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Creation Myths

Author:R Kay Ologist
Date: 2015-06-23 05:48:15
Tags:Ancient Egyptian, Creation Myths

How did the ancient Egyptians think the world came into existence? There are four different creation myths that originated from the four major ancient Egyptian cities: Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Memphis, and Thebes, each centred on their specific patron god; as well as a creation myth from Elephantine (Aswan).

Atum was the patron god of Heliopolis, which is why he has a central role in their creation myth. Atum emerged from the primeval waters on a mound, the primeval waters being the only thing that existed before creation. In these waters, also known as the ‘waters of Nun’ he was a being of nothingness, but once he emerged he became the creator god. From his mound Atum masturbated and from this created Shu, the god of the air, and his sister Tefnut. Another form of the Heliopolis myth has Atum sneezing and/or spitting to create Shu and Tefnut. Their creation allowed for the emptiness between the earth and the sky.

Shu and Tefnut then proceeded to produce Geb, the earth god, and his sister Nut, the goddess of the skies, thereby outlining the perimeters of the world. Geb and Nut then proceeded to produce four more beings: Osiris, who was the god of fertility and regeneration; Isis, who was the goddess of motherhood; Set (or Seth), who was the god of masculine sexuality; and Nephthys, who was the goddess of female sexuality, the counterpart of Set. These four new beings represented the main forces of life. The Heliopolis myth symbolizes the process by which all life was made possible.

Initially these nine gods were known as the Ennead, but the eight descendants of Atum were seen as lesser gods, and as only a part of Atum himself.

Hermopolis’ creation myth mainly focused on what the universe was like prior to the world’s creation. Again, the primeval waters play a central part. The waters were represented by the Ogdoad, a set of 8 gods, who were themselves represented by creatures that lived in water: frogs for the male gods; snakes for the female gods. These gods were: Nun and his consort Naunet, who represented the primeval water itself; Heh and his consort Hauhet, who represented the infinite extent of the water; Kek and his consort Kauket represented the darkness within the primeval waters; and finally Amun and Amaunet, who represented the hidden and unknown environment within the waters. Because the waters took such a central part in the myth, the gods that represented them were seen as the actual creator gods.

When the two groups of male and female gods came together there was a huge upheaval, and from this emerged a mound. The sun rose from this mound and started to light the world.

Ptah, the god of craftsmen, was the central figure in the Memphis creation myth. Because of his ability, as a craftsman, to think of a product and then create it from raw materials, Memphis believed that he used this method to create the world. This separates this myth from the other 3 as this version was intellectual, rather than corporeal.  Ptah used his heart to come up with his designs (the heart being thought of as where thoughts came from by the ancient Egyptians, as we now know the brain is) and as he created each one he would speak its name, thus bringing it to life. 

He first created the other gods and then the cults that would worship them, as well as each god having a town, with shrines, created for them. He continued by naming each and every creature and thing in the universe: including all of the foreign peoples and animals. Ptah was also connected with Tatenen, the god who represented the mound that rose from the primeval waters.

This creation myth actually coexisted with the myth from Heliopolis. Ptah's creative thoughts and words were believed to have been the cause of the creation Atum and the Ennead.

Thebes recognised Amun as the only creator god, they did not say that he was just a member of the Ogdoad; he was the power behind all things. Amun was superior to all the other deities as he was “beyond the sky and deeper than the underworld”.

Theban Priests believed that Thebes was the primeval mound, the site where Amun first arose from Nun and became the creator god; the other gods were only conceptions of his. He was Ptah, he was the lotus from which creation grew, and he was the Ogdoad. Because of this belief, Amun eventually became the supreme Egyptian god, which led to Thebes becoming the country’s major religious capital.

The central role in the Elephantine creation myth was filled by the ram-headed god called Khnum (the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts named the pharaoh as the "son of Khnemu."). He was believed to be a potter and from this role he created the universe, and all living things, and their kas, on his potter’s wheel: animals, birds, reptiles, plants, and humans, as well as all of the gods. From this position he ensured the continuation of the human race by watching over all births. He was worshipped at Elephantine (known as Abu to the ancient Egyptians) as part of a triad, or group of three, with his consort Satet and their daughter Anuket.