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Lesson 2 : The Concept of "God" in ancient Egypt
By Jacques Kinnaer


When studying the religion of the ancient Egyptians, we are confronted with a multitude of gods, represented in a variety of ways. In order to understand their mythology, we must first attempt to understand how the ancient Egyptians viewed their gods.

The Egyptians' concept of "god" is not easy to define. There were many gods and goddesses, many of them representing different aspects of life and nature. Hence Osiris was the god of the dead; Hathor was the goddess of love, procreation, wine and music; Isis was the goddess of motherhood, and so on. However, not all gods represented exclusively good aspects of life. Sekhmet, for instance, represented vengeance and disease whereas Seth represented the desert and chaos. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Sekhmet or Seth were viewed solely as bad gods: Seth plays an important part in the protection of the deceased solar god during his journey through the underworld every night.

Despite the multitude of gods, there has been some debate whether or not these seemingly different gods could represent different aspects of the same god. Many gods were associated with the solar-god Re, thus turning them into solar-deities as well and making them share some of the same characteristics. As Egyptian religion evolved, more and more gods were assimilated into each other, while still retaining their individuality. Hence Khonsu and Thot, both lunar deities, could be assimilated into Khonsu-Thot, a lunar god with both Khonsu's and Thot's characteristics while both Khonsu and Thot continued to exist individually. Such "syncretism" makes it difficult to understand the individual characteristics of the different gods.

Gods could also share some characteristics without being explicitly associated with each other. Several important cities would, for instance, promote their own, local god as the creator of the world: Atum in Heliopolis, Ptah in Memphis, Amun in Thebes, … were all credited with having created the world and each of them had their own creation myths.

Basically there were male and female deities. Several deities, however, could be considered as having both genders. Shu, the god of the air, for instance, can sometimes be represented as a man with breasts, whereas the goddess Neith is said to be 2/3 male and 1/3 female but she is always represented as female. Gods with bi-sexual traits were often creator-gods who needed both the male and the female aspects to be able to create the world.

The ancient Egyptians often grouped their gods. The smallest group consisted of two gods, generally composed of a male and a female deity.

More typical were triads, consisting of 3 gods, usually in a father-mother-son relationship. The most popular triads were Osiris-Isis-Horus and Amun-Mut-Khonsu.

An Ogdoad grouped 8 gods, 4 times a couple, each couple representing the male and female aspects of the elements that were present before creation. Unlike other groupings, the Ogdoad consisted of specific gods, which will be discussed in the upcoming article on Creation Myths.

An Ennead normally consisted of 9 gods, but as 9 is 3 times 3 and 3 was viewed as "plural", an Ennead could also be viewed as a gathering of many gods. The most important Ennead was located at Heliopolis, to the northeast of Memphis. Several cities had their own versions of the Ennead of Heliopolis, some headed by the principal god of that city, others just "copies" of it, to which some local gods were added.

The reasons why some gods were grouped together are not always clear. Sometimes, gods in a group have similar or complementing characteristics, as was the case with the Ennead of Heliopolis, for instance where the first 5 gods represented an element of nature (sun, air, moisture, sky and earth). The relationship between Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem, the members of the Memphite triad, however, is not really clear.

One of the most striking features of ancient Egyptian gods is the way they were represented. They could be represented as humans, humans with the heads or other features of animals, as complete animals, as plants or even as objects. Amun, for instance, is usually shown as a man wearing a crown with high feathers, but occasionally is depicted as a man with the head of a ram. Horus, on the other hand, can be represented as a human child, as a man with the head of a falcon or as a falcon. One form of Horus, Horus of Edfu, is often represented as a winged solar disk.
Even more fantastic are gods like Tutu, a winged lion with the head of a man, a crocodile extending from his chest and a snake-shaped tail.

"Two times Horus: the statue in the foreground represents him as a falcon, the relief behind the statue shows him as a man with the head of a falcon"

Strange as such representations might seem at first, they are more indicative of the nature of a god rather than what he looked like. Hence Horus was associated with a falcon, because primarily, he was a god of the heavens. He was also a powerful and strong god, so he wasn't associated with just about any bird, but with the most dangerous bird of prey known to the Egyptians.

Anubis was represented as a man with a dog's head, or as a dog, because dogs were associated with places of burial. He was black because black was the colour of death.

Hathor, usually represented as a female, is sometimes represented as a woman with cow's ears, as a woman with a cow's head or as a cow, because she was the goddess of procreation, fertility and motherhood.
Because we do not always know what characteristics the Egyptians associated with animals, we can not always explain why a particular deity was associated with a particular animal and represented as such. We do not know, for instance, why Thot, the god of wisdom and writing, was associated with an ibis.

The metaphoric association of animals with gods is also apparent in the fact that 'sacred animals' were sometimes kept in temples. These animals were considered as living manifestations of the gods and as such shared in their divinity. When these animals died, they were mummified and buried and the search for another animal to become the living manifestation of that god would begin. In general, only the individual animals that were found appropriate were considered as living manifestations. Thus not every bull in Egypt represented the god Apis and would to be considered sacred.
Similarly, the king himself was considered a living manifestation of the god Horus, the god of kingship. To what extent the king was divine or a god, will be one of the topics examined in this introduction to ancient Egyptian religion.

"Anubis, represented as a man with the head of a black dog in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari".



Religion Lessons Archive - The Concept of "God" in ancient Egypt