Gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt
The Gods of Ancient Egypt have always attracted attention for their remarkable and numerous manifestations.
On the old monuments, they are depicted in animal form, human form, or with a human body and animal head. The same god could be portrayed in all three ways. With few exceptions (Bes and Hathor), they appear with their faces in profile, in line with the strict rules governing Egyptian pictorial art. The gods often represent natural phenomena–such as the sun, moon, sky, earth, or the Nile–but also man-made phenomena such as royal power, the art of writing, mummification, and medicine. They could also represent abstract concepts, such as time, love, justice, or magic. The same god could embody many of these aspects, and different gods could have aspects that overlap. Most of the gods were associated with a specific location, and the same god could be found in many different places under different names.
The gods that belonged to the official cult were worshipped in state temples over the entire country. Only a few of the gods had their own temples, but each temple had representations of a large number of other gods as well. Each larger city had a main god that functioned as a patron and representative of the city. It was thought that the god lived in the city’s temple, where he or she formed a family with two other gods (usually mother, father, and son) in a so-called triad. A triad represented all of the divine powers in the cosmos, and functioned at the same time as a social model. With his authority and strength, the god complemented the goddess’s tenderness, beauty, and wisdom, and the union of these two cosmic forces created new life, represented by the divine son, who ensured the continuation of the world and creation.
The museum’s Egyptian collection contains pictorial and textual references to a large number of gods and goddesses. Below follows a complete list of the gods referred to in the collection, along with a short description. The list also contains some gods who are not found in the collection but who are referred to in this booklet.
Amon was originally a local god for the city of Thebes (modern Luxor), and the patron for princes in the 17th Dynasty. The king’s expanding power must have been one of the reasons why Amon grew to become the kingdom’s most powerful god, eventually merging with Ra, the god of sun and creation
Amon-Ra absorbed a number of other gods, and during certain periods he took on monotheistic characteristics. His principal cult center was the great Karnak Temple in Thebes, where he ruled with his family: his wife Mut and son Khonsu. Amon-Ra is found in innumerable incarnations, and is represented in a number of different ways in the museum’s collection. Most characteristic is the hawk with a ram’s head, as pictured on the coffin that is depicted on figure 11. This figure shows Amon-Ra manifested as the sun at night, on a journey through the underworld (see also Amon-Min under Min).
Anubis is the name of the distinctive jackal god, guardian of the city of the dead or necropolis, and guardian of the art of embalming (see Fig. 31). The priests who performed the final rituals in the embalming process probably wore jackal masks to identify with him. According to some myths, he was the illegitimate son of Osiris and Nephthys. Many of the museum’s coffins have characteristic Anubis figures at the base, and a number of tomb amulets in faience are representations of this god.
Apis was a bull god in Memphis. Like all Egyptian sacred bulls, he was a deification of human strength and fertility, and was closely associated with the king and his cult. He was considered the son of the local god of creation: Ptah.
Atum is the creator in the creation myth from Heliopolis, and father of the Ennead. Atum created the world from his own body through spit or semen. Later he is identified with the sun through the sunset. In this context he is often presented as an old man with a cane, decrepit and ready to rest in the western horizon.
Bastet is the famous Egyptian cat goddess. She can appear as a cat or as a woman with a feline head. As an aspect of Hathor, she is a goddess of love and sexuality. Her main cult center was in Bubastis. She is closely associated with, and often confused with, the lion goddess Sekhmet. This collection contains several images of Bastet, primarily the beautiful cat sarcophagus (Fig. 32), but also a small statuette of the goddess in bronze (C 47382).
Bes is often presented as a dwarf with grotesque facial features, perhaps derived from a male lion. He often has musical instruments or knives in his hands, and carries an ornamental headdress decorated with feathers. Despite his repulsive exterior, Bes was primarily a protective deity, and like the hippo goddess Taweret, he was especially helpful to women in childbirth. These two deities were very often represented on amulets that were carried for protection, as is also seen in the museum’s collection.
The Djed pillar is more of a symbol than a god in ancient Egyptian mythology. The Djed pillar was always associated with Osiris, and was interpreted as his backbone. In hieroglyphics, the symbol has the phonetic value «Djed,» and is found in words associated with stability and duration. Because the afterlife is considered eternal, the Djed pillar often appears in a funereal context. On one of the museum’s coffins (C47708), the Djed pillar appears as a deity in itself, perhaps as an aspect of Osiris.
