Egyptian mythology is the collection of myths from ancient Egypt, describing the actions of the Egyptian gods as a means of understanding the world. The beliefs expressed in these myths are an important part of ancient Egyptian religion. Myths appear frequently in Egyptian writings and art, especially in short stories and religious material such as hymns, ritual texts, funerary texts, and temple decoration. These sources rarely contain the entire narrative of the myth, but contain only brief fragments of it.
Inspired by the cycles of nature, the Egyptians saw time in the present as a series of repeating patterns, whereas the earlier periods of time were a linear chronological order. The myths are set in those early times, and set the context for the cycles in the present. Present events repeat the events of the myth, and in doing so renew the maat, the fundamental order of the universe. Among the most important episodes of the mythic past are the creation myths, according to which the gods formed the universe from primordial chaos, the stories of the reign of the sun god Ra on earth, and the Myth of Osiris, which concerns the struggle of the gods Osiris, Isis and Horus against the god of destruction Seth. Events from the present that can be considered myths include Ra”s daily journey to the world and his corresponding underworld, Duat. Themes that recur in these mythic episodes include the conflict between those who maintain maat and the forces of anarchy, the importance of the pharaoh in maintaining maat, and the constant death and rebirth of the gods.
The details of these sacred events vary considerably from text to text and often seem to be contradictory. Egyptian myths are mainly metaphorical, conveying the essence and behavior of the deities in a way that people can understand. Each variation of the myth represents a different symbolic perspective, thus enriching the ancient Egyptians” understanding of the gods and the world.
Mythology has had a profound influence on Egyptian culture. It inspired or influenced many religious rituals and provided the ideological basis for the institution of kingship. Scenes and symbols from the myth appeared in art on tombs, temples and amulets. In literature, myths or elements of myths were used in stories ranging from humorous to allegorical, indicating that the Egyptians adopted mythology for a number of different purposes.
The evolution of Egyptian myths is difficult to trace. Egyptologists must only speculate about its early stages of development, based on written sources that appeared much later. One obvious influence on the myth is the physical environment of Egypt. Every day the sun rose and set, bringing light to the earth and regulating human activities. Every year the Nile flooded, renewing the fertility of the soil thus allowing great production to sustain Egyptian civilization. Thus, the Egyptians saw water and the sun as symbols of life; they perceived time as a series of natural cycles. This orderly context was in constant danger of destruction: unusually low floods resulted in famine, and high floods resulted in the destruction of crops and buildings. The hospitable Nile Valley was surrounded by harsh desert, inhabited by people whom the Egyptians regarded as uncivilized enemies of order. For this reason, the Egyptians saw their land as an isolated place of stability, or maat, surrounded and threatened by chaos. These themes-order, chaos, rebirth-constantly make their appearance in Egyptian religious thought.
Another possible source of mythology is ritual. Many rituals make references to myths and sometimes are directly based on them. But it is difficult to determine whether a culture”s myths develop before rituals or vice versa. Questions about this relationship between myth and rituals have raised much debate among Egyptologists and scholars of comparative religion in general. In ancient Egypt, the earliest evidence of religious practices preceded written myths. Rituals in early Egyptian history include only a few motifs from myth. For these reasons, some scholars have argued that, in Egypt, rituals appeared before myths. But since early period evidence is so scarce, the question can never be settled with certainty early evidence.
In private rituals, often called “magic”, myth and ritual are closely linked. Many of the myth-like stories that appear in ritual texts are not found in other sources. Even the widespread myth of the goddess Isis saving her poisoned son Horus appears only in such texts. Egyptologist David Frankfurter believes that these rituals adapted key mythical traditions to fit this particular ritual, creating new detailed stories based on the myth. In contrast, Joris Borghouts says of magical texts that “there is no trace of evidence that a specific kind of ”unorthodox” mythology has been introduced for this kind of texts.”
Much of Egyptian mythology consists of creation myths, which explain the beginnings of various elements of the world, including human institutions and natural phenomena. The institution of kingship appears among the gods at the beginning of time and is later passed on to the human pharaohs. War begins when humans start fighting each other when the sun god retires to heaven. The myths also describe the supposed beginning of less fundamental traditions. In a shorter mythical episode, Horus gets angry with his mother Isis and cuts off her head. Isis replaces her missing head with a cow”s head. This fact explains why Isis is sometimes depicted with cow horns as part of her crown.
