Creation Myths in Ancient Egypt

Studying ancient Egypt mythology can be confusing given that cities differed in their beliefs and gods changed many times over the more than 3,0000 years of Egyptian civilization. One major problem to Westerners studying the ancient Egyptian pantheon is that we cannot fully place their gods and goddesses into neat categories as we can with either Greek or Roman Gods. Whereas Mars/Ares is easily the “God of War”, we cannot specifically classify one Egyptian god the same way. Yes, perhaps some are easier to place than others (Anubis was definitely the God of Mummification), but many symbolized multiple identities and ideas to the ancient Egyptian priests and people.

One important discrepancy that not many take into account is the Egyptian Creation Myth. Throughout my years of interest of the ancient Egyptian religion, I have always heard one creation myth and believed that the Egyptians saw this as the be-all, end-all of all creation myths. It involves the Ennead* (See Below) or births of Nut and Geb and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. One can find an animated version of this myth on the British Museum’s website:
http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/story/main.html

However, this is just the Creation Myth from Heliopolis (Ἡλιούπολις or Iunu in Egyptian), a city  whose buildings where used in the construction of medieval Cairo, located just north of Egypt’s modern capital. Here is a very brief overview of other creation myths in the Egyptian cannon:

Memphite Theology: The Memphite Theology, as described primarily in the Shabaka text, emphasized Ptah as the head of the Pantheon. Memphis, by the way, was called Het-Ka-Ptah (“House of the Ka/Soul of Ptah) in ancient Egyptian. Ptah was shown to be a mummified man who carries a scepter composed of three important Egyptian symbols: the ankh (life), the was (power), and the djed (stability). He is usually seen above what looks like a pool of water which is a symbol for Ma’at. Simply stated, Ptah gives life to the world through the thoughts of his heart and the magic of his words (λογος / logos). Many times this creation myth is paired with the Ennead* or the Hermopolitan Ogdoad** with Ptah replacing Atum or by becoming Ta-tenen (the primordial mound).

Theban Theology: In Thebes, Amun was regarded as the creator of the universe and therefore creator of all that is true. Rather than seen as just a member of the Ogdoad**, he was their leader. When the eight gods brought forth the primordial mound by their own will, Amun, as the air, fertilized their son, an egg. This egg would hatch and the world would be created. This story not only provided an explanation for the creation of the Ogdoad but, in many interpretations, the creation of the Ennead* as well. Amun was noted by the Thebans as the master of all the gods with his true powers being hidden from others. Later, Amun, whose wife was originally Amaunet, was paired with Mut.

 

Hermopolitan Theology: The creation myth in Hermopolis was very similar to that of Thebes. Rather than have Amun come forward and create the world, the ibis- headed Thoth (God of Wisdom) was their creator. They regarded the women in the Ogdoad was snake goddesses who came upon the primordial mound from the water. The men were depicted as frogs who were important in Egyptian iconography for their powers of transformation.

 

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Source: Hénri Apollo
Thoth, God of Wisdom

Heliopolitan Theology: The people at Heliopolis were most concerned with the Ennead in their creation myth. The story of the Ennead is sometimes extended to explain the death and resurrection of Osiris. Seth, who had envied his brother’s position on the throne, killed Osiris, chopping up his body and scattered it around Egypt. Isis scoured the country to find the parts of Osiris’ body and with the help of Thoth and Anubis, she skillfully pieced him back together. The gods used their knowledge of embalming to mummify Osiris to prevent his body from decaying. However, one piece was missing (and here is where it gets a little graphic). The phallus of Osiris, which was eaten by a fish, could not be recovered. Instead, Isis fashioned a golden phallus and brought him back to life using magic taught to Isis by Geb. Isis became pregnant and later gave birth to Horus who later kills Seth, taking revenge for his father’s death.

 

When first researching this subject, I assumed that all the theologies would be completely different with no intersections between any of them. However, I was surprised to find much more overlap. While cities differed in theology and tradition, they didn’t seem unwilling to mix and match to create their own unique version of the creation myth. I hope you are now better enlightened on the ancient Egyptian’s view of the creation of the world.

