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nṯrt "goddess"
in hieroglyphs
R8 t
nṯr "god"
in hieroglyphs
R8 Z1

Most Egyptologists today side with Sir Flinders Petrie that Egyptian religion was strictly polytheistic. His contemporary adversary, E. A. Wallis Budge, however, thought Egyptian religion to be primarily monotheistic where all the gods and goddesses were aspects of the God Ra, similar to the Trinity in Christianity and trimurti in Hinduism. The Egyptian term for goddess was neṯeret (nṯrt; netjeret, nečeret) and the term for god was neṯer (nṯr; also transliterated netjer, nečer). Earliest hieroglyphs for goddesses were just a flag or a flag with an Egyptian cobra arising from the base of the pole. The later hieroglyphs for these terms (R8) are depicted as flags followed by an appropriate gender symbol.


Background and history

There is an extensive pantheon for Ancient Egypt. Symbols for Neith appear among the earliest of images. Many fertility figurines have been discovered. Vestiges of the early white vulture (Nekhbet) and cobra (Wadjet) goddesses are borne on the crowns of the separate Egyptian cultural centers as well as the crown of the united Upper and Lower Egypt of the predynastic and protodynastic periods and all periods thereafter until the Roman period began in 30 B.C. Once the country was united and the dynasties emerged, these two deities, known as the Two Ladies always remained as the protecting deities of the country and the pharaoh in particular.

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, indicating the worship of the goddess Hathor. The fierce lionesses who hunted in groups were represented by Sekhmet as the warrior goddess in the south. She later was merged with an aspect of Hathor.

Predynastic artifacts: clockwise from top left: a Bat figurine, a Naqada jar, an ivory figurine, a porphyry jar, a flint knife, and a cosmetic palette

Predynastic Egypt included a culture, identified as Naqada, which arose in the western desert. By 4,000 B.C. Gerzean tomb-building was seen to include underground rooms and burial of furniture and amulets, a prelude to the worship of Osiris. Many local variants of these and other deities existed, becoming polytheistic. After this period historical records began to appear and some were retained in tombs and temples that can be deciphered from the two writing systems that emerged.

Eventually most deities began to be seen as existing in equal pairs, most of the ancient goddesses accompanied by a male counterpart having a similar role, with significant exceptions. Aspects of some deities diversified and merged at different times and in different regions.

The pharaoh was deified after death, and bore the title of nṯr nfr "the good god," if male. The title, "servant of god" was used for the religious leaders in the temples of gods, ḥmt-nṯr was applied to priestesses and ḥm-nṯr was applied to priests, with parallel constructions for goddesses, the religious leaders of their temples, and for dead pharaohs who were women.

Over the great period of time included in ancient Egyptian culture, some deities arose, gained greater prominence over others or receded into less significance. At times abstract concepts emerged and regressed, as well as did a short-lived episode when one deity eclipsed most others, sometimes referred to as a monotheistic religion, in the 1,300s B.C., toward the end of the eighteenth dynasty that is dated 1,550-1,292 B.C. The worship of some early deities never ceased, however, and with the death of the pharaoh who advanced this cult based upon his favorite regional deity—a quick reversal occurred. Even members of his own family reverted to the worship of the deities as proscribed by the previously dominant cult, which would be eclipsed again and fade into obscurity when the cult of Osiris and Isis reached its highest development.

Hathor-Menkaure-Bat triad of the fourth dynasty - the deities flank the pharaoh and provide the authority to rule - Cairo Museum

First mentions of Isis date back to the fifth dynasty which is when the first literary inscriptions are found, but her cult became prominent late in Egyptian history, when it began to absorb the cults of many other goddesses. It eventually spread outside Egypt. She absorbs many aspects of earlier goddesses, becoming identified as the mother of Horus, who represented and protected the pharaohs.

After Horus, Amun was a regional solar deity whose importance increased greatly when the pharaohs of Thebes regained control of the country from invaders and began the eighteenth dynasty. Ra became the next son of the solar deity and his cult rose to later dominance, eclipsing the earlier deities.

