ANCIENT EGYPTIAN GODS AND GODDESSES: THEIR ANIMAL FORMS, EPITHETS AND ICONOGRAPHY

ANCIENT EGYPTIAN GODS AND GODDESSES

20120214-Sobek Kom_Ombo Sobek_0315.JPG
Sobek at Kom Ombo
The Egyptians had over 2,000 gods. There were supreme gods, subsidiary ones. There were gods with specific duties, gods associated with specific tasks, gods worshiped in certain areas, gods enshrined in homes and gods associated with natural manifestations such as water and air. Many had totemist and animal elements. Grasping the pantheon of Egyptian gods and their symbols is a difficult task. Gods can be local or universal. Favored gods and their symbols often changed from year to year and region to region.

The ancient Egyptians visualized their deities in many ways and these deities took a variety of forms. Some were major deities with great powers and religious significance. Others were demons or genies, or living creatures chosen by ordinary Egyptians as their personal gods. Egyptian goddesses were sometimes pictured topless with a red dress. Goddesses are often distinguished from one another by their headdresses and jewelry around their neck.

There were a number of local Nile gods, including Hapy, the God of the Nile. Sebek (Sobek) was a local crocodile god popular in southern Egypt. He was honored as a god of fertility because the Nile floods brought fertile soil to the farmlands. Live crocodiles were kept at temples honoring Sobek and priests there may have bred crocodiles for ritual use.

The ancient Egyptians practiced polytheism: the worship of many gods. Polytheists have traditionally been looked down upon by practitioners of the great monotheistic religion which worship only a single god---Judaism, Christianity, Islam---as primitive and barbaric pagans. But who knows maybe they had it right. Mary Leftowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley College, argues that a lot of world’s troubles today can be blamed in monotheism. In the Los Angeles Times she wrote, Polytheists “didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped a different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided all the right answers.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Book: The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson.

Purpose and Organization of Ancient Egyptian Gods

The gods were ordered in a hierarchy. As was true in Mesopotamia local gods also had following in other towns and cities. Most important gods began as local deities and attracted more followers as the influence of their hometowns rose. When a region was conquered, its local gods were often assimilated into the Egyptian cosmological scheme.

The Egyptians believed that gods controlled every aspect of their lives and temples were built to honor them. Gods could be both benevolent and malevolent, good and evil, at the same time. Gods are often pictured holding an ankh and a wassat (a staff)--- signifying power. Egyptians believed that gods could die and be reborn. There were even god cemeteries.

Mark Millmore wrote in discoveringegypt.com: “Most Egyptian gods represented one principle aspect of the world: Ra was the sun god, for example, and Nut was goddess of the sky. The characters of the gods were not clearly defined. Most were generally benevolent but their favor could not be counted on. Some gods were spiteful and had to be placated. Some, such as Neith, Sekhmet, and Mut, had changeable characters. The god Seth, who murdered his brother Osiris, embodied the malevolent and disordered aspects of the world. [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com]

Pharaohs and the Gods


some Horuses on a Ramses II relief

The pharaohs were considered to be gods---incarnations of falcon-head Horus, children of the sun god Re. They were descendants of the Amun, regarded as the first Egyptian king, who in turn descended from the sun-god Ra and the falcon god of kingship Horus. Egyptians believed they were given their authority to rule when the world was created.

Referred to as the "lord of all the sun disk encircles," the Pharaoh was believed to be one with the universe and the gods and was regarded as an intermediary between the gods and people on earth. Through them the life force was conveyed from the gods to the people.

A Pharaoh’s coronation was viewed not as "the making of a god but the revealing of a god." According to the ancient Egyptians, the pharaohs were the link between heaven and the earth and their breath kept the two worlds separate.♣

Ancient Egyptian Gods and Animals

While the pharaohs were described as “half man and half god” the gods were described as “half man and half animal.” Many were depicted with human bodies and animal heads. There were animal cults that venerated bulls and crocodiles.

Some gods were defied animals. Characteristics of gods often matched the characteristics of the animals they were associated with. Storks were connected with soul perhaps because dwelt in the sky. Serpents were associated with deceit. The Hippopotamus god was associated with fertility and safe childbirth.

Sekhmet was the lion goddess—“the one who is powerful”---the embodiment of the fiery eye of the sun god Ra. Bes was a goddess who was part dwarf and part lion. She guarded pregnant women and newborn children. Bastet, the cat goddess, was associated with pleasure and was a favorite god who was honored with festivals.

