Confusing Numbers of Deities in Ancient Egypt

Preliminary remark

The following is by no means an attempt to write a history of Egyptian religion. Instead only some of the more complex notions are mentioned, in a very simplified way, aiming to explain some of the difficulties that loom when one has a first look at the intricate world of Egyptian myths.

Different but similar

The Egyptian pantheon is a very complex one. Innumerable gods, quite often with seemingly overlapping functions, appearances and names, inhabit the invisible, transcendent world. The origins of most escape us, vanishing into the prehistoric past. The oldest more or less coherent religious texts (the Pyramid Texts, as written down in the pyramid of king Unas, 5th dynasty, ca 2350 B.C.) comprise many myths which must have been created in the preceding millennia.

It is quite likely that in those early days each of the settlements and villages, scattered throughout the country and possibly with no or little contact, had its own local god. Later, when all of Egypt was united, there would have been many parallel or even contradictory traditions. For example, in Heliopolis the god Atum was venerated as the creator god, whereas at the same time Memphis would worship Ptah as the creator, Hermopolis adored Amun as creator, Esna had Khnum as creator god etcetera. The Egyptians never strived to reconcile these different traditions or to select one of them as the "ultimate truth". Instead, they accepted the side by side existence of different views, which they considered to be all aspects of the one truth. In addition, being very open to syncretism, they would even combine or melt together such gods into new beings. A well known amalgamate god is Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, composed of the Memphite god Ptah, divine craftsman and thus patron of the workmen, who was linked to the funerary god of Memphis, Sokar, and to an altogether different funerary deity, Osiris. Such "new" gods could have aspects that were quite distinct from their original functions.

Similar but different

At the same time the opposite occurred. The falcon for example was believed to be the incarnation of the god Horus (in Egyptian Her); this name means nothing more than "the distant one". But as many different gods were considered to be distant, and could all be "seen" in the shape of a falcon, the result was that Egypt knew many different falcon gods, all answering to the name Horus.

So rather than speaking of the one god Horus we should carefully distinguish between many gods with this name, such as Horus the Great (Her wer, called Haroeris by the Greek, the falcon god of the sky), Horus the child (Her pa khered, the Greek Harpokrates, an aspect of Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris), Horus who protects his father (Her nedj itef, Harendotes, another aspect of Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris), Horus, who unites the two lands (Her sema tawy, Harsomtus), Horus of the horizon (Harakhte, Her akhty), Horus in the horizon (Her em akhet, the Greek Harmakhis, a designation for the sphinx of Giza), Horus of Edfu (Her Behdety), Horus of Letopolis and others.

Order out of chaos

Needless to say that the world of the gods was very confusing. The Egyptian priests attempted to produce some order in this world by creating some sort of family trees.

Many gods were "organised" into families of a father, a mother and a child (so-called triads, "groups of three"). Thus we know of the triad of Thebes (Amun, Mut and Khonsu), the triad of Memphis (Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem) and many more.

But since "three" in Egyptian also means "plural", a triad could also illustrate the comprehensiveness of the gods.

And since both sexes were present, these triads were also about the male and the female aspects of life. The primeval creator god was considered androgynous in many myths, and his being was divided into three persons: two male gods, aspects of one and the same god, and a female counterpart. For example in the Theban triad, Amun was reborn as Khonsu, Khonsu was the young Amun and Amun was the adult or old Khonsu in the cycle of death and rebirth; the female counterpart in the triad was the wife (or even "daughter") of the old god but also the mother of the young god. Therefore, because Amun and Khonsu were one and the same god, Mut was mother and wife and daughter simultaneously.

Other well known triads were those of Memphis (Ptah, Sekhmet, Nefertem), of Dendera (Horus, Hathor, Ihi (or Harsomtus), of Edfu (Horus, Isis (or Hathor), Harsomtus) and of Elephantine (Khnum, Satet, Anuket).

In addition to these there was also a different type of triad, consisting of three male gods. In the New Kingdom for example there was a triad consisting of the three "state" gods Amun, Re and Ptah.


The Heliopolitan theology knew of one creator god, Atum, who was the "top" of a family tree called the Great Ennead ("group of nine"); his children, Shu and Tefnut, begot the third generation of gods (Geb and Nut) and these in turn brought forth Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Seth.

However, nine (3 x 3) was also considered as the "plural of plurals". In other words, nine could refer to the most complete number. The Egyptians felt that a family of gods would be incomplete if one of the family members was left out, and therefore often added related gods to the ennead.

To the Ennead of Heliopolis quite often Horus was added as the tenth member; without him the family tree was considered incomplete; after all he was the child of either Osiris and Isis (making him the fifth generation of the family tree) or of Nut (a lesser known tradition; the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts already mention the five children of Nut and several millennia later the Greek author Plutarchos wrote about the curse that the sun god Helios (the Greek name for the sun god Re) put on Rhea (Nut), forbidding her to give birth to her children on any of the 360 days of the year. Hermes (Thoth) then added five days to the year (the five epagomenal days of the Egyptian calendar) and on those days Nut gave birth to her five children).

The result of all this was that there were enneads that did not consist of nine members but of more gods. The ennead of Thebes, for example, consists of fifteen gods.

In addition to the Great Ennead there was also a Small Ennead. Varying gods were members of this group, such as the children of Horus and the children of Khentekhtai, or Horus (the son of Isis), Anubis, Maat and Thoth.


Similarly Hermopolis (Khemenu in Egyptian, meaning "City of the Eight") knew an ogdoad ("group of eight"), consisting of the four (male) primeval elements (usually depicted with the heads of frogs) and their feminine counterparts (with the heads of snakes): Heh and Hauhet (endlessness of space), Nun and Naunet (primeval ocean), Kek and Kauket (primeval darkness) and Amun and Amaunet (what is hidden).


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