The term, hemt-nṯr-nt imen "servant of the god, wife of Amun" was a title held by priestesses in the tenth (2,160 BCE) and twelfth (1991-1802 BCE) dynasties (Shafer, p 14), which was adopted by the female members of the royal family in the New Kingdom (the hereditary, royal lineage of Egypt was a matrilineality, carried by its women). The New Kingdom is dated from 1,570-1,070 BCE and includes the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth dynasties. The term "god father" jt-nṯr was an epithet of Thoth when he became identified as a counterpart to the goddess, Ma'at.

Ancient Egyptian culture persisted, albeit quite altered, through the Ptolemaic dynasty. That dynasty was ruled by a Hellenistic royal family for nearly 300 years, from 305 BCE to 30 BCE, when the Romans conquered Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh. Roman rule lasted until the final invasion by Muslim Arabs in 646 CE that ended 975 years of Græco-Roman rule over Egypt. During that time religious concepts had blended few aspects from the invading cultures with the native, but retained most of the Egyptian cults and deities for continuity with the long history of a culture that served as the authority for the government, maintained the royal lineage, and interwove their deities with those of their rulers—along with the developing Christian beliefs among some of the Romans. Cults of Isis persisted in Egypt and spread with the Greek and Roman cultures—as far as Britain.

Regional pantheons during the Old Kingdom

Ancient Egyptian votive statues of the deities

In the Old Kingdom, the third through sixth dynasties dated between 2,686 to 2,134 BCE, the pantheons of individual Egyptian cities varied by region. Beliefs can be split into five distinct localized groups during that time and which arose later:

  • the Ennead of Heliopolis, meaning the nine - consisted of Atum, Geb, Isis, Nut, Osiris, Nephthys, Seth, Shu, and Tefnut
  • the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, a changing myth which began with eight deities who were worshipped in four female-male pairs; the females were associated with snakes and the males with frogs: Naunet and Nu, Amaunet and Amun, Kauket and Kuk, Hauhet and Huh; first being a cult having Hathor and her son, Ra (and later, Horus as the son of Isis, who was an aspect of Hathor); 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 cosmogeny; in the final version of the creation myth a lotus, a symbol held by Hathor, was said to have arisen from the waters after an explosive interaction, the lotus was said to have opened and revealed Ra, who later became identified as Horus.
  • the Khnum-Satis-Anuket triad of Elephantine, which was the dwelling place of Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts, who guarded the origin of the waters of the Nile which was thought to issue from caves beneath the island; in Elephantine he was worshipped along with his counterpart, Satis, a more ancient gazelle-headed war, protector, and fertility deity who personified the flooding of the Nile, and Anuket, the fertility goddess who was the deification of the Nile, daughter to Satis, and became identified as their daughter in the triad. Other versions of myths identify Khnum with the creation of bodies in association with Heket, the goddess who breathed life into the bodies. In another variant Khnum is identified as the counterpart of Menhit and the father of Heka, a personification of law

Later regional pantheons

Animal worship


In Ancient Egypt, many animals were considered sacred to particular deities—cats to Bastet, ibises and baboons to Thoth, crocodiles to Sebek and Ra, fish to Seth, mongoose, shrew and birds to Horus, dogs and jackals to Anubis, serpents and eels to Atum, beetles to Khepera, bulls to Apis. Animals were often mummified as a result of these beliefs.

It was once thought that animal worship in ancient Egypt originated from helmets (Lubbock, 2005, p. 252). The helmets of Ancient Egyptian chiefs were shaped as animal heads and thus, became a basis for a theory to the origin of animal worship in Ancient Egypt (Lubbock, 2005, p. 252-253). There are some problems with this claim, however. This theory can not be generalized to account for other cultures. While other cultures did participate in animal worship, not all of them possessed animal war helmets like Egypt (Lubbock, 2005, p. 253). John Lubbock also argued that animal worship in Egypt appeared before the use of the helmets. This is one theory, though, to why animals were held in such high esteem in Egypt (Lubbock, 2005, p. 253).

