Egyptian Mythology: Who was Ra?
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Ra (also known as Re) was worshiped as the god of the sun, creation, law, light, order, and fertility and growth. It was believed that he rode on his sun barge (Atet) through the underworld in order to bring the sun to the Egyptians. Due to how the crucial importance of the sun, Ra was venerated as the king of all Egyptian gods. He was seen as the creator god. In the beginning, Ra was the deity that brought things into existence out of the primordial chaos.
Origin Story of Ra
Being the creator god, Ra’s origin story is a very interesting one. Ancient Egyptians believed that at the beginning of time, the universe was filled with nothing. And in that nothing was a vast primordial water called, Nun. The universe was utterly chaotic. In spite of that chaos, there existed a pyramidal mound. Atop the mound was a magical lotus. When the lotus blossomed, the sun God Ra emerged.
Ra came along with the light (or the sun). Ra looked at the vast ocean of nothingness and was filled with sadness. Therefore, he created the first generation of gods – Shu (the god of the air) and Tefnut (goddess of rain/moisture).
Subsequently, Shu and Tefnut gave birth to children – Geb (the goddess of the sky) and Nut (the god of the earth). Geb and Nut, in turn, went on to give birth to Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Horus the Elder, and Set.
How important was Ra in ancient Egypt?
Firstly, Ra in the Egyptian pantheon is simply the divine creator of everything that has ever existed, or exists, and will ever exist. His most precious creation was the Nile River – a river that was in all sense and purpose the lifeblood of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
Ra’s sphere of influence was everywhere. He was omnipotent and omnipresent. The Egyptians venerated him as the god of the universe, the sun, order, kings, sky, earth, and even the underworld. He was life force in itself, permeating through everything in the universe. That is how come he was worshiped as the god of virtually everything.
As a creator god, Ra was one of the first gods that the Egyptian pharaohs worshiped. The pharaohs themselves were considered the human manifestations of Ra. From the 4th Dynasty onward, Ra’s association to the throne of Egypt was very pronounced. Egyptian pharaohs were often called “Son of Ra”. The pharaohs were seen as the enforcers of truth and justice – the principles of Maat.
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Ra’s Journey through the Underworld
According to ancient Egyptian myth, Ra’s nightly journey through the underworld was the most important event in ancient Egypt. It is believed that Ra rode in his sun barge (Atet/Mandjet – “The Boat of Millions of Years”) across the sky, bringing the sun/daylight to people of Egypt.
And when it was dusk, Ra descended into the underworld (below the horizon). While in the underworld, he faced off the evil serpent Apophis (Apep) – the god of chaos. Apophis’ goal was to impede Ra’s movement, thereby halting the rise of the sun.
However, Ra was not alone in his struggle against Apophis. He was often in the company of Sia (perception), Hu (command), and Heka (magical powers).
Most importantly, the god of desert and destruction Set rode along with Ra. It is believed that Set was the one that slayed Apophis on a daily basis.
Ra’s association with other gods
Another interesting worth noting is that: Ancient Egyptians merged Ra with other gods and goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon.
The commonest form of this merger was the one with Horus, a sky and sun god. Together, these two deities formed a unified deity called Ra-Horakhty, which means, “Ra, who is Horus of the Two Horizons”. This appellation was coined to symbolize Ra’s journey to and fro the land of the living and the land of dead.
During the reign of Pharaoh Thuthmosis, Re-Horakhty was chosen as the main god of worship for the Egyptians.
Other associations that occurred over time include – Atum-Ra and Amun-Ra.
In the Middle Kingdom, Ra was frequently associated to the god Amun. These two deities almost had the same qualities and roles in the Egyptian pantheon.
Ultimately, the merger of Amun and Ra became Amun-Ra. Amun was generally considered the form that Ra was before he began creation. Amun is believed to have used air to create. Instead of the sun being his realm, it was the wind rather. And whereas Ra was worshipped predominantly in Lower Egypt, Amun was famously worshiped in Upper Egypt.
It is believed that this merger occurred during the Theban reign over Egypt. They merged these two gods in order to unite the whole Egypt.
