Glossary of Goddesses and Gods
Some images of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses show them as if they were humans. Ptah of Memphis, for example, is usually shown as a man wrapped in mummy clothes, his hands outside the wrappings, grasping scepters. But other gods, such as Horus, Thoth and Sakhmet, are usually shown with a human body and the head of a bird or an animal. Egyptian gods can also appear in purely animal form, as Horus can be shown as a hawk.
From the earliest times in Egypt, some deities were honoured or worshipped in the form of animals.
In the distant past, particular animals may have been chosen to embody, to stand for, the powers of a god. A bull represented power, aggression, masculinity, fertility; these could be the attributes of kingship. A hawk, who soars high above the world of humans, seeming to expend no energy in his long hours aloft, and who - far seeing, -can swoop in an instant to capture his prey in sharp talons, became a symbol of kingship. The cow's large eyes with long lashes, and her generally quiet demeanor suggested a gentle aspect of feminine beauty. Her gift of milk, which could sustain a human child, became of symbol of love and sustenance. The following section contains a survey of the more important animal manifestations of divine power.
Amun is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, but was not a prominent god during the Age of the Pyramids. His name means 'the hidden one' and he was a god of the atmosphere. Later in Egyptian history, he would become the main god of the empire.
Anty was a hawk god of Upper Egypt. He is shown as a hawk sitting on a crescent moon, or in a boat. He became associated with other hawk-gods, such as Sokar. King Merenre's birth name, Anty-em-saf acknowledges ties between his mother's family and the areas where Anty was a major deity. Anty's name, which refers to his sharp claws, can also be read as Nemty.
This jackal-headed god looked after the dead, and was in charge of the important task of mummification. Anubis can appear as either a black canine with long sharp ears, or as a man with a canine head. The black colour of Anubis is not natural to jackals or to the wild dogs of Egypt; it may refer to the discoloration of a body after death and during mummification. The black colour also refers to the rich dark soil of Egypt, from which new growth came every year; in similar manner, the dead would come to new life after burial. Dogs, as animal companions, were present in Egypt from the very beginning. Sometimes dogs were buried with their masters. It may have given the Egyptians comfort to think of such an animal as guarding the cemeteries, protecting the dead.
Self-created creator of the Universe. Alone in Nun (nothingness) he created Shu and Tefnut, air and moisture. His name means 'the complete one.' Atum is usually shown as a king. He can symbolize the setting sun.
Babi is a deity shown in Baboon form, and it's from his name that we get our word for these animals. Babi is ferocious, even blood-thirsty, unlike the usually calm and reasonable Thoth who also appears as a baboon.
Cats are very useful animals in a country that depends on grain. The cat's hunting instincts were honoured by the Ancient Egyptians, but so was the cat's gentler side as a warm and loving mother to her kittens. Bastet can be shown as a woman with a feline head. There are disagreements among zoologists as to when these animals first began to live with humans along the Nile, and about which feline became the Egyptian pet. Cats do not appear as household pets during the Age of the Pyramids, though they were very popular animal companions in later times. From about three thousand, two hundred years ago, there are cartoon-like images of cats and mice engaged in human activities; unfortunately we do not know the stories for these illustrations.
Ancient goddess shown with the horns of a buffalo or cow. Her face appears on the Narmer palette, showing an early association with kingship. Her character and powers were absorbed by Hathor.
God of Earth, grandson of Atum, husband of Nut. He is often shown as a man reclining on the earth under a starry sky. The goose is his sacred animal.
God of the annual Nile flood, the Inundation. Shown as a human man with a crown of plants, and heavy pendulous breasts and a paunch, he symbolized abundance and fertility.
Hathor as the royal goddess. Her name means 'House of Horus." Her image could take the form of a cow, a woman with a cow's head, or a woman wearing the horns of a cow. As a motherly cow, she gave the king her divine milk, and protected him as a cow protects her calf. She was the goddess of love, music, singing, and dance. She was one of the most important deities in the Age of the Pyramids, and her popularity continued to the end of Egyptian civilization. In the early economy of Egypt, cows were wealth. A herd of cattle was a beautiful sight because it represented wealth in the form of food, milk, hides, and work, as oxen pulled the ploughs of farmers. Cattle dung was a valuable fertilizer and had many uses in building.