Live animals were often kept in temples. One temple in Saqqara had 60,000 ibises. Symbols of the god Troth, ibises were mummified in greater numbers than any other animal. When these animals died they were mummified, and given funerals, sometimes with elaborate processions. In some cases, animals mummies were placed inside statues of the gods they were connected with.

Sacred Animals in Ancient Egypt

20120214-British_museum_Egypt_mummies_of_animals_.jpg
cat mummies
Animals were important in the religious life of ancient Egyptians in both their deified forms as half-animal Egyptian gods and as the animals themselves. A.R. Williams wrote National Geographic, “Different sacred animals were worshipped at their own cult centers---bulls at Armant and Heliopolis, fish at Esna, rams at Elephantine Island, crocodiles at Kom Ombo. Ikram believes the idea of such divine creatures was born ast the dawn of Egyptian civilization, a time when heavier rainfall than today made the land green and bountiful. Surrounded by animals, people began to connect them with specific gods according to their habits.” [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]

“Take crocodiles. They instinctively laid their eggs above the impending high-water line of the Nile’s annual flood, the pivotal event being that water enriched fields and allowed Egypt to be born again year after year.” Ikram said, “Crocodiles were magical because they had that ability to foretell.” [Ibid]

“The news of a good flood, or a bad one, was important to farmers. And so in time crocodiles became symbols of Sobek, a water god of fertility, and a temple arose at Kom Ombo, one of the places in southern Egypt where the swelling flood was first observed every year. In that sacred space, near the riverbank where wild crocodiles lay sunning themselves, captive crocodiles led an indulged life and were buried with due ceremony after death.” [Ibid]

“Some places were associated with just one god and its symbolic animal, but old venerated sites such as Abydos have yielded whole menageries of votive mummies, each species a link to a particular god...Excavations have uncovered ibis mummies likely representing Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. Falcons likely evoked the sky-god Horus...And dogs had ties with jackal-headed Anubis, the guardian of the dead.” [Ibid]

Ancient Egyptian Gods: Animal Versus Human Form


Four sons of Horus

Richard H. Wilkinson of the University of Arizona wrote: “ The visualization of deities in Egyptian culture was manifold and could include a great many different forms ranging from strictly human, to hybrid (or “bimorphic”) and composite varieties. [Source: Richard H. Wilkinson, University of Arizona, Egyptian Expedition, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

Mark Millmore wrote in discoveringegypt.com: ““The physical form taken on by the various Egyptian gods was usually a combination of human and animal, and many were associated with one or more animal species. And an animal could express a deity’s mood. When a god was angry, she might be portrayed as a ferocious lioness; when gentle, a cat. The convention was to depict the animal gods with a human body and an animal head. The opposite convention was sometimes used for representations of a king, who might be portrayed with a human head and a lion’s body, as in the case of the Sphinx. Sphinxes might also appear with other heads, particularly those of rams or falcons.” [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com ^^^]

“Many deities were represented only in human form. Among these were such very ancient figures as the cosmic gods Shu of the air, Geb of the earth, the fertility god Min, and the craftsman Ptah. There were a number of minor gods that took on grotesque forms, including Bes, a dwarf with a mask-like face, and Taurt, a goddess whose physical form combined the features of a hippopotamus and a crocodile.” ^^^

Egyptian Gods with Animal Forms

Richard H. Wilkinson of the University of Arizona wrote: “Hybrid,” or perhaps more accurately “bimorphic” (half-human, half-animal), deities could have the head of either a human or an animal and the body of the opposite type. The head is consistently the essential element of bimorphic deities. Such deities are only partly anthropomorphic in nature as well as in form. They are “the product of a compromise between anthropomorphic thought aimed at abstraction and the appearances of natural forces”. Technically, one might argue that representations of goddesses with wings (Isis, Nephthys, etc.) are hybrid forms, though these are usually classified as fully anthropomorphic. [Source: Richard H. Wilkinson, University of Arizona, Egyptian Expedition, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]


Jackal-headed Anubis

“Composite deities differed from the hybrid or bimorphic forms in that they embodied a combination of several deities or parts thereof, rather than an individual god in a particular guise. They could thus be made up of numerous anthropomorphic or zoomorphic deities and include, in the former case, beings such as multiple-headed and many-armed deities that may have incorporated a combination of as many as a dozen different gods. Yet despite their bizarre appearances, there remains a degree of logic to many of these polymorphic deities. <>

