What Were the Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths?

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Depiction of the Ancient Egyptian Sun Gods: Re (left) and Atum (right)

The ancient Egyptians, like all literate cultures, developed a written cosmogony that explained how the world was created. The Egyptians believed that their gods and goddesses played significant roles in the creation of the physical world and later humanity. At first glance, ancient Egyptian cosmogony does not seem very different than those of other cultures. A closer examination reveals that the Egyptian system had one very notable difference than all others – there were three creation myths.

The three ancient Egyptian creation myths corresponded to the cities where they originated: Hermopolis, Memphis, and Heliopolis. Each of these cities also represented a critical deity – Amun, Ptah, and Atum, respectively – and a specific way in which creation took place. To modern people, it may seem strange and contradictory that the ancient Egyptians had three seemingly disparate creation myths. Still, it was all quite logical and keeping with the complex Egyptian view the universe.

Egyptian Cosmogony and Cosmology

Unlike many other literate pre-modern cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans, the early ancient Egyptians had few narrative myth cycles and none that related to cosmogony or cosmology. The Egyptians did have creation myths, but they were not written in a narrative style as others in other cultures. The Egyptian creation myths are mentioned in fragments from a number of different Egyptian texts, most notably the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead. These three texts consist of collections of “utterances” and “spells” that were intended to send a deceased person into the afterlife successfully. although they also make mention of the creation of the universe and the gods that were involved. [1]

It was not until the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) when the Egyptians began to write myths in a narrative form and it was not until the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods (332-Christian Era) when the collections of disparate spells and mentions of creation in the older texts were transferred into a narrative. [2]

The non-narrative nature of early Egyptian creation myths is certainly interesting, but a fascinating aspect of Egyptian cosmogony was the simultaneous existence of three creation myths. It was once believed that the plurality of creation myths was the result of the three cities being “cult centers” of three major gods: the god of a particular city and his accompanying myth took precedence over all others to his followers. However, the other gods and goddesses were not necessarily ignored. This view still holds sway with some Egyptologists.

Most now believe, based on studies of the ancient Egyptian concept of time, that the ancient Egyptians simply viewed the three myths as different perspectives of creation and that there was no intellectual contradiction to see all three versions taking place simultaneously. [3]

The Hermopolitan Creation Myth

Relief of the God Amun

The oldest of the three Egyptian creation myths was the Hermopolitan myth, which was named for the city from where it originated: Khemnu, or more commonly known by its Greek name, Hermopolis. According to the Hermopolitan myth, life began in the primeval waters, which birthed the Ogdoad, or eight original deities. The eight original deities were grouped in male-female pairs and included: Nun and Naunet, Heh and Heuhet, Kek and Kauket, and Amun and Amaunet. The details of the physical creation itself are a bit vague in the Hermopolitan myth and instead focus on the “numinous and mysterious force of the divine creative power.” [4]

The most important god of the Hermopolitan creation myth was Amun, who was known as the “Hidden One,” indicating the numinous and mysterious force mentioned by Tobin. Amun grew in importance during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC) until he became the national god during the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1550-1295 BC) of the New Kingdom. Amun’s attributes as a creator god were later combined with more martial elements, which was indicative of the period. [5] Where the creation in the Hermopolitan myth was somewhat enigmatic and connected to a mysterious force, creation according to the Memphis myth was the result of intellect.

The Memphite Creation Myth

A Votive Stela Depicting Ptah with a Long Beard, Skull Cap, and “Djed” Staff

Memphis (Egyptian “Mennefer”) served as Egypt’s political capital for much of its history, and it was also the primary cult center of the god Ptah. Like Amun, Ptah was depicted in human form, but instead of wearing a feather crown, he was shown wearing a simpler skull cap. In many ways, Ptah was the most logical choice of all creator gods, as he was the god of metal workers and craftsmen. [6] Although Ptah was known to work with his hands, his act of creation was accomplished through thought and speech. The so-called “Memphite Theology” is articulated fully in a hieroglyphic text known as the Shabaqa Stone. The Shabaqa Stone is named for the Nubian king who ruled over Egypt in the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty (ruled 716-702 BC) and is dated to 710 BC, but is believed by most Egyptologists to be a copy of a Nineteenth Dynasty, or possibly even an Old Kingdom original. [7] The creation account of the text reads:

“There took shape in the heart; there took shape on the tongue the form of Atum. For the very great one is Ptah, who gave [life] to all the gods and their kas through his heart and through this tongue, in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah.” [8]

The Heliopolitan Creation Myth

Statue of King Horemheb (reigned c. 1323-1295 BC

The third and probably the most important of all the Egyptian cosmogonies were the Heliopolitan creation myth. The Heliopolitan myth was developed early in pharaonic history in the city of Heliopolis (Egyptian “Iunu,” biblical “On”), which was the cult center of the sun-god Atum. There are plenty of references in the Pyramid Texts to Atum and the Heliopolitan version of creation.

