Discover the Ancient Secrets of the Egyptians
The mythology of ancient Egypt is a vast and fascinating thing to study. With up to seven-hundred gods and goddesses (and combinations thereof,) the mythology of the ancient Egyptians was complex and, like all religions thus far, would undergo changes in theory and practice over time.
There’s something so compelling about the ancient Egyptians that their culture and beliefs are still popular today. Although most of the country no longer practices the religion of the ancients, figures such as Isis, Osiris, Horus and Set (to name a very few) still pop up in movies, music, art and philosophical discussion.
The mythology of the ancient Egyptians is now worldwide, and is without doubt, one of the most enduring and fascinating sets of mythos that the world has ever seen.
One of the most intriguing things about the Egyptian mythology is that there are actually a number of parallels between it and later mythologies, such as that of the Greeks, the Romans; even modern day Judaism, Christianity and Islam have many similarities with these ancient myths.
But there is that which sets the mythology of the ancient Egyptians apart. Somehow it’s regal and elegant. Like many other mythologies, there are tales of good and evil, sex and violence, creation and destruction, love and loss. The phenomena of nature, humans, animals, emotions, life, love and death are contained within the vast and often inscrutable sources from which we have come to glean the meaning behind the glyphs and learn more about one of, if not the most, important cultures and mythologies the world has seen.
It’s important to note that many of the Egyptian myths that we are aware of only began to be recorded during the old kingdom (approx. 2686-2181 B.C.) through use of what we now call The Pyramid Texts. These were prayers, myths and incantations carved into the walls of the burial chambers of ancient Egypt’s most important figures to ensure their safe passage to the afterlife.
The origins of Egyptian mythology are lost to antiquity; however, what we do know is more than enough to keep one busy studying for a lifetime. The pharaohs would come to be regarded as gods upon the earth, incontestable gateways between all of mankind and the realm of the gods; however, little mention of the pharaohs themselves will be made in this particular text. Here, we are primarily concerned with that which is outside the realm of governance; at least as far as it doesn’t concern the religion of the ancient Egyptians.
In Egyptian mythology, we have the idea of the soul, of justice, balance, both on earth in life and after death in an afterlife… for a very short period, we even see a transition from paganism (belief in multiple gods) to monotheism (belief in one god,) although this change would not last.
The principles and morals of the ancient Egyptians are brought to life through their mythology. One of the easiest ways of understanding a people is to familiarize one’s self with their beliefs, whether religious or secular, and I am very excited to take this journey with you into a realm of better understanding one of the most enigmatic societies that the world has ever known.
There are many creation myths in the ancient Egyptian religion, and some were favored more than others by different cities within the upper and lower kingdoms. Just as Egyptians had many cults proclaiming one god to be of primary importance, or simply as patron to a particular group, these myths vary depending on locale and time period. Therefore, as a general rule—both in regard to the creation myths and the other myths contained within this book—one of the more popular versions of the myth will be written here, although I will make an effort, where possible and pertinent, to show some of where the myths differ.
For most parts of this chapter, the Heliopolitan (that is to say, originating in the city of Heliopolis) tradition will be used, as it was, at one point, the center of religious worship and spiritual illuminism for a time. In this tradition, we have the Ennead, or the nine original gods from whom all else was brought into existence. This will, however, be contrasted with the tradition of Hermopolis (City of Hermes, obviously a name later given to the city by the Greeks,) to give an account of the Ogdoad, or a set of eight original gods and the birth of Re (often Ra,) the sun-god.
In the beginning, according to Egyptian mythology, the universe was without form and void; all that existed was the chaotic, primordial waters of Nu (the abyss; alternately Nun.) From this abyss sprang forth Atum (or Tum, Tem, Re-Atum, Atum-Ra, etc.) Different traditions have the first god to spring forth from Nu to be different forms of the god Re, as Atum is particularly associated with the sun, or Re, at sunset, thus he is a god of completion. In the case of the previous philosophy, being the god of completion could reference the completion of the first formative god. Other Egyptian traditions also have Ptah, Amun or the entire Ogdoad as the original creators.
This relates to the later ideas of the ancient Greek religion, also Judaism, Christianity and Islam in that, though naught else existed, the world was formed over the course of days from a watery abyss. This is, of course, merely an extension and not verbatim the Egyptian myth, as the Egyptian creation story has Re, the sun, being the creator itself.
This god came into existence through formulation of thought and strength of his/her will. The reason why both feminine and masculine pronouns are covered here is that, like many ancient and modern gods, Atum was hermaphroditic (that is, both male and female, thus able to create without unifying with another.) In other traditions, Atum was neither male nor female, although this may simply be a reference to his hermaphroditism. Regardless, in Atum was every element and particle necessary for all of creation to exist.
