Jenny Jobbins looks at the regional myths that ancient Egyptians associated with the creation of the world and finds an uncanny parallel with what science teaches us today
The Egyptians believed that the various ramifications of the sun god — Horus, the rising sun; Ra and Ra-Harakhte, the full sun; and Osiris, the setting sun — governed their lives and the lives of all living animals and plants. But how did they explain the creation of that world?
Their theory of creation depended on where — and, to some extent, when — they lived, and was woven around the cults of the different regional divinities. The main cult centres were in Hermopolis, Heliopolis, Memphis and Thebes.
To some extent there were common factors in these regional myths. In the beginning was chaos, envisaged as a vast ocean called Nu. From these waters rose a primaeval land mound, the pyramid-shaped benben, and at the same time life emerged from the benben’s rich, alluvial soil.
THE ENNEAD OF HELIOPOLIS: If you were born during the Old Kingdom in the area around Heliopolis, just to the northeast of modern Cairo, you would have grown up in the midst of a spiritually and politically charged atmosphere in the shade of the temple at the centre of the cult of Ra-Harakhte. Only one remnant remains today of this temple, Egypt’s first known temple to the sun god: the obelisk of Senusert I.
The people of Heliopolis (ancient Iwnw) attributed the creation to Atum, a deity who was associated with the sun-god Ra. Atum was the first god: he created himself, emerging on the primaeval mound from the water, Nu. According to the Heliopolitan myth, Atum single-handedly created his progeny, each with an element linked to the physical world. First he sneezed the air god with the onomatopoeic name of Shu, and spat out Shu’s sister, Tefnut. Shu and Tefnut were the parents of Geb, the Earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess. Despite being separated by their father, Shu, Geb and Nut nevertheless produced Isis, goddess of motherhood; Osiris, god of vegetation and resurrection; Set, god of the desert and of storms; and the protector goddess Nephtys. These nine gods, the family of the omnipotent Atum, formed the Ennead of Heliopolis. The hierarchy was perpetuated through the Pyramid Texts, which accompanied the deceased pharaoh and instructed him on how to conduct himself on his passage to the afterlife.
Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, and Anubis, son of Set and Nephtys, were the offspring of the last four members of the original Ennead.
THE TRIAD OF MEMPHIS: The city of Memphis was founded by King Menes and was the first capital of a united Egypt. It stood on the West Bank of the Nile, and encompassed the areas of Saqqara and Dahshour. The spiritual life of the city centred around the cult of Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen. The people of Memphis considered Ptah to be the creator of all things: the sky, Earth, all mankind and the gods themselves.
It was believed in Memphis that Ptah created the world according to the craftsman’s pre-conceived vision; in other words this world, rather than being created out of chaos, followed a pre-conceived plan. The Memphite version of the creation existed alongside the Ennead of Heliopolis, but its followers believed that Ptah created Atum and the mound from which he rose.
The wife of Ptah was the goddess Sekhmet, and their son was Nefertem (or, in another version, Imhotep). The only known details of the Memphite Trial were set down on a stela known as the Shaboko Stone dating from the reign of the 25th–Dynasty pharaoh Shabaka in about 700 BC, but unfortunately the inscriptions are partly illegible so many elements of the cult remain a mystery.
THE TRIAD OF THEBES: The theory to explain the creation that developed in Thebes (the capital of Egypt from the New Kingdom, known in pharaonic times as Waset) post-dated other pharaonic theologies. For the Thebans it was Amun, a member of the original Ogdoad of Hermopolis (see below), who was the supreme deity and the major force behind all aspects of life, including its origins. They believed that Amun was unlike other gods and existed apart from them; he was the source of creation itself, and some ways the other gods and goddesses were merely other aspects of Amun. He was the principle god of the Egyptian pantheon and the lord of all things.
The Thebans believed that their city was the location of the primaeval mound that rose from the waters of chaos.
The consort of Amun was Mut, the mother goddess, and their son was the moon, Khonsu.
THE OGDOAD OF HERMOPOLIS: Perhaps the best known of all the Egyptian creation myths is the Ogdoad, which held sway at ancient Khmunu, later renamed Hermopolis by the Greeks. The ruins of the city are at modern Ashmounein on the west bank of the Nile northwest of Mallawi, once the border between Upper and Lower Egypt. The Greeks named the city in honour of Hermes, the god of magic and wisdom whom they identified with the Egyptian god Thoth, the chief deity of the city.
The people of Hermopolis believed that their version of the creation myth, the Ogdoad, was older than any other. The canon was a central belief in the Old Kingdom; it was formulated by the Third Dynasty and promulgated until the Sixth Dynasty (2686 to 2134). Unlike other Egyptian creation myths, this cult was concerned with the primordial waters that existed before the world was created.
In these waters were the Ogdoad, the eight deities that personified the world before creation and who were seen as the creator gods. Nu and his wife Naunet were the water itself, while Hau and Hautet represented the extent of the water, Kuk and Kauket its darkness and Amun and Amaunet the mystery of its future. Since these were aquatic beings, the males were depicted as frogs while the females were in the form of snakes.
The first thing to emerge from the water was the primaeval mound known as the benben. The benben rose in a pyramid shape, and the ancient Egyptians may have imagined it to resemble the land that emerged as the annual Nile floodwater retreated. It was from this mound that the sun first rose, represented by Ra, the sun god. Several versions of this part of the myth existed in Hermopolis: some said the sun emerged from a lotus flower; some that it hatched out of an egg laid by a celestial goose; others claimed that the sun’s emergence was aided by an ibis (Thoth) or a scarab beetle, or in the form of a scarab beetle or a human — albeit divine — child.
From time immemorial Hermopolis had been associated with the cult of Thoth — who among his other attributes was Egypt’s earliest and greatest moon god. Thoth regained supremacy after the Old Kingdom, following the decline in the observance of the myth of the Ogdoad.
For most of us today, the creation of Earth and the solar system is explained by the big bang theory. How curious, then, that what we learn about our own genesis is that our remotest ancestors crawled out of the sea. That this happened half a billion years ago seems irrelevant in the measureless space of our mysterious universe, and the fathomless depths of the primaeval waters. The ancients believed that Thoth was all-knowing: he knew everything that was to be known about the heavens and Earth. Perhaps his infinite wisdom stretched further and wider than we could ever imagine.