Aker (also known as Akeru) was one of the earliest Egyptian Gods of the earth and ancient sources indicate that he was worshiped before other known earth gods, such as Geb. He represented the deification of the horizon and, as guardian of the eastern and western horizons of the afterlife, it was Aker who opened the earth’s gate for the king to pass into the Amduat (Underworld).
As the horizon, Aker was seen as symbolic of the borders between each day, and so was originally depicted as a narrow strip of land with heads of lions on either side, facing away from one another, which symbolized borders. Over time, the heads became full figures of lions, one representing “yesterday” and the other being “tomorrow.” One of Aker’s epithets was “He who’s looking forward and behind.” Between the lions would often appear the hieroglyph for horizon, which was the sun’s disc placed between two mountains. In later times, Aker could appear as two merged torsos of sphinxes with human heads.
Since the horizon was where night became day, Aker was the guardian of the entrance and exit to the underworld, opening the gates for Re’s sun barque as it entered and left the underworld at dusk and dawn. The dead had to request Aker, the guardian of the underworld, to open the underworld’s passages so that they might enter. He was believed to absorb and neutralize any poison or venom in the body of the dead so they would be healthy in the afterlife.
His more important duty was to imprison the coils of the celestial serpent Apophis after the Goddess Aset hacked it to pieces. Apophis attacked Re’s sun barque every night as it made its way through the Underworld toward the dawn. The Gods and the justified dead helped Re defeat the serpent. Aker would then provide safe passage for Re’s boat along his back as it traveled from west to east during the hours of the night.
The Egyptians believed that all of nature was imbued with divinity and eclipses and cloudy days were concerning because it was thought the Re was having problems bringing his sun barque back up into the sky. The cause of these problems was always Apophis who was able to regenerate. During the New Kingdom era, the text known as The Book of Overthrowing Apophis was created from earlier oral traditions in which, according to Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch:
The most terrifying deities in the Egyptian pantheon were evoked to combat the chaos serpent and destroy all the aspects of his being, such as his body, his name, his shadow, and his magic. Priests acted out this unending war by drawing pictures or making models of Apophis. These were cursed and then destroyed by stabbing, trampling, and burning.
Because the Egyptians believed the gates of the morning and evening were guarded by Aker, twin statues of lions were often placed at the doors of Egyptian palaces and tombs to guard the households and tombs from evil spirits and other malevolent beings. This practice was continued and adopted by the Greeks and Romans. To this day, people still place twin lions at the entrance to stately homes and buildings. The lions have different meanings depending on where they are located. In front of the New York Public Library there are two famous marble lions, one named Patience and the other named Fortitude. For Buddhists, lion statues are said to bring peace and prosperity, while in Europe, they symbolize power and prestige.
Aker had no temples of his own since he was more connected to the primeval concepts of very old Earth powers, yet Aker’s guardian lions are now seen all over the world.