Ra was the great solar god of Heliopolis, city of the sun. The word 'ra' probably meant 'creator', and it was first applied to the sun. Only later did it become the name of the god.
Ra had many forms and many names. Perhaps the most important of these was Ra-Harrakte, who was shown in Egyptian art as a falcon-headed god wearing the solar disc and the uraeus, a rearing cobra with inflated hood worn on the brow of a ruler. Harrakte was a particular manifestation of Horus, that of 'Horus of the horizon'. the birthplace of the sun. It was in the guise of Ra-Harrakte that the sun god was worshipped at Heliopolis.
Heliopolis was Ra's main cult centre. It was here, his priests declared, that he had first become manifest. Visitors were shown the precise spot where he entered into existence and it was here that the primal hill had stood, having risen from the chaos of Nun. The position of the hill was commemorated by the erection of a huge obelisk. In time the obelisk, known as the Benben Stone, also symbolized the lifegiving rays of the sun, and became an object of worship in its own right. According to Heliopolian myth Ra was originally named Atum. At first he lay silent within Nun, wrapped in the bud of a lotus. With his eyes and mouth firmly closed he held his bright flame of solar light safe from the crushing power of chaos. Eventually tiring of his inactivity, he climbed from the darkness and revealed himself in all his burning glory, and he was no longer Atum: he had become Ra. Then he formed the first pair of gods, Shu and his sister Tefnut. They gave birth to the twin gods Ceb and Nut, who were in turn the parents of Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. Ra and the eight gods formed the Ogdoad and were worshipped together at Heliopolis.
Although Ra fathered the gods Shu and Tefnut, he did not himself have a partner until much later when he was given a wife, Rat, whose name was a feminine form of Ra. Rat also had other names such as Iusas, Eusos and Uert Hekeu, meaning 'great of magic'.
Following the Heliopolian Ogdoad came the other gods and later mankind, all born from the sweat and tears of Ra.
The universe Ra created for his children to live in was far different from the present world. It was known as the 'First Time' and was an age when the gods and men walked side by side upon the earth. Ra himself was the first king of the earth, ruling from Heliopolis with Ma'at his daughter, the personification of truth and iustice, by his side. Each day it was said Ra would rise after his morning meal and board his sacred boat. With his scribe he would travel over the 12 divisions of his kingdom, spending one twelfth of the daylight hours in each of them.
After a time Ra became weary of his life on earth and longed to leave the responsibility to another. So Nut assumed the form of a cow and, mounting her back, he was raised up into the heavens. With the sun god's departure, Thoth the moon god took his place and ruled over the earth. From that time onwards each morning Ra would appear in the east above Manu, fhe mountains of the sunrise: and traverse the sky in the Manjet boat,fhe barque of millions of years: The crew of the Maniet boat was made up of the gods of creation, wisdom and magic. Horus stood at the helm, whilst Thoth was positioned at the bow, destroying Ra's enemies as they progressed. Ra wore the double crown of the united Egypt with the uraeus, spitting flames before him.
Deep in the waters of Nun there lived the greatest of Ra's enemies, Apep or Apophis, a gigantic serpent. As the golden barque sailed overhead the serpent would rise up, attempting to destroy the god, only to be cast down again into the abyss, defeated by power of the gods. The battle between the gods and Apep was unceasing. During a solar eclipse, however, the Egyptians believed that the barque had been consumed. Storms that obscured the sun also provided evidence that Apep had been successful, if only temporarily. According to other myths Ra was born with each dawn and was destined to die at sunset. His age increased through the day. In the morning he was a child, at noon he attained the full strength of manhood, but as the afternoon passed into evening he would age and eventually die with the approach of darkness.
Through the night Ra assumed a ram's head and took the name Auf, meaning 'flesh' or 'corps' and travelled upon the Meseket or the 'Night Barque'. During the 12 hours of darkness Upuqut the opener of roads stood at the prow. Other myths tell that the stars made up the crews of the sacred barques. 'Those who can never set', i.e. the stars which although present in the daytime sky cannot be observed due to the sun's brightness, manned the day barque, while 'those who can never become weary', that is the stars which are observed for only a short period each night, are said to have - gone one by one to the west to crew the night barque.
Through the 12 hours of darkness Ra again visited his 12 provinces but now each was peopled by terrifying snakes and monstrous demons, each threatening to ensnare the boat and arrest its progress. Ra was recognized throughout the whole of Egypt as the creator of the universe and all the gods became identified with him. In the Old Kingdom the pharaohs claimed to be the sons of Ra and wore the eye and the uraeus as symbols of divine authority.