Animals are a common subject of Egyptian art. There is no other art in the world where animals are depicted as frequently and in such variety as in Egyptian art (Velde 1980, p. 77). While their role in art conveys the importance of animals to the Egyptian culture, animals’ position in Egyptian religion is usually misunderstood. This resulted principally because of Greek and Roman false impressions of Egypt throughout ancient history (Teeter et al., 2002, p. 335). Thus, two views arose about the animal kingdom’s role in Egyptian religion.

The first view was posed by Herodotus (ca. 500 B.C.). He alleged that Egyptian animal worship implicated “praying to the god to whom the particular creature, whichever it may be, is sacred” (Qtd. in Teeter et al., 2002, p. 335). Contemporary argument would agree with Herodotus’ view, that Egyptians indeed worshipped these animals because they were important to their gods, but were not the gods themselves. The second view was held by Diodorus (first century B.C.) and he stated that “the Egyptians are fanatically addicted to the worship of certain animals, the dead as well as the living” (Qtd. in Teeter et al., 2002, p. 335). Diodorus’ idea of Egyptian animal worship was that the animals were the gods, but this appears not to be the case (Teeter et al., 2002, p. 335).

The Egyptians depicted their gods in both human and animal form because in Ancient Egyptian culture, humans did not have the degree of superiority over the animal kingdom that Western culture currently dictates (Velde 1980, p. 77). Humans and animals were equal in the Egyptian’s eyes. Egyptians worshipped these gods that they portrayed in animal form, but this does not mean that these gods were simple, earthly animals (Velde 1980, p. 79). When they worshipped these creatures the Egyptians were, in fact, worshipping the gods that they represented, not the animal itself, which is Herodotus’ view of Egyptian religion. How animals came to be associated with their related god is extremely hard to prove, due to lack of historical data (Velde 1980, p. 79).

Deity Animal
Ptah Bull
Thoth Ibis/Baboon
Amun Ram
Horus/Ra Falcon/Hawk
Anubis Jackal/Dog
Sobek Crocodile
Hathor Cow
Sekhmet Lion
Nekhbet Vulture
Ejo or Wadjet Egyptian cobra
Khepri Scarab Beetle
Geb Egyptian Goose

(Armour (1986) Qtd. in Morris 1952, p. 23)

