In this series, I will be analysing some of the pantheons of human worship in the ancient (and modern) world. What a culture worships explains so much about how a culture lives and acts, and how they understand morality and make significant cultural decisions.
In this first consideration of the Divine Pantheons, we will consider what is perhaps the oldest, most consistent, ancient culture of them all: Egypt. My own, personal, fascination with Egypt began as a child and continues to this day (I'm currently taking a class through Harvard online on Egyptology - pandemics really do bring out the inner nerd in us!). There is something deeply intriguing about the culture that revered the Pharaoh so much as to build the monuments that have become synonymous with their power, prestige, and pre-eminence in the cultural psyche of the ancient world. The gods of Egypt are noticeably different from the gods of Greece, Rome and Scandinavia whose main livelihood appears to be little more than boozing, fighting, philandering, and, occasionally, doing something godlike. The Egyptians gods, however, appear to be more austere, refined, and serious about their tasks and duties.
For further consideration of the ancient Egyptian culture, I highly recommend Toby Wilkinson's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.
As with all societies, what we worship influences how we live our lives. The ancient Egyptians were no different. It must be noted, of course, that most of what we know is from, by, and about, the elites of society. The level to which the commoner understood the complex theologies and ideologies is a matter of significant dispute. At any rate, however, they were a people dependent upon the seasonal flooding of the Nile, the harvest, the rising of the sun, and the special dispensation of the Pharaoh. When all of these were in alignment, Egypt was a superpower. But when the Nile failed, or the Pharaoh was weak, Egypt was ripe for the pickings.
Yet Egypt is without rival in the ancient world. There is no other nation who can boast 3000 years of almost uninterrupted central monarchical control. Granted, there were dynasties in flux, and foreigners disrupted the Egyptian bloodlines, to be sure, but it still stands as the longest consistent form of government over one region in all of human history.
What is curious, however, is how little, truly, influenced we are by Egyptian philosophy, art, ideology etc. This can be attributed, I suspect, to the relative newness of Egyptology as a whole. Until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, Egyptian art and language remained a mystery, lost to the sands of time. Thus, the entire field of Egyptian philosophy and worldview has never truly had the option or ability to merge with later Western Civilization the way other cultures have been assimilated. This sets Egypt apart, but can also lead to a sense of detachment that is simultaneously refreshing and disconcerting. The Egyptians were real people, after all. They truly worshipped their gods, and they truly believed in the divine calling of their kings. But these truths are difficult for us to truly comprehend in our world today: we are simply too far removed.
But that's okay. We don't necessarily need to empathise with them: it is our joy and task to understand them. And to do so, we must begin with their gods. After we learn about some of the key divinities, we will then consider some of their myths. They may be unusual to our ears, but that simply enhances the mystique of the journey. A journey that every Egyptian would have been well acquainted with: the journey from life, to death, to life once more.
As we prepare to begin, we need to grasp some points about the Egyptian pantheon. Firstly, the gods of Egypt tend to be personifications of natural phenomena, rather than an exclusively distinct personality. Their power was manifested within the action or phenomena they were attributed with, such as Khnum, who was the god of the Nile's inundation as well as the island situation in the Nile.
The second critical thing to understand about the Egyptian worldview is that the gods were the guardians of order, or maat. For chaos to be restrained, the gods had to be worshipped appropriately and they had to fulfil their duties. When there were famines or failures of the inundation or military defeats, the blame fell upon the Pharaoh who was Ra-made-man, in a sense, Ra incarnate. His power either waned, or there was chaos in the nation's worship that had to be restored. Therefore, during crises, the typical response was not a change towards innovation, but a return to the stability of the old ways. This guaranteed, in the Egyptian mind, the maat of the cosmos. Egyptian turmoil was one of the critical ways the gods signalled their displeasure at the trends of the nation and acted as a warning to repent and return to what was ordained.
The third thing to understand is that, unlike the Greeks or Romans, the Egyptian pantheon was never quite as rigid concerning the specific tasks as one may assume. Granted, Ra tends to be the prime exception that proves the rule, for he is almost always associated with the sun; nevertheless, the roles of the gods of Egypt were rather fluid depending on location and century. Further, it seems likely that the gods were not given sovereign supremacy over creation such as can be found in Islam or Christianity. In fact, it seems that none of the gods were omniscient nor even omnipotent, but, rather, they themselves were ordered into a society not unlike that found in ancient Egypt. There was a hierarchy, cohesion, order at war with chaos, and unable to leave the bonds of the created universe. They were transcendent from the standpoint of humanity, but not from creation itself. In some manner they, too, were bound within the bonds of creation.
Fourthly, the gods were delineated by gender as the Egyptians tended to see everything in duality; male and female deities were just that. There were androgynous deities, though these tended to be more to do with creation and 'starting off' than any discussion around gender. The male gods were more active and powerful, typically, than the female deities, though the female were not without their own wiles. In the nature of maat, of course, the gods and goddesses were essential, as was harmony between them.
Finally, then, there is a clear community within the Egyptian pantheon. The gods of Egypt were not abstract beings disassociated from one another (or creation) but were part of a society of divine beings, ranging from the holy family or Osiris and Isis (with their son) through to the unimportant, yet grotesque, demons and lesser deities. Each had a role and purpose to play in the divine society just as each human in each caste of society had their purpose and role to play in order to preserve and maintain maat. In essence, in a kind of clear way, there was a symmetry, or reflection, between the divine society and human society. The link between the two, of course, was noneother than your local, friendly, God-king: Pharaoh.
Just to be absolutely clear: we will not be covering every god in the Egyptian pantheon. There are, after all, over 1500 recorded deities that could be considered, but for the purposes of this series, we will merely consider the ones most fascinating or important for the Egyptian worldview.
Perhaps the image that we are most familiar with is the Pharaoh. He (or she, on occasions) embodies all that is primarily authoritarian about ancient Egyptian culture. His word was law and he was to become a manifestation of Horus (and occasionally Ra).
He was, also, of course, the bridge between the human and the divine, the link between this realm and the supernatural. It fell to the Pharaoh to interact with the gods as an equal on behalf of his subjects. In seasons of peace and prosperity, he would build vast monuments to himself; in seasons of defeat, danger, or dearth, he would increase security, heighten the cultic worship, and ruthlessly subjugate his people. Central control of the Pharaoh was the essential piece that held the puzzle of maat together. If the Pharaoh fell, then the order of the universe was compromised. The illusion of control was shattered and fear and chaos would run rampant throughout the land.
It was the Pharaoh who was the key mover in ancient Egypt. He would be mummified at death to ensure his movement into the divine society was guaranteed. His consorts, wealth, animals, and even servants, were sometimes buried with him in his massive tombs to ensure his every need would be met in the next life. Depending on wealth, of course. During times of decline, a Pharaoh might simply break into a previous tomb, dumb out the Pharaoh and claim that tomb as his own, with a little facelift of the hieroglyphs, bob's your uncle!
Osiris is one of the most well known of the Egyptian pantheon. He is god of death and, in a sense, resurrection. He brings life to vegetation and even the sun god, Ra (about whom, more below). His divine consort was, or course, Isis, and he appears to have been a sort of 'senior' in the heavenly realms.
His brother, Set, according to the prime tradition, desired the throne upon which Osiris sat, and killed him, cutting him up into pieces. His wife, Isis, found him and loving assembled all the pieces back together. He is, therefore, able to impregnate Isis who gives birth to the child Horus. The sources are somewhat unclear, but it is clear that the resurrection was not a permanent thing; Osiris became god of the underworld and afterlife, while the posthumous birth of Horus became associated with rebirth and new things.
As a consequence of this miraculous birth, Osiris is often considered to be the god who guards and confirms the vegetative cycle and the Nile's inundation, upon which the vegetation in Egypt most certainly relies.
Horus is the child of Osiris and Isis. He is the god over the king as well as the sky and as such is perhaps the most important god (after Ra) for the common Egyptian. One of his key functions is to challenge and defeat Set, who had murdered his father and from whom chaos appears to reign. I tend to think of Set as an Egyptian Loki. In various traditions Horus and Set battled over Egypt before Horus eventually triumphed with the help of the gods. It was a brutal battle and neither divine being left unscathed: Horus's left eye popped out. Thus, the 'Eye of Horus' became a type of protective superstitious belief in Egyptian culture, and was also a sign of kingly power. A modern equivalent may be the monarch's signet ring. The battle(s) between Horus and Set ranged from the rather gross (semen-throwing dominating scenes) to the childish (boat racing along the Nile). The end result typically was that Horus was the victor (though there are versions where the realms were split along typical lines of duality that permeated Egyptian culture, such as fertile/desert, life/death, health/illness etc.). Whichever of the varied and differing stories you choose to accept, the point is clear: cosmic order must be restored and Horus restores it.
Horus is an essential deity in relation to the king. The Pharaoh is a manifestation of Horus while he lives, and of Osiris after he dies, whereupon the new Pharaoh becomes Horus during a special ceremony around the same time as he coronation. (This is a general pattern; it varies often with differencing dynasties trying to highlight different aspects.)
There have been some who suggest that the cultic 'mother/child' dynamic found in the Isis/Horus narrative have impacted the Christian tradition of Mary and Jesus, though this has been refuted by scholars from within and beyond the Christian tradition. As C.S. Lewis has argued, the mere fact of similarity in narratives do not refute the validity of a truth, but point, instead, to the opposite: truth permeates, though it can be corrupted. In this instance, there really is very little similar between the narratives excluding the fact that there is a mother and a son.
I suspect the only other truly well known Egyptian god is Anubis (think of the second Mummy movie, for example). He is, after all, the god with the jackal head (although Wikipedia informs us that the 'jackal' is actually the Egyptian wolf, so perhaps he is the wolf-headed god). He is well-known because of his primary area of authority: the unique procedures of death in ancient Egypt. For all that we aren't influenced by Egypt, we are definitely fascinated with at least three aspects of Egyptian culture: the Pharaohs, the pyramids, and the mummies. Anubis oversees the mummification process and is therefore rightly considered god of the underworld.
It seems that he was initially not god of the underworld, as that was Osiris's role, you should remember. However, by the middle kingdom era it appears that Anubis had graduated from merely ushering the dead into the afterlife to become the leader and ruler over it. He was, still, a Charon-like figure, but his work was significantly busier than Charon's ferry over the Styx. His focus as a defender of graves appears from the very earliest of times suggesting that the Egyptians were scared of their graves being dug up and despoiled by animal jackals and so Anubis was called upon, as a sort of supernatural jackal, to be the defender and protector of corpses.
Egyptians were obsessed with death. The pyramids are a testament to this fact. Anubis, therefore, carried great importance within the Egyptian culture throughout the entirety of Egyptian history (even when he and Osiris switched rolls in the afterlife). After all, everyone dies. But, it must be jarring to read the Egyptian myths and find so little reference to him and his exploits. As gods go, frankly, Anubis is rather boring.
My favourite story concerning Horus demonstrates his difference from Charon in the Greek myths. Anubis had a unique and deeply important role within the Egyptian religious worldview. He was the guardian of the scales which meant that he determined who entered the afterlife and whose soul was damned. Anubis would decide the righteousness of the soul by weighing the heart of the deceased against what appears to be a feather. Those who passed his test were granted access to the afterlife while those whose sins outweighed their righteousness were devoured by Ammit, lost for all eternity. Just as in life, maat had to be preserved, and as with every religion, the cry of justice must be met either in this life or the next.
