12th Feb2021

Who Was Ra, the God of the Ancient Egyptians?

by James Smith

Ancient Egyptian religion was complex and multifaceted. Today, we would recognize the spiritual beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians as a combination of divinity worship, folk magic, science, medicine and herbology. Religion dominated the daily lives of Egyptian subjects as they strove to achieve ma’at – or harmony – in their spiritual, interpersonal and material relationships.

The many Gods of the ancient Egyptians were seen as the lords of creation who created order out of chaos, but also as familiar and very real deities with areas of specialist worldly care and human-like foibles. In modern popular culture, several of these Gods have remained present as aesthetic or spiritual motifs. Among these Gods, Ra has left a particularly enduring mark.

Ra iconography has been a feature of creative word around the globe. In film, the ‘staff of Ra’ is found and utilized by the adventurous archeologist Indiana Jones. In Jazz, the iconography and symbolism of Ra was harnessed by the visionary musician Sun Ra as he toyed with concepts of pan-African liberation through improvisation and the evocation of linked mystical pasts and futures. Popular games and slot machines such as Book of Ra also take aesthetic cues from the old God. This all begs the question: who exactly is Ra?

Forms and Representation

Ra is most often represented as a falcon God. This reflects his relationship to the horizon, the noon day sun and the observance of all creation. He was not always drawn or written about as a falcon, however. He also took the form of a scarab beetle called Kheper. Kheper translated into the one who came into being. In ancient Egyptian mythology, scarab beetles were thought to create themselves as they emerged out of the desert sand to push balls of dung around that they had also created. This was thought to reflect the life of Ra, who had a hand in creating the world. The rolling of the ball of dung across the sand by the beetle was also thought to reflect Ra’s movement of the daytime sun across the sky.

Genesis and Power

Ra is essentially a creator God. According to Egyptian mythology, the entity Atum decided that it was the right time for a universe to be created out of the primeval ocean. Answering this will, an island formed itself. This island was the first manifestation of Ra, who created himself before creating the first of the other Gods: Shu, Tefnut, Geb and Nut – elemental gods who controlled earthly processes. One of his descendants was Osiris, who went on to birth humanity using a tear that fell from his eye.

As revenge for a rebellion by humans against the gods, Ra elected to leave the Earth in darkness for half of the time: thereby creating the duality of day and night. This explains why Ra was so associated with the travels of the sun. There were myriad cults that formed around the idea of pleasing Ra for his work as a sun God. One such cult involved the ritual sacrifice of bulls.
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