The Ancient Egyptians capture the attention of even the most casual student of history. Not only is Egypt credited with being one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and perhaps one of the birthplaces of the human race. But their civilization remains alive today. The Great Pyramids of Giza are still considered one of the most impressive feats of architecture and construction in the history of human civilization, and the temples built to the many Egyptian gods that pepper the banks of the Nile River remind us how a vibrant and devoutly religious civilization has been there longer than any of us can fathom..
Understanding the Egyptian gods and goddesses is essential to understanding Ancient Egypt. Life depended on the gods, and therefore, much of Ancient Egyptian life was dedicated to appeasing the gods so that they would provide the people with what they needed to survive.
Egyptian religion is a dense, complicated, and mysterious subject. There are many things we still don’t know, and many more we never will. However, archaeologists and anthropologists have still managed to decipher many details and provide us with a much clearer picture of how Egyptian religion developed and grew into a powerful cultural force capable of guiding an entire civilization.
Understanding the Gods of Egypt
As one of the oldest civilizations in the world, religion in Egypt has a long history. The many gods of Egypt likely originated from religious cults that formed in communities in the 4th or perhaps even 5th millennium BCE (approximately 5,000-6,000 years ago). Each village would have had its own god and different representations of that god. Some evidence suggests the earliest Egyptians practiced fetishism, meaning early Egyptian gods were material objects, such as a flag or wrapped staff.
However, fetishism soon gave way to the worship of animals, and it’s likely as villages expanded and combined with nearby settlements, these various gods morphed under the influence of differing religious views. Over time, the many different gods of Egypt took on new forms, until they were eventually represented in pure human form by the time the first pharaohs of Egypt were in power in c. 3100 BCE.
By the end of the second Egyptian dynasty (c. 2700 BCE), many of these gods had taken on a part animal, part human form. For example, many gods had human bodies and animal heads. This has become a prominent part of our understanding of the gods of Egypt, although the deities they worshipped were still human, no matter how they were depicted.
Mythology is the collection of religious stories a culture tells itself to help interpret the world. As a result, to understand the Egyptian gods, it’s important to also understand how they were connected to the Ancient Egyptian understanding of the creation and function of the universe.
Egyptian Creation Stories
The question “where do we come from?” is one we still cannot answer today. As a result, it’s easy to see why creation is such an important concept in all religions, and things were no different in ancient times. But this also means that ancient cultures, especially the Egyptians, had several different understandings of the creation of the Universe, and many of them have absolutely nothing to do with one another.
One of the reasons it’s believed this happened is because of the importance of religious cults in Ancient Egypt. Religion in Ancient Egypt was much different than religion today. For one, it was not an organized, hierarchical social institution but rather an amalgamation of the many different customs and traditions practiced throughout the lands of Ancient Egypt. Local priests would often attribute creation to local gods so as to boost the importance of these gods, and also that of the local priesthood.
However, despite the existence of so many creation stories, there are several which seem to appear more often than any other, and it’s believed these would have been the most popular Ancient Egyptian understandings of the creation of the world and all living things. These myths are discussed in further detail in the next section.
The Ogdoad of Hermopolis
The Ogdoad of Hermopolis refers to the set of eight primordial gods worshipped in the city of Hermopolis as the creators of the universe and all living things. Hermopolis was a culturally important city in the ancient world, which can help explain why these particular gods gained such prominence in Egyptian religion.
The Egyptians believed the world was brought into existence from the “waters of chaos,” a rather vague state of existence that apparently has always and always will exist. The Ogdoad represents the different elements of this “water of chaos,” with the god Nu representing the waters themselves.
Nu then gave birth to Ra, the sun god, who caused the “water of chaos” to separate, allowing for a space of light and dryness to appear. Because of the significance of the sun god Ra, this deity is often seen as one of the first ever rulers of the world, and the first Egyptian kings would link their claims to the throne to a relationship with Ra.
