Minor Netherworld Deities of Ancient Egypt

Minor Deities of the Netherworld

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jefferson Monet


The guardian of the eleventh gate of the Domain of Osiris, Pefesakhuef

The guardian of the eleventh gate of the Domain of Osiris, Pefesakhuef

A minor demon, Qed-Her had the head of a cat from which two serpents emerge

A minor demon, Qed-Her had the head of a cat from which two serpents emerge

Egyptologists often use the term "Demon" to describe what are called minor deities, though this term actually has no corresponding Egyptian word, and in fact these minor deities were at times beneficial. Hence, some Egyptologists refer to them as genies. Usually, these deities were subordinate to the major gods and goddesses, and were relegated to specific tasks and functions, behavior and location.

Such deities were frequently associated with caves, gates, pits and tombs, as well as bodies of water, all of which were considered entrances into the underworld. Hence, the greatest number of minor deities might be called denizens of the netherworld.

A demon from the tomb in the Valley of the Queens, Thebes

Many of these minor gods could be classified as falling into a specific category of gods. While some were obviously frightening instruments of punishment for the "enemies", many were not inimical and could better be described as minor guardian deities. In fact, some were creatures specifically tasked with the protection of the king or the blessed deceased in their journey through the netherworld. However, even these deities were capable of highly aggressive behavior in order to fulfill their protective roles.

These deities were sometimes depicted zoomorphically, but were more frequently represented in human form or semi-anthropomorphically with human bodies and the heads of other animals that were considered malevolent but whose power could be used for protection. We find them depicted in vignettes of the afterlife books and in some of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at ancient Thebes (modern Luxor).

It should be noted, however, that while this discussion encompasses the netherworld, these minor deities were not altogether limited to the afterlife. For example, minor demons were considered to be responsible for many ailments and illnesses.

Deities of the Gates

In the matured, ancient Egyptian concept of the netherworld there were many gates, portals or pylon which had to be passed by the sun god on his nightly journey and by the deceased king who was a member of the sun god's entourage (or fused with him) in his quest reach the place of afterlife existence. In later periods, Egyptian religion was democratized so that others could also make this journey.

There were different versions and accounts of the netherworld gates in various funerary texts, where over 1,000 deities are depicted, but in each case the barriers themselves were guarded by minor gods who would only allow those who knew their secret names, and thus having power over them, to pass.

A Knife Wielding demon seated before gates of the netherworld

A Knife Wielding demon seated before gates of the netherworld

Knife Wielding demons seated before gates of the netherworld

In the Valley of the Kings, twelve pylons or gates were commonly a part of the theme of funerary text, such as the Book of Gates, inscribed upon the walls of royal tombs of the New Kingdom. Though depicted as architectural features, each of these gates was named as a goddess and protected by a fire-spitting serpent as well as its own guardian deity. For example, the fifth gate was called "she of duration" and its serpent was named "flame-eyed". Its resident deity was "true of heart".

These funerary texts were most stable for royal burials, but for nobles and others there was more variation. For example, in Chapter 144 of the Book of the Dead, seven gates are mentioned, each with its own god, a doorkeeper and a herald. Hence, the last gate was watched over by a god aptly named, "sharpest of them all". The doorkeeper was called "strident of voice" and the herald's was known as "rejector of rebels". However, there could be as many as 21 gates, known as the "secret portals of the mansion of Osiris in the field of reeds", in some texts. Still, they were provided with a number of names or epithets and guarded by a zoo-anthropomorphic deity who was usually depicted seated and holding a large knife. Here, the gates were of a mixed nature, being at times fearsome, such as "mistress of anger, dancing on blood" as Gate 14 was known, or "mistress of the altar", as was named Gate 3. However, the guardians themselves were almost always given terrifying or repulsive names such as "swallower of sinners" or "existing on maggots", for they were to be feared in all events. However, there were a few of these that were never named in the funerary texts at all.

