The Egyptians believed in the existence of a number of spiritual bodies. The KA is variously translated as ‘personality’ ‘individuality’ ‘self’ and ‘lifeforce’ – after death, offerings of food were made to it at a special place in the tomb. The BA is more difficult to fathom, for even objects had Ba’s. Usually translated as ‘soul’ it was represented by the Ibis bird. (Another translation is ‘manifestation’ : the king’s Ba could manifest in acts). In funerary rituals the body needed to be re-assembled as in the myth of OSIRIS, that is, made into a magical mummy or ‘established from decay’. Apparently only then could the Ba ‘wake up’ the corpse and, after this, the Ka and Ba ‘combined’ to make the AKH or ‘radiant light’ or ‘resurrection body’ (represented as the crested Ibis). This then ascended to Nut to become a star and accompany Re in his boat of ‘millions of years’. The place just below the eastern horizon where heavenly bodies are born was called the AKHET. Hence the ‘horizon’ of Khufu’ is the place where Khufu was transformed into an Akh.

In the Old Kingdom the king was considered as embodying the Ka’s of his subjects so his rebirth would ensure that of all, and the pyramid was the magical icon which would effect this. The ‘Osiris pyramid’ enabled the dead king to unite with Re the sun god, while kingship was transferred to his son ‘the living Horus’. Thereafter the pyramid was ‘maintained’ by a body of priests. Pyramid building thus represented a sort of contract between the living and the dead, with obligations on both sides.

Although each pyramid is unique, with often quite complex passage arrangements, all are broadly similar : an entrance in the north face opening to a passage directed towards the polar region, and ultimately terminating in a sarcophagus chamber. Often this is preceded by an ‘ante-chamber’. By studying the Pyramid texts, Allen (LINK) was able to throw some light on the meaning of this layout. He proposed that the texts were meant for the king and the direction in which they are written leads him out of the pyramid to be reborn. The sarcophagus chamber is the Duat. The sarcophagus, usually in the west of the chamber, is Nut the mother of Osiris. When the king’s Ba awakes and leaves the mummy in the Duat, it moves from west to east – that is, the direction in which the sun moves beneath the earth to be reborn at the eastern horizon. The ante-chamber is the Akhet where the king becomes an Akh. The passage in the north wall leads out to the polar region and ultimately the king is reborn on the eastern horizon. From this it is reasonable to suppose that the Egyptians saw the pole as ‘the navel of the sky’ and the image of the goddess of childbirth located there supports this. (But one wonders how the Akh of the king appeared at the eastern horizon).


RE the sun god appears in inscriptions from the late pre-dynastic period. In the early Old Kingdom he is associated with ATUM at Heliopolis.

HORUS and SET are attested in pre-dynastic times. These gods are portrayed uniting the two lands. Set was favoured in the very earliest dynasties, but later Horus became god of kingship and Set seen as a disruptive genius. Different celestial bodies like planets were referred to as ‘Horus’. Horus the falcon-headed god had a cult centre at Khem, or Letopolis, during the fourth dynasty. This lies due north from Giza and due west from Heliopolis. As time went on Set became increasingly demonized. Set is portrayed as a peculiar composite with an aardvaak-like snout and long ears which have been clipped. The ‘elder Horus’ has no obvious connection with the later Osiris/Isis/Horus triad, of which more below.

HATHOR, as her name implies, was the wife of Horus and the most prominent goddess in the early Old Kingdom. She has a sensual quality.

PTAH was the creator god of Memphis and of artisans, symbolizing material transformation. Enigmatically he was said to have created the Ogdoad and Ennead. His name is thought to be the root of the word ‘Egypt’.

THOTH and his consort SESHAT were the gods of knowledge, writing, and calculation – length and time. Seshat presided over surveying and her sanctuary was at Heliopolis. Later developments give Thoth a more important role in both Heliopolitan and Hermopolitan cosmogonies.

Of the other gods prominent in Old Kingdom times, a number were dogs protecting or guiding the king :

KHENTAMENTIU was the chief god of Abydos, later to become the cult centre of Osiris.

ANUBIS was protector of the necropolis in ancient times.

WEPWAWET protected the movements of the king, whether in war as a battle standard, or as ‘opener of the ways’ to help the king travel to the land of the dead.