When it comes to Egyptian gods, however, there is one star who outshines them all: Ra. Ra is the king of the gods, of order, and of the created realm. At his height, there was no realm within the cosmos over which Ra was not the king. He is unashamedly a sun god, and his worshippers worshipped him as the noon sun, or the sun at its most powerful zenith, highlighting his position and prominence within the pantheon as central.
He is most often depicted as having the head of a falcon upon which sits the sun disc with a serpent on it. These are symbols of his power and his might as top god. As the king of the gods it soon followed that he was the father of every Pharaoh because he gave life to Egypt, and the Pharaoh was Egypt. You may also find him in the form of a ram or even a scarab beetle depending on the function he was performing at that time.
As the sun god, he is credited with bringing life in all of its forms: natural and supernatural. He was present when nothing else existed except Nun, the watery abyss. From that nothingness Ra, in the form or manifestation of Atum, created humanity and thus as the light of life was created Ra shone over it with his life-giving warmth, causing everything else to grow and thrive in due course.
Often, his depictions were crafted alongside other gods, most noticeable Horus who was another sky god. This happened because of the size of Egypt and the importance of Ra. He couldn't be ignored even in areas where other gods had significant prominence and so a synergy occurred to ensure both gods were given due worship. Like Horus, there was an Eye of Ra that spoke of his vengeance (the serpent wrapped around his sun disc is the symbol for this eye) and thus we have the twin operations of Ra's goodness: life giving and justice bringing. His children, three daughters, would carry out his judgements.
As with most sun worshippers, there had to be an explanation for the setting as well as the rising of the sun. As it was, the Egyptians understood that Ra died at night and travelled through the underworld, as Atum, and journeyed to the east of the underworld awaiting his rebirth as Ra at dawn. This solidified his position as the god of life and creation for he, himself, was recreated daily.
Aten was another sun disc god who rose to prominence during the reign of Akhenaten. Akhenaten forbade worship of any other god but Aten (hence his name Akhen-aten) and apparently tried to force a monotheistic cult around Aten onto Egyptian life and culture. Considering the dread of dishonouring the gods whose primary duty it was to preserve order, this was, obviously, a doomed attempt.
Specifically, the Aten appears to have been the actual disc of the sun and so, initially, would have been part of Ra. But Akhenaten deemed the disc to be worthy of worship and therefore supreme over Ra. This venture did not last long.
I mention Aten partly because it is interesting, but primarily because it reveals the fluidity and uncanonical nature of the Egyptian gods and goddesses. While it may be true that there are general rules and patters within the structure of the Egyptian pantheon, the fact that Aten can be made to depose Ra (even for only one generation) shows that there is not quite an 'orthodoxy' of religious beliefs and practices established throughout Egypt. Certainly, there is no distinct canon of texts or myths by which a heretical belief can be compared and declared anathema, for example. This leads us to see the Egyptian religion as something interestingly changing within bounds of steadiness. Not unlike the Egyptian worldview itself, in fact.
Amun is known primarily as the patron god of the great city of Thebes. He was worshipped from early on during the old kingdom, but it wasn't until the 11th Century when his authority grew exponentially after deposing Montu as the god of Thebes. During the Hyksos invasion where northern Egypt was under foreign control, it seemed like the gods had abandoned Egypt and that Set's malevolent chaos had brought about the eternal shame of Egypt by splitting Upper and Lower Egypt apart.
Pharaoh Ahmose I, however, led a stunning fightback that eventually led to the Hyksos either assimilating or retreating and, as a result, Amun, the god of the powerful city of Thebes, became nationally important throughout the entire country. Eventually he was assimilated into Ra and they became the god Amun-Ra and he was never truly dethroned since. His prominence almost created a unique distinction amongst the gods whereby he was said to be manifestations of other gods or that he was supreme over the supernatural sphere even as the gods were supreme over the natural realms.
