Egyptian Mythology: How the universe was created

Egyptian mythology offers several versions of cosmogony, each associated with a different city or religious center. However, there are recurring themes and motifs throughout these narratives.

One of the most well-known versions originates from Heliopolis, while others are rooted in cities such as Hermopolis, Memphis, and Thebes.

Nun lifts the solar barque with the new-born sun from the waters of creation. Nun was seen as the vast emptiness of the cosmic ocean.

Below is an overview of the Heliopolitan cosmogony (Ennead of Heliopolis):

Nun and the Primordial Waters of Nothingness

Before the world existed, there was Nun, the chaotic waters of the void, an infinite expanse of darkness and primordial waters.

Emergence of the Benben and Atum

Atum is believed to have brought forth the first deities in an asexual manner. Image: Ancient Egyptian creator god Atum

From these waters, a mound or hill, known as the Benben, emerged. Atop this hill, the first deity, Atum (sometimes associated with Ra, the sun god), came into being.

It is said that Atum, a sun deity, existed in a dormant or asleep state for an immeasurable span of time. This portrayal emphasizes the idea of a world before creation — a state of nothingness, stillness, and potential.

Atum creates the first Egyptian deities

Atum was a self-created deity. He created the first pair of deities, Shu (the god of air) and Tefnut (the goddess of moisture), through a process described in some texts as autogenesis (self-generation, sometimes symbolically described as spitting, sneezing, or through more intimate means).

How Atum actually created Shu and Tefnut

In Egyptian mythology, the act of creation is often illustrated using human analogies to help convey abstract concepts. For the creation of the first deities, the myth employs the metaphor of masturbation for Atum’s self-generative act. The hand Atum used symbolizes the feminine aspect present within him.

Additionally, the myth describes Atum as having “sneezed” and “spat” to bring forth the deities Shu and Tefnut. This description is rooted in wordplay, as the Egyptian words for these actions sound similar to the names of the deities. Through these metaphors and puns, the story conveys the idea of spontaneous creation and the interconnectedness of the divine entities.

The Birth of the Sky and the Earth

Shu and Tefnut went on to produce two offspring: Nut (the sky goddess) and Geb (the earth god). The depiction of Nut arched over Geb, with Shu standing between them, separating the sky from the earth, is a common visual representation in ancient Egyptian art.

First Egyptian deities – Shu and Tefnut. Image: Shu (center) separating Geb from Nut

Birth of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys

Nut and Geb birthed four children – Osiris, Egyptian god of fertility and the afterlife; Isis, goddess of motherhood and magic; Seth, god of chaos and storms; and Nephthys, goddess of protection.

These four gods play pivotal roles in various Egyptian myths, particularly the story of Osiris’s murder by his brother Seth and his resurrection with the aid of his wife, Isis.

Together with his children, Atum was able to hold back the malevolent and chaotic forces and keep the universe in balance. Atum was believed to be supported by Ma’at, the ancient Egyptian goddess of truth and order. Image: Ennead of Heliopolis

Reason why Atum created the first deities

Per the Heliopolitan cosmogony, the eight deities that came after Atum were seen as the extensions of the creator god. Together with these gods, Atum was able to hold back the destructive forces of chaos and keep the universe in balance. The purpose of creating those deities was aimed at keeping Ma’at (i.e. personification of order and truth) alive.

Ancient Egyptians’ explanation for the complex nature of the world

With each subsequent generation of deities, the complexity and diversity of the world increased, encapsulating all facets of nature. Each feature, from the mightiest river to the tiniest insect, was given a divine overseer, highlighting the interconnectedness of nature and divinity in ancient Egyptian belief.

The pantheon’s gradual expansion represents the organized unfolding of the cosmos from a singular origin to the intricate, multifaceted world the Egyptians knew.

How Egyptian temples served as models of the universe

Queen Hatshepsut‘s Temple at Deir el-Bahari, was called Djeser-Djeseru, meaning the Holy of Holies

Egyptian temples were architectural representations of the universe’s inception, with their innermost sections symbolizing the primordial hill.

As worshipers progressed from the temple’s exterior to its interior, they experienced rising floor levels and decreasing ceiling heights, transitioning from well-lit areas to dimly lit inner sanctums.

This dim ambiance recreated the ancient world’s atmosphere, a time when the world was devoid of form and meaning.

Egyptologists state that only a select few, mainly priests and the Pharaoh, had the privilege to enter the temple’s most sacred space.

Within this framework, the hypostyle hall, characterized by its multitude of columns that support a grand roof, was designed to resemble a dense cluster of papyrus reeds reminiscent of the marshes surrounding Benben, the first mound of creation.

Variations in the creation story

The different creation accounts in ancient Egypt

While the Heliopolitan cosmogony is central in Egyptian mythology, other cities and regions had their own versions of creation. Simply put, ancient Egypt had a number of creator deities and their corresponding creation stories.

