Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt


The Gods and Myths. The vast numbers of Egyptian gods portrayed on monuments can be daunting, but many of them are merely different aspects of the same god, and in the course of time more and more of the gods became assimilated to a few important ones. In the earliest times there were three important cosmogonies, those of Heliopolis, Hermopolis and Memphis, the most important of which was the Heliopolitan Cycle which eventually became almost uni- versally accepted, parts of the other systems being incorporated within it. Heliopolis was the centre of the various aspects of sun worship. The theory developed by the priests there of the creation of the world was that originally there was nothing but a watery waste or abyss of Chaos known as Nun, personified as a god. From this chaos rose a mound, as an island of sand emerged from the river as the innundation receded. On this mound appeared Atum, the original sun-god always portrayed in human form and later identified with Rec. From Atum came the dual deities of the sky, Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture, clouds and dew). They in turn created Geb (the earth god) and Nut (the sky goddess), who produced Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. Sometimes included was Horus the Elder (so-called to distinguish him from Horus son of Isis), but if he is excluded, the remainder were known as the Divine Ennead (Nine), and sometimes regarded as a single entity.

Shu Tetnut
Geb Nut
Osiris Set Isis Nephthys Horus the Elder

Hermopolis Magna, the City of Thoth, capital of the XVth nome of Upper Egypt, independently developed another cycle of creation gods known as the Hermopolitan Ogdoad (company of eight) which consisted of deities grouped in pairs of gods and goddesses; Nun and Nunet, (primordial water), Heh and Hehet (space), Kek and Keket (darkness), and Amun and Amunet (invisibility). Again the watery waste produced a mound on which appeared an egg, and from this came forth the sun-god Reª.

The theory developed at Memphis, the text of which is preserved on the Shabaka Stone (now in the BM), in contrast to the other theologies, presents the only Egyptian creation myth which was intellectually conceived, and as such it is extremely attractive to all interested in religious theory. It tells of the creation of the world by thought and the word, long before the Christian theology of the New Testament. Here Ptah becomes the creator—god in his form of Ptah Tatjenen, the earth emerging from chaos at his command.

Of course, other creator gods and myths developed in other districts. Amun transferred from Hermopolis to Thebes also creates the world. Neith as a form of Nut creates the world from the waste of Nun, and creates Rec and the opponent of Reº. Horus appears as a creator god perched on the primaeval mound as a falcon, and attacked by an enemy, the snake. Khnum creates mankind on the potter’s wheel,’but ReC creates them from the tears of his eyes.

In addition to the great creation legends there were other myth cycles such as the battles between Horus and Seth, and the Death of Osiris. These are complementary and probably date back to predynastic times, being the echoes of battles fought long ago for the possession of Egypt. The story of Osiris the good king who introduced civilisation to Egypt, murdered by his wicked brother Seth, has universal appeal. It continues with the long and weary search of his sister—wife Isis for the body of her husband, finding it only to have it destroyed again by Seth who discovered it while out hunting by moonlight; the goddess has to begin her search again. When Horus the Younger, her son, comes to manhood he struggles with his uncle for the succession to the throne. These conflicts are known as the Contendings of Horns and Seth, a text of which goes back at least as far as the New Kingdom. Some of the struggles involve actual battles between Seth and Horus, both of whom take on a number of different forms, while at other times the struggle moves to the courtroom, where a trial is held before the gods. It is a long drawn-out battle, but in the end the victory is with Horus. Sometimes the fight is about the eye of Rec, sometimes Horus is the champion of Reº, as on the walls of Edíú. Many of these myths were replayed annually in the form of mystery plays, with the king and priests performing in lieu of the gods.

Many of the gods, like Bes and Tausert, remained only local deities; others, worshipped in towns which became historically important, were elevated into national gods. Amun, for instance, originally associated with Hermopolis, was moved to Thebes, and when this became the capital was associated with ReC the sun-god and as Amun-Rec became the national god worshipped all over the Egyptian empire. Some of the gods and goddesses had no national shrines; others found a home with one of the other gods.


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