A Bug’s Life: Khepri & the Many Faces of Ra 

“Khepri in the morning, Ra at midday, and Atum in the evening.” – ancient Egyptian saying

“Khepri clicks his mandibles sympathetically. ‘I would, child, but I am not a god of death. I am here to create you from the ashes of your resurrection. Be who you were destined to be and be reborn before the eyes of the Latins.’” – The God’s Wife 

As I’ve said in the past, this blog sometimes teeters on the edge of being a long series of drawn out dunks on the Egyptian god Khepri, as an avatar of everything emblematic (and in the view of some ancient and modern people, problematic) of the Egyptian religion as a whole. But I thought this week we’d take a closer look at Egypt’s favorite six-legged deity and how this cult-less god may have in fact been the beating heart of the Two Lands.

[Again people, come on, googly eyes…]

To begin with, the god Khepri was a solar deity who was most often depicted as a scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer, the so-called “sacred scarab”), or more delightfully, as a man with said beetle for a head. The Scarabaeus sacer is found throughout the Mediterranean basin, as far northeast as Iran and as far northwest as the Camargue in France, but it seems especially suited to the ecology of North Africa and Egypt in particular. It is equally at home in Egypt’s coastal marshes as it is in the desert, in both of which the female beetle can dig the burrows needed for her eggs. Because while Khepri is a heaven-bound god, the Egyptians connected him with planting and the importance of agriculture to their way of life.

Despite the rise of the great Egyptian cities whose ruins still remain, ancient Egypt was first and foremost a farm-based society that, like the Scarabaeus sacer, was deeply connected to its unique environment, and this is reflected in its pantheon. When this is discussed, people usually think first of Hapy, the androgynous god of the Nile, but ancient people, the Egyptians included, well understood the role of the sun as a giver of life. There’s a reason the worst of the Exodus plagues aside from the final one that killed the Egyptians’ firstborn children was recorded as simply darkness—any crops the pest plagues hadn’t finished off would be decimated by the lack of light. But this might have also been a Hebraic swipe at the power of the sun god(s) that the Egyptians placed at the pinnacle of their cosmogony, by showing Y*hweh’s power over them.

[Scarabaeus sacer]

The supreme solar Ra (Re) was such a large, important god to the Egyptians that he was commonly compounded with other gods to display his many aspects, demonstrating his necessity to the life of his people. Some of these demonstrate his regnal authority over Egypt, like Ra-Horakhty (Ra with his great-great-grandson, Horus) or Amun-Ra (Ra with the Theban creator/pharaonic god Amun), but as the all-powerful, ever-renewed god, his most potent aspects connected him to different phases of the sun itself. In the modern world, we rarely think of the sun as a body with phases, unlike, say, the moon. But the Egyptians, recognizing the importance of the sun to life, wanted extra protections to guide the sun from dawn to sunset and beyond to ensure the safety of the god, as well as themselves. So, let’s follow Ra through a typical day to better understand how all of these aspects worked together to guard the light of the world and its people, beginning with our googly-eyed protagonist himself.

[Khepri in beetle form holding up the sun, supported by Khnum (left) and his own anthropomorphized form (right). Notice they are being hailed by Thoth (the baboon on the left), who stands with the heron god Benu, who represents rebirth) (Tomb KV6, Valley of the Kings)]

Khepri (Middle Egypt: ḫprj, from the word ḫpr—“to come into being”) was the Lord of Daybreak, the morning-rising sun. He took the form of the humble scarab beetle for this mighty task because the Scarabaeus sacer is at its heart, a dung beetle, and as a result its physiognomy and natural instincts are perfect for the labor of moving the sun from the horizon to the sky. Scarabs roll dirt and fine-textured dung into spheres that they lay their eggs in and then bury those balls in underground chambers, where the eggs hatch and use the nutrients in the dung to eat until they are old enough to emerge as semi-adults. Like many insects studied by the ancients, the Egyptians thought that scarabs were hatched from their dung balls parthenogenetically by male beetles, which would also inform their cosmogony, as we’ll see later. Now, this sounds rather gross for the birth of the sun, but it aligned with the natural world of the Egyptians. The sun appeared to emerge as life from the ground of the horizon every morning, and observing scarabs rolling their balls looked very much like the sun moving across the sky. Additionally, like many beetle species, Scarabaeus sacers also have wings beneath their shells that allow them to fly from under the ground into the air, just like the sun ascending. The head of Scarabaeus sacer is even crowned by an arc of points that looked very much like the rays of the sun—in fact, these protrusions are still called “rays” by scientists.