The Ogdoad is one of the earliest forms of Ancient Egyptian religion. Over time, many of these gods morphed into other gods, and these are the names by which we remember them. For example, Qerh became Amun, who is considered to be one of the most important creator gods in many cults of Ancient Egyptian religion.
The Ennead of Heliopolis
Along with Memphis and Hermopolis, Heliopolis was one of the most important political, economic, and religious centers in all of Ancient Egypt. The people in this part of Egypt worshipped different gods, meaning they had different creation myth compared to Hermopolis. But there are some similarities, such as the idea of the “waters of chaos.”
However, in this version of creation, the god Atum embodies all living things and exists within the “waters of chaos” as a potential being. When he became tired of the loneliness, he is believed to have impregnated himself (often depicted as masturbation) to create the gods Shu and Tenfut.
The Ennead of Heliopolis was essentially a family tree of gods with Atum at the top. Shu and Tenfut are directly below him, and then their children Geb and Nut, and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, and in some stories, Horus, who was the son of Osiris and Isis. These nine served as the core of the Heliopolian school of religious thought, and they formed the basis of this particular segment of Egyptian Mythology.
In the city of Memphis, which served as the capital for many Egyptian kingdoms, Ptah was considered responsible for the creation of the universe. In short, he is believed to have existed before all existence, and this meant that he was able to bring the universe into existence with his thoughts. But he is tied to other concepts of creation as well, which is that of the “holy mound.”
This concept is quite common in the many different variations of Egyptian myths, and it’s connected to the “waters of chaos.” In short, it was believed the world began as a mound of dry land amidst the “waters,” and in Memphis, Ptah was often worshipped as being the personification of this mound. Because of this, he is considered to be one of the most important gods in all of Egyptian mythology.
Other Creation Stories
The Ogdoad of Hermopolis, the Ennead of Heliopolis, and Ptah of Memphis are three of the most prominent creation myths in the religion of Ancient Egypt, but they are hardly the only ones. There are countless others, many of which are focused on the role of Ra the sun god, who is one of the most significant of all the Egyptian deities. We will touch on some of these additional creation stories when we go into more detail about specific Egyptian gods and goddesses.
The Egyptian Cycle of Life
The Egyptians were very aware of the cycle on Earth between life and death, and their main form of understanding existence was based on this concept. Essentially, they saw the Earth, or the known world, which was made up of the earth, the sky, and the atmosphere, which separated the two. Earth was represented by the god Geb, and the goddess Nut embodied the sky.
Furthermore, the world was said to have been created in its final form, meaning it did not change throughout time. However, the things that happened on Earth did change. They were governed by myriad forces, many of which were represented by gods, and they were constantly developing and producing different effects. This concept likely served as the primary way in which the Egyptians interpreted the duality of the finite and the infinite.
Beyond the known world lay the “waters of chaos,” and they were limitless, dark, and motionless. As mentioned before, this was the source of all existence, but it did not seem to factor too much into people’s understanding of day-to-day life. This was much more the business of the many Egyptian gods and goddesses.
The Sun in Ancient Egyptian Religion
Life in Ancient Egypt was governed by the sun, the god Ra, who traveled through the sky, which was embodied by the goddess Nut. At the end of each day, the sun left the world and traveled to Duat, a place where the gods lived and where the dead reside so that they too could be governed by the sun.
It’s believed the sun entered Duat through an entrance that was just below the horizon, often represented as Nut’s mouth. The sun then emerged from Duat in between the sky goddesses legs, and this is usually taken as a representation of the Egyptian understanding of the cycle between birth and death.
It’s impossible to understate the significance of the sun in the Ancient Egyptian understanding of the world. Most myths focus on this idea of the sun journeying through the sky, with some of them including stories about the sun needing to battle serpents and other evils before it makes its way back to Earth. This indicates the Egyptians likely understood life as a perilous state of existence that was to be brief and limited.
Ancient Egyptian Cosmology
The stars play an important role in the religion of Ancient Egypt. Many Egyptian gods were associated with stars, and Egyptian kings often assigned a star to themselves so as to prove their divine right to rule as king.