Reference:

  • *Ennead: The word derives from the Greek word “ἐννεάς”, literally meaning “in nine” and describes the nine main gods in the Egyptian Pantheon, as usually characterized by the Heliopolitan Theology. This group includes Atum, the first God, his children Shu and Tefnut, their children Geb and Nut, and their children Isis, Osiris, Seth, and Nephthys. As the story goes, the world began with chaos, known to the Egyptians as Nun. This chaos was a shapeless ocean. From this came Atum (his name actually means “the whole” or “the complete”).  From him came Shu (sometimes Su), the air, and Tefnut, moisture. From these two, Geb, the Earth, and Nut, the sky, were born. Sometimes Shu was depicted holding up Nut in the sky over her husband Geb. From the Sky and the Earth came Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Under the leadership of Atum, later to become associated with Re, the ennead ruled the Egyptian Pantheon and became accepted across the Delta and later much of Egypt. This belief ruled the Heliopolitan Theology and was sometimes adopted in others, such as in Memphis as part of their own theology.
  • **The Ogdoad: Derived from the Greek word ὀγδοάς meaning “eightfold”, the Egyptian Ogdoad originated in Hermopolis Magnum or Khmum (Egyptian for “City of Eight”) and describes the four female-male pairs of Gods Naunet and Nu, Amaunet and Amun, Kauket and Kuk, and Hauhet and Huh. They represented primordial waters, invisibility, the hidden/darkness, and eternity/the immeasurable  respectively. The idea of an Ogdoad extends into Gnostic Christianity with symbols of eight parts being significant to many parts of their spiritual beliefs. The Egyptian Ogdoad played a major role in the Hermopolitan and Theban Theology and a minor role in the Memphite and other theologies.

Further Reading:

Teeth and Archaeology (Part One)

Teeth, at this current time, have been the main focus most of my research. I hope to write more about teeth found in ancient tombs and what they can teach us about food, the people, and the climate. Here the first article (hopefully out of many) on teeth and archaeology. This article was actually written about a year ago so the information may be older but is nonetheless still fascinating.

What would we do without modern luxuries? Beyond having the time to ask such rhetorical questions, we would have a lot on their plate. Next question: what would the items on the plate do to our teeth?

Ancient Egyptians lived before the dawn of Crest and Colgate. Their dental care was primitive at most. This leaves an interesting area of research for modern archaeologists and paleopathologists who wish to understand more about ancient afflictions and diseases. See, the many teeth left behind in mummies and skeletons provide unique insight into the everyday life of those who came before us.

Bread, Sand, and Death
The ancient Egyptians were sometimes known as artophagoi (αρτωφαγοι) or “bread eaters” by the ancient Greeks. This was because, to outsiders, they seemed to only eat their famous bread, made from a multitude of Nile grains like wheat and barley. Being their most popular dish, bread, however, caused many problems. No, I’m not talking about the terrors of carbohydrates. The ancient Egyptians had an even worse threat: sand.

Archaeologists have found mummies and human remains with teeth that show gross attrition (decay to the outer layer) and dental problems. Although we have a proportion of ancient Egyptian dentitions that have all the necessary characteristics that would create attrition, many do not. This means that decay could come from a variety of sources. Many believe that sand is the root to most of these dental afflictions. The only question is how did the sand get into their bread?

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Egyptian_harvest.jpg

The “artophagoi” prepare their bread.
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Egyptian_harvest.jpg

There is no simple answer when you are talking about a culture of people who lived near the Sahara, perhaps the sandiest place on the planet.

Many assume that the sand would be introduced to the bread in the grinding process. Although the specific grinding processes might have changed over time and differed from baker to baker, one popular process found in many ancient Egyptian archaeological sites and tombs is the quern. Ancient Egyptians rotate a block on top of another in order to grind grains. Other techniques included pushing one stone down onto grains sitting on a grinding block (sometimes referred to as metate with the hand stone being called a mano).  Either way, the grinding process could have introduced tons of fine minerals tugging and crushing between the two stones.

Others believe that the Egyptians could’ve added in the sand themselves. Pliny detailed how the Carthaginians would add pounded bricks, chalk, and sand before grinding their grain to produce a fine flour.

However, sand could have come into contact with dough and bread at many different steps in the bread-making process. The fine grains found in bread left by the ancient Egyptians could have come anywhere from the soil in which the grains were grown, to the materials used for harvesting, to the dirt and mud from the walls of the bakery. The point of the matter is that there were enough inorganic minerals in Egyptian bread that could reek havoc on teeth to cause infections or a tooth or root abscess. This was dangerous for a people who did not have antibiotics and could have lead to death. Some historians and scholars believe even Amenhotep III died due to an infection in his teeth cause by his sandy bread.

Teeth and Drought
Teeth provide strong evidence of increasing drought in the Nile Valley. Of course, Egypt is one of the driest environments on the planet, however this was not always the truth. The truth is that throughout the hundreds of years that the Egyptian civilization thrived, Egypt gradually became more and more dry.

