Anthropomorphic characters are a common theme in many traditions, and Ancient Egyptian mythology is no exception. Today I’m going to tell you a few things about some of the most well-known Ancient Egyptian gods that were represented as animals or as humans with animal heads or other animal parts. My list includes Ra, Hathor, Horus, Bastet, Taweret, Anubis, Sobek, and Nehebkau. Whether you want to read a few things about the Egyptian gods mythology before your trip to Egypt or you simply enjoy mythology facts, this content is likely for you.
Before we go any further, it’s worth mentioning that there are over 2,000 deities in the Egyptian pantheon, and one would need a book to say a few things about each god that is represented as an animal or as a human with an animal head. Also, it’s worth mentioning that I’m aware humans are animals, too; for conceptual clarity, here I’m going to use the term animal to refer to other species.
Ra – A Falcon God
Ra (or Re) is the Ancient Egyptian god of the Sun, order, kings, and the sky. As the ruler of the sky, the Earth, and the Underworld, he is arguably the most important deity in Ancient Egypt. Ra is represented as a falcon or, more commonly, as a man with a falcon head. In other representations, Ra has the head of a beetle or of a ram. One can also find depictions of him as a full ram, heron, beetle, serpent, cat, lion, or bull, among others. The embodiment of Ra is the cult of the Mnevis bull – which had its center in Heliopolis.
According to Ancient Egyptian mythology, all forms of life were created from Ra, including us humans, who may originate from Ra’s tears and sweat. Ra is also the creator of other gods, including Hathor, Bastet, and Sekhmet. The perception of Ra as a significant creator is not surprising, given that Ancient Egyptians understood the Sun as the giver of life. At some points in space-time, Ra was also considered the King of the Gods.
The Eye of Ra, a rather confusing concept, represents an extension of his power – an entity that is the feminine counterpart of Ra. The female versions of Ra protect him from his enemies, actively seeking vengeance whenever necessary.
Hathor – A Cow Goddess
One of the most well-known Egyptian deities depicted as a cow goddess is Hathor – the mother and consort of Ra and Horus, the sky deity and the symbolic mother of the pharaohs. Hathor is usually depicted as a woman wearing cow horns and a sun disk, but in some representations, she is a 100% cow, at least in looks. Ancient Egyptians likely regarded cows as symbols of motherhood and nourishment because cows provide humans with milk. In other representations, Hathor is a cobra, a lioness, or a sycamore tree. Hathor is one of the feminine counterparts of Ra and often displays vengeful elements that protect Ra from enemies. She also has several benevolent aspects that are represented in love, sexuality, music, dance, and maternal care.
An interesting thing about Hathor is that texts often describe her as the “Seven Hathors” and some texts imply that there are as many as 362 Hathors. This may mean that Hathor was rather a type of deity and not a single entity. As you can tell by now, Egyptian mythology is quite complicated and requires some study before understanding it well.
Hathor had many roles in Ancient Egypt, including the roles of the sky goddess and the solar goddess. As the sky goddess, Hathor is often called “mistress of the sky” or “mistress of the stars.” Hathor, along with Mehet-Weret, another deity of the sky, was thought to be the cow who gave birth to Ra and placed him between her horns. Like Nut, another sky goddess, Hathor was believed to give birth to the sun god at each dawn.
Hathor is also Ra’s wife and daughter, the changing roles representing the cycle of the Sun. More specifically, at sunset, Ra, the sun god, enters the body of Hathor, the sky goddess, impregnating her and fathering all the deities born at sunrise: himself, and the eye goddess, who then gives birth to Ra. Confusing, I know.
As one of the most important gods in Ancient Egypt, Hathor has more temples dedicated to her than to any other goddess. Because of her association with music and dance, festivals dedicated to Hathor were celebrated with drinking and dancing, and it’s possible that participants in these festivals wanted to reach an altered state of consciousness so they could directly interact with the deities. I suspect they failed to do so.