The Egyptian preoccupation with the stars likely has to do with their belief in the journey of the sun through the sky. The dead were said to the go to the world underneath the Earth, where they too were governed by the gods. So, in this sense, the gods were seen as entities traveling through the skies, and the Egyptians believed they could interpret their journeys to help them better understand the many different things occurring on Earth.
A good example of this is the flooding of the Nile river. This was a momentous event that would have been highly anticipated by the Ancient Egyptians because it brought water and fertility to the arid region, allowing life to continue.
This moment was governed by the god Hapi, and he was often represented as the constellation we know as Aquarius. His appearance at certain points in the sky would help the Egyptians predict when the Nile would flood, allowing them to properly plan and take full advantage of this natural phenomenon.
It’s also believed the many pyramids built by the Ancient Egyptians were built where they were so as to align with certain stars and show admiration towards one god or another.
The Egyptian Afterlife
Much like many other ancient and modern religions, what happens to people after death is a major theme in Ancient Egyptian religion and mythology. The Egyptians believed that each human possessed a life force, ka, which left the body after death. Offerings of food were made to these spirits, for it was believed they could consume the spiritual essence of the food.
However, the other force inside each person was the ba, which was the set of unique characteristics assigned to each person. Funerals and other death rituals in Ancient Egypt were often designed to try and free the ba from the body so that it could reunite with the ka and live on as akh, the life form people took on after death.
In the later periods of Ancient Egypt, this concept was expanded upon, and it was believed that upon a person’s death the ka would enter into the Duat, the world below the horizon, where they would have to survive a set of challenges before submitting to a final judgment from the god Osiris. He would evaluate how a person had behaved while on Earth, and if it was said to be in accordance with Maat—the concepts of truth, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice, personified by the god Maat—their ka and ba were united into akh.
Where you go next varies with each religious cult. Some believed you were sent to an oasis in Duat governed by the gods, whereas others believed you returned to Earth to influence the events occurring there.
Anyone who is familiar with Egyptian hieroglyphs knows that symbols were an important part of Ancient Egyptian life. However, there are so many Egyptian symbols that it’s easy to get lost and confused. Some symbols had religious meaning, whereas others did not. Below you’ll find a summary of some of the more common Egyptian symbols, which should help you understand their religion and mythology.
This is one of the most important of all Egyptian symbols. It represents the unity of existence and therefore can be understood as the principles of masculinity and femininity, as well as the heavens and the earth, the morning sun, and eternal life. Egyptian gods commonly hold the ankh, and this represents their connection to the eternal and infinite.
The djed represented stability, and it was, therefore, one of the Egyptian symbols most closely associated with kings. It was also often associated with the god Osiris, who rose up from the dead, meaning the djed also was relevant to the concept of eternal life. The column shape is thought to be a representation of the backbone of the gods.
The was is a scepter that is shaped like a dog and placed at the top of a long staff which many different gods in Ancient Egyptian mythology held. The exact nature of the was scepter changed according to the god who was holding it, but it’s believed that the Egyptians used this symbol to represent power and dominion, which is why it is often associated with the gods Ptah and Osiris.
Anyone who received a brief overview of Egyptian history in school knows that the scarab, or the dung beetle, was one of the most sacred of all the Egyptian symbols. The reason the scarab was so important is that it would lay its eggs in a ball of its own dung, which was food for the newborn beetles. In this way, life came from death, which paralleled the Egyptians understand of the world.
The Crook and the Flail
A symbol most closely associated with Osiris and his early rule over the earth, the crook and the flail together were one of the Egyptian symbols the kings used most frequently. The legend goes that after Osiris was killed by his brother Seth, he retreated into the underworld. Eventually, his son, Horus, defeated Seth and avenged his father. When he did this, he brought him the crook and the flail to represent that Osiris was the true king of the underworld.
The Udjat Eye
Sometimes called the Eye of Ra or the Eye of Horus, this image represented the idea that the gods were always watching and overseeing the events taking place on Earth.
