Ra: Sun God of the Ancient Egyptians

“Amun Ra,” “Atum Ra,” or maybe just “Ra” is the god who made sure the sun was rising, who would travel the underworld by boat, and who ruled over all other Egyptian gods. He is perhaps one of the oldest deities in human history. As the sun god, Ra was powerful and deadly, but he also protected the people of ancient Egypt from great harm.

Who is Ra? Is Ra the Most Powerful God of Ancient Egypt?

As the creator god and father of all other Egyptian gods, Ra was the chief deity in ancient Egypt. Ra has, at different times, been called “The King of the Gods,” the “sky god,” and the “controller of the sun.” Ra ruled over the sky, earth, and underworld. He was worshipped across Egypt, and when worshippers wanted to raise their own gods to a higher power, they would meld them with Ra.

Is Re or Ra the God of the Sun?

Sometimes it is difficult to remember that the translations of gods’ names can come from different places. The Coptic translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphic is “Re,” while translations from Greek or Phoenician are “Ra.” Even today, some sources use “Amun Re” or “Atum Re” when referring to the merged gods.

What are the Names of Ra?

Ra has many epithets in ancient Egyptian mythology and art. “The Renewer of the Earth,” “The Wind in the Souls,” “The Sacred Ram in the West,” “The Exalted One,” and “The Sole One” all appear in hieroglyphic labels and texts.

Ra is sometimes known as “Horus of the Two Horizons” or as a composite deity known as “Ra Horakhty.” 

Who Was “Atum Ra”?

In Heliopolis (“The City of the Sun,” modern-day Cairo), there was a local god called “Atum.” He was known as the “King of the Gods” and “The Father of the Nine” (the Ennead). He was said to be a local version of the globally worshipped Ra and was often referred to as “Atum Ra” or “Ra Atum.” There is no evidence that Atum-Ra was worshipped outside of this city. Still, the city’s important connections to the Greek Empire meant that later historians put great significance on the god.

READ MORE: City Gods from Around the World

Who Was “Amun Ra”?

Amun was a god of the winds and part of the “Ogdoad” (eight gods worshipped in the city-state of Hermopolis). He eventually became the patron god of Thebes and, when Ahmose I became pharaoh, was elevated to the king of the gods. As “Amun Ra,” his identity became that of Ra or a combination of Ra and Min.

What is Ra’s Secret Name? 

If you knew the secret name of Ra, you could have power over him, and this power is what tempted the Egyptian goddess, Isis. She would go to great lengths to have this name so that her prophesied son could have the power of the sun god himself. However, even though this story was passed on, the name itself has never been known.

Who is Ra’s Wife?

Ra never had a single wife in the story of mythology. However, he did bear a child with Isis, the goddess wife of Osiris. This would be seen similarly to the Christian god having a child with Mary – Ra was so much more powerful and important than Isis, and the child’s birth was seen as a boon or blessing.

Who are the Gods that Ra Created as His Children?

Ra had three known daughters who were important gods in Egyptian religion.

The Cat God Bastet

Also known as Baast, Bast, or Ailuros in Greek, the god Bastet is one of the better-known deities today. Originally worshipped as a lioness goddess, her name was associated with special ointments (and was the etymological root of “alabaster,” the material used for many embalming jars). Bastet is sometimes depicted as fighting the chaos-god Apep, who was in the form of a snake.

READ MORE: Egyptian Cat Gods: Feline Deities of Ancient Egypt

Bastet was later depicted as a smaller, domesticated cat. Ancient Egyptians would use images of the goddess to protect families from disease. Thanks to the Greek historian Herodotus, we have quite a bit of detail about the temple and festival of Bastet in the city of Bubastis. This temple was rediscovered recently, and thousands of mummified cats have been found.

READ MORE: Cat Gods: 7 Feline Deities from Ancient Cultures

Hathor, the Sky Goddess

Hathor holds a strange place in the story of Ra. She is both the wife and mother of Horus and the symbolic mother of all kings. Hathor was portrayed as a sacred cow, though not the one described in the Book of the Celestial Cow. She also appeared in many images as a woman with cow horns. The “mistress of the sky” and “mistress of dance,” Hathor was so beloved by Ra that she was sometimes also called “The Eye of the Sun.” It is said that when she was away, Ra would fall into deep despair.

