Myths are stories that have a beginning, middle, and end, and which describe the activities of superhuman beings. Prior to the New Kingdom, myths are scarce in Egyptian texts, but allusions to myths are numerous. The reasons for this are uncertain, but it is probably related to the types of text that have survived to modern times. 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 which accompany ritual activities. For these purposes, allusions to the doings of the gods are sufficient. Prior to the New Kingdom, Egyptian myths may only have been transmitted orally.
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 creation stories. The Egyptians believed that for existence to continue, it had to be continually recreated at each dawn, at each full moon, or each New Year. One part of the process of this recreation was to recall the first time of creation. Characteristically the Egyptians 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 had a major temple.
The earliest of all creation accounts is associated with the god Atum at Iunu (Heliopolis in Greek, the biblical On), which scholars call the Heliopolitan Cosmogony. A cosmogony is a story of how the world came to exist. 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 creates himself, and looks about for a place to stand. One tradition states that Atum stood on Mehetweret, 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 Iunu, 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 produces the first pair of gods, 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 Atum created them, 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 eye returns with Shu and Tefnut, it becomes angry at its replacement. Atum then puts the eye on his forehead, where it becomes the protective, fire-spitting Uraeus snake found on the headdress of 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 remet ("tears"), remetj ("mankind") came into being.
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 reversal was probably due to the source of moisture in Egypt. In most places the land depends on rainfall, seen as the semen of the sky god, for fertility. In Egypt, the fertility of the land did not depend on rainfall, 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.
Threat of Existence.
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 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."
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 myths surrounding these deities belong to the funerary mythology. The birth of these gods completes the Heliopolitan Ennead, or group of nine gods: Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Horus, the tenth member of the Ennead, is a later addition.
Hermopolis Creation Story.
Another version of the creation story is associated with the town of Hermopolis, modern Ashmounein in Middle Egypt. This account centered on the Hermopolitan Ogdoad, or group of eight gods. These deities were grouped in pairs of male-female gods with three constant pairs: Nun and Naunet (primeval water, formlessness), Heh and Hehet (spaciousness), and Kek and Keket (darkness). The identity of the fourth pair varies in different texts. 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 concealment, become the customary fourth pair in the Ogdoad. The gods of the Ogdoad all represented characteristics of the chaos that existed before creation. A late tradition associates the origin of these gods with Amun's main city, Thebes. The serpent god Kematef, "he who accomplishes his time" had a son, another snake god, Irta "he who makes the land." Irta 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.
Creation of the Sun.
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 tell us that there was once a shrine called the "island of flame" at Hermopolis, but its location has yet to be determined. 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. Amun 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.
Another version of the creation of the sun arose during the Ptolemaic Period. 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 of the Gods.
The remainder of the cosmology 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 traveled to Thebes, where they died. They were buried at Medinet Habu, Edfu, and Esna. At these locations they were the recipients of a funerary cult.
Another cosmogony, called the Memphite Theology, is preserved in only one text, known as the Shabaka Stone, after the Twenty-fifth Dynasty king who had it carved. Because of the archaic nature of the writing and language, scholars thought that this text originated in the early Old Kingdom. Subsequent studies have shown that the text cannot be earlier than the New Kingdom, perhaps dating to the reign of Ramesses II. One scholar even suggested that the text should be dated to the time of the copy, that is, to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Such a discrepancy in assigning a date to the text arises from the fact that Egyptian scribes would copy and re-copy religious texts for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. The existence of only one copy of a text makes it difficult to be certain when the text originated. For example, some Ptolemaic funerary papyri contain examples of Pyramid Texts, and if it were not for copies from the Old Kingdom pyramids it would be impossible to determine 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 author to lend the text an aura of antiquity, and therefore enhance its authority.
The main actor in the Memphite Theology was the god Ptah. Ptah was originally a patron god of craftsmen and artisans. By the New Kingdom he had increased in importance 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. Hymns further 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 the heart—and then by speaking the name of everything and calling it into existence. The Memphite Theology has received considerable attention because it is similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition of creation through speaking seen in the biblical description of creation in Genesis and the opening of the Gospel of John, in which the creative word is emphasized rather than the physical methods of creation employed by the other Egyptian creator gods.
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 (98–117 c.e.). This creation story borrows significantly from earlier accounts. Neith is the first being to emerge from Nun. She changes herself into a cow, and then a lates -fish, also known as Lake Victoria perch. These images derive from the cult of Neith. She was worshipped 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 hemen ("ignorant"), and they then transform themselves into the hemen ("Hermopolitan") Ogdoad. The story thus rests on a word play between two words that sounded similar but had different meanings. 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. Amun then continues the act of creation through emanations from his body, creating the netjeru ("gods") from his saliva, and remetj ("mankind") from his remt ("tears"). This explanation demonstrates the Egyptian belief that puns reveal some basic, underlying truth.
James P. Allen, Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Egyptological Seminar, 1988).
Rudolf Anthes, "Mythology in ancient Egypt," in Mythologies of the Ancient World. Ed. Samuel Noah Kramer (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1961): 15–92.
Leonard Lesko, "Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology," in Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ed. Byron Shafer (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991): 88–122.