The Egyptians admired many qualities in cows, besides their economic benefits. The cow's careful tending of her calf was a model for motherhood. In a time when many women died in childbirth, the ability of cow's milk to sustain a human baby was deeply appreciated. Cows, like people, love music and will happily listen to a human singing, thus it made sense for Hathor to be goddess of music. The big, gentle brown eyes of cows set a standard for beauty; there are still cultures in the world where to say that a girl is as pretty as a heifer is a great compliment.
Frog-headed goddess of childbirth. Frogs, who produce vast numbers of tadpoles, were popular as amulets to ensure fertility.
Shown as a kneeling man grasping two palm ribs, Heh is the personification of eternity. His image was popular as an amulet, wishing the wearer 'millions of years.'
This god is shown as a falcon, or as a man with the head of a falcon. In Egyptian, his name is Her - the distant one. Like the good king who sees everything in his kingdom, the hawk is noted for his sharp vision. The sudden stoop of the hawk, as he leaves the distant sky to attack and capture his prey, is like the quick and decisive action of a king in defense of his country.
Horus is one of the oldest gods of the Egyptians. In the days when powerful leaders were fighting to make one nation out of smaller settlements, the early rulers were called Followers of Horus. On the Narmer palette, the King is shown with a falcon whose one human arm holds a rope that passes through the nose of a defeated rival. The earliest way of distinguishing the name of a king from the names of others was the serekh, which was a rectangle representing the palace of the king, with a hawk on the top.
Originally, there were at least two gods called Horus. One is the fifth child of Nut and Geb, Horus the Elder, and the other is the son of Isis and Osiris. Over time, their stories and attributes came together. An old story tells of how Osiris, king of Egypt, was murdered by his brother, Seth. Seth was very strong and powerful. He took over the country, and ruled well. Isis, the wife of Osiris, hid the child she had born, and raised him in secret. When Horus grew up, he claimed his father's throne. Seth and Horus struggled for the kingship, but in the end Horus' claim, as son of the previous king, was recognized by a court of all the gods, and Horus became king.
In Ancient Egypt, each king was Horus. When a king died, Egyptians said that the falcon had flown to Heaven and united with the Sun Disk. The next king then became Horus. Like the Hawk, the king was a fighter, a warrior. This is why Horus, when shown as a hawk-headed man, wears an armored breast-plate.
Sister and wife of Osiris, mother of Horus. Isis is the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, called Soped by the ancient Egyptians. This star disappears behind the sun for seventy days, then reappears to announce the annual Nile flood. Isis was thus identified with the waters of the Inundation that bring dry, dead land back to life. When her husband, king Osiris, was murdered, she found his decomposing body, bound it together with linen strips, and used her magic to bring him back to life in a limited way. Isis' name in Egyptian is Ast which refers to the throne of the king, which she personifies.
Besides performing the first mummification, Isis was known for her ferocious dedication to her son, Horus. She upheld his right to rule Egypt against the claims of her powerful brother, Seth or Sutekh. With determination, cunning, and a little magic, she was able to ensure that her son succeeded to the throne of his father. The story of Isis and Osiris, a love story, a story of triumph over death, and the victory of good and right over brute force, became the most popular of Egyptian myths. Thousands of years after the last pyramids were built, Cleopatra VII, the last great queen of Egypt, identified herself with Isis, devoted wife and mother. The cult of Isis survived the annexation of Egypt by the Roman empire, and remained a powerful religion until the rise of Christianity and Islam.
The full name of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, was Khnum-khufu - the god Khnum protects him. Khnum, as god of the Nile cataract, controlled the annual inundation of Egypt. He is shown as a man with the head of a ram, or as a ram. He creates human life by moulding each of us on a potter's wheel. His role as creator may reflect the procreative power and strength of the ram.
Goddess of order, truth, justice, and balance. As the daughter of Atum or Re, she was one of the first forces in the created universe, and helped to bring order out of chaos. Each Egyptian king was duty bound to honour and promote order and justice.
Male fertility god and protector of the mines in the Eastern desert. He is one of the oldest attested Egyptian gods. He is shown as an ithyphallic man with a crown of two plumes, his right arm raised to support the royal flagellum.