The sesen was the Egyptian symbol for the lotus flower. Like many other cultures around the world, the Egyptians associated the sesen with the circle of life and death. This is because the lotus flower is known for emerging from the water during the day, only to retreat in the evening. As a result, it’s clear that some of the most significant Egyptian symbols were also important in other cultures.
For the Egyptians, life was created from the “waters of chaos,” and almost all Egyptian understandings of creation have to do with the formation of a mound of earth within these waters. The ben-ben is the representation of this mound, and it is considered to be crucial to the beginning of life on earth. To give some context, almost all the pyramids of Egypt, including the Great Pyramids of Giza, are symbols of this primordial mound upon which all of life was created, and many of the stories told about the Egyptian gods focus on this concent of a sacred mound upon which all life began.
Creating a complete list of all the Egyptian gods and goddesses would take much more time than any of us have. But since the core gods of Ancient Egyptian religion remain the same or similar throughout time, we can focus on a core group of deities and still gain an adequate understanding of Ancient Egyptian religion and mythology.
Below you will find a detailed description of the gods we’ve discussed in the various myths above as well as some additional deities that were of importance throughout most of Ancient Egypt.
Amun is one of the oldest and ]most significant of all the Egyptian gods. His name appears on the Pyramid Texts as one of the divine protectors of the king, suggesting he was worshipped right from the very beginning of dynastic Egypt.
Additionally, the ancient Egyptians believed that Amun united with the queen of Egypt to produce the royal heir, reminding us of the close connection between the gods and the monarch.
Amun also forms part of the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, the first gods who helped usher in the creation of the world, where he is sometimes referred to as Qerh.
During the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050-1700 BCE) Amun became the chief god of the area surrounding the powerful city and kingdom of Thebes. However, during the New Kingdom, also known as the Egyptian Empire, (c. 1550-1350 BCE), the image of Amun was often merged with that of other gods. The best example of this is the combination of Amun with the god Ra.
Together, they became Amun-Ra, and they were worshipped as the King of the Gods, as well as the creator of the Earth and all the living things. Furthermore, because of the significance Amun-Ra in the Egyptian empire, he was eventually worshipped in areas outside of Egypt, such as Libya and Ethiopia, demonstrating the wide cultural scope of the Ancient Egyptians.
Atum (Atem, Tem)
All of the different schools of Egyptian gods have a creator, and Atum was the creator god from the Ennead of Heliopolis. It was believed that he created himself out of the primordial “waters of chaos,” and when he did this, he was on top of a mound, which was to be the earth. Then, Atum, who embodied both the male and the female, created Shu and Tefnut, and the Great Ennead of Heliopolis was born.
Atum was closely associated with the sun, and throughout ancient history, he was referred to as Atum and Atum-Ra.
The many stories of Atum show that the Egyptians saw life as existing in cycles that Atum was responsible for starting and ending. When a cycle ended, and the earth was returned to the waters of chaos, Atum would take the form of a snake or an eel so that he could survive to bring life back into existence. By assigning Atum with this role, it’s clear the Egyptians understood and defined life on earth as a constant balance between creation and destruction.
Typically depicted with the head of a black dog or a jackal, the Egyptian god Anubis is one of the most recognizable deities of Ancient Egypt. He was the god who managed the mummification process and who guarded burials, something that was of utmost importance to the Egyptians. He was also one of the original judges of the dead, and he was the one who punished people who damaged tombs or who offended the gods.
It’s believed that Anubis’s significance was at its peak during the Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2100 BCE). His myth as being the one to guard the secrets of the embalming tent was eventually incorporated into the story of the god Osiris, who eventually became the Egyptian God of the Dead.
In fact, Anubis became the chief guardian of Osiris’ mummy, and he was believed to have invented mummification so as to preserve the corpse of Osiris. In other parts of Egypt, he was considered to be the son of Osiris. As a result, while Anubis is one of the more famous Egyptian gods, his role in Egyptian mythology diminished in the later periods of Ancient Egypt.