Duamutef: See the four sons of Horus.
The Ennead are the nine gods (thus the Greek name) from the Heliopolitan creation myth. The creation began with the sun god Atum creating himself. Atum spits or ejaculates forth the next generation, Shu and Tefnut, who represent different aspects of time and air. They become parents of the third generation, Geb and Nut, earth and heaven. The fourth generation of gods are the four siblings Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys from the Osiris myth, who in turn give birth to a large number of gods.
Geb represents the earth in the Ennead, and is father to Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. He is also the supreme judge when the case between Horus and Seth is brought to the Judgment Hall in the Osiris myth.
Hapy is a name borne by two gods. The most important is the Nile god Hapy. He is the source of the Nile, and personification of the annual flood. He was often pictured as a corpulent, androgynous figure, with a crown of flowers and plants and an offering in his hands (Fig. 2). He is a god of fertility, prosperity, and abundance. Hapy is also the name of one of the four sons of Horus, and in this incarnation is often depicted with a baboon head.
Harpocrates see Horus
Hathor was perhaps the most important goddess in the pantheon, and the only one who had her own temples from the earliest times. Like Amon, she had a number of manifestations. Ancient Egyptian tradition itself mentions Hathor’s seven aspects, of which Bastet and Sekhmet were two. She was also the «Mistress of the West,» the celestial cow with the solar disk between her horns leaving the necropolis. She can also be «Lady of the Sycamore,» and is then depicted as a woman standing beside a sycamore tree while she offers a libation to the soul of the deceased. Two important cult objects bore the image of Hathor: the mirror and the sistrum (a percussion instrument). On these cult objects the goddess is presented unusually enough en face, and not in profile. She wears a wig with the same shape as the Greek omega symbol and has prominent cow’s ears. In the myths, we encounter Hathor as a wet nurse for the Horus child (Harpocrates) as he grows up in the delta in the
Osiris myth. She is also the eye of Ra (see Sekhmet), who almost eradicates humanity in the myth of the celestial cow. Later in Egypt’s history, Hathor herself is absorbed in the goddess Isis.
The museum’s collections contain two examples of Hathor’s manifestation as Imentet or the «Mistress of the West» (C47713 and 14) and one of the «Lady of the Sycamore» (on coffin C47714). Three faience/ stone objects in the collection, probably handles for a mirror, are shaped as heads of Hathor. See Bastet and Sekhmet for representations of these incarnations of the goddess.
Heka is one of many gods who personified abstract notions (see also Ma’at). Heka represents magical power, the divine spark that gives life and creates something from nothing. He is often depicted as a passenger on the Sun God’s ship traveling through the underworld, and often appears with Isis (and Nephthys), who brought Osiris back to life by using magic. On coffin C47714 he appears with Isis.
Horus is worshipped in two forms. As Horus the Elder, he is shown as a falcon or as a man with a falcon head. He is the deification of royal power, the sun god’s manifestation on earth. Each pharaoh is identified with Horus in life, but with Osiris after his death. Horus the Elder was born at the same time as his parents because Isis and Osiris loved each other while they were still in the womb. As Harpocrates he is the vulnerable god child who grows up in papyrus thickets in the delta and must learn to protect himself from the dangers that threatened the ancient Egyptians. The image of him seated on the lap of his mother echoes a religious image familiar to our own culture —namely, Mary and the baby Jesus. The image expressed the Egyptians’ desire to bear a healthy and legitimate son who would carry on the father’s trade. On another level, he is the sun god as a child—that is, the sunrise. This image is often used in a funereal context as an expression of the deceased’s wish to be reborn in the underworld. There are many representations of Harpocrates in the museum’s collection of Egyptian bronze statuettes—sometimes alone (e.g., C 47120), other times on his mother’s lap (Fig. 9).
