Ancient Egyptian deities represented the phenomena that established natural order, such as astronomical bodies, the seasons, and notions of life and death. A polytheistic belief system, the religion and rituals of ancient Egypt emerged from the shadows of prehistory and maintained influence until the rise of Rome. Over thousands of years, the power structure of the Egyptian pantheon shifted, though three deities received the most veneration.
An Evolving Pantheon
The Egyptians did not worship a fixed pantheon of gods, and deities would periodically appear and disappear in relation to the popularity of their cult or influence of their affiliated city. For example, the importance of Ptah, the creator-god, rose with the establishment of his cult center, Memphis, as the capital of the First Dynasty. Egyptian pantheons were called enneads, groupings of interrelated gods with associated creation myths. As political realities in Egypt evolved, most notably due to the rise of Thebes and the entrance of Graeco-Roman culture, the chief ennead underwent alterations, and even total abandonment in the 14th century B.C. reign of Akhenaten.
The Sun God
The main ancient Egyptian ennead, the Great Ennead of Heliopolis, featured the sun god, Ra, as its chief deity and source of creation. Ancient Egyptians originally considered Ra an aspect of Horus, a falcon god who assimilated his father, Ptah. Ra achieved a separate identity and prominence as the head of the Egyptian pantheon around the time of the 4th dynasty in the third millennium B.C. From this time forward, pharaohs considered themselves sons of Ra, and derived their judicial authority from Ra’s son, Maat. Ra, as the manifestation of the sun and source of all life, served as the progenitor of other gods that derived their authority from him.
God of Thebes
Around 1980 B.C., when Egyptian power shifted to Thebes, the Theban cult divinity, Amun, was elevated to the top of the Egyptian pantheon. Amun derived his authority through association with Ra, and acquired the name Amun-Ra. Amun-Ra’s solar-based religion spread throughout Egypt and achieved total dominance in the New Kingdom. An exception to this came in the reign of Akhenaten, which lasted from 1353 to 1336 BC. Akhenaten displaced Amun-Ra, along with the entire Egyptian pantheon, and elevated the god Aten to sole supremacy. To celebrate his new monotheistic religion, Akhenaten transferred the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. Akhenaten’s death initiated violent reprisals against the new religion, and Amun-Ra was restored to his former prominence.
The Mother Goddess
Isis, the goddess of magic and fertility, originated as an obscure local deity whose influence expanded from the pre-dynastic era onward. In the New Kingdom, Isis achieved broad popularity, which culminated in her affiliation with the goddess Hathor and identification as mother of Horus. As Isis-Hathor, Isis became the chief mother-goddess and embodiment of kingship. Isis’ popularity spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world, and her worship survived into late antiquity. Cults of Isis proliferated in the first centuries of the Common Era, when depictions of Isis nursing Horus/Ra had a supposed influence on the iconography of early Christianity.
- Columbia University: Theogony From Ancient Egypt
- National Geographic Magazine: Pharaohs of the Sun
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Egyptian Religion -- the Gods
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Ptah
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Egyptian Religion -- Groupings of Deities
- History Channel: Ancient History -- Ancient Egypt
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Re
- University of Michigan: Egyptian Myths
- Academia.edu: Divine Mothers -- The Influence of Isis
- Universitat Heidelberg: The Expansion of the Cult of Isis in the Roman Empire
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images