The Birth of Gods

The Birth of Gods

by Jimmy Dunn

Some of the earliest  anthropomorphic images known from Egypt appear to fuse the human form  with zoomorphic characteristics, such as this possible cattle goddess

We are able to study the gods of ancient Egypt very well back to the beginning of recorded history (around 3000 BC), and we can also find representations of divine powers back another millennium before the Egyptian began to write down their thoughts. However, since these earliest beginnings of religion in Egypt predate the written word, and the non-written evidence often comes from relatively uncertain contexts and settings and is difficult to interpret, the subject is open to differing opinions.

Nevertheless, various evidence suggests that even very early Egyptians had concepts of spiritualism. The care with which the dead were buried in the prehistoric period, and the afterlife belief implied by that care, certainly suggests that the necessary intellectual sophistication was present for such a belief.

During the true neolithic period in Egypt (Merimda and Fayoum cultures), no representations are known that can be interpreted with any certainty as depictions or symbols of divine power. However, no real conclusions can be drawn from this lack of evidence because the art during that time frame which we have been able to recover consists of pottery vessels and the first cosmetic palettes, none of which have depictions of human beings, animals or objects. Hence, there could have been a worship of fetishes made from perishable materials, though none have been found. The lack of animal burials seems to suggest the absence of divine worship, though future finds could certainly change our perceptions of this period.

During the chalcolithic period, which lasted through most of the fourth millennium BC in Egypt, offers us our first clear evidence for a belief in gods, which is already at this early stage surprisingly multifarious and highly differentiated. Hence, the evidence from this period suggests that earlier worship took place for which no direct evidence has been found. The main sites that evidence the belief in gods during the chalcolithic period are Maadi and Heliopolis in Lower Egypt and Badari and Naqada in Upper Egypt. At all of these locations, animal burials, typically consisting of gazelles and dogs (or jackals), and more rarely cattle and rams, have been found, and the care with which these animals were buried and provided with grave goods evidences a cult of sacred animals or at least of divine powers in animal form.

A predynastic rendering of a bird, probably a hawk, which might have served as a cult image

During this period also, cosmetic palettes begin to assume the form of animals, and finally, by the end of the Predynastic Period, they are richly decorated with animal figures in relief. The most notable examples of these are the "animal palettes" in Oxford and in the Louvre. We also see, from the Naqada I period, figures of animals on decorated vases and in the form of clay statuettes.

Hence, considering this evidence, there can scarcely be any doubt that, at least in the last centuries of prehistory the Egyptians worshiped divine power in animal form. Yet, even in that period there was no pure zoolatry. If these zoomorphic images are not merely totems of tribal groups and do signify manifestations of the divine in some way, the represent a significant stage in the development of Egyptian gods. The idea that the divine might be manifest in animal form is a vital prerequisite for the animals which are shown acting in human ways and which are the major representations of the Egyptian gods at the end of the Predynastic Period.

Standards from the  Narmer Palette with animials

From the Naqada II period and from the beginning of recorded history, the animals on "standards" and archaic objects of uncertain character which were carried on poles evidence the worship of sacred objects. It would seem that this fetishism was far less important than animal worship, though because these objects were rather perishable, it may have had more importance than we now realize.

What we do not know is whether anthropomorphism, or the worship of deities in human form, took place in predynastic times. Though human figures made of clay and ivory are infrequently found in the Badari culture and even became common in the Naqada cultures, there remains much doubt about these objects. Though they have been repeated interpreted as deities, many pointers lead us to suspect that they may not be. For example, nude, possibly female figures, have been labeled as a "great mother goddess", but in fact, nude statuettes such as these are quite unknown in Egypt during the early historical period. One should also be very skeptical about identifying naked, bearded figures as gods. Such figures may more likely be associated with enemies of Egypt, for foreigners were frequently shown with beards, and captives especially were often naked. Scholars also believe that the fragile nature of clay, from which many of these figures are made, probably also provides evidence that they did not represent gods.

Hence, there is no certain evidence for the worship of anthropomorphic deities in predynastic Egypt, even though such deities as Min, Neith and Onuris, who we find in human form at the beginning of history, were most probably worshiped in prior times.

The Girza palette  with perhaps the head of Bat, as well as stars

Unfortunately, few gods that we may name from later Egyptian times can be traced back into prehistory. For example, while the standards of the prehistoric Egyptians document the existence of hawk cults, they do not really provide any evidence that they depicted Horus, or other known hawk deities. Nor can the opponent of Horus, Seth, be made out with certainty though there were dog-like animals represented. Also, the cow goddess found on the Narmer palette and about three centuries earlier on a palette from Girza, is iconographically more similar to Bat, rather than to the better known Hathor. However, stars added to the image show that she was already a sky goddess, so alongside animal deities, it should be clear now that the Ancient Egyptians were also worshiping inanimate objects, or rather the manifestation of gods through them.

