I watched Moses, a 1975 movie starring Burt Lancaster. One scene that stood out to me was when the Pharaoh was praying to the statue of a god who had a man’s body and a bird’s head. The Pharaoh’s son had just died in the final plague, and he wanted this god to raise his son back to life. He told the god that his son came from the god’s flesh, so the god should pity him. The Pharaoh then concludes that this god is merely a statue, not a god, and he asks Moses to bless him (Exodus 12:32), indicating his belief (albeit short-lived) in Moses’ God.
This movie probably got the idea for this scene from The Ten Commandments, in which Pharaoh Raamses (played by Yul Brynner) asks the “dread lord of darkness” to show that he’s more powerful than the God of Moses by raising to life the Pharaoh’s dead son. This dread lord had a bird’s head and a man’s body.
I had questions about Egyptian religion after watching the scene from Moses. First, who was the god with the bird’s head and the man’s body? Second, did the Egyptians believe that the Pharaoh and his son came from the flesh of this god? And third, on a related note, in what sense did the Egyptians believe that the Pharaoh was a god? This question will probably come to me again tomorrow, when I watch the Moses movie that starred Ben Kingsley, for, there, the Pharaoh (played by Frank Loggia) refers to himself as “Great Egypt, God on earth.”
I did some reading in the Anchor Bible Dictionary and on the Internet. The former is considered reliable by scholars, whereas the latter—well, it depends. I found a web site with this comprehensive article, Complete Section on the Ancient Egyptian Religion, but I couldn’t find the academic credentials of the people who wrote the site’s articles on ancient Egypt.
But I’ll tentatively answer my three questions, with the disclaimer that I could be wrong. First of all, the god with the bird’s head and the man’s body was most likely Horus, the god of the sky, who was the protector of the Pharaoh. Horus was considered the son of Osiris (god of the underworld) and Isis at one point, and at another point he was deemed the son of Re, the sun-god, who created the cosmos. Horus continually battles his uncle Set, a chaotic god, to maintain the stability of the world. So Horus appears to be like Baal in Ugaritic religion: he defeats chaos and has a lot of power in terms of the maintenance (and perhaps rulership) of the universe, but he’s not the top deity.
Second, did the Egyptians believe that the Pharaoh and his son came from the flesh of Horus? I’m not sure. What I did find is that they thought that the spirit of Horus entered the Pharaoh at his coronation, and that the Pharaoh after his death was united with Osiris, the god of the Underworld.
Third, the Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh was divine in that he was possessed by Horus, and later they said the Pharaoh was the son of Re (the sun-god, who created the cosmos). Like Horus and Re, who defeated chaos and upheld order, the Pharaoh tried to preserve maat, the order of the world. He did so by sacrificing to the gods, keeping enemies out of Egypt, and doing his own part to weed out corruption from his government. I didn’t read anything about social justice, but I have heard from people that the Pharaoh’s just judgment and protection of the poor was pro-maat.
Writing this is a good start for me in terms of understanding ancient Egypt, even if I should use better sources.
UPDATE: the gods to whom Raamses prays in the 1956 Ten Commandments is Sokar, who at one point was the god of the Underworld. Eventually, he was meshed with Osiris. See Sokar, an Egyptian God of the Underworld.