[Scarabs use their back legs to roll their balls, rather than the forelegs Khepri is shown moving the sun with, but this is semantics.]

But because he was the sun at dawn, Khepri was always seen as a young god, born anew every morning. This resurrectionist aspect of the god is part of the reason you still can’t walk half a foot in Egypt without turning up a scarab amulet. Khepri didn’t have an official cult or temples, but that was in part because he was such a huge part of Egyptian folk belief and practical religion. Scarab amulets worn in life and placed with the body in death spoke to the fundamentals of Egyptian spirituality and hopes for the afterlife. Before Osiris arrived on the scene, Khepri was the reborn god par excellence, and unlike the Lord of the West, Khepri rose every morning out of the Duat to live again. He did what all of the spells of the Book of Coming Forth were trying to achieve: the ability to leave the underworld at will and return when one wished.

[A winged scarab amulet (ca. 712-342 BC)]

Khepri remained the sun’s protective deity until midday, when he transformed into the god Ra (Middle Egyptian: rˤ(w), literally the word for “sun”) proper. We think of Ra as the sun god, but in fact, “Ra” is the solar god specifically at the zenith of the sun’s arc. But this also makes sense as Ra is the sun god at the height of his powers, as the largest and most powerful celestial object in the sky at this time of day. Rather than the still mostly terrestrially-tethered Khepri, Ra’s sacred animal is the far-flying falcon. There are several falcon species indigenous to Egypt, but it is generally believed Ra is meant to be either a Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) or a Lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus), or possibly a hybrid of the two. Because of their naturally aggressive and striking hunting style, peregrines have long been both one of the preferred raptors used in the aristocratically-associated sport of falconry and as a symbol of military prowess. This is in part why the two gods arguably most connected to the sovereignty of the pharaohs, Ra and Horus, are shown as falcons. Yes, it makes sense for sky gods to be able to fly, but there’s a reason to have them be the swift and regal falcon, rather than say, a pigeon. Though we’ll ignore how long I had to sit here and think of a bird that I couldn’t immediately name as an avatar of an Egyptian deity—and technically Inanna-Ishtar is part of the Egyptian pantheon too and loves her doves… As for lanners, it’s probably from them that Ra gets his beautiful, colorful plumage—lanners have brighter feathers, especially around their faces than peregrines.

[Peregrine falcon]
[Lanner falcon]
[Fresco of Ra from the tomb of Nefertari (13th century BC)]

As the sun continued along its downward arc, it became the purview of Atum (Middle Egyptian: tm(w), from the word tm—“to complete/finish”), the keeper of sunset and the one who brought the sun back to the horizon. The primordialest of primordial gods according to the Heliopolitan mythic tradition, Atum was supposedly the very first god, an anthropomorphic creator from whom all the other gods sprung. Though as I’ve alluded to in the past, the birth of the Egyptian cosmos is temporally chaotic, and there are a lot of candidates for “first god.” For example, some texts hold that Atum rose out of the primordial blue lotus represented by the god Nefertem, who in turn came out of the primordial waters, represented by the goddess Nu (nen—“inactivity”). Also depending on your source, Atum brought the rest of the gods and the world into existence by either having sex with his shadow or merely through masturbation—the latter giving rise to the tradition that Atum’s hand represents the essential female creative force within him, since it received the life-giving semen that created the god Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). In some texts, Atum’s hand even bares the typical title of a divine consort, that of hemet-netjer (“god’s wife”).

[Look, I never promised any of you that it was a difficult title to get…]

But it’s this solo performance that ties Atum back to Khepri and the scarab beetles, who supposedly reproduced solely from males on their own. However, you may be wondering why a creator god would have a name that implies endings rather than beginnings. And that’s because Atum occupies a liminal divine space very similar to the Hindu god Shiva in perhaps his most famous form, as Naṭarāja, the Cosmic Dancer. Shiva’s dancing contains the entire balance of the universe, but its two major dichotomies are the Lāsya, the gentle part of the dance—representing the feminine, creative energy of Shiva’s consort Parvati, and the Tāṇḍavam, the masculine, destructive energy of Shiva’s own power. But as the flaming circle around the typical Nataraja statue implies, neither of these states are meant to be positive or negative. Shiva’s destruction can also signal the death of old ideas and assumptions, and Atum’s energy is a similar tread of birth, death, and rebirth, emblemized by the changing yet unchanging nature of the solar cycle. Atum is the creator of all things, but the Egyptians believed he was also to be the great Finisher, who would potentially return all of creation back into the universal Nu at the end of the cycle. His cosmic energy births Khepri as much as any of the other gods, but he is also the one to carry the sun into the darkness from whence it came.

