picture of the day
Tomb painting depicting Ra with a sun disc. Thought to be
circa 1200 B.C.E.
Jun 12, 2008
A Case for Mistaken Identity
Ask anyone who has
even a modest knowledge of mythology to name the Egyptian
sun god and they will probably point to Ra. And why not? Is
that not what we have been taught by historians and
James Frazer spoke
plainly when he echoed this dictum: "That Ra was both the
physical sun and the sun-god is of course undisputed."
And yet, if one
were to conduct an in-depth study of this Egyptian "physical
Sun" and "sun-god" one comes to the realization that, except
for the fact that Ra shone brightly in the sky, the
characteristics and even motions attributed to this entity
do not fit the role of the Sun.
For example, Ra
was often lauded as "Lord
of the Circles" and as "he who entereth [or liveth] in
the circle." He was described as "the sender forth of light
into his circle" and as the "Governor of [his] circle."
What is the
Circle that the hymns allude to? Egyptologists will
immediately say that the Circle of which the hymns speak was
Egyptian Duat (or Tuat), a word that means "the
Underworld." That may be so, but Egyptologists since the
time of Wallis Budge have conceded that the Duat was away
beyond Earth and in the sky. The Duat as a ring surrounding
a celestial object comes from the hieroglyphic determinative
of the name "Duat" itself, depicted in the texts as a star
surrounded by a band or circle. It is thus obvious that
whatever Ra signified it was a celestial body that resided
within a circle or band or ring.
Does the Sun
send forth its rays into a circle? Does it reside in a ring?
conditions, a ring known as a
parhelion (sundog), formed through atmospheric
refraction, surrounds the Sun. But not only is this
apparition too rare for Ra to have earned the title of "Governor
of his circle" and/or "Lord of the Circles" it is also a
phenomenon that is restricted to northern regions and
hardly, if ever, seen at the latitude of Egypt.
themselves attributed Ra to the god Atum and in fact, this
deity is often referred to in Egyptian documents as Atum-Ra.
This god bore a specific and strange characteristic - Atum
was honored as a sun of night.
Egyptian mythology have long grappled with the exact meaning
that lies hidden beneath this strange characteristic of Atum.
The best that
Wallis Budge could offer by way of an explanation was
that Atum was the Sun after it had set. By this he meant to
imply that the Egyptians worshipped the Sun even when it was
absent from the sky. Sun worship at night, however, makes
for an incongruous institution.
As seen in the
image at the top of the page, the god Ra is often surmounted
with a red or golden disc that is not inappropriate if the
Sun is truly being represented. In the liturgies dedicated
to him, however, Ra is described as having shed a green,
rather than a golden, light: "Thou hast come with thy
splendours," states a
hymn to Ra, "and thou hast made heaven and earth bright
with thy rays of pure emerald light."
another hymn we read: "O Ra...thou dost rise in the
horizon of heaven and sheddest upon the world beams of
emerald light." Not only did this celestial object shed a
green or emerald light, it
green. "Hail Green One" was how the Egyptians lauded
the motion of the celestial object called Ra. In a statement
found in one of the
Coffin Texts, the deity is addressed with these words:
"You shall go up upon the great West side of the sky and go
down upon the great East side of the earth." Is not this
contrary to what the present Sun does? Does the Sun today
"go up" in the west? Does it "go down" in the east? Nor is
this particular Coffin Text the only one in which the motion
of Ra is in reverse to that of the present Sun.
More than that,
when sailing in his boat, Ra is said to move down at dawn
and "upstream" at night, which is again contrary to what we
see the Sun doing in our sky at present.
One does not
have to be an astronomer to realize that a celestial body
described as being green, shedding a green light, shining at
night, encircled in a ring or series of rings, "going up" in
the west at night and "going down in the east" at dawn
cannot have been the Sun. Mythologists, who usually gloss
over these characteristics when they do not ignore them
altogether, owe us an apology for having presented Ra as the
Sun and Sun-god of ancient Egypt.
of the Egyptian Ra also contradict identification with our
present Sun, but the above should suffice to make the point.
The question, of course, is: If not the Sun, what could the
celestial object that the ancient Egyptians venerated as Ra
Dwardu Cardona, author of "God
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