The Egyptian pantheon is full of many deities, each with its own significance, myths and symbolism. Some of these beings goes through several transformations between the different Egyptian kingdoms, which can make it confusing to identify them. In this article, we cover 25 of the most popular gods of ancient Egypt, and why they’re important.
Ra is one of the most famous gods of ancient Egypt. He was both the sun god and was the main deity in Egypt by the Fifth Dynasty or around 25th and 24th centuries BCE. Ra was also believed to be Egypt’s first pharaoh back when gods roamed the Earth with people. As a result, he is also worshipped as the god of order and kings. After his ascension, Ra was said to cross the sky on his ship or “solar barge” as the sun, setting in the west every evening and traveling the underworld, Duat, in order to rise in the East again in the morning. During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, Ra was also often affiliated and combined with other deities such as Osiris and Amun.
Osiris took over the world from Ra when the latter grew old and ascended to the heavens. Osiris was the son of Geb and Nut and was a wise and just pharaoh – he taught the people of Egypt how to farm and how to build large cities. Legend says, however, that he was eventually betrayed by his jealous brother Set, who tricked him into lying in a golden coffin. Set killed Osiris and cut him into pieces as he was in the coffin. And even though Osiris’ wife Isis eventually managed to resurrect him and make him into the first mummy, Osiris wasn’t fully alive anymore. Since then, he became the god of the underworld where he judged the souls of the dead.
Isis was the sister and wife of Osiris and the goddess of magic, and is often portrayed with large wings. In a popular myth, Isis poisoned Ra with a snake, and would only heal him if he revealed his true name to her. After he told her his name, she healed him and removed the poison, but she had become powerful with the knowledge of his name and could manipulate him to do anything.
In one version, Isis used her power to force Ra to move further away from the world, as his tremendous heat was killing everything in it. In the other version, she used the power to miraculously fall pregnant from the mummified Osiris.
After Osiris’ death at the hands of Set, Isis managed to resurrect her husband and he then retired to rule over the Underworld. Isis encouraged their son Horus to avenge his father by battling Set. Portrayed as a beautiful winged woman, Isis was worshipped as a clever and ambitious goddess as well as a loving spouse.
The brother of Osiris and father of Anubis, Set or Seth is a god with a mixed reputation. He has always been worshipped as the god of the desert, storms, and foreign lands but he used to be viewed positively by the ancient Egyptians. For a long time, he was believed to ride the sky with Ra on his solar barge every day, protecting him from the armies of the evil serpent, Apep.
In the days of Osiris, however, the legend of Set killing his brother and usurping his throne became prevalent in Egypt and turned the god’s reputation in a more negative direction. He began to be seen as an antagonist in the stories of Osiris and Horus.
Thoth was worshipped as the god of wisdom, science, magic, and hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt. He was depicted as a man with the head of either an ibis bird or a baboon, as both animals were sacred to him.
Together with his wife Ma’at, Thoth was said to live on Ra’s solar barge and travel with him through the sky. While Thoth never got the “chief” role in Egypt’s pantheon the way Ra, Osiris, Set, Horus, and others did, Thoth was always revered as a vital god in Egyptian mythology.
The son of Osiris and Isis, and the nephew of Set, Horus is usually portrayed as a man with a falcon head. He’s worshipped as the god of the skies but also of kingship and remained the chief deity in the Egyptian pantheon until the era of Roman Egypt. In the oldest Egyptian myths, he was known as the tutelary or guardian deity in the Nekhen region of Upper Egypt but he eventually rose to the top of the Egyptian pantheon. After Horus’ uncle Set usurped the divine throne from Osiris, Horus battled and defeated Set, losing an eye in the process but also winning the throne. The Eye of Horus is an important symbol in itself, representing protection and guardianship.
It’s no secret that the ancient Egyptians used to worship cats. That’s largely because of how useful these pets were for them – they used to hunt snakes, scorpions, and other nasty pests that plagued the Egyptian’s everyday lives. Often pictured as a cat or a lioness with jewels on her head and neck, and even a knife in her foot, Bast was the goddess of the Egyptians’ feline pets. She was also sometimes depicted as a woman with a cat’s head.
A protective goddess, Bast or Bastet, was the patron goddess of the city Bubastis. She was often connected with Sekhmet, another of Egypt’s protective goddesses. While the latter was portrayed as a warrior, however, Bast had a more subtle yet important protective role.
