Egypt: Atum, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of Heliopolis

Atum, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of Heliopolis

by Jimmy Dunn

The ancient Egyptian God, Atum

Atum was one of the main gods as well as one of the oldest in ancient Egypt. He was a creator and sun god, together with Re, Horakhty and Khepri. His name is derived from the verb tem, which has either a positive meaning, "the accomplished one", or a negative meaning, "the one who did not come to being yet". He is well attested from numerous textual and iconographic sources. In fact, he is one of the eight or nine most frequently mentioned gods in the Pyramid Texts so we have a good deal of very early information regarding his mythological roles and characteristics.

Atum was the great primeval deity of Heliopolis, and his cult rose to importance as early as the Old Kingdom. His most essential nature is that of the "self-engendered one", who arose at the beginning of time and who created the first gods through his semen, or according to another story, though his saliva. However, he had many facets.

Lord of Totality

Totality, in reference to Atum, implies an ultimate and unalterable state of perfection. Atum was the monad from whom all else originally came. One of the translations of his name could be "totality", and in the Coffin Texts and elsewhere he is specifically called the "lord of totality". Essentially, everything which existed was considered a part of the flesh of Atum, and every individual thing was said to be one of millions of the god's kas, a concept which not only stressed the gods primacy in coming before all else, but also his importance as a universal god.


The Heliopolitan cosmogony holds that Atum was the god of creation whereby the world and existence sprang from primeval chaos. The Pyramid Texts tells us that Atum was "he who came into being" of himself. His creative nature has two sides for Atum can be seen as the one who completes everything and finishes everything. Hence, he is not only the creator, but the annihilator of creation. In a dialogue between Atum and Osiris in the Book of the Dead, Atum states that he will eventually destroy the world, submerging gods, men and Egypt back into the primal waters (Nun), which were all that existed at the beginning of time. In this nonexistence, Atum and Osiris will survive in the form of serpents.

Primal Mound

Atum, however, was not only the creator, but the original creation itself. He was the primeval mound which rose from the waters of creation and was represented in this aspect by the sacred ben-ben stone, which was worshipped at Heliopolis from the earliest dynasties.

The Sun

The sun was thought to have been a primary factor in the process of creation and so Atum was also linked with solar theology, as the self-developing scarab who represented the newly created sun. Hence, in the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, he is often synchronized with the sun god as Re-Atum. Separately, Re was usually considered the rising sun of the day, while Atum was the setting sun of the evening. However, in the Coffin Texts he is specifically said both to "emerge from the eastern horizon" and to "rest in the western horizon", so that he is in this way the complete sun. Yet, generally in funerary texts, he was certainly more commonly the aged form of the sun which set each evening and traveled through the underworld.

Netherworld God

Atum plays an important role in many of the later books of the netherworld. His power is invoked in many of these texts. In the netherworld books recorded on the walls of the New Kingdom tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Ancient Thebes (modern Luxor), Atum is shown as an aged, ram-headed figure who supervises the punishment of evildoers and the enemies of the sun god. He also subdues other hostile forces in the netherworld such as the serpent Nehebu-Kau, who he overcomes by pressing his fingernail onto it's spine. Before Gate nine, Atum stands confronting the coiled serpent Apophis condemning him to be overthrown and annihilated. He also provides protection to even those of non-royal blood, ensuring their safe passage past the Lake of Fire where there lurks a deadly dog-headed god who lives by swallowing souls and snatching hearts.

Father of the Gods and the King

Seti I placing the double crown of Upper and Loeer Egypt on the head of Atum

Atum was the father of the gods, creating the first divine couple, Shu and Tefnut, who he produced by copulating with himself. He thus had a female principle inherent within himself (specifically, his hand). This masturbation act later played into the Theban title of "God's Hand", given to priestesses who were regarded as symbolically married to Amun, and he became associated also with various goddesses responsible for sexual pleasure and fertility, such as Hathor and Nebet-Hetepet.

A variant on this mythology from Memphis, as recorded on the stela of Shabaqa of the 25th Dynasty, holds that the creation occurred by means of Atum's mouth, spitting forth Shu and Tefnut. In this theology, humankind arose from his eyes.

Atum's family tree, consisting of the nine gods of the Heliopolitan Ennead and envisioned by the Heliopolitan theologians, eventually led through Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture) who begat Geb (earth) and Nut (sky) who in turn parented Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. Osiris was the father of Horus (of whom the king of Egypt was the living manifestation), and therefore Atum became a father of the pharaoh. One of his most frequent epithets was "Lord of the Two Lands", a title also held by the king. Hence, the Pyramid Texts, reveals to us his close relationship with the king, "O Atum, raise this king up to you, enclose him within your embrace, for he is your son of your body for ever". By using magic spells, the king might even hope to surpass the power of Atum, becoming himself the supreme deity and rule as Atum over every god.

Iconography and Representations

Atum is most usually depicted in anthropomorphic form and is typically shown wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. This iconography, of course, equates him with the king and in fact one of the only details that distinguishes him from the king is the shape of his beard. Representations of Atum in statuary are far less numerous than those of any other god of similar importance, and we may speculate that statues showing a king as "Lord of the Two Lands" may have also been viewed as incarnations of Atum.

Horemheb and Atum

The largest of the rare statues of Atum is a group depicting King Horemheb of the 18th Dynasty kneeling in front of the seated god. It was discovered in the Luxor temple cache only recently.

From the New Kingdom onward, he is often depicted on temple walls as the god inscribing royal names on the leaves of the sacred ished tree. In some reliefs that are mostly of Lower Egyptian Origin, such as on the shrine of Ramesses II from Pithom, Atum is the god crowning the king.

In addition to the double crown, he could also be depicted with a solar disk and a long tripartite wig.

In his netherworld role, as well as his solar aspect, he is also often presented with the head of a ram. He may be seated on a throne but may also be shown standing erect, or even leaning on a staff when his old age is stressed.

Zoomorphically, Atum could be depicted or symbolized as a serpent in reference to his chthonic and primeval nature. However, he might also be represented as a mongoose (ichneumon), lion, bull, lizard or ape. As an ape, he was sometimes armed with a bow with which to shoot his enemies. In his aspect as a solar deity, he was also depicted as a scarab and the giant scarab statue which now stands by the sacred lake at Karnak was dedicated to Atum. Also, numerous small bronze coffins containing mummified eels, bearing a figure of the fish on the top of the box and an inscription incised on it, attest to yet another zoomorphic incarnation of Atum.

The scarab statue at Karnak

In terms of his primeval nature, Atum could also be represented by the image of the primeval hill, and in the First Intermediate period, "Atum and his Hand" even appear as a divine couple on some coffins.


Atum was probably the most important god worshipped at Heliopolis, though eventually his cult was eclipsed by that of Re. Nevertheless, the cult of Atum continued to be important at Heliopolis, and he is often called the "Lord of Heliopolis", even after the rise of Re's influence. Atum was also the main deity of Per-Tem (house of Atum), the biblical Pithom in the eastern Delta.

However, Atum's importance was by no means limited to northern Egypt, or to the Old Kingdom. During the New Kingdom, Atum, along with the Theban god Montu, is depicted escorting the king in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. In fact, Atum's close relationship to the king is seen in many cultic rituals, and a papyrus dating to the Late Period which is now in the Brooklyn Museum shows the god's importance in the New Year's festival in which the king's role was reconfirmed.

Though Atum was not particularly a god of the populous, amulets and small reliquaries of lizards, which were one of his symbols, were worn in honor of the god in the Late Period.






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