The Egyptian pantheon consisted of the many Gods worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians. A number of major deities are addressed as the creator of the cosmos. These include Atum, Ra, Amun (Amen) and Ptah amongst others, as well as composite forms of these Gods such as Amun-Ra. This was not seen as contradictory by the Egyptians. The development of Egyptian religion in the New Kingdom lead some early Egyptologists such as E.A. Wallis Budge to speculate that the Egyptians were in reality monotheistic. Others such as Sir Flinders Petrie considered the Egyptians to be polytheists. Erik Hornung argues that the best term to apply to their religion is ‘henotheism’ which describes ‘worship of one God at a time but not a single God.’
The Egyptian term for Goddess was neṯeret (nṯrt; netjeret, nečeret) and the term for God was neṯer (nṯr; also transliterated netjer, nečer). The hieroglyph represents a pole or staff wrapped in cloth with the free end of the cloth shown at the top. The use of this sign has been connected to the flag poles at the entrance towers of Egyptian temples. Alternative glyphs for Gods include a star, a squatting human figure or a hawk on a perch.
Background and History
The Egyptian religion has a long history. Earliest images include the symbols for the goddess Neith, many fertility figurines and versions of the vulture (Nekhbet) and cobra (Wadjet) goddesses which were borne on Egyptian crowns from predynastic and protodynastic periods through to the Roman period.
The importance of animal symbolism was also a theme of Egyptian religion. For instance the many cow goddesses such as Hathor and Nut reflect the fact that cattle were domesticated in Egypt by 8,000 B.C., and by 5,500 B.C. stone-roofed subterranean chambers and other subterranean complexes in Nabta Playa are seen to contain the tombs of ritually sacrificed cattle. Wild as well as domesticated animals inspired religious symbolism, for instance the fierce lionesses were represented by Sekhmet as the warrior goddess in the south.
By 4,000 B.C. Gerzean tomb-building was seen to include underground rooms and burial of furniture and amulets, a prelude to the funerary cult of Osiris which appears in the 5th Dynasty.
The pharaoh was deified after death, and bore the title of nṯr nfr “the good god”. The title, “servant of god” was used for the priesthood, ḥmt-nṯr ‘priestesses’ and ḥm-nṯr ‘priests’. Over the great period of time covered by Ancient Egyptian culture the importance of certain deities would rise and fall, often because of the religious allegiance of the king. However the worship of some deities was more or less continuous.
The Ogdoad (The Eightfold)
In Egyptian mythology, the Ogdoad (“the eightfold”) were eight deities worshipped in Hermopolis during what is called the Old Kingdom, the third through sixth dynasties, dated between 2686 to 2134 BC. First it was a cult having Hathor and Ra; later changing to a cult where Hathor and Thoth were the main deities over a much larger number of deities; and even later, Ra was assimilated into Atum-Ra through a merger with Atum of the Ennead cosmogony.
The concept of an Ogdoad also appears in Gnostic systems of the early Christian era, and was further developed by the theologian Valentinus (ca. 160 AD.).
Membership and Worship
Apart from their gender, there was little to distinguish the female goddess from the male god in a pair; indeed, the names of the females are merely the female forms of the male name and vice versa. Essentially, each pair represents the female and male aspect of one of four concepts, namely the:
- Primordial Waters (Naunet and Nu)
- Air or Invisibility (Amunet and Amun)
- Darkness (Kauket and Kuk)
- Eternity or Infinite Space (Hauhet and Huh)
Together the four concepts represent the primal, fundamental state of the beginning, they are what always was. In the myth, however, their interaction ultimately proved to be unbalanced, resulting in the arising of a new entity. When the entity opened, it revealed Ra, the fiery sun, inside. After a long interval of rest, Ra, together with the other deities, created all other things.
There are two main variations on the nature of the entity containing Ra:
The first version of the myth has the entity arising from the waters after the interaction as a mound of dirt, the Milky Way, which was deified as Hathor. In the myth an egg was laid upon this mound by a celestial bird. The egg contained Ra. In the original version of this variant, the egg is laid by a cosmic goose. However, after the rise of the cult of Thoth, the egg was said to have been a gift from Thoth, and laid by an ibis, the bird with which he was associated.
