The Syncretism of Egyptian Gods

The Syncretism of Egyptian Gods

The syncretistic god, Re-Horakhty-Atum

In order to understand the gods of ancient Egypt, one must understand syncretism. This is the Egyptian practice of linking, or combining different deities into the body or identity of a single entity (often, but not always with a composite form), which became more and more common with the passage of time. In form, most commonly, the god's names were simply linked, creating synchronized gods such as Atum-Khepri, Re-Horakhty, and Amun-Re. This process could also bring together Egyptian and foreign gods. Anat-Hathor was an Asiatic-Egyptian god, while Arensnuphis-Shu was the combination of Meroitic and Egyptian deities. Perhaps one of the most famous such synchronizations was that of Serapis during the Ptolemaic (Greek) period, who was a combination of Osiris, Apis, Zeus and Helios, as well as perhaps some other minor deities, though in reality, he was more of a political assemblage. There are few aspects of ancient Egyptian religion that are more complicated or more confusing then syncretism, and yet, more important to the understanding of ancient Egyptian religion.

Early Egyptologist thought that this syncretism simply combined conflicting or competing deities, but later analysis has largely proven this assumption to be incorrect. In many cases, there was obviously no conflict between synchronized deities, and there was also no clear reason why the two deities should not have simply been worshipped side by side, as in the case of Horus and Sobek at Kom Ombo during the Ptolemaic Period. Other Egyptian deities were simply worshipped in multiple chapels in temples throughout the land from much earlier times.

It was perhaps Hans Bonnet who first characterized syncretism as the realization of the idea of one god "inhabiting" another rather than two gods being fused, equated or identified. Using the example of Amun-Re, Bonnet argues that:

"The formula Amun-Re does not signify that Amun is subsumed in Re or Re in Amun. Nor does it establish that they are identical; Amun does not equal Re. It observes that Re is in Amun in such a way that he is not lost in Amun, but remains himself just as much as Amun does, so that both gods can again be manifest separately or in other combination."

We may more closely examine syncretism of gods by investigating the relationships of the sun god Re. Re was a very important god to the ancient Egyptians, who first appears as early as the 2nd Dynasty. This deity was thought of as a creator god early on, but other gods such as Atum were also seen by the Egyptians to have creator attributes. Hence, the Egyptians saw in Atum an aspect of Re, and it was Re within Atum who allowed him to be a creator god. From the Middle Kingdom on, such links became more common, with examples such as Sobek-Re, Khnum-Re, and of course Amun-Re, who became a state god in his solar and creator aspects as Re.

The syncretistic god, Re Horakhty

Specifically, syncretism means that the ancient Egyptians recognized Re in all of these very different gods as soon as they encountered them as creator gods. Likewise, they also recognized the sky god Horus in any other god who took the form of a hawk.

However, in order to completely (or at least as much as possible) understand syncretism, we must examine other ways in which Egyptian religion formulated a link between two or more deities. These include:

  • 1) Kinship, where deities are found together in a family as father, son, spouse, brother etc.
  • 2) Statements that a god (or the king) is the "image", "manifestation", or ba of another. For example, Amun is said to have "made his first manifestation as Re", which is very different than his syncretistic form of Amun-Re.
  • 3) Other occasional and complicated theological statements about the union of two gods. Most of these relate to some form of union between Re and Osiris. For example, it is said that the bas of Osiris and Re meet each other in Mendes and there become the "united ba", which, according to the Stela of Ramesses IV from Abydos, "speaks with one mouth". The Coffin Texts also has a common formula that Osiris has "appeared as Re". In a relief in the tomb of Nofretri is depicted a ram-headed mummy between Isis and Nephthys. The scene is captioned, "This is Re when he has come to rest in Osiris" and "This is Osiris when he has come to rest in Re", deliberately leaving open which god has come to rest in the other. We also find above the entrances to Ramessid era royal tombs Isis and Nephthys proclaiming that both Re and their bother Osiris occupy the same heavenly body. In fact, in the Book of the Dead, the two gods appear to be so united that in many passages their names seem to be interchangeable and in the Amduat, the corpse of the sun god is at the same time the corpse of Osiris.