Ancient Egyptian civilization was incredibly complex. Over the centuries, hundreds of different gods and goddesses were worshipped in Egypt, with many rising and falling in popularity. Like all good mythologies, many of these gods were shrouded in legend. Tales of conflict, deception and love were used to fuel their worship. Some of the country’s most well-known pharaohs also cultivated an almost god-like status, further complicating matters! Many of Egypt’s most popular sites today were first built to honour some of these gods. The temple of Kom Ombo for example, and Edfu. In this article, we’ll introduce you to some of Ancient Egypt’s most important gods and goddesses. So whether you’ve already booked your trip to Egypt, or you’re thinking about visiting in the future, arm yourself with some knowledge of Egyptian mythology and one of the world’s most famous civilizations. A word of warning, things can get complicated in places!
We’ll start with the characters in the myth of Osiris, one of Ancient Egypt’s most enduring legends.
Osiris, God of the Underworld, symbolized death and resurrection in Ancient Egypt. It was he who was responsible for the cyclical annual flooding of the Nile, which was so crucial to agriculture and the survival of the Egyptian civilization. According to one of the most important stories in Egyptian mythology, Osiris, King of Egypt was brutally murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother, Set. Set scattered the pieces of Osiris across Egypt and became king himself. But the mourning wife and sister of Osiris, Isis, set about gathering the pieces of her husband and resurrected him. This allowed the couple to have a son, Horus. This task fulfilled, Osiris returned permanently to the Underworld. Osiris was most often depicted as a mummified king with green skin, an example of the death he represented.
Goddess of the Moon, protector of women and children, healer of the sick, Isis was the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. Her legend eventually found its way to Greece, where temples still stand in devotion to her. Having resurrected her dead husband, Isis helped her son to avenge his murder in his battle against Set. She endured as the most important goddess in Ancient Egypt until the end of the civilization. The Temple of Philae in Aswan was built in her honour. It was famously relocated from its original location in the 1970s, to protect it from flooding caused by the Aswan High Dam.
I did warn you things would get complicated, and Horus is an example of this. There are six variations of the god known to have existed in Egyptian mythology. The most famous is the description mentioned above, Horus as a son of Osiris and Isis. Depicted as a falcon-headed man and worshipped as the God of the Sky and War, he would eventually avenge his father against his uncle Set, becoming king of Egypt himself. It was during this conflict that Horus lost his eye – you have probably heard of The Eye of Horus. In another important variation, Horus is merged with Ra (more on him later!) to create Ra-Horakhty. This is an example of how the Egyptian gods were not simple deities. Over centuries the stories changed and many gods and goddesses merged into each other.
The final character in the Osiris myth, Set is the villain in our story. He murdered his brother out of jealousy and then tried to destroy his own nephew. Set was the God of Chaos, Violence, Deserts and Storms. Fittingly, archaeologists have been unable to work out what creature Set was depicted as. He is usually shown with long, square ears and a long snout. It is a face like no creature known to walk the Earth during Egyptian times or since. Perfectly chaotic!
Now for some information about other Egyptian gods and goddesses!
Sobek’s reputation as a fierce god was somewhat reinforced by his depiction as a crocodile-headed man. Honoured alongside Horus at the Nile-side temple of Kom Ombo, Sobek was said to have created the mighty river from his sweat, when helping Ra to create the world. Egyptians mummified crocodiles in honour of Sobek. You can still see many of these at Kom Ombo’s Crocodile Museum. As a bonus, there are plenty of living crocodiles to spot along this stretch of the Nile, too!
Arguably Ancient Egypt’s most important god, Ra was the Creator God. He was one of the first to emerge in Egyptian mythology. Ra created Earth, Heaven and the Underworld, as well as all of the gods and living creatures that inhabit these three worlds. Many ancient Egyptians believed they were born from Ra’s sweat and tears! Ra sailed across the sky during the day, carrying the sun, and then spent the nights travelling through the Underworld before helping to bring the sun up again the next morning. Many of Egypt’s pharaohs tried to convince their subjects that they were the personification of Ra on Earth, creating vast sun temples. One of these was in the ancient city of Heliopolis. A single obelisk remains here in modern day Cairo, aged more than 4,000 years.
Ptah was the most important of the three gods known as the Triad of Memphis, along with his lion-headed wife Sekhmet and son Nefertum. Memphis was an ancient Egyptian city, 20km south of modern day Cairo. Ptah was originally worshipped as a God of Craftsmen and Builders. In some variations, however, he is also a God of Darkness. During the bi-annual Abu Simbel Sun Festival, the statue of Ptah is the only one of four to remain in darkness as the sun illuminates the interior of the temple to mark the birthday and ascension date of King Ramses II.
Often depicted as a cow, or a woman with the head of a cow, Hathor was the Goddess of Motherhood and Fertility. She was worshipped passionately by women, and it was believed that she would keep them safe during childbirth. Over time, her myth fell in popularity, as Isis became a more important figure in society. But she remained relevant until the fall of Egyptian civilization. The temple complex of Dendera is home to the most famous Temple of Hathor.
Anubis is one of the most recognizable figures in Egyptian mythology. The god had the striking black head of a jackal and was most often associated with death and the afterlife. A protector of graves, his legend is distinctive by its lack of temples or other structures. Instead, tombs and mastabas of the dead were seen as Anubis’ places of worship.
Amon rose to importance in the New Kingdom when he received credit for a military victory for the rulers of Thebes (Luxor) against foreign invaders. Before this, he was a modestly worshipped God of the Air. After the victory however, his legend merged with the Sun God Re (we don’t have time to discuss him today!) and he became the most important deity in Egypt for several hundred years. One of the largest temple complexes at Karnak is dedicated to mighty Amon-Re.
Geb was the God of the Earth and the Father of Snakes. He was also the father of Osiris and Isis (yes they were related!), as well as Set. Depicted with a goose on his head, it was believed that the laugh of this important deity would cause earthquakes to ripple across the world.
Wife to Geb and often depicted alongside him, Nut was the mother of Osiris, Isis, and Set, and is known as the Goddess of the Sky. She is often portrayed as a woman with an arched body of stars, protecting her husband Geb from the night sky. No temple has been discovered that was specifically dedicated to Nut or her husband Geb, but they are both depicted in many surviving examples of Egyptian archaeology. For example, at Dendera, the ceiling of the Great Vestibule is a tribute to Nut.
Got your head around all that?
Egyptian mythology is undeniably complex. Many gods and goddesses rose and fell in popularity over the centuries. Others morphed into new variations. But regardless of this complexity, many of Egypt’s main attractions today were built in honour of some of the gods and goddesses introduced in this article. If you join us on tour in Egypt then our expert Egyptologist guides will be able to give you a far greater insight into Ancient Egyptian civilization. But at least now you can impress them with some of your knowledge!
Hopefully, this article will also help you to understand more of the intricate carvings, hieroglyphs, and artworks at some of Egypt’s temples and other archeological sites. The gods and goddesses referenced here, as well as plenty we haven’t mentioned in this article adorn the walls and columns of Karnak, Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo, and countless other attractions. Stories such as the myth of Osiris are told on the walls, and your guide will be able to distinguish between the characters, even if you cannot!
Why not browse our range of Egypt tours for yourself? We take in all the main sites, including the majority of temples and attractions featured in this article!