Sekhmet, or Sachmis, was a warrior goddess and a goddess of healing in Egyptian mythology. Like Bast, she was often portrayed with a lioness’ head but was a much more war-loving deity. She was particularly viewed as the protector of pharaohs in battle and she was the one that would carry the pharaohs to the afterlife if they died in battle. This puts her in a somewhat similar position to that of Odin’s valkyries in Norse mythology.
Bast, on the other hand, was more of a common people’s goddess which is likely why she is the more famous of the two today.
Amun or Amon is a major Egyptian deity, typically worshipped as the creator god in Egyptian mythology and the patron god of the city of Thebes. He is a part of the Ogdoad, the pantheon of 8 major deities in the city of Hermopolis. He gained a much wider national importance later on when Egypt was unified and Amun became “fused” with the sun god Ra, from then on worshipped as Amun-Ra or Amon-Ra.
After Alexander the Great conquered large swathes of the Middle East and Egypt, in many of the territories with mixed Greek and Egyptian influences Amun started being identified with Zeus and worshipped as Zeus Ammon. Together with Osiris, Amon-Ra is the most widely recorded Egyptian deity.
Amunet, or Imnt, is one of the primordial deities of ancient Egypt. She’s the female counterpart of the god Amun and is also a part of the Ogdoad pantheon. The name “Amunet” was popularized by 20th century Hollywood movies as an Egyptian queen but she was actually one of the oldest Egyptian gods. Her name comes from the Egyptian feminine noun jmnt and means “The Hidden One”. This is similar to Amun’s name which also has a similar meaning but comes from the masculine jmn. Before Amun fused with Ra, he and Amunet were worshipped as a pair.
Son of the “evil” god Set, Anubis is the god of funerals. Despite his relation to death, he was actually revered and loved by the Egyptians who were firm believers of life after death. Anubis was the one who helped Isis mummify and resurrect her husband Osiris after Set killed him. Anubis was also believed to care for every soul in the afterlife and prepare them for the Hall of Judgement where Osiris would judge their life and worth. Anubis wore the head of a jackal as the Egyptians associated these animals with the dead.
Ptah is the husband of the warrior goddess Sekhmet and an ancient Egyptian deity of craftsmen and architects. He was also believed to be the father of the legendary sage Imhotep and the god Nefertem.
He was also worshipped as a creator god as he existed before the world itself and thought it into existence. As one of the oldest deities in Egypt, Ptah was the recipient of many other honors and epithets – the lord of truth, the master of justice, the lord of eternity, the begetter of the first beginning, and more.
Hathor had many different roles in Egyptian mythology. She was portrayed either as a cow or as a woman with cow’s horns and a sun disk between them. That’s because in many legends she was believed to be Ra’s mother. At the same time, she acted as Ra’s feminine counterpart and as the Eye of Ra – the very sun disk which the sun god used against his enemies.
Her portrayal as a cow was actually flattering as cows were associated with maternal care. In other myths, however, she was also believed to be the mother of Horus instead of Isis. This is supported by her very name which in ancient Egyptian is read as ḥwt-ḥr or House of Horus.
A lesser known god, who was popular back then, and a somewhat amusing deity, Babi was the god of sexual aggression as well as Duat, the Underworld. Babi was portrayed as a baboon because he was the god of wild baboons, animals well-known for their aggressive tendencies. This puts him in contrast to Thoth for whom baboons are also sacred. However, while with Thoth baboons are associated with wisdom, the exact opposite is true for Babi. This god’s name translates as Bull of the baboons, i.e. the chief baboon.
The son of Amun and the goddess Mut, Khonsu was the god of the moon in ancient Egypt. His name translates to atraveler which likely refers to the moon traveling across the sky every night. Like Thoth, Khonsu was a god that marked the passage of time as the ancient Egyptians used the phases of the moon to mark time. He was also believed to play an instrumental role in the creation of all living things in the world.
Geb and Nut
Many deities in ancient Egypt came in pairs but were also important individually. However, Geb and Nut simply have to be talked about as one. Geb is the male god of the earth and Nut is the female goddess of the sky. He was often portrayed as a brown-skinned man, laying on his back while covered in rivers. Nut, on the other hand, was portrayed as a blue-skinned woman covered with stars stretching above Geb.
