The religion of Ancient Egypt encompassed more than 700 gods, each representing a different concept or role. That’s not to say that people worshipped all of these gods; they worshipped those that suited their needs. The state gods were worshipped by the king and his priests in large, grand temples like those at Karnak and Luxor, while at home people worshipped different gods.
No doubt when you think of Ancient Egyptian deities, the image that springs to mind is a human with an animal head, or vice versa. The Egyptians didn’t believe that was how their deities actually looked (they believed the deities had no form); they depicted their gods this way to convey their characteristics. So, for example, the mother goddess Hathor was sometimes depicted as a woman with the head of a cow to represent her nurturing nature.
Some gods were depicted in various ways. Ra, the sun god, was worshipped at different times of day and so he had several forms: at sunrise, for example, he was Khepri (depicted as a man with a scarab beetle head), and at sunset he was Flesh (the ram-headed man).
The most important deities were as follows:
Creator god of the sun and air. His name (also spelt Amon, Ammon or Amen) means ‘the hidden one’. He merged with Ra to create Amun-Ra. He’s recognisable by his two-plumed headdress.
God of death, mummification, embalming, the afterlife, cemeteries, tombs and the underworld. He was usually depicted with the head of a wolf (mistakenly called a jackal).
Also known as Bast, she was the daughter of Ra and Isis. Bastet was the goddess of protection, cats, perfume/ointments, fertility, pregnancy, children, music, the arts and warfare. She was originally depicted with the head of a lion, but over time this became the head of a cat.
The goddess of sex, love, marriage, beauty, fertility and death. She was a sky deity, the daughter of Ra. She was represented variously as a lioness, a cow, a cobra and a sycamore tree, but most commonly as a woman with a headdress in which cow horns framed a sun disk.
Horus was often depicted as a man with the head of a falcon. Son of Osiris and Isis, he was the god of the sky, kingship and order. The pharaoh was believed to be the earthly incarnation of Horus.
This mother goddess, sister and wife of Osiris, was believed to be the divine mother of the pharaoh. Her main role was to help the deceased in the underworld. She was usually depicted as a woman with the hieroglyph of a throne on her head.
Maat, also spelt Mayat, was the daughter of Ra and the personification of truth, justice and the cosmic balance. She was usually depicted as a woman with an ostrich feather on her head (a feather was the hieroglyph for truth).
Osiris was the god of the dead and the resurrection into eternal life, and the ruler, protector and judge of the deceased. When the pharaoh died, it was believed that he became Osiris so that he could continue to rule after his death. He was often depicted wrapped as mummy and holding a crook and flail: the shepherd’s crook symbolised kingship and the flail symbolised the fertility of the land.
Ptah was a creator god, the patron of craftsmen and builders. He was depicted mummified and holding a staff which represented stability, power and eternal life.
Ra was the god of the sun, and of order, kings and the sky. He ruled over all: the sky, the earth and the underworld. He was depicted with the head of a falcon, and he and the sky god Horus had similar characteristics.
Set, or Seth, was the brother of Osiris and the god of chaos, violence, deserts and storms. Experts can’t quite work out what animal was represented by Set’s depiction in art.
Thoth was the god of wisdom, writing, magic, hieroglyphs, the moon, art, judgement and the dead. In artistic depictions, he often had the head of an ibis or a baboon.
In forthcoming articles, I will share more details of the gods and goddesses of Egypt – especially those that feature in my novel Song of the Nile.