Theologically speaking, the Heliopolitan myth was the most straightforward and concrete of the cosmogonies, as it involved Atum emerging from a primordial mound and then creating the first four generations of male-female pairs, which became known as the Ennead. Creation in this myth, therefore, was the result of pure will and is a process with a definite beginning and end. How Atum created the Ennead is described in numerous “Utterances” of the Pyramid Texts as both physical and sexual.

“Atum is he who (once) came into being, who masturbated in On. He took his phallus in his grasp that he might create orgasm by means of it, and so were born the twins Shu and Tefenet. May they put the King between them and set the King among the gods in front of the Field of offerings.” [9]

Atum then created Geb (earth) and his consort Nut (sky) before creation Osiris (Underworld/kingship) and Isis (Magic/Queenship) and Seth (Chaos) and Nephthys (Queenship). The Heliopolitan mythic cycle is considered to have been completed by the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2494-2345 BC). [10] However, its influence resonated throughout all periods of Egyptian history.

Elements of the Heliopolitan myth permeated Egyptian theology for centuries, namely, in three primary ways. First, the idea of the afterlife was implied in the Heliopolitan myth through Osiris. The cult of Osiris increased in importance and popularity as Egyptian history progressed, eventually eclipsing Atum and the solar-cult on many levels. The idea of divine kingship was also inherent in the Heliopolitan myth. Osiris was the original god of kingship, and after Seth slew him, the position passed to his son Horus, who became a substitute for his father in the Heliopolitan myth. [11] Atum was also directly associated with kingship in a number of the Utterances from the Pyramid Texts and art was also depicted in human form, usually wearing the Double Crown of Egyptian kingship. [12]

Finally, the Heliopolitan cosmogony had a profound influence on ancient Egyptian solar theology. Atum’s solar and generative attributes are depicted in texts and art as life-giving, both in the creation and daily life. Eventually, Atum began to be associated with another sun-god, Re, in a syncretic union. The Pyramid Texts describe Re as the rising sun and Atum as the setting sun, with the two traveling together on the “Solar Barque” through the nighttime hours.

“My father ascends to the sky among the gods who are in the sky; he stands at the Great Polar Region and learns the speech of the sun-folk. Re finds you on the banks of the sky as a waterway-traveller who is in the sky: ‘Welcome, O you who have arrived,’ say the gods. He sets his hand on you at the zenith of the sky; ‘Welcome, O you who know your place,’ say the Ennead. Be pure; occupy your seat in the Bark of Re, row over the sky and mount up to the distant ones; row with the Imperishable Stars, navigate with the Unwearying Stars, receive the freight of the Night-bark.” [13]

By the New Kingdom, Re was one of the most important gods in the Egyptian pantheon and had even eclipsed Atum at Heliopolis. [14] Despite Atum being subsumed by Re, for all of the reasons discussed above, the Heliopolitan myth remained the most essential cosmogony throughout ancient Egyptian history.

Conclusion

The ancient Egyptians had a world view that may seem quite strange and complicated to modern people. The Egyptians believed in three different creation myths and apparently never had any difficulty reconciling their simultaneous existence. An examination of the Hermopolitan, Memphite, and Heliopolitan creation myths reveals that each was valid to the ancient Egyptians because they represented three different manners of creation – inherency, mind and speech, and the sun – respectively.

References

  1. Morenz, Sigried. Egyptian Religion. Translated by Ann E. Kemp. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 160
  2. Shaw, Ian, and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 73
  3. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), p. 16
  4. Tobin, Vincent Arieh. “Myths.” In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Edited by Donald B. Redford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 248
  5. Lesko, Leonard. “Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology.” In Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Edited by Byron E. Shafer. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991), pgs. 105-6
  6. Wilkinson, p. 18
  7. Lesko, p. 95
  8. Lichtheim, Miriam, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Volume 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), p. 73
  9. Faulkner, Richard O., ed. and trans. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. (Stilwell, Kansas: Digiread.com Publishing, 2007), Utterance 527
  10. Tobin, p. 240
  11. Wilkinson, p. 79
  12. Tobin, p. 246
  13. Faulkner, Utterance 513
  14. Wilkinson, p. 101
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