Ra, also known in the form Rê or Rha (IPA: ), is an Egyptian deity belonging to the religion of ancient Egypt, sun god of Heliopolis. From the V Dynasty (2510 BC – 2350 BC) became one of the main deities of Egypt, identified primarily with the midday sun.

He was believed to rule every part of the world: the sky, the earth and the underworld. He was often approached to the god Horus; their fusion originated the god Ra-Horakhti, whose name means Ra (Who is) Horus of the Two Horizons. From the twelfth dynasty (1994 BC – 1794 BC) was associated with the Theban god Amon, giving rise to the most important deity of the Egyptian pantheon: Amon-Ra, and thus remaining for centuries the supreme god, King of gods. During the brief Amarnaean period, King Akhenaten (ca. 1351 BC – 1334 BC) suppressed the cult of Ra and imposed the exclusive worship of the god Aton, which previously was only an aspect of Ra; after the death of Akhenaten, the cult of Ra was immediately restored in its prominence.

Ra and the Sun

For the Egyptians, the Sun was a symbol of light, warmth and prosperity. In the Egyptian pantheon, solar deities were therefore particularly important, as the Sun was believed to be the ruler of all creation. The solar disk was seen both as the body and as the Eye of Ra, not to be confused with the Eye of Horus (which had instead a lunar significance). In certain mythological versions, Ra was considered father of Shu, god of air, and of Tefnut, goddess of humidity and rain, created by his own seed, as well as of Bastet, solar divinity of war sometimes represented in the act of defending the Sun from the evil snake Apopi, of Heket, the frog-goddess of births that supported the sun during his passage into the underworld, and Sekhmet, violent and bloody goddess-lioness symbolizing the deadly heat of the sun”s rays, depicted with the globe of the sun on his head and born from the fire of the Eye of Ra.

The importance of this god was such that several deities of the sun and the moments of the sun in the day were worshiped as aspects of the same Ra: Atum, god of the setting sun; Ra-Horakhty, fusion of Ra and Horus and god of the sun at the zenith; Harmakis, god of the sun at dawn and dusk (represented, for example, in the Sphinx of Giza and object of particular devotion by Thutmose IV.

Ra in the Underworld

The Egyptians imagined that Ra traveled on two solar boats: the first called Mandjet (the second called Mesektet, or night boat. These boats carried him on his journey through the heavens and the Duat, the underworld. When he was on the ship Mesektet with which he traveled the afterlife, Ra was depicted with a ram”s head, retaining the usual attribute of the solar disk on his head, in this case lying on the horns. The deities who accompanied him on the solar boats were numerous, including Sia, personification of perception, Hu, personification of command, and Heka, god who embodied magic and that, like Seth, Bastet and other gods, was involved in the slaying of the serpent Apopi. Sometimes, Ra was escorted by other gods of the Ennead, such as Seth, Apopi”s main opponent, and the beneficent serpent Mehen, who defended him from the many monsters of the underworld.

Apopi, incarnation of chaos, was a huge snake that every night tried to stop the course of the boat of the sun by attacking it or by resorting to his hypnotic gaze. It was thought that, when solar eclipses occurred, Apopi swallowed Ra”s boat. The Egyptians believed that in the evening Ra assumed the form of Atum (deity of the setting sun) or in the form of a ram. The night boat, crossing the afterlife, would bring him back to the east so that he could rise again at dawn. This myth was intended to describe the rising of the sun in the sky, represented by the goddess Nut. Finally, when he was in the underworld, Ra merged with Osiris, god of the dead, thus becoming himself god of the dead. On his night journey, he was sometimes invoked with the names Auf and Efu Ra.

Ra as Creator

Some Egyptian priestly orders worshiped Ra as the creator of the world; in this they distinguished the priests of Heliopolis and their devotees. They believed that Ra had created first of all himself, emerging, having created himself, from the primordial waters of the Nun, carried between the horns of the celestial cow, the goddess Mehetueret (then he would create men through his own tears. In an episode of the Book of the Dead, Ra circumcised himself and his blood gave birth to Sia and Hu, personifications respectively of the perception of command. To Ra was also attributed the creation of animals, plants, months and seasons. He was also often compared to Hershef, a minor god depicted as a ram, with demiurgic functions.