Traditions differ on when the next part happened in the sequence of things, but there is consensus that Atum called forth a pyramidal island called Benben. Thus, he had a place to steady himself, and some traditions have Benben eventually becoming the home of Atum.
Atum is notable, not only for being the progenitor of all of the gods after himself and Nu, but for his single, all-seeing eye. This eye will become of particular importance shortly.
Things really started to get going when Atum spat. This normally rude gesture produced two children: Shu (God of the Air) and Tefnut (Goddess of mist or moisture.) As with many mythologies, the gods of the ancient Egyptians, specifically the primordial ones (primordial meaning something which has existed since the beginning of time,) represent specific elements, forces or parts of nature. Thus Shu=Air and Tefnut=moisture, the basic components of the act of spitting, and also translatable into elements within the daily lives of the people.
At this point, however, the Earth itself had not been created. This didn’t happen until Shu and Tefnut, through sexual union, parented Nut (Goddess of the Sky) and Geb (God of the Earth.)
After the birth of Nut and Geb, Shu and Tefnut decided to go for a leisurely stroll through the universe. This stroll was, in fact, so leisurely that their father, Atum became worried and sent his eye to search for them. It took quite the journey, but eventually came across the two wanderers who retrieved it and brought it back to their father. Upon witnessing their return (and, assumedly having his eye returned,) Atum wept. His tears would fall to the surface of the earth, and from these tears were formed human beings.
Things would get a little complicated when Nut and Geb came together and Nut was impregnated. Shu, somehow upset by the union of these siblings, his children, but completely fine with his relationship with Tefnut, his own sister, decided to separate the two by physically coming between them.In some traditions, Shu also prevented Nut from giving birth. Nut, understandably distressed by this development went to Tahuti (also called Thoth) and begged his aid. This led to a gambling match between Shu and Tahuti which the latter would win, thus allowing Nut to give birth. Who accepts a challenge from the god of wisdom (Tahuti) and thinks that they can win, anyway?
Nut (pronounced like newt or, in some traditions, Nuit, pronounced like “new eat”) would, however, give birth to Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. With that, the Ennead (the first nine gods) would be complete.
For a quick contrast in the interest of a broader perspective, in the Hermopolitan (originating from Hermopolis) creation story, things started with a group of eight gods called the Ogdoad. These gods were often broken up into either two sets of four or four sets of two. The reason for this being: Two sets of four = the male and female gods grouped together; four sets of two = the god and goddess representing each of the four primordial functions were grouped together (i.e. Nu and Naunet, etc.)
The gods were: Nu (male) and Naunet (female), representing the primordial waters; Kuk (male) and Kauket (female), representing the darkness of the waters; Huh (male) and Hauhet (female), representing the limitless expanse of the waters; and Amun (male) and Amaunet (female), representing the occult (meaning hidden) nature of the waters.
In this tradition, these gods all issued forth from the primordial waters themselves, and were depicted as creatures of the sea; specifically, the males were frogs and the females were snakes. This is the reason for the division of the eight into two sets of four. It was when these original gods came together that the mound Benben came out of the water, and another god shot into the sky. The god was Re. With that, there was light.
Regardless of which Egyptian creation myth you go with (and there are plenty of others from which to choose,) the most consistent similarities seem to be the origin of everything within the original and primordial chaotic waters, and the coming forth of Benben, the mound of earth which sprang from these waters.
At the time of creation, all was still in chaos, however. Though the world had been formed, and the sky and most of the rest of existence, including that of humans, there was no order, no law or justice. From this need, Ma’at (or Maat, Mayet, Maae’t, etc.) was created. Ma’at was formed to bring the principles of honor, law and order to the still young universe, and it is according to this law that humans were expected to act, not only within the myth itself, but in daily life. Ma’at would also go on to play a very important role within the Egyptian conception of death and the passage to the afterlife, but we’ll get into that a little bit later on. Ma’at’s symbol is that of the feather, specifically that of an ostrich.
Ma’at was the daughter of Atum (or Re, depending on which personification of the sun-god is used in the particular creation myth.) Not only would Ma’at bring the world and, indeed the universe itself, out of the realm of chaos, through her influence, it would not be able to return into chaos. The exact time within the creation myth of Ma’at’s creation is debatable. Some myths have Ma’at being born at the beginning of the universe and thus, the universe was able to be brought from pure chaos; in others, she was born shortly thereafter. Regardless, she is not considered to be the original progenitor of the universe, rather a function of it.
Though many of the gods of Ancient Egypt were favored, disfavored, some even ignored or not believed in, Ma’at was a constant throughout the cities of Egypt for her importance as a living principle to the people throughout the kingdom.