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The Real 'Gods of Egypt': Photos

A new fantasy adventure film mines the history and iconography of Egyptian mythology.

The fantasy adventure film "Gods of Egypt," opening this week, is a visually bold popcorn movie that takes its inspiration from ancient Egyptian mythology. The film has the essentially goofy spirit of b-movie swords-and-sandals epics -- think 1980s "Clash of the Titans" -- and features the usual procession of action movie fight scenes and downmarket creature-feature special effects. "Gods of Egypt" has already received some criticism for featuring a mostly white cast in a story set in Africa. Similar criticisms were aimed at last year's biblical epic "Exodus: Gods and Kings," and in fact the issue of Hollywood "whitewashing" goes back for several decades. While it's true that the skin tones on display are entirely unlikely, the film's story and characters and are indeed informed by established myths and iconography of ancient Egypt. Here we take a look at heroes and villains from the new film, and the historical deities of ancient Egypt. (Warning: Mild spoilers ahead....)

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The story line of "Gods of Egypt" centers around an unlikely alliance between the downtrodden mortal teen Bek (Brenton Thwaites) and the injured Egyptian god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Director Alex Proyas employs a unique visual strategy to distinguish between mortal and immortal characters. Using digital effects and forced perspective, the gods in the film appear to stand nine or ten feet tall, and grow even more massive when they transform into winged "battle beast" form. The visual effect underlines the movie's premise, inspired by Egyptian mythology, that gods once walked the Earth same as men -- but were bigger, stronger and better in every way. Ancient Egyptians saw time as essentially cyclical, and that everyday life was meant to honor and maintain the stories of the gods.

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The opening scenes of the film depict the murder of the god Osiris (Bryan Brown) by his brother Set (Gerard Butler). The story is based on what is often referred to as the Osiris Myth, considered to be among the most important stories in all of Egyptian mythology. Historians have traced the Osiris Myth as far back as the 24th century B.C. Egyptian mythology is often contradictory, but the figure of Osiris is relatively consistent. He was the benevolent god-king given providence over the land of Egypt by his parents, the primordial earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Legend holds that Osiris' brother Set, jealous of his sibling's power, tricked and murdered Osiris, drowning him in the river Nile.

Image: A bronze-and-gold statue of the Egyptian god Osiris from the Late Period of ancient Egypt, 664-332 B.C.

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In the film's story line, Set assumes kingship of Egypt and ushers in an era of chaos and darkness. This concept follows classic mythology in its broad strokes: Whereas Osiris represented the forces of order and civilization, Set was the god of storms and war. Set was also associated with Egypt's harsh and arid desert lands. But the god had his heroic side, too. He is often depicted fighting by the side of the sun god Ra against the chaos serpent Apep. In Egyptian artwork, Set is sometimes painted or sculpted in a chimerical manifestation known as the Set Animal. In this form, Set has the head of a dog or jackal, with a long and sometimes forked tail. The earliest known representation of Set was found a tomb later dated to around 4,000 B.C.

Image: An illustration of the god Set spearing the chaos serpent Apep, from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

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In "Gods of Egypt," our immortal hero Horus is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, familiar to "Game of Thrones" fans as antihero Jaime Lannister. In the film, Horus is the son of Osiris and rightful heir to the throne of Egypt, but is defeated, blinded and exiled by the villainous Set. With the help of the mortal Bek, Horus returns to challenge Set for kingship of Egypt. Again, the story follows the general outline of legend. Horus appears in many different incarnations throughout Egyptian mythology, but his role here is based on the Horus from the Orisis Myth. There are some key differences: In the most common versions of the legend, Horus is conceived posthumously, long after the murder of Osiris, when his mother Isis reassembles the dismembered corpse of the king. In Egyptian iconography, Horus is usually depicted as a man with the head of a falcon. The Eye of Horus is a famous Egyptian symbol of protection.

Image: The Eye of Horus is an ancient Egyptian symbol signifying health and protection.

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As played in the film by French actress Élodie Yung, Hathor is the consort of Osiris, and later Set, and appears to be the mother of Horus. The actual relationships between the gods is ambiguous, actually, and that mirrors legend as well. Eygptian mythology is far from monolithic, and details on specific deities often vary between regions, eras and dedicated cults. For instance, Isis is usually identified as the mother of Horus, but it some writings Hathor takes her place. The goddess of fertility and love, Hathor was among the most popular deities with the common people in ancient Egypt. She was the goddess that women prayed to during childbirth. Hathor is associated with the goddess Aphrodite in Greek mythology, and Venus in Roman mythology. In paintings, sculptures and other Egyptian iconography, Hathor is identified with the cow and often depicted with cow-like ears or other attributes. Both men and women could be priests of Hathor.

A sculpture of the Egyptian goddess Hathor in her manifestation as cow goddess, from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

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The Egyptian god Thoth -- played in the film by Chadwick Boseman -- ruled over the spheres of knowledge, science, philosophy and magic. He was also associated with law and mediation. When conflicts broke out among other deities in the pantheon, Thoth was responsible for maintaining cosmic balance between order and chaos. In later eras of Egyptian mythology, Thoth is credited with the invention of writing and the development of alphabets and hieroglyphs. In art, Thoth is often depicted with the head of an ibis or sometimes a baboon. His association with occult knowledge and wisdom is represented by his symbol, the crescent moon.

Image: The pharaoh Ramses III consults with Thoth in a tomb painting from the 12th century B.C.

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The most visually ambitious sequences in "Gods of Egypt" feature the sun god Ra, played by Geoffrey Rush, as he pilots his "solar barge" across the cosmos. Ra was the principal solar deity in Egyptian mythology, responsible for driving the sun from horizon to horizon each day. In the movie, Ra is shown as an ancestor figure to younger gods such as Horus and Set In the earlier eras of ancient Egypt, Ra was seen the primary creator god. Indeed, mankind itself was borne from Ra's tears. In later eras, the figure of Ra is merged with other deities as various regional cults combined. As such, Ra has a variety of forms and manifestations. His animal forms included the beetle, the serpent, the heron and the ram. As sun god, he is almost always depicted with a solar disk over his head.

Image: Ra and the goddess Imentet in an illustration from the tomb of Nefertari, circa 13th century B.C.

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