(Other dogs include DUAMATEF, one of the sons of Horus. Sometimes Set is shown as a dog.)

Khufu is called Khnum Khufu in inscriptions. KHNUM was an ancient deity originally controlling the inundation. He was also a creator god (portrayed with a ram’s head) who was said to have moulded humans from clay. He was not however responsible for creating the clay.

The goddess MAAT represented order and truth.

In Giza royal-family tomb-inscriptions the principal gods mentioned are – RE, HORUS, PTAH, THOTH, HATHOR, and ANUBIS. There is no Isis and Osiris.


Egyptians themselves claimed that their civilisation had been founded by divine ancestors. The beginning of the historical period was commemorated as the ‘unification of the two lands’ and repeatedly depicted in the iconography of all later periods : Egypt was conceived as being divided into two parts – the delta, ‘lower Egypt’, symbolised by WADJIT the cobra; and the Nile valley extending to the tropic – and ‘upper Egypt’, symbolised by NEKHBET the vulture. The heads of these two animals surmounted the double crown of pharaoh and represented his dominion over the united territory of Egypt. They were also symbolized by the Bee (lower Egypt) and the Sedge (upper Egypt) while the papyrus and lily symbolized these lands in representations of ‘the unification of the two lands’. This ‘duality’ permeated the funerary cult and the building of both northern and southern tombs for rulers.


According to the Pyramid Texts, at Heliopolis a ‘pillar’ equated the self-created father of the gods, ATUM , with the primaeval mound upon which the mysterious BENNU bird (illustrated at the beginning of this website) was supposed to alight. It was upon this ‘mound of creation’ that temples were symbolically built.

The myth of Heliopolis grew steadily in importance and by classical times had become much embroidered. It should be noted that the following summary describes this myth in its fully developed form. What its exact form was during the pyramid age and how it developed remains the subject of debate.

The myth was conceived as bringing order out of chaos and giving justification to the form of the Egyptian state. The ‘city of the sun’, across the Nile from Giza, was of supreme importance during the Old Kingdom, and a number of pharaohs of this period had the element ‘Re’ as part of their names – Neferkare, Menkaure, Djedkare, and so forth. The sun-god was personified in three forms : Khephere in the morning (a scarab beetle pushing a ball of dung into which it had laid its eggs), the disc of Re at midday, and the standing figure of Atum holding a staff in the evening. (It was later said that the Great Sphinx of Giza symbolised all three forms and this in turn is thought to have become the basis for the famous Oedipus riddle).

In the myth of Heliopolis ATUM was considered the father of the gods. The Heliopolitan group called the ‘ENNEAD’ comprised 9 gods – 5 ‘divine’ and 4 ‘semi-human’ – and their origins were as follows :

ATUM (m), self-arising from the primaeval waters of chaos (NUN), by masturbation created the first pair – SHU (m) ‘air’ and TEFNUT (f) ‘moisture’. These in turn begat GEB (m) ‘earth’ and NUT (f) ‘sky’.

Geb attempted to mate with his sister and so their parents ‘came between them’, and in the iconography Shu is shown with arms raised holding up the heavenly vault of Nut while Geb lies recumbent. In spite of this, Geb and Nut managed to beget OSIRIS (m) and ISIS (f), and SET (m) and NEPTHYS (f) – brothers and sisters and wives and husbands – ‘semi-human’ members of the Ennead, with Set being portrayed with the head of a strange beast.

Accounts of succeeding events are fragmentary and sometimes contradictory but it is generally agreed that Set became jealous of his brother Osiris and killed him, and ultimately succeeded in dismembering his body and distributing its parts throughout Egypt. Isis then collected these parts together (thus making the prototype mummy) and brought Osiris back to life to reign as lord of the ‘DUAT’ – the mysterious netherworld of the dead.

In the continuation of the myth, the resurrection of Osiris enables Isis to conceive HORUS (m) the well-known falcon-headed god (yet distinct from the ‘elder Horus’), who is often depicted as protecting the earthly pharaohs. Horus fights against Set and succeeds in reclaiming his rightful inheritance. But the balance between the two gods, often portrayed as ‘the uniting of the two lands’, is a dynamic one – Set represents forces of disorder which must continually be resisted through the collective efforts of mankind, organised, for this purpose, into an ideal state headed by pharaoh the living ‘son of Re’.