The Cat God Sekhmet

Not to be confused with Bastet, Sekhmet (or Sakhet) was a lioness warrior goddess who was the protector of pharaohs in battle and the afterlife. A younger goddess than Bastet, she is portrayed wearing the Uraeus (upright cobra) and the sun disk of her father. Sekhmet could breathe fire and embody Hathor to enact the vengeance of Ra.

READ MORE: The Egyptian Afterlife: Mummification, Burial Practices and Beyond

Toward the end of Ra’s earthly life, he sent Sekhmet to destroy mortals who had been his enemies. Unfortunately, Sekhmet could not stop fighting even after the enemies died and nearly killed all humans in her literal blood lust. Ra mixed beer with pomegranate juice so that it looked like blood. Mistaking it as such, Sekhmet drank the beer until she was drunk and finally calmed. Worshipers of Sekhmet would drink the concoction as part of the Tekh Festival (or Festival of Drunkenness).

The Book of the Heavenly Cow

The story of Sekhmet and her blood lust is a significant part of the Book of the Heavenly Cow (or the Book of the Celestial Cow). This book also contains sections about the creation of the underworld, giving power over earth to Osiris, and offering descriptions of the soul. Copies of this book have been found in the tombs of Seti I, Ramesses II, and Ramesses III. It was likely an important religious text.

READ MORE: 10 Gods of Death and the Underworld From Around the World

Why Does the Family Tree of Ra Make No Sense?

Egyptian mythology and religion have lasted for tens of thousands of years. Because of this, many gods have risen and fallen in popularity, while Ra has always been “The Sun God.” For this reason, worshippers would attempt to join their patron with Ra and give their god a position as a creator god.

READ MORE: 9 Gods of Life and Creation from Ancient Cultures

Sometimes the story hasn’t changed but is simply strange to outside eyes. That Hathor could be the wife, mother, and child of Ra is an accepted story throughout the history of Egyptian mythology. Gods such as Amun and Horus could “become Ra” by taking his power, becoming as important as the sun god, even though their parents and children were not. Then there are gods like “Atum,” which could have been other names for “Ra,” and so were combined in later centuries.

Why Did Isis Poison Ra?

Isis longed for the power of Ra. Not for herself, but for her children. She had dreamed of having a falcon-headed son and believed this prophecy would come true if she could get her hands on the secret name of Ra.

By the time of this story, Ra was many millennia old. He was stooped and slow and was known to dribble! One day, while he was touring the country with his entourage, a drop of saliva fell to the ground. Isis grabbed it up before anyone noticed and took it to a hiding place. There she mixed it with dirt to form an evil serpent. She performed spells to bring it to life and give it poisonous power before dropping it off at the crossroads she knew Ra would often rest near.

Predictably, when Ra passed by, he was bitten by the snake.

“I have been wounded by something deadly,” whispered Ra. “I know that in my heart, though my eyes cannot see it. Whatever it was, I, Lord of Creation, did not make it. I am sure that none of you would have done such a terrible thing to me, but I have never felt such pain! How can this have happened to me? I am the Sole Creator, the child of the watery abyss. l am the god with a thousand names. But my secret name was only spoken once before time began. Then it was hidden in my body so that no one would ever learn it and be able to work spells against me. Yet as I walk through my kingdom, something struck at me, and now my heart is on fire and my limbs shake!” 

All the other gods were summoned, including all created by Ra. These included Anubis, Osiris, Wadjet, the crocodile Sobek, the sky goddess Nut, and Thoth. Isis appeared with Nephthys, pretending to be surprised by what was happening.

“Let me, as Mistress of Magic, try to help,” she offered. Ra gratefully accepted. “I think I’m going blind.”

Isis told the sun god that, to heal him, she needed to know his full name. While he gave his name as known by all, Isis insisted. She would need to know his secret name as well. It would be the only way to save him.

“I was given that name so I would be safe,” Ra cried. “If it is a secret, I can fear no man.” However, in fear for his life, he relented. He passed on the name in secret, “from my heart to yours,” warning Isis that only her son should ever know that name and that he should tell no one that secret. When Horus was born, Isis passed on that secret name, giving him the power of Ra.

