The Origins of Ancient Egyptian Gods & Goddesses The first written evidence of deities in Egypt comes from the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100–2686 BC). Deities must have emerged sometime in the preceding Predynastic Period (before 3100 BC) and grown out of prehistoric religious beliefs. Predynastic artwork depicts a variety of animal and human figures. Some of these images, such as stars and cattle, are reminiscent of important features of Egyptian religion in later times, but in most cases, there is not enough evidence to say whether the images are connected with deities. As Egyptian society grew more sophisticated, clearer signs of religious activity appeared. The earliest known temples appeared in the last centuries of the predynastic era, along with images that resemble the iconographies of known deities: the falcon that represents Horus and several other gods, the crossed arrows that stand for Neith, and the enigmatic “Set animal” that represents Set.
Crude stone statue of a baboon Statue of the baboon god Hedj-Wer, inscribed with the name of king Narmer Many Egyptologists and anthropologists have suggested theories about how the gods developed in these early times. Gustave Jéquier, for instance, thought the Egyptians first revered primitive fetishes, then deities in animal form, and finally deities in human form, whereas Henri Frankfort argued that the gods must have been envisioned in human form from the beginning. Some of these theories are now regarded as too simplistic, and more current ones, such as Siegfried Morenz’ hypothesis that deities emerged as humans began to distinguish themselves from their environment, and to ‘personify’ ideas relating to deities. Such theories are difficult to prove. Predynastic Egypt originally consisted of small, independent villages. Because many deities in later times were strongly tied to particular towns and regions, many scholars have suggested that the pantheon formed as disparate communities coalesced into larger states, spreading and intermingling the worship of the old local deities. Others have argued that the most important predynastic gods were, like other elements of Egyptian culture, present all across the country despite its political divisions.
The final step in the formation of Egyptian religion was the unification of Egypt, in which rulers from Upper Egypt made themselves pharaohs of the entire country. These sacred kings and their subordinates assumed the right to interact with the gods, and kingship became the unifying focus of the religion. New deities continued to emerge after this transformation. Some important deities such as Isis and Amun are not known to have appeared until the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC). Places and concepts could inspire the creation of a deity to represent them, and deities were sometimes created to serve as opposite-sex counterparts to established gods or goddesses. Kings were said to be divine, although only a few continued to be worshipped long after their deaths. Some non-royal humans were said to have the favor of the gods and were venerated accordingly. This veneration was usually short-lived, but the court architects Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu were regarded as gods centuries after their lifetimes, as were some other officials. Through contact with neighboring civilizations, the Egyptians also adopted foreign deities. Dedun, who is first mentioned in the Old Kingdom, may have come from Nubia, and Baal, Anat, and Astarte, among others, were adopted from Canaanite religion during the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC). In Greek and Roman times, from 332 BC to the early centuries AD, deities from across the Mediterranean world were revered in Egypt, but the native gods remained, and they often absorbed the cults of these newcomers into their own worship.