Myths: Creation Stories
Myths: Creation Stories
Scarcity . Myths are stories that have a beginning, middle, and end, and which describe the activities of superhuman beings. Prior to the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.), myths are scarce in Egyptian texts, but allusions to them are plentiful. The reasons for this situation are uncertain, but it is probably related to the types of text that have survived. Allusions to the activities of the gods are found in
texts whose purpose is to provide for the successful transition of the dead into the afterlife or texts that accompany ritual activities. For these purposes, references to the doings of the gods are sufficient. Prior to the New Kingdom, Egyptian myths may have been transmitted orally.
Continuous Creation . While mythic narratives do not appear in the Egyptian records until the New Kingdom, the frequent allusions to the activities of the gods found in the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts allow scholars to reconstruct a fairly comprehensive and consistent view of the earliest Egyptian stories about the gods. One of the most important categories of myth for the Egyptians was that of creation stories. The Egyptians believed that for existence to continue, it had to be continually re-created at each dawn, at each full moon, or at each New Year. One part of the process of this re-creation was to recall the first time of creation. Characteristic of the Egyptians, they did not have only one creation account, but the creation of the universe was ascribed to several gods, and even a goddess. These creation accounts are named after the location where the creator-god or goddess had a major temple.
Atum . The earliest of all creation accounts is that associated with the god Atum at Heliopolis (lunu in Egyptian or On in the Bible), and called by scholars the Heliopolitan Cosmogony (a cosmogony is a story of how the world came to be). In this version of creation the universe is originally an infinite, dark, watery expanse called Nun, or Nuu. Within this watery expanse, the god Atum essentially created himself and looked about for a place to stand. One tradition states that Atum stood on Mehet-weret, a goddess in the form of a cow representing a solid emerging from the waters. According to another tradition Atum stood on the primeval hill (located at Heliopolis), an image deriving from the emergence of land after the annual Nile flood recedes. After finding a place to stand, Atum masturbates with his hand (personified as the goddess Iusaas, “she who comes and grows”), and from his semen are produced the first god and goddess, Shu (male) and Tefnut (female). The name Shu means void, or emptiness. The meaning of Tefnut is uncertain; one tradition may associate her with moisture.
Birth of Mankind . After being emitted by Atum, Shu and Tefnut become separated from him in the dark expanse of Nun. Atum, finding himself alone again, sends out his eye to find his missing children. While his eye is away, Atum creates another eye to take its place. When the first eye returns with Shu and Tefnut, it becomes angry at being replaced. Atum then puts the eye on his forehead, where it becomes the protective, fire-spitting uraeus snake found on the headdress of the Egyptian kings and gods. A late tradition connects this event with the creation of mankind. When the eye returned with Shu and Tefnut, Atum became so happy he wept, and from his remut (tears) mankind (remecb) came into being.
Father Earth . Shu and Tefnut mate and give birth to the god Geb and the goddess Nut. Geb represents dry land, while his sister-wife Nut is the sky. Originally, Geb and Nut are locked in an embrace, and Geb impregnates Nut. A significant event in the creative process occurs when Shu separates Geb from Nut, thereby creating a space in which
life can take place, a bubble in the expanse of Nun. This act is represented as Shu standing on a prone Geb while lifting the arching body of Nut high overhead. Shu represents the air and light separating the earth from the sky. A late text explains why Shu separated Geb and Nut; apparently they were quarreling because Nut kept swallowing her own children (that is, every morning the stars disappeared). Shu stepped in to stop the quarreling. One important aspect of this myth is the gender of the earth and sky. In most societies the earth was thought of as female (mother earth) and the sky as male. In Egypt this imagery is reversed. This situation is probably owing to the fact that in Egypt, the fertility of the land did not depend on rainfall (seen as the semen of the sky god), which was scarce in Egypt but rather on the rising floodwaters of the Nile. Since the earth was considered to be the source of these waters, it would follow that the earth was male.
Apophis . Another important aspect to this myth is the precariousness of the continued existence of the world. All life as the Egyptians knew it took place within the bubble created by the bodies of Geb and Nut separated by Shu. This bubble existed within the vast realm of chaos, Nun. At any point, the sky could come crashing down on the earth, obliterating all life and returning everything to Nun. Magical spells threatened to cause this development to come about if the practitioner did not gain what he desired. Rituals were carried out in Egyptian temples in order to prevent this watery chaos, represented by the serpent Apophis, from overcoming Re, the sun god. In one passage in the Book of the Dead, Atum, in dialogue with Osiris, says that one day “this land will return to Nun, to the flood, like it was before.”
Heliopolitan Ennead . Geb and Nut eventually give birth to two gods, Osiris and Seth, and two goddesses, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris and Isis give birth to the god Horus. The birth of these gods completes the Heliopolitan ennead, Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Horus, the tenth member of the ennead, is a later addition.
Hermopolis . A different version of the creation story is associated with the town of Hermopolis (Ashmounein) in Middle Egypt. This account centers around the Hermopolitan ogdoad, or group of eight gods. These deities were grouped in pairs of male-female gods: Nun and Naunet (primeval water and formlessness), Heh and Hehet (spaciousness), and Kek and Keket (darkness). These three pairs of gods are constant; the identity of the fourth pair varies. At times it is Tenem and Tenemet (confusion and gloom). It can also be Gereh and Gerehet (completion) or Niu and Niut (void). Eventually, the god Amun and his female counterpart Amaunet, representing hiddenness, become the customary fourth pair in the ogdoad. The gods of the ogdoad all represent characteristics of the chaos that existed before creation. A late tradition associates the origin of these gods with the main city of Amun, which is Thebes. The serpent god Kematef, “he who accomplishes his time,” had a son, another snake god Irta, “he who makes the land.” Irta was said to have traveled from Thebes to Hermopolis, where he created the ogdoad. Another late tradition describes Thoth as the creator of the ogdoad. The gods of the ogdoad were depicted as frog-headed (male) and snake-headed (female) humans.
