Ra - The Egyptian Sun God

Different Names and Forms of Ra

Who – or what – was the mighty Ra of ancient Egypt? The sun god, right? Well, yes and no, sort of.

When one first begins to really study the pantheon of the ancient Egyptians, it must be understood that the gods and goddesses of this complicated religion have many names and often many forms. Ra was no exception. Below are three of the forms of Ra and at least a partial explanation of their symbology in ancient Egypt.
Ra (also Re)

Ra was the Egyptian’s name for the sun, and the deity for the sun shares the name. The Egyptians extended the literal observance of the sun conquering darkness to Ra, the god, being a symbol of the triumph of good and truth over evil and lies.

In tomb paintings and on papyri, Ra is often shown as a hawk-headed man with the sun disk appearing above him. The hawk symbol represents the movement of the sun across the sky as if it were flying. Ra is also sometimes shown in a boat or the “bark [barque] of ages” sailing across the sky.
Khepera (also Khepri)

Khepera was a god of the rising sun, symbolic of birth, creation, and the emergence of the dead into the afterlife. He is sometimes seen in Ra’s boat with his alter-ego and is often shown as a beetle (dung beetle or scarab) or a man with the head of a beetle. The beetle is symbolic of the creation of life from nothing.
Atum (also Atemu, Atem, Temu, Tmu, Tum)

Atum symbolized the setting sun. He also represented the passage of a human life from this world to the next, i.e. death. It makes sense then that Atum should also often appear in Egyptian paintings and papyri in Ra’s boat. He is also represented by a man holding an ankh and wearing the crowns of Egypt.
Worship of the sun itself

In the New Kingdom during the 19th Dynasty, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) shocked the Egyptian world when he proclaimed Aten – the sun itself – as the only god of the kingdoms of Egypt. It was not a popular move, and a successor attempted to destroy all evidence of Akhenaten’s reign and proclamation of monotheistic worship of Aten.
Ra as the “creator”

Sun cults, such as the one prevalent in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis (Greek – “City of the Sun” – Annu to the ancient Egyptians), credited Ra with the creation. According to one myth, Ra divided his own body into parts, creating new gods from the parts. First was Shu, the god of air or wind, and his wife, Tefnut, the “spitter” or goddess of rain. Next came Geb or Seb, the god of the earth, and his wife Nut, the goddess of the earth and later the sky.

One version of the myth also credits Ra with the creation of Set / Seth, Nephthys, and the eventual royal pair, Osiris and Isis. Another version has Nut as the wife of Ra and the pair bearing Seth, Nephthys, Osiris, and Isis as their own children.
White, J.E. Manchip. Ancient Egypt. Dover, 1970.
Ra artwork licensed under GFDL