(The role of Set in early dynasties is unclear – one IInd dynasty pharaoh even appears to have made Set pre-eminent. Set as a symbol of disorder must be distinguished from the primaeval chaos from which Atum emerged through his own will. : in later scenarios Set is even allocated a place in the barque of Re. De Lubicz suggested that Set’s ‘asses ears’ are clipped so that, like the fallen angel Satan, he is deaf to order and wisdom).

The supreme importance of the Ennead and Horus in the New Kingdom is demonstrated by their allocation to the first ten divisions of the Royal cubit rule – an important measure of length throughout dynastic Egypt, particularly employed in royal monuments. The Ennead is present in the earliest-known inscriptions found inside small pyramids of the fifth and sixth dynasties : the Pyramid Texts. In the Middle Kingdom the material in these texts was written on coffins, and in the New Kingdom was elaborated to form the famous ‘Book of the Dead’- a collection of invocations on papyrus to be read at funeral ceremonies and then buried with the deceased.

The essential part of the Book of the Dead was the ‘negative confession’ – the reading over the mummy of the deceased of a long, formulated list of moral transgressions that he had resisted during his lifetime. Then, with his relatives re-enacting the parts of mythic protagonists, he was imagined to undergo the ceremony called the ‘weighing of the heart’ : in which his heart was tested in the balance against the feather of truth. If he failed in this test he would be devoured by a fearsome beast and utterly destroyed. But if his heart was true he would be led into the presence of Osiris – his son as Horus ‘opening the mouth’ of the mummy and causing it to enter the world of the Duat.

The broad tenets of Heliopolitan belief might not appear greatly different from some of today’s monotheist beliefs – a male god procreating without woman; judgement; life after death; and the idea that humanity has been created to do god’s work. But in Egypt ‘god and caesar’ were one : pharaoh, the ‘living Horus’, represented the focus of contact with the divine for the whole population. Egyptian history was the acting out of ritual, and each succeeding king stood at the beginning of mythological time, overcoming chaos, and causing Egypt to come into being. A continuous effort had to be made against the forces of chaos. The king was the mediator between gods and men and his essential duty was to maintain the cult rituals and Maat (‘truth’). His name was written inside a ‘loop in the thread of time’ as it were, called a Cartouche –

Tomb inscriptions suggest that the king’s relations to the gods were redefined during the 5th dynasty. The semi-human members of the Ennead were co-opted from previous traditions by the priests of Heliopolis to construct a myth which would reinforce the divine rulership of the king. For example it was said that Thoth had gambled with the gods to win 5 extra days to the formal 360 day year, during which the five semi-human members of the Ennead could be born. Osiris replaced Khentamentiu and ANDJETI, the original anthropomorphic god of Abydos holding the crook and flail sceptres (emblems of animal husbandry and agriculture). The word ‘Ennead’, although meaning ‘nine’, seems to have been applied to different numbers of gods, and in the Pyramid Texts only one utterance has the ‘canonical’ list).

Faulkner comments –

” As a celestial phenomenon which paralleled or guided the source of livelihood, and which was born, waxed, waned, and died with the Nile, the crops, and fodder, Orion is well-placed to represent the visible expression of a Predynastic deity of life, death, and resurrection. No human-made iconography would be needed. Besides, to invite the supreme god of death, rebirth, and the Underworld into the world of the living through a material form is dangerously unwise. Perhaps such forces should be kept at a safe distance, in the sky – remote and contained within their own realms of power”

“To assume that such a powerful deity as Osiris, a cosmic divinity of the sky and the underworld, rather than temporal deity of the earth or air, could not have existed in the Predynastic because of a lack of material evidence contradicts the nature of religious iconography. For priests to invent a powerful and popular deity such as Osiris for the purposes of a royal mortuary cult early in the Dynastic period, just prior to the written evidence of the Pyramid Texts, would be an incredible feat of propaganda in a period without mass communication in which only the elite were literate. Also, such a self-conscious, contrived form of religious development is unlikely considering the conservative nature of religion, especially that of Egypt, the widespread popularity of Osiris among illiterate people after the First Intermediate period, and the inherent contradictions among the myths and textual references to him. If one or two organised centralised priesthoods had invented Osiris, for whatever purpose, surely there would be greater consistency and uniformity in the religious texts.”.