The Egyptian God Ra - Lord of Life and Light
The Ancient Egyptian pantheon was filled with imaginative deities of all kinds. In fact, this pantheon numbered hundreds of different gods and goddesses, whose importance often waned over the passing centuries. But one deity was always amongst the most important and sacred to the Egyptians - Ra. Primarily considered the God of the Sun, he was revered by every class in Ancient Egyptian society - from its earliest beginnings.
The Egyptian God Ra and the Fantastic Journey of the Sun
This powerful deity has been present in Ancient Egyptian religion since its earliest origins. Scholars agree that by the time of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt - around the 25th and 24th centuries BC - Ra held one of the highest positions in the pantheon, and had a developed cult followings in many cities.
In many ways, Ra was seen as the personification of the Sun at its zenith, or the noon-day Sun. And, as we know, many ancient civilizations depended on the Sun. It could either bring life and prosperity - or drought and death. So it is not at all surprising that many cultures worshiped the Sun in one form or another. For the Ancient Egyptians, the Sun took on the form of a human with a falcon’s head, on top of which rested the bright sun disk.
The falcon’s head signifies that the god Ra shared some characteristics with an equally old and respected deity - Horus. The latter also had a falcon’s head, and was worshiped as the god of the skies and of kingship, and was seen as Egypt’s tutelary god. Often enough, these two important deities were merged into one “super god”, called Ra-Horakhty, or “Ra, who is Horus of the Two Horizons”. Either way, the two falcon-headed gods could certainly be distinguished, and held equally important places in the pantheon.
Of course, as the god of the Sun - one of the most important objects of worship in the Ancient world - Ra was a principal deity, and was credited with numerous achievements. The Ancient Egyptians believed that Ra was the creator of all life on Earth, in its every form. From his sweat and tears humans were formed, and were ever at the whim of this mighty god. Ancient legends tell of Ra’s wrath - when humans revolted against him, he killed many of them with his fiery eye. This is a clear reference to the devastating heat of the sun which would bring droughts and mass death. Because of this, Ra had to be appeased and worshiped.
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The God in the Solar Barque
Without the Sun, there is no life. Without its light, there is just nothingness and darkness. The Ancient Egyptians knew this and knew that the Sun was one of the most important aspects of their collective wellbeing. And it was Ra who brought the Sun into the skies every single day. The Egyptians believed that Ra sailed across the skies in a ‘solar barque’, upon which he carried the Sun, thus lighting the day and bringing renewed life. Of course, he gradually moved away, and sank beneath the western horizons, as his journey made him pass through the underworld. This, of course, is night time.
Ra Traveling through the underworld. (Public Domain)
During the crossing of the underworld, Ra would take on a different form, this time having the head of a ram. As he crossed the regions of the subterranean world, he would be attacked by his great enemy, the snake Apophis, who attempted to stop the Solar Barque from passing. And each night, Ra would be triumphant, emerging once more in the morning to sail across the skies.
At times, over the many centuries, the importance of Ra rarely waned. It was most infamously overshadowed by the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who made attempts at a radical change in Ancient Egyptian religion. This ruler switched to an almost monotheistic religion, worshiping the Sun in a different form - the Aten, the beneficial sun’s warmth. The people were appalled, and Akhenaten’s regime was doomed to fail. As soon as his reign was over, the old religion was returned, and falcon-headed Ra resumed his rightful and all-important role.
A stele depicting Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and his family worshipping the Aten or sun disk. (Public Domain)
The God from the Place of Pillars
Needless to say, Ra had many regional cult centers and followings, and many temples were devoted to him. But the most important cultic center of Ra was the ancient city of Iunu (“The Pillars”), later to be known as Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. The city was so devoted to this god, that it was colloquially called “The House of Ra”. Sun temples, pyramids, and obelisks were all erected in the honor of Ra, funded by the powerful pharaohs who were seen as the deity’s manifestations on Earth. Tombs were adorned with complex texts devoted to Ra, especially on his journey through the underworld, when he also transported the souls of the dead.
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The only Egyptian obelisk still standing in its original position at the site of a former temple to the sun god Ra, at Heliopolis City of the Sun. (Public Domain)
Alas, like many other Egyptian gods, Ra’s ultimate fate was sealed. With the rise of the Roman Empire, and the passing of the world into an entirely new era, ancient gods were destined to perish. By the time Christianity began spreading through the world, Ra was largely forgotten, its worshippers subdued and subjugated, dead and forgotten. But the relics, the frescoes, and the texts - they were left for posterity as a lasting memory of the Sun god.
Top image: Representation of Egyptian super god, Ra known also as Ra-Horakhty. Source: AkuAku/Adobe Stock
Armour, A. R. 2001. Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt. American University in Cairo Press.
Carabas, M. 2018. Ra: The History and Legacy of the Ancient Egyptian God of the Sun. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Pinch, G. 2004. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press.