Re (Ra) was the Egyptian sun god who was also often referred to as Re-Horakhty, meaning Re (is) Horus of the Horizon, referring to the god’s character. The early Egyptians believed that he created the world, and the rising sun was, for them, the symbol of creation. The daily cycle, as the sun rose, then set only to rise again the next morning, symbolized renewal and so Re was seen as the paramount force of creation and master of life. His closest ally is Ma’at, the embodiment of order and truth.
Re was also closely connected to the Pharaoh, Egypt’s king. While the king ruled earth, Re was the master of the universe so they were of the same nature and were in effect a mirror image of each other. Interestingly, up until the 2nd Dynasty, there is an absence of references on Re, but his development began in the late 2nd Dynasty and matured through the 5th Dynasty. Re became more and more associated with the king, who was both human and a god at once, embodied in the falcon named Horus and by the 4th Dynasty, referred to as the son of Re. Hence, a relationship also developed between Horus and Re as they were merged in the symbol of a winged sun disk, an icon that remained constant in Temples and religious monuments through the end of Egyptian history.
Re’s early worship really became very significant during the 5th Dynasty, when kings not only erected pyramids aligned to the rising and setting sun, but also built solar temples in honor of Re. This sort of temple must have been a difficult conception for the Egyptians, because Re never had a sanctuary with a cult statue. Instead, his image was the sun itself, so the sun temples were centered upon an Obelisk over which the sun rose, and before the obelisk would be an alter for his worship. However, the most significant early solar temple was probably erected at Heliopolis, where a pillar resembling an obelisk made up part of the hieroglyphs for the city’s name, Iwn. Unfortunately, that structure is now completely destroyed. These 5th Dynasty rulers were also responsible for the first Pyramid Texts during the Old Kingdom, a collection of spells describing the journey of the dead pharaoh through the underworld. These texts were some of the first decorations inscribed in Pyramids, and are an important source of information on the sun god.
For example, one hymn states:
“Homage to thee, O thou who risest in the horizon as Ra,
“thou restest upon law unchangeable and unalterable. Thou
“passest over the sky, and every face watcheth thee and thy
“course, for thou hast been hidden from their gaze. Thou dost
“show thyself at dawn and at eventide day by day. The Sektet*
“boat, wherein is the Majesty, goeth forth with light; thy beams
“are upon all faces; the [number] of red and yellow rays
“cannot be known, nor can thy bright beams be told. The lands
“of the gods, and the lands of Punt* must be seen, ere that which
“is hidden [in thee] may be measured. Alone and by thyself thou
“dost manifest thyself when thou comest into being above Nu*.
“May I advance, even as thou dost advance; may I never cease to
“go forward as thou never ceasest to go forward, even though it be
“for a moment; for with strides thou dost in one little moment
“pass over the spaces which would need millions and millions of
“years [for men to pass over; this] thou doest and then thou dost
“sink to rest. Thou puttest an end to the hours of the night, and
“thou dost count them, even thou; thou endest them in thine
“own appointed season, and the earth becometh light. Thou
“settest thyself therefore before thy handiwork in the likeness of
“Ra [when] thou risest on the horizon.”
The story of creation related in the Pyramid Text explains that Re, as Atum, rose in the beginning of creation as a benben stone, an obelisk-like pillar, in the temple of the Benu-Phoenix in Heliopolis. He then spit forth Shu and Tefnut, who became the first godly couple, and who respectively, symbolized air and moisture. To them, Geb and Nut, were born, symbolizing the earth and sky. Geb and Nut, in turn, begot two divine couples consisting of Osiris – Isis and Seth – Nephthys. Called the Ennead of gods, the combined attributes of this divine group were needed in order for the world to function. However, while Re is never paired with a goddess, he also bears several other off springs including, among others, his son the king, who becomes one with his father in death and the Goddess Hathor, who is often depicted with the solar disk in her headdress.
