Gods and goddesses were an essential part of Ancient Egyptian life. So much so, in fact, that there are said to be over 2,000 deities in the Egyptian pantheon. And while a select few of these mythical characters are sometimes considered top-tier (Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys), there are plenty of others with fascinating tales and and morals to teach that may be overlooked or misunderstood in modern society.
"The Egyptian religion has obviously changed a lot throughout the millennia," Victoria Almansa-Villatoro, Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at Brown University, writes via email. "Even considering that pharaonic ideology is extremely conservative, we should not expect the Egyptian pantheon to remain the same for three thousand years of history. Moreover, traditions change also locally from north to south, and some gods have different names, or are favored over others in certain provinces."
Here are five Egyptian gods and goddesses worth getting to know:
1. Ra: The Sun God
"If there is a god that has always occupied a prominent position in the Egyptian pantheon, all over Egypt and Sudan, that god is Ra," Almansa-Villatoro says. "Up to some extent, most gods in Egypt have a solar aspect or can even claim to be minor manifestations of Ra. For example, the well-known lioness goddesses Sekhmet and Tefnut, or even Hathor, are nothing but the Eye of Ra."
Ra is considered the first pharaoh of the world, and as legend has it, his golden sun ship sailed across the sky each day and then traveled through Duat, the underworld, at night. In Duat, he navigated the River of Darkness to fight off monsters. Each morning, Egyptians are said to have celebrated his victorious return, which allowed the new day to begin.
"In ancient Egyptian, 'Ra' simply means 'sun,' Almansa-Villatoro says. "Ra is the god-beetle Khepri in the morning that drags the sun throughout the sky (just like beetles transport and hide balls that contain their eggs, Egyptians imagined the beginning of life as a regenerating sun that a beetle helped to give 'birth' every morning), he is just Ra in the middle of the day, and Atum (depicted as an old man) in the evening. After sailing the day sky, Ra would disappear under the earth and travel the night sky. During the day, Ra uses the dayboat, and during the night he ferries a nightboat, because the sky is nothing but an ocean that can be traversed."
According to Almansa-Villatoro, Ra dies every night in the western horizon (which is why most Egyptian necropolises were built on the western bank of the Nile), and then is born again in the east every morning. "Therefore, every solar symbol in ancient Egypt, such as the Eye of Ra, has a strong regenerative power," she says. "Just like Osiris [god of the underworld], Ra is a god related with death, but also with rebirth. The rising and setting of the sun represents one of the two main concepts of time of ancient Egypt: cyclical time. Osiris represents eternity (just like a mummy or a pyramid: something that is extra-temporal and that endures), whilst Ra represents continuity and repetition."
2. Neith: The Goddess of War and Weaving
Neith was the patroness of the city of Sais and according to some accounts, was considered the creator of the world and the mother of Ra (which made her the mother of all the gods). On the flip side, she's also said to have been the creator of Ra's arch nemesis, the great serpent, Apep.
"The importance of Neith is usually underrated in modern Egyptology because her roles as a creator and maternal (yet virgin!) goddess were supplanted by Isis in later times," Almansa-Villatoro says. "She is one of the oldest goddesses of Egypt, appearing in the earliest records with the symbol of two bounded bows."
Neith's signature emblem is a pair of crossed arrows shown against the background of a leather shield, and she's also sometimes represented by an image of a bow case, which she is occasionally depicted as wearing on her head in place of a crown (when she's not rocking the red crown associated with Lower Egypt and holding crossed arrows and a bow). "For a long time, her symbols had been confused with the crossed arrows of the archaic Hemusets (very obscure female entities that were very popular in the Early Dynastic times but almost absent later on!), because in later times, Neith adopts the arrows icon," Almansa-Villatoro says. "Thus, weapons and the Red Crown of Egypt are her main attributes."
Almansa-Villatoro says Neith is unique in her defiance of gender norms and stereotypes. "The interesting thing is that violence and power are traditionally associated with men and not women in ancient times," she says. "Neith exhibits a series of attributes that make her appear neutral to gender: She looks like a woman, but she is a warrior/huntress, king, she was the 'father and mother' of Ra, and her name could be written with a phallus sign! Many creator goddesses cross-culturally have warrior, royal and androgynous attributes (e.g., the Phrygian Cybele, Mesopotamian Inanna). The ancient Mediterranean archetype of Mother-Goddess is problematic, especially for Egypt, but Neith certainly fits the model of a powerful, and sometimes androgynous, creator female seen in other cultures, and not always related with motherhood."
3. Anubis: God of Mummification
Often represented as a jackal-headed man (jackals were once associated with death), Anubis was considered the protector of the dead. In addition to guarding graves, however, Anubis was also in charge of weighing the hearts of the deceased and is also considered "the guardian of the scales."
According to legend, he weighed the hearts of the dead against the weight of a feather which represented truth. If the scales tipped in favor of the heart, Anubis unleashed a demon called Ammit to destroy the deceased person, but if scaled tipped toward the feather, Anubis delivered the person to Osiris, the king of the underworld. Osiris would then take that person to heaven.
4. Thoth: The God of Writing, Science, the Moon and More
Often depicted as an ibis, a man with an ibis head, or a baboon, Thoth is the god of writing and wisdom and is said to have invented language and hieroglyphics. He's also credited with possessing knowledge around magic and possessing secrets the other gods weren't privy to.
"As guardian of knowledge, he became associated with secrecy and magic," Almansa-Villatoro says. "Several ancient authors, among which the late period Egyptian historian Manetho, claim that Thoth himself wrote thousands of books that contained the wisdom and knowledge of ancient Egyptians."
Almansa-Villatoro says one Egyptian fictional story in particular, the Demotic tale of Setne-Khamwas (also written as 'Setne-Khamuas') tells how the prince Setne-Khamuas, a son of Ramses II, travels around Egypt searching for the legendary Book of Thoth that grants magic powers for its reader.
"Setne-Khamuas learns of a series of misfortunes that the previous book owner, Neferkaptah, had endured after stealing the book from the place where Thoth had hidden it," she says. "Thus, Khamuas decides to return the book to Neferkaptah's tomb only after he himself begins to experience its curse. The moral of the story is that divine knowledge and power should not be sought by humans!"
5. Horus: The Sky God (and More)
In some versions of the story, Horus was raised to avenge his father's murder and lost his left eye in a fight with Seth. The eye, however, was magically healed by Thoth. Sometimes referred to as "the Avenger," Horus is said to have defeated Seth and claimed the title of pharaoh. All mortal pharaohs after him supposedly considered themselves his descendants.
Horus is a complicated character in the world of Egyptology. Often represented as a man with the head of a falcon, he's taken on different forms and meanings over time.
His most famous role is perhaps his part in the myth surrounding Osiris and his brother Seth.
As legend has it, Seth murdered Osiris out of jealousy, and scattered pieces of his body throughout Egypt. Isis managed to bring her husband back to life and then gave birth to their son, Horus.