Characteristics & Roles of Ancient Egyptian Gods & Goddesses Modern knowledge of Egyptian beliefs about the gods is mostly drawn from religious writings produced by the nation’s scribes and priests. These people were the elite of Egyptian society and were very distinct from the general populace, most of whom were illiterate. Little is known about how well this broader population knew or understood the sophisticated ideas that the elite developed. Commoners’ perceptions of the divine may have differed from those of the priests. The populace may, for example, have treated the religion’s symbolic statements about the gods and their actions as literal truth.  But overall, what little is known about popular religious belief is consistent with the elite tradition. The two traditions form a largely cohesive vision of the gods and their nature.

Roles most Egyptian deities represent natural or social phenomena. The gods were generally said to be immanent in these phenomena—to be present within nature. The types of phenomena they represented include physical places and objects as well as abstract concepts and forces. The god Shu was the deification of all the world’s air; the goddess Meret Seger oversaw a limited region of the earth, the Theban Necropolis; and the god Sia personified the abstract notion of perception.  Major gods were often involved in several types of phenomena. For instance, Khnum was the god of Elephantine Island in the midst of the Nile, the river that was essential to Egyptian civilization. He was credited with producing the annual Nile flood that fertilized the country’s farmland. Perhaps as an outgrowth of this life-giving function, he was said to create all living things, fashioning their bodies on a potter’s wheel. Gods could share the same role in nature; Ra, Atum, Khepri, Horus, and other deities acted as sun gods. Despite their diverse functions, most gods had an overarching role in common: maintaining maat, the universal order that was a central principle of Egyptian religion and was itself personified as a goddess. Yet some deities represented disruption to maat. Most prominently, Apep was the force of chaos, constantly threatening to annihilate the order of the universe, and Set was an ambivalent member of divine society who could both fight disorder and foment it. Not all aspects of existence were seen as deities. Although many deities were connected with the Nile, no god personified it in the way that Ra personified the sun. Short-lived phenomena, such as rainbows or eclipses, were not represented by gods; neither were fire, water, or many other components of the world. The roles of each deity were fluid, and each god could expand its nature to take on new characteristics. As a result, gods’ roles are difficult to categorize or define. Despite this flexibility, the gods had limited abilities and spheres of influence. Not even the creator god could reach beyond the boundaries of the cosmos that he created, and even Isis, though she was said to be the cleverest of the gods, was not omniscient. Richard H. Wilkinson, however, argues that some texts from the late New Kingdom suggest that as beliefs about the god Amun evolved he was thought to approach omniscience and omnipresence, and to transcend the limits of the world in a way that other deities did not.