Are Ra and Horus the Same?

While both are sun deities who protected the people of ancient Egypt, these two gods are not exactly the same. The falcon-headed god had many similarities to Ra because he was given the power of the secret name. For this reason, he was worshipped as the king of the Egyptian gods.

How Was Ra Portrayed?

The sun god of ancient Egypt was most commonly portrayed as a combination of a man and a falcon. However, this was not the only way people would depict the god.

The Falcon

The most common depiction of Ra is as a Falcon-headed man, sometimes with the solar disc on his head. A cobra may surround this sun disk. The “Eye of Ra” symbol shows the eye of a falcon, and sometimes artists would use images of a falcon to represent Ra in murals dedicated to other gods.

The representation of the falcon is primarily connected to Horus, who was sometimes also called “he who is above.” Egyptians believed falcons were powerful hunters with keen sight who would dive out of the sun to kill their prey. Being so powerful and close to the sun makes them an obvious choice for representing the Sun god who ruled all others.

The Ram

As King of the Underworld, Ra was portrayed either as a ram or a man with the head of a ram. This image was also very commonly connected to Amun Ra and was related to the god’s power over fertility. Archeologists found a statue of Amun Ra as a sphinx from 680 BCE to protect the Shrine of King Taharqa.

The Scarab Beetle

Some depictions of Ra are as a scarab beetle, rolling the sun across the sky as the beetle rolls dung across the ground. Just as worshippers of the Christian god world wear crosses, followers of ancient Egyptian religion would wear a pendant scarab with the name of the sun god inside. These scarabs were delicate and expensive, sometimes made of gold or steatite.

The Human

According to the Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, literature records Ra as an “aging king whose flesh is gold, whose bones are silver and whose hair is lapis lazuli.” However, no other source suggests that Ra ever held a fully human form. This suggestion may come from descriptions of colorful artworks that have been found depicting the Ra with his distinctive hawk head with bright blue plumage. There is no archeological evidence that Ra has ever been described as only a human being.

What Weapon Does Ra Have?

Whenever he must commit an act of violence, Ra never holds his weapon. Instead, he uses “The Eye of Ra.” While portrayed as an eye, sometimes called “The Eye of Horus,” this weapon has changed throughout history. At times, it refers to another god, like Sekhmet or Hathor, while at other times, the image itself is a weapon.

In many depictions of Ra, the sun god is holding something called a “Was Scepter.” A symbol of power and dominion, the scepter held by Ra would sometimes have a snake’s head.

Who is the Goddess of the Sun?

Many Egyptian goddesses are associated closely with the sun, including Ra’s daughters, Wadjet (the wet nurse of Horus), Nut (the goddess of the sky), and Isis. However, the direct feminine counterpart to Ra is not any of these but “The Eye of Ra.” This extension of Ra’s power would become a part of Hathor, Sekhmet, Isis, or other goddesses but was viewed as an independent entity that could be wielded by only the greatest.

Because of the acts of his mother, Horus was one of the few gods to wield this power. The symbol for the more recognizable “eye of Horus,” while not the same as the “eye of Ra,” is sometimes used in its place. In some instances, the “solar” right eye is known as the “eye of Ra,” while the “lunar” left eye is the “eye of Horus,” together becoming the ability to watch over the world at all times. Each is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, Book of the Dead, and other funeral texts, which means they were considered separate entities.

Is the Eye of Ra Evil?

While ancient Egyptians had no sense of good and evil in the Judeo-Christian understanding of the word, examining the mythology of the eye finds it to be an incredibly destructive force. It was under the power of the eye that Sekhmet fell into blood lust.

According to the “Book of Going Forth by Day,” the eye was also a creative force and would help people in the afterlife:

Thoth then asked him, “Who is he whose heaven is fire, whose walls are serpents, and the floor of whose house is a stream of water?” The deceased replied, “Osiris”; and he was then bidden to advance so that he might be introduced to Osiris. As a reward for his righteous life sacred food, which proceeded from the Eye of Rā, was allotted to him, and, living on the food of the god, he became a counterpart of the god.

These examples highlight how much the “eye of Ra” represented the sun. Ancient Egyptians believed the sun contained great power, from the scorching heat it offered to an Egyptian land to its necessary rays to grow food.

The Evil Eye of Apopis

There IS an “evil eye” in Egyptian religion belonging to the snake god of chaos, Apophis. Apophis and Ra were said to have fought many times, each blinding the other as a symbol of victory. A common festival “game” (recorded in seventeen different cities) would involve hitting “the eye of Apophis,” which was a ball, with a large stick said to have come from the eye of Ra. Apophis’ name was often used in spells to represent all evil, and it was noted that only “the eye of Ra” could turn away the “eye of Apophis.” This is why many of the talismans, “scarabs,” and symbols etched onto houses would include the eye of Ra.

How Was Ra Worshiped?

Ra is one of the oldest gods in the Egyptian pantheon, with evidence of his worship dating back to the second dynasty (2890 – 2686 BCE). By 2500 BCE, Pharaohs claimed to be “sons of Ra,” and sun temples were built in his honor. By the first century BCE, cities would worship Ra or “the eye of Ra” in temples and festivals all over Egypt.

The Ouraeus (that serpent symbol of royalty) would often accompany the solar disc on the headdresses of queens during the New Kingdom, and clay models of Ra wearing these were popular statues to have around the home for protection. A “spell against night terrors” included figures said to “breathe fire.” While the spell may have been speaking metaphorically, it could be just as likely these were lanterns and made the first “night lights,” with a candle placed inside a polished metal sun disk.

READ MORE: The Queens of Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Queens in Order 

The center of the cult of Ra was Iunu, “the Place of Pillars.” Known in Greece as Heliopolis, Ra (and his local counterpart, Atum) were worshipped at sun temples and in festivals. The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote an entire book on Egypt that included many details about Heliopolis.

“The men of Heliopolis are said to be the most learned in records of the Egyptians,” Herodotus wrote. “The Egyptians hold their solemn assemblies […] with the greatest zeal and devotion[…] The Egyptians are excessively careful in their observances […] which concern the sacred rites.” 

The historian wrote that sacrifices would include drinking and celebrations but that the other violent rituals found elsewhere would not be present at Heliopolis.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains a Hymn to Ra. In it, the writer calls Ra “heir of eternity, self-begotten and self-born, king of the earth, prince of the Tuat (the afterlife).” He praises that Ra lives by the law of truth (Ma’at), and the Sektek boat would advance through the night and ensure he rose the next morning into the day.

Ra in Modern Culture

For the Egyptian “King of the Gods,” Ra does not appear as much in modern culture and entertainment compared to the Greek god Zeus. However, there are some examples where the ancient Egyptian god of the sun became a main character in fiction or art.

READ MORE: 41 Greek Gods and Goddesses: Family Tree and Fun Facts

Does Ra Appear in Stargate?

Roland Emmerich’s 1994 science fiction film Stargate sees the sun god Ra as the primary antagonist. The movie’s conceit is that ancient Egyptian was the language of aliens, with Ra being their leader. The Egyptian god is depicted as someone enslaving humans to extend his life, and other gods appear as lieutenants to the “alien general.”

Does Ra Appear in Moon Knight?

While the sun god of ancient Egyptian mythology does not appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series, many of his children are mentioned. Avatars representing Isis and Hathor do appear in episodes of the show.

The Egyptian god with the falcon head in “Moon Knight” is Khonshu, the god of the moon. In some ways, Khonshu (or Conshu) could be considered a mirror to Ra, though he was never worshipped to the same length during the time of the ancient Egyptians. The sun god Ra does appear in the “Moon Knightcomic series, in a run by Max Bemis and Jacen Burrows. In it, the creator god is the father of Khonshu and creates a “Sun King” who battles the superhero.

Is “The Eye of Ra” Part of the Illuminati?

A common visual trope in conspiracy theories, as well as the history of freemasonry and Christian symbols, the “Eye of Providence” or “All-Seeing Eye” is sometimes mistakenly called “The Eye of Ra.” While the sun god Ra was never represented by an eye inside of a triangle, he may be the first deity to be represented by an eye. However, this is difficult to determine, as both an eye and a sun disk were represented by a single round shape.

READ MORE: Secret Societies: Eleusinian Cult, The Knights Templar, and More!

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