle of good against evil and the protection of the order of things.
Nephthys is the funerary goddess who watches over the sarcophagi of the deceased Egyptians.
Before the myth of Osiris began with his murder, Nephthys was strongly attracted to Osiris and seduced him by disguising herself as Isis, Osiris' wife.
From this adulterous relationship will be born Anubis who will be immediately abandoned in the desert by Nephthys for fear that her husband Set will get angry in front of the proof of this infidelity that this child represents. Fortunately, Anubis will be taken in by Isis with the help of jackals (which will give Anubis the head of a jackal god).
The infidelity of Nephthys has heavy repercussions because it is this infidelity that initiates the hatred and jealousy that Set will feel more and more for his brother Osiris. Thus, it can clearly be said that Nephthys contributes greatly to the murder of Osiris by her brother-husband Set in an indirect way.
After Set's murder of Osiris, Ra does not immediately realize that the world has been left without a benevolent pharaoh and that men are entering a great era of anarchy. During this dark period, statues of the principal gods are brought down, and their temples are destroyed.
When Ra realizes the mess that is on Earth, he sends his right eye there in the form of Sekhmet, the lion goddess of war. Sekhmet's orders are to massacre all men, women, and children on Earth.
Luckily for human civilization, Ra revises himself and understands that men are what they are and that he still loves them as they are. Ra therefore renounces the massacre and recalls Sekhmet who becomes his eye again: human civilization is saved!
Bastet (or Bast) is the goddess of cats, pleasure, and "all that is pleasant". Bastet was a very popular goddess in ancient Egypt who even had a city named in her honor: Bubastis.
Because Bastet was reputed to bestow many favors, all the cats of Egypt were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, they could all potentially be incarnations of Bastet.
For that reason, in pharaonic Egypt, killing or raising one's hand against a cat was a highly reprehensible act that was often punishable by death.
In some accounts describing the attributes of the supreme god Ra, Bastet is sometimes the replacement of Set in the fight against the serpent Apep to protect Ra on his celestial solar boat.
Goddess endowed with cow horns, Hathor is the goddess of beauty, love, and joy. Hathor is also the wife of Horus, whom Horus marries after triumphing over Set.
Hathor is strongly linked to Sekhmet and Bastet. Indeed, in Egyptian myths, when Hathor is joyful, she becomes Bastet (the cat goddess). When Hathor is angry, she becomes Sekhmet (the lion goddess).
Anubis is the jackal-headed god of the dead. He is the one who greets the Egyptian dead after they die.
Anubis is the son of Nephthys (the wife of Set) who was abandoned by Set but was raised by Isis (the wife of Osiris). For this reason, Anubis gave Osiris the title "god of death". Indeed, after the assassination of Osiris by Set, Anubis will give Osiris this title in thanks for the way Osiris and Isis took care of him during his childhood.
We found Anubis in the "ritual of Egyptian dead's hearts' weighing" to determine whether they were worthy of access to the Afterlife's paradise. In this ritual, Anubis compared the weight of a deceased person's heart with the weight of a feather of the winged goddess Maat on a scale.
If the heart was less or as heavy as the feather, the soul to whom the heart belonged had the right to ascend to Osiris' paradise of the Blessed.
However, if the heart was too heavy (because it was weighed down by too many crimes), the soul was eaten by the next goddess we will present: the soul devouring goddess Ammit.
When a soul arriving near Anubis is deemed too sinful, Ammit, the soul devouring goddess, eats it. The soul is then "forgotten forever" which is the greatest form of shame an Egyptian can experience after death.
Thoth is the Egyptian god with a head of ibis. Inventor of hieroglyphics and all sciences, he is the god of scribes, knowledge, and learning.
The ibis god also has an important role in the weighing of hearts (presented earlier): Thoth is in charge of verifying that no external element disturbs the judgment of the dead. Thus, thanks to Thoth, the judgment of Anubis' scales is always fair and without defect.
The beetle god Khepri is the form Ra took when the latter created the Sun (that is, before he took on the form of a falcon god).
At each dawn, after having brought the Sun back eastward through the underworld (as we have seen earlier in this article), Ra takes back his form of "god Khepri". It is only when the Sun is high in the sky that Ra regains his form of falcon-headed god.
Always represented as mummified with a scepter, Ptah is the god of artisans.
In some accounts from early ancient Egypt, Ptah is portrayed as the supreme creator god who created Ra by his thought, before he created all the other gods and goddesses.
At the end of Egyptian civilization, Amun (or sometimes Amun-Ra) became a creator god alongside Ra. While Ra creates all the mineral elements that make up the Universe (the Earth, the Sun, and the stars), Amun creates human, animal, and plant life.
According to the myth of Amun, he transforms himself into a goose to lay a giant egg. Amun then transforms into a snake to incubate the egg for millennia. After this long period of time, from the egg come all the humans, animals, and plants that will populate the Earth created by Ra.
Taweret is a goddess half woman, half hippopotamus, and half lion. So, she has a woman's body, a hippopotamus' head and lion's feet. Taweret is the protective goddess of pregnant women and newborns.
Sobek is the crocodile-headed god of Egyptian mythology.
In Egypt, 4500 years ago, crocodiles were very present in the Nile and its surroundings. Crocodiles were savage beasts that hid by the water's edge before catching, drowning, and eating Egyptians venturing to the banks of the Nile (or to the lakes and ponds around the Nile).
For this reason, the ancient Egyptians worshipped, Sobek because he was supposed to be the father of all crocodiles and therefore have a great control over his sons.
The gods of ancient Egypt
You now know all about the most important gods of ancient Egypt. Indeed, we have seen together:
- The gods Ra, Aten, Apep, and Sekhmet involved in the "myth of Ra"
- The gods Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set, and Nephthys involved in the "myth of Osiris"
- The gods Anubis, Ammit, and Thoth involved in the weighing of hearts
- The gods Sobek, Khepri, Ptah, Amun, and Taweret who are important in ancient Egyptian traditions
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