Some myths may have been inspired by historical events. The unification of Egypt under the Pharaohs at the end of the Predynastic Period around 3100 BC made the king the focus of Egyptian religion, and thus the institution of kingship became an important part of mythology. With unification, gods that were only local patron gods gained importance for the whole country, creating new relationships that linked local deities into a unified tradition for the whole country. Geraldine Pinch suggested that early myths may have been formed from these relationships. Egyptian sources link the mythical struggle between the gods Horus and Seth to the conflict between the regions of Upper and Lower Egypt, which may have occurred at the end of the Predynastic Period or the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period.
After this early period, most changes in mythology developed and adapted pre-existing concepts rather than created new ones, although there were some exceptions to this. Many scholars have suggested that the myth of the sun god retiring to heaven and leaving people to fight among themselves was inspired by the breakdown of royal power and national unity at the end of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – 2181 BC). In the New Kingdom (c. 1550 – 1070 BC), smaller myths developed around deities such as Yam and Anat that were adopted from the Canaanite religion. In contrast, during the Greek and Roman period (332 BC – 641 AD), Greco-Roman civilization had little influence on Egyptian mythology.
Scholars have difficulty determining which of the ancient Egyptian beliefs are myths. The basic definition of myth given by Egyptologist John Baines is “a sacred or culturally-charged ”narrative””. In Egypt the narratives which have culture and religion at their core are almost entirely about events between the gods. Narratives about the actions of the gods alone are rare in Egyptian texts, especially from the earliest periods, and most references to such events are mere allusions or hints. Some Egyptologists, such as Baines, argue that narratives complete enough to be called myths existed throughout the periods, but Egyptian tradition preferred not to record them in writing. Others, such as Jan Assmann, have said that actual myths were rare in Egypt and may have appeared partly during its history, having developed from fragments of narratives that had made their appearance in the earliest writings. Recently, however, Vincent Arieh Tobin and Susanne Bickel have suggested that extensive narratives were not needed in Egyptian mythology because of its complex and flexible nature. Tobin believes that narrative is even alien to myth because narratives tend to form a simple and stable perspective on the events they describe. In narrative, myth is not needed, and a formulation that conveys an idea about the nature or actions of the gods can be called “mythic.”
Like myths in many other cultures, Egyptian myths aim to justify human traditions and answer fundamental questions about the world, such as the nature of disorder in the world and the ultimate fate of the universe. The Egyptians explained these fundamental questions with views of the gods.
Egyptian deities represent natural phenomena, from physical objects such as the Earth and the Sun to abstract forces such as knowledge and creation. The energies and interactions of the gods, the Egyptians believed, governed the behavior of all these forces and elements. For the most part, the Egyptians did not describe these mysterious processes in purely theological texts. Rather, the relationships and interactions of the gods implicitly revealed such processes.
Many of the Egyptian gods, including many of the major ones, have no role in the mythical narratives, although their nature and their relationships with other deities are often established in lists or simple formulations without narrative. For the gods who have a large presence in narratives, mythic incidents are very important expressions of their role in the world. Thus, if we assume that only narratives are myths, mythology is a major element in Egyptian religious understanding, but not as important as it is in other cultures.
The true realm of the gods is mysterious and inaccessible to mortals. Mythological stories use symbolism to make the events in this realm understandable. Not every detail of the mythic narrative has symbolic significance. Some images and incidents, even in religious texts, simply serve the role of illustrative or dramatic embellishment of larger, more significant myths.
Few whole stories appear in the Egyptian mythological sources. The sources often contain nothing more than hints of the events to which they relate, and the texts that do contain narratives tell only parts of a larger story. Thus, for each myth the Egyptians may have had only the broad outlines of the story, from which they drew passages describing specific incidents. Further, the gods are not well-described characters, and their motives for their sometimes inconsistent actions are rarely given. Thus, Egyptian myths are not fully developed stories. Their importance lies in their deep meaning, not in their characteristics as stories. Instead of coalescing into long, stable narratives, they remained flexible and non-dogmatic.
Egyptian myths were so flexible that they could seemingly contradict each other. There are many descriptions of the creation of the world and the movements of the sun, some very different from one another. The relationships between the gods were fluid, so that, for example, the goddess Athor might be called the mother, wife, or daughter of the sun god Ra. Separate deities could even be comparative in nature, or linked into one entity. Thus, the creator god Atum had combined with Ra to form Ra-Atum.