The two of them were siblings but were helplessly attracted to each other. The sun god Ra knew of a prophecy that Geb and Nut’s children would eventually overthrow him, so he tried his best to keep the two apart. Eventually, Nut had four or five children, depending on the myth, from Geb. These were Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys, with Horus often added as a fifth child. Naturally, the prophecy came true, and Osiris and Isis overthrew Ra and took his throne, followed by Set and then Horus.
Shu is one of the primordial gods in Egyptian mythology and he’s the embodiment of air and wind. He’s also the god of peace and lions, as well as the father of Geb and Nut. As the wind and air, it’s Shu’s job to keep Geb and Nut apart – a job he did well most of the time except whenever Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys were conceived.
Shu is one of the nine deities in the Ennead – or main pantheon – of Heliopolis cosmology. He and his wife/sister Tefnut are both children of the sun god Atum. The three of them are accompanied in the Ennead by their children Geb and Nut, their grandchildren Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys, and sometimes by Osiris and Isis’ son Horus.
In the Hermopolitan Ogdoad pantheon of Egyptian gods, Kek was the personification of cosmic darkness. His female name was Kauket and the two of them were often thought of as representing the night and day. The two of them were depicted as humans with various different animal heads. Kek often had the head of a snake while Kauket – the heads of either a cat or a frog.
Curiously enough, “kek” also has the modern meme meaning of “lol” in many message boards and is often connected with another meme – Pepe the Frog. While this connection was coincidental it has sparked a lot of interest in the ancient Egyptian deity.
Bes is a god most people are surprised to find in the Egyptian pantheon as he’s a dwarf. While we usually associate dwarves with Norse mythology, Bes was a very popular, albeit minor, deity in Egypt.
He was usually portrayed as a rather ugly person with a lion’s mane and a pug nose. He was a powerful protector of mothers and children, however, and was believed to scare off evil spirits. People in Egypt believed that those born with dwarfism were inherently magical and brought luck to the household.
Just as the Egyptians associated cows with motherly care and protection, they also thought the same of female hippos. They were afraid of hippos in general as the animals are overly aggressive but the Egyptians nevertheless recognized motherly care in that aggressiveness toward outsiders. That’s why it’s not surprising that the goddess protector of pregnant women Tawaret was portrayed as a female hippo.
Tawaret was portrayed as an upright female hippo with a big belly and often Egyptian royal headgear on her head. She was said to scare off evil spirits during pregnancies and childbirth just like Bes, and the two were thought of as a pair.
Nephthys is the least talked about of the four children of Geb and Nut as Osiris, Isis, and Set are much more well-known nowadays. She was the goddess of rivers and was very much beloved by the ancient desert-dwelling Egyptians.
Just as Osiris and Isis were married, so were Set and Nephthys. The god of desert lands and foreigners didn’t get along with his river goddess wife too well, however, so it’s no surprise that Nephthys helped Isis resurrect Osiris after Set killed him. She mothered Anubis, the god of funerals and mummification, and he too went against his father and helped in Osiris’ resurrection.
One of the oldest deities in Egypt, Nekhbet was first a local vulture goddess in the city of Nekheb, later known as the city of the dead. She did eventually become the patron goddess of all of Upper Egypt, however, and after the kingdom’s unification with Lower Egypt, she was one of the two most honored gods in the entire kingdom.
As a vulture goddess, she was the goddess of the dead and the dying but was also the protector goddess of the pharaoh. She was often portrayed as hovering over him protectively rather than menacingly.
The corresponding patron deity of Lower Egypt to Upper Egypt’s Nekhbet, was Wadjet. She was a serpent goddess, often portrayed with the head of a snake. Pharaohs of Lower Egypt would wear the symbol of the rearing cobra called Uraeus on their crowns and that symbol would remain on royal headgear even after the unification of Egypt. In fact, the Eye of Ra sun disk symbol that emerged centuries later continued to feature two Uraeus cobras on the sides of the disk, in homage to Wadjet.
The god of crocodiles and rivers, Sobek was often portrayed as a crocodile or a man with a crocodile head. As the fearsome river predators were a menace for many Egyptians, Sobek was often feared by the people of Egypt.
At the same time, however, he was also honored as the god of pharaohs in some cities and as a powerful military deity, likely because crocodile-infested waters would often stop advancing armies. Funnily enough, he was also a god of increased fertility – that’s likely because of crocodiles laying 40-60 eggs at a time. It was also said in some legends that the world’s rivers were created from Sobek’s sweat.
Originally a Nubian war goddess, Menhit was portrayed as a woman with a lioness’ head and royal headgear. Her name translates to she who massacres. She was also sometimes depicted on pharaohs’ crowns instead of the traditional Uraeus symbol. That’s because she became known as a crown goddess after she was adopted by the Egyptians. Menhit also personified the brow of Ra and was sometimes identified with another feline war goddess Sekhmet, but the two were distinctly different.
Death continues to be one of the greatest fears of human society. Since the dawn of recorded history through the centuries of plague, pestilence, and meeting our own modern global pandemic, death has always been a worry. It marks the end of life and forces cosmic questions such as: What is the purpose of life? Is there an afterlife, and if an afterlife exists, how does someone guarantee his or her place in it? The ancient Egyptians definitely believed in an afterlife, but they also believed that the afterlife was not a guaranteed experience. The deceased must avoid dangers and pass tests to become justified in gaining admittance into paradise. To aid the deceased on his or her journey, the ancient Egyptians created fabulously detailed Books of the Dead with magic spells and practical advice divided into chapters. One of the finest chapter examples is the Judgement Scene from Book of the Dead of Hunefer. It records the most dramatic moments in one man’s journey to enter the ancient Egyptian afterlife. What follows is Hunefer’s story captured on papyrus over 3,300 years ago.
History: Surrounding Circumstances
The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with the art of dying well. They wanted to ensure their place in the afterlife and that it was as enjoyable as life itself. Hunefer was no exception to this desire, especially since he had a privileged and prosperous life. He was a royal scribe and steward to Pharaoh Seti I, who ruled during the 19th dynasty of the New Kingdom. Hunefer boasted many titles including Estate Overseer of Menmaatra, Overseer of the Cattle of the Lord of the Two Lands, and King’s Scribe. The era in which Hunefer lived was a period of renewed prosperity. Like his own Judgement Scene, many fine works of art and calligraphy were created through private commissions. Every Book of the Dead was different–all custom-made. No two are identical examples. Over 200 known spells in cursive hieroglyphs could be individualized for inclusion in chapters with accompanying vignettes or miniature paintings. Hunefer’s Judgement Scene is one such chapter of his Book of the Dead. Because these funerary papyri were so long and had so many chapters, they were known by the ancient Egyptians as Chapters of Coming Forth by Day.
Pantheon of Gods: Supervisors & Witnesses
Hunefer’s Judgement Scene is Frame/Chapter 3 of his Book of the Dead/Chapters of Coming Forth by Day. The chapter measures 1’ 6” H x 3’ W (45cm H x 90.5cm W), resulting in a panoramic 1:2 aspect ratio. It is divided into two major registers–or horizontal levels–separated by defined lines. In the first register, in the upper left corner, kneels the adoring Hunefer in front of a pantheon of Egyptian gods. The gods are individually labelled and identified as Ra (immediately in front of Hunefer) followed by Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Horus, Isis, Nephthys, Hu, and Sia, and the personifications of the Southern, Northern, and Western Roads. These fourteen gods will act as supervisors and witnesses to the drama that unfolds below in the second register of Judgement Scene.
Anubis: Prosecutor & Defense Attorney
On the left side of the second register of Judgement Scene is the Theban scribe Hunefer holding hands with the jackal-headed god Anubis. Anubis is the ancient Egyptian god of embalming and the protector of the dead. He leads Hunefer towards the balance scale where he will perform the critical Weighing of the Heart Ceremony which will determine if Hunefer is “True of Voice” or worthy of eternal life. Hunefer’s heart sits on the left side of the balance scale weighing against the Feather of Ma’at (Truth) on the right side. The ancient Egyptians believed a person’s heart was the seat of emotions, intellect, and character. It was the organ thus representative of a person’s good or bad life. It was so symbolically important to the ancient Egyptians that it was one of the few organs remaining in the body after the famous mummification process.
If the heart weighed more than the Feather of Ma’at, then the heart indicated a sinful life ineligible to an afterlife. Sinful hearts that failed the test were immediately devoured by Ammit, the grotesque creature below the scale and sitting to the right of Anubis. Ammit is a female demon with a hybrid body. She is part crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus. She is a manifestation and combination of the three largest man-eating animals known to ancient Egyptians. Hence she was fearfully known as the Devourer of the Damned because anyone who had his or her heart eaten was deprived of an eternal afterlife. He or she was condemned to non-existence–a second but far worse death in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians. Judgement Scene captures the balancing act with Anubis adjusting the plumb-weight and Ammit looking eagerly for her next meal. The tension is almost palpable.