The god Apophis played an integral role in the Egyptians understanding of life. He was often depicted as a snake or a crocodile, and it was said that every time the sun god Ra dipped below the horizon (aka during the night) Apophis would attack him. He was beaten back each time, but no matter how many times he was killed, he was always brought back to life so that he could attack again the next night. In the image above, Atum, who at times was associated with Ra the sun god, is fighting Apophis the serpent.
This myth helps explain how the Ancient Egyptians saw the world. Much like other ancient civilizations, they saw it as a perilous and often threatened state of existence that could be wiped away at any time. The spirits of the dead were believed to be integral in this nightly fight, and there is evidence that rituals were performed in temples to help give these spirits the support they needed to win.
As the son of Shu and Tefnut, and also the brother of Nut, Geb was one of the most important gods of not only the Ennead of Heliopolis but also the entire Egyptian pantheon. He was considered to be the god of earth, and he, along with Nut, the goddess of the sky, made it possible for the conditions of life. In the image above, Geb is the one laying on the ground, symbolizing his role as the god of earth.
One of the most important stories about the Egyptian gods is one of Shu separating Geb and Nut while they were locked in a passionate, romantic embrace. In the image above, the man standing with his arms up, who appears to be supporting Nut, is Shu. This is said to be the moment when earth and sky were separated, creating the conditions for life.
However, unlike other Egyptian gods and goddesses, Geb was almost always depicted as a human, and his skin was almost always green, which was thought to symbolize plants and other life on earth.
Despite their father’s initial attempts to separate them, Geb and his sister Nut did eventually get together, and they had four children (or five, depending on the source): Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and, possibly, Horus, although most accounts say Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis.
Geb played an important role in the Egyptian understanding of the afterlife. He was said to swallow up the bodies of the dead, and he also served some time as the judge of the dead who would determine if someone had been a friend or enemy of Ra. Enemies were executed. Because of this, and also because of his role as the god of earth, Geb was often depicted as the leader of the Ennead of Heliopolis, making him a central figure in one of the most important groups of Egyptian gods.
The Egyptian god Horus is one of the most important deities in Ancient Egyptian religion. He often took the form of a falcon, and his job on Earth was closely connected to the Egyptian monarchy.
Early records of Horus indicate he was believed to be the brother of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, but later on, as more and more cults popped up in Egypt and the images of the gods coalesced, Horus was understood as being the son of Isis and Osiris.
One of the reasons Horus became so important to Egyptian religion is because the king, or pharaoh, was thought to be an incarnation of the god. When a pharaoh died, it was believed that he took on the form of Osiris and was reunited with other gods, while his heir would walk the Earth as a new incarnation of Horus.
Another reason why Horus is such a famous god is because of his conflict with the god Seth, or Set, who was considered to be the god of the desert. In this conflict, Horus and Seth fought over control of Egypt, and when Horus eventually beat Seth in a boat race, Seth stepped aside and handed the throne to Horus.
This is significant because it reinforces the connection between the gods and the pharaohs. Horus wins control over Egypt, and Horus is the king, so, therefore, the king rules over all of Egypt and the world.
Hapi is the Egyptian god, or group of gods, depending on which source you use, that represented the yearly flooding of the Nile River. Surprisingly, though, considering how important this event was, Hapi was not considered to be a principal Egyptian deity. But this is probably because the Ancient Egyptians saw the flooding of the Nile as the work of the creator gods. He was typically depicted as a very fat man with large breasts, which are thought to be a symbol of the wealth and abundance the yearly inundation brought to Ancient Egypt.
As one of the original members of the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, Nu, which is sometimes written as Nun, was the human personification of the “waters of chaos” from which all existence arose. Because of this, he is considered to be the oldest known being and the father of the gods.
Written without the capital “N,” nun can be understood as these very same “waters of chaos.” The Egyptians believed these waters could both give and take life, something that would have been verified with by their experiences with the Nile River; the flood provided abundant water, but it also created the risk of complete and total destruction.
