History of Literature

Re, the Sun God


Ra (at center) travels through the underworld in
his barque, accompanied by other gods


also spelled Ra, or Pra

in ancient Egyptian religion, god of the sun and creator god. He was believed to travel across the sky in his solar bark and, during the night, to make his passage in another bark through the underworld, where, in order to be born again for the new day, he had to vanquish the evil serpent Apopis (Apepi). As one of the creator gods, he rose from the ocean of chaos on the primeval hill, creating himself and then in turn engendering eight other gods.

Originally most solar gods had falcon form and were assimilated to Horus. By the 4th dynasty (c. 2575–c. 2465 bce), however, Re had risen to his leading position. Many syncretisms were formed between Re and other gods, producing such names as Re-Harakhty, Amon-Re, Sebek-Re, and Khnum-Re. Aspects of other gods influenced Re himself; his falcon-headed appearance as Re-Harakhty originated through association with Horus. The influence of Re was spread from On (Heliopolis), which was the centre of his worship. From the 4th dynasty, kings held the title “Son of Re,” and “Re” later became part of the throne name they adopted at accession. As the father of Maat, Re was the ultimate source of right and justice in the cosmos.

At Thebes, by the late 11th dynasty (c. 1980 bce), Re was associated with Amon as Amon-Re, who was for more than a millennium the principal god of the pantheon, the “king of the gods,” and the patron of kings. The greatest development of solar religion was during the New Kingdom (1539–c. 1075 bce). The revolutionary worship of the sun disk, Aton, during the abortive Amarna period (1353–1336 bce) was a radical simplification of the cult of the sun. During the New Kingdom, beliefs about Re were harmonized with those concerning Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, with the two gods syncretized in the royal mortuary texts.




Re, the Sun God

Re, the sun god, took three main forms: Khepri, the scarab beetle, who was .the rising sun; Re, the sun's disc, who was the midday sun; and Atum, an old man leaning on a stick, who was the setting sun. Each evening, as the sun reached the westernmost peak of Mount Manu, the sky goddess, Nut, swallowed it, whereupon the sun god journeyed perilously through a netherworld in his night barque. Here, he was assailed by demons led by the monstrous snake Apophis, his enemy who, according to one myth, came into being at the very same moment as Re himself. In the darkest hour before dawn, Apophis made his most desperate attack. Each night, Re, in the form of a cat, would cut off the snake's head before being born once again in the east at dawn from Nut, the universal mother. He would then rise and travel across the sky until the following twilight, when Apophis would be lying in wait once more. If Apophis were ever to vanquish Re, the sun would not rise. This daily cycle of death and rebirth came to symbolize the life cycle of humankind, who hoped after death to find a new birth. From the Middle Kingdom, the visible sun god Re was complemented by an invisible divinity, Amun, "the hidden one", who as Amun-Re was worshipped as the king of the gods.

According to one myth, the world was created by the archer goddess Neith from the primeval waters of Nun.
She created the gods by saying their names, and then (in cow form) gave birth to the all-powerful Re.
Re was born in an egg, and when he emerged from the egg he was dazzled by the light, and cried:
mankind was formedfrom his tears.

Re's Secret Name

Re called the world into being with words. But one wrord - his own secret name - he kept to himself. Isis, daughter of Geb and Nut, the earth and the sky, and wife of Osiris, decided to learn the names of all things, so that she would be as great as Re himself. At last the only word she did not know was Re's own secret name. To trick Re into telling her, Isis gathered the spittle that had dripped from his mouth as he sailed across the sky day after day (for he was now old and dribbled) and shaped it into a snake, which she left lying in his path. Inevitably, Re was bitten and, letting out a terrible cry, he trembled, and a fog blurred his vision. Taking advantage of his pain, Isis offered to counteract the poison if he would tell her his name. At last, he passed his name from his heart to hers, giving her power even over himself. Using Re's name, she commanded the poison to flow away, leaving him fit and strong. The text of mis story also had a practical purpose as a spell against poison. Reciting the text over die images of four gods, including Isis and Horas, and making the patient eat a paper inscribed with the spell was guaranteed to be "successful a million times".





This papyrus is part of a "Book of the Dead" written for Anhay, a priestess of Amun-Re, king of the gods.
Nun, the god of the primeval waters, holds up the
barque of sun, upon which the scarab beetle, another symbol of the sun,
is shown pushing the sun disc, as a scarab rolls a dung ball.

The Egyptian "Book of the Dead "

(or Book of Coming Forth by Day) is a collection of spells, many deriving from the
earlier Pyramid and Coffin texts, designed to ensure power for the deceased in the afterlife.
Copies were made for most wealthy individuals and buried with them.
A typical, and essential, spell is for "not dying again in the realm of the dead".

The Egyptians believed that a dead person, armed with the right spells,
could counter the terrors of the underworld, Duat, and live a new life in the Field of Reeds.
All the elements that made up the living person had to be preserved and resurrected -
not just the physical body and the two parts of the soul,
the ka (life force) and the ba (personality, or genius), but also the individual's name and shadow.
These five elements made the complete being.



Company of Gods

Re is accompanied on his journey by seven (four not shown here) other gods with Horus at the helm.
The other gods cannot be identified beyond doubt.
The company usually includes three of the earliest-created gods,
Sia (perception), Ни (utterance) and Hike (magic) as well as such important gods as Shu, Geb, Osiris, Horus, and Thoth.
Sometimes there are also goddesses in the barque, especially Hathor.




The Egyptian cat goddess Bastet




Scarab Beetle

The scarabeus, or dung-beetle, is the symbol of Re in his role as Khepri, the rising sun.

Rolling along a ball of dung, the scarab beetle is a symbol of the sun itself.

It was also a symbol of self-generation and rebirth, because of the way the young appear from the ball of dung.


When human beings began to plot against the ageing Re, he transformed the goddess Hathor (the sacred cow of fertility) into a raging lioness, Sekhmet.

Her bloodlust brought plague and death into existence. This goddess, who could only be appeased by being made drunk, gradually became revered under a more gentle guise as the cat goddess Bastet.

The domestic cat was regarded as sacred to her, and many were mummified in religious rituals. Young girls were often nicknamed "kitten". But cats were also trained for the hunt, and are depicted in Egyptian art retrieving birds felled by their masters' throwing sticks. The Greeks identified Bastet with Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Herodotus describes her annual festival as an orgy.




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