Ra (Re, Phra, Pre) (sun, creator, creative power?) In Egyptian mythology, the major sun god, often merged with the god Amun, forming the composite god Amun-Ra. He was the King of the Gods, on earth and later from heaven. One of the first acts of creation in Egyptian mythology was the appearance of Ra’s sun disk above the waters of Nun (chaos). Time was said to have begun with the first rising of Ra. Because the Egyptians believed that the
sun was made of fire and could not have risen directly out of the waters of chaos without some means of conveyance, it was assumed that Ra made his journey over the waters in a boat. The morning boat was called Matet (becoming strong) and the evening boat, Semktet (becoming weak). The course of Ra was said to have been mapped out by the goddess Maat, who was the personification of physical and moral law. In the evening after the sun had set in the west, Ra entered Duat, the underworld. With the help of the gods there he successfully passed through that region in a boat and appeared in the sky the next morning. As he passed through Duat he gave air, light, and food to those who were condemned to live there. Two fishes, Abtu and Ant, swam before Ra’s boat and acted as pilots. Each morning just before he left Duat and was about to enter the sky, Ra engaged in a battle with Apophis, a giant serpent and night Demon. Apophis’s attacks failed because Ra cast a spell on him, making the monster incapable of moving. Then the supporters of the sun god bound Apophis in chains and hacked him to pieces, after which he was destroyed by the flames of Ra—symbolic of the sun destroying the vapors and dampness of the night. In the Books of the Overthrowing of Apophis a ritual is prescribed to be recited daily in the temple of Amun-Ra at Thebes.

It cataloged in great detail Ra the destruction that was to befall Apophis and his monstrous helpers, Sebau and Nak. All of the kings of Egypt in the early empire believed themselves to be the sons of Ra. It was said that whenever the divine blood of the kings needed replenishing, the god took the form of the reigning king of Egypt and visited the queen in her chamber, becoming then the true father of the child born to her. When the child was born, it was regarded as the god incarnate. In due time it was presented to the sun god in his temple. This gave the priests of Ra great power in Egypt. One myth, however, tells how Ra was almost destroyed by the goddess Isis, who sought his true name. The ancients believed that to possess the true name of a god enabled one to have power over him. Many gods had more than one name, one by which the god was generally known and another that might be called his real name, which he kept secret lest it come into the hands of his enemies, who would use it against him. Isis once wished to make Ra reveal to her his greatest and most secret name. “Cannot I by means of the sacred name of God make myself mistress of the earth and become a goddess of like rank and power to Ra in heaven and upon earth?” she asked. Using her magic skill, she made a venomous reptile out of dust mixed with Ra’s spittle, and by uttering certain words of power over the reptile she made it sting Ra as he passed through the heavens. The sun god, finding himself on the point of death, was forced to reveal his hidden name. Having achieved her goal, Isis spoke an incantation that drained the poison from Ra’s limbs, and the god recovered. In the Fifth Dynasty, when the cult of the man-god Osiris spread over the delta region from Busiris (the northern center of the cult) and throughout Upper Egypt from Abydos (the southern center), the priests of the sun god fought to maintain Ra’s authority. However, before the end of the Sixth Dynasty the cult of Osiris prevailed, and Ra was relegated to an inferior position, with the greatest of his attributes ascribed to Osiris.

From the Twelfth Dynasty onward all of the attributes of Ra were absorbed by Amun, who was the dominant god of Upper Egypt. During the 19th and 20th dynasties 75 forms of Ra were known, constituting part of a litany to Ra, which is believed to have been sung Eye of Ra during services in the temples. The litany was painted on the walls of several tombs, such as those of Seti I and Rameses IV. Ra was connected at a very early period with the hawk god Horus, who personified the height of heaven, and in Egyptian art Ra is usually portrayed as a hawk-headed man and sometimes simply in the form of a hawk. On his head he wears the disk of the sun encircled by a serpent. When he appears in human form, he holds the ankh, sign of life, in his right hand and a scepter in his left. Mau, the great cat, is sometimes equated with Ra. In this form he cuts off the head of the evil monster serpent Apophis. From the 26th century b.c.e. to the Roman period, all kings and rulers in Egypt referred to themselves as Sons of Ra.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow-Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante