As is the case with most ancient mythologies, the Egyptians created myths to explain their place in the universe. Their understanding of the cosmic order was gleaned from direct observation of nature, particularly astronomy. Therefore, their creation myths concern themselves with gods of nature, as well as the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the Nile river.
Ancient Egyptian writings record several different and equally vivid metaphors for creation. Each year, the Nile Valley was flooded in late summer, and each year the fields emerged from the floodwaters later in the autumn, coated with black mud left by the floods. This powerfully repeated experience provided the principal motifs for expressing the mystery of creation.
The Nile River was a godsend to the Egyptians, living in an otherwise harsh environment with an ever-encroaching desert. The Nile was associated with the Great River in the Sky, the Milky Way, making this essential body of water a divine parallel. The Nile’s annual — and predictable — floods gave the Egyptians a sense of order to their lives. Once they were able to predict the flooding of the river and the harvest seasons through astronomical observations, the Egyptians could become a great society.
It should come as no surprise to find water the fundamental element in the Egyptians ideas of creation. In the mind of the Egyptians, the beginning must have started with water. This primordial universe was a chaos of churning, bubbling water, which Egyptians called Nu (or Nun). It was out of Nu that everything began.
Not surprisingly, the sun was also among the most important elements in the Egyptians’ lives, and therefore had an important role as a creator god. His names and attributes varied greatly. The principal creator god in Ancient Egyptian religion is the sun god. In the Egyptian language, the word for sun is ra, and this was one name for the sun-god, but he was also regularly called Atum, from the word tm (“complete”). The name Atum seems intended to evoke all matter as concentrated in the creator, before creation emerged. Creation is a process of unfurling, with the undivided All gradually fragmenting into separable entities.
As the rising sun his name was Khepri, the great scarab beetle, or Ra-Harakhte, who was seen as a winged solar-disk, or as the youthful sun of the eastern horizon. As the sun climbed toward midday it was called Ra, great and strong. When the sun set in the west it was known as Atum the old man, or Horus on the horizon. As a solar-disk he was known as Aten. The sun was also said to be an egg laid daily by Geb, the “Great Cackler,” when he took the form of a goose, whose call awakened all the movement of creation.
To the Egyptians the moon was any one of a number of gods. As an attribute of the god Horus, the moon represented his left eye while his right was the sun. Set was a lunar god: In his struggles with the solar god Horus, Set is seen as a god of darkness waging constant battle with the god of light. We often find the ibis-headed god Thoth wearing a lunar crescent on his head.
To the Egyptians the sky was a goddess called Nut. She was often shown as a cow standing over the earth her eyes being the sun and the moon. She is kept from falling to earth by Shu, who was the god of air and wind, or by a circle of high mountains. As this heavenly cow, she gave birth to the sun daily. The sun would ride in the “Solar Barque” across Nut's star-covered belly, which was a great cosmic ocean. Then as evening fell, Nut would swallow the sun creating darkness. She is also pictured as a giant sow, suckling many piglets. These piglets represented the stars, which she swallowed each morning before dawn. Nut was also represented as an elongated woman bending over the earth and touching the horizons with her toes and finger tips. Beneath her stretched the ocean, in the center of which lay her husband Geb, the earth-god. He is often seen leaning on one elbow, with a knee bent toward the sky; this is repre-sentative of the mountains and valleys of the earth. Green vegetation would sprout from Geb's brown or red body.
Atum already exists (at least in potential) within the primeval nothingness before creation. In some religious compositions, it is stated that his first offshoots were also already present. These are (in the terms of human society) his son and daughter — the male has the name Shu, from Sw (“to be dry”), and the female is called Tefnut, from a rare word tfn (“to corrode”; in opposition to Sw; therefore, the moisture). The Coffin Texts also equate Shu with the grammatically masculine Egyptian word for life, Ankh, and Tefnut with the grammatically feminine Egyptian word for “What is Right,” Ma’at.
Tefnut was the lunar goddess of moisture, humidity and water, who was also a solar goddess connected with the sun and dryness (more specifically, the absence of moisture). Her name itself is related to water — tf is the root of the words for “spit” and “moist.” Her name generally translates into “She of Moisture.” Related to moisture, she was also linked to the moon, as were other deities of moisture and wetness. She was originally thought to be the Lunar Eye of Ra and thus linked to the night sky as well as to dew, rain and mist.
Tefnut was often depicted with the solar disk and uraeus, linking her with the sun. She was often shown holding a sceptre and the ankh sign of life. In the cities of On (Heliopolis) and Waset (Thebes), she was more of a female form of her husband-brother Shu, whose main task was to start the sexual, creative cycle and give birth to Shu's children. Her association with moisture also reflects a female’s flow of vaginal fluids, depicting Tefnut’s fertility.
