Egyptian Creation Myths Because it relates the creation of the entire world, the creation myth also called cosmogony



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Egyptian Creation Myths
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 three of them take precedent over the others: the creation myths of the cities of Heliopolis, Hermopolis, and Memphis.

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 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 (known as benben), 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. He created the twins Shu (male) and Tefnut (female); 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). The Ennead were worshipped at Heliopolis and consisted of the god Atum, his children Shu and Tefnut, their children Geb and Nut and their children Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.

The Hermopolitan Cosmogony
The Hermopolitan creation myth is unlike the other creation stories. Its 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 substance. 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 center / heart of the flower) was a divine child, the god Ra. A remarkable sculpture found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen 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.


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.
The Memphite Cosmogony

The Memphite Cosmogony, most often referred to as the Memphite Theology, is preserved on a stele carved during the reign of Shabako, a Nubian King of the Twenty-fifth Egyptian Dynasty. In order to legitimize and ascertain his position as the lawful ruler, King Shabako took genuine interest in local traditions and customs. Indeed, such interest is revealed on and by the Shabako Stone. The inscription relates the horror expressed by King Shabako upon discovering the most sacred papyrus scroll of the Temple of Ptah in Memphis half eaten by worms and decaying. The king therefore ordered that the undamaged sections of the text be copied on a stone stele -- the so-called Shabako Stone. However, despite the king's effort to preserve the text, the stone itself later suffered severe damage; it was used as a mill-stone (!) before its acquisition by the British Museum.

In addition to the pious acts of the king, the inscription relates the creation of the world by the god Ptah. This creation myth describes the coming into being of all things by the powers of the words spoken by Ptah. The ideas formed in his heart (which the Egyptians associated with the mind) and the tongue spoke his wishes, making them real. However, creation is more complex than just a few words spoken by a deity. The Memphite teachings describe Ptah as the only true god, the creator of all living things including Atum of Heliopolis. Ptah was the hands of Atum and, in turn, the Ennead that was thus engendered was Ptah's teeth and lips, allowing him to create the rest of the world with his words.



Creation of Mankind

The creation of the world would be incomplete without the conception of mankind. Again, several myths describe how humans came into being, unfortunately often without much details.



Creation of Mankind in the Heliopolitan Myth

As seen in the Heliopolitan cosmogony, Atum gave birth to the divine fraternal twins Shu and Tefnut. In the immensity of Nun, the twins unfortunately wandered a little bit too far and got lost. Atum, sick with worry, sent his Eye out to find the children. This was an independent entity that had a will of its own and could be removed from Atum.


Later, seeing his beloved children accompanied by his Eye return safe and sound, Atum wept for joy. The tears rolled off his cheeks and fell to the ground, where each salty drop of water became a human being. It must be said that Egyptians loved play on words and this rendition of the creation of mankind is extremely witty. In the ancient Egyptian language, the word for 'tears' and 'people / mankind' have the same consonantal values, with which, in this particular instance, the Egyptians made a pun:
R e m u t = tears
R e m e t = mankind

Creation of Mankind according to the Hermopolitan Tradition

Only a few lines of the Hermopolis myth are actually concerned with the creation of mankind. When the lotus flower emerged from the waters of Nun, the petals opened to reveal a small child sitting on the calix of the flower. In another version of the myth, it was a scarab beetle that emerged from the lotus but it turned itself into a child. This child was the sun god Ra and upon being revealed from inside the flower, the divine child wept. The tears fell to the ground and give birth to humans, just as in the Heliopolitan myth.

Khnum, the Craftsman of Mankind

Khnum, the ram-headed god, also has a place among the creator gods of ancient Egypt; however, the inscriptions at his temple at Esna (Upper Egypt) emphasize how he fashioned mankind. Indeed, the main concern of the myth is not cosmic issues but the relationship between the deities and the people on earth.


Khnum was seen as the craftsman of mankind because he fashioned humans on his potter's wheel. The temple inscriptions vividly describe how the god molded the human body from clay. This version of the myth of the creation of mankind is the most explicit and it reveals incredible anatomical details. It was said that Khnum shaped the bloodstream so that it flew over the bones and he attached the skin onto the frame of the body. He installed a system for breathing as well as an apparatus for digestion. This myth reads like a medical textbook compared to the other creation stories related to mankind.


Cosmogony:

Nun:


Benben:

The First Time:

Ennead:

Golden Age:



Ogdoad (names and traits):

Isle of Flame:



The Great Cackler:




Before creation of Gods

First god/gods

Creation of gods

Creation of mankind

Heliopolitan Cosmogony






Atum spit out Shu and vomited Tefnut. They begat Geb and Nut, who in turn gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthis. Geb and Nut were separated by Shu.





Hermopolitan Cosmogony

(all variations)




Ra created by Ogdoad.







Memphite Cosmogony




Ptah creates Atum through his words.




Khnum (describe):





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