Ra is the Egyptian god of the sun, of creation, and of law, and embodies the sun at the zenith of its power and intensity. As a divine king, Ra rules over his creation, maintaining harmony and order as he follows his daily path across the world he created.
The name Ra comes to us from the cuneiform transliteration of the ancient Egyptian vocalization of his name. While Ra is the preferred American spelling, Re is the spelling and vocalization favored by many British speakers, based on the Coptic transliteration.
Hieroglyphics depict Ra primarily as a sun disk beside a man with the head of a falcon or hawk, but occasionally with a serpent around the disk or with other animals for a head depending on which form he took.
Ra’s long and storied history has caused him to be fused with a number of gods, often regional solar deities, lending him an assortment of attributes and titles. These included Aten-Ra, Amun-Ra, Atum-Ra, Ra-Horakhty (“Ra who is Horus of the Two Horizons”), Raet-Tway (his feminine aspect), and Khepri and Khnum. Of these, Amon-Ra represented a synthesis of all solar deities into a single unified god—with Ra at the forefront as the noonday sun.
Ra is among Egypt’s oldest deities, and his worship can be tracked consistently across thousands of years of history prior to the Christianization of Roman Egypt during the 2nd century. In Egyption mythology he is a god of fertility and growth, of seasons and creation, a traveler whose daily journey represented not only the passing of day and night, but the battle to maintain creation against chaos itself.
Solar Deity of Creation
To the ancient Egyptians, nothing was more important than the sun, which brought life and sustenance to the world. Nothing came before the sun, and as such, Ra was regarded as the creator of everything, whose light nourished all life on the earth. He provided illumination, warmth, and fertility, as well as seasons (the month Mesori, the calendar’s twelfth month, was named for him).
As time went on, Ra became a symbol of all solar deities, with many regional gods representing aspects of the sun’s power. By the time of the New Dynasty (c. 1550-1069 BCE), Amun-Ra was his official title, with Ra himself corresponding to the most important part of the day, noon. Other solar deities, be they the Morning Scarab Khepri or the Ram of Evening Khnum, represented different aspects of Ra’s total solar being, but only one of them was ever creator of all: Ra.
His journey across the sky and into the underworld at night represented to some a mystery religion of his birth, life, death, and resurrection daily, given that only the dead could enter the underworld and Ra’s atet, or solar barge, carried him into the Underworld every night, only to emerge in the morning.
Lord of Law and Light
In addition to his role as creator and sun god, Ra was also the First Pharaoh, a title he wore proudly as he fought off the darkness and defended the world. As the Lord of Light, he guarded his creation from Apophis, the Night Serpent who threatened to devour all things.
Ra was also the creator of laws and the ruler of the gods in the beginning, and continued in this role long after losing his position as Pharaoh to his grandson Osiris and well into Horus’ reign.
God of Many Names
Ra was not the true name of the solar deity—his real name was unknown to both mortals and gods—but merely referenced the most important of his aspects. In the morning he was Khepri, at noon he was Ra; in the afternoon he was Amun, and in the evening he was Khnum and Atum. As the solar disk that flew above many a deity he was Aten, and his litany of other powers were represented by different regional deities, fused into one.
Symbols of Power
Ra has many symbols of power, not least of which is the solar disk that hits above his head when he travels. This solar disk can be seen all over Egypt, representing the sun, and thus is a constant sign of Ra’s importance.
Falcons and hawks, like his great-grandson Horus, signified his presence and Ra’s head was depicted as being falcon-like in appearance. Other animal associations included scarabs, rams, and beasts such as cattle that indicated his role as a fertility god.
The most well-known of Ra’s symbols, however, is the Eye of Ra—the sun itself. Through it Ra gazed upon the world, offering protection and illumination. This important and powerful symbol was used as an amulet to ensure Ra’s protection. Pyramids, another signifier of Ra and his power over order, were often topped with the Eye of Ra.
Perhaps one of his most fantastic symbols was the Bennu bird, possibly inspired by the legend of the phoenix. Like the phoenix, it would die and reform from its own ashes, appearing at a temple in Heliopolis every few centuries. It was connected to Ra and Atum, one of his aspects, and was Ra’s ba, or spiritual representation of his character and personality.
