In a religious pantheon brimming with 8,700 gods, the ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra ahead of all other gods. After all, Ra was the Egyptian god who created everything. In this role, Ra rose from a sea of turbulent chaos. Standing astride the primordial BenBen mound, creating himself, before begetting the remaining gods who formed the Ogdoad. Maat was the goddess epitomizing personifying truth, law, justice, morality, order, balance and harmony. As Maat’s father, Re was the primal cosmos’s ultimate arbiter of justice.
Ra was a powerful god and his cult was central to the Egyptian belief system. As the pharaoh often strove to be seen to embody the gods on earth, they looked to associate themselves closely with Ra. From the Fourth Dynasty onwards, Egyptian kings held the title “Son of Re.” and “Re” was later incorporated into the throne name pharaoh’s adopted upon their accession to the throne.
Facts About Ra
- Ancient Egyptians revered Ra their sun as the god who created everything
- Ra is closely connected to the Bennu Bird, Ben-Ben Stone and the Tree of Life myths
- Some archaeologists speculate the pyramids represent rays of sunlight connecting the pharaohs with Ra, the sun god.
- Ra was accompanied by the gods Horus, Thoth, Hathor, Anet, Abtu and Maat on his daily journey across the heavens
- The morning manifestation of Ra is known as “Khepri the scarab God” and his barque is called the “Barque of Millions of Years”
- The evening manifestation of Ra is known as the ram-headed god and his barque is known as the Khnum“Semektet” or “becoming weak”
- The sacred cobra encircling Ra’s crown symbolized royalty and divine authority.
- Ra’s right eye represented the Sun, while his left eye represented the moon
Ra the Creator God
To the ancient Egyptians, Ra or “ray” symbolises sunshine, heat and fertile growth. Given the role the sun plays in nurturing crops and in Egypt’s desert climate, was a natural progression for the ancient Egyptians to see him in this manifestation as the creator of life. As he embodied creation, an attribute of his essence came to be represented in all other gods. Ancient Egyptians perceived every god as representing some form of Ra, while Ra similarly represents an aspect of each of their gods.
In statuary, inscriptions and paintings, Ra was typically shown as a human male. He was frequently shown with a falcon head and a sun disc crown. A sacred cobra, which the ancient Egyptians called the Uraeus encircled his sun disc. Images of Ra portrayed with a human body and a scarab beetle head or in human form with a ram’s head are also common. The ancient Egyptians also depicted Ra as a hawk, beetle, ram, Phoenix, serpent, cat, lion, bull and heron. His primary symbol was always a sun disk.
Ra’s Numerous Forms
Uniquely amongst ancient Egyptian gods, Ra changed his form at different times of the day. Ra took on a new attribute in the morning, at midday and in the afternoon.
Morning Ra: Khepri In this form Ra transitioned into the God of the Scarab beetle. The scarab won its place in ancient Egyptian mythology for its habit of laying its eggs in dung then rolling it into a ball.
The round ball generated heat, giving life to a new generation of beetles. To the ancient Egyptians, the dung ball was a metaphor for the sun. When Ra was in his Khepri form, he was shown with the head of a Scarab. On his solar boat, Ra was shown as both a Scarab and as the Sun.
Midday Ra: At midday, Ra is usually depicted with a human body and a falcon head. Ra can be distinguished from Horus who was also pictured as a man with a falcon head by his sun disk with a coiled cobra. This was Ras most commonly depicted form, although he could also be shown in other animal forms or with a man’s body and an animal-head, depending on which attribute he was manifesting.
Afternoon Ra: In the afternoon, Ra adopted the form of the god Atum, the creator of the universe.
The Mythology Surrounding Ra
Part of the ancient Egyptian mythology was that their sun god Ra sailed across the sky during the day in his solar bark known as the “Barque of Millions of Years.” At night, Ra made his passage in his evening bark through the underworld. There in order to emerge at sunrise to start the cycle of a new day, he was forced to battle and eventually vanquish Apophis the evil serpent who was the god of evil, darkness and destruction.
In the morning as the sun rose in the east, Ra’s barque was called, “Madjet,” meaning, “becoming strong.” By the time the sun was setting in the west, Ra’s barque was called, “Semektet” or “becoming weak.” The ancient Egyptian’s view of the cosmos saw each sunset as Ra dying and being swallowed by Nut the goddess of the sky. From here, Ra was forced to sail through the perilous underworld, leaving only the moon to illuminate the world. The next morning, Ra was born afresh with the dawn, renewing the eternal cycle of birth and death once more. In some versions of the myth, Ra assumes the manifestation of Mau, a cat. Mau defeats an evil serpent called Apep. Mau’s victory is one of the reasons ancient Egyptian revered cats.