According to some, Amun-Ra came to be seen as the supreme god in other cultures, such as in Greece where it was understood that Amun-Ra was how the Egyptians expressed worship of Zeus.
Ptah is another important deity of creation (there are a few and it is difficult to try to grasp a clear chronology of creation). Ptah apparently created through his thoughts and his words so
that anything he conceived of in his heart was brought into existence.
He is also a god of the other great Egyptian city, Memphis where his cult was most well-represented. He is depicted in numerous forms, often as a dwarf, but also as a king with the symbols of authority and monarchy. As the god of the metallurgic crafts, he is revered as a gifted creator of the skills of the craftsmen (similar to Hephaestus).
There is one other aspect of Ptah's function that should be grasped: he would embody the essence of the divinity of Amun-Ra at his rebirth each day. He was, in a sense, a hypostasis of the rebirth of the sun god. Thus, he had he power of giving life in a vital manner for the preservation of order within the universe.
Sobek is the god who resembled the crocodile. He is, therefore, in my opinion, the coolest of the Egyptian gods. He is often associated with the Nile because of his depiction as a Nile crocodile and thus was responsible for the protection of Egypt from famine by ensuring the flow of the Nile as well as its annual inundation.
Because of his association as a crocodile, of course, it makes sense that he is also an important deity for power, particularly Pharaonic power, and military might and strategy. In many ways the guile and stealth of the crocodile matches the military efforts of Egypt. They were, normally, a dormant power, content to reside within their borders and protect their vast wealth. But if prodded, they would amass an army and bring about swift and sheer destruction upon their enemies. A vicious reaction with the purpose of suppressing revolution, dissent, and invasion.
As with numerous other gods, Sobek, at times, was joined with Ra to become Sobek-Ra. This was most noticeable towards the end of the Egyptian epoch.
In Egypt there are two things upon which the world relies: the rising of the sun god, Ra, from the underworld every morning, and the inundation of the Nile every year. These both give life to the Egyptian world, and it fell to Khnum to ensure the Nile rose and fell each year as needed. Consequently, he is attributed with the unique position of being the actual 'life-giver' of the gods and of humanity. He is often depicted as a ram god.
The inundation of the Nile brought with it the extraordinarily fertile silt that would ensure crops could grow when the water resided. This was the gift of Khnum to the people of the Nile. However, the Nile also left residual clay, and one myth suggests that Khnum created human beings out of clay and placing them in the wombs of their mother's, thus giving Khnum the power of creating life and sustaining it.
Set is the naughty boy of the deities. Think of Loki. With Set you get an Egyptian version of the Norse trickster. Set was the brother of Osiris who murdered him to steal the throne but didn't count on the magic of Isis. After she found the body parts of the dismembered Osiris (with or without his phallic masculinity, depending on the sources), she resurrected him long enough to be impregnated by him. This child would be Horus who would fight with Set and eventually defeat him, thus restoring order to the chaos that Set brought to the gods.
However, Set has a positive purpose and function within the pantheon as well as a negative role. He would sail with Ra on Ra's super awesome solar boat to fight with Apep, the serpent of chaos. Thus, although Set is associated with chaos and mischief, he is not the god over it. He is, rather, a god who, depending on the mood or myth was either for or against maintaining maat.
After accepting defeat by Horus' hand, some traditions suggest he upheld the balance of order by being the corresponding ruler to that of Horus, particularly over the Red Land while Horus was lord of the Black Land. This sounds like an equitable split until we remember we are dealing with Egypt; black means fertile soil while red means barren desert wasteland. Any wonder the lad was pissed and bored most of the time.
Curiously, during the reign of the Hyksos, who were the foreigners over Northern Egypt at the weakest point of Egypt's history prior to Rome's coup, Set became the god of the Hyksotic peoples and the chief deity over Hyksotic Egypt. Perhaps this is why their defeat by Amun-Ra was ultimately inevitable; the order of Egypt had to be maintained and Set was not the rightful king of the gods nor the rightful king over Egypt. They were repelled by Ahmose I.