The story continues with Osiris, who is murdered by his brother Seth. In this version of the story, Re resurrects Osiris to rule over the dead. The deceased pharaoh identifies with both Re and Osiris, thus forming a link between them. Though Re and Osiris might be seen as complete opposites, death was not seen by the ancient Egyptians to be the end of life, but rather its original source. Thus, in the Pyramid Text, Re is perpetually resurrected in the mornings in the form of a scarab beetle, Khepri, which means the Emerging One. He rides on the primordial waters, called Nun, in his sacred bark (boat) along with a number of other deities across the sky, where at sunset he becomes Atum, the “All Lord”. At sunset, he is swallowed by the goddess Nut, who gives birth to him each morning again as Khepri. Therefore, the cycle continued with birth, life and death.
By the Middle Kingdom (about 2055 BC – 1759 BC), Re’s character evolved and now several hymns tell us that he created the earth solely for mankind, who are made in his image. Now, evil, the opposite of Ma’at, comes from mankind’s own deeds. While in life, it is the king who controls humans, rewarding the obedient and destroying the disobedient and evil, in death, it is Re who fills this role. Furthermore, we find a newly defined relationship between Re and Osiris. Mortals now become Osiris in death, a concept that would make Osiris very popular with common Egyptians who were rather excluded theologically from the prior myths. Re and Osiris travel through the underworld together at night, and the sun god’s birth in the morning is symbolized by an amulet in the form of a scarab beetle that becomes very popular among Egyptians of this period. It is also at this time that Re takes on additional attributes by his combination with other gods. This is often seen as a political move to unite important gods of different regions, and so we see Re, who was most prominent in the north combined with another creator god, Amun of southern Egypt into Amun-Re. He was also combined with a number of other creator gods.
By Egypt’s New Kingdom (about 1539 BC – 1069 BC), Re’s reverence was at its peak. Now, the tombs of kings such as those in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of modern Luxor (ancient Thebes) contained complex decorative themes depicting the various books of the underworld describing the sun’s nightly journey. Here, Re is depicted with the body of a human and the head of a ram. These books record the sun god’s nocturnal voyage hour by hour. In the fifth hour, Re suffers death and is united with his corpse, Osiris. Yet at the same time, new life springs forth. In the twelfth hour, when the sun rises once more, Re is newly born as a scarab. Another text, called the Litany of Re, describes how the king is identified with some 75 different underworld figures of Re. We know much more of the theology of Re during the New Kingdom because of Papyri recounting his myths. Actually, there are two forms of the myth, with the first focusing on Re as an elderly and tired deity. In this theme, he organizes the world so that he is no longer required to intervene in human affairs and transfers his powers to Horus, the King, thus conceding the throne to his physical son.
However, some New Kingdom temples were built with an open courtyard with an alter for Re, where the priests, or theoretically the king himself, would recite one of twelve poetic hymns predicting the victorious course of the sun, each our of the day. In these temples, the rising sun is sometimes depicted as a squatting human infant, while the full, daylight sun takes on the form of a human adult. During this period, the king is very directly identified with Re. H Amenhotep III, for example, calls himself “the dazzling sun”, while Amenotep IV, the heretic king who later called himself Akhenaten, even went so far as to make the cult of the solar disk, called Aten, a semi-monotheistic religion. And while Akhenaten’s efforts were reversed after his death, Amun-Re nevertheless became a universal god, all encompassing, who maintained life for the sky, earth, the other gods and humans. However, it should be noted that at times, so powerful was the cult, particularly of Amun-Re, that the priests of the cult threatened the kingship.
Towards the end of the New Kingdom, what was now Re-Horakhty-Atum became more closely associated with the mummiform shape of Osiris, who was generally seen as the nocturnal manifestation of Re. By now, Osiris had become a god of the people so that anyone could make the journey in Re’s nocturnal bark, so we see in this merger a democratization of Egyptian religion. Hence, we find magical papyri from different social strata intending to protect both the living and the dead, which relies on solar symbolism, in order to assure the believers resurrection. We also find many amulets placed on the mummies of both royalty and non-royalty to protect the dead. These solar symbols include the sun in the horizon, the sun disk, the celestial bark, the double lion and the obelisk. There was also a disk showing Re with four ram’s heads, a nocturnal form called a hypocephalus.
Though Re lived on in various forms into the Greco-Roman period, his worship gradually deteriorated during the fist millennium. This decline was probably due to the weakening of the kingship under various foreign rulers. Though he continued to be a part of Egyptian theology, he was no longer a part of the peoples living faith. Devotion to Re became more and more limited to priests of the temple.