Researchers in France discovered this downward trend when studying the isotopes in mummies’ teeth. Teeth have different ratios of oxygen and strontium atoms depending on the environment the human lived in. Measuring these ratios, especially the ratio of two different oxygen isotopes, can give scientists an idea of what Egyptians ate and how much water they used. They noticed that the teeth demonstrated a trend of increasing drought from the very beginning of Egyptian civilization to the Late Period. However, this trend also demonstrates that the Egyptian diet did not change, even though the amount of available water did.

The results demonstrate an overall change in Egyptian climate rather than displaying short-term events. Although the study was recent, the results are nothing new. Scientists have known that the Nile River Valley and the Sahara have been drying out for centuries. Sometime over 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, the Sahara was much wetter and covered with lakes and grasslands. Just goes to show how important human remains can be when studying climate.

The study was led by researcher Alexandra Touzeau at the  Musée des Confluences de Lyon in France.

 

LINKS AND FURTHER READING:

That One Man Named Alex

I apologize for neglecting the blog for a few weeks but everything has been busy. This post will unfortunately remain brief. However, I hope you still enjoy the facts presented.

Alexander the Great (Αλεξανδρος ὁ Μεγας; 356-323 BCE) left quite mark on the ancient world. Not only did he conquer a large mass of land, he also dispersed Greek and Macedonian culture and art. His legacy went so far East that there is a type of Buddhist art (known as Greco-Buddhist style) that is based on contemporary Greek statuary! One can not underestimate his true brilliance as a political leader. He was a skilled public relations master, an extraordinary warrior, and an outstanding man. So who was Alexander the Great?

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Hellenism and the influence of Alexander are not simple topics to cover in a quick blog post. In fact, you could probably fill multiple Libraries of Alexandria with information just on these two ideas. However, I do want to provide some neat tidbits that quickly delve into the life and power of Alexander the Great.Image

  • Alexander the Great was a god. Well, sort of. When Alexander went to Egypt, he sent out two letters to Oracles: one to the Oracle of Delphi and the other to the Oracle of Siwa. He asked each Oracle if he was a god. The Oracle at Delphi was astounded and quickly replied with a “no”. The Egyptian Oracle however had a different plan. The Oracle replied that not only was he a god, but he was also the son of Amun (Zeus-Ammon when Hellenized). This helped him to establish power in the Nile Valley.
  • Alexander’s horse was named Bucephalus (βουκεφάλος) which means “Head of a Cow” or “Head of an Ox”. Makes you think Cabez de Vaca was not such an obscure name, huh?
  • One amazing thing that Alexander did was he refused to strictly impose his culture or government on the people he conquered. Studies show that while he was traveling through the Middle East, rather than imposing democracy, the most (read stereotypical) Greek political structure, Alexander kept the same power structures that were already established.
    • Now let’s think about that last one. When Alexander entered these foreign lands, he decided to not impose Democracy. Rather, he let them continued to let many of the former rulers (those who agreed with him, of course) continue to rule. In Egypt, he was defined as Pharaoh. In Persia, he was a King, etc. Now, isn’t that quite the opposite of recent history? Now you could easily fight back by saying “Well, Alexander was Macedonian and therefore he would remain a King. He wouldn’t have promoted Democracy anywhere” which is 100% true. But I just like to think that he could and yet did not. Who knows. It’s up to the reader to decide on the truth.

I hope to include further discussion on Hellenism and the influence of Alexander the Great but it is getting late and I must be going.

Greco-Buddhist Art:

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I really enjoy this podcast on Alexandria and Greek influence in Egypt. Definitely something to check out:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/cleopatras-world-lecture-series/id423789929

As well, here is some more interesting information on Alexander:

http://wso.williams.edu/~junterek/

An Introduction to Controversy in Archaeology

Archaeology is a science and like any other science, there is controversy. Just as many scientists disagree on the validity of global warming theories, archaeologists have similar feuds on interpretation of artifacts. I mean, there is an entire group that says the Pyramids of Giza were built by Aliens (but I’ll try not to get into that). Here is a brief introduction into controversies between individuals in archaeology and why status is important:

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My friend recently showed me an article about an academic feud that ended up in court not too long ago. In fact, when I read the story, I discovered I had already heard of one of the primary archaeologists in the feud. His name is Simcha Jacobovici. He is a Canadian “archaeologist” (many argue over his title) and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Huntington University in Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Many readers who are already familiar with archaeologists may know him as the “Naked Archaeologist” after the name of his television documentary and supposed style of archaeology (however he does in fact wear clothes). Over the years, he has worked in producing documentaries on Biblical Archaeology and recent Biblical history theories.

