The Egyptian god Ra was the ultimate source of light energy and life.
As the first sunrise, he often emerged as a shining bird or golden child from the watery chaos of Nun. As the supreme deity of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, Ra represented the warmth and nourishment necessary for the growth of crops and the sustenance of all life.
His power was so great that he was often depicted as a falcon-headed man, towering above the other gods.
Despite the passing of time, the influence of Ra can still be seen in many aspects of modern culture.
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Etymology of Ra’s Name
The Egyptian word for sun is “Ra.” However, Ra was known by many other names, some of which referred to other sun gods from other prominent cities in Egypt.
Some of these names included:
Ra originated in Heliopolis, a city known to the Greeks as the “city of the sun god” and called Iunu by the Egyptians.
Today, Heliopolis is a suburb of Cairo.
The worship of Ra and the importance of the sun in ancient Egyptian religion can be traced back to the city’s very name, which literally means “city of the sun” in Greek.
The sun god’s association with Heliopolis was so strong that the city became one of the most important religious centers in ancient Egypt.
Real-world History of the Ra Myth
The cult of Ra originated in the city of Iunu, also known as Heliopolis, which was known as the “city of the sun god” to the Greeks.
The Egyptians believed that the pyramids were rays of light coming from the sun, and they built temples in honor of Ra that were open to the sunlight and had no statues, as the sun itself represented Ra.
The earliest known solar temple in Heliopolis was thought to be the place where Ra first emerged at the beginning of creation.
The First Reference
The first reference to Ra dates back to the Second Dynasty.
From the Fifth Dynasty, which began in the twenty-sixth century BCE, to the Roman Period, all the rulers of Egypt called themselves the “Sons of Ra.”
The enemies of Egypt were labeled as the enemies of Ra, and the worship of the sun god reached its peak during the New Kingdom.
Many tombs in the Valley of the Kings depict Ra’s journey through the underworld.
The Middle Kingdom
In the Middle Kingdom, Ra merged with the god Amun to become Amun-Ra.
However, the pharaoh Akhenaten attempted to reject the worship of Amun-Ra in favor of Aten, another solar god, but this change was short-lived.
The worship of Ra continued to be a central part of ancient Egyptian religion until the end of the civilization.
Attributes of Ra
So what was Ra like? Well, there is actually a lot to talk about:
Ra was often associated with Maat, the goddess of balance and order, and was typically represented with a solar disk above his head.
He was often depicted as a man with the head of a falcon, holding a scepter and an ankh.
In some depictions, Ra was portrayed as a scarab beetle, as the scarab pushing dung across the desert symbolized the journey of the sun.
Ra traveled in a boat called the Atet, which carried him across the sky each day.
Ra was a powerful god who was revered by the ancient Egyptians for his role in the daily cycle of the sun.
He was seen as a symbol of order and stability, and was often invoked by pharaohs to bring them strength and power.
Despite his great power, Ra was also associated with justice and balance, making him a well-rounded and important deity in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
Relationship with Other Gods
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Ra was often depicted as having four souls:
It was sometimes said that Ra would merge with Osiris during his journey through the Underworld, becoming the “United One.”
In some myths, Ra was portrayed as an old man who was unable to prevent treachery among his family.
Isis, Ra’s daughter, eventually tricks him by poisoning him and then having him reveal his secret name to her so that she might heal him, thus robbing him of his power.
In other stories, Ra was portrayed as a vengeful god who created Sekmet to destroy many of the humans, but later regretted his actions.
Similarity to Horus
As Ra grew older, he became more distanced from the other gods and was only seen sailing across the sky.
However, in myths centered on Horus, Ra was known to intervene when an infant Horus was poisoned and Isis cried out to Ra to save him.
Ra and Horus were often seen as similar deities, as they both had eyes that represented the sun and the moon.
Ra-Horakhty, which means “Ra-Horus of the Double Horizon,” was a composite deity that combined the attributes of both Ra and Horus.