“This is perhaps most obvious in zoomorphic examples such as the fearsome Ammit and the more benign Tawaret, which were both part hippopotamus, crocodile, and lion, but fused to very different effect. It also seems probable that fused anthropomorphic deities of this type shared some connection or suggested a specific kind of divine identity to the ancient Egyptians, though the connections may not be clear to us today. Syncretized deities such as Ra-Horakhty, Ptah- Sokar-Osiris, and Amun-Ra may also be classified as deities of this type, though they are usually viewed as one deity simply residing within another, and their iconography may stress the characteristics and attributes of only one of the component deities. <>

“A rigidly fixed iconography for a given god was uncommon, and many deities appeared in several guises....When individual gods or goddesses were depicted in multiple forms, the various forms often reflected the original nature of the deity (for example, Hathor, who could be represented as a cow, as a woman with the head of a cow, or as a woman with a face of mixed human and bovine features). It was also theoretically possible for all deities to be depicted in human form—at least from the New Kingdom—and representations of groups of anthropomorphically depicted gods (including such traditionally zoomorphic or hybrid deities as Anubis) do occur, for example, in some temple settings.” <>

Epithets of Egyptian Gods

Dagmar Budde of the University of Mainz wrote: “The almost infinite number of epithets applied to Egyptian deities attests to the complex and diverse nature of Egyptian gods. In general, epithets outline a deity’s character, describe his/her physical appearance and attributes, and give information about the cult. Epithets immediately follow the deity’s name and can be made up of several distinct components. In hymns and ritual scenes, epithets often occur in long strings. It is useful to distinguish between epithets that identify a unique aspect of a deity’s personality (“personal epithets”) and epithets that refer to a particular situation or activity (“situational epithets”); in the latter case, the epithet can be applied to multiple deities. [Source: Dagmar Budde, University of Mainz, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Egyptian deities carried epithets that give informationvabout their nature, forms of manifestation, and spheres of influence, as well as genealogical relations and connections with particular locations. In most cases, epithets immediately followed the name. In the course of time, particularly in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, they grew in complexity. Their length and meaning varied according to context and text medium. <>

“Whereas a name was normally associated with one deity only, epithets could be transferred to other deities allowed for the creation of new deities. “Personal epithets” (for definition, see below) could be combined with names and titles into a titulary (nxbt, rn-wr). Like the royal titulary, names and epithets of gods were occasionally written in cartouches. This was often the case with Isis, the God’s mother (mwt-nTr), Osiris-Onnophris, and Horus “Who decides the battle of the Two Lands” (wpj-Sat- tAwj). The location of the inscription, a deity’s position and function within the pantheon, and the situational context were crucial factors in the formation of epithets. <>


Family of Gods


“The numerous epithets of Egyptian deities encompass in principle the following three domains : 1) nature and function, 2) iconography (physical characteristics, posture, and attributes), and 3) provenance and local worship; to which can be added the following subdomains: 4) genealogy, 5) status and age, and 6) myths and cosmogonies.” <>

Nature and Function of Egyptian Divine Epithets

Dagmar Budde of the University of Mainz wrote: “A deity’s nature can be expressed in his/her name, e.g., Amun (“the hidden/secret one”), Khons (“the traveler”), Sakhmet (“the mighty one”), but epithets usually give more information about his/her character and spheres of influence. In the formation of epithets, an ideal image of humans was partly projected onto the world of the gods. Epithets can therefore refer to human traits like wisdom, friendliness, honesty, and a sense of justice. Further themes are the ability to change shapes, to regenerate, and to create, as well as physical strength and weaknesses, freedom of movement, and the closeness to humans. [Source: Dagmar Budde, University of Mainz, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“This is illustrated by the following examples: as sun god, Ra is the “Lord of rays” (nb-HDDwt); in his role of moon deity, Khons appears as he “Who repeats rejuvenation” (wHm-rnp). Osiris, the dying and eternally reborn god, was worshipped as “Lord of life” (nb-anx), “Weary of heart” (wrD- jb), and “Who wakes up complete” (rs-wDA), as well as “Master of the course of time (nb-nHH, HqA-Dt). Due to her intelligence, Isis is “Great of magic” (wrt-HkAw) and all-knowing, “Without whose consent no king ascends the throne” (nj-aHa-Hr-nst-m-xmt.s). Horus, the falcon deity and son of Isis and Osiris, is the “Lord of the sky (nb-pt), dappled of plumage, who appears from the horizon”, “Beautiful of face, who shines in the morning and brightens the sky and earth at his rising”. Thoth is the “Judge” (wp), “Who does not accept bribes” (bXn-Snw) and “Who separates the Two Contestants” (wp- rHwj); the latter refers to Horus and Seth as they fight over who will succeed Osiris in office. Foremost, Amun dispenses the breath of life (dj-TAw), but he is also a deity who—like the sun god or Hathor and Maat—“hears prayers” (sDm(t)-sprw/snmHw) and thus serves as a contact for humans. <>

“Epithets generally describe deities in a positive light. Gods act in accordance with maat, are hence “Lord or Lady of Maat” (nb(t)- MAat), overcome chaos and enemies (dr- jsft/sbjw/xftjw), loathe lies (bwt.sn-grg), and everyone rejoices at their sight (Haa-Hr-nb-n- mAA.f/.s). However, Seth is an example of how negative traits can also be expressed. This happens, for instance, when Seth is called “unsuccessful” (wh or wh-sp.f).” <>

Iconography, Origin and Myths of Egyptian Divine Epithets


ring with the epithet "beloved Amen"

On the iconography (physical characteristics, posture, and attributes) of Egyptian divine epithets, Dagmar Budde of the University of Mainz wrote: “The outer appearance of Hathor is addressed in her epithet “Whose eyes are festively painted”(sHbt-mnDtj), while for child deities, especially in the Roman Period, the epithet “With a beautiful side lock” (nfr/an-dbnt) is characteristic. Posture is addressed in epithets like “With extended arm” (fAj-a, awt-a), which are characteristic for Amun-Min, who is depicted with a raised arm, and for the vulture goddess Nekhbet, who extends her wing in protection. Amun-Min is also “Tall of two plumes” (qA- Swtj), a reference to his double-plumed crown. Amun-Min’s epithet “Who boasts of his perfection” (ab-m-nfrw.f) demonstrates that the transition between domains 1 and 2 can be fluid. It refers on the one hand to the ithyphallic representations of the deity, but on the other hand also to his fertility and potency traits. [Source: Dagmar Budde, University of Mainz, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Origin and local worship. Epithets that establish a connection with a cult site usually consist of two parts and are constructed with “Lord/Mistress (of)” (nb/t), “Ruler (of)” (HqA/t), “Foremost (of)” (xntj/t), or “Dwelling in” (Hrj/t-jb) followed by the name of a location. The formulations Hrj/t-jb and xntj/t generally signal that the deity is the recipient of a local guest cult, whereas nb/t is reserved for the main deity of the area. <>

“Genealogy. Epithets can also refer to kinship relations. This is most often expressed in a genitival construction with the words “Father (of)” (jtj), “Mother (of)” (mwt), “Son, Daughter (of)” (zA/t), “Brother, Sister (of)” (sn/t), “Child (of)” (nxn, Hwn, xj, Xrd, sfj, etc.), and “Heir (of)” (jwaw) followed by the deity’s name or characteristic epithets. <>

“Status and age. With adjectives like “great,” “small,” and “first” (wr/t, aA/t, nDs/t, Srj/t, tpj/t), epithets can indicate the status of a deity or his/her position within a hierarchy. Many label the deity as “unique” (wa/t), others distinguish the deity with formulations such as “Whose like does not exist (among the gods)” (jwtj-sn.nw.f/.s, jwtj-mjtt.f/.s, n-wnn-mjtt.f, nn-Hr- xw.s-m-nTrw) and “Beyond whom nobody exists” (jwtj-mAA-Hrj-tp.f/.s), or establish a relationship with a comparative construction like “Who is greater than all other gods” (wr-r- nTrw-nbw). Expressions referring to age such as “Small child” (Xrd-nxn) and “Eldest one” (jAw/smsw) also belong in this category. <>

