Theban Triad of Ancient Egyptian Gods
The divine triad of Thebes (modern Luxor) – Amun-Re, Mut, and Khonsu – was considered a nuclear family of gods. Amun was the father, Mut was his wife, and Khonsu was the son of Amun-Re and Mut.
Worship of those three gods was very widespread in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. As a matter of fact, their worship, particularly Amun, made the city of Thebes a thriving religious center as well as the power hub during the reigns of many Egyptian pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – c. 1640 B.C.E) and New Kingdom (c. 1552 – c. 1070 B.C.E). Barring a brief period during the reign of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten (or Amenhotep IV), worship of the Theban Triad of gods reached its zenith between the 18th and 25th Dynasty.
In today’s article, World History Edu explores the myths, powers, and symbols of those Theban gods.
The ancient Egyptian city of Thebes
Starting from the Old Kingdom era, the city of Thebes was said to be inhabited, serving as a small commercial city. Around this time, the Lower Egyptian city of Memphis served as the administrative hub of the pharaohs. To this day, archaeologists are yet to unearth any significant or monumental structure from the Old Kingdom era in Thebes.
Thebes ascent to prominence started around the 22nd century BCE, a time that saw two rival rulers compete for dominance. The Ninth and Tenth Dynasties took control of Lower Egypt and some parts of Upper Egypt. On the other hand, the Eleventh Dynasty pharaohs, ruling from Thebes, controlled the other parts of Upper Egypt.
The ancestors of the later Theban rulers emerged from the 11th Dynasty pharaohs. About a couple of centuries later, during the Middle Kingdom Era, Theban rulers steadily started expanding their sphere of control and influence beyond Upper Egypt.
In the centuries that followed, under the leadership of pharaohs from the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom, Thebes went on to become the religious center of all of Egypt. This period witnessed massive infrastructural development, including the construction of temples and worship centers for numerous Egyptian deities. Thebes thus served as the capital of Egypt large parts of the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom periods. It was undoubtedly the most civilized place in the world at the time.
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- The Temples of Karnak and Luxor is situated at what was once the the middle part of Upper Egypt.
- New Kingdom pharaoh Amenhotep III, as well as his predecessors, did a lot of expansion works on the temples of Amun in Thebes.
- Amun-Ra, the principal state deity of Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras, was known as the husband of the goddess Mut and the father of the moon god Khonsu.
- The temples of Karnak and Luxor were situated on eastern bank of the Nile, while the western bank of the river hosted the necropolis of funerary complexes and royal cemeteries.
Amun (or Amun-Re)
Before the Middle Kingdom era, Amun was not seen as major deity in Thebes. The growing political and economic power of his followers in Thebes resulted in the elevation of Amun from minor ram god to a very powerful and revered deity.
Known ancient Egyptian religion as the “Hidden One” or simply “Hidden”, Amun was the chief patron god of the city of Thebes and the most important deity in Thebes and beyond.
Starting in the 22nd century BCE, a time when Amun’s worship was increasing, several temples and worship places of Amun sprung up. Middle Kingdom era Pharaoh Senusret I (reign: c. 1921-1926 BCE) was the one to start construction of the Karnak Temple Complex in Thebes. In the centuries that followed, Amun’s worship complex and worshipers continued to grow in size, even during the Hyksos occupation of Lower Egypt and Middle Egypt (i.e. the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt: c. 1650 – 1550 BCE).
Among the three major periods of ancient Egypt, it was the New Kingdom era that witnessed the most widespread worship of Amun. Such was the reverence given to Amun (by ancient Egyptians) that his attributes, powers, and traits merged with the Egyptian sun god Ra (or Re). Following that merging, the Amun became Amun-Re (or Amun-Ra), the all-powerful creator and sun god of the universe. He was known for epithets such as “Lord of the Universe”, “King of the Gods” and “Lord of Upper and Lower Egypt”. With regard to the last epithet, the merged deity Amun-Ra symbolized the coming together of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.
Common depictions of Amun-Ra saw him as ram-headed man with two curved horns and a curved beard. In some depictions, he is shown with a knee-length kilt and a corselet; and atop his head are two straight parallel plums. As it was common with many Egyptian gods, Amun can be seen holding a staff in one hand and an ankh symbol in the other hand. The ankh symbolized his life-giving powers, both in the land of the living and the afterlife.
His depiction as a blue or black-skinned deity has to do with his association with fertility and the rich soil of the Nile Valley region. This trait of his allowed many of his worshipers to associate him with the fertility god Min.
The wife of Amun-Ra, Egyptian goddess Mut is known in the Book of the Dead as the creator of the souls and bodies of human beings. She is also seen as the deity who protects people from the forces of evil.
Egyptians often associated her with the vulture, making her a winged ancient Egyptian goddess. Atop her head is often the double crown of Lower and Upper Egypt.
In addition to her association with Khonsu and Amun-Ra, Mut was also associated with the goddess Maat, ancient Egyptian deity of truth, law and order.
Like her husband Amun-Ra and her son Khonsu, Mut’s main center of worship was in Thebes, particularly the Temple of Karnk.
Known to the ancient Egyptians as the moon god, Khonsu is a hawk-headed god believed to be the son of Mut and Amun-Ra. As a moon deity, Khonsu was seen as the god of fertility.
Common depictions of Khonsu see him with the head of a hawk and a lunar disk atop his head. Khonsu’s primary role in the Egyptian pantheon of gods was to offer advice to his fellow gods. He was also prayed to because the Egyptians believed that he possess solutions to their problems.
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Suppression of the Theban Triad of Gods
Following the death of Amenhotep III, his oldest son Akhenaten was crowned pharaoh of Egypt around 1353 BCE. He went by the name of Amenhotep IV, a reference to the immense adulation he and his father paid to the sun god Amun (Amen).
Beginning around the tenth year of Amenhotep IV’s reign (c. 1353-1337 BCE), the relatively young pharaoh had started developing a strong obsession to Aten, a largely minor sun deity in the Egyptian pantheon.
His admiration for Aten actually began during his sed festival celebration, where instead of heaping immense praise on traditional gods like Amun, Ptah, or Osiris, Amenhotep chose to place Aten at the center of his religious celebrations.
He changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten, a reflection of his strong devotion to the sun god Aten. As his reverence for Aten increased, the cult of Aten began to dwarf the cults of other gods in ancient Egypt. This was also due to the fact that Amenhotep IV purposely curtailed the worship of other Egyptian gods, including the chief god and sun god Amun (Amen). Some say it was an entirely political move, as he sought to stave off the political and religious elite the immense power they held in Egypt.
Revitalization of Theban Triad
For his sacrilegious acts, his successors tagged him as the heretic pharaoh of Egypt. And just as he tried to erase the worship of traditional ancient Egyptian gods, so did his successors work very hard to remove his name from the annals of history by chiseling out his names and images from monuments.
His immediate successor, possibly Smenkhkare who some claim was Queen Nefertiti disguised as a man, relocated the capital city back to Thebes. Similarly pharaohs Neferneferuaten, Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb were very important in restoring the polytheistic culture in ancient Egyptian religion. Pharaoh Horemheb is credited with completely stamping out the worship of Aten.