Tefnut was both the Left (moon) and the Right (sun) Eyes of Ra, representing both heavenly sources of light that the ancient Egyptians saw, and thus she was a goddess of both the sun and dryness, and the moon and moisture. As the Eye of Ra she was also linked to Bast, Sekhmet, Hathor, Isis, Wadjet and Nekhbet. This story is very similar to another tale that you will read soon, called The Destruction of Mankind, where Sekhmet slaughters mankind before getting drunk, returning to heaven and turning into the sweet goddess Hathor.
Tefnut was thought to have been the upset
goddess who fled into Nubia, taking all of her water and moisture with
her. Egypt soon dried, and the land was in chaos. While in
Nubia, Tefnut turned herself into a lioness and went on a killing spree
in her anger at her father, from whom she had fled. Hence, Tefnut
was generally shown as a woman with a lion's head, or as a full lioness.
"The History of Creation"
In the beginning, all was darkness. Then the Ogdoad awoke, Nun and Naunet, Hu and Haunet, Ku and Kauket, and Amun and Amaunet. Together they caused a hill to rise out of the first waters. On this hill was an egg, and from this egg, the god Atum, the all-father, was born. The Ogdoad withdrew to watch how the world would unfold.
In the beginning there was only the swirling watery chaos, called Nu. Out of these chaotic waters rose Atum, the sun god of the city of Heliopolis, who created himself, using his thoughts and will. These are the words that Atum spoke after he had come into being:
"I am he who came into being in the form of the god Khepri. Heaven and earth did not exist. And the things of the earth did not yet exist. I raised them out of Nu, from their stagnant state. I have made things out of that which I have already made, and they came from my mouth. The sky had not come into being, the earth did not exist, and the children of the earth, and the creeping, things, had not been made at that time. I myself raised them up from out of Nu, from a state of helpless inertness.
In the watery chaos, I found no place where I could stand, so I created a hill. I worked alone. I worked a charm upon my Own will, I laid the foundation of things by Ma’at (law, order, and stability), and I made everything which had form. I was then one by myself, for I had not emitted yet from myself the god Shu, and I had yet to spit out from myself the goddess Tefnut; and there existed no other who could work with me. I laid the foundations of things in my own heart, and there came into being multitudes of created things, which came into being from the created things, which were born from the created things, which arose from what they brought forth.
I took his phallus in my grasp so that I might create orgasm by means of it. I closed my hand, I embraced my shadow as a wife, I poured seed into my own mouth, and I sent forth from myself issue in the form of the gods Shu and Tefnut. I gave birth to my son by spitting him out. My daughter I vomited. Shu represented the air, and Tefnut was a goddess of moisture. Shu and Tefnut continued the act of creation by establishing a social order. To this order Shu contributed the principles of Life while Tefnut contributed the principles of order. From being one god I became three gods, and I came into being in the earth.
After some time Shu and Tefnut became separated from me and were lost in the watery chaos of Nu. Tefnut left in anger, traveled to the desert, and assumed the form of a raging lioness. The earth dried up and yearned for the return of the waters to the land. I missed her too and wanted her to return.
I had only one eye, the Udjat Eye. I removed the Eye and sent it in search of my children. I sent Thoth and Shu to follow the Udjat and to bring Tefnut back. They found her in Begum, where Thoth began at once to persuade her to return to Egypt. In the end Tefnut (with Shu and Thoth leading her) made a triumphant entry back into Egypt, accompanied by a host of Nubian musicians, dancers and baboons. She went from city to city, bringing back moisture and water (the inundation), amid great rejoicing, until finally she was reunited with her me, and restored to her rightful position as my Eye. Shu and Tefnut rejoiced from out of the inert watery mass. At this reunion I wept tears of joy, and where these tears hit the ground, men grew.
And when my Eye (the Sun) came to me, and found that I had made another Eye (the Moon) in its place, it raged at me until I endowed it with some of the splendor that I had made for the first Eye, and I made it to occupy its place in my Face, and from that moment on it ruled throughout all this earth.
I created creeping things of every kind, and
everything which came into being from them. Shu and Tefnut brought forth
Geb and Nut; and Geb and Nut brought forth Osiris, Horus (the Elder), Set,
Isis, and Nephtbys at one birth, one after the other, and they produced
their multitudinous offspring in this earth."