Goddess of the North of Egypt, protector of the king. One of the oldest attested Egyptian deities; her characteristic headgear became the 'red crown' of the kings of Egypt. From the dawn of history in Egypt, powerful women formed their names with hers: Neith-hotep (Neith is content) was the wife of Aha, first king of the First Dynasty; the wife of King Djet, and mother of King Den was named Meret-Neith (beloved of Neith). Neith may have been originally a goddess of hunting, but warfare was also in her sphere. She was a goddess of the living world, of power and politics. Her emblem appears to be two arrows crossed behind a shield. In early examples, though, the shield can clearly be seen to be two elaterid or 'click' beetles, end to end, with arrows crossed behind them. Long after the Pyramid Age, a story was written crediting her with the creation of the universe.
Vulture-goddess of Upper Egypt. Nekhbet is a mother goddess who protects the king. She represents the White Crown of Upper Egypt, which she sometimes wears. By the Fifth Dynasty, she became associated with royal women; the king's great royal wife wears a vulture headdress.
Daughter of Nut and Geb, sister of Isis, Osiris and Seth. She joined Isis in her search for the body of Osiris, and mourned over his corpse with her. Her name means owner of the palace; she represents the palace itself. A late legend makes her the mother of Anubis.
The personification of the sky. Nut is honoured as a mother goddess. She was the wife of Geb, and daughter of Shu and Tefnut. her five children are Osiris and Isis, Nephthys and Seth, and Horus the Elder.
God of the Dead. Osiris is almost always depicted as a man wrapped in mummy-cloths, his hands protruding from the wrappings to grasp scepters, and a crown on his head. His face can be green, black, or gold. He is a god of agriculture, for his death and resurrection are like those of a seed, cast in to the dark earth, motionless. New life breaks through its husk to push its way to the surface of the earth as a green shoot. Osiris came to prominence in the Fifth Dynasty. He became one of the most important of Egyptian gods because he symbolized the triumph of life over death. (For his story, see Horus and Isis.)
In early times, the dead King was associated with Osiris, but in later times in Egypt, every person could join Osiris in the Afterlife, where he ruled as King of the Underworld. He judged the dead, and let no evil person enjoy the pleasures of eternal life. Ptah: Ancient creator-god of Memphis. Ptah is shown as a man wearing a skull-cap, dressed in a tight-fitting robe that may be mummy-wrappings. His hands protrude from the wrappings to grasp scepters. He was the patron of craftsmen.
The name of this goddess means the powerful one. She was the daughter of the sun-god, Re, and the wife of Ptah. She is shown with the head of a lioness and the body of a woman, suggesting her great force and power, and her sometimes dangerous nature. She could both bring plagues and protect people from them. In the Age of the Pyramids, Sakhmet was sometimes shown embracing the king, breathing divine life into his nostrils.
God of the desert, storm, and chaos. Seth is a strong god whose angry power is part of kingship. Later legends stress his murder of his brother Osiris and his struggle with his nephew Horus over who should be king. The ancient Egyptians believed that both the forces of Law and Order, represented by Horus, and the power of chaos symbolized by Seth, were necessary for kingship. Another way of spelling the name of this god is Sutekh.
Shown as a crocodile or a man with crocodile head, Sobek symbolized swift action and violence, and in these aspects could be a god of kingship. He was the son of Neith. Lakes, riverbanks, and swamps were his particular haunts. Ancient Egyptians travelled the Nile for trade, fished in it, and used its waters to irrigate their fields. The crocodiles who lived in the water were a constant presence and danger.
Goddess of moisture. Daughter of Atum, wife of Shu. She is one of the goddesses who can be called The Eye of Re. She can be shown as a woman with the head of a lion.
A moon god, who was also the god of scribes and writing. As god of scribes, he is associated with justice and truth, and with conciliation. As god of wisdom, he inspired scribes and priests, and presided over sacred, secret, knowledge. His name in Ancient Egyptian may have sounded something like Djehuty. He can be shown as a man with the head of an Ibis. The powerful wings of this bird could carry a king over the celestial river into the Afterlife. Thoth usually wears a crescent moon, supporting a full moon-disk on his head. Perhaps the long beak of the Ibis reminded the Egyptians of the crescent moon, and it's white and black feathers made them think of the patterns on the moon. Two animals were especially sacred to Thoth: the Ibis, and the Baboon. A baboon, sitting up straight, can be an image of Thoth. In the Story of the Eye of Re, Thoth transformed himself into a baboon to follow an angry goddess into Nubia, and told her stories until she returned to Egypt.
Cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. She is one of the king's protectors. It is she who rears up over his brow on the royal crowns and headdresses. As the Uraeus, (iaret Thursday, January 13, 2000 in Egyptian) she has the power to blast the enemies of the king.