Ra (sometimes Rê based on the attested Coptic name and reconstructed as *Rīʕu (ree-uh-uh), meaning "sun") was a major deity in ancient Egyptian religion. This kingly god was primarily identified with the brilliant midday sun, though he was also understood to commanded sky, earth, and (to a lesser extent) the underworld. Further, this kingly role was understood to represent a literal and metaphorical relationship between himself and the human monarch (pharaoh), who was often seen as a son of Ra.
In surviving mythic accounts, Ra often replaces Atum as the father, grandfather and great-grandfather of the gods of the Ennead, and as the creator of the world. Likewise, humanity was supposedly created from Ra's tears or sweat, leading to the Egyptians calling themselves the "Cattle of Ra."
In later dynastic times, the cult of Ra was incorporated into various other worship structures, leading to various hybrid worship traditions (including the cults of Amun-Re, Atum-Re, and Re-Horakhty (which represents his affiliation with Horus).
As an Egyptian deity, Ra belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “the Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e. the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believer’s lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.
As Ra represented the sun, one of the key components in the cosmic system of the Ancient Egyptians, it is not surprising that he was consistently understood as one of the most important deities in the pantheon, often fulfilling a rulership role.
The centrality of Ra in the Egyptian cults, combined with the variety of roles that he fulfilled, led to a ubiquity of depictions and plethora of artistic representations. The most direct of these artistic images was simply to imagine the god as analogous with the solar disk itself (sometimes ensconced in the coils of a cobra). Even in cases where the iconography was more elaborate, this primal image was often incorporated.
When given a physical form, Ra was primarily depicted as a semi-humanoid, with a male's body (often surrounded by the appurtenances of kingship), and the head of a mythically-symbolic animal (either a "falcon, ram, or scarab"). Intriguingly, the god is sometimes portrayed differently according to the position of the sun in the sky: at sunrise, he was an infant (or scarab); at noon, a man (or simply the mighty solar disc); and at sunset, an old man (or ram-headed man). This constant aging can be seen as a symbolic demonstration of the concreteness of the Egyptian mythic imagination—just as the sun's light and heat changed in nature (quality, brilliance, temperature) during the course of an average day, so too must a deity that is, on a fundamental level, understood to be immanently present in that celestial sphere.
For the Egyptians, the sun most fundamentally represented light, warmth, and (resultantly) fertility, genesis and life. This made Ra (plus other deities related to the sun) tremendously important figures in the pantheon, to the extent that such deities were virtually always assigned a leadership role in the mythic conception of the cosmos. Given the immanental vision of deities in the Egyptian religious mode, the sun itself was either seen as the actual body or eye of Ra. Further, the centrality of the sun (and, as a result, the affiliated deity) allowed them to become metaphorical responses to numerous religious quandries: "the sun's life-giving power makes him [Ra] appear as the creator, the source of all existence; but his daily rising indicates a victory over the darkness of death, and his unalterable course through the sky exemplifies justice."
The leadership role fulfilled by Ra in the mythic pantheon was seen to be analogous to the relationship between the pharaoh and the people of Egypt.
In Egyptian mythology the creation of kingship and social order was synchronous with the creation of the world. Re [Ra] was thus the first king as well as the creator of kingship. The god ruler on earth over his creation until according legend he became old, the Re departed to the heavens where he continued to rule and also acted as the ancestor of the King of Egypt.
This contention is addressed further below.
Given the ultimate importance of creation accounts in the cosmological schemes of the Ancient Egyptian (as discussed above), Ra's most important role was as the ultimate creator of the universe. In this context, where time was seen as predominantly cyclical and human social institutions were interpreted as being permanent and unchanging, the creator was essentially responsible, not only for the origination of the cosmos, but also for all elements of the world order that continue to exist.
As a creator, Ra was the being present in the primeval sunrise—the first sentient force to emerge from the waters of primordial chaos. One of these accounts can be found in the first chapter of the Legends of the Gods, entitled "The Book of Knowing the Evolutions of Ra, and of Overthrowing Apep":
[These are] the words which the god Neb-er-tcher ["Lord to the uttermost limit," which can be interpreted (due to the title of the chapter) as describing Ra] spake after he had, come into being:—"… I am the creator of that which came into being, that is to say, I am the creator of everything which came into being: now the things which I created, and which came forth out of my mouth after that I had come into being myself were exceedingly many. The sky (or heaven) had not come into being, the earth did not exist, and the children of the earth, and the creeping, things, had not been made at that time. I myself raised them up from out of Nu, from a state of helpless inertness. I found no place whereon I could stand. I worked a charm upon my own heart (or, will), I laid the foundation [of things] by Maat, and I made everything which had form. I was [then] one by myself, for I had not emitted from myself the god Shu, and I had not spit out from myself the goddess Tefnut; and there existed no other who could work with me. I laid the foundations [of things] in my own heart, and there came into being multitudes of created things, which came into being from the created things which were born from the created things which arose from what they brought forth. I had union with my closed hand, and I embraced my shadow as a wife, and I poured seed into my own mouth, and I sent forth from myself issue in the form of the gods Shu and Tefnut. … Then Shu and Tefnut rejoiced from out of the inert watery mass wherein they [and] I were, and they brought to me my Eye (i.e., the Sun). Now after these things I gathered together my members, and I wept over them, and men and women sprang into being from the tears which came forth from my Eye. And when my Eye came to me, and found that I had made another [Eye] in place where it was (i.e., the Moon), it was wroth with (or, raged at) me, whereupon I endowed it (i.e., the (second Eye) with [some of] the splendour which I had made for the first [Eye], and I made it to occupy its place in my Face, and henceforth it ruled throughout all this earth.
This account attests well to the centrality of Ra, as it depicts him as the ultimate progenitor of the cosmos, the origin of all deities, and the creator of the human race (through his tears).
As Ra was primarily seen as a sun god (or more literally, as the sun itself), his relevance to the underworld would seem indirect at best. In spite of this, the mythic imagination of the Egyptian people construed a means of aligning this central deity with the concerns of death and rebirth that undergird much of their religious thought.
In this case, the synthesis between Ra (the quintessential "over-world" god) and the dusky realms of death was accomplished by including a subjugating voyage through this realm into the mythic time line. More specifically, the sun god, who was understood to navigate the heavens each day in his celestial barque, was thought to descend below the disc of the world at sunrise and to battle his way through the forces of chaos each night. In his chthonian travels, Ra was accompanied by various gods, including Ma'at who guided the boat's course, and Set and Mehen who helped defend its divine passenger against the various malefic beings they encountered on the journey. These creatures included Apep, the serpent who tried consume the sunboat whole every day.
The various adventures experienced by the sun god are depicted, both verbally and pictorially, in the Book of the Am-Tuat and the Book of Gates. For instance, the Book of the Am-Tuat (the underworld) describes the daily contention between the gods and evil of Apep:
They follow after this god, and the flames which issue from their mouths drive away Apep on behalf of Ra into the Hall of the East of the Horizon. They journey round about the upper heavens in his following [remaining] in their places, and they restore these gods after this great god hath passed by the hidden chamber of the sky, and then they take up their positions [again] in their own abodes. They give pleasure to the hearts of the gods of Amentet through Ra-Heru-khut, and their work upon the earth is to drive away those who are in the darkness by the flames of their uraei which are behind them, and they guide Ra along, and they smite Apep for him in the sky.
Given this daily trial, the Egyptians saw the sunrise as the rebirth of the sun, which affiliated the concepts of rebirth and renewal with Ra.
The daily transformation of Ra, from vulnerable infant to virile adult to doddering senior (as described above), was the foundation for one of the most enduring mythic tales concerning the sun god.
In it, Isis, the storied fertility goddess, decides that she wishes to claim a portion of the divine ruler's power for herself. So, she fashions a venomous serpent from clay and breathes life into it, and then places it into the god's path. Her goal in setting this devious trap is to force the sun god to reveal his secret name to her, which once known will provide her a measure of his world-altering power.
Everything progressed as the wily goddess had foreseen. Nearing the end of the day, as Ra made his regular circuit of the earth and his divine power ebbed, the snake struck, wounding the god on the heel. Unable to resist the effects of its potent poison, the sun god collapsed. His retinue of gods began to panic, all unable to come to the aid of the stricken deity. At this point, Isis revealed herself and offered to counteract the venom if Ra revealed the secret of his power:
Then said Isis unto Ra, "What thou hast said is not thy name. O tell it unto me, and the poison shall depart; for he shall live whose name shall be revealed." Now the poison burned like fire, and it was fiercer than the flame and the furnace, and the majesty of the god said, "I consent that Isis shall search into me, and that my name shall pass from me into her." Then the god hid himself from the gods, and his place in the boat of millions of years was empty. And when the time arrived for the heart of Ra to come forth, Isis spake unto her son Horus, saying, "The god hath bound himself by an oath to deliver up his two eyes" (i.e., the sun and moon). Thus was the name of the great god taken from him, and Isis, the lady of enchantments, said, "Depart, poison, go forth from Ra. O eye of Horus, go forth from the god, and shine outside his mouth. It is I who work, it is I who make to fall down upon the earth the vanquished poison; for the name of the great god hath been taken away from him. May Ra live! and may the poison die, may the poison die, and may Ra live!" These are the words of Isis, the great goddess, the queen of the gods, who knew Ra by his own name.
This tale evidences certain facts about Egyptian theology. First, the gods are not immortal, despite their mystical potency and metaphoric correspondences with natural phenomena. Second, their powers are not inherently tied to their characters (as Isis is able to assume the powers of Ra through her trickery). This provides a mythic confirmation of the "multiplicity of approaches" hypothesis, which argues that each god can be understood as a loosely organized aggregate of powers and associations. Indeed, mythic tale provides an Egyptian framework for understanding the multipartite gods (such as Amun-Re, Atum-Ra), as it presents an account of "Isis-Ra" — one deity coming to possess the powers and associations of two.
