(In the later period, frequently ‘Pre’ due to the addition of the definite article to the name; also frequently ‘Ra’, but note that the vowel is not the open ‘a’ as in ‘father’) Re is the great God of the city of Iunu or Ôn, a city the Greeks named ‘Heliopolis’, or ‘City of the Sun’, because Re is the God of the sun par excellence in the Egyptian pantheon. To say that Re is God of the sun is not to say that he is identical with the sun as a physical being, a distinction Egyptians registered by their use of the term aten to refer to the sun’s visible disk. Rather, Re is the divine potency in the sun and hence the focal point of the whole cosmos. Re’s nature and functions have more to do with the central position of the symbol of the sun in the totality of Egyptian thought than with the sun in a narrowly physical sense. Re’s most characteristic depiction is either as a hawk or a hawk-headed man wearing on his head a solar disk encircled by a cobra; as the night sun traveling through the netherworld, however, Re is usually depicted as a ram-headed man. Re travels across the sky in his bark or boat, which is called the mandjet in the day and the mesketet at night. Upon the solar boat the pharaoh himself in the Pyramid Texts wishes to serve as a mere oarsman (e.g., PT utterances 467, 469). An important motif in Egyptian theology is the defense of Re against his enemies, who are the enemies of the cosmic order, undertaken by other deities. Each deity in the pantheon, in some sense, in exercising their particular function on behalf of the cosmos can be seen as undertaking the defense of Re. Chief among the deities who battle Re’s enemies for him are the numerous Goddesses bearing the epithet ‘Eye of Re’, such as Hathor, Sekhmet, Tefnut and Wadjet; the God Seth, which is noteworthy inasmuch as the latter has negative associations in other important contexts; and the God Horus, especially in the form of Horus Behdety, the ‘winged disk’.

Recognizing the distinction between the divine potency in the sun and the sun as a natural entity allows one not only to differentiate Re from the physical sun, but also to better understand the fusion of Re with other Gods in compound forms such as Amun-Re. Such compounds, which occur among many different Gods in Egyptian religion, do not involve the dissolution of the identities of the Gods in question. In the case of compounds with ‘-Re’, the combined forms bear almost without exception the iconography, not of Re, save for solarized headdresses, but of the other God in the combination. In general, affixing ‘-Re’ to the name of another God expresses that God’s assumption of the central role which the sun plays in the cosmic system. That is, the combined form with ‘-Re’ is the theological expression of a thesis about the central disposition of the solar potency in the order of nature and of the solar principle in the order of thought. This thesis, most forcefully articulated in the New Kingdom, makes itself felt in theology but is perhaps misleadingly referred to as the ‘New Kingdom solar theology’, to the degree that it is a philosophy, one which leaves untouched that which forms the foundations of Egyptian theology, namely the manifold of individual Gods and the body of myths, symbols and rites associated with them.

Despite Re’s extensive fusion with other Gods, it is possible to discern a cycle of myths which seems to have belonged originally and exclusively to him. Re is apparently originally regarded as the child of Nut or else of Mehet-Weret, born upon the primordial mound whose emergence from the waters of the abyss, personified as Nun, marks the initial creative impulse in the cosmos. This tradition seems to have been independent both of that attributing the original creative impulse to Atum, resulting in the conception of Shu and Tefnut, as well as that for which Nut is primarily the mother by Geb of Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. It would not be accurate to see in Nun Re’s father, since what is emphasized about Nun is his inertness; the Gods who come to be in Nun create themselves. Hence Re speaks of Nun in the Book of the Celestial Cow as his elder, in whom he came to be, but not as his progenitor, nor does Nun imply that this is the case. Re is born from Nut every morning, voyages across the sky in his ‘day bark’, then enters her body again at sunset to voyage in the ‘night bark’ through the netherworld, the ‘inside’ of the sky, so to speak, to be born again at dawn. He is thus his own father and his own son. It seems impossible to interject a linear narrative development into this cycle having neither beginning nor end; but another body of myth associated with Re posits him as having undergone a significant change of state in the ideal, timeless ‘past’. This myth is recounted primarily in the aforementioned Book of the Celestial Cow (trans. in Piankoff 1955; translations also in Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, and in Simpson, et al., Literature of Ancient Egypt). In this text, Re is depicted as having reigned originally over Gods and mortals alike without intermediaries, but he grows old and humans become rebellious. Rebellious humanity is attacked first by Hathor in the desert, then by Sekhmet in the riparian lands, each acting in her capacity as Re’s powerful ‘Eye’ (irt), the enforcer of his will (the Egyptian verb ir, ‘to do’, the participial form ir.t, ‘doer’ or agent being evoked by irt, ‘eye’). These actions foreshadow the ultimate development in the myth, namely Re’s decision to distance himself from mortals and delegate the governance of the mortal world to other Gods (Geb, Osiris and Thoth are specified). Re is lifted up to the sky by Nut in the form of a great cow. The theme of Re delegating power to other Gods is also encountered in a myth concerning Isis (no. 84 in Borghouts), in which Isis crafts a scorpion to poison Re, then demands Re reveal to her his secret name, by the magical efficacy of which she can cure him. This magical efficacy transmitted to Isis is in turn used by her on behalf of her son Horus.