One reason that has often been suggested for the inconsistencies in myth is that religious ideas have varied from time to time and from region to region. Local cults of various deities developed theologies centered on their own local patron gods. As the influence of several of the cults changed, some mythological systems became established throughout the country. In the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BCE) the most important of these systems were the cults of Ra and Atum, centered in Heliopolis. They formed a mythical family, the Ennead, which was said to have created the world. It included the most important deities of the time but gave primacy to Atum and Ra. The Egyptians also “mixed” old religious ideas with new ones. For example, the god Pta, whose centre of worship was in Memphis, was also said to be the creator of the world. The myth of Pta”s creation of the world incorporates older myths by saying that it was the Ennead who carried out the orders of Pta”s creation. Thus, the myth makes Pta older and more important than the Ennead. Many scholars have seen this myth as a political attempt to assert the supremacy of the god of Memphis over the gods of Heliopolis. By combining concepts in this way, the Egyptians produced a very complex framework of deities and myths.
Egyptologists in the early 20th century believed that politically motivated changes such as these were the main reason for the contradictory symbolism in Egyptian myth. However, in the 1940s Henry Frankfort, realizing the symbolic nature of Egyptian mythology, argued that the seemingly contradictory ideas were part of the “multiplicity of approaches” used by the Egyptians to understand the realm of the gods. His arguments are the basis for several of the recent analyses of Egyptian concepts. Political changes affected Egyptian conceptions, but the ideas that emerged from these changes also had deeper meaning. Multiple versions of the same myth expressed different perspectives of the same phenomenon. Different gods behaving in similar ways reflected the close relationships between natural forces. The various symbols of Egyptian mythology express ideas too complex to be seen in a single light.
The resources available range from serious hymns to entertaining stories. Without a fixed version of any one myth, the Egyptians adapted the traditions of the myths to suit the different purposes of their writings. Most Egyptians were illiterate and thus may have had detailed oral traditions that conveyed the myths through oral storytelling. Susanne Bickel suggests that the existence of this tradition helps explain why many texts related to myths provide little detail: the myths were already known to every Egyptian. Very little of this oral tradition has survived, and modern knowledge of Egyptian myths is drawn from written sources and from illustrations. Only a very small percentage of these sources have survived, so most of what was written about the mythology has been lost. The information we have is not equally available for all periods, so the perceptions of the Egyptians in some periods of their history are very little understood than those periods for which we have more information.
Many gods appear in the art of the Early Dynastic Period of ancient Egyptian history (c. 3100-2686 BC), but little can be inferred about the actions of the gods from these sources because they contain little written evidence. The Egyptians began to use writing more widely in the Old Kingdom, during which the first major source of Egyptian mythology appeared: the Pyramid Texts. These texts were a collection of several hundred incantations inscribed inside the pyramids beginning in the 24th century and later. They were the first Egyptian funerary texts, intended to ensure that the pharaohs buried in the pyramids would pass safely into the afterlife. Many incantations refer to myths related to the afterlife, including creation myths and the Myth of Osiris. Many of the texts are probably much older than the earliest known written copies, and thus provide evidence for the earliest stages of Egyptian religious belief.
During the First Transitional Period (c. 2181-2055 BC), the Pyramid Texts evolved into the Sarcophagus Texts, which contained similar material and were available to non-royal individuals. Subsequent funerary texts, such as the Book of the Dead in the New Kingdom and the Books of Breaths from the Late Period (664-323 BC) onwards, evolved from those early collections. The New Kingdom also witnessed the development of yet another type of funerary texts, which included detailed and coherent descriptions of the sun god”s nocturnal journey. Texts of this genre include the Amduat, the Book of Gates, and the Book of Caves.
The temples, most of which survive from the New Kingdom period onwards, are another important source of the legend. Many temples had a per-ankh, or temple library, for storing scrolls for ritual or other uses. Some of these du scrolls contained hymns in which, in praising a god for his deeds, they often referred to the myths describing those deeds. Other temple scrolls described rituals, many of which were based in part on myth. Extracts from these scrolls have survived to the present day. It is possible that the collections of scrolls included a more systematic record of myths, but no evidence of such texts has survived. Mythological texts and illustrations similar to those on the temple scrolls also exist in the decoration of the temples. The richly decorated and well-preserved temples of the Greek and Roman periods (332 BC-641 AD) are a particularly rich source of myths.
The Egyptians also performed rituals for personal purposes, such as protection from or treatment of illness. These rituals are usually called “magical” rather than religious, but they were believed to function in the same way as temple rituals, invoking mythical events as the basis of the rituals.
Information from religious sources is limited by a system of traditional restrictions on what they could describe and represent. The murder of the god Osiris, for example, is never described in detail in Egyptian writings. The Egyptians believed that words and images could affect reality, so they avoided the risk of making such negative events real by saying or depicting them. The conventions of Egyptian art were also incompatible with depicting entire narratives, so most of the works related to myths consist of fragmentary scenes.
