Polymorphism in Egyptian Iconography and Worship

The Egyptian pantheon functioned very differently compared with many of the other polytheistic deity groups that have existed around the world.

An example: the Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), father of King Tutankhamen, is sometimes considered to be the originator of monotheism. This, however, represents a misunderstanding of how the Egyptian mindset operated. Amenhotep was not a monotheist; he was a henotheist.

A henotheist, you ask? Henotheism specifically means the “worship of one god at a time but not of a single god” (Hornung, Conceptions of God p.237). In other words, while he believed in the primacy of the Sun God, Amun-Ra, he didn’t dismiss the existence of the other Gods; he just didn’t care to worship them or honor them by building temples.

Akhenaten worshiping the Aten, or Solar Disc of Ra – From Wikipedia

Also, the Egyptian deities exhibited great fluidity and polymorphism.

Compare them to the Greek Gods and Goddesses, who were firmly characterized, as seen in the 12 Olympian gods: “the Egyptian deities were first and foremost possessors of power. They could all be prayed to about anything, but there was some degree of specialization” (Pinch Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction p.39).

Generally, the Egyptian people chose a cult God that fitted best with their lives and situation, so while a person who worked the boats on the Nile may chose Sobek (a crocodile headed God of the Nile) as their primary God, a farmer may choose Min, a God of reproduction and agriculture. Yet all the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses were powerful enough to provide their devotees with almost everything they required, and it was only in specific and extreme circumstances that an individual would consult another deity outside their primary one. 

Sobek relief on the Temple of Kom Ombo – From Wikipedia

This ability to have multiple domains of influence impacted the mythology of the Egyptians too; often stories would adapt to include a central deity or highlight their role or perspective. This is most evident in the multitude of Egyptian creation stories, where a number of different Gods and Goddesses are given a supporting role in various cult traditions.

Egyptian narratives were also fluid, changeable, and to the outsider, seem to accept contradictions. They did not require a single story to be canonical truth; the various stories could co-exist alongside each other and still maintain validity.  Unlike the Greek Gods and Goddesses who tended to be more fixed and linear, the “Egyptian deities are not fixed characters with fixed life histories” (Pinch Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction p.39). Nor do they fit neatly into hierarchical family trees; Osiris could be the partner of Isis or Nephthys, while Horus could be either the son of Osiris or Osiris’ brother, Set. Similarly, Hathor could be the mother, partner or daughter of Ra, yet at the same time be the wife of Horus, and all of this could be accepted as true. 

Visual representations of Egyptian deities were not fixed either, and their basic iconography can take on multiple forms that changes both their personal attributes and usage in worship. For example, the Goddess Hathor is predominately represented in her full Goddess form wearing the sun disk between two horns that made up her Crown, and it is in this form that she is most often showed receiving tribute, or bestowing blessings. However, Hathor can also be represented as the Celestial Cow, and this form highlights her nurturing and maternal nature as the being that produces the sacred milk that exclusively nurtures Gods and Pharaohs alike. Hathor can also appear as the Column of Hathor, a disembodied human head with cow ears which acted as a symbol of protection and was often used to decorate the kings’ birthing chambers in various temples (Hornung, Conceptions of God p.110).

Some of the many forms of Hathor; the celestial cow, the cow-eared head, and the goddess – From Wikipedia

While Hathor was most often associated with the Celestial Cow, she could also take completely different forms, sometimes represented as a lioness, snake or hippopotamus. In these forms she was still Hathor, but she would also borrow the attributes of other creature, such as the fierceness of a lioness or the cunning of a snake. This fluidity of form enabled the Egyptian deities to be infinitely more flexible in their personalities and allowed them to be multi-faceted and complex.

As well as being able to infer attributes upon their deities, the Egyptians also had the willingness to combine existing Gods and Goddesses to make new deities. This could be as straight forward as combining the crocodile God Sobek with the sun God Ra, to create Sobek Ra. This combination created a new God that now had both the crocodile attributes of longevity, wiliness and the power of Sobek, but also the life-giving elements of Ra.

Combinations could also be slightly more complex and involve one God or Goddess with a specific form of another God or Goddess, like in the case of Ra Horakhty, which fused the God Ra with one certain aspect of Horus, Horus of the Horizon (the aforementioned Horakhty), to make a new God who embodied the rising sun over the horizon.

ra Hor
Ra Horakhty from the Abu Simbel Temple – from Wikipedia

Sometimes the Gods and Goddesses would not combine into an new, independent deity, but just borrow their iconic attributes, as was the case with Isis who sometimes wore the crown of Hathor when she wanted to invoke her maternal side. While it should be noted that the Greek Gods and Goddesses did have the ability to change their forms, they always retained the same personality when they did. For example, Zeus whether God, swan or bull still carried the same alpha-male, sexually dominant personality, and his behavioral patterns were always predictable within his archetype. While this didn’t deter the Greeks from syncretizing their Gods with those of Ancient Egypt (especially during Ptolemaic Era (305-30 B.C.E.), when Greece controlled Egypt), their correspondences tended to be one-to-one: one example is Thoth-Hermes.

Whether Thoth was a depicted as an ibis or as a baboon, he was still cognate with Hermes, which is why many scholars trace the roots of Alchemy, the province of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great) back to Egypt (also that one possible etymology of Alchemy is Al Khem, with khem being the name of the rich black soil that surrounded the river Nile).

What this means is part of the key to understanding the Egyptian pantheon begins with moving away from Ptolemaic syncretism and understanding that there is no true way to align these systems on a one-to-one basis with any other without ignoring the multi-dimensional nature of the Egyptian Gods that is core to their very being.

3 thoughts on “Polymorphism in Egyptian Iconography and Worship

  1. Hi, Akhenaten did not worship Amun-Ra; he expressly banned the Priesthood of Amun Ra from existing. This is connected to the geopolitics of the 18th dynasty after the Hyksos invasion. The issue is that an obscure priesthood of Thebes had hijacked the country by sponsoring the revolution which overthrew the foreigners. This led to conflicts such as the one between Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Although these disputes look like family dramas, ultimately the damnatio memoriae practiced represents a schism between the power-hungry priesthood and the throne. Even Tutmose IV’s restoration of the Sphinx should be understood in this light. Thus when Akhenaten abstracts the worship of the Aten and bans the priesthood, it is not just Henotheism; the heresy is an attempt to halt what he saw as a theocracy from taking over Egypt and to restore the absolute monarchy which had existed before. Ultimately Akhenaten’s prediction proved correct: in the 20th dynasty the priests did establish an open theocracy, and the separation of powers in Egyptian society was ended, running the country into the ground. In any case, Akhenaten made use of a new solar theology to justify his rule, the Aten: the priesthood of Amun-Ra were the explicit enemies of him and his forebears. You might want to update that.

    I could not agree more with your thesis on syncretism. What we need to establish is a translational ethic of theological disputation. This will create a method that can be applied to other religions.

    1. Thank you Jack! I will definitely redo the post with that great information, which honestly deserves a post of its own. Thanks again, Shiva@mythcrafts

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