For example, in the Hermopolitan cosmogony, the world began with the Ogdoad, a group of eight primordial deities, who represented the chaos that existed before creation. Over time, these various cosmogonies coexisted and intertwined, reflecting the rich tapestry of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and practices.

A depiction of the Ogdoad from a Roman era relief at the Hathor temple in Dendera in which some have frog heads and others have serpent heads.

The Pyramid Texts

In ancient Egypt, understanding the cosmos and the origin of life was essential to their religious beliefs and practices. The Pyramid Texts are among the earliest comprehensive religious compositions from ancient Egypt.

Dating from the Old Kingdom, specifically the era spanning c. 2700–2200 BC, these texts were inscribed on the walls of the interior chambers of pyramids. They were essentially funerary inscriptions, guiding the deceased pharaohs through the afterlife, ensuring their immortality, and linking them with the gods.

In addition to describing the afterlife and ensuring the pharaoh’s safe passage, the Pyramid Texts and other tomb inscriptions also elucidated the interconnectedness of creation myths with the reigning monarch, reinforcing the divine right and role of the pharaoh as the living god on earth, a direct descendant of the deities who created the world.

Known as some of the earliest religious compilations not just in ancient Egypt but in history in general, the Pyramid Texts serves as the major source of the information about ancient Egyptian creation myths. Image: Pyramid Text inscribed on the wall of a subterranean room in Teti’s pyramid, at Saqqara

Questions & Answers

 Ancient Egyptian accounts of the creation of the world.

From waters of Nun, a mound or hill, known as the Benben, emerged. The mound symbolized the rising of sun. Atop this hill, the first deity, Atum (sometimes associated with Ra, the sun god), came into being. Image: The sun rises over the circular mound of creation as goddesses pour out the primeval waters around it

What is the importance of Benben in ancient Egyptian creation story?

The ancient Egyptians believed Benben as a mound (i.e. pyramid) or island that became the first tangible piece of land from the vast, lifeless ocean of Nun.

Benben served as a foundational point from which the rest of creation would unfold.

This act of bringing forth land from water mirrors the natural phenomenon in the Nile Delta, where land emerges from the water annually due to silt deposition from the Nile’s flooding.

What was “The First Event”?

Benben was seen by ancient Egyptians as the “First Event” or “First Occasion” in the creation story. The mound symbolized the rising of the sun (i.e. Atum/Ra) for the first time.

Who were the first deities Atum created?

Atum, having emerged from the primordial waters and now standing atop the mound of Benben, began the act of populating the world.

Firstly, he created Shu, the god of air, embodying the life-giving, breathable atmosphere, and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture, representing the vital wetness essential for life. Their emergence underscores the importance of air and water as basic elements necessary for existence.

From Shu and Tefnut came the next generation: Geb and Nut. Geb was the personification of the earth itself, the solid ground upon which life forms could thrive. Contrarily, Nut was the expansive sky, a canopy over the earth, adorned with stars and celestial bodies.

What role did the first deities play in the story?

Shu and Tefnut’s roles are integral to the story as they represent essential elements of life and set the foundation for the subsequent layers of creation.

Shu, the god of air, represents the breathable atmosphere and space, essential for life to exist. He separates and holds up Nut, the sky, from Geb, the earth, creating the space in which the world exists. His role is to bring order, ensuring that the earth and the sky remain distinct entities, preventing chaos from returning.

Tefnut, the goddess of moisture, embodies the element of moisture or water, another fundamental aspect for life. Water is vital for fertility, growth, and daily sustenance. Tefnut is also associated with order and regulation, ensuring the world’s proper functioning by providing the necessary moisture.

Who are the other major creation deities in ancient Egyptian religion and mythology?

In the rich tapestry of ancient Egyptian mythology, there isn’t just one creation story but several, each emphasizing different elements and aspects of the cosmos and divinity.

For example, there are the Ogdoad, a group of eight primordial deities whose worship was predominant in Hermopolis, a city that straddled the boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt. According to the legend, these eight deities of creation were initially divided into male and female sets. The goddess Naunet and her counterpart Nu symbolized the inert primeval waters; Huh and Hauhet embodied their boundless expanse; Kek and Kauket signified the inherent darkness; while Amun and Amaunet depicted its concealed and mysterious essence, contrasting with the palpable realm of the living.

There was Ptah, a creator deity, who carried out the creation process through thought and word. It’s said that Ptah conceived the world in his heart and spoke it into existence with his tongue. This creation account was predominant in Memphis in Lower Egypt.

Ptah – a creation deity who was predominantly worshiped in ancient Memphis

Finally, there was Amun, the sun/creator god. The Theban cosmogony highlighted the god Amun. In this narrative, Amun is a mysterious, hidden god who existed before all things and from whom all creation emanated. He’s often merged with Ra to form Amun-Ra, a powerful synthesis of Theban and Heliopolitan beliefs.

The Theban cosmogony highlighted the god Amun. Initially a minor local deity, Amun rose to prominence during the Middle Kingdom and especially the New Kingdom, becoming the chief god of the pantheon.

READ MORE: Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Cities

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