Re is the sun god. His Egyptian name, rʿ, is usually written with the sun disk. He is often called “Re-Horakhty” (“Re [is] Horus of the Horizon”); this should be understood as a surname describing the character of the god. Re was the most important god of the Egyptian pantheon because he created the world. The awe of him was based on the fact that the cosmic dimension of the sun surpasses the comprehension of man. An Old Kingdom text describes him as “glorious, shining, besouled, strong, mighty, far-reaching, far-striding.”
For the Egyptians, the course of the sun was the measurement of time. After its nightly absence, it rose again on the horizon with absolute regularity. The rising sun was the symbol for the creation of the world, and the daily course of the sun the symbol of the world's cyclical renewal; hence the paramount importance of Re as creator and master of life.
The second factor in Re's importance was his unbreakable link with the king. The master of earth and the master of the universe were of the same nature; one was a mirror image of the other. In ancient Egypt, theology and political theory were interdependent: the figure of the king was always the center of attention, and the status of a god or of a mortal was measured by his or her proximity to the king.
The sun god is an interesting case in the history of religion because he is absent from the early historical sources. Between the late second dynasty and the fifth, we can observe the way his image developed as an analogy of that of the king. From the beginning, the king appeared as a god and a human at once. His divine aspect was embodied in a falcon named Horus. In the fourth dynasty the reigning king was called “the son of Re,” thus defining the relationship between pharoah and sun god. A relationship was also established between the royal falcon and Re, by uniting both in the symbol of the winged sun disk, an image that remained a constant in temples and religious monuments as the omnipresent complement of the king, until the end of Egyptian history. The earliest depictions of the sun god as a man with a falcon's head and with a sun disk are preserved in the royal pyramid temples.
The kings of the fifth dynasty erected solar temples next to their pyramids in the necropolis of Abusir, and these structures differ from other temples of the time in that they feature a large, open courtyard at the center of which rises an obelisk on top of a tall pedestal; in front of this is a large offering altar. Unlike other deities, Re never has a sanctuary with a cult statue; his image is the sun itself, which rises daily over the tip of the obelisk. The pyramidion and several types of pillars also appear as symbols of Re. The most significant solar temple, that at Heliopolis (now completely destroyed), was probably erected during this period. The hieroglyph for that city's Egyptian name, Iwn, contains a pillar resembling an obelisk.
The most important early source for the sun god is the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom, a collection of spells describing the fate of the deceased king in the underworld which are carved on the walls of royal tombs of the late fifth and sixth dynasties. The protagonist is once again the king, who in death has become one with his heavenly father, Re. The texts witness a highly developed theology. The sun god is not a clearly defined individual, but instead has several names and images. His multiplicity is a reflection of his many capabilities. The Pyramid Texts describe Re as the sun that rises on the eastern horizon in the morning in the shape of a scarab beetle whose name is Khepri (“the Emerging One”). The scarab in his bark is lifted by the personified primordial waters, or Nun. During the day Re traverses the sky in the bark, accompanied by a large entourage of gods; at sunset he becomes Atum, the “All-Lord.” No one can halt his course. Every evening he is swallowed by the sky goddess Nut, who gives birth to him anew each morning, and thus the cycle continues. Crowns and the throne associate Re with kingship.
Creative force is the sun god's central characteristic. Although the Pyramid Texts do not relate extensive myths, they contain mythic elements, referring to the creation of the world. In the beginning there was Re under his name Atum, who came into being. He rose in the shape of a ben-ben stone, or obelisk-like pillar, in the temple of the Benu-Phoenix in Heliopolis, city of the pillar. Then he spit forth Shu and Tefnut, the first divine couple, personifying air and moisture. They begot Geb and Nut (earth and sky), and the latter in turn bore two divine couples—Osiris and Isis, and Seth and Nephthys. This completed the Ennead of gods, and the world was able to function.
Re, as creator, is in dialogue with his opposite, death, from the very beginning. In the Pyramid Texts we read that death is not the end of life, but rather its original source. Death is personified by Osiris who is murdered by his brother, Seth, and subsequently resurrected by Re to rule over the dead. The link between Re and Osiris is the deceased king who, in the afterlife identifies with both gods. Unlike most other deities, Re does not have a family; however, he has his eye, the sun disk, to give birth to other creatures. These offspring include (among others) his son, the king, and the goddess Hathor, who embodies the feminine creative principle, giving birth to her creatures and nourishing them with milk; as a sign of her connection with Re, she bears the sun disk on her head. Re's closest ally is the goddess Maat, the embodiment of order and truth; she represents the unimpeachable principle of his rule.