As mentioned above, the cult of Ra was both one of the most prevalent and one of the most ancient in the Egyptian religious system. The sun god's cult began to develop as early as the Second Dynasty (ca. 2950-2750 B.C.E.), establishing Ra as the sun god. By the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2575 B.C.E.), the god was already firmly ensconced in his role as divine monarch, with the Pharaohs coming to be seen as his manifestations on earth. In honor of this identification, the most popular epithet for Egyptian royalty came to be "Son of Ra." This trend was explicitly fostered by the Egyptian royalty in the Fifth Dynasty, when they began to commission massive building projects to honor the deity (including specially aligned pyramids, obelisks and solar temples). Also, this period saw the inscription of the first Pyramid Texts into these monuments, which increased the mythic cachet of Ra by elucidating his role in the Pharaoh's journey through the underworld. This relationship also came to be understood reciprocally, as "surviving temple rituals show that every Egyptian king was expected to play an active magical role to help the sun god triumph over the forces of darkness and chaos."
By the Eleventh Dynasty (ca. 1900 B.C.E.), Ra's involvement in the afterlife of humans also came to include an explicitly moral and evaluative component. In this respect, he came to be closely affiliated with Ma'at, goddess of law and truth, to the extent that some texts implied that he would punish the evil after death. For instance, a tomb inscription from the period dissuades looters by calling upon this (evidently current) image of the god as judge:
But as for all people who shall do evil to this (tomb), who shall do anything destructive to this (tomb), who shall damage the writing therein, judgment shall be had with them for it by the Great God [Ra], the lord of judgment in the place where judgment is had."
Further, the Middle Kingdom saw Ra being increasingly combined and affiliated with other deities, especially Amun and Osiris (as noted below).
During the New Kingdom period (1539-1075 B.C.E.), the worship of Ra becomes yet more intricate and grandiose. The walls of tombs became dedicated to extremely detailed texts that told of Ra's journey through the underworld (such as the Book of Am-Tuat and the Book of Gates (mentioned above)). On his infernal journey, Ra was now said to carry the prayers and blessings of the living to their deceased loved ones. Further, "Re also [had] a strong presence in New Kingdom religious literature — especially in funerary texts which successfully balanced the position of the sun god with that of Osiris."
As with most widely worshiped Egyptian god-forms, Ra's identity was relatively fluid, which allowed worship traditions traditionally dedicated to him to be successfully affiliated with other cults. As the popularity of various solar deities fluctuated, Ra's role as the ultimate solar god in the Egyptian pantheon was constantly in flux. Horus, Ra, Aten and Amun-Re jockeyed for position as immanent representations of the sun, even though all three retained their solar links. Over time, Ra (and sometimes Horus) were broken down into several smaller aspect gods, who presided over the sun at sunrise, noon and sunset. Indeed, "every god who [came] to assume a universal role as a result of political circumstances [borrowed] solar and creative functions from Re." However, as Frankfort argues, it is more true to the original materials to think of these multipartite cults as being composites rather than syncretisms—as what was in effect was a purposeful integration of various forms of iconography and spheres of influence, rather than a haphazard synthesis of disparate ideas.
Amun was a member of the Ogdoad (representing creation energies) and was a very early patron of Thebes. He was believed to create via breath, and thus was identified with the wind rather than the sun. As the cults of Amun and Ra became increasingly popular in Upper and Lower Egypt respectively, they were combined to create Amun-Ra, a solar creator god. It is hard to distinguish exactly when this combination happened, with references being made in pyramid texts to Amun-Ra as early as the Fifth Dynasty. The most common belief is that Amun-Ra was invented as the new state deity by the (Theban) rulers of the New Kingdom to unite worshipers of Amun with the older cult of Ra, beginning around the Eighteenth Dynasty.
Atum-Ra (or Ra-Atum) was another composite deity formed from two completely separate deities. However, Ra shared more similarities with Atum than with Amun. Atum was more closely linked with the sun, and was (like Ra) also a creator god. Both Ra and Atum were regarded as the father of the gods and Pharaohs, and were widely worshiped. So, it was almost inevitable that the two cults were merged under the name of Atum-Ra.
In Egyptian mythology, Ra-Horakhty was more of a title, or manifestation, than a composite god. It translates as "Ra, who is Horus of the Horizons." It was intended to link Horakhty (as a sunrise-orientated aspect of Horus) to Ra. It has been suggested that Ra-Horakhty simply refers to the sun's journey from horizon to horizon as Ra, or that it means to show Ra as a symbolic god of hope and rebirth (as discussed above).
Khepri, the scarab beetle that rolled up the sun in the morning, was sometimes seen as the morning manifestation of Ra. Similarly, the ram-headed god Khnum was seen as the evening manifestation of Ra. The idea of different gods (or different aspects of Ra) ruling over different times of the day was fairly common, but possessed both geographical and historical variants. With Khepri and Khnum taking precedence over sunrise and sunset, Ra was often the representation of midday, when the sun reached its peak at noon. Sometimes different aspects of Horus were used instead of Ra's aspects.
Ra was rarely combined with Ptah, but, as per the Memphite creation myth (which gave Ptah the place of primacy), the sun god was often said to be Ptah's first creation.
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