List of deities of Ancient Egypt

  • Aken - Ferryman to the underworld
  • Ammit - crocodile-headed devourer in Duat, not a true deity
  • Amun (also spelled Amen) - the hidden one, a local creator deity later married to Mut after rising in importance
  • Amunet - female aspect of the primordial concept of air in the Ogdoad cosmogony; was depicted as a cobra snake or a snake-headed woman
  • Anubis (also spelled Yinepu) - dog or jackal god of embalming and tomb-caretaker who watches over the dead
  • Anuket, goddess of the Nile River, the child of Satis and among the Elephantine triad of deities; temple on the Island of Seheil, giver of life and fertility, gazelle-headed
  • Apep (also spelled Apophis) - evil serpent of the Underworld, enemy of Ra and formed from a length of Neith's spit during her creation of the world
  • Apis - the Apis bull probably was at first a fertility figure concerned with the propagation of grain and herds; but he became associated with Ptah, the paramount deity of the Memphis area and also, with Osiris (as User-Hapi) and Sokaris, later gods of the dead and the underworld. As Apis-Atum he was associated with the solar cult and was often represented with the sun-disk of the cow deity between his horns, being her offspring. The Apis bull often represented a king who became a deity after death, suggesting an earlier ritual in which the king was sacrificed
  • The Aten - the sun disk or globe worshipped primarily during the Amarna Period in the eighteenth dynasty when representing a monotheistic deity advanced by Amenhotep IV, who took the name Akhenaten
  • Atum - a creator deity, and the setting sun
  • Bast - goddess, protector of the pharaoh and a solar deity where the sun could be seen shining in her eyes at night, a lioness, house cat, cat-bodied or cat-headed woman, also known as Bastet when superseded by Sekhmet
  • Bat - represented the cosmos and the essence of the soul (Ba), cow goddess who gave authority to the king, cult originated in Hu and persisted widely until absorbed as an aspect of Hathor after the eleventh dynasty; associated with the sistrum and the ankh
  • Bes - dwarfed demigod - associated with protection of the household, particularly childbirth, and entertainment
  • The four sons of Horus- personifications of the containers for the organs of the deceased pharaohs - Imsety in human form, contained the liver and was protected by Isis; Hapi in baboon form, contained the lungs and was protected by Nephthys; Duamutef in jackal form, contained the stomach and was protected by Neith; Qebehsenuef in hawk form, contained the large intestines and was protected by Serket
  • Geb - god of the Earth and first ruler of Egypt
  • Hapy (also spelled Hapi) - god embodied by the Nile, and who represents life and fertility
  • Hathor (also spelled Hethert) - among the oldest of Egyptian deities - often depicted as the cow, a cow-goddess, sky-goddess and tree-goddess who was the mother to the pharaoh and earlier to the universe, the golden calf of the bible, and later goddess of love and music
  • Heget (also spelled Heqet) - goddess of childbirth and fertility, who breathed life into humans at birth, represented as a frog or a frog-headed woman
  • Horus (also spelled Heru) - the falcon-headed god. Includes multiple forms or potentially different gods, including Heru the son of Isis, god of pharaohs and Upper Egypt, and Heru the elder
  • Isis (also spelled Aset) - goddess of magical power and healing, "She of the Throne" who was represented as the throne, also later as the wife of Osiris and as the protector of the dead
  • Iusaaset - the great one who comes forth, the goddess who was called the mother and grandmother of all of the deities and later, the "shadow" of Atum or Atum-Ra
  • Khepry (also spelled Khepra) - the scarab beetle, the embodiment of the dawn
  • Khnum - a creator deity, god of the inundation
  • Khonsu - the son of Amun and Mut, whose name means "wanderer", which probably refers to the passage of the moon across the sky, as he was a lunar deity. In the late period, he was also considered an important god of healing
  • Kuk - the personification of darkness that often took the form of a frog-headed god, whose consort was the snake-headed Kauket
  • Maahes - he who is true beside her, a lion prince, son of Bast in Lower Egypt and of Sekhmet in Upper Egypt and sharing their natures, his father varied—being the current chief male deity of the time and region, a god of war, weather, and protector of matrilineality, his cult arrived during the New Kingdom era perhaps from Nubia and was centred in Taremu and Per-Bast, associated with the high priests of Amon, the knife, lotuses, and devouring captives
  • Ma'at - a goddess who personified concept of truth, balance, justice, and order - represented as a woman, sitting or standing, holding a sceptre in one hand and an ankh in the other - thought to have created order out of the primal chaos and was responsible for maintaining the order of the universe and all of its inhabitants, to prevent a return to chaos
  • Mafdet - she who runs swiftly, early deification of legal justice (execution) as a cheetah, ruling at judgment hall in Duat where enemies of the pharaoh were decapitated with Mafdet's claw; alternately, a cat, a mongoose, or a leopard protecting against vermin, snakes, and scorpions; the bed upon which royal mummies were placed in murals
  • Menhit - goddess of war - depicted as a lioness-goddess and therefore becoming associated with Sekhmet
