One of the most important deities in Egyptian mythology, the sun god Ra (or Re) was the supreme power in the universe. The giver of life, he was often merged with the god Amun as Amun-Ra. Some myths present Ra as the head of the Egyptian pantheon and ruler of all the gods. Others say that he was the only god and that all other deities were merely aspects of Ra.
In some creation myths, Ra emerged from either a primeval mound or primeval waters as Ra-Atum and created Tefnut (Moisture) and Shu (Air). From this first divine pair sprang the sky goddess Nut and earth god Geb, who created the universe and gave birth to the gods Osiris*, Isis*, Set*, Nephthys, and Horus.
deity god or goddess
pantheon all the goods of particular culture
primeval from the earliest times
underworld land of the dead
Ra appeared in many myths and legends, and stories about him varied. As the sun god, he rode across the sky in a golden ship, bringing light and warmth to all creatures living on earth. When the sun set in the evening, he descended to the underworld and brought light and air to the people who dwelled there. Each evening Ra's servants helped him battle his eternal enemy, the mighty snake Apep (known also as Apophis), who tried to swallow
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Ra and all his creations. Some stories said that Ra sailed along the body of Nut, the sky goddess, during the day and then traveled through her body at night.
According to one series of myths, Ra first ruled during a golden age. Everything he saw was perfect, and the sight of such wonders brought tears to his eyes. The tears fell to earth and grew into human beings. In time, however, Ra became angry with the humans because of their actions. He summoned his divine eye, the beautiful goddess Hathor, and transformed her into Sekhmet, a savage lioness. Ra sent the lioness to earth to kill humans, but after she had caused massive bloodshed, he decided to save the humans that remained. He played a trick on Sekhmet, getting her so drunk on beer that she forgot to continue killing. Nevertheless, death had now been introduced into the world.
In another myth, the goddess Isis wished to learn the secret name of Ra. The name contained great power, which Isis planned to use to make her magical spells stronger. By this time, Ra had become quite old. Isis collected some of the spit that drooled down his chin, mixed it with clay, and made a poisonous snake. One day as Ra was out walking, the snake bit him. Tormented by terrible pain, Ra summoned the other gods to help him. Isis promised to relieve his suffering, but only if he revealed his powerful secret name. He finally agreed, and Isis used the name in a magical spell to remove the poison and heal the sun god.
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
The chief center for Ra's cult in ancient Egypt was the city of Heliopolis (city of the sun). As worship of Ra grew, it challenged the supremacy of all other cults and eventually became a part of them. Ra remained the principal god throughout the history of ancient Egypt, and Egyptian kings claimed to be the sons of Ra in order to link themselves to him. In ancient art, the god is commonly shown with the head of a falcon wearing a shining solar disk on its head.
See also Amun; Atum; Creation Stories; Egyptian Mythology; Hathor; Isis; Nut; Osiris; Set; Sun; Thoth; Underworld.
Sun–god of ancient Egypt and chief god of the pantheon of Heliopolis. The term r ' (pronounced rā ' or rē ') was the Egyptian word for the sun. A large part of the Egyptian religion was connected with the worship of the sun, which was the primary source of existence. Ra, the sun, in the widest and most general sense, was considered the creator of everything. Since the Egyptian state was god–given and established when the world was created, the monarchy was as old as the world, for the creator himself had assumed kingly office on the day of creation. Ra was called the first king of Egypt, and the pharaoh was his descendant and successor. As Ra put order (ma’at ) in the place of chaos, so the pharaoh's achievements were described in exactly the same way. From the beginning the king had been the god Horus or Har–akhti (symbolized by a hawk), the son of isis and Osiris. During the Fifth Dynasty the king became the son of Ra at Heliopolis (On). A millennium later, the previously obscure creator god amon of Thebes (No–Amon) was identified with Ra. Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (c. 1364–1347 b.c.) broke with Amonism, changed his own name to akhnaton (akh–en–aton), moved the capital from Thebes to Tell el–Amarna, and instituted the pure worship of Aton, the sun disc, in an attempt to suppress all other worship. However, throughout Egyptian history there was a tendency toward syncretism, so that the supreme god Ra could be identified with Atum (the god of "all" of the Heliopolis pantheon) and worshiped under the name of Ra–Atum or identified with other gods, so that he had such names as Amon–Ra, Ra–Har–akhti, and Khnum–Ra. This might have led (but did not) to true monotheism.
See Also: egypt, ancient, 1.
Bibliography: k. h. sethe, Amun und die acht Urgötter von Hermopolis (Berlin 1929). j. a. wilson, The Burden of Egypt: An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture (Chicago 1951; pa. The Culture of Ancient Egypt 1956). h. frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York 1961). For additional bibliography see egypt, ancient, 1.