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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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: