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Gods and goddesses in Ancient Egypt: creation

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.

Accounts of creation can be divided under the following headings:

Before creation

The absence of matter before creation 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:

  1. Nun and Nunet - from the word nnw 'watery expanse', the lack of solidity
  2. Heh and Hehet - from the word HH 'unending time', infinite - the lack of time
  3. Kek and Keket - from the word kkw 'darkness', the lack of light
  4. 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 province 15, 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 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. There are two problems with the use of this term: (1) it is not known where or when the references to the Eight were developed; (2) the references to the Eight are not one creation myth to be set against others, but an early stage in the story of creation. The story continues with the emergence of Ra and the first generations down to Osiris and Horus.


The creator emerges

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 fissioning into separable entities.

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 Tefnet, from a rare word tfn 'to corrode' (so, in opposition to Sw, to be moist). The Coffin Texts also equate Shu with the grammatically masculine Egyptian word for life, Ankh, and Tefnet with the grammatically feminine Egyptian word for What is Right, Maat. In other writings, the crucial element that enables the creator to emerge is the female contribution - in different guises this can be not only Tefnet or Maat, but Hathor or the deified principle Iusaas (a name meaning 'she grows as she arrives')

The emergence of the creator is given various verbal and visual expression, predominantly associated with the new land emerging from the annual flood:

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', the place with the Egyptian name Iunu in Lower Egypt province 13). 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.

From Ra to Osiris and Horus

On 'myth'

There is no single Ancient Egyptian narration combining all the different motifs and expressions of the mysteries of creation and the origins of the present world. We have to summarise the episodes and references of numerous different sources. It is important to be aware that such a summary may be an entirely non-Egyptian, modern analytical response to the question of creation; the Egyptian response seems to have been not to tell stories (these emerge much later in the surviving record) but to express relations between different divine forces in groups like 'constellations' (this is the term Assmann has used for the Egyptian material).

The reign of Ra and its end

The sun-god is the first creator and ruler of creation. In references to his rule, more particularly in New Kingdom tales of the end of his reign, the world already seems to exist in the form it now has. There is no separate Ancient Egyptian composition describing the creation of mankind: they are already in existence early in the story of the world - in some accounts said to be from the tears of the sun-god (in Egyptian the word rmT 'people' evokes the word rmt 'to weep').

The first offshoots of Ra are Shu and Tefnet; they then produce two 'children' of their own - the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. In the language of natural science, we might say that the principles of dry and moist crystallised into the more solid dryness of the earth, and the expanse of sky that the Egyptians considered watery.

A New Kingdom religious composition records rebellion against Ra, prompting him to withdraw to the sky. This 'Tale of the Heavenly Cow' includes the story of Ra sending his eye out from his body, so as a separate offshoot, a 'daughter', to punish mankind. As Sekhmet (meaning 'the mighty goddess') she almost annihilates mankind; the gods trick her into becoming sweetly drunk, by colouring a lake of beer red to look like human blood - she reverts to her sweet character as the loving and maternal Hathor.

The children of Geb and Nut

Ra withdraws to the sky in this tale; this implies that creation has already reached the point where Geb and Nut, earth and sky, have been separated by Shu. The various scattered references indicate that this separation had to be enforced, to prevent the two from producing more divine offspring. However, they managed to win from Thoth (god of knowledge including the calculation of time) an extra five days at the end of the year, and on these extra days Tefnet gave birth to the gods Osiris and Seth, and the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. The elder son Osiris is the quintessential good god; he incurs the jealousy of his anarchic brother Seth, who murders him, dismembers him, and takes his place as the new king of the world. The sister-wife of Osiris is Isis, the great healer; she collects the limbs, revives the body enough to conceive a child, Horus. While the transfigured Osiris withdraws to the underworld to rule the dead, Isis protects Horus in the marshes of the Nile Delta until he is old enough to challenge his uncle. The battles of Horus and Seth are known from numerous sources, the most extended Ancient Egyptian source being a composition on a Ramesside papyrus from Thebes (now in the Chester Beatty collection in Dublin). Eventually in physical combat and in the courts of the gods Horus proves his case and wins his rightful place as heir of Osiris and king. In some versions Seth is given the deserts as his area of authority.

With the kingship of Horus, the unfurling of creation has reached its current stage of development. There is a Horus king on earth, latest 'son' of the sun-god; Ra rules the heavens from his daily boat journey around the world in the day and night skies, and Osiris rules the dead below. This is not a nature religion in the sense that the trees, rivers or mountains are personified divine beings, but there is divine force within the river (the flood, Hapy), and the gods are in one sense in the world as the sun (Ra), the earth (Geb), the sky (Nut).

Together the gods from Ra to Horus make up a group that can be calculated as nine deities - the Nine is the most common means of reference to larger groups of gods in Ancient Egyptian writings. Rituals preserved in funerary literature refer to a Great and a Small Nine (Egyptologists often use the Greek form Ennead). The Nine are not listed by name, but might be Ra, Shu and Tefnet, Geb and Nut, Osiris and Isis, Nephthys and Horus, omitting the disruptive presence of Seth.

It is not known when these stories were developed; in the Early Dynastic Period, Horus and Seth are prominent opposites, but without the presence of Isis or Ra or Osiris. Therefore our image of Egyptian religion may be an amalgam of episodes that took form during the third millennium BC. It is also not known where the stories developed, though it seems likely that the centralised royal court offered the most intense focus for religious and ritual composition.


Other episodes in the generations from Ra to Horus

The rebellion against Ra is not the only one in the story of the gods: one temple shrine now preserved in Ismailiya bears a Late Period hieroglyphic inscription recording the rebellion of Geb against his father Shu. The intrigues in the inscription can be interpreted as veiled references to disturbances in the political history of Egypt from the Late Period to Late Dynastic Period, but they may also present religious narrative elaborating on the otherwise bare succession of events in the mythic period of rule by the gods on earth.


Other aspects of creation

Ra the sun-god, source of light and energy, is only the most prominent and powerful among various aspects of creative power. Two prominent other aspects given name in Ancient Egyptian religious writing include:

Within the created world, prominent features given name in Ancient Egyptian religious writing include:

There are also forces protecting the divine king, with great impact on development of local religious form:

Anubis, god of embalming, may in origin be related to the power of the divine child as king, since the word inp means 'king-child' in Egyptian. Kingship is at the centre of the expression of the divine, and the development of that expression, in Ancient Egypt; there is no visible impact from other areas of society, and the term 'popular religion' in Egyptology covers the areas of birth, harvest and law as experienced as much by the king and elite as by rural or urban workers.


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