Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

   When we try to make some sense out of the many Egyptian gods and goddesses, we must keep two important facts in mind. First, early in Egyptian history lower (north) and upper (south) Egypt were unified under one ruler. This union resulted in the merging of several cultural traditions. Second, because ancient Egyptian civilization existed for more than three thousand years, the deities and myths gradually changed over time as a result of new ideas, contact with other peoples, and changing cultural values.

Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

   One of the best-known legends in Egyptian mythology, that of the god Osiris, revolves around a deity who at one time may have been a local ruler in the Nile River's delta. Originally he was a god associated with the city of Busiris in the Delta and is an example of a regional god who gained countrywide acceptance.

   According to the myth, Osiris was the king of Egypt who was killed by his jealous brother Seth. This evil brother then cut up Osiris' body and scattered the parts throughout Egypt. Osiris had a faithful wife Isis who, along with her sister Nephthys, gathered the pieces together. Using her magical abilities, Isis put the pieces back together, but Osiris could never again live like the other gods. He, therefore, reigned as lord of the underworld, while his son, Horus, became the ruler of Egypt (see below). Osiris is represented as a mummified king.

   Because the legend told of Osiris' death and rebirth, the Egyptians
honored him as the god of the dead. He is depicted as a mummy holding
the crook and flail, the insignia of kingship. During the Old Kingdom (ca. 2750-2250 B.C.), he became associated with the deceased pharaoh in the afterlife. During the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2025-1627/1606 B.C.), when many of the funerary rituals became available to much of the population, all individuals became associated with Osiris upon their deaths.

   Horus, the falcon-headed son of Osiris and Isis, is the hero of a legend related to the Osiris myth. The focus of this legend is on a battle between Horus and his uncle Seth for the throne of Egypt. This battle was very intense because Horus also wanted to avenge his father's murder. Horus eventually defeated Seth and became the ruler of Egypt (the kings of Egypt were considered to be Horus on earth). During the course of the battle, however, Seth tore out and broke Horus' eye by smashing it on the ground. Another god, Thoth, picked up the eye and restored it. This eye became a very powerful amulet known as the wedjet-eye and is frequently seen in tombs or in jewelry.

   Thoth, the restorer of the eye, is generally depicted with the head of an ibis, a common Egyptian bird. Thoth was the scribe of the gods and was believed to have invented writing. He possessed wonderful magic and was also associated with the moon and time. Sometimes a baboon represents him, when he is depicted as a whole animal rather than a man with a baboon's head.

   As the religion of Egypt evolved, various gods gained importance. Hundreds of years after the pyramids were built, the major center of government moved south
to the city of Thebes, and the local god of that city became the head of the Egyptian pantheon. This was the god Amun and a very large and impressive temple was built in his honor near the modern village of Karnack. Although the ram and the goose were considered to be the sacred animals of Amun, the god himself is always portrayed as a man. Amun's wife was the goddess Mut. Mut is often portrayed as a woman wearing a vulture headdress, but can also have a lion's head or be represented as a vulture.

   Another goddess was Hathor, who took several forms, all related to a cow. Sometimes she was depicted with a cow's head or just with the ears or horns of a cow. At other times a whole cow was used as her representation. A major deity, she was identified with beauty and music. Many temples were built in her honor.

   The goddess Sekhmet represented war, destruction, and pestilence.
Usually portrayed with the head of a lion on a woman's body, she was
also associated in another aspect with the cat.

Egyptian Gods video

   Another deity who was often portrayed with the head of an animal is Anubis. He had the head of a doglike animal called a jackal. Because jackals lived in the low desert where cemeteries were located, Anubis came to be honored as the god of the necropolis. Anubis also served as the god of embalming, in charge of preparing bodies for burial.

   We do not know why the Egyptians chose to associate some gods and goddesses with animals or why a certain animal species came to represent a specific deity. All the animals that developed sacred associations, however, were native to Egypt at some time during its history.