The gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt number over two thousand, with deities for every aspect of culture and daily life. The Egyptians turned to divine persona to explain the grand phenomena of their world; they also relied on gods for developing patterns of behavior in family life.
Deities worshipped by ancient Egyptians were often not fixed. They took on or shed characteristics based on the customs and needs of the people at the time. The stories of gods and goddesses span several thousand years, so the meaning of a god in one period is not the same as in another.
A god may start as a simple fertility god, then evolve into one of the most important creator-gods in the ancient Egyptian religion!
The development of deities was a response to geographical patterns as much as social and cultural ones. The Nile River played an integral role in the idolization of their gods and goddesses, with some embodying the river as a source of life. The contrast of the fertile Nile Delta with the harsh deserts beyond reinforced the Egyptian idea of order, which a common theme in stories of gods and goddesses.
The historical significance of ancient Egypt also influenced the deities’ narratives. The unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms consolidated kingly power, leading to their esteemed reverence and adoration, even linking them with divinity.
Deities undeniably played a large role in the culture, history, politics, and religion of ancient Egypt. Undoubtedly, some have had a more lasting impact than others. So, which gods and goddesses are considered the most prolific? Check out this list for the top 15 Egyptian gods and goddesses.
Amun-Ra was considered one of the most powerful gods of ancient Egypt. At the height of his popularity, he was venerated as the god responsible for most aspects of creation. Amun-Ra is the embodiment of two separate gods, Amun and Ra. Amun was the patron deity of the city Thebes, representing air and the sun; Ra was the god of kings.
The two were merged and worshipped as a single deity during the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt, between the 16th and 11th centuries BCE. In symbolizing both the invisible force of the wind and visible power of the sun, Amun-Ra’s reign touched every part of life for the ancient Egyptians. He was considered so powerful, at one point his worship bordered on monotheism.
Depicted with the body of a man and head of a dog or jackal, Anubis was the god of the dead. He was also associated with embalming, as he aided the preparation for the dead’s journey to the afterlife. Anubis was said to protect the dead up until the gates of the afterlife, where their hearts would be weighed and their souls judged.
Anubis also had black skin, symbolizing the fertile soil deposits left by the Nile river. In this way, he also represented a new life beyond death. There is debate over the role of Anubis compared to Osiris, also considered a god of the dead. It is thought that Anubis fulfilled this role originally, but was eventually replaced by Osiris.
Geb & Nut
Geb and Nut go together, as they were both responsible for bringing about the important Egyptian gods Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus the Elder. Geb was the god of the earth and Nut goddess of the sky. They were integral to the gods’ origin stories.
Geb and Nut were the results of a union between Atum’s children Shu and Tefnut. When Geb and Nut started to grow too close to each other, Atum separated them and forbade Nut from giving birth on any day of the year. Thoth, the god of wisdom, convinced Iah, the mood god, to give him five days of moonlight which Thoth transformed into days. Nut could then give birth to her five children.
HathorHathor was a well-known and popular goddess. She was the daughter of Ra and patron deity of motherhood and womanly love. Venerated for her kindness and affection, Hathor welcomed the dead into the afterlife. She was a protective deity and the goddess of joy and inspiration. As such, she was frequently associated with music, dancing, and celebration, and was even called the “Lady of Drunkenness.”
Hathor was symbolized with the body of a woman and head of a cow. Her role in guiding souls to the afterlife made some think of her as the female counterpart to Osiris. The Greek goddess Aphrodite was based on Hathor as well.
Horus became a very popular god with the spread of the Osiris Myth. Horus, son of Osiris, grew up to battle his uncle Set, who murdered Osiris. The story of Horus’ victory and restoration of the kingdom closely associated him with the kings of Egypt. At one time, the king was considered the living embodiment of Horus and the source of a king’s just and good rule over his people.
There are technically several different deities bearing the name Horus, but most references are to Horus the Younger, son of Osiris. An avian god sometimes representing war, Horus is shown with the head of a falcon. In the overthrow of his uncle Set, Horus united the two kingdoms of Egypt, albeit losing his eye. The eye of Horus became an Egyptian symbol of protection and sacrifice.
Isis was the wife of Osiris and generally associated with magic. Originally linked to the goddess Hathor, Isis took on many of the same motherly qualities. She became known as the mother of kings for her part in the Osiris Myth. Isis used her incredible powers to resurrect Osiris when he was slain by Set and gave birth to their son Horus after.
For her role in this myth, she is often depicted as a gentle woman holding her infant son, Horus. Isis was so popular that her worship continued into the Greco-Roman world after the fall of Egypt. The Christian image of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus is based on the representation of Isis with Horus.
The concept of ma’at, or harmony, was fundamental to ancient Egyptian culture. The goddess Maat, who represented truth and justice as well as harmony, was, therefore, a central deity. Tasked with regulating the stars and seasons, Maat was also the goddess of order.
The cosmic balance envisaged by the ancient Egyptians related to daily life on earth and provided the dictates of family life and their belief system.