The other guy in the dispute is renowned physical anthropologist and paleopathologist Joseph “Joe” Zias who has degrees from both Wayne State University and Hadassah Medical School. He is definitely outstanding in his work and is a force to be reckoned with.
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Without doubt, they are both respectable men in the field of archaeology and have definitely become successful. However, one has recently published some sketchy information on a very prominent individual in history. Simcha Jacobovici (with the help of famous filmmaker David Cameron) recently produced a documentary on the infamous Talpiot Tomb. Simcha Jacobovici claims that he has found the tombs of Jesus Christ, a woman by the name of Mariam (perhaps Mary Madelene), and a man named Joseph. Sounds Biblical, huh? Most important, the ossuary with the name of Jesus details him as “Jesus, son of Joseph”. This find would revolutionize the world of Christianity and archaeology and literally change everything. So why was this not all over the news, in all of the history books, or mentioned in Church services?

Probably because it is not true. And Joe Zias knows it.

After the publication of his documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” for the Discovery Channel, Joe Zias supposedly declared the movie to be a “hyped-up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest” in his correspondence with the  Washington Post. He wasn’t done there.

“The [Talpiot Tomb] film is not a documentary in the strict sense of the word as many scenes and sets are totally reconstructed…. Textual scholars posing as biblical archaeologists, several which appear in the film and on the Discovery panel discussion are one of the biggest problems within the profession which has, according one noted scholar, has set back trust and creditability in the profession, decades.”

So what is the truth about this mysterious tomb and what can individuals learn about this controversy?

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First, the important truth is that the tomb is most likely not the tomb of Jesus. Archaeology only provides clues to the lives of a very few privileged individuals. Usually only the wealthy had the resources to have extensive burials that could stand the elements to last to the 21st century. The poor on the other hand had no such resources (which means every find that demonstrates the life of commoners is hugely important to the understanding of the past).

So let’s look at the facts. If you are familiar with the Jesus story, then you know that Jesus had no elevated status due to monetary gains. He was a poor carpenter from a small and greatly unprivileged family. Although Jesus and his life may seem important to us in current day, during his own life, he would have almost been a nobody. The possibility of finding his grave is low. Astronomically low.

As well, you then go into the discussion on whether Jesus really existed.

Let me get onto his soapbox really quickly: Jesus most likely existed. How could such a prominent religion with such important writings that affect literature, art, morality, etc. have been created without being based on an actual human being. We do not get a group of people who deny the existence of the Buddha! We believe Homer existed without ever finding any archaeological evidence for him! Let’s just understand that many archaeologists agree that Jesus was probably a real individual. The validity of the gospels is another story.

So what does this story say for the study of archaeology? Well, it is difficult and highly political. Many have supported Zias by proving that names Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were common. Others have determined the entire spectacle to be a hoax and have called on Jacobovici to step down from his lawsuit. On the other hand, some have followed the side of the Naked Archaeologist and protested Zias for using slanderous words to lessen the impact of Simcha’s important archaeological discoveries.

I may find myself on one side but I ask all readers to always look into the reliability of all sources and all historical information. Many times archaeologists will produce claims that could revolutionize the history books. However, these are not always based on solid evidence. Throughout, be aware of your resources and the validity of all evidence provided. Even on this blog, do not be afraid to call me out on my information!

Finally, also realize how important in archaeology it is to have credentials. I cannot deny that what Simcha Jacobovici has done to popularize archaeology has been hugely successful and beneficial. I used to watch his show every afternoon and he definitely influenced my decision to get interested into Near Eastern Archaeology. However, his position as a documentary personality and his background as a professor that only received up to a M.A. in International Relations has greatly affected his public image. He is not considered a reliable source in the academic world and his work is diminished by his lack of standing. That is one unfortunate lesson all amateur archaeologists have to learn.

If you want to read more about the legal case between Jacobovici and Zias, read either of the two following articles:

http://gawker.com/5981237/this-week-in-million+dollar-biblical-archaeology-lawsuits-a-breakdown

http://world.time.com/2013/01/29/a-feud-between-biblical-archaeologists-goes-to-court/

I hope you have at least a basic understanding of academic feuds and archaeological politics by the end of this article. We can only move forward from here! And boy do we have a long way to go!