“Myths and cosmogonies. Phrases constructed with the lemma SAa (“to begin”) designate creator gods and label the deity as primeval. Others refer to myths (e.g., “Eye of Ra,” jrt-Ra) and cosmogonies (“Who creates sky, earth, water, and mountains,” jr-pt-tA-mw-Dww) and can further be of a very general nature when they characterize the deity as “Great god” (nTr/t- Aa/t, nTr/t-wr/t), “Beneficent god” (nTr/t-mnx/t), or “Noble god” (nTr/t-Sps/t).” <>

Formation Principles and Sources of Egyptian God Epithets


Aten epithets

Dagmar Budde of the University of Mainz wrote: “Various principles were applied in the formation of epithets. In most cases, epithets consist of two parts. Most common are two nouns in a genitive construction such as “Lord of the sky” (nbt-pt) or “Mistress of all gods” (Hnwt-ntrw-nbw). Other constructions include noun with adjective (e.g., “Great goddess,” nTrt-aAt, “Great sovereign,” jtj-wr, “Perfect youth,” Hwn-nfr), participle with direct object (e.g., “Who breastfeeds her son,” pnqt-zA.s, “Who strikes the foreign lands,” Hw- xAswt), and adjective with object (e.g., “Who has great strength,” wr-pHtj). [Source: Dagmar Budde, University of Mainz, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“In comparison, epithets were rarely construed with definite articles like, for example, “The child” (pA-Xrd) as a designation of several child deities or “The menit (necklace)” (tA-mnjt) as an epithet of Hathor. Sporadically, demonstrative pronouns occur, most often for Horus and Seth, who can be designated as “This one” (pn) and “That one,” respectively. <>

Epithets can be found in almost all text genres, in particular in the religious text corpora such as the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, the Book of the Dead, the underworld books, but also in literary texts, on funerary objects (e.g., stelae, sarcophagi, and coffins), in administrative documents (e.g., inventory lists), legal documents, correspondence, as part of priestly titles and proper names, etc. On stelae, tomb and temple walls, and in papyri, hymns, cult songs, litanies or lists of deities, and mythological texts offer a comprehensive characterization of the addressed deities. <>

“In the temples, ritual scenes on the walls provided ample room for new, occasionally very long formations and combinations. In particular in the elaborate formulae of the ritual scenes of the Egyptian temples of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, the redactors devised chains of epithets, which, following a trend in contemporary royal titularies, increased successively in length and variety. The designation aSA/t-rnw, “She/He with many names,” which was associated particularly with Amun, Ra, Osiris, and other creator deities since the New Kingdom.” <>

Personal and Situational Divine Epithets

Dagmar Budde of the University of Mainz wrote: :In addition to the categories listed above, there exists a distinction between epithets that express the unique personality of the deity irrespective of context or medium, in other words, that establish the deity’s identity, and those that refer to the immediate context. The latter occurs primarily in ritual scenes in which the deity adopts a scene-specific role. Dieter Kurth has coined such epithets “personal” and “situational” epithets, respectively. <>


element with reliefs pf ears and the epithe Lady of Dendara and the names Taweret and Hathor

“Situational epithets are often ad hoc formations, which could yet develop into formulaic sequences of epithets, for example, in a scene with Hathor in which she is offered a menu-jar with an intoxicating beverage: “Hathor, the Great, Lady of Dendera, Eye of Ra, Lady of the sky, Ruler of all gods, Lady of the Two Lands, Lady of bread, who brews beer, Lady of dance, Ruler of the jba- dance, Lady of drunkenness, Lady of jubilating, Lady of making music, Lady of jubilation, Ruler of joy”. In this case, the personal epithets end with “Ruler of all gods” and are followed by the situational epithets. The same happens in a scene in the Roman Period mammisi in Dendera in which emperor Trajan symbolically offers the horizon to Hathor of Dendera and Horus of Edfu. Following a listing of her personal epithets, the goddess is called here “Powerful one, Daughter of Atum, Rait in the sky, Ruler of the stars, who rises in gold together with him who shines in gold”. <>

“In ritual scenes, the possibilities are nearly unlimited; multiple relations to the subject matter of the scenes and the offering items are established in the epithets. The deity is oftentimes called their possessor (nb/t, jtj/t, HqA/t, Hnwt), conceiver (SAa), distributor (rdj/t, sSm/t), etc. <>

