The sun god Ra
Before that, there wasn’t any writing, so we don’t know – people may have worshipped Ra as the sun god long before the Old Kingdom, far back into the Stone Age.
Just remember: There is but one God! He is the Sun God! Ra! Ra! Rah!
What did the god Ra look like?
Ra had the sun (a circle) balanced on his head, as you can see in the picture. In the top picture, Ra wears a long narrow red tunic. Red was an expensive dye, so only rich, powerful people (like the sun god) could wear red. And because the sun can seem red at sunrise and sunset, it’s a very appropriate color for a god.
The head of a falcon
In other images, like this one, Ra has the head of a falcon. Falcons fly very high and see everything, so that’s why people associated them with the sun. And they thought of the falcon as the king of the birds. Earlier, falcons had been the bird of the god Horus, but by the New Kingdom, people often thought of Horus and Ra as kind of the same. They called this combined god Ra-Horakhty.
Cobras and rebirth
Often the god Ra has snakes around him, or around the sun disk on his head. These snakes are cobras. Cobras shed their skin and are (metaphorically) reborn. So they seemed related to the sun, which also dies every night and is reborn every morning. Both the sun and cobras were symbols of rebirth, so people painted them on the walls of their tomb, hoping to be reborn themselves into the Egyptian afterlife.
The sun boat sails from east to west
The god Ra carried the sun in a boat from sunrise in the east to sunset in the west every day, accompanied by his followers. During the night, he carried the sun underneath the earth, through the underworld, the Duat, fighting a series of battles underground, so he could get back to the east again for sunrise in the morning.
Why does the god Ra sail in a boat?
You could compare Ra to the Indian god Vishnu or to the Greek god Helios. The Greek sun god travels in a horse-drawn chariot, because the Greeks usually traveled in horse-drawn chariots, but the Egyptian sun god travels in a boat, because Egyptians usually traveled by boat up and down the Nile River. In the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians didn’t have horses or chariots yet.
Egyptian astronomy and the god Ra
Throughout most of ancient Egypt, probably nobody knew that the sun was not really the god Ra. Egyptian astronomers were busy calculating the movements of the sun through the year, so they could predict the summer solstice and the winter solstice.
Ra in Egyptian mythology
In Egyptian stories, Ra created the world and everything in it. He called all the animals and plants into life by speaking their secret names. Then Ra used his own tears and sweat to make the first people.
By 2000 BC or 1500 BC, in the Middle Kingdom or New Kingdom, people were telling the story of the Sky Cow. In this story, after Ra created the animals and plants and people, they all lived happily together at first. It’s another version of the Enuma Elish story of the Flood, which was at least 500 years earlier. Later on, other versions of this story became the Bible’s Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, and Sodom and Gomorrah.
But then, people went bad! They were totally ungrateful and evil! They didn’t sacrifice to the gods and thought only about themselves. People even started to plot ways to overthrow Ra! So the god Ra decided to punish the people he had created. He sent the cow goddess Sekhmet to trample all over them with her giant cow body. Sekhmet ran all over the earth. She trampled people to death. She knocked down buildings in the cities. And she trampled the wheat and barley standing in the fields.
Ra stood up in the sky, watching Sekhmet trampling everything, and he was pretty happy about it. He thought it served people right. But the other gods – Horus, Isis, Osiris – said, “Hey Ra, don’t you think that’s about enough now? If Sekhmet kills all the people, who will be left to learn the lesson? Who will sacrifice to us then?” So Ra figured out how to stop Sekhmet.
How Ra stopped Sekhmet
He gets a big batch of beer from the beer goddess, Tenenet, and dyes it red, and sends it down to earth. The crazy Sekhmet thinks the beer is blood, and drinks it all. She gets drunk and falls asleep. When she wakes up, the madness has left her. She’s turned into the gentle cow-goddess, Hathor.
Egyptian people thought of Hathor as another form of Sekhmet, and both of them as forms of the mother goddess Mut. (You could see all of this as a story about how men have to control irrational women. But then the Bible just writes women almost entirely out of the story. The only remnant is Lot’s wife.)
Sometimes they showed Hathor with Ra’s sun disk as a red circle on her back.
Ra and the god Thoth
The sun god, Ra, was so powerful that other gods might seem like they were pieces of Ra, or one part of Ra’s character. The Egyptian god Thoth, for example, was a god of the mind, and reason, and talking.
Egyptians imagined Thoth as the heart and tongue of the sun god Ra. (Thoth seemed like the heart, rather than the brain, because in ancient Egypt people thought the heart was where you kept your intelligence.)
How did people worship the god Ra?
People sacrificed bulls to Ra, because bulls were big, strong, important animals, and Ra was a big, strong, important god.
Ra in the New Kingdom: Amun-Ra
In the New Kingdom, as people started to worship Amun as the sun god, they again combined Ra and Amun, praying and sacrificing to Amun-Ra. Because of this association with Amun, the pharaoh Akhenaten, who rejected Amun, also didn’t let people worship Ra. But after Akhenaten died, people went back to worshipping Ra (and Amun) again.
The end of the god Ra
People kept on worshipping Ra all through the Greek and Roman periods in Egypt, but by that time, scientists were pretty sure that the earth went around the sun, and that the sun was a physical object, and not a god in a boat. They even knew how far away the sun was. So the idea of Ra lost some of its power.
Even so, people kept worshipping Ra until people in Egypt converted to Christianity in the 300s AD. At that point, the worship of Ra ended.
Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, by Leonard Fisher (1999). For younger kids.
Isis and Osiris, by Geraldine Harris (1997). A retelling of the story for kids.
The Egypt Game (Yearling Newbery), by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (reprinted 1985). A great kids’ story about kids who pretend to be Egyptian gods and goddesses.
Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, by John Baines, David Silverman, and Leonard Lesko (1991). Pretty hard going, but it will tell you everything you need to know about Egyptian religion.
Isis in the Ancient World, by R.E. Witt (1997). Mostly about the spread of Isis worship to Greece and the Roman Empire.