A different body of literature involving Re, less mythical than magical in nature, are the various New Kingdom netherworld books such as the Amduat book (for this class of literature see Hornung 1999). These books, in general, are accounts of Re’s nocturnal journey through the netherworld, or duat, which is divided into the hours of the night. The form in which Re makes this journey is called Ifu-Re, ‘flesh-of-Re’. As the boat of Re and his entourage enters each hour, the divinities, potencies and souls who reside in that hour are illuminated and interact with the boat. The climax of Re’s journey is his rendezvous with Osiris at or near the middle of the night. In these books, Re’s illumination of the netherworld is the engine of resurrection and its power supply. The mythic charter for the creation of such books is provided in the Book of the Celestial Cow. Before Re’s withdrawal from the mortal realm, access to Re’s spiritual illumination was universal and immediate for mortals; after his withdrawal, this illumination is dependent upon their own wisdom and virtue. Hence the partially illuminated space of the netherworld effectively embodies this withdrawal of Re. Since mortals will require knowledge in this new order, Re charges Thoth with writing down the things which are in the netherworld.

Another expression of the relationship Egyptians conceived between Re and humans is the tradition that humans came into existence from tears shed by Re or Atum. While this myth has its basis in the similarity between the words for ‘tears’ and for ‘people’ in Egyptian, it also underscores once again the fundamental Egyptian idea of a distance between humans and the natural or cosmic order, a distance which is even painful on some level for the Gods themselves. This distance is made concrete where it is specified that Re (or Atum) wept because he was separated from his ‘Eye’, i.e. his agency or ‘doing’. When she returns, he has fashioned a new eye, so he places the original ‘Eye’ upon his forehead, i.e., as the uraeus serpent whose flame is the defense of the cosmic order Re has established. This order involves a painful degree of separation between the natural order and human experience; but the work of healing this rift is immediately taken up by the Gods who occupy the space thus created, Gods such as Isis or Thoth, whom Re assists by delegating some of his own power. Re also is said to have created Hu (authoritative utterance) and Sia (perception/understanding) from blood which he shed when he cut his phallus, possibly a reference to circumcision (BD spell 17). Hu and Sia are often depicted guiding the solar boat, as is Heka, the divine personification of magic itself, and Goddesses such as Hathor or Isis. That elements of perception and cognition are so prominent among the ‘crew’ of the solar boat implies that the boat is a figure of mind and its powers. The power of magic, once imparted to humans, allows them to assist not only themselves, but also Re in his maintenance of the cosmic order. This is made explicit in The Book of Overthrowing Apophis, a series of ritual texts directed against Apophis, the divine embodiment of entropy and all anti-cosmic forces, who each day attacks the solar bark and each day is repelled by the collective efforts of the other Gods and, apparently, of humans too, for Re states that “the tears which came forth from mine Eye,” i.e., humans, “are against you [Apophis]” (27, 25; “The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus – III,” p. 173). Later in the same text, Re states that “children fell him [Apophis] and sunder his soul from his body and his shade, and the sages who are in the bark and the tears of mine Eye desire to attack them,” and urges that “ye sages who are in this land, and ye Nine Gods who came into being from my flesh, be ye vigilant in felling Apophis,” (29, 8-10; “The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus – IV,” p. 42). Humans, whether sages or mere children, play a vital role in partnership with the Gods in sustaining the cosmos against the forces of entropy.

Re is also at the center of a text known as the ‘Litany of Re’, although its proper title is “The Book of the Adoration of Re in the West and of the Adoration of the One Joined Together in the West.” The joined-together-one is, in effect, the third entity created by the union of Re and Osiris, the resurrected Osiris infused with the potency of Re. The text takes the form of a hymn of sorts to seventy-four (or, in some versions, seventy-five) ‘forms’ of Re. Its function in the tombs in which it is found is to enact the resurrection of Osiris, that is, the deceased, who is accordingly referred to as “the djeba [‘substitute’ or ‘token’] of the one joined together.” The ‘Litany’ was also for use by the living, however, stating of itself, “This is the victory of Re over his enemies in the West. It is profitable for a man upon earth; it is profitable for him after his burial.” The ‘man on earth’ who would perform the ritual is perhaps the “heir of the djeba” referred to in the text. The establishment of a relationship of succession among the living through their participation in the resurrection of their forebears is implicit in Egyptian dogma about the afterlife, but is perhaps intensified in the ‘Litany’ due to its royal provenance, although portions of it were adopted as BD spells 127 and 180; it also formed some part of the liturgy of certain temples in the Late Period. This latter fact underscores the point that where Re is involved it can no longer be strictly a matter of the resurrection of the private individual, but must involve a cosmic element, whether literally royal or pertaining to the eternal sovereignty of the Gods.

See also: The Book of the Celestial Cow: A Theological Interpretation,” Eye of the Heart: A Journal of Traditional Wisdom, No. 3, May 2009, pp. 73-99.

Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Borghouts, J. F. 1978. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Faulkner, R. O. 1937. “The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus – III.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 23: 166-185.
–––. 1938. “The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus – IV.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 24: 41-53.
–––. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Hornung, Erik. 1999. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. trans. David Lorton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Piankoff, Alexandre. 1955. The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon. New York: Bollingen.
–––. 1964. The Litany of Re. New York: Bollingen.
Quirke, Stephen. 2001. The Cult of Ra: Sun-Worship in Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Return to Index


One Response to “Re”

  1. […] basic story: Ra becomes disgusted with people, and after setting Hathor/Sekhmet on the course of destroying […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: