Ancient Egypt Online

Ra | The Sun God of Egypt

The ancient Egyptians revered Ra as the god who created everything. Also known as the Sun God, Ra was a powerful deity and a central god of the Egyptian pantheon. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra more than any other god and pharaohs often connected themselves with Ra in their efforts to be seen as the earthly embodiment of the Sun God.

What is Ra?

Ra (pronounced ray) represents sunlight, warmth and growth. It was only natural that the ancient Egyptians would believe him to be the creator of the world, as well as part of him being represented in every other god. The ancient Egyptians believed that every god should illustrate some aspect of him, while Ra himself should also represent every god.

Ra’s Appearance

Ra was usually depicted in human form. He had a falcon head which is crowned with a sun disc. This sun disc was encircled by a sacred cobra named Uraeus. Ra has also been depicted as a man with the head of a beetle and also a human man with the head of a ram. The ancients also depicted Ra in full species form such as a serpent, heron, bull, lion, cat, ram, hawk, beetle, phoenix and others. His main symbol, however, is the sun disk.

Egyptian God Ra

© Bill Stanley - The Egyptian God Ra

Ra Mythology

The ancient Egyptians believed that as the sun god, Ra’s role was to sail across the heavens during the day in his boat called the “Barque of Millions of Years.” In the morning when Ra emerged from the east, his boat was named, “Madjet” which meant “becoming strong.” By the end of the day the boat was called, “Semektet” which meant “becoming weak.” At the end of the day, it was believed that Ra died (swallowed by Nut) and sailed on to the underworld, leaving the moon in his place to light up the world. Ra was reborn at dawn the very next day. During his journey across the heavens during the day, he fought with his main enemy, an evil serpent named Apep, or also, The Lord of Chaos. In some stories, Ra, in the form of a cat named Mau, defeats the evil serpent, Apep. This is part of the reason why cats are so highly-revered in Egypt.

Ra as a cat, defeating Apep

© Lucas - Ra, depicted as a cat, defeating Apep

Ra created himself from the primordial chaos. He is also known as Re and Atum. His children are Shu, the God of Dry Air and Father of the Sky, and his twin sister Tefnut, the Goddess of Moisture and Wetness. As a lion-headed goddess, Tefnut is responsible for dew and freshness. Humans were created from Ra’s tears.

Although Ra was highly revered and devoutly worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, there is a story to suggest he eventually grew weak. In the Legend of Ra, Isis and the Snake, as Ra grew old, he dribbled saliva. Isis knew that Ra’s power was hidden in his secret name. Isis gathered Ra’s saliva and created a snake out of it. She set the snake in Ra’s path and it bit him. Isis wanted the power Ra had always enjoyed, but she knew she had to get him to tell her his secret name. Eventually, because of the pain he was in, Ra allowed Isis to “search through him” and in so doing, she healed him and Ra’s power was transferred over to her.

 

Isis on the Solar Barque of Ra

© Walwyn - Isis on the Solar Barque of Ra

 

The Tree of Life is an important religious symbol to the Egyptians. The Tree of Life was located within Ra’s sun temple in Heliopolis and was considered sacred. The fruit that sprang from this tree was not available to humans, but only in aging-rituals reserved for pharaohs. The Tree of Life is also referred to as the mythical, sacred Ished tree. Eternal life came to those who ate the fruit from the Tree of Life.

Another important ancient Egyptian symbol connected to Ra is the “Bennu”. Bennu is the name of the bird that represented Ra’s soul. This bird is a phoenix and it was seated at the Tree of Life in Ra’s Sun Temple in Heliopolis. Inside the temple, on top of an obelisk, sat the Benben Stone. This pyramid-shaped stone served as a beacon to Bennu and is also an important ancient Egyptian religious symbol.

The Bennu Bird

© milk fat - The Bennu Bird

Worship of the Sun God

Solar temples were built for Ra but did not contain a statue of the god. Instead, they were created to be open to the sunlight that Ra represented. The earliest known temple built in honor of Ra exists in Heliopolis (what is now a Cairo suburb). This solar temple is known as “Benu-Phoenix” and is believed to have been erected in the exact spot where Ra emerged into creation.

Although Ra dates back to the second dynasty, he is not the oldest of the Egyptian gods. It wasn’t until the fifth dynasty that Ra became closely associated with the pharaoh. As the king and leader of Egypt, the pharaoh was seen as the human manifestation of Horus, so the two gods became connected. This new deity fusion was then referred to as “Ra-Horakhty” meaning Ra is Horus of the Horizon. Ra’s relationship with other gods did not stop there. As the powerful creator of mankind and the sun god, he also became associated with Atum to make “Atum-Ra.”

Fifth Dynasty and subsequent pharaohs were all known as “The son of Ra” and Ra became incorporated into every pharaoh’s name from then onward. During the Middle Kingdom, the new deity, Amun-Ra was formed. Amun was one of the gods who formed the Ogdoad (the assembly of eight gods who represented eight elements of creation).

Ramses II making an offering to Ra and Nekhbet

© isawnyu - Relief of Ramses II making an offering to Ra and Nekhbet

The New Kingdom brought new heights of worship to Ra. Many tombs in the Valley of the Kings portray depictions of Ra and his journey through the underworld. During this time, many solar temples were built.

Ra God Facts

  • The ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra to such an extent above other gods that some historians have argued that ancient Egyptian religion was indeed a monotheistic one with Ra as the singular god.
  • Historians believe that the pyramids might represent rays of sunlight, further connecting the pharaohs with Ra, the sun god.
  • During Ra’s journey through the heavens he was accompanied by several other gods including Thoth, Horus, Hathor, Maat, Abtu, and Anet.
  • Nut, goddess of the sky and heavens, is sometimes referred to as Ra’s mother, because he emerges from her and is reborn every morning.
  • The morning manifestation of Ra is known as “Khepri the scarab God.”
  • The evening manifestation of Ra is known as the ram-headed god, Khnum.
  • The sacred cobra that encircled Ra’s crown symbolized royalty, sovereignty and divine authority.
  • The right eye of Ra represented the Sun; while the left eye of Ra represented the moon.
  • Ra is also closely associated with the Tree of Life myth, the Ben-Ben Stone and the Bennu Bird myths.
  • Ra’s glory came to an end during the time when the Roman’s conquered Egypt in 30BC.