Horus fire sønner
The four sons of Horus—Hapy, Imsety, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef—are found in tombs of all periods. As gods, they protect the internal organs of the deceased. The four sons are often depicted on coffins and papyrus, but are most often seen on canopic jars. The stoppers of the jars were shaped like animal and human heads, representing the four sons and protecting a particular organ. The actual jars represented four protective goddesses. On the jars we find Imsety with a human head, and with Isis he protected the liver. The baboon-headed Hapy protected the lungs in cooperation with Nephthys; the jackal-headed Duamutef and Neith protected the stomach; and the falcon-headed Qebehsenuef and Selket protected the intestines. Until the New Kingdom, all four sons were depicted with human heads.
Imentet: See Hathor
Imsety: See the four sons of Horus
Isis is a goddess with many dimensions. She was the ideal woman, the perfect wife and mother, and completely submissive to her husband, and later, to her son. She and her sister Nephthys are the prototypical mourners, and role models for all bereaved women. Isis brings Osiris back to life in the Osiris myth, and she is therefore the goddess of female wiles and magic, and is important in the embalming ritual. She is depicted in several places on the museum’s coffins, and is also frequently represented in the museum’s collection of amulets and bronze statuettes (Fig. 9).
Kheperi is the sun god at dawn (Fig. 10) and is presented as a scarab, or as a man with the head of a scarab. The scarab has the phonetic value «kheper» in hieroglyphics, and is the root of words relating to birth, creation, childhood, and transformation. As a strong symbol of life and regeneration, the scarab was one of the most important motifs in the symbolism of death. There are numerous scarabs in the museum’s collection, the best of which are perhaps the crown on the coffin C47708 and the large stone amulet C47249.
Khnum is the main god of the Elephantine triad in Upper Egypt. He creates people and their ka, and is often depicted standing by a potter’s wheel that is used to create human forms. He is shown as a ram, or with a ram’s head. He appears on coffin C47708 and mummy case C47714C.
Khonsu is the son of Amon-Ra and Mut in the Thebes triad, and is closely related to Horus and the pharaoh. He can appear as Harpocrates, or more commonly as a standing mummy wearing a moon disk on his shoulders. The latter image emphasizes his fertility aspects.
Ma’at is a very important goddess. She legitimizes order, the opposite of chaos, in both a social and cosmic context. She is the bringer of order to the cosmos, born at the same time as her father (the sun god Atum) in the creation myth. The kings are required to rule the country in line with the principles of Ma’at. The king was responsible for ruling the country in a just and orderly manner (social order), but also for the continued existence of the cosmos (cosmic order). Cosmic order was ensured by operating, maintainin, and expanding the great temples. In the temples, the creation ritual was reenacted each morning so that the sun could also rise again the next day. Ma’at was also important in a funereal context because on the day of judgment the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Ma’at. If the heart did not testify against its owner, eternal life was secured. This entire scene is depicted on coffin C47714.
Min was an ithyphallic shown with an erect penis) fertility god whose main cult center was in Akhmim. In Thebes, he merged with Amon to become Amon-Min, thus representing the creator and fertility aspects of Amon. «Nofret’s» coffin (C47711) most likely originates from Akhmim, and she might have been connected to Min’s temple. There are also bronze statuettes of Min in the collection (e.g., C47110).
Mut is the wife of Amon-Ra in the Thebes triad. She is a mother goddess, and often appears as a beautiful woman or as a vulture. The vulture is also represented as a hieroglyph, where it has the phonetic value «mut,» meaning «mother.»
Nefertem is the personification of the lotus flower from which the sun god emerges in the creation myths. He is an important fertility god, associated with vegetation and flowering. He can appear as a man with the head of a lion or wearing a lotus crown. There are several lotus representations in the collection, but only two small figures of the god in anthropoid form (Fig. 7).
Nephthys often appears with her sister Isis, as a mourner at funerals, or as a protective goddess who safeguards Osiris or the dead with her wings. In this connection, the two sisters often appear together with two other goddesses–Neith and Selket–and together they constitute the four goddesses making up the counterpart to the four sons of Horus. Both aspects are represented on the museum’s coffins.
Nut represents the heavens in the Ennead, and is mother to Osiris and his siblings. She is an important figure in several myths. She is the arch of heaven that devours the sun god every night so that she may give birth to him again in the morning. As the mother of Osiris, she is also central in a funereal context. She often constitutes the main motif on coffins and sarcophagi (Fig. 30), and expresses the wish of the deceased to be reborn as Osiris in the underworld.
Osiris is the god who rose from the dead and is thus associated with the regenerative powers in nature. He reflects everything that dies and rises again–for example, vegetation that sprouts and grows, and then dies, only to emerge again in the next growing season. He is associated with the Nile, which slowly dries up only to be replenished with the annual mid-summer flood. He is connected to the moon, which waxes and wanes in cycles, and to the sun and stars, which disappear to return the next day and night. In addition to being the most important god of regeneration and fertility, he was also the king of the underworld. When ancient Egyptians died, they wanted to be identified with Osiris so as to replicate his resurrection in the hereafter. The cult center of Osiris was in Abydos, where according to legend he was buried. The museum’s first cataloged object is in fact a bronze statue of Osiris (Fig. 8). His figure also appears frequently in other objects in the collection.
Ptah is the creator god in the myths from Memphis and the creator of Atum, the first sunrise. Ptah created the world through thought and speech, as opposed to Atum’s spitting or ejaculating in the creation myth from Heliopolis. He often appears as a mummified man with a composite scepter. In the museum’s collection Ptah is represented by Ptah-Sokar-Osiris (see the entry for Sokar below).
Qebehsenuef: see the four sons of Horus
Ra is the sun god when the sun is at its apex. He appears as a falcon or a man with a falcon’s head, and is closely connected to Horus and the living king. His importance peaked under the kings of the Old Kingdom. Later, he was merged with other gods — without this lessening his position in any way (see Amon-Ra under Amon). Ra is represented in several places in the collection.
Sekhmet is an aspect of Hathor and is the great mother goddess in Egyptian mythology. Sekhmet appears as a lioness or a woman with the head of a lioness, and represents the protective role of the mother. She is also the goddess of wrath and vengeance. In the Book of the Celestial Cow, the sun god Ra discovers that humankind is planning a rebellion against him. As punishment, he sends Sekhmet, also called Tefnut or the Eye of Ra, to wreak vengeance. Sekhmet instigates a bloodbath that virtually exterminates all human life, but thanks to the cunning of Thoth, the gods are able to stop her before it is too late. There are several representations of Sekhmet in the museum’s collection of amulets and statuettes, for example C 47329.
Seth is the god of chaos and disorder. The barren desert is his domain, and he is unwelcome in lands that are under the protection of the king (Horus). He represents uncontrolled male sexuality and raw power. Seth is dangerous, but his destructive nature can also be made useful for the gods. He protects the sun god from enemies on his journey through the underworld at night, and thus represents the destructive side of the sun. He often appears as a human with the head of a mythological beast with a long, curved snout and large angular ears that point upward. The museum has two representations of Seth: an amulet (C 47350) and a bronze statuette (C 47098).
Shu and his sister and wife Tefnut constitute the second generation of gods in the creation myth (see the Ennead). Together, they represent air and time. Because he is the air, he separates heaven (Nut) from earth (Geb). The museum’s collection contains a number of amulets with images of Shu.
Sokar is a god connected to the underworld. He is represented on one of the museum’s coffins (C47714) as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris and appears as a falcon wearing a double crown.
Tawret appears as a hippo with the paws of a lion and tail of a crocodile, and with hanging breasts and a large belly, as if she is pregnant. This remarkable character was always a very popular goddess because, like Bes, she protected women in childbirth. Also like Bes, she never had her own temple, but was often depicted in reliefs on temple walls, and very often on amulets. The museum’s collection holds several such amulets.
Thoth most often appears with the body of a human and the head of an ibis. He is easily recognizable with his long, curved beak. He is the god of wisdom and writing, and benefactor of the scribes. In the death mythology, he plays an important role as a scribe on the day of judgment. It is Thoth who holds the scales and writes down the verdict when the heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at.
Wepwawet, «Opener of the ways,» was, like Anubis, depicted as a jackal. He is a very ancient god and has many aspects. In the death mythology, he guided the dead on their journey to the underworld where they had to pass through twelve gates, one for each of the twelve hours of night. Wepwawet appears with Anubis in the base of two of the museum’s
coffins (C47708 and 11).