In the Middle Kingdom we encounter a new image of Re. Several hymns to the sun god tell how he created the world solely for humankind. Human beings are made in his image, and he provides them with everything they need for life. Evil, however, does not come from the god but from mortals' own rebellious hearts, and for this they are judged in the underworld. With his rays, which penetrate each body, Re supervises and controls human beings, rewarding the obedient and destroying the disobedient. On earth, the king does this in his stead.
The relationship between Re and Osiris is newly defined at this time. All mortals now change into Osiris in death, a concept already discernible by the end of the Old Kingdom. Re gives Osiris his power by bestowing on him his crown, and he also guards him while he travels through the underworld at night. The phase of the daily rebirth of the sun in the form of a scarab is now symbolized by an amulet in that form, which soon becomes the most popular and widespread symbol of good fortune. In an expanded political theology, the names of several other deities with roles as creator or ruler are combined with that of Re, especially as Amun-Re; in this composite form, Re expands his own potential through the incorporation of other deities into his own being.
Re worship reaches its height in the New Kingdom. The walls of its royal tombs are decorated with images of the Underworld Books which describe the nightly journey of the sun. The nocturnal Re in his bark is depicted as a human with a ram's head. In the fifth hour, the god is united with his corpse, which at this time is Osiris. This is the moment when the sun suffers death, which at the same time generates new life. In the sixth hour, Apophis, a serpent embodying evil, is killed. Then in the twelfth hour, Re is newly born as a scarab. Among the new texts is The Litany of Re, which describes how the king identifies with the seventy-five nocturnal figures of Re, and how Re and Osiris become one in the depth of night.
In the tombs of officials, Re appears in very different form. At the entrance are inscriptions of the solar hymns describing Re's creation deeds. The deceased wants to be free to leave the tomb during the day to see the sun, for gazing on Re will rejuvenate him daily through eternity. However, there is also a perception that the sun god could destroy his creation at the end of eternity; this aspect adds a philosophical dimension to the theology.
Papyri recounting Re myths exist primarily from the New Kingdom. They focus on two themes. In one, Re becomes elderly and tired, and therefore organizes the world in a way that it no longer requires his personal intervention; he transfers his power to Horus or to the king. In the other, Re conceives the heir to the throne as his physical son.
Some New Kingdom temples feature an open courtyard with an altar to Re. There a specific sun cult was celebrated: at the turn of each hour, a priest—ideally, the king—recited one of twelve poetic hymns predicting the victorious course of the sun. On the temple walls, the newborn sun is now sometimes depicted as a crouching infant, and the adult sun god in human form. In the time of Amenhotpe III, the reigning king is not merely the son of Re, but identifies so strongly with Re that he calls himself “the dazzling sun.” Amenhotpe IV, also called Akhenaten, even instituted a monotheistic religion centered on the sun. He declared the physical embodiment of the sun, the solar disk or Aten, to be the only existing god. After Akhenaten's death, his idea was abandoned, and the theologians restored the traditional beliefs. Thereafter, however, Amun-Re was a “universal god,” all-encompassing, who maintained life for sky, earth, gods, and humans.
From the end of the New Kingdom, the royal Underworld Books were democratized, and excerpts appear as late as the early Ptolemaic period in tombs, on papyri, and on sarcophagi. Now anyone could take the journey in Re's nocturnal bark. In addition, a new image of the king emerges: on painted coffins of the Third Intermediate Period, Re-Horakhty-Atum appears in the mummiform shape of Osiris, and the owner of the tomb worships him as the ruler of the underworld. This is the merger of Re and Osiris recognized by ordinary mortals; in the royal funerary belief it had already been accomplished in the New Kingdom in a mummiform image of the god with a ram's head. The magical-mythical papyri, intended to protect both living and dead, rely heavily on solar symbolism: they often depict the sun's course in a single image that combines the travel of Re by day and by night, with his rebirth in the morning. Thus the believers ensure their own regeneration. The Litany of Re is further developed by adding new, often grotesque figures to the existing figures of Re. Also new are lists describing the twelve images of Re for the hours of the day.
