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Ram-headed-amun-pharaoh

Ancient Egyptian mythology can seem like a baffling tangle of multi-faceted gods who subsume each others’ identities, roles, and symbols. Perhaps the best way to understand the mutable nature of Egyptian deities is to recognize that the pantheon reflected the changing political realities of Ancient Egyptian culture. The drawback with this methodology is that the culture of Ancient Egypt lasted for approximately 3000 years (!), so it is still not easy to summarize Egyptian mythology.

Statues of Amun rams from the great forecourt of the Temple of Karnak

Statues of Amun rams from the great forecourt of the Temple of Karnak

Consider the deity Amun Ra. Amun Ra ended up as the king of the gods of Egypt—the emperor of heaven who created all things. There were times in the New Kingdom, when worship of Amun Ra bordered on monotheism and the other gods were regarded as flickering extensions of Amun Ra. However it did not start this way. Originally Amun and Ra were separate. In the Old Kingdom Amun was a mysterious god of hidden magical breath. The Old Kingdom ended in 2181 BC in a dark age of war and strife which lasted for a century (a time now known as “the First Intermediate Period”). At the end of this period, Amun had grown in importance and become the god of the winds and the patron god of Thebes. The Middle Kingdom was a glorious age for Egyptian civilization, but it too came to an end in stagnation, civil war, and invasion—”the Second Intermediate Period”–which lasted from 1786 BC to 1550 BC. During this Second Intermediate Period, a mysterious group of heterogeneous invaders—the Hyksos—took over Egypt and created their own dynasties. The Hyksos were finally driven from Egypt by nobles from Thebes who founded the 17th dynasty (the first of the New Kingdom). Since Thebes was politically ascendant, the Theban patron god Amun merged with Ra and became ruler of the gods. Before being combined with Amun, the deity Ra had long been worshiped as the sun god.

Ra on the the Mesektet with Apophis below (from the Tomb of Ramses I, ca. 1290 BC)

Ra on the the Mesektet with Apophis below (from the Tomb of Ramses I, ca. 1290 BC)

Ra traveled through the firmament on two solar boats. By day he traveled through the sky on the Mandjet (the Boat of Millions of Years). At night he took on his form as a great ram and traveled through the underworld on the Mesektet (the evening boat). Ferrebeekeeper has touched on the Mesektet before, but we were concentrating on giant evil snake deities back in those days, so ram-headed Ra didn’t really get his due in the earlier post.

Amun Ra in his splendid towering crown

Amun Ra in his splendid towering crown

Amun Ra had several forms which reflected his diverse origin, but he was most often portrayed as a mighty ram or as a pharaoh with a distinctive towering headdress…or sometimes as a falcon with the sun on his head. When I started writing this article I had hoped for some explanation of why Ra was called “Ram of the Underworld” or why the ram came to prominence over other animals to wind up as the favored animal head for the king of the gods, but if such explanations exist, they have eluded me. You’ll have to be content with the fact that the king of the gods of Egypt was most often a ram. I’m not even sure if I said that right: but I guess I don’t need to worry about literalistic ancient Egyptian priests and worshipers showing up in the comments to berate me (a consideration which crossed my mind when I decided to write about Amun Ra as opposed to other supreme sheep gods whom I could name).

Amun-Ra_relief,_Temple_of_Amun,_Kawa,_Ancient_Nubia_(Sudan)_-_20071210

Welcome to Egypt week at Ferrebeekeeper! All of this week’s posts will share an Egyptian theme.  To start out Egypt week, we cast our gaze deep into the underworld beneath the Nile and the burning desert.  The dark river passages beneath the world are said to be the home of the principle ancient Egyptian god of chaos, the great serpent Apep (AKA Apopis or Apophis).

According to myth, the sun god Ra carried the sun across the heavens on a mystical solar boat every day.  Then every evening Ra returned from west to east via an unseen river path through the underworld.  As night covered the world and the sun god struggled to return to the farthest point in the east in time for sunrise, the great serpent would appear from the dark waters to attack the boat.

Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of battle and pleasure, helps to subdue Apep

Apep would try with all of his might to devour the sun in the manner than a serpent eats an egg. Some myths maintain that Apep was the sun god before Ra and wanted the sun back out of dynastic bitterness.  In other sources the great demon is not ascribed with a back story and is only a huge snake who wants to eat the sun.  Sources agree that Apep was not so much worshiped as “worshiped against.”   Many prayers and liturgies from ancient Egypt are magical incantations to help the gods stave off attacks by the huge poisonous snake.

Ra was assisted in fighting off the nightly attack by an unlikely figure, the powerful god Set–a fratricidal maniac with the head of an unknown animal (who doubles as the god of evil and the desert).  Whatever Set’s other faults might be, lack of vigilance against giant chaos serpents was not among them.  In several passages from ancient literature, Set is heard to boast about his prowess and bravery in making sure the sun gets past the serpent in order to rise on time.  The spirits of the devout who had passed to the next life could also help out by rowing the beautiful boat.  In later Egyptian myth, the battle goddess Bastet would also assist Ra and Set in fighting the demon.

Of course despite the best intentions of the gods, Apep would occasionally get the upper hand and temporarily run off with the sun.  Such (rare) days were marked by storm and overcast skies.  Additionally the wily snake demon would sometimes leave the underworld and try to devour the sun as it gloriously made its way across the heavens.  According to Egyptian superstition, these occasional daytime attacks were responsible for solar eclipses. Fortunately Ra and the other protectors of the sun could always rely on a reservoir of spiritual energy to drive back the snake (helping the gods defeat Apep was one of the purposes of worship in ancient Eypt).  Because of the power of prayer, Apep, dreadful demon snake of the underworld, never did succeed in devouring the sun.

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