Horus – Another Falcon God
Horus the Elder (also known as Heru, Hor, Har) is a deity represented as an entity with a human body and a falcon head or as a full falcon. His name means “the distant one” or “one who is above, over.” He is mostly known as the god of kingship and the sky.
Horus is represented in many forms throughout history, and the differences are so significant that Egyptologists treat different representations as distinct gods; however, many of these forms may be different manifestations of a complex deity, where certain attributes or relationships are emphasized or complementary to one another. Complicated, as always.
In the earliest iconography, Horus is depicted in a solar barque – a type of vessel from ancient Egyptian mythology. The vessel sails from the sky down into the Underworld to rise again at dawn, probably representing the cosmic order sustained by the gods. Horus is often said to be the son of Isis and Osiris and is also the rival of Set, who murdered Osiris. Hathor is depicted as his mother but also as his wife.
Horus’ origin mythology is quite interesting. He was born by Isis after she retrieved the dismembered body parts of Osiris, except his penis, which unfortunately was eaten by a catfish or a crab while floating on the Nile. According to the Greek philosopher Plutarch, Isis used her magic powers to resurrect Osiris and even crafted a phallus to conceive Horus. Isis gave birth to Horus at the Nile Delta marshlands while hiding from the jealous brother Set.
As the sky god, Horus is also associated with the Sun and the Moon. The Sun is Horus’s right eye, and the Moon is his left eye. The two celestial bodies transverse the sky when Horus flies across it. A tale known as “The Contendings of Horus and Seth” says that the Moon is less bright than the Sun because, during a fight with Set, Horus lost an eye while Set lost a testicle. In Ancient Egypt, the Eyes of Horus is a symbol that represents royal power and protection.
In time, Horus became known not only as the son of Osiris but as Osiris himself and was referred to as Golden Horus Osiris. It might be hard to grasp the idea that he was sometimes thought to be both the father of himself and his own son, but you’ve probably already read about Ra and Hathor, so you are getting used to it.
You might have heard that Ancient Egyptians believed the pharaoh was the mediator between the gods and men. The nature of the Egyptian pharaohs, as described by the Pyramid Texts, is represented by both Osiris and Horus. More specifically, the pharaoh as Horus in life becomes the pharaoh as Osiris in death. New incarnations of Horus emerge in the form of new pharaohs.
Ancient Egyptians liked cats a lot, and there is a lot of mythology where cats were highly represented. Bastet is not the only Egyptian god with a cat head, but she is probably the most famous one. This goddess is often depicted as a divine cat manifestation of Ra named Mau.
Bastet is represented as a woman with a cat head that carries an ancient percussion instrument in her right hand known as the sistrum, a breastplate (also known as aegis) in her left hand, and a bag over her left arm.
Sometimes Bastet is confused with Sekhmet, the goddess of war, who has the head of a lioness and is associated with the desert and with ferocity. In later years, Bastet becomes the binary opposition of Sekhmet, representing a more gentle and nurturing feline god.
Initially, at the time of the Second Dynasty (2890 BCE), Bastet was also represented as a lioness goddess at a time when cats were not yet domesticated. Bastet’s transition to a more gentle feline began around 1500 BCE when the domestication of the cat was in progress (a domestication process that is likely still in progress). At some point in history, Bastet became depicted as the daughter of Ra and Isis and the consort of Ptah, with whom she had a son named Maahes.
Among her multiple roles, Bastet was the protector of Lower Egypt and the defender of the king. She was also the god of pregnancy and childbirth and provided protection against contagious diseases.
Greek occupied Ancient Egypt for 275 years, between 305 and 30 BC. During this period, known as the Ptolemaic Dynasty, a significant cultural exchange between Egypt and Greece took place, to the point that the Greeks sometimes equated Bastet with Artemis – the Greek goddess of the wilderness, wild animals, nature, hunt, vegetation, childbirth, the Moon and, well, chastity.
Taweret – A Hippo Goddes
In Ancient Egypt, the protective goddess of childbirth and fertility was Taweret, also known as Taurt, Tuart, Tuat, Tawaret, Ta-weret, Taueret, Twert, and in Greek, Thoeris, Toeris, Thouéris, and Taouris. Her name means “great one” or “she who is great.” Addressing someone like that may mean that you want to pacify a dangerous deity, and, in the case of Taweret, this seems to be the case. Typically, Taweret is represented as a biped hippopotamus with attributes from multiple species; she has female human breasts, some feline attributes, the limbs and laws of a lion, and the back and tail of a Nile crocodile. Quite eclectic.
If you are going to Egypt, don’t expect to find hippos. If you are going to Ancient Egypt, on the other hand, you will find plenty of them. While Egyptians also hunted hippopotamuses, they were likely impressed by how female hippopotamuses protect their young, and this might explain why Taweret was regarded as a god protecting childbirth and fertility. This god was associated and often undistinguished from other protective hippo goddesses – Ipet, Hedjet, and Reret.
Taweret images are common on magical objects, especially on a type of wand or knife created from hippopotamus ivory that was used in different rituals concerning birth and the protection of newborns. Taweret also appears on children’s feeding cups. You might be surprised to hear that she was also a funerary deity. This appears to be a contradiction, but it’s not, as Egyptians believed the goddess facilitated rebirth after death.
Some think Taweret once flooded the Nile. In this legend, the Eye of Ra became upset with her father and retreated to Nubia in the form of a lion. When she returned, she assumed the form of a hippopotamus and flooded the Nile. It might be for this reason why Taweret is often called the “Mistress of Pure Water,” although her role in cleaning and purifying the dead might also explain it.
Economic and other types of exchanges between Egypt and other cultures made Taweret known in other cultures as well, including the Levant, Ancient Crete, Nubia, and Phoenicia.
Anubis – A Jackal or Dog God
In Ancient Egypt, Anubis (also known as Inpw, Inpu, Anpu, and Inpw) was the jackal-headed god of mummification, death, embalming, the afterlife, cemeteries, tombs, and even the Underworld. Not the best jobs one can have, I would say. The name Anubis is the Greek version of the god, and the Egyptian root name appears to mean “a royal child.” Anubis is often associated with Wepwawet, another Egyptian god with a dog head or otherwise canine form. Anput is Anubis’ female counterpart, and Kebechet, a serpent goddess, is his daughter.
Anubis only managed the Underworld until the Middle Kingdom (around 2055-1650BC), when Osiris became the new head of this realm. An important role of Anubis was to attend the weighting scale during “Weighing of the Heart,” where it was determined whether a soul should be allowed to enter the realm of the dead.
Anubis is typically depicted in black, a color that, in Ancient Egypt, symbolizes regeneration, the discoloration of the corpses after embalming, life, and the soil of the Nile River. When Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom, Anubis was merged with the Greek god Hermes and became Hermanubis, a god who also guided souls to the afterlife.
The Crocodile God
There is arguably no deity more associated with the Nile crocodile and the West African crocodile in Ancient Egypt than Sobek (also known as Sobki). The name Sbk may mean “to impregnate.” Sobek is represented either in the form of a crocodile or as a human with a crocodile head. This god has roles concerning pharaonic power, military power, and fertility and is also able to give protective magic.
Sobek became particularly popular during the Middle Kingdom, especially during the Twelfth Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhat III, who built projects to promote Sobek. During this time, Sobek was often fused with Horus, the falcon-headed god of divine kingship. Due to its association with Horus, Sobek became a solar deity, a role that was further strengthened when Sobek was fused with the sun god Ra to become Sobek-Ra.
Sobek is often characterized as an aggressive animal, which is not surprising considering he is, after all, associated with the crocodile, an animal known for not being particularly friendly. That being said, Sobek has been nice on many occasions. For instance, after being adopted into the triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, he also became associated with Isis as a healer of the deceased Osiris (who was violently murdered by Set in the Osiris myth – arguably the most known and influential story from Ancient Egyptian mythology). Some even think that Sbk does not mean “to impregnate” but “he who unites” (the dismembered limbs of Osiris, that is).