How the predynastic Egyptians viewed the relationship between animals and human beings can perhaps best be seen in the "Battlefield" palette, pieces of which are in both the Oxford and London. The retro of this composition depicts a battlefield crowed with contorted bodies of defeated enemies, while others have been captured and bound. The subjugated enemies, who are naked and without weapons, appear utterly defenseless. The victors are represented as animal powers, consisting of a lion, birds of prey and standards surmounted by birds. However, on other contemporary palettes of the time and in predynastic rock drawings, there are sometimes human hunters.

Yet it seems certain that men of this period felt themselves defenseless without an animal disguise. Mankind had not yet become so dominate, and animals still appear to be the most powerful and efficacious beings. This may explain why, in late predynastic times, the powers that determine the course of events were mostly conceived in animal form.

Though rendered in human form throughout much of ancient Egyptian History, Isis, along with Hathor, never lost her horns

Then, at the beginning of the historical period, the human view changes drastically regarding the superiority of animals. The earliest documented kings of Egypt retain animal names such as Scorpion, Catfish, Kite (?), Cobra and "Wing-spreader" (probably a bird of prey), but towards the end of the 1st Dynasty, this type of name disappears for good. Apparently, mankind was no longer feeling subjected to incomprehensible powers and so the powers that were worshiped as deities came more and more to show a human face as their original animal or inanimate form changed into a human one.

However, one must not discount the emergence of monarchy and the resultant origin of the Egyptian state, which transformed ancient religion by providing a new focus which unified its different goals and needs. In fact, at this point it might be said that the infancy of Egyptian deities had ended, and there is almost no doubt that the state greatly effected the direction that religion would take.

So this evolution from dynamism to personalism took place shortly after Egyptians began to write, taking place between 3000 and 2800 BC, and while other regions experienced the same transitions, only in Egypt can it be observed and documented. This process has been called the anthropomorphization of powers, and it produced the first gods in human form, though other methods of depicting this anthropomorphization appear at the same time. For example, the cow heads that crown the Narmer palette contain a human face, while the subjugated "and of papyrus" has a human head attached.

Front of the Narmer Palette

Back of the Narmer Palette

Front and Back of the Narmer Palette

Yet, it should be noted that, in many ways, the ancient Egyptians never completely abandoned the power of animals. Hathor, for example, appears to have been one of the earliest deities to be given anthropomorphic form, but even she retained the horns of her sacred animal, the cow, and was frequently depicted in bovine form millennia after her appearance.

Fragment of a statue  of Min from the late Predynastic Period, discovered at Coptos

The Apis Bull also retained immense importance, and the various protective deities were often in the form of animals throughout Egyptian history.

At first the depictions of gods as humans takes on the form of a body without separate limbs. Erik Hornung has pointed out that this cannot be attributed to mummy form, as Osiris and other gods were later depicted, because it would be some centuries before mummification was practiced. However, one must also remember that the dead were probably at this early time wrapped in some sort of shroud. Still, a more likely explanation is the Egyptian tendency in art throughout the historic period to emphasis the most prominent human features. Note even on the Narmer palette the stance of the king as he smites his enemies. As in later artwork, his head is profiled while his chest and shoulders are viewed from the front. His legs once again return to profile. Hence, Egyptians concentrated on essential and unavoidable features of the human form. The archaic figure of a god shows no more and no less than is necessary to evoke an image in human form.

Initially, there were few gods in human form. Min was probably depicted in human form, as recorded on the annal stone in Palermo, but this is a late copy from early records, so it could have been influenced by later statuary. However, an image of Ptah in human form on a stone vase from Tarkhan can certainly be placed in the early dynastic period. Neith and Satis, who in later periods were depicted in human form, are attested by their inclusion in names during the early dynastic period, but whether they were then represented in human form is unknown. However, we can assume that by the end of the at the beginning of the Old Kingdom, Min, Geb, Nut, Shu and Atum were all depicted in human form and already familiar to Egyptians (though no absolutely certain evidence exists).

Interestingly, though the predynastic Narmer Palette displays a cow's head with a human face, during the first two dynasties of Egypt's historical period, purely anthropomorphic deities appeared along side purely animal forms of gods, who were still predominant, such as Horus (hawk), Seth (dog), Apis (bull) and the baboon-form "great white one". It would not be until later that gods combining human and animal elements, which is so characteristic of Egypt, would make their appearance. Only at the end of the 2nd Dynasty do the first gods in human form with animal heads appear on cylinder seal impressions of King Peribsen. The earliest examples in fact show the god Ash, "lord of Libya". The earliest form with a hawks head and a human body is on the 3rd Dynasty stela in the Louvre, representing the god Horus.

Thus, Egypt's ancient representation of gods would be complete, and continue into the later dynasties with remarkably little change over the next several thousand years.

See Also:


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion Redford, Donald B. 2002 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-515401-0
Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003 Thames & Hudson, LTD ISBN 0-500-05120-8
Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many Hornung, Erik 1971 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-8384-0
Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A Hart, George 1986 Routledge ISBN 0-415-05909-7