Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
About 1500 gods and goddesses were worshipped across ancient Egypt over its 3,000-year history. Some deities had small followings, localized in time or place, while many were widely worshipped across the lands and ages. Here are a few of the greatest.
Ra (sometime spelled Re or Rah) is the creator of the world, god of the sun, and father of the gods. Ra has the head of a falcon and wears a sun disc headdress. During the day, Ra travels across the sky in his solar boat; by night he crosses the darkness of the underworld.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that the spirit of a person who died traveled with Ra into the afterlife (thus a boat or model of a boat was put in every tomb). Ra and his descendents were thought to be the first kings of Egypt. All pharaohs called themselves sons of Ra.
In the underworld, the dead would answer to Osiris and 42 judges on the value of their lives, then their hearts would be placed on a scale and measured against Ma’at’s feather of truth. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the dead person would pass on to heaven. If it was heavier than the feather of Ma’at, they would be eaten by a terrible beast, Ammut the Devourer. Judges wore amulets of Ma’at and pharaohs took the title, “Beloved of Ma’at” to show their love of truth and justice.
Osiris was originally a king on earth, the god of nature and protector of crops who ruled with his sister-wife, Isis. He is the son of Earth and Sky, brother of Seth and Nephthys, father of Horus and Anubis. He has a human face and carries a crook and flail, symbols of a pharaoh’s rule.
After Seth killed Osiris (twice), Osiris became the ruler of the underworld, god of the dead, and the very first mummy of Ancient Egypt. (His body was embalmed by Isis and Anubis.)
The dead meet with Osiris and 42 judges in the underworld. The afterlife was central to Ancient Egyptian religion: God of the Dead had no evil connotations. Osiris was widely worshipped.
Isis is a queen of gods, protector of motherhood, and goddess of domestic crafts. She is the daughter of Earth and Sky, wife of Osiris, sister of Seth and Nephthys, mother of Horus. Pharaohs called themselves sons of Isis.
Isis became more widely worshipped than any other Ancient Egyptian deity. She was a goddess of the people, the ideal wife and mother, a protector of slaves and rulers alike. Temples were devoted to her from Iraq to England, with some lasting right through to the 6th century AD.
The temple of Isis at Philae reads: “Mighty one, foremost of the goddesses, Ruler in heaven, Queen on earth… All the gods are under her command.”
After Seth killed Osiris (twice), he tried several times to kill Horus, who took his father’s place as king on Earth. Isis protected Horus in his infancy. Once grown, Horus had many battles with Seth but in the end Horus won, Seth was banished, and Horus became King.
Eventually Horus passed on his divine kingdom to humans. The Ancient Egyptians believed that when a pharaoh sat on his throne, the spirit of Horus entered him and thus the pharaoh became a god on earth.
Bast was good to humans. She protected people against disease and evil spirits. Ancient Egyptians sometimes held festivals in her honour, and it was said that they drank more wine at her festival than throughout the rest of the whole year.
Bast is a daughter of Ra, one of two cat-headed goddesses of Ancient Egypt. The other, Sekmet, is a warrior goddess with the head of a lion. Bast has the sun’s healing and growing powers; Sekmet has its destructive and scorching powers.
Thoth is an ancient god of wisdom, writing, and inventions. He has the head of an ibis (a water bird) and most often carries writing tools. He is a self-created god through whom Ra speaks. Thoth was widely worshipped for his wisdom across Ancient Egypt into Greco-Roman times. He is the inventor of all science and philosophy, and the mediator between good and evil.
To ensure that balance was maintained in the world, Thoth mended the eye of Horus, which Horus lost in a famous battle with Seth. When the soul of the dead is weighed against the feather of Ma’at at the court of Osiris in the underworld, it is Thoth who checks the balance.
Nephthys is the goddess of funerals. With Isis, she is symbolic of mourning. She has the head of a human. She is the daughter of Earth and Sky, wife of Seth, sister of Isis and Osiris, mother of Anubis.
In some early myths, Nephthys is a dark figure who tricks Osiris into conceiving Anubis and then abandons the child. But later stories portray her as a comforter of the dead and a faithful friend of Isis. Nephthys mourns the death of Osiris and helps Isis collect his limbs (after Seth dismembered him).
Nephthys is a minor deity compared to the rest of her family.
Anubis is the son of Osiris and Nephthys. One story says that he was abandoned by Nephthys at birth and raised by Isis. Anubis helped Isis mummify Osiris after Seth killed him. In stories from the New Kingdom, Osiris then replaced Anubis as the most important god of the dead. Anubis presides over funerals and guides the dead through the underworld, protecting them from Ammut the Devourer.
It is Anubis who places the heart of the dead on the scale at the time of judgement against the feather of Ma’at.
Tawaret is the patron god of women, children, and fertility. She has the head of a hippo, the body of a pregnant woman, the paws of a lion, and the back and tail of a crocodile. All of the animals that make up Tawaret’s form were powerful creatures that lived in the wilds of Ancient Egypt and were thought to fiercely protect their young.
Tawaret is a household goddess. There are no known temples of Tawaret but she was widely worshipped by the people of Ancient Egypt. Pregnant women often carried or wore an amulet in her shape for protection and good health.
Seth is an ancient god of chaos, the desert, and storms. He has the head of an animal, but no one knows what kind of animal it is supposed to be, or even whether it is supposed to represent a real animal or a fantastic creature. Seth was the son of Earth and Sky, brother of Osiris and Isis, husband of Nephthys.
Early stories show Seth as a powerful god of the desert. Later stories show him as an evil god obsessed with plotting against Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Horus was ultimately victorious against Seth, representing the victory of good over evil in the world. In some late stories, Seth and Horus work together or even fuse into one god, Horus-Seth, symbolizing the unity of Egypt’s Upper and Lower Kingdoms.