Thoth is an important deity worthy of mention because he has the privilege of being the god over the scribes and historians. He is, therefore, the reason we are able to know most of what we know about ancient Egypt. There is something almost mesmerising about the ancient Egyptian penchant for keeping records. They were meticulous bureaucrats to the point of painful detail and this is down to Thoth.
As the inventor of language he was the guardian of the corpus of the literature of creation. But his role far outweighed and outpaced this specific aspect; he was responsible for the maintaining of the universe and ensuring that conflicts between the gods were resolved fairly and appropriately. This is, presumably, a result of his logic and reasoning skills. In this area, he is not unlike Apollo of the Greeks. Language, logic, and science is his domain, along with the judgement of the dead. As the logician, Thoth is the 'engineer' of creation and the author of morality. All that is created and sustained owes its longevity and precision to his working out. According to the Greeks of later years, he is the source behind every human achievement concerning knowledge, progress and advancement, be it scientific, political, civic, academic, cultural, moral, mathematical, or medicinal. Frankly, he could be said to be the fount, or source, of knowledge itself. Not bad for a baboon, eh?
He is often depicted with a baboon head and human body, or an ibis head, depending on the relief. When he is depicted as an ibis-headed man, he is further associated with the moon and therefore bears responsibility over the seasons. He is, therefore, a moon god, and is not associated with Ra as an equal. He does, however, stand beside Ra's celestial boat as a defender of, and adviser to, the great sun god. Moon gods provided light at night by which time could be measured, and ensured the seasons could be understood due to the cycles of the moon.
As we move onto the female deities we note that their role tends towards a more typical feminine (in the historical sense) aspect of the relational dynamic. Amunet is the consort of Amun and, with him, was part of the primeval existence prior to creation. There is debate as to whether Amunet was a deity in her own right or simply was brought about as the counterpart to Amun - after all, Egyptians do love balance.
Bat is a fascinating goddess. She is a cow goddess (which is not an insult!) from the earliest days. It appears, etymologically, that she I a reference to the soul or the personality of the individual (although this isn't definite). She was depicted as a human with a cow head, or cow horns, and typically with a holy instrument, the sistrum. What is likely is that she was a goddess for cattle-herders and shepherds who was eventually subsumed into the worship of Hathor.
Hathor was a very important goddess within the ancient Egyptian pantheon. She was depicted as either the mother or consort of Horus (depending on the tradition) and perhaps even the mother of Ra. As she is also a sky goddess, this made her a maternal figure for kingship within the gods and therefore for the Pharaohs also.
Being one of the supreme feminine deities, she oversaw the realms of pleasure, dancing, sexuality, love and maternal or motherly care. She did have a violent side when she was defending Ra. Together, she composed the idealised form of Egyptian femininity as a protective, sensuous, loving and caring mother and spouse. According to some, she assisted in the transportation of the dead from this life to the afterworld, again revealing her care and compassionate side.
She is also a cow goddess, though is more often depicted as wearing the horns of a cow around a sun disc than as the full cow itself. Due to her supreme standing, she has the most temples of any of the female deities and was often the recipient of women begging for children. As a woman, of course, she is also the goddess of 'fancy things' like foreign metals and gems. She is also apparently very proud of her beautiful hair which was mentioned frequently as a key attribute of her alluring sexuality and beauty.
Sadly, as time developed and the cult of Amun-Ra developed and the power of Horus intensified, the cult of Hathor diminished in significance, in deference to Isis, who was increasingly given the position of authority as Horus' mother. Her worship never disappeared completely; but it did weaken as time moved forward.