The following are the twelve gates as represented in various royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings:

Gate Representative Deities Features of the Gate Area
1 The gods in the entrance and the four weary ones four cardinal points
2 Apophis and two enneads Lake of fire
3 Goddesses of the hours, Osiris and Horus Lake of life, lake of uraei
4 Gods of space and time and Osiris Throne of Osiris
5 Osiris, Apophis and twelve restraining gods Circular lake of fire
6 Osiris, the blessed and punished dead Stakes of Geb
7 Lords of provision in the West Fields of provisions
8 Fire-breathing serpent, the sons of Horus and ba souls Waters of the drowned
9 Deities with nets and Apophis Area leading to "emergence"
10 Apophis, face of Re and goddesses of the hours Area of restraint of Apophis
11 Gods who carry the blazing light and baboons of sunrise Area directly before dawn
12 Isis, Nephthys, Nut, Nun and the reborn sun The primeval waters from which the sun emerges

Deities of the Caverns

From a fairly early point in Egyptian history, the concept of caverns in the netherworld became a motif of afterlife theology. Within these caverns, various deities, who were enumerated in the so-called "Spell of the Twelve Caves", stood ready to punish the wicked. The "Spell of the Twelve Caves was a composition known from a papyrus of the time of Amenhotep II and from the walls of the southern chamber of the Osireion at Aybdos. Since the New Kingdom's 18th Dynasty, a section of this book was also made a part of the Book of the Dead (Chapter 168).

From the Book of Caverns showing a number of caves

From the Book of Caverns showing a number of caves

For the enemies of Re, the caverns became a hell, where they were punished and executed, usually by beheading. However, these cavern deities could also supply aid to the blessed dead, giving light, food and protection or allowing them to move about freely.

With the first seven caverns were alternating groups of three mummiform and three anthropomorphic deities, two being male and one female in each group. In the eighth through the twelfth caverns, there existed a varying number of deities. For example, in the eighth cavern there were seven individuals and groups and in the ninth, there were as many as twenty. The deities of the tenth cavern consisted, specifically of:

  • Those who belong to the sunshine - giving light
  • Those who take hold - grant that the deceased be acclaimed
  • The nine gods who guard those in the cavern - give the breath of life
  • The nine gods whose arms are hidden - grant that the deceased be a worthy spirit
  • The hidden goddess - grants that the deceased's soul be strong and his corpse intact
  • The souls of the gods who become members of Osiris - grant that the deceased have peace
  • Those who worship Re - grant the deceased not be turned back from any gate of the underworld
  • Those whose faces are warlike - grant that the deceased be cool in the place of heat

Beneath the depiction of these deities, their name and number were usually inscribed, together with the offerings prescribed for them and the possible good deeds they could perform.

Deities of the Night Hours

Caverns and gates were both closely associated with specific hours of the night in the netherworld, and each hour of the night was represented by a goddess who was protective or who gave assistance to the deceased. Their nature was dictated by which region in the netherworld that they occupied. Each of the goddesses strengthened the sun god in one way or another, and in the last (twelfth) hour of the night, the "beholder of the beauty of Re" would at last witness the rebirth of the rejuvenated sun.

Hence, the Goddesses of the night were given power by Re to control the life spans of all living creatures. It has been suggested that the ithyphallic deity depicted in the burial chamber of the tomb of Ramesses VI called "he who conceals the hours" could symbolize the power desired by the king to negate the power of time that these goddesses might hold over the deceased pharaoh.

These goddesses of the night were not commonly represented, but appear in characteristically anthropomorphic form in some instances of the New Kingdom funerary texts known as the Book of Gates and the Amduat. We find them in the burial chamber of the tomb of Ramesses I in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes (modern Luxor) where they are depicted in an illustration of the third division of the Book of Gates. Six on each side flank a summary scene depicting the netherworld, in the center of which is a huge coiled serpent known as "he who should be removed". Each of the goddesses wears a five-pointed star on their heads, but otherwise are undistinguishable but for their names and the alternating colors of their individual costumes. There Epithets are:

Hour Epithet
1 Spitter of the heads of Re's enemies
2 The wise, guardian of her lord
3 Slicer of souls
4 Great of power
5 She on her boat
6 Proficient leader
7 Repeller of the snake (Apophis)
8 Mistress of the night
9 Adorer
10 Beheader of rebels
11 The star, repulser of rebels
12 Beholder of the beauty of Re


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003 Thames & Hudson, LTD ISBN 0-500-05120-8
Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A Hart, George 1986 Routledge ISBN 0-415-05909-7
Egyptian Religion Morenz, Siegfried 1973 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-8029-9
Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt Armour, Robert A. 1986 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 669 1
Gods of the Egyptians, The (Studies in Egyptian Mythology) Budge, E. A. Wallis 1969 Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 486-22056-7