The Gods of Ancient Egypt

If you recall what we said earlier about the decipherment of hieroglyphics, it was thanks to the works of Budge and other prominent Egyptologists that the history of ancient Egypt at last came alive.  Rather than trying to guess how the pyramids were built or why Egyptians mummified their dead, we could now simply read the sometimes lengthy explanations left by the Egyptians themselves to understand these phenomena, including their polytheistic beliefs.

Amongst the hundreds if not thousands of gods worshipped by the ancient Egyptians was the pharaoh.  The term pharaoh is derived from the name given to the palace of the king of Egypt – the Per-o, meaning the “Great House.”  Egyptian kings or pharaohs were autocrats wielding absolute power.  In the reign of secure, confident, powerful kings, that power was unchallenged.  The power of the pharaohs of Egypt depended upon three things:

  • The people believed pharaoh to be a god, thus strengthening their loyalty to him.
  • Pharaoh was the ultimate possessor of all things on earth, including the people.
  • Pharaoh’s word was law. 

If these were the sources of pharaoh’s power, they could also be his undoing.  He could lose power if any one of these three sources was challenged, which happened a number of times in Egyptian history:

  • if the people stopped believing in pharaoh’s divinity, which could happen if the priests turned against pharaoh
  • if the all important fertile lands belonged to someone else, which happened whenever pharaoh rewarded loyal servants and generals with gifts of land
  • if the laws were written down, thereby giving the law a life of its own, a validity outside of pharaoh’s dictates

Among the many other gods, certainly one of the most significant was Ra, the Creator, maker of men, father of the gods, who was typically worshipped as the state god of Egypt.  Not surprisingly, he was associated with the the all-powerful sun, which would be recognized as the greatest of gods in a place like Egypt.  In the form of the sun, Ra rose over the earth every morning, sailing across the heavens in two boats (the first from sunrise until noon, and the second from noon until sunset).  As creator, recall, he first brought forth Shu, god of light, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture.

The children of Shu and Tefnut rose from the watery abyss together to become the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut).  According to one Egyptian myth, they embrace one another during the night, only to be separated every morning by their father Shu, son of the creator.  In this image you see the father Shu holding his daughter Nut high up and away from Geb, the earth.  In the end, their nightly embraces lead to children of their own, who grow up to form the core of Egypt’s most important myths.  As the parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, Nut and Geb were also known as the Father and Mother of the Gods.

Osiris was the son of Nut and Geb.  He ruled over the earth until he was treacherously slain by his brother, Seth, after which he was resurrected to become King of the Afterlife and Judge of the Dead.  His wife and sister, known as the “Lady of Enchantments,” was Isis.  She was often depicted as the “Divine Mother,” suckling her baby Horus.  Hers was one of the most popular Egyptian cults, and survived the foreign occupations of Egypt to become a favorite popular cult in Greek and Roman cultures as well, with shrines at Delos and Pompeii.  In Greece she became associated with the Greek goddess Demeter, while in Rome she was known as Stella Maris – the Star of the Sea.  Because of the prevalence of statues and images of Isis seated with the baby Horus on her knee, she was later compared with the Virgin Mary, holding the baby Jesus, and it is common to think of her in Egypt as a mother goddess figure.

The sister and companion of Isis was Nephthys, and like Isis, she was a goddess of Magic who helped the dead to overcome the finality of death and the grave.  Her husband and the god of all that was Evil in the world, including the desert, darkness, night time, sickness, storms, and foreigners, was Seth.  Seth killed his brother Osiris to become king, and then waged war on the vengeful Horus even as the night battled the day for dominion over the earth.

Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis.  He became King of the World by defeating his uncle Seth in battle.  He was also the Guardian of the Pharaoh, and every pharaoh had a “Horus” name to indicate his special relationship to Horus.  His symbol was the falcon or hawk, which was often depicted in paintings and statuary guarding over the pharaoh.

The illegitimate child of Osiris and Nephthys (or the son of Ra), Anubis was a guardian of the afterlife who assisted in the preparation of the dead and guided the spirit of the deceased to Osiris, even as he assisted in the mummification of Osiris by embalming the dead king’s body.  The priests who labored over the preparation of mummies were known as the Priests of Anubis.  The apparent origin of Anubis as protector of the dead seems to stem from actual events in prehistoric Egypt.  Before the development of mummification, it is clear that the Egyptians would simply bury their dead in the Western Desert.  With the shifting sands of the desert, however, this meant that a dead body could fairly easily be uncovered and exposed to the jackals – the scavenging wild dogs of the desert.  According to belief, the first jackal to come upon such a body would guard over the body, snarling at other would be scavengers to scare them off, thus allowing him to eventually sit and enjoy his rather dry, tough meal by himself.  From this arose the belief that the jackal – Anubis – was the protector of the dead.  Because of the use of the west as a necropolis for the dead, Anubis came to be known as “the one of the West, lord of the sacred land.”

One of the most important of Egyptian myths concerns the central gods of Egyptian belief: Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and Horus.  Osiris was the king of the world.  He was a great king and a powerful god, and he ruled over the earth as a just king.  Unfortunately, Osiris had a brother, Seth, and Seth was very envious of his brother’s power.  Whatever it took, Seth was going to become king. 

Now ancient Egyptians were fascinated with death, so don’t be too surprised to hear that one day Seth brought a coffin with him to a celebration at the king’s palace.  But not just any coffin.  This was a beautiful, fantastic piece of work, and Seth had secretly had this coffin built exactly to fit his brother, Osiris.  So in walks Seth with the coffin, and he announces that it would belong to whichever god best fit into the coffin.  They all tried, but only Osiris could slip into the coffin nice and comfy.  And the moment he was inside the coffin, Seth had the lid of the coffin slammed down on top and nailed shut so that his brother could not escape.  Then he had the coffin thrown out the palace window and into the river Nile, where the coffin floated away and Osiris drowned to death. So now, with his brother out of the way, Seth was king.  But there was still Osiris’s widow, Isis.  You see, when she learned her husband had disappeared, Isis was so distraught that she vowed to find him.  She searched all over Egypt, and eventually she did find the coffin and managed to bring it back with her, but she couldn’t let Seth get ahold of it.  She had to protect her husband’s body, so that his soul could live forever, so she and her sister Nephtys took turns watching over the hidden coffin.  But Seth still managed to find the coffin, and this time he had his brother’s body chopped up into little bits, fourteen pieces in all, and he threw the pieces into the Nile River.  Now he could be king, knowing he was safe and his brother’s soul would die along with his body. 

Now Isis really had her work cut out for her this time.  But she didn’t give up, and once again she was successful.  She found the pieces of her husband’s body, well, not all of them, thirteen of them, and she brought these thirteen pieces back, and using her sister’s magic, she was able to put the pieces back together.  Now, working together, Isis and Nephthys prepared the body, cleaning it and wrapping it in linen, properly preserving it. 

And in this way, Osiris, the first mummy in Egyptian history, was resurrected from the dead to live and rule in the afterlife as King of the Dead, which was a pretty powerful position to hold, as you’ll see.

Now, Seth was still king, but he was not the only one to claim the right to the throne.  Osiris was now king of the dead, but he had a son – Horus.  If Seth wanted to be king, he had to get rid of his challenger.  While Horus was still a baby, Seth sent a serpent, which bit Horus and poisoned him.  While Horus was dying, his mother Isis pleaded with the chief god – Ra – to help her son.  Ra looked down on the baby and agreed, in a sense adopting him, so that when he saved Horus’ life, he was in essence agreeing to watch over all new kings. 

But Horus did not win the crown so easily.  Seth was determined to remain king, and when Horus grew up and claimed the throne for himself, a war began that lasted for years.  Neither side was able to defeat the other.  When Horus cuts off his uncle’s head, it simply grew back.  When he destroyed his uncle’s army, a new army replaced it.  And when it seemed the war would simply drag on forever, Seth asked for arbitration to end their dispute.  So Ra organized a council of the gods to listen to both sides and choose who would be king.  Both sides gave good arguments, and after about 80 years of this trial, most members of the council believed that Horus should be king since he was the son of the old king.  But Ra favored Seth, who was son of Nut.  Seth, he argued, was older and more experienced than Horus.  So even this council could not agree on who should be king. 

Seth and Horus therefore resumed their fighting.  Seth may have been the god of war, but he realized he could not defeat his nephew in battle.  So he tried a different tactic.  One night he went to bed with his nephew and the next morning, Horus was pregnant.  It’s a bizarre, yet worthy tactic, because if Horus was pregnant, then he could not have been a real man, and only a man could be king in Egypt.  But Horus wasn’t pregnant just anywhere; he was pregnant in his hand.  And his mother, Isis, wasn’t about to let Seth become king just because her son was pregnant.  So, she chopped off her son’s hand and threw it into the Nile River.  Now Isis tried the same trick with Seth, but Seth protected himself and so they were back to square one. 

By now of course everyone was sick to death of all this sickness and death.  The chief of the gods, Ra, could not seem to stop this, favoring Seth as he did.  And so they turned to Osiris, who was now, remember, king of the dead and the afterlife.  Naturally, Osiris said his son, Horus, should be king.  Ra disagreed.  He still wanted Seth.  But Osiris reminded Ra who held the power of life and death within his hands, who could send an army of the dead to steal anyone’s life from them, who controled the entrance to the afterlife – Osiris, of course.  And this was enough to convince Ra.  After all, nobody wants to be kept out of heaven, right?  So they all agreed, and Horus became King in the land of the living, while his father, Osiris, ruled in the land of the dead.  Good had triumphed over evil.