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Gods and goddesses in ancient Egyptian belief

At first sight there seem to be impossibly many gods and goddesses in ancient Egyptian writing and art.

The number becomes more manageable if they are considered under different headings. Remember too that each name marks out an area of divinity - it does not have to correspond to a social character in the manner of the personal name of a human being.

This should also help appreciate how much we can learn about ancient Egypt from the great number of divine names: each name represents one part of existence that the Egyptians of dynastic times considered important enough to be sacred and independent.

Here are some ways in which ancient Egyptian sources tend to group the gods and goddesses

Assmann 2001 gives the following names to those three ways of relating to divinity:

  1. the cosmic dimension (relating to the 'cosmos', the universe)
  2. the political dimension (anchored in the main city of each province - 'politikos' means 'of the city' in Greek)
  3. the mythic dimension (relating to words and the verbal expression of divinity - including, but not only, in long narratives or 'myths')

In order to appreciate the religious message in any object surviving from ancient times from Egypt, you need first to know its context. A dictionary-style A-Z guide to the gods and goddesses may help a modern reader to find each of the deities quickly, but it can obscure the context in which an Egyptian of those times considered that name worthy of being separated. There are no short cuts - the names need to be learned along with their contexts.

Fissioning and fusing names

Since each name identifies an area of divinity, it is easy in ancient Egyptian belief to divide a name into two - Horus (the area of divine power) can be divided into Horwer 'Horus the elder' (a power at full potential) and Horpakhered 'Horus the child' (Greek 'Harpocrates') (a power yet to be realised, a vulnerable potential). It is also easy to fuse names - a strategy called 'syncretism' in modern studies of Egyptian religion: Amun (the creator as invisible divine power, everywhere) can be fused with Ra (the sun as source of all light and energy, the ultimate creator) to form a composite god embracing both aspects of divinity - Amun-Ra. This is difficult for modern readers to understand, because the combinations undermine our assumption that each name is a separate character.

Iconography - gods and goddesses in formal art

This also explains why iconography is a guide not to names but to themes: any goddess related to the power of the sun and creator may wear a sun-disk with rearing cobra, and any goddess with the power of fury can be depicted as a lion or with a lion head.

In formal Egyptian art, deities often have mixed human and animal form. The head identifies the theme, while the form of the body depends on the activity depicted: so, in order to show the king as a supernatural power, but with his personal identity as ruler, the Egyptian artist depicts him with the body of a lion and the head of a man wearing the headcloth and rearing cobra unique to kingship - this is the sphinx. Similarly, a goddess could be depicted with the head of a lion, to show her in fury, or the head of a cow, to show her maternal love, but with the body of a woman, if she is holding a sceptre. Through the proportions of their formal art, the Egyptian artists were able to create hybrid forms that are harmonious rather than monstrous - in marked contrast to later classical Roman art, where the hyrbid forms of Egyptian deities create an entirely different effect.




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