References to myths also exist in non-religious Egyptian literature, beginning in the Middle Kingdom. Many of these references are simple allusions to myth motifs, but several stories are based entirely on mythic narratives. These more direct attributions of myths are particularly common in the Late and Greco-Roman periods, when Egyptian myths had reached their most fully developed stage.
The treatments of myth in non-religious Egyptian texts vary. Some stories resemble the narrative of magical texts, while others are overtly intended to entertain and even contain humorous elements.
A final source of Egyptian myths is the writings of ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Herodotus and Diodorus, who described the Egyptian religion during the last centuries of its existence. Plutarch stands out among them, whose work On Isis and Osiris contains, among other things, the most ancient rendering of the myth of Osiris. These writers” knowledge of Egyptian religion was limited because they could not take part in many religious practices, and their conclusions about Egyptian beliefs are influenced by their preconceptions about Egyptian culture.
The Egyptian word m3ˁt, often rendered ma”at, or maat, refers to the fundamental order of the universe. Existing from the creation of the world, ma”at separates the world from the chaos that preceded it and surrounds it. Maat represents both the proper conduct of human beings and the normal functioning of the forces of nature, both of which make possible the existence of life and happiness. Because the actions of the gods govern the natural forces, and the myths express these actions, Egyptian mythology represents the proper functioning of the world and the preservation of life itself.
For the Egyptians, the most important guardian of the maat was the pharaoh. In myth, the pharaoh is the son of various deities. Thus, he is their appointed representative, obliged to maintain order in human society as they maintain order in nature, and to continue the rituals that preserve them, those (the gods) and their activities.
Shape of the World
In Egyptian belief, the chaos that precedes the malleable world exists beyond it as an extension of amorphous water, personified by the goddess Noon. The Earth, personified by the god Gheb, is a piece of flat earth above which is the sky, usually personified by the goddess Nud. The two are separated by the air, Su. The sun god Ra travels across the sky through Nutt”s body, enlivening the world with his light. At night Ra passes across the western horizon to Duat, a mysterious region bordering the formless waters of Noon. At dawn he emerges from Duat onto the eastern horizon.
The nature of the sky and the location of Duat are uncertain. Egyptian texts vary in their description of the night journey of the sun as it travels under the earth and into the body of Dout. Egyptologist James Allen believes these explanations of the sun”s movements as disparate but coexisting ideas. In Allen”s view, Noot represents the visible surface of the waters of Noon, with the stars floating on that surface. The sun thus travels across the water in a circle, passing over the horizon each night to reach the skies that extend beyond the land of Dwat. Leonard Lesko, however, believes that the Egyptians saw the sky as a solid dome and described the sun traveling through the Dwat over the surface of the sky from west to east during the night. Joanne Conman, modifying Lesko”s model, believes that the solid sky is a moving, concave dome crowning a very convex earth. The sun and stars move along this dome, and their passage below the horizon is simply their movement across areas of the earth that the Egyptians could not see. These areas would then be Duat.
The fertile land of the Nile Valley (Upper Egypt) and the Delta (Lower Egypt) are at the centre of the world of Egyptian cosmology. Beyond these are the barren deserts, associated with the chaos that lies beyond the world. Somewhere beyond these deserts is the horizon, the aket. There, two mountains, one in the east and one in the west, mark the places where the sun enters and leaves the Duat.
Foreign nations are associated with hostile deserts in Egyptian ideology. Similarly, foreigners are grouped under the term “nine arcs,” peoples who threaten the pharaonic authority and stability of the ma”at, although peoples who are allies or subjects of Egypt could be viewed more positively. For these reasons, events in Egyptian mythology rarely take place in foreign places. While some stories refer to the sky or Duat, it is usually Egypt itself that is the setting for the gods” actions. Often, even the myths set in Egypt seem to take place in a plane of existence separate from that in which mortals dwell, though in other stories gods and mortals interact. In any case, the Egyptian gods are connected to their land.
The Egyptians” view of time was influenced by their environment. Every day the sun rose and set, bringing light to the earth and regulating human activity. Each year the Nile flooded, renewing the fertility of the soil, allowing great production to sustain Egyptian civilization. These periodic events inspired the Egyptians to see time as a series of recurring patterns regulated by maat, renewing the gods and the universe. Although the Egyptians recognized that different historical periods differed in their details, mythical stereotypes dominated the Egyptian view of history.