Ra’s different forms
Ra’s omnipotent and omnipresent nature made the Egyptians come up with several forms of him. Many of these forms followed Ra’s birth, growth, decline, death, and then rebirth.
The god Khepri – the scarab beetle – was believed to be the morning manifestation of Ra. Thus, Khepri was Ra reborn after he had gone through the underworld. And once he emerged from the underworld, Khepri brought along with him the sun or daylight.
Another form of Ra was Khunum – the ram headed god of the sun. Khunum was the evening manifestation of Ra. He was the version of Ra that was in decline.
Finally, the goddess Raet-Tawy was the feminine part of Ra. Other myths claim that she was either the daughter or wife of Ra.
Depictions and Symbols of Ra
Across the various Egyptian Kingdoms and Dynasties, Ra was depicted in so many forms and names. When Ra was associated to Atum, he took on a human form. However, when he was associated to Khepra (Ra-Khepri), the Egyptians depicted him as a scarab beetle.
Ra took on the head of a falcon whenever he was merged with Horus, the falcon-headed god.
Ra’s most typical form was his depiction as a man with head of a falcon. On top of his head was a solar disc with coiled cobra around the disc. Together, the solar disc and cobra were often regarded as the all-seeing “Eye of Ra”. Other famous depictions of Ra include him as: a full ram, a phoenix (Bennu bird), a bull, a cat, or a lion. In some cases he has been described as an old king with golden flesh and silver bones.
Ra’s major symbols are the wadjet sun disk, the ankh and a staff. The sun disk represents the emergence of life. Some people have also interpreted as the symbol of fire and rebirth.
How Ra got overthrown by newer gods/goddesses
After the creation of the first generational gods, Ra became increasingly worried that he would be toppled by the offspring of those gods. Therefore, he forbade the sky goddess Geb and the earth god Nut from having any offspring on any day of the year. Ra also put Shu (air) in between Geb and Nut. This deeply worried Geb, as she wanted to have her own children.
The myth goes on to say that Geb sought help from Thoth – the god of knowledge, wisdom and keeper of time and seasons. Being well versed in time itself, Thoth decided to outwit Ra by wining five more days from the moon god. Prior to that, the number of days in the year was 360.
What this meant was that Geb could give birth on those five days without violating Ra’s commandment. And so, the goddess Geb gave birth to five children: Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Horus the Elder, and Set.
With the passage of time, as well as the aging of Ra, Geb’s children went on to manage the affairs of the universe. For example, Osiris replaced Ra as the ruler of the world (land of Egypt). Ra then moved on to live in the skies for eternity.
Worship of Ra in Ancient Egypt
The most famous cult center (the Mnevis bull) of Ra was at the Heliopolis (Sun City). Priests and visitors of the cult center usually sacrificed bulls at sacred burial grounds in honor of Ra, the creator god. Another name of this cult center was Iunu. Today, slight remnants of those sun temples can be can be found in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
Examples of some gods created by Ra
After Ra burst into existence from the primordial ocean, he went ahead to create the first gods – Tefnut (moisture) and Shu (air).
Commonly called the “Cat of Ra”, Bastet was a cat goddess. Whenever Ra wanted to exact revenge at humans for their insubordination or blasphemous behaviors, Bastet was the one Ra sent. She was Ra’s tool for vengeance. She was also considered as the “Eye of Ra” and on many occasions she killed the serpent Apophis to save Ra’s life. Another account of the story states that Ra once sent Bastet to Nubia in the form of lion.
Similar to Bastet, Sekhmet was a lioness goddess (in some cases a cat). She also was worshiped as the “eye of Ra”. However, unlike Bastet, Sekhmet was more ruthless. At one point in time, Ra even had to intervene because she was on killing rampage. In order to stop her in her tracks, Ra turned her into a cow. In another myth, Ra commanded the people of Egypt to dye their beer red and then spray it across the land. This was intended to deceive Sekhmet into drinking what she thought was blood.
Hathor was the daughter of Ra and also his eye. Unlike Bastet and Sekhmet, Hathor was the most loving of the three goddesses. Ancient Egyptians believed that she had the ability to make Ra happy, especially when he was depressed. She did this by dancing nude in front of him.