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Mythology Monday: Egyptian Evolution

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

A while ago, we had a request to talk about Egyptian gods and how they seem to always be changing, evolving, or reappearing with new pieces strapped to their heads and arms without apparent warning to those of us looking back at them from millennia in the future. So let's talk about the complicated world of Egyptian deity syncretism!

Egyptian deities are a lot like German nouns: they're all a thing on their own, but people frequently smush them together to create a new form that is something unique as well. Amun is one deity, and Ra is one deity, and Atum is one deity; and at certain points, people put them together so that they got the new deities Amun-Ra, Atum-Ra, or the ever-popular Amun-Atum-Ra, all of which are distinct on their own but also obviously and identifiably made up of bits of the single gods within them. They gain combined powers and spheres of influence that clearly come from the original combined gods, but also new ones to go with their new deity status; and they're usually shown with combined symbols and attributes as well.

Five images of Egyptian deities. From left-to-right: Amun-Ra, a goat-headed god with a sun disc; Amun, a god wearing an elaborate crown; Ra, a falcon-headed god with a sun disc and feather; Atum, a god with the double crown of combined Egypt; and Atum-Ra, a falcon-headed god with a massive sun disc

Left to right: Amun-Ra, Amun, Ra, Atum, Atum-Ra

You can see the combinations in their iconography and physical depiction in their art; Atum-Ra is shown as Ra's falcon head and sun disk + Atum's royal throne and scepters of rulership, and Amun-Ra is shown as Amun's ram horns and royal collar + Ra's sun disk. And these are of course only a couple of the possible ways those combined gods are depicted in ancient Egyptian art; sometimes Amun-Ra uses Amun's human-like aspect instead of the ram, or Atum-Ra sits in Ra's solar barque, and so on and so forth. And these guys are just one of the biggest and most iconic combinations! Atum, Amun, and Ra are also frequently combined with other deities - Horakty, Min, Usir (Osiris), Khnum - and each of those further combinations makes something else new again, even though it retains the qualities of the deities that were attached together.

So... why does this kind of thing keep happening? Why do we have Usir-Seker as well as Usir and Seker, and Aset-Sopdet as well as Aset (Isis) and Sopdet? Why does Egyptian mythology keep creating Frankensteinian deity combinations like Mut-Hathor-Ma'at, and what are they for when they already had all three individual goddesses involved?

There are several answers that add up together, and the first one is just the phenomenal amount of time we're talking about when we discuss the ancient Egyptian religion. This is possibly the longest and best-preserved religion in all of human history; from the early period through the end of the Greek- and Roman-dominated period, the religion existed and was actively practiced for something like 3500 years. That's almost 70% of all civilized human history. Entire civilizations have been born, risen, flourished, and died without even taking up the majority of the amount of time of the one for whom the Egyptian gods were the masters of the universe. That is an enormous amount of time for a religion to be active, and as you might expect, that means that it changed a lot during that huge period. Politics, governments, social pressures, technology, even the landscape itself changed during that time, and as a result the religious needs of the people changed, and which deities they worshiped, and how, had to change along with them to stay relevant.

(By the way, since in Hero's Journey the Egyptian religion didn't largely cease to exist during the seventh century, add another fourteen hundred years to that timespan. Heroes of the Egyptian pantheon in this game are representatives of a religion that has existed contiguously in one form or another for almost five thousand years. If you suspected they might have slightly swelled heads about it, well, they would deny this, but they would usually be lying.)

Three ancient Egyptian stone depictions of goddesses. From left to right: Mut, a goddess wearing a tall crown; Mut-Hathor, a goddess with a crown and cow horns cradling a sun disc; and Hathor, a cow-headed goddess with the sun disc in her horns.

Left to right: Mut, Mut-Hathor, Hathor

Anyway, some of the combination plate deities in Egyptian mythology are a result of the religion's extreme age; as in most other mythologies, older deities sometimes get replaced by younger ones. New gods with more popularity can overtake the place of older ones, and often those older deities' stories and symbols are just attached to the younger one that is "absorbing" them, creating a hybrid deity that is really more of a combination of one god eating another one's importance than anything else. The combination both lends the younger deity additional significance by identifying them with an already established god and their history, and eases the transition by allowing worshipers of the older deity to transfer over to the younger one through the familiar stories and symbols.

This is what happens with some of the older gods of the Egyptian religion, who were extremely important but replaced by a younger generation in their worshipers' eyes. Mut, for example, the mother goddess of creation and nurturing, was incredibly important from about 2000-1600 BCE, and while she never disappeared, she was later eclipsed by younger goddesses, so that Aset and Hathor often became associated with her symbols (particularly the ankh and the vulture crown) and took on many of her roles to bolster their own importance. A more extreme example would be Iah, the ancient moon god, who by the eleventh century BCE had been completely replaced in popular worship by Khonsu and was generally only remembered as an individual entity when he appeared as a personification of the moon itself in myths about Khonsu or Dihauty (Thoth), who manipulated and carried him as lunar deities themselves.

Another factor in the many syncretized deities of Egypt is the fact that what we think of as "Egypt" today was not, for most of its history, a single unified place with a single unified religious culture. Different dynasties and ethnic groups ruled various areas of Egypt at different times, not to mention that different cities often had their own cult centers, not all of which were at all agreed on what deities were in charge of what or who was most important to the universe as a whole. This is why, incidentally, there are so many conflicting cosmological stories in the Egyptian canon; for example, Ra was the major deity in Awanu (Heliopolis), so myths from that city describe the creation of the world as his doing and all of existence as being made from his bodily fluids and creative emissions, while Ptah was the major god of Menefer (Memphis), which means that all the creation stories from that area are about him sculpting the universe out of primordial earth. Different cult centers had different worshipers with different priorities, so different areas of ancient Egypt might have had different ideas about what gods were most important, even during the periods when the kingdoms were theoretically united by a state religion.

In these cases, combo deities arose because of commerce between different cult centers; the inhabitants of one city might plunder the attributes of a major deity from elsewhere and add them to their own major god, such as when the people of Aswan (Elephantine) who worshiped Khnum as their most important river god occasionally borrowed for him the crocodile head of Sobek, who was the major river deity of Shedet (Crocodilopolis), in order to illustrate that Sobek was subordinate to him and that any Sobek stuff going on was clearly just Khnum stuff in disguise, or that those people worshiping Sobek were in fact worshiping Khnum, just in his crocodilian form. That way, the cult center got to keep their conviction in which deity was the most important and crucial in that area without having to do something drastic like declaring that the other god their neighbors worshiped didn't exist; both gods do exist, but one just happens to be a form of another, and over time, the whole area begins to consider both gods in their hybrid form together instead of as separate figures. Or, more harmoniously, you might get a combo deity because worshipers of two such gods see the other deity's useful attributes and want to apply them to their own, and the two are fused because they're similar but have individual qualities that enhance a new whole.

Three stone depictions of ancient Egyptian gods. From left to right: Khnum, a ram-headed god with tall horns and a crown; Khnum-Sobek, a ram-headed god with short curling horns and a feathered headdress; and Sobek, a crocodile-headed god with a feathered headdress.

Left to right: Khnum, Khnum-Sobek, Sobek

All of this would (and did!) cause a huge amount of syncretic combination between deities even without outside influence... but outside influence is inevitable over such a long span of time, and there were multiple waves of invaders, settlers, and conquerors in Egypt over the many many centuries. They brought their own gods with them, and in fine Egyptian tradition, those got added to the giant bowl of Frankensteined connection deities to create even more new gods, these ones uniquely Egyptian even if they were based on deities from elsewhere. The Hyksos culture rolled in to conquer the Lower Kingdom and, since they were all about Sutekh, a thunder and chaos god, the local Egyptians merrily absorbed him into Set, the local thunder and chaos god, to keep right on doing what they were doing (by the way, this is the root of why Set begin to go from being respected as the muscle of the pantheon and the protector of Ra to being universally reviled; nobody likes the dude who is in charge of the invaders who are brutally conquering you with their fancy new "chariot" technology, and when the Greeks showed up to also align Set with the evil monster Typhoeous/Typhon, his fate was sealed). The Canaanite cultural influx from the northeast brought in Baal and added him to Set as well (Set: the most thundery of thunder deities) and since they had several warlike goddesses in Astarte and Anat, their influence encouraged the Egyptians to identify their own love/fertility and war goddesses together, further solidifying the concept of a savage Eye of Ra that was also a nurturing mother figure once calmed down.

And, of course, Greece and Rome were only a short boat ride away, and even before they started conquering everything around the Mediterranean like the rabid expansionists they were, they were sharing their own deities as well. Greek gods like Hera and Dionysos were borrowed and attached to new syncretic deities, resulting in Aset-Hera and Serapis, a very intentionally created combination deity made up of Usir + Apis + Dionysos in order to give Roman rulers in Egypt a popular deity that fell in line with their own religion but would be appealing to the Egyptian locals and calm down religious unrest.

Because Greek and Roman religious policy was to point at any local deity they encountered and say "cool story, but that's really [INSERT GOD HERE], you're just calling them by the wrong name", they were already identifying gods with other gods as a matter of course, so the Egyptians just took their proto-syncretisms and added them to their own practice of combining gods with similar functions or helpful combo forms to continue what they'd been doing for centuries before Greek interference. (Which worked out well for them, since the Greek and Roman overlords blithely assumed the Egyptians had immediately come over to believing in their religions without much trouble when in fact they were just cannibalizing them for their own religion but nodding sagely whenever the Romans asked if they were behaving themselves.)

The interesting thing is that, of course, these are things that happen in pretty much all ancient religions. Different people import and export their religion when they move around, and evolving politics and areas of focus change over time and result in gods needing to change to represent and do new things in every culture. The difference for the Egyptians is a sort of recycling mentality; where some cultures drop or forget a god that has outlived their usefulness to the culture, or combine them with a new one but then claim the two were the same all along, the Egyptian paradigm operates on a neat alternative where individual gods are still important in their own right, but their many combined forms are also treated as individual and important ones as well. Ra and Amun and Atum all still exist, and Amun-Ra and Atum-Ra also exist, and they all do their own thing for their own purposes simultaneously in various places. Generally, no one feels the need to try to explain how Ra and Atum-Ra can both exist at the same time; the ancient Egyptians just wave over there at where they are clearly doing that and don't feel the need to explain further.

(Remember Akhenaten, author of the brief foray into Egyptian monotheism, who claimed that Aten was the only real deity in Egypt and all the other sun gods were just versions of him or else didn't exist? There is a reason that was so unpopular, and it wasn't just the issue of monotheism vs. polytheism having to overcome the problem of "I just declared your god doesn't exist" or the political clash between Akhenaten's pharaonic powers and the powerful priesthood of Ra. It was also very much counter to a culture that was used to saying that if there were two gods who had some of the same features, they were probably both legitimate in different ways or else forms of one another. Erasing one of them completely, let alone all of them, was not a popular move.)

A stone relief of the ancient Egyptian god Aten, represented as a sun disc with many rays with hands on the end reaching down from the sky; beneath, Nefertiti and her children worship him

Gee, Mom, we can't even have a little syncretism? As a treat?

In Hero's Journey, this tendency toward syncretism and expressing different forms for different peoples is expressed in the Egyptian Devotional powers, which involve being able to Voltron yourself into combination forms that do new and different things that your single form could not have. In this way, there's a specific mechanized form for Heroes and gods to deal with the concepts of multiple and combined identity in ancient Egyptian religion, starting with asserting their individual identity before progressing up to syncretic concepts.

(As we mentioned above, since polytheistic religions in Hero's Journey are all continuous, the Egyptians do not end up being the oldest civilized religion in existence, even though in the real world they had the longest run. The Sumerian gods are at least as old, for example, and evidence from some Australian oral stories suggests that they've been passed down for up to ten thousand years, making them twice as old in spite of the western world tending to ignore them because of their emphasis on oral tradition over written and nomadic civilization over city-building. But the Egyptians are extremely old even for HJ, and their great antiquity in the real world gives us a lot of interesting material when it comes to looking at how gods change over time!)

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William Bennett
William Bennett
26 abr 2021

It's probably for Anubis' sake that he was sometimes compared to, you know, Cerebes in some of the Greco-Roman 'why yes clearly this is just, you know, a very large underworld dog.' That being said Hermanubis (Heremes Anubis) has a really killer statue.

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William Bennett
William Bennett
26 abr 2021
Contestando a

If that doggo came and said 'I am here to label your jars' I will not be disagreeing with him.

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