Egyptian Sun-god: Who Is Ra?

The sun god Ra was ancient Egypt’s most revered and sacred deity, who they worshipped as king of the gods and father of creation.

Oct 18, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

who is egyptian sun god ra


The almighty sun god Ra (or Re) was an enduring deity in the pantheon of ancient Egypt, who remains a subject of fascination amongst scholars today. King of the deities and father of creation, he was the most sacred of all the gods, a solar deity who embodied the sheer power of the sun and gave life to the universe. As such, he symbolized the great reverence ancient Egyptians had for the sun as an agricultural society in the desert whose lives revolved around growth and regeneration.


One of oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon, Ra’s human form typically had the head of a falcon, on which the sun disc rested, sometimes encircled by a sacred cobra named Uraeus. However, the sun god Ra took a variety of other forms including a scarab beetle, a ram, a man, and even the sun itself, throughout the evolution of ancient Egyptian civilization


Ra Spawned All Life

ra isis horus painting solar disc barque
Gods adoring Ra on his Solar Barque, New Kingdom (ca. 1550-ca. 1077 BCE). Source: The Theban Mapping Project


According to many Egyptian myths, sun god Ra was responsible for the creation of all life. Out of eternal darkness, an entity called Atum called forth the beginning of creation. An island slowly emerged out of the Primeval Ocean, which turned into Ra, the sun god. Ra spawned the first gods, Shu, god of the air, Tefnut, god of humidity, along with Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess. Geb and Nut birthed Osiris, the Perfect Being, who became ruler of the world. Ra created the elements, and produced humans from the tears of his eyes. As creator of the universe, Ra became father and king to all gods, humans and living creatures.


Ra Journeyed Through the Sky

great cat heliopolis
“The great cat of Heliopolis” killing the enemy of the sun, Apophis, Tomb of Inherkhau no. 359, Thebes


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Egyptians believed that it was Ra’s duty to travel across the sky every day, bringing light and life to the world. As the sun set, Ra would descend into the underworld, where he battled against forces of darkness, including the evil serpent Apopis, in order to ensure the sun could rise again in the morning. Egyptians likened this daily pattern of light and darkness to the entire cycle of life, in which humans live, die and rise again in the afterlife. 


He Punished Mankind

sekhmet great harris payprus
Ramesess III in front of Ptah, Sekhmet, and Nefertum, from the Great Harris Papyrus, 1150 BCE. Source: The British Museum


In one of Ra’s originary myths, he discovered that mankind was plotting to overthrow him. When Ra saw how destructive and disobedient mankind had become, he sent his eye in the form of Hathor, (or Sekhmet), to dish out a harsh punishment. She took the form of a lioness and raged across the earth on a killing spree, almost wiping out the entire human race. Ra was forced to intervene, tricking the goddess into getting drunk so she could no longer inflict harm. In this way Ra first introduced death to the world, asserting his almighty power over the people. 


The Eye of Ra

The Eye of Ra symbol
The Eye of Ra symbol


Not to be confused with Ra himself, the eye of Ra was the god’s feminine counterpart, sometimes described as his daughter, wife, or mother. The eye was a potent extension of Ra’s power which was associated with several different goddesses including Bastet, Ma’at, and Sekhmet, each of whom had a protective role in keeping Ra safe from external evil forces. It was their role to preserve his royal authority, sometimes through violent means. 


He Had a Secret Name

papyrus new kingdom god ra horakhty djed
Figures adoring Ra-Horakhty, New Kingdom (ca. 1292-1189 BCE). Source: The British Museum


Legend had it Ra held a secret name within him that held the key to his power. In one myth, Isis, goddess of magic, healing and motherhood, tricked Ra into revealing his name by making him so ill from a venomous snake bite, that he had no choice but to surrender it. He thus giving away a core part of himself to her. Isis used Ra’s power to protect her son Horus, and eventually transferred the power to Horus so he could take up the throne following Ra’s retirement. While Isis ensured her son’s future, she also made enemies out of Ra’s most devoted followers.


He Later Merged with Other Gods

funerary stela Re Harakhty sun god
Funerary stela with Re-Harakhty, a sun god, via Oriental Institute, University of Chicago


In later mythologies Ra was merged with several other deities to assume different forms and attributes. When merged with Amun, an unknowable creator deity, Ra became Amun-Ra, radiating the primal power of the sun. In his associations with Horus, the god of the sky, Ra became Ra-Horakhty, sometimes known as “Ra Horus in the horizon.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.