“Personal epithets tend to follow the name immediately in apposition, are often of ancient origin, and remain basically unchanged in their structure and predication, as the nature of deities changed little over time even if their sphere of influence could be extended. Examples are Anubis, who as god of the necropolis always carried the epithet “Lord of the sacred land” (nb-tA-Dsr), and Seshat. Moreover, in the latter case the falcon god, the child god, and the goddesses Hathor and Isis incorporate the names and personal epithets of Horus-the- Behdetite (“Great god, Lord of the sky,” nTr-aA nb-pt). The example illustrates that knowledge of mythological connections is often demanded for the reading and correct understanding. This is also required when the appellation “Eye of Ra” (jrt-Ra) is written with a seated falcon god holding a wedjat-eye on his lap. Similarly subtle writings of god names have been discussed by Junker and more recently. <>

“A phenomenon of late texts is the use of epithets as autonomous names This led to the creation of new, independent, usually locally worshipped deities, as in the Theban region in the temples in El-Qala and Shenhur where “The great goddess” (tA-nTrt-aAt) and “The lady of joy” (nbt-jhj) were worshipped as manifestations of Isis and Nephthys.” <>

Anthropomorphic Deities in Ancient Egypt


Amun

Anthropomorphic deities are gods that have a human form. Richard H. Wilkinson of the University of Arizona wrote: “Although they all shared the common characteristic of exhibiting primarily anthropomorphic identity in their iconographic form and mythological behavior, deities of this class might take fully human, hybrid (“bimorphic”), or composite form. They could include deifications of abstract ideas and non-living things, as well as deified humans—living, deceased, or legendary (such as Imhotep). While a category of “anthropomorphic deities” was not one that the Egyptians themselves differentiated, deities of this type included many of Egypt’s greatest gods and goddesses, and the anthropomorphic form was used more than any other to depict the interactions of humans and the gods in religious iconography.[Source: Richard H. Wilkinson, University of Arizona, Egyptian Expedition, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“Deities manifested in fully human form appear at a fairly early date. Decorated vases from the Naqada II Period (c. 4000 - 3300 B.C.) display a number of apparent divine emblems including two that have been connected with anthropomorphic deities worshipped in the Pharaonic Period: the god Min and the goddess Neith. Thus, both male and female anthropomorphic deities seem to have played a role in Egyptian religious thought before the establishment of the earliest known dynasties, though many clearly originated in the Dynastic Period. It has been suggested that this “anthropomorphization of powers” was associated with a fundamental change in human perception of the world occurring between the time when Predynastic kings still had animal names and a time in which humans began to impose their own identity upon the cosmos. <>

“While a rigidly fixed iconography for a given god was uncommon, and many deities appeared in several guises, deities with primary anthropomorphic identities (usually those deities whose earliest representations are anthropomorphic) are less frequently depicted in other forms, though exceptions occur. As time progressed, the goddess Isis (depicted anthropomorphically in her earliest representations) was depicted as a serpent, a bird, a scorpion, or other creature, based on her particularly rich mythology.” <>

Nature of Anthropomorphic Deities

Richard H. Wilkinson of the University of Arizona wrote: “Despite the prevalence of zoomorphic deities in Egyptian thought and the fact that these forms appear to have represented the earliest of Egypt’s divinities, anthropomorphic gods and goddesses were of great importance and embraced a greater number of deities than any other form in developed Egyptian religion. The fluid manner in which anthropomorphic deities were represented in different forms argues against the notion that the human-formed gods were viewed as more important, yet they were nevertheless of fundamental significance in terms of the developed concept of deity itself. It is perhaps not coincidental that anthropomorphic forms were routinely utilized for the generic representation of “god” or “gods” from the Old Kingdom onward, and representations of enneads—which suggest the totality of the gods by their nature and numerical significance— most frequently depict gods anthropomorphically. Deities of this type included many of Egypt’s greatest gods and goddesses and the anthropomorphic form was that in which deities were most frequently depicted in their interactions with humans in religious iconography. [Source: Richard H. Wilkinson, University of Arizona, Egyptian Expedition, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]


Isis

The preponderance of deities of anthropomorphic form may also have historical implications. Although there were numerous reasons why the nature of Amarna religion was inimical to Egyptian religious orthodoxy, the fact that the greatest of Egypt’s established deities were anthropomorphic, or portrayed as at least partly so in developed Egyptian religion, may have made it less likely that the non- anthropomorphic nature of the Aten would have been widely accepted as a supreme deity. It is certainly clear that the anthropomorphic deities of other ancient Near Eastern cultures were readily absorbed into Egyptian religion, whereas non-anthropomorphic foreign deities usually were not. <>

