Ra (or Re or Phra), the personification of the sun, was the ancient Egyptian sun god. His name meant the sun, and he represented its strength. Earlier he was identified with Atum, the creator-god of Heliopolis that was his major cult center. Sometimes Atum, however, was considered to have created Re, and more often Re was thought to have emerged from Nun by the power of his own will. Two theories concern his ascent from the primeval waters: he rose from the primeval waters enclosed around like petals of the lotus blossom that enfolded about him when he returned at night; or that he rose in the shape of the phoenix, the Bennu Bird, and alighted on top of an obelisk, the Benden stone, which symbolized a ray of the sun. The Benden stone was the most sacred object with Re’s temple at Heliopolis because its glittering surface caught and reflected the morning sun. The temple appeared as a primordial hill, with the House of Benden as its center.
The evolution or genealogy of Re has became complex through myth. Re is said to have a consort of Rat, or Iusas, or Urt-Hikeu (“Great in Magic”), or even Hathor; but more often like Atum, he was said to have produce alone, either by being bisexual, or by masturbation, or through spittle, the first divine couple, Shu and Tefnut, who in turn produced Geb and Nut whose children were Osiris, Isis, Seth (Set), and Nephthys. Alternately, according to legend, Re was the son of Geb and Nut in the form of a cow, who was born a calf each morning, grew to a bull by midday, and returned to fertilize his mother as Kamephis (“Bull of his mother”), and died each night, to be reborn as his own son the net morning. Futher beliefs were that Re hatched from an egg formed of clay by Ptah or laid by Geb in the form of a goose. Sometimes Hathor was said to be the child of Re as were Osiris, Set, Horus, and Mayer.
Re was said to be the “father of the gods,” for he was their head and king, as well as the father of humanity, and all living creatures that were believed to grow from his sweat or tears. The tears were produced from the Eye of Re, which was separable from him with a mind of its own. Once when it did not return, Re sent Shu and Tefnut to get it, the Eye stubbornly resisted, and in the struggle shed tears; from the tears men grew, perhaps this myth emerged because the Egyptian words for “tears” and “men” share a similar sound.
There were variants of the story concerning the Eye of Re. One legend was that the Eye was sent by Atum to search for Shu and Tefnut who were lost in the waters of Nun; being placed on Atum’s forehead rewarded the Eye. Another story is that The Eye one wondered on its own accord, and Re sent Thoth, the moon, to fetch it back; upon returning the Eye discovered that it had been replaced by another Eye, perhaps the moon. Thoth, however, mollified the original Eye, and Re pacified it by placing it, in the shape of the uraeus serpent, on his brow “where it could rule the whole world.” The Eye, or uraeus, would become the effective ruler of the world, and as such would be worn by pharaohs as a symbol of their majesty and their descent from the sun god.
Re governed by himself at first in what called the “First Time” or golden age. It was an age in Egypt when gods and men peacefully coexisted. The youthful Re maintained a firm rule, and the power of the divine, Mayer, went uncontested. He discussed with Shu the progress of earth each morning. However, occasionally the people felt Re’s close inspection was oppressive and rebelled. But normally they were powerless, such as with the summer heat, against the mighty king. There was the time when Apep, the serpent, conspired with Re’s enemies to kill him at sunrise, but they were defeated in an all day battle. Then another time, Re transformed himself into a cat to behead Apep.
As Re aged his power began slipping away; he became an old man, incontinent, and dribbled from his trembling mouth. At times even other deities argued with him and took advantage of him. Men began detecting Re’s incapacitations and sought to plot against him while saying, “His Majesty is grown old. His bones are silver, his flesh is gold, and his hair a real lapis lazuli.” Re knew all of this, which disturbed him, so He, therefore, called a secret council of the gods that included the eye of Re, which took the shape of his daughter Hathor or Sekhmet, a lioness. Upon the advice of the gods Re decided to spread destruction among men; and the Eye was chosen for the task. The goddess only performed part of her task and returned to her father to find that he had relented, for he only wanted to restore order to his divine creation. But the goddess had turned bloodthirsty and Re was not able appease her for she desired to finish her task. So in order to save the rest of humanity Re had the land covered with a fermented red liquid that he hoped the goddess would mistake for blood. His plan was successful; the goddess drank so much of the liquid that she could not see clearly to destroy those even within her reach, and part of humankind was saved.
However, Re was still unhappy with humanity and decided to leave the boundaries of earth Nut assumed the figure of a beautiful cow. To achieve his wish the god Nun urged him to seat himself on the cow Nut. When in the morning, as men were still continuing their quarrelsome ways, the cow ascended with the god on her back and was transformed into the sky. Re was delighted when being raised so high; but the cow became fearful and trembled in every limb. So Re ordered other gods to support her legs and belly and they became stars. It is believed this was how the present world evolved; the heaven and earth, gods and men were separated.
Afterwards, Re, the sun god, abdicated his position to Thoth, the moon god; and this was how the Egyptians explained the daily disappearance of the sun, and the nightly appearance of the moon. Re provided mankind with protective spells, through Thoth, to keep them from harm on earth, and his heavenly kingdom became an afterworld where they could hope for eternal happiness. A.G.H.
Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 34-41
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 30-33
Ions, Veronuca, Egyptian Mythology, Feltham, Middlesex, Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., 1968. p. 41-46