Ra, or Re, was the deity of the sun in ancient Egypt. To the ancient Egyptians, the sun represented light, warmth and growth; and this made Ra one of the most important Egyptian deities and he was seen as the ruler of all creation. Worship of Ra gained in prominence by the Fifth Dynasty in the 25th and 24th centuries BC; and since then the pharaoh of Egypt was seen as the earthly embodiment of the almighty Ra. Depictions of Ra show him in various forms with his most common portrayed being that of a man with the head of a falcon crowned with a shiny sun disc. There are various myths associated with Ra including that human beings were created by his tears; and that the goddess Isis was able to steal his powers through deceit. A major belief among ancient Egyptians was that Ra journeyed in a boat through the sky during the day and through the underworld at night. Know more about the importance of Ra in ancient Egypt as well as his appearance, myths and powers through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 Ra was regarded as the supreme power in the cosmic universe
By 25th century BC, Ra became one of the most important deities in ancient Egypt. He was believed to rule all parts of the world: the sky, the earth and the underworld. He was thus the supreme power in the cosmic universe. His importance can be understood by several myths regarding him. One myth believed him to be the ruler of all Gods while according to another, he was the only God and all other deities were nothing more than mere aspects of him. During the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt (16th century BC to 11th century BC), the worship of Ra gained even more significance and this is proved by depictions of the God on the tombs from this era.
#2 Ra was usually portrayed as a man with a head of a falcon
Ra was represented in a variety of forms. His most common portrayal was of a man with the head of a falcon, crowned with a shiny sun disc. This sun disc is encircled by a sacred cobra called Uraeus. In some other depictions, Ra is also shown as a man with the head of a beetle or a ram. The sun disk, Ra’s symbol, remains constant in all these illustrations. Among other things, Ra was also pictured as a full-bodied ram, beetle, phoenix, heron, serpent, bull, cat or lion. Some myths about Ra mention that Ra amalgamated himself in other forms such as Khepri or a beetle in the morning, Horakthty or solar disc in the noon and as Khnum or Atum (ram headed man) during sunset. At different times of the day, Ra changed from form to another but he continued to symbolize the sun throughout.
#3 Human beings were created by the tears of Ra
A common feature in Egyptian creation myths was of the world emerging from the waters of chaos that surround it. There are numerous creation myths of ancient Egypt and as Ra gained in significance, he too features in some of them. In one of the myths, Ra, being one of the creator gods, rose from the ocean of chaos on the primeval hill. He then created eight other gods. This thus produced the group of nine major deities in Egyptian mythology known as the Great Ennead. According to another myth, Ra was once roaming around the world and saw that everything was perfect, the sight brought tears to his eyes. The tears that fell on the earth became human beings.
#4 Ra journeyed through the sky during the day and through the underworld at night
According to Egyptian mythology, Ra sailed across the heavens during the day time in his boat which they called the “Barque of Millions of Years”. In the morning, this boat was called Madjet which means “becoming strong” while as the day ended, this boat was called Semektet which means “becoming weak”. It was believed that Ra died after the day ended as he was swallowed by Nut, the goddess of the sky. After his death, Ra sailed across the underworld and the job of lighting up the world was left to the moon. During his journey through the underworld, Ra was attacked by Apep, a deity who was a giant serpent. However, Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos and disorder, accompanied Ra and defeated Apep to save Ra. As another day starts, Ra’s voyage reaches its completion and he is reborn to begin his journey once again.
#5 Ra was often combined with other prominent deities like Horus and Amun
Ra was often combined with other god in ancient Egyptian mythology. Ra was combined with Amun, another major Egyptian deity, to create the all powerful Amun-Ra, a solar creator god. At one time, Amun-Ra was given the official title “king of the gods”. Atum, another major solar deity, was combined with Ra to form Atum-Ra. Horus was the sky god who was the most important deity before the rise of Ra during the Fifth Dynasty. He was combined with Ra to form Ra-Horakhty, which means ‘Horus in the Horizon’. Khepri, a scarab beetle, was seen as the morning manifestation of Ra while Khnum, the ram-headed god, was seen as the evening manifestation of Ra. At noon, Ra was at his most powerful and was not combined with any other gods but known simply as Ra.
#6 The Eye of Ra is an extension of his powers
The Eye of Ra is a symbol which was highly valued by ancient Egyptians. There are many myths about the Eye of Ra. According to one prominent myth, Ra’s children Shu and Tefnut were going somewhere when they lost their way and could not be found. Ra plucked his eye out and sent it to look for his children. The eye found the two children and brought them back to their father. However, meanwhile Ra grew another eye. Seeing this new eye, his previous eye felt betrayed and came in a fit of rage. To calm it down, Ra gave the eye a powerful position on his forehead in the form of the uraeus, the emblematic cobra that appears frequently in Egyptian art. The Eye of Ra became an extension of Ra’s power serving as his feminine counterpart and a violent force that subdued his enemies.
#7 He was the most powerful deity
In Egyptian mythology, Ra was the supreme power in the universe. According to several myths, he is the head of the Egyptian pantheon and ruler of all the gods. He could make anything he wanted. So great were his powers that he created people, the world and the heavens. Among other things, he was also responsible for creating the seasons, animals and plants. The powers of Ra were extraordinary and he wielded them through a hidden name in which his powers lived. Since this hidden name was known only to Ra, only he could use those powers.
#8 According to a myth, goddess Isis is able to steal Ra’s powers
While Ra had incredible power, there is a myth that suggests that he ended up becoming weak later. The story goes that Ra drooled saliva as he grew old. Isis; the goddess of marriage, fertility, magic and medicine; knew very well that Ra’s powers lay hidden in his secret name. She wanted to know this secret name in order to become all-powerful herself. Isis collected Ra’s saliva, mixed it with clay and made a serpent with the purpose of biting Ra. Her plan was successful. Ra was in tremendous pain after the serpent bite and he summoned other gods to help him. Isis promised to heal Ra if he let out his secret name. Since the pain was intolerable, Ra allowed Isis to search through him. Thus Ra’s powers got transferred to Isis. Though she kept her promise of healing Ra, she forcibly abdicated him and made Horus the king of the gods.
#9 The pharaohs ruled Egypt as earthly embodiment of Ra
Ra was revered as the chief-god of the pantheon of Heliopolis and the creator of everything that existed. Ancient Egyptians believed that they owed their existence to god as he created the world and Ra was the king since this day. The pharaoh, or the king, was seen as his descendant or successor. The myth goes that Ra brought order in the world of chaos and the pharaohs were meant to do the same when they came on the throne. Since 25th century BC, when Ra gained in prominence, the pharaohs often connected themselves with Ra to establish their supremacy as they wanted to be perceived as the earthly embodiment of the almighty Ra.
#10 The first temple dedicated to Ra was built at Abusir by Pharaoh Userkaf
From the Fifth Dynasty or 25th century BC, Ra came to be closely associated with the pharaoh. The pharaoh of ancient Egypt since the fifth dynasty and thereafter came to be known as The Son of Ra and he even incorporated the name Ra to his name. Also, after the Fifth Dynasty, Ra became a state deity and pharaohs had specially aligned pyramids, obelisks and sun temples built in his honor. However, none of the solar temples built contained any statue of Ra. Instead, they were built with an open structure to receive sunlight, which symbolized the sun god. The first temple dedicated to Ra was built at Abusir by Pharaoh Userkaf, founder of the Fifth Dynasty.