The Ennead of Heliopolis in ancient Egypt
Over the course of its more than 3000-year-old history, ancient Egypt worshiped a plethora of deities. Various Egyptian cities gave birth to influential deities that went on to dominate the landscape, shaping not just the political environment but also the economic and social infrastructures. One such group of ancient Egyptian gods that wielded tremendous influence across the length and breadth of Egypt was the Ennead, also known as Great Ennead.
A group of nine gods, the Ennead were some of the the most worshiped deities in all of ancient Egypt. Monuments – such as obelisks, temples and shrines – were erected primarily on the banks of the Nile in order to pay the utmost reverence to those nine gods.
Here is a list of the nine ancient Egyptian gods that make up the Ennead of Heliopolis.
Atum is the ancient Egyptian god of creation who sat on the primordial mound (benben) and began creating everything that there is in the universe. Owing to this attribute of his, Egyptians revered him as the manifestation of the sun. This feature of his reinforces his association with the sun god Ra.
Atum’s name means the substance that permeates through everything. In some accounts, his name is said to evoke the meaning of “to finish” or “to complete”.
At Heliopolis, his major cult center, his worshipers revered him as not just the father of the Egyptian gods, but also the father of Egyptian pharaohs. In the Old Kingdom era, for example, it was believed that Atum was responsible for transporting the dead pharaoh’s soul from his burial chamber to the afterlife.
Often times, he is depicted in a human form wearing the Double Crown of Egypt.
According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, Shu, the air god, was the child of Atum. His role in the Egyptian pantheon helped earn him epithets like “he who rises up”. Shu was also the god of lions, peace and wind. He took his sister Tefnut as his consort. Together, they gave birth to two children – Geb and Nut.
Shu is usually depicted with a human face and body. The feather on his head is a symbolic reference to his role as the god of air/wind. In some other depictions, he was seen as a deity with a lion head.
Tefnut, also known as Tphenis to the ancient Greeks, is the chief consort/sister of the air god Shu. This makes her the daughter of the creator god Atum. In ancient Egyptian religion, Tefnut was seen as the deity of moisture, rain and dew.
In general she is depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness. Atop her head is the sun disc, a symbolic reference (the Eye of Ra) to her relationship to Atum (or Atum-Ra), the sun deity.
Like her brother Shu and her father Atum, the goddess Tefnut’s cult centers developed predominantly at Helipolis and Leontopolis.
A Heliopolis deity, Tefnut is regarded as the mother of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut.
Egyptian god Geb’s equivalent in the Greek pantheon would most likely be the Titan Cronus. The reason being that Geb, like Cronus, is the father of very important deities. By his wife/sister Nut, Geb is regarded as the father of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys.
Geb is the earth god. He is responsible for tending to the vegetation on earth. As a result, he was seen by many as a fertility god. Another important point worth mentioning is that Geb’s laughter was believed to trigger earthquakes.
Depicted as a woman with water pot on top of her head, Nut was the Egyptian sky goddess and the divine mother who nourished other Egyptian deities and pharaohs. In some other depictions, Nut can be seen arching over the earth as she symbolizes the sky. Her role as a nourishing deity meant that she was sometimes depicted as a cow.
For matters pertaining to the afterlife, the dead, fertility and vegetation, the ancient Egyptians primarily looked upon Osiris. Known as the lord of the dead and resurrection, Osiris is famed for being the deity that introduced ancient Egyptians to mummification. His association with vegetation and rebirth is the reason he was depicted as a green-skinned man wielding the crook and flail (symbols of kingship and divinity).
After his brother, the god Set, killed him and cut his body into pieces, Osiris’ dismembered body was retrieved by his wife, Isis. Using her magic, Isis was able to bring Osiris back to life. Osiris then went on to become an eminent judge of the dead and the lord of the afterlife.
