By Marie Parsons
From Religion in Ancient Egypt ed. By Byron E. Shafer
The best-known and perhaps most important of the early Egyptian myths is the Heliopolitan Cosmogony. The priests of the cult of the sun-god Ra in ancient Iunu developed this cosmogony. This myth describes the genealogy of the Ennead, the group of nine gods according to a family tree, that is, Atum self-engendered Shu and Tefnut, who gave birth to Geb and Nut, who gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.
The ancient Egyptians believed that there was a time when nothing had existed, when "the sky had not yet coming into being, the earth had not yet come into being, the gods had not yet been born, and death had not yet come into being," as Pyramid Text 1466 had stated. For the Egyptians, creation was essentially an act of generation, and the generative principle was represented by the yearly flooding of the Nile River, and its waters seemed like the primeval waters, as they left in their wake mounds of fertile black soil. Out of these primeval waters rose the god Atum, source of all generated being. Sitting on the primeval mound that rose above the chaotic waters (or was left behind in its wake), Atum created out of himself the deities Shu and Tefnut.
The story is illustrated in Pyramid Text 600:
O Atum-Kheprer, you were high on the height, you rose up as the bnbn-stone in the Mansion of the bn-bird in On, you spat out Shu, you spit out Tefnut, and you set your arms about them as the arms of a ka-symbol, that your essence might be in them....
O you Great Pesdjet, Ennead, which is on On, namely Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys; O children of Atum, extend his heart to his child in your name of Nine Bows. Let him be turned back from you toward Atum.... For the ancient Egyptians, each day was in fact a renewal and repetition of the creation. Just as the sun, represented by Ra-Atum on his solar barque, traveled across the sky to rise and set and begin the cycle again, so to the Egyptians had the assurance that the created order and the life and sustenance of their world were eternal and ongoing.
A second major creation myth originated at the city of Khmnw, otherwise known to the Greeks as Hermopolis. This was the city of the god Thoth, patron of scribes and writing, and associated with the moon. This creation story claimed to be the oldest of all. Hermopolis claimed to be the site of the original primeval mound that had risen from the waters, just as did Heliopolis. But in this tradition, there were eight gods, the Ogdoad.
This Ogdoad or group of eight gods, four couples of male and female gods, seem to represent elements of the chaotic universe prior to creation. The males were depicted as having the heads of frogs, the females, the heads of serpents. The names of the gods of this Ogdoad are listed in various texts. Nun and Nunet, who represent the primordial abyss, Amun and Amunet, who represent the "hidden power," Heh and Hehet, who represent infinity, and Kek and Keket, names that represent darkness. Pyramid Text 301 names two of the pairs:
Your offering-cake belongs to you, Nun and Naunet,
Who protects the gods, who guards the gods with your shadows,
Your-offering cake belongs to you, Amun and Amaunet,
Who protects the gods, who guard the gods with your shadows.
Coffin Text spell 76 names the four pairs, and connects the Ogdoad with some of the Ennead:
O you eight chaos gods, keepers of the chambers of the sky, whom Shu made from the efflux of his limbs, who bound together the ladder of AtumI am Shu, whom Atum created, from whom Ra came to be. I was not fashioned in the womb, I was not bound together in the egg. I was not conceived, but my father Atum spat me outtogether with my sister Tefnut The bnbn of Ra was that from which Atum came to be as Heh (chaos), Nun, (the watery abyss), Kek (darkness), Tenem (gloomsubstituted for Amun in this verse).
The Hermopolitan creation had several variations. In one, the Cosmic Egg was laid by the celestial goose, the Great Cackler, while in another, the egg was laid by an ibis, the bird identified with the god Thoth. In a third variation, a lotus flower emerged from the waters and opened to reveal a child-god.
Where the Heliopolitan creation story concerned itself with the act of creation, the Hermopolitan version related more about what things were like before creation actually took place.
Another creation myth is called the Memphite Theology, after the city of Memphis in the Delta. It was inscribed on a stone dated from the time of King Shabaka in 710 BCE, though it purports to be based upon a much earlier source. The Theology says more about the nature of the god Ptah and his role as supreme deity and creator, than about the act of creation itself:
The gods who came into being in Ptah:
Ptah-Nun, the father who made Atum.
Ptah-Naunet, the mother who bore Atum.
Ptah-the-Great is heart and tongue of the Nine Gods.
There took shape in the heart and on the tongue the form of Atum. The very great one is Ptah, who gave life to all the gods and their kas through this heart and through this tongue in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah.
Ptahs Ennead is before him as teeth and lips. They are the semen and the hands of Atum. For the Ennead of Atum came into being through his semen and his fingers. But the Ennead is the teeth and lips in this mouth which pronounced the name of every thing, from which Shu and Tefnut came forth, and which gave birth to the Ennead.
Sight, hearing, breathingthey report to the heart, and it makes every understanding come forth. As to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised. Thus all the gods were born and the Ennead was completed. For every word of the god came about through what the heart devised and the tongue commanded.
Thus it is said of Ptah: "He who made all and created the gods." And he is Ta-tanen, who gave birth to the gods, and from whom every thing came forth, foods, provisions, divine offerings, all good things. Thus it is recognized and understood that he is the mightiest of the gods. Thus Ptah was satisfied after he had made all things and all divine words.
He gave birth to the gods,
He made the towns,
He established the nomes,
He placed the gods in their shrines,
He settled their offerings,
He established their shrines,
He made their bodies according to their wishes.
Thus the gods entered into their bodies,
Of every wood, every stone, every clay,
Every thing that grows upon him
In which they came to be.
Other regions and cities had creation stories. In Coptos, the god Min, who was attested from early dynastic times, was regarded as creator, and at Elephantine it was the potter god Khnum who had created all things.
- Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Egyptian Literature by Miriam Lichtheim
- Religion in Ancient Egypt, ed. By Byron E. Shafer