Ra is also known as Atum and Re. Ra’s children are Shu; Father of the Sky and the God of Dry Air and Tefnut Shu’s twin sister, the Goddess of Wetness and Moisture. Tefnut in her manifestation as a goddess with a lion-head had dominion over freshness and dew. Another myth described how Ra created humans from his tears as he stood on the primordial BenBen mound, overwhelmed by loneliness.
While Ra was greatly revered and worshipped widely in ancient Egypt, one of their myths recounts how Ra eventually became weaker. The Legend of Ra, Isis and the Snake, tells how as Ra aged, he began to dribble saliva. Isis understood Ra’s secret name was where he hid his power. So, Isis collected Ra’s saliva and formed a snake from it. She placed the snake in Ra’s path and waited for the snake to bite him. Isis lusted after Ra’s power but she understood the only way to get Ra’s power was to trick Ra into revealing his secret name. Finally, due to the pain from the snakebite, Ra consented to Isis “searching through him.” As Isis did so, she healed Ra and absorbed Ra’s power for herself.
Another of ancient Egypt’s sacred religious symbols was the Tree of Life. The sacred Tree of Life was housed in Heliopolis in Ra’s solar temple. The Tree of Life’s fruit was not intended for ordinary Egyptians. It was reserved for the pharaohs’ aging-rituals. Another term for the Tree of Life was the mythical Ished tree. Those mortals who ate the fruit from the Tree of Life were said to enjoy eternal life.
Another powerful mythical symbol associated with Ra was the “Bennu” bird. This Bennu bird symbolised Ra’s soul. An early version of the phoenix legend, the Bennu bird perched in the Tree of Life in Ra’s solar temple in Heliopolis. The Benben Stone capped the obelisk inside this temple. Pyramid in shape, this stone functioned as a beacon for the Bennu bird. A formidable ancient Egyptian religious symbol, Benben Stones was set atop all Egyptian obelisks and pyramids.
Worshipping Ra the Sun God
Ra had numerous sun temples constructed in his honour. Unlike other deities, these solar temples did not house a statue dedicated to their god. Rather, they were designed to be open to the streaming sunlight that characterized Ra’s essence.
Archeologists believe the earliest of Ra’s known temples is located in Heliopolis, now a Cairo suburb. This ancient sun temple is referred to as the “Benu-Phoenix.” Ancient Egyptians believed it was constructed on the precise spot where Ra manifested to create the world.
While the cult of Ra goes back to Egypt’s Second Dynasty, Ra does not hold the title of being the oldest Egyptian god. That honour probably goes to a Pre-Dynastic precursor of Horus, Neith or Set. Only with the advent of the Fifth Dynasty would the pharaoh come to closely associate himself with Ra. Just as the Egyptian Pharaoh was believed by his subjects to be Horus’ earthly human manifestation, so Ra and Horus became ever more closely linked. Eventually, over the centuries, this new fused deity emerged to be known as “Ra-Horakhty.” This translates, as Ra is Horus of the Horizon.
Ra’s association with other Egyptian gods went beyond his associated with Horus. As the sun god and humanities progenitor, Ra also became closely connected with Atum forming the attribute known as “Atum-Ra.”
Subsequently, from the Fifth Dynasty onwards all Egypt’s pharaohs were referred to as “The son of Ra” and Ra formed part of each pharaoh’s list of names. During the Middle Kingdom, Amun-Ra a newly combined divinity emerged in Egypt. Amun was one of the eight gods forming the original Ogdoad an assembly of powerful gods representing the eight elements of used at the moment of creation.
With the advent of the New Kingdom came a fresh apogee of Ra worship. Many of the Valley of the Kings’ royal tombs contain images of Ra and illustrate his daily journey through the underworld. The New Kingdom also brought with it renewed building activity during which built numerous new solar temples.
The Eye of Ra
The Eye of Ra is one of the most powerful entities in ancient Egyptian’s rich mythology. This entity was depicted as a sun disk enveloped with two “uraeus” or cobras coiled protectively around it, protecting Upper and Lower Egypt’s white and red crowns. Initially closely connected with Horus and bearing a striking similarity to the Eye of Horus or wadjet, the Eye of Ra evolved positions in Egyptian mythology, manifesting as an extension of Ra’s formidable power and as an entirely separate entity in its own right.
Reflecting on the Past
The ancient Egyptian worship of Ra, which emerged around the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, finally ended after Rome annexed Egypt as a province and adopted Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Header image courtesy: Maler der Grabkammer der Nefertari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons