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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).


Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Are you ready for a deeply strange and problematic painting of tremendous beauty?  This is “The Thebaid” a masterpiece from Florence in the very early 13th century (it was probably completed in 1410 AD).   For centuries, art historians have argued over who painted this epic monastic landscape.  For a long time it was believed the painting was by the enigmatic Jacopo Starnina.  Then, for many years, art experts thought the painting was by Lorenzo Monaco, a gothic painter who moved to Florence from Sienna and excelled at painting brilliantly colored saints (although he eschewed the great artistic innovations of his time—such as perspective and painting from life).  Finally, historical consensus has settled on none other than the matchless Fra Angelico as the painter–which seems fitting since this work is so thoroughly a celebration of monastic life (Fra Angelico was a friar…although so was Lorenzo Monaco).  Fra Angelico is famous for bridging the styles of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.  With its angular mountains, stylized churches, and gilded sailing ships, “The Thebaid” is appropriately gothic and old fashioned to be one of his early works.  Yet it also has the first flowering of the flowing rhythm and deliquescent grace which have made Fra Angelico such a famous name in art.



Whoever painted it, the painting is a mythological depiction of the Egyptian desert in the Fifth Century AD—a time and place synonymous with hermits and monasticism.  The story goes that Saint Horus, an early Christian ascetic, wandered into the desert outside of Thebes to live as a hermit.  Although initially illiterate, Horus learned the Holy scriptures on his own (or through divine intervention).  So many devout men were inspired by his life of solitude, renunciation, and piety that they too moved into the empty desert.  Thus a thriving community of monastics gathered around the famous anchorite.  The one became many and the once barren desert became a verdant model for monasticism.



The picture is certainly a celebration of the cloistered life which a Florentine monk would have known.  The architecture, dress, and agricultural equipment is of the same era as the painter.  Yet the painting also has a timelessness befitting the subject. Within the narrative flow of a community of monks assembling, one can discern beautiful humanizing details such as the infirm elderly monk being carried on a dais by his brothers or the monk in the center preaching to a black dog.  Indeed animals abound within this work and one of the monks seems to be riding a deer while another rides a chariot pulled by lions.  There is a lot going on in this magic gathering of holy men communing with nature!


Oedipus and the Sphinx (by Francois Xavier Fabre)

The Sphinx, another daughter of Echidna, was a monster with a human head (and torso), a lion’s body, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent for a tail.  Although the Egyptians and the Cypriots had long mythological traditions incorporating many different sphinxes, to the Greeks the Sphinx was one individual monster sent by Hera (or possibly Ares) to torment the city of Thebes.  She sat on a bluff outside the city and accosted travelers with a question.  When they were unable to answer correctly, she sprang down and strangled them to death. The question she asked is probably the most famous riddle in existence, “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”

Long-suffering Oedipus may have been accursed by ghastly fate but he alone was able to see through the monster’s abstract symbolism and give the correct answer—man, who crawls on all four as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and leans on a cane in his dotage. The sphinx had really counted on the metaphoric “day” to throw people off.  In fury and despair she hurled herself to her death once her question was answered.

The riddle challenge is ancient and its roots wind down into the advent of literature (and probably long before).  There are riddles in the bible and in Sumerian epic poetry. The internet, however, has fundamentally changed the challenge.  Back in the eighties if someone asked you a riddle and you were stumped, that was it.  Either you had to beg them for the answer, or you were out of luck.  Now you can always scour the web until you find the answer.  Here are a few of my favorite riddles.  The first is a somewhat frustrating riddle from the bible [hint: imagine you are a long-haired killing machine].  The second was asked to me by my first lover (I could never solve it and she wouldn’t tell me the answer—I finally had to ask my friend Adam for a solution).  The third was by literary giant Jonathan Swift who famously loved riddles. The fourth is a Stephen King riddle and my personal favorite (quiet you highbrows!).  I made up the fifth and sixth myself–which explains why the meter is more important than the meaning.  The last riddle is of course from Lewis Carroll.  Good luck!  I’ll give you the answers on Sunday:

1. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it. And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?

2. What does God never see that a king sees seldom, that we see every day?

3. We are all very little creatures;
all of us have different features.
One of us in glass is set;
One of us you’ll find in jet.
Another you may see in tin,
And a fourth is boxed within.
If the fifth you should pursue,
It can never fly from you.
What are we?

4. With no wings, I fly. With no eyes, I see. With no arms, I climb. More frightening than any beast, stronger than any foe, I am cunning, ruthless and tall; in the end, I rule all.

5. It’s short on spring but long in fall.  It has a bluff that you can’t call.  It has a wall but lacks a roof.  It has a foot that’s not a hoof.

6. Devours muck but has sweet breath. Arrives with love and then with death.

7.  Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Um...can I have another hint?

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

December 2022