Later, when Atum had become assimilated into Ra as Atum-Ra, the belief that Atum emerged from a (blue) lotus bud, in the Ennead cosmogeny, was adopted and attached to Ra. The lotus was said to have arisen from the waters after the explosive interaction as a bud, which floated on the surface, and slowly opened its petals to reveal the beetle, Khepri, inside. Khepri, an aspect of Ra representing the rising sun, immediately turns into a weeping boy – Nefertum (young Atum), whose tears form the creatures of the earth. In later Egyptian history, as the god Khepri became totally absorbed into Ra, the lotus was said to have revealed Ra, the boy, straight away, rather than Ra being Khepri temporarily. Sometimes the boy is identified as Horus, although this is due to the merging of the myths of Horus and Ra into the one god Ra-Herakty, later in Egyptian history.
Corresponding LOST Characters
The Ennead (The Collection of Nine)
The Ennead (Greek ἐννεάς, meaning a collection of nine things) was a group of nine deities in Egyptian mythology. The Ennead were worshipped at Heliopolis and consisted of the god Atum, his children Shu and Tefnut, their children Geb and Nut and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.
Egyptian mythology established multiple such groupings of deities, known as Pesedjets. The Pyramid Texts of the 5th and 6th dynasties mention the Great Pesedjet, the Lesser Pesedjet, the Dual Pesedjet, plural Pesedjets, and even the Seven Pesedjets. Some pharaohs established pesedjets that incorporated themselves among the deities. The most notable case is Seti I of the 19th dynasty, who in his temple at Redesiyah worshipped a pesedjet that combined six important deities with three deified forms of himself.
The Greek term Ennead, denoting a group of nine, was coined by Greeks exploring Egypt, its culture and religion, especially after the conquest by Alexander the Great and during the subsequent rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Greek became the language of learned studies and hence Greek terms were used by Greek and Roman authors to describe Egyptian phenomena. These others also made use of parallels between Egyptian and Greek deities to identify the two.
Development of the Ennead
Among Egyptian pesedjets, the most important was the Great Pesedjet, also called the Ennead of Heliopolis, after its centre of worship. Heliopolis (Egyptian: Aunu, “place of pillars”) was dedicated to the worship of the god Atum and thrived from the Old Kingdom until its decline unter the Ptolemaic rulers.
The development of the Ennead remains uncertain. Egyptologists have traditionally theorised that the priesthood of Heliopolis established this pesedjet in order to stress the preeminence of the sun-god above other deities, incorporating gods which had been venerated elsewhere for centuries while ignoring others. The most prominent of such deities was Osiris, god of vegetation and of the netherworld, who was incorporated into the Ennead as Atum’s great-grandson. However, in the 20th century, some Egyptologists question the whole secenario.
What appears almost certain is that the Ennead first appeared when the cult of the sun god Ra, which had gained supreme ascendency during the 5th dynasty, declined during the 6th dynasty. After propagation of the Ennead, the cult of Ra – identified with Atum – saw a great resurgence until being superseded by the worship of Horus and the identification of the two as Ra-harakhty (Ra, who is Horus of the Two Horizons).
The Ennead faced competition by other groupings: At Memphis, the priests of Ptah identified their deity with the primeval mound, the place on which Atum arose first, giving him precedence over the Ennead.
Accounts of the Ennead
The creation account of Heliopolis relates that from the primeval waters represented by Nun, a mound appeared on which the self-begotten deity Atum sat. Bored and alone, Atum spat or, according to other stories, masturbated, producing Shu, representing the air and Tefnut, representing moisture. Some versions however have Atum – identified with Ra – father Shu and Tefnut with Iusaaset, who is accordingly sometimes described as a “shadow” in this pesedjet.
In turn, Shu and Tefnut mated and brought forth Geb, representing the earth, and Nut, representing the nighttime sky. Because of their initial closeness, Geb and Nut engaged in continuous copulation until Shu separated them, lifting Nut into her place in the sky. The children of Geb and Nut were the sons Osiris and Set and the daughters Isis and Nephthys, which in turn formed couples.