The visual depictions of ancient Egyptian gods were very complex and mysterious.
The Egyptian gods were often depicted with certain animal heads to illustrate that they possessed characteristics similar to that animal. For example, Apophis, the god of chaos, had a serpent’s head to symbolize his deviousness.
The ancient Egyptians did not necessarily imagine the god as possessing an animal head. It could be either a symbolic device or one of many possible manifestations.
Many gods could shift between holding their animal form and appearing in a human form in Egyptian mythology. Most typically, these gods appeared with the head of an animal and a human head. Egyptologists refer to them as therianthropic gods.
We do not have much insight into the roots of Egyptian mythology. However, the symbolism of the animals is reasonably straightforward.
One theory holds that initially, the ancient Egyptian gods were believed to be manifestations of animals. If that theory is inaccurate, the animals are likely carefully selected to represent the relevant deity’s significant characteristics.
Although many gods are represented as human bodies with animal heads, most gods were drawn or sculpted in various forms. The same deity could appear in complete animal form, full human form, or therianthropic form.
There are even more complicated variations. For example, there is a statue at the Louvre Museum depicting Hathor, the goddess of fertility, as a lion-headed goddess, a cow, and a snake all at once. Indeed, some gods can be found in dozens of highly differentiated manifestations.
Ra and Horus the Falcons
Horus was considered the highest of the gods and one who soared above all. Therefore, he was depicted as a man with a falcon’s head to symbolize his high stature. The symbolism is not all too different from that of the Bald Eagle in the United States iconography.
Because of the majestic associations of Horus, the Pharaohs claimed descent from Horus. Later, when the cult of Ra became more powerful, he was associated with the falcon as well. In some traditions, Ra and Horus were fused as one falcon-headed deity.
Sekhmet the Lioness
Indeed, the characteristics of the animals are remarkably familiar to us millennia later. For example, the goddess of war Sekhmet is depicted as a lioness to represent her bravery and fiercely protective nature. In some sculptures, Sekhmet is a lioness through and through.
The name of the goddess is derived from the ancient Egyptian word for power. One of the most critical roles Sekhmet performed was to guide the pharaohs into the afterlife. This role may explain why roughly 700 statues of the goddess were placed in the funerary temple of Amenhotep III. She was also able to both cause and cure diseases at will.
According to legend, the lioness was once sent to kill mortals who displeased Ra. After she had done her duty, a fierce blood lust was awakened within her. Correspondingly, she went on a rampage that almost destroyed all of humanity.
However, Ra tricked her and poured out wine, which Sekhmet drank lustily, thinking that it was blood. Only her drunkenness saved humanity from destruction. To celebrate this momentous occasion, a festival was held where a great deal of wine was consumed.
Heket, the Frog Goddess and Her Ram Husband
While many of the animal representations translate well into Western symbolism, others do not. One notable example of the latter was Heket, the goddess of birth and fertility. She was often represented as a frog or in therianthropic frog form.
Frogs appear in the Nile when flooded, and the water reaches the height that waters the crops. Therefore, it was associated with growth and fertility in ancient Egyptian culture.
Heket played a crucial role in the mythologically central Osiris Myth. After the early god, Osiris, was murdered, the goddess of birth breathed life into Horus, the son of Osiris and the gods’ strongest and mightiest.
Heket’s husband, Khnum, created all unborn children on his pottery wheel. He would then place the clay in their mothers’ wombs. Later myths portrayed him as the creator of all life. Khnum was often depicted with the head of a ram, which most likely represented those animals’ fertility and virility.
The actual appearance of the gods was considered to be mysterious and unknown. The complex depictions in ancient Egyptian art were designed to shed light on their nature rather than present an accurate visual report of their subject.