Heqet is a goddess in the form of a frog and is associated with fertility. This association is due to the Nile's inundation and the birth of frogs that would rise from the river each year. According to earliest sources, she was the wife of Khnum. It fell to Heqet to provide life to new born babies as she was responsible for the final stages of birth. She was the goddess who breathed life into the child
Isis we have already encountered; she is the wife of Osiris whose magic brought him back from the dead, provided his resurrected form with a working phallus and had a child with him who would become the vanquisher of Set: Horus. She was a noble female, a worthy queen of heaven.
Isis had skills of medicine (see Osiris, for an strong example) and was considered to be the mother of the Pharaohs (along with, at times, Hathor) due to her being the mother of Horus. As she had evident power over death, she was given authority to assist the dead in the afterlife and to provide for, and protect, the Pharaohs on their journey to the celestial realm.
Just as Hathor's credentials waned throughout the decline of the Middle Kingdom, Isis's fortunes were on the up, and she soon absorbed many of the responsibilities that had hitherto been the prerogative of Hathor. By the fall of Egypt to Rome, the worship of Isis had permeated throughout the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa. Her appeal appears to have been her power over death and her power through magic. Thus, as her cult spread, she seems to have absorbed, or replaced, other local goddesses in different lands, such as Nubia, making her truly a powerful Egyptian export.
She is typically depicted with a throne crown (highlighting her role and position), although as she began to replace Hathor, in due course, she was seen to wear the horned disc crown that had once been Hathor's. As she spread into different cultures, her icons tended to adopt symbols from those societies.
Although Christianity led to her eventually decline as a goddess, she still can be seen in pagan reliefs and modern pagan cults today, usually as a symbol for feminine sexuality and liberation. Isis plays the long game!
Maat is the goddess of order, justice, and truth, and was the personification of the order and balance that Egyptian culture required to function correctly. She had an opposite whose purpose was, unsurprisingly, the opposite: injustice, disorder, and falsehood. As the deities typically were balanced in terms of male-female relationships, she was commonly (though not exclusively) paired with Thoth. This, of course, makes sense. Together, they would be the most boring couple in the celestial community, but man, would they have the strictest rules!
The final female goddess we will consider is Sekhmet. I love Sekhmet because of her evident prowess and violence. She is commonly depicted as a lioness whose primary roles was to give strength to the armies of Egypt and protect the borders from attack. In many ways, she is the Egyptian version of the Wakanda elites! She is the protector of the Pharaohs in life and death, no less, and is another form of the Eye of Ra, which demonstrates anew her power and proclivity for violence.
She was a manifestation of Ra's power and was able to fight mortals who opposed Ra, cause plagues and diseases that would bring balance and order and repentance to the Egyptian people, should the need arise. As a cause of disease, she was also a cure for it as well, being able to provide healing and restoration to full health.
According to certain traditions, she was the wife of Ptah and a supreme goddess. Her depiction is typically of a human form with a lion head and a sun disc crown.
The Primeval Gods
As with every culture, there must be a creation narrative to explain why we are here. Most of us are familiar with the Biblical account of creation and perhaps even that of the Quran. Most of us, I suspect, would be surprised at the Egyptian narrative, which will be given below.
A key figure in the narrative is Nu, which is the formless, watery void that preceded creation. Nu surrounds a bubble of life which her waters protected. Atum, the creator god, eventually called the land forth from her watery abyss and, together, they brought about life from the darkened void.
Nu can be female, or the masculine, Nun, depending on the tradition and the work over which the deity is functioning. Nu is not worshipped as the other deities were. She did not have a temple, but is often depicted as a lake or underground river. For a people whose existence depended almost entirely upon the Nile, this gives Nu great symbolic prominence.
This is the personification of the first mound of earth to rise up out of Nu at Atum's command. More will be said about Tatenen below.
Kek, in the masculine form, is the god of Darkness and Chaos. His female partner is Kauket. We may better think of this pair as night and day, for example.
Heh is the personification of infinity, or the flood of Chaos that ruled before creation. The Egyptians understood Chaos to be infinite, but the created order and world as finite. Like the other primeval deities, he had a feminine counterpart, Hauhet.
The Creation Myths
Considering the size of Egypt and the various deities throughout the land (and the ages), it is no surprise that there is not one, clear, narrative about the creation of the cosmos, or even of Egypt. The most well attested creation myth would be the Ogdoad, or the Eightfold, who were the 4 pairs of male/female deities through whom creation was brought about. This is not the only creation myth for Egypt, but it will be the one we focus on.
There are common threads throughout the various aspects of the different retellings of the creation narrative and this demonstrates the varied nature of Egyptian worship as well as acts as a helpful sociological commentary on what the people in distinct periods, and locations, found to be important in their cosmogonies.
In the beginning, before there was a beginning, there was Nu. Nu was the oceanic abyss, or void, that surrounded life in its immeasurable, uncertain, beauty. Nu was present as the water itself with his female counterpart, Naunet, and together they were joined by 6 other deities. There was Heh and his female counterpart, Hauhet, who, together, personified eternity or infinity. Time itself was present at the beginning, and the waters extent covered the infinite plain of the abyss. There was nothing, and an awful lot of it. Alongside Nu and Heh was Kek and Kauket, who, together, personified the darkness of the void. There was no light, simply a dark and stormy infinite ocean. The final pair of divine beings were Amun and Amaunet.
Amun and Amaunet were the distinctively unique deities. Together, the manifested the potential of life through the unknown and unknowable nature of Nu and Naunet. All of the divine beings, who were personifications of different aspects of the abyss, were present as aquatic forms: the males had a froglike form and the females had a snakelike form.
When these deities finally converged, there was an explosion of reality and potential that eventually caused Tatenen, the first pyramidic mound, to rise out of the abyss and, along with the first sunrise, life was given the potential to form. Together, these eight deities created all things, or the potential for all things. Thus, life was formed.
This first mound came when the waters of chaos retreated, from which the sun arose, bringing life to the new creation: earth. As such, mounds, or Benben, or pyramids, took on a sacred meaning for the Egyptians. As the waters of the Nile flooded and receded each year, leaving mounds of silt deposits that were highly fertile, so this was reflected in the worship of the Egyptians. The waters of chaos left behind the greatest, fertile, mound, which was reflected in the earth. Thus, the pyramids were the greatest efforts of humanity to reflect to the cosmos the nature of life-giving worship. As a place of spiritual transcendence and transformation, of new life the pyramid reflected the deepest aspect of Egyptian religious belief.
There are, of course, different versions; in Thebes, for example, Amun was given the primary position of creation, and it was suggested of Amun that he was not merely one of the eight, but was the power behind all things, including the other primeval powers. He was the transcendental being above all others, the father of the gods, as it were. Even the gods did not know his full representation or his truest divine nature, but were simply, in some way, an extension of himself. This, in creation, Amun was displaying his own self-existence and power through each being and entity. As Amun was supreme, the gods were simply displaying varying aspects of Amun, the sovereign. This explains why, in Thebes, he was worshipped as the sovereign supreme being above all others, and would eventually rise to the head of the entire pantheon.
Thus, with creation formed, the deities were able to attend to their divine tasks and begin the creation of Our Beloved Egypt. From the mists beyond time, Egypt would rise like Osiris to rule over the Nile Delta, as far south as Sudan and as far East as Jerusalem, shaping policy in the Mediterranean under Hatshepsut and, later, Rameses II, until, eventually, plagued by overreach, internal failures, poor preparation, and a faltering mystique of the Pharaoh, the wealth and prosperity of one of the grandest empires the world has ever known, petered into humble subservience to the might of another, sprawling, and ambitious empire: Rome.
Perhaps, in the future, we will consider some key figures in Egyptian history. I, for one, would like to consider Hatshepsut and Rameses. But for now, we leave the pyramids and, in our next installment of the Divine Pantheons, we will travel to Sumer.