Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 56

The Egyptians of later days appear to have thought that the name was in some way associated with creation. Sun-worship in Egypt was very ancient, and it is probable that a number of sun-cults became fused in that of Ra. It is certain, indeed, that this was the case with the cult of the hawk-god Heru or Horus. Both of these deities are usually figured with the body of a man and the head of a hawk, but they sometimes have the veritable form of that bird. The hawk in Egypt appears to have been identified with the sun from the earliest times. Its power of flight and the heights to which it can rise were probably the reasons assigned for its association with the great luminary of day. But in many lands birds of heaven-aspiring flight have symbolized the sun. Among several of the North American Indian tribes the eagle typifies the sun. The condor typified the orb of day in ancient Peru, and perhaps the eagle did the same in some aspects of the Mexican religion. But it is not always birds of lofty flight which typify the sun. Thus the quetzal bird seems to have stood for it in Mexico and Central America, and in the same countries the humming-bird or colibri was sometimes associated with it. It is strange that just as we find the bird and the serpent combined in the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, so we discover them to some extent associated in Ra, who wears as his symbol the disk of the sun encircled by the serpent Khut.

The Egyptians had several varying conceptions as to the manner in which the sun crossed the heavens. One of these was that it sailed over the watery mass of[Pg 131] the sky in relays of boats or barques. Thus the rising sun occupied the barque Manzet, which means 'growing strong,' and the evening sun was ferried to the place of setting by the barque Mesektet, which means 'growing weak,' in both of which names will be readily discovered allegorical titles for the rising and setting sun. The definite path of Ra across the sky had been planned at the time of creation by the goddess Maāt, who personified justice and order.

The daily voyage of Ra was assisted by a company of friendly deities, who navigated his barque to the place of the setting sun, the course being set out by Thoth and Maāt, while Horus acted as steersman and commander. On each side of the boat swam one of two pilot fishes called Abtu and Ant, but, notwithstanding the assistance of his fellow deities, the barque of Ra was constantly beset by the most grisly monsters and demons, who strove to put every obstacle in the way of its successful passage.

By far the most potent of these was the serpent Apep, who personified the darkness of night, and concerning whom we gain much information from the Book of Overthrowing Apep, which gives spells and other instructions for the checkmating of the monster, which were recited daily in the temple of Amen-Ra at Thebes. In these Apep is referred to as a crocodile and a serpent, and it is described how by the aid of sympathetic magic he is to be speared, cut with knives, decapitated, roasted, and finally consumed by fire, and his evil followers also. These magical acts were duly carried out at Thebes day by day, and it was supposed that they greatly assisted the journey of the sun-god. In Apep we have a figure such as is known in nearly every mythology. He is the monster who daily combats with, and finally succeeds in devouring, the sun. He is the same as the dragons[Pg 132] which fought with Beowulf the sun-hero, as the night-dragon of Chinese mythology, as the Fenris-wolf of Scandinavian story, and the multitudinous monsters of fable, legend, and romance. We find his counterpart also in the Babylonian dragon Tiamat, who was slain by Marduk.


In the late period there was invented for Ra a female counterpart, Rat, who is depicted as a woman having on her head a disk with horns and a uræus. She does not seem to have been of any great importance, and perhaps only sprang from the idea that every great deity must have his female double. The worship of Ra in Egypt during the dynastic period was centred in the city of Anu, On, or Heliopolis, about five miles from the modern Cairo. The priests of the god had settled there during the Fifth Dynasty, the first king of which, User-ka-f, was high-priest of the god, a circumstance which denotes that the cult must even at this early period (3350 B.C.) have gained great ascendancy in that part of Egypt.

An ancient legend describes how the progeny of Ra first gained the Egyptian throne, and will be found on page 200.

This tradition proves that in early times the kings of Egypt believed themselves to have been descended from Ra, who, it was affirmed, had once ruled over the country, and whose blood flowed in the veins of the entire Egyptian royal family. Indeed, Ra was said to have been the actual father of several Egyptian kings, who were therefore regarded as gods incarnate. Such priestly fictions gave the theocratic class added power, until at last the worship of Ra practically superseded that of almost every other deity in the Nile valley,[Pg 133] these being absorbed into the theological system of the priests of Heliopolis, and granted subordinate positions in the group which surrounded the great sun-god.