Thoth: Court Stenographer
Standing to the right of Anubis, Ammit, and the scale is the ibis-headed god Thoth. Thoth is the god of writing, scribes, and magic spells. He stands facing the balance scene, holds a pen and a scribal palette, and records the test’s results. His face bears no emotion, unlike the demoness Ammit. He is simply an objective stenographer transcribing the proceedings before him. Thoth completes the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony in Judgement Scene. However, what does Thoth record? Does Hunefer’s heart weigh the same as the Feather of Ma’at, thus proving he is worthy of an afterlife, or does he face eternal oblivion?
Court Decision: Not Guilty!
Hunefer passes the test! Standing to Thoth’s right is Hunefer again but with happiness that anyone who has ever passed a difficult test can understand. There is a sense of euphoria, self-congratulations, but more importantly, relief. The test is over, and the anxiety can end. Hunefer is clearly delighted with his test result because his face has a more animated expression compared to his image earlier in the scene on the far left. His eyes are wide, and his lips are curled in a closed smile. Pride can almost be felt in his heart. Judgement Scene is going to deliver a happy ending!
Horus: Court Guard
In Judgement Scene, the falcon-headed god Horus stands to Hunefer’s immediate right and points with his right hand towards the seated Osiris, god of the dead, afterlife, and agriculture. Horus is the god of kingship and the sky and is the son of the god Osiris and the goddess Isis. Horus escorts Hunefer to meet the divine family and to be welcomed into the afterlife.
Osiris: Judge & King
To the far right of Judgement Scene sits the deathly green-skinned Osiris. He is enthroned within his judgement hall at the center of his divine court. Before him are the four sons of Horus standing on a large lotus flower that grows from a pool of water beneath the throne of Osiris. Behind Osiris are his sister-wife-goddess Isis and sister-goddess Nephthys. They hold their left hands in veneration of Osiris and in welcome of Hunefer. Osiris holds the crook and flail symbolizing his kingship and his control of the fertility of the land. He is king over the Fields of Reeds, or paradise, which is the ancient Egyptians’ ideal vision of an afterlife. It is a bountiful agricultural land where the Nile River regularly rises and famine does not exist.
Style: Liberal vs. Conservative
Judgement Scene from Book of the Dead of Hunefer is certainly a complex painting with its vignettes and passages from spells to ensure a successful weighing of the heart. What is incredible to consider is that Judgement Scene represents only one chapter, one stage, one obstacle of Hunefer’s long journey into the afterlife. There are more dangers he must face, but Judgement Scene captures the most dramatic of his challenges. It is beautifully illustrated with bold lines and vibrant colors. It has a strong formality in the figures’ rigid stances and angular frames. Judgement Scene marks the return to a more conservative and traditional style of ancient Egyptian art and rejects the flexible, curvilinear, and liberal style of the Amarna Period during the previous 18th dynasty. The scene is finely crafted, and paying the expert scribes and master draftsmen who created it would have easily cost Hunefer six months of wages. Since it was so expensive, it is believable that Hunefer, a formally trained royal scribe, would have written some parts of his own Book of the Dead to offset the overall cost. The less work others had to complete, the more he would have saved. All it would have cost Hunefer were his materials and his own time– but not other people’s wages.
Conclusion: Final Judgement
No matter the methodology of how Judgement Scene from Book of the Dead of Hunefer was created, it can be agreed that it is a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art. It is expertly rendered, and it is wonderfully preserved after the three millennia since its creation. When the British Museum acquired Judgement Scene in 1852 and placed it on public display, it inadvertently fulfilled Hunefer’s desire to achieve immortality. His artwork has been viewed by the general public for over 160 years, and his name has been spoken by countless visitors as they read the labels describing his papyri. The ancient Egyptians believed that to speak the name of the dead was to make them live again. Well, Hunefer, you live every day, my friend, because your name continues to be said through the fabulous artistic legacy you left behind. Enjoy the afterlife, Hunefer. May we all be so lucky when we, too, leave our mortal shell and pass into the unknown.
Gardner, Helen, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 12th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. ISBN 9780155050907.
Hagen, Rose-Marie, and Rainer Hagen. Egyptian Art. Edited by Norbert Wolf. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2018. ISBN 9783836549172.