In addition to her vast knowledge in magic, ancient Egyptian god Isis is most famous for being the mother of the falcon-headed sky god Horus. Her status as the wife of Osiris also made her one of the most worshiped Egyptian deity. It’s been stated that her worship spanned up until the Greco-Roman era.
Kind courtesy to her magic she was able to bring put together the chopped up pieces of Osiris’ body and bring him back to life. Isis, along with other Egyptian deities, fought very hard to keep her infant son Horus from the evil gaze of Set. As a result, she was generally seen as a very important protective deity.
Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Goddesses
A member of the Ennead of Heliopolis, Set is the Egyptian deity of chaos, storm and violence. His association with the desert also meant that he was seen as the god of foreigners. Set is most famous for his singular positive act in the myths. He is said to ride along with the sun god Ra in order to keep Ra safe from the malevolent serpent Apophis (or Apep).
The remainder of Set’s myths sees him constantly contending with either Osiris or Horus for the throne of Egypt. Driven by envy, Set killed his brother Osiris and then seized the throne of Egypt. His tyrannical reign came to an end after he was defeated by his nephew Horus, son of Osiris and Isis.
Together with his consort/sister, Nephthys, Set constitutes the negative force that balances out the positive/life force of Osiris and Isis.
Like her sister Isis, the Egyptian goddess Nephthys was associated with a host of things, including mourning, death, night, protection and childbirth. Her association with embalming and other funerary rites makes quite a lot of sense as she is considered the mother of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming and funerals.
Common epithets of Nephthys include “Lady of the Enclosure”, “Mistress of the Mansion”, “Goddess of Mourning”.
Major worship place
The Ennead gods were predominantly worshiped in Heliopolis, a major religious center of ancient Egypt. The city is located in present-day Ayn Shams, Cairo.
It’s been stated that the priests at Heliopolis came out with the grouping in an attempt to make Atum the chief deity of the Egyptian pantheon. Atum’s rise in prominence resulted in him merging with the sun god Ra, a prominent deity in Lower Egypt. What this means is that the Ennead basically celebrates Atum and his family of gods.
Creation story according to Heliopolitan beliefs
Ancient Egypt had quite an array of creation stories. In each of those stories, the creator deity appears to be different. This explains why in some cases the deities Ra or Ptah appear as the all-father creator gods.
According to the Heliopolitan priests, the creator god Atum emerged from the chaotic and primordial waters known as Nun. Sitting on a mound in the waters of Nun, the self-created god Atum set out to create the universe. He is said to have created his first two children – Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture) – from his spit or seamen. Shu and Tefnut in turn brought forth two deities Geb (earth) and Nut (sky).
After Nut and Geb mated, the gods Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys were born. Osiris and Isis, both forces of life and light, paired up and gave birth to the falcon-headed god Horus. Seth and Nephthys, on the other hand, are the deities that serve to balance out the order and light from Osiris and Isis.
Heliopolitan creation myth is just one of many creation myths that existed in ancient Egypt. The two other major creation myths were the Memphite creation myth (with Ptah as the creator god) and the Hermopolitian/Ogdoad creation story.
Ennead of Heliopolis facts
- The word “ennead” comes from Latinized Greek word Enneás, which means “the Nine”.
- Other names of the Ennead were the “Great Ennead” and the “Heliopolitan Ennead”.
- Throughout ancient Egypt’s history, there existed several enneads with slightly different member gods. In some cases, there were seven gods instead of nine. Some priests of Dynasties V and VI came out with sub groups such as the “Lesser Ennead” and the “Dual Ennead”.
- In some cases the Egyptian falcon-headed god Horus is included in the Ennead. Horus is the son of Egyptian deities Osiris and Isis.
- The Ennead is just one of the numerous groupings of ancient Egyptian gods. There are other groupings like the one from the city of Memphis, where priests of Ptah consider the god Ptah to be superior to Atum. There is also the grouping of primordial Egyptian deities known as the Ogdoad.
- The ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, is wielded by all members of the Ennead of Heliopolis.