Ra and the Pharaoh

The definitive affirmation of the cult of Ra occurred with the rise of the V dynasty (ca. 2500 BC), whose pharaohs were considered sons of Ra and of the wife of a priest of Heliopolis impregnated by the god himself, as reported by the Westcar Papyrus: at that time the royal title was enriched by the remarkable title of Son of Ra (Sa-Ra), already existing during the previous dynasty:

Starting from the V dynasty, the name of Ra appeared more and more assiduously in the names of pharaohs: for example Sahura, Neferirkara and Niuserra of the V dynasty, Userkara, Pepi I Merira, Merenra I, Pepi II Merenra and Merenra II of the VI dynasty and so on until the XVIII, XIX and XX dynasty, all the kings of which had a name – the birth name or the royal name – related to Ra. Most of the monuments and temples built by the kings of the V dynasty were dedicated to the sun cult; usually they were open structures exposed to the sunlight, erected around the benben, a pyramidal stone symbolizing the sun rays or the original hillock emerged from the primordial waters, prototype of the following obelisks. Erecting obelisks, as did Ramses II in front of the Temple of Luxor, the pharaoh intended to symbolize architecturally his bond with Ra. In the Old Kingdom it was believed that, after death, the soul of the pharaoh ascended to heaven to reach the sun and thus join his father Ra; this belief occurs with great frequency in the Texts of the pyramids, engraved for the first time on the walls of the burial chamber of Unis, the last king of the V dynasty. During his life, however, the king claimed that his authority was the image of the supremacy of Ra on other gods and on heaven, earth and the underworld.

Ra was depicted in various forms. The most common was that of a man with the head of a hawk, the solar disk on his head and a snake coiled around it. Another usual representation was that of a man with the head of a scarab (reference to Khepri), as well as that of a man with the head of a ram. It could also be represented integrally as a ram, scarab, phoenix, heron, snake, bull, cat, lion and others. In illustrations of imagined scenes in the Underworld, he was generally represented as a ram-headed man. In such a form, Ra is described as Aries of the West and Aries in search of His harem.

In certain documents, Ra is described as an old pharaoh with golden flesh, silver bones and hair of lapis lazuli. Symbols of Ra were the solar disk and the hieroglyphic, that is a circle with a point in the center, astronomical symbol of the sun.

Ancient and Middle Kingdom

The cult of Ra as a solar deity began to emerge, approximately, during the Second Dynasty, established around 2890 BC. Its theology probably had a strong impulse under the IV dynasty starting with pharaoh Djedefra, who reigned for about a decade around 2575 BC. In fact, for the first time with Djedefra the ruler of Egypt assumed the title of Son of Ra, which became part of the five traditional names of the pharaoh, from that time, the pharaoh began to be considered a manifestation of Ra on earth. The spread of his cult had a strong acceleration with the V dynasty, when Ra became the national deity and the pharaohs erected pyramids, obelisks and temples, considering themselves sons of Ra: most of the resources of the country, in that period, were devoted to the building of temples of the solar cult. At the appearance of the first examples of Texts of the pyramids, Ra had already a great influence in the travel of the dead pharaoh in the afterlife.

During the Middle Kingdom (2055 – 1650 B.C.), the constant evolution of the Egyptian pantheon led to juxtapose Ra to numerous deities among which, most important, Osiris and Amon.

New Kingdom and later periods

Coinciding with the New Kingdom, inaugurated around 1550 BC, the theology and worship of Ra became very complex and majestic. The walls of the tombs began to be decorated with extremely detailed texts depicting Ra”s journey to the afterlife. It was a widespread belief that Ra took with him on the solar boat, along with the souls of the dead, the prayers and praises of the living. It became very common in the New Kingdom the idea that Ra aged as the sun declined during the day.

A great number of hymns, prayers, litanies were composed to help Ra and his solar boat in the clash with Apopi.

With the advent of Christianity in the Roman Empire (300 – 400 AD), the cult of Ra was gradually abandoned and its popularity among the inhabitants of the Nile valley became a purely historical interest, even among the priests of the country.

Deities associated with Ra

As happened to all major Egyptian deities, Ra”s identity was often merged with that of other gods.


Rat, or Rattaui, was a female aspect of Ra and had little importance independently of him. In some myths she appears as Ra”s bride, other times as his daughter. The name Rat is nothing but the name of Ra with the feminine suffix -t; the longer version Rattaui means “Rat of the Two Lands” (Upper and Lower Egypt). She first appeared during the Fifth Dynasty and was probably Ra”s oldest companion. He never reached, however, the enormous popularity of Hathor, which according to other versions was the wife because of Ra, its representations are extremely rare. However, she was not supplanted and fragments of hymns to Rattaui have been preserved dating back to the Roman period of Egypt.

An interesting hymn to Ra appears, in six columns in text, immediately before a hymn to Hathor, on a stele of Antef II (ca. 2112 BCE – 2063 BCE), fourth pharaoh of the Eleventh Dynasty, found in his tomb at Thebes and preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Antef II”s hymn appeals, appropriately for a funerary stele, to Ra as the setting sun. As British Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson has observed, these verses seem to suggest a deep personal devotion and almost a sense of human frailty, combined with a certain fear of death.


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