In Episode 5 I took a deeper look at Dragons, the various types of dragons, the interesting stories and backgrounds of dragons, and ultimately just how embedded dragons are in so many different cultures. The purpose of this deeper look, was to think about how we can take one element of mythology and find many different ways of presenting it or altering it to best suit our game designs. In last weeks article I made reference to an Egyptian god by the name of Ra, let’s go back into a specific culture and examine some of the other gods of the Egyptians and see how that might help us to create interesting stories or characters.
When talking to people about Egyptian history, I always find it interesting that they have heard of the pyramids, but beyond Cleopatra and King Tut they really aren’t familiar with some of the most common Egyptian mythological characters. Let’s take a deeper look into some of those other gods and goddesses, and in particular look at the influence that animals had in Egyptian mythology.
It is widely known that the Egyptians treated cats as gods, just ask any cat owner and they will tell you that. The cat was a sacred animal in Egypt, appearing many times in hieroglyphs, and shown as a human-cat hybrid for the goddess Bastet. Early studies of Egyptian mythology showed her to be a lioness, and later a cat, that was both a fierce hunter and protector, a goddess of warfare, however later studies have deemed her to be a goddess of perfume… perfume needs a god?
Another of the cat gods is Sekhmet, she was the lion headed goddess of retribution, vengeance, and conquest. Her responsibilities included doling out punishment to those that were enemies of Ra (see below). As part of Egyptian beliefs, there was even a Sekhmet cult centre, and when one of the Pharaoh’s moved the capital, he moved the cult center too, believing she would protect him.
The most famous, and probably oldest of the dog based gods is Anubis, the jackal headed god responsible for taking care of funerals. His name came from the ancient Egyptian word for putrefy… Seems appropriate. Anubis’ role was to act as protector and guardian of the dead, with statues and likenesses of this dog based god found in many tombs and pyramids. The choice of a dog or jackal is based on the fact these animals were often seen scavenging near the cemeteries outside of the cities.
Renenet was a goddess with the head of a cobra, she was the goddess of fertility. Different from her was the goddess Meretseger, represented as a cobra with the head of a woman. Seems like the two of them should get together. Meretseger was responsible for punishing criminals, and could blind them with her venom.
Woman’s love and femininity was for some reason represented by a cow, Hathor was one of the most popular of Egyptian goddesses, often depicted as assisting during childbirth. Sometimes she was depicted as a goddess with the head of a cow, while other times she was shown as a giant cow straddling the heavens. Originally Hathor represented the simple elements of joy, but in later times she was known for music, dance, and alcohol, all those things that Footloose taught us would lead to debauchery.
When the people of Egypt saw so many frogs emerging from the Nile, they of course thought of resurrection and fertility. They decided that Heqet, the goddess of childbirth would take the shape of a frog.
The most famous and powerful of all gods was Ra, he was believed to have been the creator of all life. Each separate form of life became, simply because Ra spoke their secret names, except for the humans who were formed from the sweat and tears of this hawk headed god.
One of the great stories of Ra, was the uprising of the people created by his sweat and tears, they plotted a rebellion against him. Ra became so enraged that he sent his goddess Sekhmet (see above) to punish them. She kills many people and became so bloodthirsty that Ra recognized his mistake, but he couldn’t stop her. To quench her thirst for blood, Ra sends an offering of blood to drink. Turns out he had tricked her and served a mix of beer and red dye instead. Sekhmet became so drunk that she passed out and forgot to slaughter the rest of the people. The survivors are so happy to be spared, they track down and attack those that plotted against Ra, sparking the beginning of warfare amongst mankind.
Sobek was a crocodile god worshiped as a god of the stars, at a cult centre in Egypt. These cults used mummification as part of their rituals. Cat, Ibis, baboon and crocodile mummies were sold to the worshipers to use as offerings. An excavation uncovered a Sobek temple, complete with crocodile ponds and a nursery full of eggs, probably snuck from a crocodile nest, because you can’t just walk in there and collect eggs. Just ask Captain Hook.
The goat or ram was also featured as a god, Khnum was a god depicted as a man with a ram head. It is not surprising that there is a ram god, as the goat was one of the first domesticated animals in Egypt. Khnum is considered one of the gods of creation, originally defined as the god of the Nile. Every year the Nile would flood, bringing with it silt and clay, combined with the water, life would spring forth, leading to myths of Khnum’s powers. The mythology was that he would use the clay to create babies on a potter’s wheel and then place them in a mother’s womb.
Along with Ra, one of the common hieroglyphs seen was that of the ibis-headed god Thoth. He was considered to be the god of knowledge, responsible for maintaining the universe. Later mythology showed Thoth would become the mediator of disputes between gods. Often considered battles between order and chaos, any time one god would become seriously injured, Thoth would fix them up to even the playing field. Thoth was known as more than just a referee, he was also credited with creating the Egyptian alphabet, the written language of hieroglyphs. I guess if you create the hieroglyphs, you make sure that your likeness is used in them.
Somehow after watching scarabs push a ball of dung behind them, the Egyptians came up with the idea of a scarab sun god named Khepri. A god that would push the sun across the sky just like that ball of dung. Apparently those same Egyptians also considered Khepri to be a god of new life and creation, because they saw baby scarabs emerge from the dung… Kind of a sh***y myth if you ask me.
The Mythology of Egypt could be considered more of a religion than a mythology, they prayed to their animal hybrid gods, they worshipped them, and they were instrumental in their communications (hieroglyphs) especially when sending their people to the afterlife and ensuring they were taken care of. The common thread that is encountered in their gods was that if you weren’t a previous king you probably had some element of animal as part of your make-up and the meaning and story.
OK, Egyptians had a bunch of gods that were apparently part animal, so what can you learn from all of this? Well apparently when you start to examine a creature, you can think about what it represents and attach a story or mythology to it. Parakeets, small, noisy, they fly… The Parakeet is a protector, taking to the skies and sounding an alarm when danger approaches, known as the god of alarm, they represent freedoms from danger… Yep, I made all that up. So can you. When you think about the characters and stories of your games just look to mother nature and think about what that animal or bug might represent, you might be surprised what you come up with. It worked for the Egyptians!
Tune in next time as we look into other cultures and their Mythologies.
Dave Warfield is the Head of Game Design at VFS