[A Nataraja bronze from the Chola Period (c. 850-1250s CE), Tamil Nadu]
[Relief of Atum from Deir el-Bahari]

The sun has set and the world is in the darkness that existed before all the gods, but the Egyptian sun doesn’t die or sleep during the long hours of the night. The sun was thought to travel on two barques as its various gods guided it on its way: Mandjet (mʕndjt), the Day-barque/bark, and Mesektet (msktt), the Night-barque/bark. Once Atum placed the sun within Mesektet, it became the possession of another creator god, the ram-headed Khnum (Middle Egyptian: ḫnmw, from the word ḫnm—“to make sweet-smelling”, or possibly from an Afroasiatic word *xanam, from where the Arabic ḡanam (غَنِمَ)—“sheep and goats, as plunder” might descend).

While Atum is seen as the creator of the gods, Khnum is more often associated with the creation of people. He was often saluted as the “Divine Potter,” for it was believed he formed human beings out of the life-giving silt of the Nile flood and molded them on a potter’s wheel. Having thus made people out of the same muck scarab beetles placed their eggs in, Khnum placed the clay children within their mothers’ wombs. In some texts, Khnum is depicted as an ancient king, whose body is made of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, much in the same way that the Greeks connected the god Hades and the underworld to the mineral wealth that could be taken out of the earth. And it’s this connection to earth and minerals that links Khnum in turn to the Duat and the sun’s descent into the ground (as far as the Egyptians could tell). This version of Khnum in the underworld, blended with Ra, is sometimes called Af or Afu, and he carries the sun in his horns as the Mesektet sails west to east through the Duat.

[Khnum as Afu on Mesektet]

But as my readers know, the Duat can be a dangerous place and even Khnum isn’t powerful enough on his own to guard the precious light of the sun from all those in the underworld that wish it ill. Khnum is usually accompanied in the Mesektet by Sia (god of perception), Hu (god of command), and Heka (god of magic), and the god Set—deities meant to protect the sun from the various demons born out of isfet (primordial chaos), especially Apep (*ʻAʼpāp(ī)). Apep, sometimes written as the Greek Apophis, was a giant snake demon who embodied this pre-creation state of anarchy and nothingness who, as the enemy of all life, wished to return the universe to its original lifeless condition. Apep stages a nightly attack on the Mesektet, with the intent of swallowing the sun and snuffing out its light permanently.

The gods defend the sun through a combination of magic rituals (rw) and brute strength, which, as the god who perhaps best embodies these attributes, is why Set is there. Set is one of the strongest of all the Egyptian gods (he wouldn’t cause so much trouble for everyone else if that wasn’t the case), and much of that power comes through his ability to fight with magic as well as weapons. That’s why one of his epithets is Ur-Heku“He Who is Great in Heka.” But the use of Set to defeat Apep is also a little bit of a “fight fire with fire” situation for the solar deities, for Set, like Apep, is connected to chaos. Set is usually labeled as “the god of chaos and disorder,” but the nuance the Egyptians might be trying to delineate is that Apep is chaos, while Set is the god with power over chaos. And this makes sense, because it is Set who ultimately kills Apep every night (he’s usually shown spearing the snake), which would make him the master of the defeated chaotic forces Apep represents. 

[Apep, shown here being beaten back by Atum]

As Set delivers the coup de grâce to Apep, Khnum has piloted the Mesektet from the western horizon to the eastern, and as the light of the sun has survived another voyage beneath the ground, it is ready to reborn within the fertile clay of the ram god’s workshop. In the last moments of the night, the rich Nile-fed soil of Egypt stirs, and like any Scarabaeus sacer munching its way out of its protective casing, Khepri re-emerges from the Duat holding the burning orb of the sun aloft, ready to lift it into the sky at dawn once more. The average person might have trouble finding dung beetles poetic, but here we are 🪲

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