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.

 

Image

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:

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