Called Iunu in ancient Egyptian, Heliopolis was a city of great religious importance for the Egyptians, until the rise of Christianity and Islam. The city, now located in a southeastern suburb of Cairo, was the religious capital of ancient Egypt and the political capital from time to time when Memphis or Thebes did not assume that role. At the center of religious life in Heliopolis (which in Ptolemaic Greek means “city of the sun”) was Ra and later Amun-Ra, whose temple remained important up to the rise of Christianity, when parts of the ancient city and its temples were dismantled to build medieval Cairo.
Ra is the primordial father. As the personification of the sun, Ra is credited with creating the world, and as such is understood to be the first being. All of the gods are descended from him. He is the progenitor of the Ennead, the first nine gods according to the Heliopolian creation myth, which includes Ra himself, Shu and Tufnut, his children, their children Geb and Nut, and their children Osiris, Set, Isis, Nephthys, and Horus (the elder).
In his aspect as Ra, the sun god had several consorts: Hathor, Sekhmet, Bastet and sometimes Satet. In some versions of the myths Isis is said to be his consort, and Ra the father of Horus (instead of Osiris). Isis’ role was “clarified” by the priests of Heliopolis when they invented the story of Nut and Geb and the demon days during the 5th dynasty.
According to legend, the rulers of the 4th Dynasty (2613-2494 BCE) claimed descent from Ra, and invested the wealth of their kingdoms into building temples to the sun god. From the 4th Dynasty onward, all pharaohs were thought to be sons of Ra, and his myths, rituals, and monuments became a central part of the state religion.
During the 5th Dynasty the priests of Heliopolis re-wrote the four Egyptian creation myths, which originated from the temple complexes of Hermopolis (Hmnw), Heliopolis (Lunu, Memphis (Aneb-Hetch), and Thebes (Waset), to synthesize and merge all aspects of the sun, and in so doing established a fifth creation myth.
Ra and Egyptian Creation
In the beginning, there were only the primordial waters of chaos. Within these waters were eight primordial deities, known as the Ogdoad, four pairs each of a male frog form and a female snake form, with each pair representing a quality that the world lacked prior to creation.
Nun and Nunet, named for the Egyptian word nnw, represented the lack of solidity; Heh and Hehet, from the Egyptian word hh, the lack of time; Kek and Keket embodied the essence of darkness or lack of light (from the word kkw); and finally, Tenem and Tenemet symbolized the lack of direction from the root word tnm, which meant to wander. In the infinite, directionless, formless, darkness of the primordial sea of silence, the male frog form and the female snake form of each of these primordial essences was initially separate.
When the male and female primordial deities finally converged, a chaotic upheaval ensued, and from it emerged an earthen pyramid in the watery silence, known as the Ben-Ben. From this mound of earth, the sun rose on the first day, and as it passed over the earth and waters the sun proceeded to create the gods and the world.
Atum-Ra, god of the sun, was the first being and from him the other eight deities of Ennead were created. He sneezed into his hand, and Shu the wind and Tefnut the waters emerged. From the union of Shu and Tefnut, Nut, the expansive sky, and Geb, whose body makes the earth, were born. From the forbidden union of Geb and Nut came Osiris, Set, Isis, Nephthys, and Horus (the elder). Together the Ennead benevolently oversaw the order of Ra’s creation.
In some versions of the story, it is Atum who raises from the mound. In the others, it is Khepri, the newly risen sun. In the story of the Bennu-bird, it is Ra’s ba (the Bennu-bird) that rose from mound to pass over the waters and create the universe. In other variations it is more generally Ra as the sun god.
Ra’s Daily Progress
As the sun journeys across the sky in its daily path from East to West, Ra travels on his morning boat, Mandjet, which translates as “The Boat of a Million Years.” The solar disk, the sun which blazes in the sky each day, was known to the Egyptians as the Eye of Ra, and allowed life to flourish. Many gods and goddess joined Ra on his sun boat, most notably Sia (perception), Hu (command), and Heka (magic power), and at times members of the Ennead.
