Ancient Egyptian papyrus, 11th-10th century BC, depicting the scarab-headed god Khepri, a divine version of the humble scarab beetle. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
At first sight the goddess Taweret, ‘the great female one’, appears to be composed of randomly selected animal parts. She has the body and head of a pregnant hippopotamus standing on its hind legs, the tail of a crocodile, and the limbs of a lioness – topped, occasionally, by a woman’s face. Her mouth lolls open to reveal rows of dangerous-looking teeth, and she often wears a long wig. We might find this combination of fierce animals and false hair frightening, but the women of ancient Egypt regarded Taweret as a great comfort, as she was able to protect them during childbirth by scaring away the evil spirits who might harm either the mother or the baby. This made her extremely popular so that, although she did not have a grand temple, her image was displayed on walls, beds, headrests and cosmetic jars in many private homes, and she even appears on palace walls.
The same assortment of animal parts – this time the head of a crocodile, the foreparts and body of a lion or leopard and the hind parts of a hippopotamus – can be found in Ammit, the ‘eater of the damned’. Unlike Taweret, Ammit was greatly feared. She lived in the kingdom of the dead where she squatted beside the scales used during the ‘weighing of the heart’, a ceremony that saw the heart of the deceased being weighed against the feather of truth. Those whose hearts proved light were allowed to pass into the afterlife. Hearts that weighed heavy against the feather were eaten by Ammit.
Bes was another god who brought comfort and protection to mothers and children. A part-comical, part-sinister dwarf with a plump body, prominent breasts, bearded face, flat nose and protruding tongue, Bes might be either fully human, or half-human, half-animal (usually lion). He might have a mane, a lion’s tail, or wings. He often wears a plumed headdress and carries either a drum or tambourine, or a knife.
Bes offered a welcome protection against snakes. But his primary role was as a dancer and musician who used his art to frighten away bad spirits during the dangerous times of childbirth, childhood, sex and sleep. His image decorated bedrooms of all classes, and we can also see him, either tattooed or painted, on the upper thigh of dancing girls.
A relief depicting the god Bes on a facade of the Small Temple of Hathor, Abu Simbel. His primary role was as a dancer and musician who used his art to frighten away bad spirits during the dangerous time of childbirth. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Neith is a warrior or a hunter. Human-form and bald, she wears a crown and carries a bow and arrows. Her linen sheath dress is so tight that, in an age before lycra, she would have had difficulty moving around the battlefield. Her title ‘mother of the gods’ identifies her with the creative force present at the beginning of the world, and it is possible that she is credited with inventing childbirth. On the wall of the temple of Khnum at Esna, in southern Egypt, we see Neith emerging from the primeval waters as a cow-goddess who creates land by simply saying the words: “Let this place be land for me.”
Neith was worshipped throughout Egypt, but was particularly associated with the western Delta town of Sais (modern Sa el Hagar) where her temple became known as the ‘house of the bee’. During the 26th dynasty (664-525 BCE), a time when Sais was Egypt’s capital city, she became the dominant state god, and the kings were buried in the grounds of her temple. Her temple and the royal tombs that it contained are now lost.
4. The Aten
If Taweret and Ammit seem to have too many body parts, the god known simply as the Aten, or ‘the sun disk’, does not seem to have enough. The Aten is a bodiless, faceless sun that emits long rays tipped with tiny hands. He hangs in the sky above the royal family, offering them the ankh, symbol of life. As he has no known mythology, we can say very little more about him.
This apparently dull deity inspired such devotion in Pharaoh Akhanaten (ruled c1352–1336 BC) that he abandoned the traditional gods, closed their temples and built a new capital city which he named ‘Horizon of the Aten’ (modern Amarna), dedicated to the Aten. Had a private citizen decided to worship just one god, there would have been no problem. But Akhenaten, as pharaoh, was expected to make offerings to all of Egypt’s gods. His decision to abandon the traditional rituals was seen as very dangerous –surely the old gods would get angry? Not long after his death, the pantheon was restored by Tutankhamen (ruled c1336–1327 BC). As the old temples re-opened, the Aten sank back into obscurity.
Many of us are familiar with Hathor, the gentle cow-headed sky goddess associated with motherhood, nurturing and drunkenness. Few of us realise that Hathor has an alter ego. When angry, she transforms into the Sekhmet, ‘the powerful one’, an uncompromising, fire-breathing lioness armed with an arsenal of pestilences and plagues and the ability to burn Egypt’s enemies with the fierce heat of the sun. Sekhmet was a ruthless defender of her father the pharaoh and this, together with her skill with a bow and arrow, caused her to become closely associated with the army. When the sun god, Re, learned that the people of Egypt were plotting against him, he sent Sekhmet to kill them all. When he changed his mind, and determined to save the people, he had a lot of trouble stopping the killing. Sekhmet was not entirely vicious, however. As ‘mistress of life’, she could cure all the ills that she inflicted, and her priests were recognised as healers with a powerful magic.
From The Book of the Dead of Userhetmos, the dead woman prays to the hippopotamus goddess Taweret. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Khepri, ‘the one who comes into being’, is the morning sun. He is usually shown in the form of a beetle, although he might also be a beetle-headed man, or a beetle-headed falcon. He is a divine version of the humble scarab beetle whose habit of pushing around a large ball of dung made the ancients imagine a huge celestial beetle rolling the ball of the sun across the sky.
Hidden within the scarab beetle’s dung ball were eggs that eventually hatched, crawled out of the ball and flew away. Observing this, the Egyptians jumped to the conclusion that beetles were male beings capable of self-creation. This enviable ability to regenerate made the scarab one of Egypt’s most popular amulets, used by both the dead and the living. Although Khepri did not have a temple, he was often depicted alongside Egypt’s other gods in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Renenutet was a cobra goddess. The Egyptian cobra can grow to be nine feet long and can, when angry or threatened, raise a third of its body from the ground, and expand its ‘hood’ (cervical ribs). This made the female cobra a useful royal bodyguard. A rearing cobra (the uraeus) was worn on the royal brow; cobra amulets were included in mummy wrapping to protect the dead; and a painted pottery cobra, placed in the corner of a room, was known to be an effective means of warding off evil ghosts and spirits.
Every year the river Nile flooded in late summer. The rising waters caused an increase in the number of snakes attracted to the settlements by the vermin flushed from the low-lying ground. This caused the cobra to be associated with the fertility of the Nile. Renenutet, ‘she who nourishes’, lived in the fertile fields where, as goddess of the harvest and granaries, she ensured that Egypt would not go hungry. Cobras were considered exceptionally good mothers, and Renenutet was no exception. As a divine nurse she suckled the king; as a fire-breathing cobra she protected him in death.
In most mythologies, the fertile earth is classed as female. In ancient Egypt, however, the earth was male. Geb was an ancient and important earth god who represented both the fertile land and the graves dug into that land. For this combination of attributes, and for his prowess as a healer, he was both respected and feared. He usually appears as a reclining man beneath the female sky. His naked green body often shows signs of his impressive fertility, and he may have grain growing from his back. Alternatively, he might appear as a king wearing a crown. In animal form, Geb might be a goose (or a man wearing a goose on his head) or a hare, or he might form part of the crew of the sun boat that sails across the sky each day.
Geb ruled Egypt during the time when people and gods lived together. Later, Greek tradition would equate Geb with the Titan Chronos, who overthrew his father Uranus at the urging of his mother, Gaia.
Joyce Tyldesley teaches a suite of online courses in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (Viking Penguin 2010).