“In many cases, the anthropomorphic form was applied to deities whose original identities and roles were abstract or not easily symbolized in the natural world. Thus the so-called “cosmic” gods and goddesses of the heavens and earth such as Shu, god of the air or light, and Nut, goddess of the sky, were generally anthropomorphic in form, as were “geographic” deities, i.e., deities representing specific topographical and geographic features or areas such as mountains, cities, estates, and temples. Though in some cases attributes—such as blue skin for the marsh gods and for Hapi, god of the Nile inundation—might be given to these deities, they are often only identified iconographically by their names. Fecundity figures representing personifications of aspects of non-sexual fertility are minor deities of this type. Other deities—some of them very ancient, such as the fertility god Min—do not fit precisely within these general categories but were also usually manifested in human form. In addition, this category includes elevated humans such as deified living kings, deceased kings— and to some extent their royal kas—as well as some other notable individuals

The essential identity of many anthropomorphically depicted deities can be difficult to ascertain, however. A number of important gods and goddesses were given different names and epithets suggesting multiple identities. Some, such as the deity Neferhotep, clearly fulfilled several distinct roles, sometimes without exhibiting any single identity that could be said to be clearly “primary”. Generally, and often as a result of the fusion of multiple deities, the greater the god or goddess, the wider the range of associations and identities the deity might have.” <>

Human Characteristics of Anthropomorphic Deities

Richard H. Wilkinson of the University of Arizona wrote: “Not only were deities perceived as taking human forms, but they were also imagined to take on human roles, characteristics, and behavior. The Memphite Theology, which describes the god Ptah as creating with his heart and his tongue (i.e., through deliberative thought and executive speech), underscores the essentially anthropomorphic nature of the god’s actions at even the most transcendent level. Like their human subjects, the Egyptian gods were said to speak, to hear, and to perceive smells and tastes. They could eat and drink (sometimes to excess), they could work, fight, lust, laugh, and cry out in despair. Anthropomorphic deities were clearly viewed as having human needs, and this was, of course, the basis of many aspects of their cults . They could also interact well or poorly and could express anger, shame, and humor— sometimes exhibiting distinctive personality traits as part of their identities. [Source: Richard H. Wilkinson, University of Arizona, Egyptian Expedition, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]


Maat

“The “humanness” of anthropomorphic deities also embraced human social structures: the social relationships inherent in human pairs and family groups were just as much a part of the divine as the human sphere. As time progressed, many of the cults of the major deities were organized into triads of a “father,” “mother,” and “son”— such as that of Amun, Mut, and Khons at Thebes, or Ptah, Sakhmet, and Nefertem at Memphis—and “child deities” such as Horus the child and Ihy were also independently venerated, especially in the first millennium. Many deities were also organized into generational groups, and a great deal of Egyptian religious thought was developed within the parameters of these familial structures. <>

“The anthropomorphic deities of the Egyptian pantheon also reflected non-kinship societal relationships. Just as the Egyptians were ruled by a king, so there was also a “king of the gods.” Although Ra (or Amun-Ra) was usually given this epithet, the god Osiris could be said to fulfill this role in terms of the afterlife realm and Ptah was often said to be “King of Heaven.” Several deities were given monarchial attributes. Likewise, the essential roles of some deities (for example, Thoth the scribe, and Montu the warrior) reflected aspects of human society. Although such roles bound the respective deities to specific mythological situations, they were not exclusive and did not limit the gods’ power in other settings.Indeed a wide range of roles and powers is particularly associated with anthropomorphic deities, as noted above. <>

“Ultimately, the very categorization of Egyptian deities as “anthropomorphic” must be mediated through an understanding of the multiple ways in which these deities could be envisioned and depicted, as well as the divine roles and associations that were shared by deities of different forms. The category was, after all, not one that the Egyptians used themselves. Yet the importance of this type of deity in understanding Egyptian religion is not only found in the development of humanity’s view of itself and its gods that seems to have occurred in the earliest stages of Egyptian history (the “anthropomorphization of powers”), but perhaps also in the underlying possibility that at some level the ancient Egyptians may have felt an increasing identification with their anthropomorphic gods—especially in periods of Egyptian history when the phenomena of personal piety and communication with the gods seem to have been more pronounced.” <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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