25 May 2007

The Gods of Egypt

I’ve bitten off a chunk today as I begin a brief study on the Egyptian pantheon.

The Old Kingdom had it’s fair share of gods who occupied levels within levels of deity – the vast majority of them concerned with the afterlife, which was a vastly complicated realm.

However, the pantheon was also split into geographical regions, with different cities worshipping different sets of gods. Each mini-pantheon included a creator deity at the head with various other gods as back-up singers. Gods of destruction and death, gods for sickness, for fertility, for agriculture. Plenty of gods related to water and the Nile.

There’s no possible way I could take on all the different sets of gods in one blog post. In fact, Egyptian mythology twisted in on itself as time went on and by the time of the New Kingdom (about a dozen dynasties after the Old Kingdom), many gods had found common identities and shifted their names accordingly.

Let’s take, for instance, Ra. Or Re (don’t even get me started on trying to work out the different spellings. Let’s just say that hieroglyphics are phonetically and linguistically…fluid). Ra was an important figure in Egyptian mythology because he was the god of Sun. This being Egypt, the Sun was a big part of their lives. Legend says that the Egyptians were created from Ra’s sweat and they called themselves the Cattle of Ra.

In the Old Kingdom – by the way, when I say Old Kingdom, I mean 3rd millennium BC – Ra, the god of Sun, was It. All other gods had some relationship with Ra in his forms as morning sun, mid-day sun and evening sun. But there were other powerful gods, such as
Amun: chief creator god of the pantheon in Thebes
Atum: creator and sun god of the pantheon in Heliopolis
Horus: god of the sky, portrayed with the head of a falcon

By the time of the New Kingdom – 11th-16th centuries BC – Egypt was less a conglomeration of city-states and becoming a united country. Therefore, they had to adjust some of their religious beliefs to accommodate that unification.

Ra, therefore, became joined with other gods, creating the deities of Amun-Ra, Atum-Ra and Ra-Herakhty (a Horus-Ra combination).

Ra was also at the basis of Ancient Egypt’s sole brief bout of monotheism. During the reign of Amenhotep IV, the pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten to honor the god, Aten. But Aten wasn’t so much a god as he was the Sun himself. Aten’s full title was “The Rahorus who rejoices in the horizon, in his/her Name of the Light which is seen in the sun disc.” Which is kind of a mouthful, so I’m glad they settled on just plain Aten.

Worship of Aten, however, faded away when Akhenaten died. So much for state-sponsored religion.

The cult of Ra, in one form or another, was a constant throughout Ancient Egypt and his power spread from the journey of the sun to the Underworld.

This blog post has become sufficiently lengthy and we’ve only touched on one aspect of the Egyptian pantheon. Next time, I’ll blog more about Egypt and their relationship with Death.
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