I hope you have a good day and that you have enjoyed this quick look into controversy and archaeology. Hopefully I will be able to delve deeper into the complex political world in later posts.

Cheers!

From Incense to Sacrifice to that Pesky Habit; A Look into Etymology.

You hear it when you board a plane in France: “C’est interdit de fumer”. You use the word when you have to take care of the bug problem in your house and need to fumigate. You can see it on bilingual signs: “No fumar”. Who would have known that this word has its origins in ancient Greek? And this isn’t your typical ancient Greek word.Image

We’re talking about smoke, smoking, and fumes. Our word for fumes and fumigation comes from the old French verb fumer (to smoke) which has its origins in the Latin word fumus or the Latin verb fumare, meaning to smoke. So where did Latin get their word for smoke?

Like many Latin words, these spawned from Greek with the word θυμος (thumos). However, thumos does not mean fumes or smoke like we would hope. In fact, many of our modern translations give us something totally different. Today, θυμος is translated as “the soul” or something along the lines of the “breathe of life”. How did a word meaning soul end up meaning smoke in basically every single Romance Language out there? The truth can be found in philosophy.Image

The Greeks believed that their soul was a smoke or a breath that floated within their body. We have images given by ancient philosophers who describe the soul dispersing as a smoke would. Okay now this makes sense. However, there is another quirk in the story.

By the time of Classical Greece, the word meaning “to sacrifice” was the Greek verb θυω (thuo). Would you be surprised if I said that this is related to θυμος and is therefore another etymology for Latin’s fumus? So, let me get this straight! Fumus comes from the Greek words for both soul and sacrifice? How confusing huh?

Well, when Classicists study the origins of θυω. they have discovered that the Greeks are not talking about any regular sacrifice. In fact, θυω is meant to describe any sacrifice that is specifically done by cremation. So that makes sense, right? They were releasing their souls through fire, creating smoke. Finally it makes sense, huh!

So let’s see what we have learned so far: the English word for fumes and the origin of the word to smoke in Romance Languages comes from the ancient Greek words for soul and sacrifice? To a point, yes. Now let’s just take a moment and look at the beauty of this situation. When we smoke, are we not somewhat sacrificing our health for a few moments of relief. And who said linguistics couldn’t be poetic?

However, our story does not end there.

The Greek words θυμος and θυω have an even deeper etymology, one that takes us back to Homeric times.

Take this text from the Illiad (24.221):

η οι μαντιες εισι θυοσκοοι η ιερηες…

Translit: é hoi mantiès eisi thuoskooi é hierees

This text translates to be roughly “Either those who are thuoskooi or priests”. The term thuoskooi is often translated to mean “offering watchers” and is built from two roots: θυος (thuos) and σκοοι meaning “watchers” or “seers”. Θυος is directly related to the later Greek words θυμος (thumos) and θυω (thuo). However in Homeric times, θυος meant offerings and cleansing. Then how did it come to mean smoke?

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Offerings, as well as cleansing, in and around Homeric times was meant to be done through incense. That means that these θυοσκοοι would actually have been incense watchers. So in a roundabout kind of way, smoking came to be known as smoking. Fumigate, fumes, fumer, fumar, and fumus all come from a Greek word that went from meaning incense burning/smoking to meaning sacrificing and the soul to becoming smoke once again. Who would’ve thought such a simple word could have such a diverse and varied history?

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The Amarna Letters

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The Amarna Tablets, also known as the Amarna Letters, are a group of documents found near the modern Egyptian city of Tell el-Amarna. These tablets were part of a collection of diplomatic documents between foreign countries during the Amarna Period (the time of cultural and artistic shifts in ancient Egyptian history when Akhenaten was Pharaoh) of New Kingdom Egypt. All written in Akkadian, the Semitic language of the ancient Mesopotamians and the ligua franca of the period, these documents provide important clues to early diplomatic relations in ancient times as well as important political shifts in the region.

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Welcome to the Amarna Letters Blog, dedicated to educating individuals about the ancient history of the Mediterranean world. Hopefully, this blog will be updated regularly with information on the people of the ancient Mediterranean world, their languages, and the archaeology that is being done today. Each blog article will provide a link (click the image above) to a website that is relatively reliable about each subject to provide further reading. If you have any further questions, please do not be afraid to comment!

Now, keep in mind that this blog is being updated by a University student. The schedule of anyone in college is not necessarily the best to keep a blog updated so do not get upset if posts sometimes seem short.

Hopefully you can enjoy this journey as much as I do. Cheers!