The gods of Ancient Egypt are a fascinating and often complex subject featuring nearly 2000 recorded deities. Many gods overlap at various points in aspect, role, and even identity. The cities of Memphis (South) and Thebes (North) also had gods they favored. Read on to learn more about pivotal gods of Egypt, their portrayal, and responsibilities they held.
Taweret the hippopotamus goddess guided Ancient Egyptians in fertility, childbirth, and the protection of children. She was a popular deity central to the concept of regeneration. Taweret was featured on many decorative household items found by modern archeologists such as plates, bowls, and family keepsakes. Her consort was the dwarf god Bes, the god of fertility, humor and sexuality.
Bastet became the popular goddess of cats but was initially important warding against evil and misfortune at home. She was a daughter of Ra, closely linked to Hathor and Sekhmet in aspect and responsibility whose role changed over time. Recent excavations at Giza have found tombs full of mummified cats filled with offerings to Bastet.
The crocodile god Sobek held responsibility for the Nile River – it was told in hieroglyphs that the great river flowed as Sobek’s sweat. He also held sway regarding aspects of medicine, surgery, and unexpected death. In the Middle Kingdom period Sobek fused with Horus to be a protector of pharaohs. His temples held live crocodiles that were often mummified after they died.
Hathor and Isis (see below) shared similar roles – including in responsibility and how they were depicted – but at different phases of Ancient Egyptian civilization. Hathor was primarily an Old Kingdom goddess; a daughter of Ra, consort of Horus, lady of the sky, and protector goddess to pharaohs. She is the patron of joy, celebration, and love. The sistrum, a musical percussion, was the instrument which she used to drive evil from the land and inspire goodness. She was instrumental in helping people transition towards the afterlife, helping Ra in battle during his barge journey to the underworld.
Anubis was the lord of the underworld in early Ancient Egypt but was replaced by Osiris. His role changed to take on embalming, dressing the dead, and helping those being judged in the Hall of Truth and weighing of the “heart of the soul”. Anubis bears the head of a canine, believed to be a jackal or African Wolf and was usually colored black for his role in regeneration and rebirth connected to the back soil of the Nile.
Thoth was god of integrity, truth, writing and wisdom, often bearing the head of an Ibis on a man’s body. Thoth invented hieroglyphs and acted as record keeper for the gods. He stood next to Osiris in the Hall of Truth and witnessed the birth of the five first gods (Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Set and Horus the Elder). Thoth was involved in many different storylines across the entirety of Ancient Egypt but was commonly connected to Ma’at (as consort) and Seshat (as father). 18th Dynasty King Horemheb saw Thoth as his personal deity because he was a scribe and administrator before becoming pharaoh.
The warrior goddess Sekhmet had the head of a lioness and was clad in blood red. She was the goddess of destruction and pestilence, whom her father Ra sent out to punish humans when he deemed it necessary to hold them to account. In keeping with the Egyptian theme of balance (ma’at) Sekhmet could also cure plagues and stop the hazardous desert winds. She helped protect pharaohs and accompanied them to the afterlife. Hieroglyphs and statues of Sekhmet featured the sun disc above her head, while she held the ankh that symbolizes life.
Ptah was venerated as the Egyptian god of construction, builders, and craftsmen who was also lead god of the city of Memphis (Cairo). Ptah is the husband of Sekhmet and father of Nefertum forming the “Memphite Triad” central to worship in the northern capital. Ptah also moves through the histories in different aspects being linked to fertility god Bes and creator Amun. The vizier Imhotep who built the King Djoser’s Step Pyramid in the 4th Dynasty was later named a god and son of Ptah.
8. The Theban Triad: Amun, Mut, and Khons
The city of Thebes in southern Egypt, just like Memphis to the north, had local deities they worshipped above others. The Theban Triad (or Royal Ka) consisted of Amun, his wife Mut, and son Khons (god of the Moon). The Triad was central to daily life in Thebes and the focus of the festival of Opet, in which they moved from their own temple at Karnak to the Luxor Temple for a period of 24 days celebration. Amun then became a unifying national god after helping quell the rebellion of the Hyksos and merged with Ra to form Amun-Ra (see below).
Ma’at was the goddess of harmony, balance, justice and truth. She guided Egyptian pharaohs to rule wisely and people to live according to her laws of balance and harmony. She was often depicted as a crowned woman with an ostrich feather in her hair. Ma’at regulated seasons, was responsible for the stars and moon and for making order out of chaos. When an Egyptian died, they were delivered to the Hall of Truth where Ma’at would weigh their heart against a feather. If the heart and feather balanced the dead person could be welcomed by Osiris in the underworld.
Seth was the god of chaos, destruction, storms and trickery, akin to the devil in Christianity or Loki in Norse religion, with his role providing balance in ma’at. In latter Egypt, Seth is the nemesis in the “Myth of Osiris” – he kills and dismembers his brother to take the throne, then battles his nephew Horus (who sought revenge) across 80 years to keep it. Their struggles are important to folklore shaping their story and that of other deities.
Nephthys held many responsibilities including goddess of night, mourning, childbirth, rivers, and the home. In art Nephthys is often displayed as a woman with the headdress of a house on top of her head. She is considered the dark aspect to balance her twin sister Isis as part of ma’at. Nephthys was the consort of Set and the mother of Anubis. In the “Myth of Osiris” Nephthys gathered the pieces of Osiris hacked up by Seth and gave them to Isis, then helped nurse the infant god Horus.
Osiris was the great ruler of the underworld, god and judge of the dead. He was commonly represented as a mummy wearing Atef crown, pharaoh’s beard, and holding the symbolic crook and flail across his chest. Osiris was also the lord of fertility, resurrection, agriculture and alcohol, with his relationship to the all-important crops wheat and barley underpinning this role. In the “Myth of Osiris,” he was the husband of Isis who was chopped to pieces by his brother Set before being resurrected, conceiving Horus and taking control of the underworld.
Isis was the powerful goddess known as the “Mother of Gods” who symbolically protected each pharaoh but also helped guide everyday people into the afterlife. In Ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom Isis took on powers from Hathor as her popularity grew. She was the sister-wife of Osiris that resurrected him, created and protected their son Horus. Isis was most often portrayed as a human woman, her headdress a sun disc flanked by bovine horns. Isis became one of the most popular goddesses of Egypt – her worship spread as far as Greece and Rome – and at one stage her cult rivalled Christianity for popularity.
There are two versions of Horus despite being represented in the same fashion. Horus the Elder was god of kings and the sky and brother to Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. Horus the Younger in the Myth of Osiris was the son of Isis and Osiris, who fought his uncle Set for vengeance and control of Egypt. Horus is one of the most recognizable gods of Egypt, being shown with a falcon’s head on a human body. Each pharaoh considered themselves the living representation of Horus.
Ra was the ancient god of Heliopolis that represented sun and light, while Amun was the “Hidden One” who created the entire world. Amun was represented in the southern capital Thebes. As the gods of Egypt developed, they were combined during the New Kingdom to form Amun-Ra (or Amun-Re), the greatest god of Egypt, who brought sun, light, and creation daily to the entire world. Amun-Ra was the chief protector of the pharaoh that embodied him in the flesh as often literal living gods.