As a protective deity, Sobek often received crocodile mummies and mummified crocodile eggs. Some people in Ancient Egypt raised crocodiles as living incarnations of Sobek. Crocodiles were mummified, in particular at the temple of Crocodilopolis.
The Snake God
One of the most important snake gods in Ancient Egypt is Nehebkau (also known as Nehebu-Kau). His name may mean “that which gives Ka”, “the overturner of doubles,” “the collector of souls,” “he who harnesses the spirits,” “the bestower of dignities,” or “provider of goods and foods.” Despite these flattering translations, in earlier times, Nehebkau was considered to be an evil spirit; it appears that this often happens with mythological snakes, for some reason. Later, he became a funerary god and was associated with the afterlife.
Nehebkau is usually described as someone who is a man with the head and tail of a serpent or a serpent with human arms or legs. Representations of him as a full snake with multiple coils also exist, with the majority of them being earlier representations. An arguably cooler representation of Nehebkau is as someone with two heads on two separate necks and a third head on his tail.
As a god of the afterlife, one of Nehebkau’s tasks was to judge the deceased after death and provide their souls with something called ka – a part of the soul that distinguishes living from non-living. Eventually, Nehebkau also became a companion of the sun god Re as well as an attendant of the deceased kings.
As an important figure in Egyptian mythology, Nehebkau interacted with many other high-profile figures in the realm of deities. For example, he worked with Osiris as an assessor of Maat in the Court of Osiris – where Osiris served as the judge of the dead and the Underworld. Nehebkau was also a consort to Serket and in some myths, Nehebkau is his son.
Starting Your Own Search for Egyptian Gods in Egypt
As we can see from historical evidence, Ancient Egyptian gods were often represented in animal forms. As the political and cultural structures in Egypt evolved, so did deities. God Re and the falcon-headed Horus, for instance, were eventually merged into the Re-Horus composite god – Re-Harakhty. A historical account of the evolution of Ancient Egyptian mythology highlights the relationship between changes in religious beliefs and changes in political, cultural, and social structures.
If you want to get a more direct experience of Ancient Egypt and its deities, you should consider a trip to Egypt that will take you to the right places. If you want to find Ra and visit Heliopolis’s former location, for example, you can go to Cairo’s north-eastern suburbs. There you will find one thing that still marks Heliopolis’s location – an obelisk.
The best place to search for Hathor is arguably Dendera Temple, which can be found near the Egyptian town of Dendera. The complex displays elements from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures and includes tributes to a variety of Egyptian gods. The temple of Hathor is the most prominent building in the complex.
If a place dedicated to Horus is your thing, you can go to the temple of Edfu, located in a city with the same name. This is one of the most well-preserved temples in Egypt and can be visited while cruising the Nile.
The ruins of Bubastis, an important site of Bastet worship, are located North of Cairo. There you can see stonework revealing catacombs and walkways that were once filled with those coming to a hedonistic party that celebrated Bastet.
If you want to see something interesting related to Sobek, you can visit the town of Kom Ombo, where you can see mummified crocodiles at the Crocodile Museum, located near the Temple of Kom Ombo – a site of worship to Sobek.
There are, of course, many other places in Egypt where you can find traces of Ancient Egyptian mythology. For a guided tour that will take you to different locations in Egypt, including locations dedicated to Ancient Egyptian gods, check here and here.
The pyramids are only one thing of the many things you may want to see while in Egypt. If traveling and ancient mythology are your things, I encourage you to start a search, by yourself or with some assisted help, for artifacts that will likely get you closer to the vibes you would experience in Ancient Egypt.
Shorter, A. W. (2009). The Egyptian Gods: A Handbook. Wildside Press LLC.