Other Tales of Creation
Other creation stories circulated throughout Egypt, many expanding and applying the concepts into the local teachings. Some helped to explain the gaps that existed in other versions. The absence of matter before creation, for example, can be expressed as four male and female pairs (the female with the regular ending -et in each case), perhaps male and female to cover both halves of human experience, and four to cover the four cardinal points:
· Nun and Nunet — from the word
nnw (“watery expanse”), the lack of solidity
· Heh and Hehet — from the word hh (“unending time”), infinite; the lack of time
· Kek and Keket — from the word kkw (“darkness”), the lack of light
· Tenem and Tenemet — from the word tnm (“to wander”), lack of direction
Those are the four pairs in the earliest surviving reference to the Eight existing before creation (a funeral ritual excerpt, Coffin Text 76); in later versions Tenem and Tenemet are often replaced by Amun and Amunet, from the word imn (“hidden”), encapsulating the lack of sight.
In Upper Egypt, Thoth, god of knowledge and writing, was the main deity of the city Khemenu (a name meaning “Eight”). As he was equated by the ancient Greeks with their god Hermes (the messenger, Roman Mercury), the city was called Hermopolis (“City of Hermes”) in Greek records. Since the city is called “Eight,” it has been seen as the place where this part of the Ancient Egyptian creation myths was developed. in Egyptological books, the references to the Eight forces existing before creation are often called the Hermopolitan Theology.
Other Manifestations of Creation
The emergence of the creator is given various verbal and visual expression, predominantly associated with the new land emerging from the annual flood:
· a heron (bnw, or bnbn) alights
on the first dry ground, the Egyptian equivalent (and perhaps the origin)
of the classical Greek phoenix
· a lotus flower emerges out of the water (in the New Kingdom, about 1550-1069 BC and later); this motif is assigned to Nefertem, god of scented oils, lotus at the nose of Ra
· the mound itself offers the original sacred ground — temples are said to be sited on the primeval mound of the first time of creation
The various references to the emergence of the sun god from the flood waters, and the following generations down to Osiris, are often called in Egyptolgy the Heliopolitan Theology (Heliopolis being the Greek for “City of the Sun God”). As with the Hermopolitan Theology, this assumes much that we do not know — we do not know when or where these ideas developed, and they do not stand in absolute opposition to the ideas of the Eight forces existing before creation, but contain the continuation of the story beyond creation.
These next two excerpts come from various
coffin texts, decorated with ritual myths to assist the king’s journey
through the afterlife. These stories borrow similar themes as are
found in the above reading, but these texts feature Shu as the predominant
creative force, not Atum. This demonstrates how localized deities
were heightened above others, generating multitudes of variations on the
more established myths of the culture at large.
"Creation Story from Coffin Text 76"
“O, you eight Heh (or Chaos-gods) who are in charge of the chambers of the sky, whom Shu made from the efflux of His limbs. Come and meet your father in Me. Give Me your arms, for I am He who created you and made you, even as I was created by your father Atum.
I am weary of the supports of Shu since I raised up My daughter Nut from upon Me, so that I might give Her to My father Atum in His precinct. I have placed Geb under My feet. I am Shu, whom Atum created, from whom Ra came to be. I was not fashioned in the womb, I was not bound together in the egg, I was not conceived, but My father Atum, spat Me out in together with My sister, Tefnut.
The Bnbn (or phoenix) of Ra was that from
which Atum came to be as Heh, chaos, Nun, the watery abyss, Kek, darkness,
Tenem (or Amun), gloom. I am Shu, father of the gods. Atum
used to send his Sole Eye seeking Me and My sister, Tefnut. I am
the one who begot the Heh gods again, as Heh, Nun, Tenem, Kek. I
am Shu who begot the gods.”
"Creation Story from Coffin Text 80"
“O you eight Chaos-gods, being veritable Chaos-gods, who encircle the sky with your arms, who gather together sky and earth for Geb, Shu fashioned you in chaos, in the Abyss, in darkness and in gloom, and he allots you to Geb and Nut, while Shu is everlasting and Tefnut is eternity. I am Shu whom Atum fashioned, and this garment of mine is the air of life. It is I who make the sky light after darkness. My pleasant color is the air which goes forth after me from the mouth of Atum.
I am Everlasting, who fashioned the Chaos-gods,
reproduced by the spittle of Atum, which issued from his mouth when he
used his hand. It is my son who will live, whom I begot in my name.
He knows how to nourish him who is in the egg in the womb for me, namely
the human beings who came forth from my eye which I sent out while I was
alone with Nun in lassitude, and I could find no place on which to stand
or sit, when Iunu had not yet been founded that I might dwell in it.
Nun said to Atum: ‘Kiss your daughter Ma'at and put her at your nose, that
your heart may live, for she will not be far from you. I am the living
one who knits on heads, who makes necks firm, and who nourishes throats.
I knit Atum together. I make firm the head of Isis on her neck.
I knit together the spine of Khepri for him.”