  • Meretseger - goddess of the valley of the kings, a cobra-goddess, sometimes triple-headed, dweller on the top of or the personification of the pyramid-shaped mountain, Al-Qurn, which overlooked the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings
  • Meskhenet - goddess of childbirth, and the creator of each person's Ka, a part of their soul, thereby associated with fate
  • Menthu (also spelled Montu) - an ancient god of war - nomad - represented strength, virility, and victory
  • Min - represented in many different forms, but was often represented in male human form, shown with an erect penis which he holds in his left hand and an upheld right arm holding a flail; by the New Kingdom he was fused with Amen in the deity Min-Amen-kamutef, Min-Amen-bull of his mother (Hathor), and his shrine was crowned with a pair of cow horns
  • Mnevis - was the sacred bull of Heliopolis, later associated with Ra as the offspring of the solar cow deity, and possibly also with Min; when Akhenaten abandoned Amun (Amen) in favour of the Aten he claimed that he would maintain the Mnevis cult, which may have been because of its solar associations
  • Mut (also spelled Mout) - mother, was originally a title of the primordial waters of the cosmos, the mother from which the cosmos emerged, as was Naunet in the Ogdoad cosmogony, however, the distinction between motherhood and cosmic water lead to the separation of these identities and Mut gained aspects of a creator goddess
  • Naunet - a goddess, the primal waters from which all arose, similar to Mut and later closely related to Nu
  • Neith - goddess of war, then great mother goddess - a name of the primal waters, the goddess of creation and weaving, said to weave all of the world on her loom
  • Nekhbet - goddess depicted as an Egyptian vulture - protector of Egypt, royalty, and the pharaoh with her extended wings - referred to as Mother of Mothers, who hath existed from the Beginning, and Creatrix of the World (related to Wadjet); always seen on the front of pharaoh’s double crown with Wadjet
  • Nephthys (also spelled Nebthet) - goddess of death, holder of the rattle, the Sistrum - sister to Isis and the nursing mother of Horus and the pharaohs represented as the mistress of the temple, a woman with falcon wings, usually outstretched as a symbol of protection
  • Nut - goddess of heaven and the sky - mother of many deities as well as the sun, the moon, and the stars
  • Osiris (also spelled Wesir) - god of the underworld after Hathor and Anubis, fertility, and agriculture - the oldest son of the sky goddess, Nut, and the Earth god, Geb, and being brother and later, the husband of Isis - and early deity of Upper Egypt whose cult persisted into the sixth century BC
  • Pakhet - she who tears, deity of merged aspects of Sekhmet and Bast, cult center at Beni Hasan where north and south met - lioness protector, see Speos Artemidos
  • Ptah - a creator deity, also god of craft
  • Qebui - The "Lord of the North Wind," associated with the lands beyond the third cataract (i.e. Kush and the land of the Modern Sudan.
  • Ra - the sun, also a creator deity - whose chief cult centre was based in Heliopolis meaning "city of the sun"
  • Ra-Horakhty - god of both sky and Sun, a combination of Ra and Horus - thought to be god of the Rising Sun
  • Reshep - war god who was originally from Syria
  • Satis - the goddess who represented the flooding of the Nile River, ancient war, hunting, and fertility goddess, mother of the Nile, Anuket, associated with water, depicted with a bow and arrows, and a gazelle or antelope horned, and sometimes, feathered crown
  • Sekhmet - goddess of destruction and war, the lioness - also personified as an aspect of Ra, fierce protector of the pharaoh, a solar deity, and later as an aspect of Hathor
  • Seker (also spelled Sokar) - god of death
  • Selket (also spelled Serqet) - scorpion goddess, protectress, goddess of magic
  • Sobek - crocodile god of the Nile
  • Set (also spelled Seth) - god of storms, later became god of evil, desert and patron of Upper Egypt - 'Set-animal'-headed- as one of the most promenant deities of chaos he does not have an actual animal to represent him, but is seen as an amalgamation of many different characteristics of other animals.
  • Seshat - goddess of writing, astronomy, astrology, architecture, and mathematics depicted as a scribe
  • Shu - embodiment of wind or air
  • Swenet - goddess of the ancient city on the border of southern Egypt at the Nile River, trade in hieroglyphs
  • Tatenen (also called Tenen or Tatjenen)-Ancient Nature god. Later combined with Ptah as Ptah-tenen
  • Taweret (also spelled Tawret) - goddess of pregnant women and protector at childbirth
  • Tefnut - goddess, embodiment of rain, dew, clouds, and wet weather, depicted as a cat and sometimes as a lioness
  • Thoth (also spelled Djehuty) - god of the moon, drawing, writing, geometry, wisdom, medicine, music, astronomy, magic; usually depicted as ibis-headed, or as a goose; cult centered in Khemennu
  • Wadjet - the goddess, snake goddess of lower Egypt, depicted as a cobra, patron and protector of Egypt and the pharaoh, always shown on crown of the pharaohs; later joined by the image of Nekhbet after north and south united; other symbols: eye, snake on staff
  • Wadj-wer - fertility god and personification of the Mediterranean sea or lakes of the Nile delta
  • Wepwawet - jackal god of upper Egypt
  • Wosret - a localized guardian goddess, protector of the young god Horus, an early consort of Amun, who was later superseded by Mut

See also

External links



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