Maat was depicted as a woman with wings, holding an ostrich feather. The feather was linked to the Weighing of the Heart and Soul ritual of the afterlife, in which the soul was weighed against the feather. This weighing then allowed judgment, whereupon the spirit could be released.
As god of the dead, Osiris had a central role in Egyptian culture and remained popular due to the endurance of the Osiris Myth. When he was murdered by Set, his wife Isis brought him back to life so he could become the judge of the dead in the underworld. Osiris was the god who conducts the Weighing of the Heart and Soul ceremony on souls before they can join the afterlife.
Osiris’ death and regeneration are important tenets of ancient Egyptian beliefs about death and the afterlife. The immortalizing of Osiris later influenced the Christian tradition of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a similar figure representing life after death. Osiris was shown with green or black skin – symbolizing death and fertility of the Nile – and as a mummified king.
Ra was pivotal to the ancient Egyptian religion. The great sun god, he was considered supreme lord and creator, and father of gods. The Valley of the Kings supposedly resembles Ra’s beams of sunlight, and he is associated with the Pyramids of Giza. Ra rides his sun barge across the sky by day, then plunges into the underworld at night to battle the serpent Apep.
Ra was often depicted with a falcon head. His significance in Egypt endured even after the rise in popularity of another supreme sun god, Amun. The two were merged into Amun-Ra, and so Ra’s importance in Egyptian culture continued.
Ptah was one of the oldest gods from ancient Egypt, dating back to about 3000 BCE as the patron deity of Memphis. The ultimate creator god, Ptah is responsible for the fabrication of the universe and bringing to life its inhabitants. Ptah was extremely popular and even associated with the concept of self-creation.
His close link with all things created, fabricated, or fashioned made him the god of builders, sculptors, and craftsman. Physically, Ptah appeared as a mummified man with green skin, holding a scepter. The scepter of Was was a sign of power and authority.
Sekhmet was a powerful female lion goddess, known for great destruction and healing. Sekhmet is considered the precursor to Hathor. Ra, Sekhmet’s father, sent her to earth to destroy humanity. On her rampage, the other gods intervened and begged Ra to stop her before all of humanity was lost.
Ra attracted Sekhmet away from her violence with beer dyed red to satiate her bloodlust. She drank so much she fell asleep and woke as the kind, gentle Hathor.
Sekhmet still existed as a lion goddess afterward, however. Her dual life-giving and life-ending powers associated her with plagues, natural disasters, and made her the patron deity of the military. She is also linked to the popular cat-god Bastet, who represented the Egyptians’ immense veneration of cats.
The god Set was most famous for his role as the murderer of Osiris. Set was not an embodiment of evil, but possessed many evil characteristics the Egyptians considered necessary for balance. Set is often contrasted with Horus and Osiris, showing the importance of ma’at among the gods.
As a desert god, he was associated with chaos and storms, bringing harsh winds into the Nile Valley. He also came to represent foreign people and lands, carried from far away across the desert.
Set was defeated by Horus, son of Osiris, as Horus’ vengeance for his father. Because Set can symbolize foreign influence, his defeat is sometimes regarded as the necessary unification of ancient Egypt. Set was shown as a Set animal, which could’ve been some hybrid creature evoking the aardvark, donkey, or jackal.
As the god of balance and equilibrium, Thoth was considered the husband of Maat, the female goddess of cosmic order. Also as god of wisdom and writing, Thoth was a significant deity for the ancient Egyptians. Celebrated as the keeper of time, Thoth was responsible for granting kings long reigns. As a meditator among the gods and between the gods and humanity, he granted understanding to humanity through the written word.
Thoth was typically depicted with the head of an ibis, though he was seen sometimes as a baboon. As he was credited with inventing writing, Thoth was the patron of libraries, scribes, and even astronomers. Thoth was also responsible for tricking Iah into letting Nut, goddess of the sky, give birth to the five first gods Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus the Elder.
Taweret was a protective hippopotamus goddess who protected mothers and children during childbirth and pregnancy. The Egyptians drew inspiration for Taweret from watching the fiercely protective nature of the female hippopotamus toward her children.
Eventually, Taweret was believed to ward off evil as well, so her image was invoked in daily items often used by women. Mothers wore amulets with Tawaret’s image engraved on them; cosmetics, jewelry, and headrests likewise featured Tawaret. Tawaret was portrayed as a pregnant hippo with cat-like arms and legs, and a crocodile’s rear end.
The overlapping stories and characters that make up ancient Egyptian mythology can be complex. As many of the deities’ personalities changed over time, their individual importance to the Egyptian people waxed and waned according to shifts in culture and society.
The relevance of ancient Egyptian deities today cannot be overstated, either. Indeed, many of these stories and personae are invoked in movies, television, and books. The fascination with these gods and goddesses endures in popular culture because they are intrinsic to ancient Egypt. They grant a clearer picture of what life was like and what mattered to these ancient peoples.