Among the amulets placed on the mummy to protect the dead, we now find several solar symbols: the sun-in-the-horizon, the sun disk, the celestial bark, the double lion, and the obelisk. The Egyptians also used the hypocephalus, a disk depicting Re's nocturnal form with four ram's heads. Taking many shapes and possessing several heads increased the power of the god. Eventually, however, Re became less important over the course of the first millennium, as the kingship was weakened under a succession of foreign rulers.
Even in the Greco-Roman period, however, new magical-mythical papyri were created, offering a new interpretation of the sun's path. The Book of Faiyum tells how Re enters the body of Sobek, the crocodile god, and swims across the Faiyum lake during the twelve hours of the night. In the magical texts, Re continues to be the highest power, upon whom a magician may call if he proves the depth of his knowledge. Hence, the listing of the twelve manifestations of the diurnal sun plays an important role, as does the list of the figures that issued from Re during the act of creation as Khepri, the morning sun.
Re played a dominant role in the large Horus temple at Edfu because he was identified with Horus of Edfu and with his main symbol, the winged sun. On the ceiling of a chapel are depicted the twelve figures of Re as diurnal sun and, as a new aspect, the fourteen ka-powers of Re. The sun god is even the protagonist of a dramatic tale about the victory of the winged sun over the enemies of creation. However, since the kings of the Greco-Roman period were foreigners, the theology of Re had become a purely academic pursuit, limited to priests and no longer part of the living faith of the people.
- Assmann, Jan. Ägyptische Hymnen und Gebete. Zurich and Munich, 1975. The great majority of the approximately 250 hymns collected, edited, and interpreted by the author over more than two decades are dedicated to the sun god. An indispensable sourcebook.
- Assmann, Jan. Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom: Re, Amun and the Crisis of Polytheism. Translated by A. Alcock. London, 1995. The development of the solar theology through the New Kingdom, discussing the growing tension between traditional polytheism and the concept of Re as the unique, one and only, or universal god. The chief sources are the numerous solar hymns collected by the author in the Theban private tombs.
- Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts Translated into English. Warminster, 1969.
- Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster, 1973–1978. Excellent translations of two of the most difficult text corpora, making them accessible to those interested in the history of religion, with indexes of divinities, localities, etc.
- Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Edited by Carol Andrews. Rev. ed. London, 1985. With a glossary and very fine illustrations from the best Book of the Dead papyri in the British Museum, though without index.
- Habachi, Labib. The Obelisks of Egypt: Skyscrapers of the Past. Cairo, 1984. The meaning and the production of obelisks, with a description of extant temple obelisks.
- Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, 1982. Darmstadt, 1971. Describes the fundamental concepts of Egyptian religious thinking, some of them pertaining to the complex aspects of the sun god.
- Hornung, Erik. Die Unterweltsbücher der Ägypter. New ed. Zurich and Munich, 1992. Complete translation of all the royal books or guides to the underworld from the New Kingdom, describing the journey of the sun god through the twelve hours of the night. The illustrations that are an integral part of these compositions are reproduced in line drawings, the introduction giving a summary of the contents.
- Hornung, Erik. Valley of the Kings: Horizon of Eternity. Translated by D. Warburton. New York, 1990. A collection of texts and pictures pertaining to the sun god as found in the royal tombs of the New Kingdom. The author explains the main concepts in a systematic order, elucidating the often strange mode of Egyptian expression.
- Kozloff, Arielle P., and Betsy M. Bryan, with Lawrence M. Berman. Egypt's Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and His World. Cleveland, 1992. The relation of this king with the sun god, the new and imaginative ways of identification with his divine partner, are a major theme.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 1, The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973. Translations of the key sources of the Middle Kingdom: king Wahankh Intef II's hymns to Re and Hathor, the hymn to the sun god in the Instructions for Merykare, the hymn to Amenemhat III on the stela of Sehetep-ib-re, the building inscription of Senwosret I from his temple at Heliopolis, and the tale of The Birth of the Royal Children.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 2, The New Kingdom. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1976. Contains the main mythological texts relating to the sun god: The Destruction of Mankind, The Two Brothers, Horus and Seth.
- Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London, 1992. A brief history of Re's career from the second dynasty to Roman times, mentioning all the important textual and iconographical sources; a sober, clear interpretation.