This similarity in imagery and mythology further solidified the connection between the two gods in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
Symbols of Ra
Ra was associated with several symbols that were often used to represent him:
- Solar Disk: The most prominent of these symbols was the solar disk, which was often depicted above Ra’s head. This symbolized his role as the god of the sun and the source of light and warmth for the world.
- Ankh: Another important symbol associated with Ra was the ankh, which was a hieroglyphic symbol that represented life and the afterlife. Ra was often depicted holding an ankh, which was seen as a symbol of his power to give and sustain life.
- Scarab Beetle: The scarab beetle was also a symbol of Ra, as the scarab was believed to push the sun across the sky each day. In some depictions, Ra was portrayed as a scarab beetle, which further emphasized his connection to the sun and its daily journey across the sky.
- The Falcon: The falcon was also a common symbol of Ra, as the falcon was a powerful and majestic bird that was closely associated with the sun. Ra was often depicted with the head of a falcon, which further emphasized his connection to the sun and its power.
Overall, the symbols associated with Ra were closely tied to his role as the god of the sun and his connection to the daily cycle of light and warmth.
These symbols helped the ancient Egyptians to understand and visualize the power and majesty of Ra, and they continue to be important symbols in the mythology of ancient Egypt.
Powers of Ra
Ra, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun, was believed to possess a number of powerful abilities:
- Hidden Name: One of his most important powers was derived from his hidden name, which was believed to hold great mystical power. According to myth, if someone were able to learn and speak Ra’s hidden name, they would be able to control him and wield his power for their own purposes.
- Power of Creation: Another important power of Ra was the power of creation. Ra was believed to have created the world and all of its inhabitants, and was thus seen as the ultimate source of life and vitality. This power was closely tied to his role as the god of the sun, as the sun was seen as a source of warmth and nourishment for the world.
- Sun and Light: Ra was also associated with the power of the sun and light. As the god of the sun, Ra was believed to control the daily cycle of light and darkness, and was seen as the source of warmth and light for the world. This power was closely tied to his role as the god of kings, as the sun was seen as a symbol of power and strength.
Family of Ra
Ra, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun, had a complex family tree.
Ra’s children were Shu and Tefnut, who in turn gave birth to Geb and Nut. Geb and Nut then gave birth to Osiris, Set, Nephthys, and Isis.
Ra was also believed to have given birth to Maat, the goddess of balance and order, and Thoth, the god of wisdom and knowledge.
Ra’s mother was Neith, although in some myths Ra was said to have no parents and was simply a self-created god.
Neith was an important goddess in her own right, and was believed to be the one who gave birth to Ra each morning and received him back each night. In this way, Ra was seen as being part of a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, with Neith playing a central role in this cycle.
The Stories of Ra
There are many stories involving Ra, including the following:
1. Role in Creation
Ra is the king of the gods and is responsible for creating the cosmos and its laws. According to this myth, Ra was born out of Nun, the ultimate nothingness, by willing himself into existence.
After coming into being, Ra masterbated to create the twins Shu and Tefnut.
Other gods were born in similar fashion, but sometimes another creator was responsible for bringing them into existence.
The basic idea behind the myth is that from a single, cohesive state of non-existence, the universe began to form piece by piece through the formation of individuals like Ra.
After creating his children, Ra set out to find them.
He sent out his eyes, the more powerful of which became the sun, and the second became the moon.
It is said that tears came from Ra’s eyes to form humans, with several explanations for this in the myth.
Some say that Ra was crying because of Shu and Tefnut, while others believe that he was crying because he could not see his mother Neith.
2. The Solar Journey
Ra was born every morning by his mother, the sky goddess. Throughout the day, he would transform in various ways before being absorbed back into his mother at night.
Sometimes, the myth of Ra’s daily journey was depicted as a voyage across the skies, with a crew of the solar barque having to overcome forces of chaos so that Ra could revive the sleeping dead and renew the world.
The Pyramid Texts are among the earliest sources for the myth of Ra’s daily journey, with the sun god asking for guidance from other spirits across the heavens.
Later, in the Coffin Texts increased the danger for Ra. When the solar barge entered the Underworld, it was frequently attacked with various dangers.
Finally, in the Underworld Books, the passage of Ra through the Underworld was said to wake the virtuous dead.
This added a new layer to the myth, in which Ra’s journey was not only about renewing the world, but also about helping the deceased on their journey to the afterlife.
3. Ra’s Curse of Nut
Shu and Tefnut gave birth to the god Geb and the goddess Nut.
Ra, the king of the gods, wanted Nut to be his wife, but she was in love with Geb. In response, Ra cursed Nut so that she could not give birth in any month or year.
However, the god Thoth, known for his wisdom and cunning, was able to help Nut.
He gambled with the moon and won five additional days of the year. This allowed Nut to give birth to her children, including Osiris, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.
The original Egyptian calendar consisted of 360 days, so the addition of the five extra days allowed by Thoth’s gamble had a significant impact on the calendar.
These five days became known as the “epagomenal” days, and they were celebrated as a time of feast and merriment.
4. Ra’s Secret Name
According to ancient Egyptians, names held great power, and many gods had secret names that were believed to hold great mystical power.
Ra was no exception, and he had a secret name that was known only to a few.
By the time of this story, Ra was old and had grown weak.
Isis, Ra’s daughter, wanted to dethrone him and make her husband Osiris the king of the gods. In order to do this, she needed to find a way to weaken Ra and rob him of his power.
Isis came up with a plan to create a snake using drool that Ra had let out while napping and some mud. She put the snake in Ra’s path, knowing that Ra was normally immune to such things.
However, since the snake was created with Ra’s own body, it was able to poison him and cause him great pain.
Ra, in his agony, called out to the other gods for a cure, but none of them had anything that could help. Isis, pretending to be concerned for her father, said that she could help if Ra would only tell her his true name.
Ra, desperate for relief from the pain, revealed his true name to Isis.
Using the power of Ra’s true name, Isis was able to cure him. However, she now had the power to control Ra, and she used this power to dethrone him and make Osiris the king of the gods.
This story shows the importance of names and their power in ancient Egyptian mythology.
5. Scourge of Egypt
Ra was the king of the gods and the creator of the universe. But he grew old, and some of the people began to lose respect for him.
To punish them, Ra had his eye turned into the fierce warrior goddess Sekhmet, who scoured the land, killing many people.
However, the violence became too much, and Ra realized that Sekhmet was on the verge of killing everyone.
To prevent this, he made Sekhmet drunk, which calmed her down and allowed her to stop her rampage.
This story illustrates the power and fury of Ra, as well as his ability to control even the most dangerous of his creations. It also shows the consequences of disrespecting the gods, and how even the most powerful deities can be vulnerable to the actions of mortals.
Ra in Pop Culture
In modern times, Ra is often depicted in books, movies, and TV shows set in ancient Egypt. For example:
- Staff of Ra in Raiders of the Lost Ark: in the 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, Indiana Jones uses the Staff of Ra to locate the Ark of the Covenant.
- Ra in Stargate: Ra is also a central figure in the 1994 science fiction film “Stargate”. In the movie, Ra is portrayed as an alien who poses as a god to the ancient Egyptians and uses a Stargate to travel to other planets.
- Kane Chronicles: In “The Kane Chronicles”, the Kanes find Ra in the House of Rest in the Duat and Sadie manages to revive him, but he remains senile. Despite reclaiming his throne, Ra does not return to his full strength and instead lives in the House of Life during the day and is protected by other gods during his nightly journey
- Gods of Egypt: Ra is also featured in the 2016 fantasy action movie “Gods of Egypt”. In the film, Ra is portrayed by actor Geoffrey Rush and travels through the sky on his Solar Barge.
Egyptian Mythology Bibliography
- Armour, R., 2010. Gods and myths of Ancient Egypt. The American University in Cairo Press
- Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Clayton, M., 2017. Egyptian Mythology: A Fascinating Guide to Understanding the Gods, Goddesses, Monsters, and Mortals.
- Wilkinson, R., 2017. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
- Lewis, S., 2018. Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Egyptian Myths, Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters.