Ra, The Creator God of Ancient Egypt

By Fayza Haikal The American University in Cairo
In a northwestern quarter of suburban Cairo, covered by 20 meters of earth, development and the lost echoes of history, is ancient Iwn, the city that witnessed the creation of the universe. This city, later called Heliopolis (city of the sun-god) by the Greeks and later Ain-Shams (eye of the sun) by the Arabs, is probably one of the oldest religious sites in the world. While its unexcavated remnants lie under centuries of fields and settlements, the place remains a symbolic monument to Ra, the greatest god of ancient Egypt. The origin story of how Ra spawned all that is known is both fascinating and illuminating:
Before creation, according to Egyptian mythology, only Darkness embraced the Primeval Ocean out of which life would come. When the breath of life was strong and ready, the entity called Atum decided it was time for Creation to begin. An island emerged from the water to support this divinity, who manifested itself in the form of Ra, the sun god of Egypt.
On a Primeval hill, Ra created out of himself the first gods, Shu (Dryness and Air), and his partner Tefnut (Humidity), who would engender other gods to complete the Cosmos: Geb the Earth god and Nut the Sky goddess. In turn, these two birthed the Principles of life, namely Osiris the Perfect Being, who eventually would rule over the rest of the world—which Ra was busy creating by naming the elements. And by the way, humankind happened out of the tears of his eyes.
Osiris was a kind and wise ruler who taught humans agriculture and civilization. With his sister/wife Isis, who helped her husband with creativity and magic, they formed the perfect couple. Their brother Seth was strong but unruly, the opposite of his brother. In fact, Seth envied Osiris so much that he killed him so he could inherit his throne and rule Egypt the way he wanted. Seth’s sister/ partner Nephthys could not stop the murder despite her love for their siblings.
Killing Osiris turned out not such a bad idea. He was resurrected through the magic of his wife long enough to impregnate her with son Horus, who would later avenge his father and recapture the throne of Egypt. Then Osiris departed to the Otherworld to rule over the deceased, thus ensuring resurrection and the cycle of life.
Yet the myths do not end there. While the aging Ra was fine-tuning his creations, humanity rebelled against him. The god decided on extermination, asking his tear-giving eye again for help. To fulfill her task, the eye transformed herself into a fierce lioness and began slaughtering humanity, delighted in her feeding. When Ra saw the carnage, he felt sorry for the beloved children who, like tears, ‘came out of his eye.’ He stopped the massacre but refused to live more among humans. This led to his journey to the Otherworld, where Ra created the 12 hours of day by sailing the sky from the Eastern horizon to the West, illuminating the world and allowing all creations to flourish under his rays. Reaching the Western horizon, Ra then left the earth in darkness for 12 hours of night while he sailed the Underworld, illuminating the dead, destroying the enemies of creation, and regenerating himself in a union with Osiris, the god of resurrection.
When Ra appeared at dawn in the Eastern horizon, he took the form of a falcon, known as Hor-akhty, or Horus of the Horizon, the falcon who flies high in the sky (Horus = one who is high up.) But Ra had other forms. He also could be represented as a scarab called kheper (the one who comes into being)—an analogy based not only on the pun between the name of the scarab and the verb “to happen’, but also because the scarab, who arises from desert sands at the first rays of the sun, pushing a ball of dung carrying his eggs, was believed to be self-created. By midday the sun-god was again Ra and represented by the sun-disk. At sunset he became Atum, an old man who had completed his life cycle and was ready to disappear to be regenerated for a new day.
Given this story, the Sun God Ra has always been the greatest god in Egypt. In the Old Kingdom (2800 BCE), when Egypt established its institutions and expressed its royal ideology, the divinized king of Egypt was considered the son of the Sun God. During a coronation, the king’s name as son of Ra was inscribed on a cartouche next to one naming him as King of Upper and Lower Egypt. Kings erected temples for him, endowing these temples with lands and clergy to serve his cult, and they added sun god chapels to their own memorial temples throughout the country. By the New Kingdom (c. 1500 -1000 BCE) the cult of Amun, the political god of the Empire, tried to overshadow Ra’s importance. But the kings of the 18th dynasty reacted strongly. The decorations of their tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Western Thebes support the supremacy of the sun god, in whom kings merged after death to partake in eternal life. In the brief ‘monotheistic episode’ of Akhenaton, the king denied any god but the sun god himself and wrote hymns to the god so marvelous they were later echoed in the biblical psalms of King David. Even after the reign of Akhenaton, most of Egypt’s great gods synthesized with Ra as Amon-Ra, Khnum-Ra, Sobek-Ra, and so forth. It would take yet more centuries and Roman conquest before the cult of Ra declined.
And yet, even today, in a modern Egypt entranced by its ancient civilization, the tale endures. Reflections of Ra are still heard in folklore as his fiery eye is evoked in popular songs and local expressions. The word Ra also appears in everything from Hollywood films to video games. Clearly, the resurrection of this greatest ancient God continues as predictably as the sun rising in the east.