However, not much was known about the nun, and it was most commonly depicted as some sort of dark abyss. It was believed that Ra the sun god would dip below the horizon into the nun every night to be replenished.
Furthermore, because he was considered to be the oldest of the gods, and because the Egyptians valued old age, Nun was frequently depicted as being wise and all-knowing. He was often sought out in times of crisis to provide advice that some of the younger, more impulsive gods could not give. In the early years of Ancient Egyptian civilization, he was depicted as having a frog head, or as being a frog, but as time went on he began to be drawn as nothing more than human.
Osiris: Egyptian God of Death
As the eldest son of Geb and Nut, Osiris was an integral part of the Ennead at Heliopolis. He was believed to be the ruler of the underworld, as well as the king and the judge of the dead. For this reason, many people like to call Osiris the Egyptian God of Death. In early Egyptian kingdoms, this title could have been given to Anubis, but as mythology grew, Osiris eventually took on this role.
Typically, Osiris was depicted as a mummified king, hearkening to his role as the Egyptian God of Death, and he almost always wore a crown and carried a crook and a flail.
One of the reasons Osiris is so closely related to death is because in Egyptian mythology he himself died. Some of the Egyptian gods fought, and the battle between Osiris and Seth led to the death of Osiris. But it’s unclear whether this was permanent, for while Osiris is dead, he is still able to impregnate Isis with Horus. Later on, Isis faces a divine tribunal, where he must be judged by how well he lived in accordance with maat, and he is deemed to be fair and just, which is why he is made king of the underworld, or, in other words, the Egyptian god of death.
Once this happens, Osiris was mummified to help preserve his body as he continued on living and ruling over the underworld. Osiris is therefore considered to be the first mummy, and it’s believed this tradition was carried on due to this myth.
Ptah was the most significant of all the Egyptian gods worshipped in Egypt’s ancient capital, Memphis. In this large and important city, he was considered to be the creator, and he represented stability, dominion, and life, which he allegedly bestowed upon the various kings who were crowned in his temple in Memphis.
It was believed that Ptah created the world using his heart and tongue, and he was usually depicted as a bearded man wearing a skullcap an a cloak. He also had blue skin, which was supposed to be representative of his celestial essence.
Over time, Ptah became the patron of metalworkers and other craftspeople, but in his role as the creator of all things, he continued to be one of the most important Egyptian gods of all time.
Ra: The God of the Sun
Since the Egyptians saw the sun as the giver of life, they also associated all of existence with Ra, the god of the sun. It’s believed that when he first emerged from the waters of chaos, from nun, he was a golden child or a shining bird, and this moment marked the beginning of life on Earth, which the Egyptians regarded as the most important event in their mythology.
Each morning, Ra was said to be born again from his mother, the sky goddess, and his journey through the sky each day was believed to have a significant impact of the events on Earth. Furthermore, this journey was seen as a voyage across the skies that existed both above and below the Earth, and the trials and tribulations that he went through during these journeys form the basis of many Egyptian myths.
Ra was also taken as the defender of Egypt and of maat, and it’s believed that the creation of the goddess Maat, who personified the concept of maat, as Ra’s favorite daughter was meant to reinforce this connection between Ra and the divine order of the universe.
Over time, Ra was often combined with other gods so as to make them more important, and this lead to the creation of deities such as Amun-Ra and Atum-Ra. Many of these “super gods” became the most important gods in certain cults around Egypt, further showing the importance of the sun in Egyptian mythology.
Seth was one of the five children conceived by Nut and Geb, making him one of the most important figures in the Ennead of Heliopolis. However, unlike many of the other Egyptian gods, Seth frequently acted impulsively and in a destructive manner, which caused him to frequently be in poor standing with the other deities, putting him firmly in the role as the antagonist of the gods. However, the gods still relied on his strength to fend off monsters and other perils that threatened Ra’s daily voyage through the skies.
Perhaps one of the most significant things Seth did was killing his brother Osiris. At first, this is seen as a bad thing, but then it leads to the birth of Horus, who was seen as the ruler of all Egypt and was embodied by all the Egyptian kings.
Because of his sinister actions, Seth was frequently depicted as animals we would typically associate with danger or destruction, such as a bull, pig, hippopotamus, crocodile, or panther.
The fact that Seth, despite his somewhat evil ways, continued to be an important figure in Egyptian mythology demonstrates the Egyptian understanding of duality. They saw life as defined by both forces of good and evil, and Seth was often the one perpetuating this evil. The rest of the gods, specifically Apophis, were said to have battled Seth frequently, showing how the Egyptians saw many of their gods as defenders and protectors of the divine order against bad forces personified by Seth.
Shu and his sister, Tefnut, make up the second generation of the Ennead of Heliopolis. He was the god of dry, life-giving air and sunlight. Additionally, Shu was credited with first separating the earth and the sky, which made it possible for life to begin. Because of this, in some cults, Shu was considered to be a creator god, helping to reinforce his significance in the Egyptian pantheon.
Unlike many other Egyptian gods who were born as humans were born, Shu was said to be sneezed out by his father Atum, who impregnated himself by masturbating and swallowing his own semen. Because of Shu’s close connection to the creator god Atum, Shu is also considered to have played an important role in the creation of the world from the “waters of chaos.” For example, the sexual union between Shu and his sister Tefnut was said to have been the first example of male/female sexual relations. Furthermore, from this union, Geb and Nut were born, and this allowed for life on Earth to exist.
Egyptian gods were not only represented by men. There were also quite a few goddesses who were of equal importance. That there are so many goddesses could speak the status of women in Egypt. They enjoyed greater freedom and respect than in many other parts of the world, and this could be due in part to the Egyptian belief that peace and harmony on Earth came from finding balance between the male and female, not in one dominating the other.
As a result, like with Egyptian gods, coming up with a complete list of Egyptian goddesses would be an impossible task, so we’ve compiled a list of the most significant to help explain the significant role of these goddesses in Egyptian religion and mythology.
Bastet: the Egyptian Cat God
Frequently depicted as a feline, Bastet, the Egyptian cat god, was believed to be the mother of kings who could destroy his enemies. She was both the daughter and consort (lover) of Atum-Ra, who was the creator god of the Ogdoad of Heliopolis.
Initially, Bastet was depicted as a lioness, but over time she was drawn more as a cat. Bastet was also frequently depicted as quarreling with her father, Ra, and because of this, she is often referred to as the Distant Goddess, which is a recurring story in Egyptian mythology.
In Ancient Egyptian religion, the Distant Goddess story starts when a god and goddess quarrel. The goddess then leaves for a period of time, and it becomes the gods’ responsibility to lure her back to Egypt. When she eventually returns, she tells the gods all she learned about the world without, which is why the Distant Goddess is often associated with the Udjat eye, which the gods used to keep watch on their dominion.
In the case of Bastet, the god Shu was the one who managed find her and lure her back to Egypt, taming and domesticating her in the process, turning her from a lion into a cat. To many Egyptologists, this myth is said to symbolize the taming of female sexuality in Ancient Egypt.
Overall, Bastet is not one of the most significant goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, but because of her unique form, she is one of the more popular and well-known Egyptian deities today.
The Egyptian goddess Isis is one of the most significant deities in all of Ancient Egypt. She was a part of the Ennead of Heliopolis, meaning she was considered to be one of the principal gods of that particular sect of Egyptian religion.
Isis was Horus’ mother, and because of this, she was believed to be the mother of all the Egyptian pharaohs. Over time, this motherly image spread, and Isis was considered to be the mother of all humanity, making her one of the most widely worshipped deities in Ancient Egypt.
But her influence spread elsewhere. Isis was always depicted as a woman, but towards the later periods of Ancient Egyptian history, she was depicted as a consoling mother instead of a queen, something believed to represent her sensitivity to human suffering. Furthermore, worship of Isis promised a happy afterlife during a time when Christianity was becoming popular, making the two religions direct competitors in the early parts of Christian history.
