Probably the oldest form of religious worship in Egypt was animal worship. Early predynastic tribes venerated their own particular gods, who were usually embodied in a particular animal. Sometimes a whole species of animal was sacred, as cats at Bubastis; at other times only individual animals of certain types were worshiped, as the Apis bull at Memphis. As Egyptian civilization advanced, deities were gradually humanized. Many were represented with human bodies (although they retained animal heads) and other human characteristics and attributes. The wolf Ophois became a god of war, and the ibis Thoth became a patron of learning and the arts.
We do not know precisely how or why certain animals became associated with certain gods. Moreover, the relationship between a god and his animal varied greatly. The god Thoth was not only identified with the ibis, but also with the baboon and with the moon. Occasionally a god was a composite of various animals, such as Taurt, who had the head of a hippopotamus, the back and tail of a crocodile, and the claws of a lion.
Just as a god could represent various natural phenomena, so could a single phenomenon be given different explanations. The ancient Egyptian conceived of the earth as a disk, with the flat plains of Egypt as the center and the mountainous foreign lands as the rim surrounding and supporting the disk. Below were the deep waters of the underworld, and above was the plain of the sky. Several systems of cosmic deities arose to explain this natural phenomenon. Some attributed the creation of the world to the ram-god Khnum, who styled the universe on his potter's wheel. Others said that creation was a spiritual and not a physical act, and that the divine thought of Ptah shaped the universe.
Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation of the creation was that the sun-god, called either Ra or Atum, appeared out of primeval chaos and created the air-god Shu and his wife Tefnut, to whom were born the sky-goddess Nut and the earth-god Geb, who in turn bore Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. Some early cosmological myths represented the heavens as a great, star-studded cow, sometimes called Hathor or Athor, curving above the earth. Regardless of the different creation myths and ranking of gods, it is clear that the ancient Egyptian venerated many deities, that those gods were inherent in nature, and that they enabled the Egyptian to correlate human, natural, and divine life.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.