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Lesson 3 :        Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths
By Caroline Rocheleau

Part 1  -  Part 2

Because it relates the creation of the entire world, the creation myth (also called cosmogony) is generally regarded as the most important of all the myths in a culture. The creation of the world is the theme of several ancient Egyptian myths, yet four of them take precedent over the others: the creation myths of the cities of Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Memphis and Thebes.

The Heliopolitan Cosmogony

Allusions to the Heliopolitan creation myth have survived the passage of ages in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom, the Book of the Dead (New Kingdom) and Papyrus Bremner-Rhind. None of these textual sources actually have a full narrative of the creation of the world as established by the priests of Heliopolis; however, the various references in each text allow the reconstruction of the crucial moments of the creation story.

The ancient Egyptians did not perceive the coming into being of the world as a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). Instead, at the very beginning there was a chaotic primordial watery body called Nun. Nun, even though it was 'pre-existence' and never really part of the real world, contained all the elements -- albeit inactive -- necessary for the creation.

Within this pre-existing aquatic milieu, the god Atum willed himself into existence and emerged from the watery chaos. Henceforth, Atum was known as 'The One who Created Himself.' Having nowhere to stand Atum then created the first hill, which also emerged from Nun. The imagery of the first hill emerging from the waters of the primordial ocean would have been familiar to any ancient Egyptian. Every year, after the flooding of the Nile River, the submerged land suddenly re-appeared like little sand hills as the river receded and the water level lowered. The Egyptians believed that the annual flood was a repetition of the time of creation, the First Time.

Atum's next task was to create other gods. However, standing alone on the first hill, he had to perform this feat without a mate. Utterance 527 of the Pyramid Texts and Papyrus Bremner-Rhind both state that Atum grabbed his phallus in his hand and masturbated in Heliopolis. The twins Shu (male) and Tefnut (female) were born as a result of his orgasm. It is generally said that Shu was spat out and Tefnut vomited from Atum's body.

Shu, the god of air, and his sister-wife Tefnut, the goddess of moisture, coupled and continued the works of creation by begetting the gods Geb and Nut, two very important deities. The ancient Egyptians viewed the earth as a male entity, the god Geb, and the sky as female, the goddess Nut. After the Earth and Sky gave birth to four children (Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys), Atum ordered that they be disentangled from their loving embrace and separated from one another by Shu, the air (see image below).

  These nine gods (Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys) are called the Ennead of Heliopolis. The first five deities each represent an element of nature: the sun, air, moisture, earth and sky. The four others, together with Geb and Nut, play the leading roles in the myth of kingship, which will be presented in a later lesson.

The Hermopolitan Cosmogony

The Hermopolitan creation myth is unlike the other creation stories. It distinctive trait resides in the fact that its formulators believed that the entities who set the creation of the world in motion lived in a Golden Age before the First Time. They believed it actually pre-dated the Ennead of Heliopolis.

In the Hermopolitan cosmogony, the chaotic primordial watery body was described as more complex than Nun, as seen in the Heliopolitan creation myth. Nun represented only part of the primordial slime. Actually, eight entities, who were divided in four couples, composed the primordial ocean. Male deities were depicted as frogs and the goddesses as snakes, and each pair represented a concept describing the pre-world :

Nun (m) and Naunet (f) = primeval waters
Heh (m) and Hauhet (f) = eternity
Kek (m) and Kauket (f) = darkness
Amun (m) and Amaunet (f) = invisibility

Eventually, the Eight (also known as the Ogdoad) interacted explosively and the blast of their powers resulted in the bursting forth of the first hill from the watery chaos. The primeval hill is often referred to as the Isle of Flame because the creator god Ra (the sun god) was born on it and the universe witnessed its first sunrise.

The Ogdoad's part in the story is most important in the fact that in Hermopolis they were believed to have created the sun god. However, after creation is set in motion, the Eight -- with the exception of Amun -- retire from the narrative and go live in the underworld where their power causes the Nile to flow and the sun to rise each day. As for Amun, he left Hermopolis and took residence in Thebes, where he plays the leading role in the Theban cosmogony.

The complexity of the Hermopolitan cosmogony is partly based on the scantiness of textual evidence recounting the creation myth. Most of the evidence for this narrative comes from Theban monuments rather than Hermopolis itself. Indeed, the destruction (or possibly 'unexcavation') of the monuments of El-Ashmunein (the modern name for Hermopolis) leave little for the understanding of the creation of the world by the Ogdoad and the sun god. An additional reason for the intricacy of the myth resides in the multiple versions of the story.

A version of the Hermopolitan cosmogony involves a celestial goose. This goose, commonly known as the Great Cackler because it was the first creature to break the silence, laid an egg on the primordial hill. The sun god Ra, who thereafter continued the creation process, broke free from this egg. In another slightly different (and later) version, it is an ibis that lays the egg on the island. This later version was adapted to the story of the Ogdoad because the priests of Hermopolis wanted to promote their local god Thoth (whom the Greeks knew as Hermes, hence the name Hermopolis). An association with the Ogdoad would have given Thoth more power and seniority over other popular gods.

The most poetic version of the Hermopolitan myth reverts to creation coming out of the chaotic primeval ocean. Indeed, in this rendition of the story, it is a lotus flower that is said to emerge from the waters. The petals of the lotus flower unfolded and sitting on the calix (the centre / heart of the flower) was a divine child, the god Ra. A remarkable sculpture found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun shows the head of the young king emerging from a lotus flower, the petals fanning out around his neck -- an image that depicts the young king with the powers of the creator god Ra (see image left).

In a variation of the lotus flower theme, it is a scarab beetle that emerges from the petals of the flower and who then turns himself into a little boy who weeps. The scarab beetle is an important symbol of the sun god Ra and this will be explored in later lessons.
End of Part 1



Religion Lessons Archive - Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths  - Part 2