Perhaps one of the most famous stories about Isis is the conception of Horus. Her husband, Osiris, had been killed by his brother, Seth, and Isis searched high and low for his body. When she found it, she lay with him and from this Horus was conceived and eventually born. Because of the treachery of Seth, he was considered to be Isis’ mortal enemy, and many Egyptian myths revolve around her effort to seek him out, trick him, and attempt to destroy him and his followers.
Towards the end of the ancient period, Isis became more closely identified with Ra, which suggests she had gained prominence, and she was also worshipped as the god of the sea who was responsible for bringing ships and their crews back safely. Agriculture was said to be her invention, and she was also associated with the coming of the flood of the Nile, all of which reinforced Isis’ mother image as well as the connection between Isis and bountiful life on Earth.
As the daughter of Ra, Maat, who was most often depicted as a woman with an ostrich feather in her hair, was an important goddess for the Egyptian understanding of life on Earth. More specifically, she was most closely associated with the Egyptian concepts of ethics and morality.
In fact, it’s believed that Maat the goddess was created to personify the concept of maat, which was the Egyptian concept of truth, justice, order, balance, and cosmic law. The Egyptian king was supposed to be a defender of maat, and people believed they would be judged in the afterlife based on how they had lived or spoken maat during their time on Earth..
Most mentions of the goddess Maat in Egyptian mythology deal with her connection to Ra. She was his most beloved daughter, and it’s believed they traveled together constantly, especially as Ra made his way across the sky throughout the day. The close connection of these two speaks to the significance of maat in the ancient Egyptian way of life.
Perhaps the least significant of Nut’s children, Nephthys (right) typically features as the loyal companion to her sister, Isis, as well as the unwilling partner of Seth, her brother. The most significant myth in which she appears is the death and mourning of her brother, Osiris, who was killed by Seth. Nephthys was said to have played an important role in helping Isis find the body of Osiris, which led to the conception of Horus and the continuation of the divine lineage.
Nut was the goddess of the sky, and she ruled the earth along with her brother, Geb, who was the god of earth. Both Geb and Nut were the children of Shu and Tefnut.
Overall, Nut is best known for giving birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, four gods who went on to be some of the most important in all of Egyptian mythology.
Nut is often associated with the night sky and the stars. In fact, some Egyptologists claim she was represented by the Milky Way galaxy, and early religious texts indicate she was the one responsible for calling dead gods up to the heavens to continue living on as stars.
During the day, Ra traveled below the “belly” of Nut, and at sunset each day, she swallowed him. Then, in the morning, the sun would emerge from between Nut’s legs, suggesting that the Ancient Egyptians saw each day as the rebirth of the sun. She was usually drawn as a giant naked woman who stood arched over the earth, or as a giant cow.
Tefnut was the daughter of Atum and the twin sister of Shu. She was often considered to be the goddess of moisture, moist air, and rain, which was a compliment to her brother, Shu, who was the god of life-giving air.
She was often depicted as a lioness, usually with the body of a human and the head of a lioness. However, over time, she was typically depicted as a person. Like a lioness, she was often depicted as the “Eye of Ra,” further demonstrating her significance in the Egyptian Pantheon.
The Ancient Egyptians were one of the first and largest civilizations of the ancient world. Like many other cultures of the time, they were devoutly religious, and the many different cults that emerged in Egypt eventually morphed into a general religion and mythology that centered around the many Egyptian gods and goddesses.
As a result, Egyptian mythology is a complex web of overlapping and sometimes contradictory stories and myths. However, as Egyptian society grew up and became more unified, many of their religious customs began to coalesce into one, which has given us our modern perception of the Egyptian gods, although there are surely many more secrets we still don’t, and may never, fully understand.
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Baines, John. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ed. Byron E. Shafer. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Hart, George. A dictionary of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Routledge, 2006.
Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian mythology. Abc-Clio, 2002.
Redford, Donald B. The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.