Great Cackler . When the primeval hill, called the iu neserer (island of flame), arises out of chaos the ogdoad comes together and creates the sun on this hill. Building inscriptions reveal that there was once a shrine called the “island of flame” at Hermopolis, but its location has yet to be found. The ogdoad was said to create the sun in two ways. One tradition says that the ogdoad came together and created an egg on the primeval hill. The goose that laid this egg, called the Great Cackler, came to be associated with Amun. This deity can occasionally be found depicted on stelae from Deir el Medina as a goose, at times accompanied by eggs. An inscription from the tomb of Petosiris, dated to the fourth century b.c.e., claims that the shell of this egg was buried at Hermopolis.
Lake of Origin . During the Ptolemaic Period (332-330 b.c.e.) another version of the creation of the sun arose. In this account the sun emerges from the opening blossom of a lotus. The male members of the ogdoad were said to have placed their semen in the waters of Nun. This semen traveled to a vegetable ovary called benen (which was also the name of the temple to Khonsu at Thebes). In the hieroglyphic script, benen is represented as an egg. This egg is the contribution of the female members of the ogdoad. The place where the egg was fertilized was called the “lake of origin.” From the benen a lotus sprouts and takes root on the island of flame. When the lotus blossom opens, the sun rises, depicted as a child sitting inside the flower. The association of the lotus blossom and the sun arises from the fact that the Egyptian blue lotus sinks underwater at night, and rises and opens at daylight.
Death at Thebes . The remainder of the cosmogony is not detailed. The sun-god created the gods from his mouth, mankind from his tears, and cattle from his limbs. After the ogdoad completed their work of creation (either by creating the egg or lotus blossom), they are said to have traveled to Thebes, where they died. They were supposedly buried at Medinet Habu, Edfu, and Esna. At these locations they were the recipients of a funerary cult.
Memphite Theology . Another cosmogony, called the Memphite Theology, is preserved in only one text, known as the Shabaka Stone, after the Dynasty 25 (circa 760-656 b.c.e.) king who had it carved. Because of the archaic nature of the writing and language, it was originally thought that this text originated in the early Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.). Subsequent studies have shown that the text cannot be earlier than the New Kingdom, perhaps dating to the reign of Ramesses II. One scholar has even suggested that the text should be dated to the time of the copy, that is, to Dynasty 25. Such a discrepancy in assigning a date to the text arises from the fact that Egyptian scribes would copy and recopy religious texts for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, and if scholars have only one copy of a text it is difficult to be certain when the text originated. For example, some Ptolemaic funerary papyri contain examples of Pyramid Texts, and if Egyptologists did not have copies from the Old Kingdom pyramids they would never have known how old these texts really were. Another problem in dating texts is that the Egyptians would deliberately write in an archaic style and attribute a text to an ancient pseudepigraphic author to lend the text an aura of antiquity, and therefore enhance its authority.
Ptah . The main actor in the Memphite Theology was the god Ptah. He was originally a patron god of craftsmen and artisans. By the New Kingdom he has risen to become a universal creator god. Hymns call him the father of the fathers of all the gods (possibly a reference to the Hermopolitan ogdoad, who were called the fathers of the gods), and describe him as the one who carries Nut and lifts up Geb (equating him with Shu). Ptah is said to have brought about creation by first planning it in his mind (literally heart), and then by speaking the name of everything and calling it into existence. The Memphite Theology has received considerable attention because it reminds scholars brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition of a god who creates through speaking (“God said… . And it was so.”), rather than by the physical methods of creation employed by the other Egyptian creator gods.
Esna Cosmogony . The final cosmogony to be discussed merits mention because, unlike the other creation accounts examined so far, the creator in the Esna Cosmogony is not a god but the goddess Neith. This cosmogony is found on the walls of the Temple of Khnum at Esna, and dates to the period of the Roman emperor Trajan in the first century C.E. This creation story borrows significantly from earlier accounts. Neith is said to have been the first being to emerge from Nun. She changes herself into a cow, and then a lates-fish. These images derive from the cult of Neith. She was worshiped in the form of a cow and lates-fish at Esna. Neith creates a place for herself to stand and then turns herself back into a cow. She pronounces thirty names, which become thirty gods to help her in the process of creation. These gods are said to be khem (ignorant), and they then transform themselves into the khemenu (Hermopolitan ogdoad). Neith then creates the sun god through producing an excrescence from her body and placing it in an egg, which hatches as Re, the sun, who promptly takes the name of Amun. He then continues the act of creation through emanations from his body, creating the netjeru (gods) from his saliva, which is nety (spat out), and mankind from his tears.
James P. Allen, Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar, 1988).
Rudolf Anthes, “Mythology in Ancient Egypt,” in Mythologies of the Ancient World, edited by Samuel Noah Kramer (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), pp. 16–92.
Leonard Lesko, “Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology,” in Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 88–122.