Ra’s night battle with Apophis
As the sun set in the West, Ra journeyed into the Duat. As dusk settled, Ra transformed into his Ram-Headed form and prepared to battle the forces of chaos awaiting him in the underworld. Upon entering the Duat, Ra merges with Osiris, king of the underworld, and journeying on Mesektet, the evening boat, he visits all of his various forms throughout the night, renewing his connection with each divine aspect of the sun.
This ritual act of self-awareness was essential to maintaining the harmonious balance necessary for his resurrection at dawn, and central to Egyptian religion of the time. Every night Ra would battle Apophis (Apep), the giant serpent that embodied chaos, in an eternal struggle to preserve the Ma’at, much as the mortal Pharaoh’s considered it their sacred duty to maintain order over their kingdom. Ra’s journey ended when Nut, the goddess of the sky, bore Ra anew in the East each day.
After a million years of battling chaos every night and vigilantly watching over his creation throughout the day, Ra's great age and tireless work took their toll. Increasingly paranoid, Ra began to fear his own creations. His consort Hathor, goddess of fertility and protection, told Ra there were humans working against him down on earth. He sent Sekhmet, the lion-headed warrior goddess of the sun, to earth to keep a closer eye on humanity and punish their mutinous behavior.
Sensing his growing weakness and well aware of the prophecy that one of the children of Nut would overthrow Ra, Isis decided to act.
One day as Ra made his way, wandering the earth on a well worn path in the westwardly direction, he was overcome with blinding pain. When he called out in pain all of his godly attendants returned to him. But each met his discomfort with dismay, unable to discover the cause or the cure. When all others were at a loss, clever Isis stepped forward to solve a problem of her own making. Soothingly, Isis said to Ra:
“Tell me your name, my divine father.
A man lives when called by his name.”
“I am the maker of heaven and earth, the binder of mountains,
creator of what exists upon it.
I am the maker of water, for the Great Ocean to take form,
the maker of the bull for the cow,
for their sexual movement to take place,
the maker of the secret heaven of the horizon,
the one who placed the souls of the gods within it.
I am he who opens his eyes and there is light,
who shuts his eyes and there is darkness,
he at whose command the Nile Flood strikes,
whose name the gods cannot know.
I am the maker of hours, for day to exist,
I am the cleaver of the year, who creates the seasons.
I am the maker of the fire of life,
to enable the work of the house to take place.
I am Khepri in the morning, Ra at noon, Atum who is in the dusk.”
The poison was not dislodged from its course,
the great god was not soothed.
Isis and the Name of Ra, Paragraph 8
Isis, goddess of magic, had mastered all the divine words save the true name of the divine sun, and demanded to know Ra's hidden name before administering the cure. Unable to endure the pain, Ra beckoned Isis to him so that he could whisper in her ear. He made her promise to only reveal his name to her son Horus, the resurrected god. Bound by the power of his name, Isis was true to her promise and only revealed the name of Ra to Horus when he was at the height of his power and ready to ascend to Ra’s throne.
Ra is a popular figure in contemporary Western games, television, and literature.
- In Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles, Ra is an old and almost forgotten deity, decrepit from the lack of worship. Despite this, he is still the most powerful deity in existence.
- In the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the staff of Ra is used in the lost city of Tannis to find the Ark of the Covenant.
- In the film Gods of Egypt, Ra is played by Geoffrey Rush as the former ruler of Egypt who defends the world nightly from Apophis.
- In the film Stargate, Ra, played by Jaye Davidson, is the ancient ruler of Abydos, a desert planet far from Earth which he oversees with an iron fist, looking for suitable hosts for his true alien form.
- In the cartoon series Samurai Jack, Ra is one of the three ancient powers, alongside Odin and Shiva, who forge the magic katana that can defeat Aku.
- Ra appears the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys after he is summoned by the founders of Rome to defeat Hercules and his friend Icarus.
- Ra is the Mummies’ source of power in Mummies Alive!, as the deity they request their powers from, yet who never appears physically.
- In the video game Age of Mythology Ra is one of the three selectable powers for Egypt.
- In the card game, Yu-Gi-Oh! there is a card called "The Winged Dragon of Ra."
- In the video games Heroes of Newerth and SMITE, Ra appears as a playable champion.