Many Egyptian stories about the gods are characterized as having taken place in a primeval time when the gods were present on earth and ruled it. After that time, the Egyptians believed, power on earth passed to human pharaohs. That primeval time seems to precede the beginning of the sun”s journey and the repeated cycles of the present age. At the other end of time is the end of the cycles and the dissolution of the world. Because those distant periods fit better into a linear narrative than the cycles of the present time, John Baines considers them the only periods during which the myths took place. However, to some extent, the cyclical aspect of time was present in the mythic past as well. The Egyptians regarded the stories that took place at that time as timelessly real. The myths became true each time the events to which they were connected occurred. These events were celebrated with rituals, which often invoked myths. The rituals allowed time to periodically return to the mythical past and renew life and the universe.
Some of the most important categories of myths are described below. Due to the fragmentary nature of Egyptian myths, there is little evidence in Egyptian sources for the chronological order of mythical events. Despite this fact, the categories are in some loose chronological order.
Among the most important myths were those describing the creation of the world. The Egyptians had developed many accounts of creation, which differed greatly from one another in the events they described. In particular, the gods credited with the creation of the world differed in each account. This variation partly reflects the desire of the Egyptian cities and priesthood to exalt their own patron god of their city by attributing creation to him. But the different references were not seen as conflicting. Rather, the Egyptians considered the process of creation to have many facets and to involve many divine powers.
A common feature of the myths is the emergence of the world from the waters of chaos that surround it. This event represents the establishment of maat, that is, universal stability and harmony, and the beginning of life. A fragmentary tradition focuses on eight gods of the Eightfold, representing the characteristics of the primordial waters themselves. Their energies gave birth to the sun (represented in creation myths by various gods, especially Ra), whose birth forms a space of light and dryness in the dark waters. The sun rises through the first hill of dry land, another common motif in creation myths, the inspiration for this possibly having been drawn from the sight of the mountains of land rising as the flood of the Nile receded. With the emergence of the sun god, and the establishment of maat, the world had its first ruler. Reports from the first millennium BCE focus on the actions of the creator god in subduing the forces of chaos that threatened the newborn world.
Atum, a god closely associated with the sun and the primordial hill, is the focus of a creation myth dating back at least to the Old Kingdom. Atum, who embodies all the elements of the world, exists in the waters as a potential entity for existence. At the moment of creation he emerges to create other gods, which result in a group of nine gods, the Ennead, which includes Gheb, Nut, and other central elements of the world. The Ennead can by extension represent all the gods, so its creation represents the differentiation of the entity of Atum as a single entity that has the potential to exist, in the multiplicity of elements present in the world.
Over time, the Egyptians developed more abstract conceptions of the process of creation. By the time of the Sarcophagus Writings, they described the creation of the world as the realization of an abstract idea that had first developed in the mind of the creator god. The power of heka, which connects things in the divine realm and things in the physical world, is the power that connects the original idea of the creator god to its dysical realization. Heka himself is the god personified of the above power, but this mental process of creating the world is not only connected with this god. An inscription from the Third Transitional Period (c. 1070-664 B.C.), whose text may be even older, describes the process in detail and attributes it to the god Pta, whose close relationship with the artisans makes him a suitable deity to give physical form to the original mental conception of creation. Hymns from the New Kingdom describe the god Amun, a mysterious power that hides behind even the other gods, as the original source of this vision of creation.
The origin of people is not a major feature in creation stories. In some texts, the first humans emerge from the tears that Ra-Atum or his female counterpart, the Eye of Ra, sheds in a moment of weakness and anxiety, foreshadowing the flawed west of humans and their sorrow-filled lives. Other stories say that humans were created from fire by the god Knum. But the focus of creation myths is the establishment of the cosmic order rather than the place of humans specifically within it.
The reign of the sun god
In the mythical past after creation, Ra is on earth as king of gods and men. This period is the closest thing to a Golden Age in Egyptian tradition, the period of stability that Egyptians constantly refer to and try to emulate. Still, the stories about Ra”s reign focus on the conflicts between him and the powers that want to disrupt his rule, reflecting the king”s role in Egyptian ideology as the one who enforces maat.
In an episode known from different versions of temple texts, some of the gods defy Ra”s authority, and he destroys them with the help and advice of other gods such as Thoth and Elder Horus. At one point he is confronted with the defection of part of himself, the Eye of Ra, which can act independently of him in the form of a goddess. The goddess becomes enraged with Ra and flees from him, wandering in peril outside the land of Egypt. Weakened by her absence, Ra sends one of the other gods-Shu, Thoth, or Anhur depending on the story-to bring her back, by force or persuasion. As the Eye of Ra is associated, among other things, with the star Sirius, whose solar rising marked the beginning of the flood of the Nile, the return of the goddess of the Eye to Egypt coincided with the life-giving flood. Upon her return, the goddess became the wife of Ra or the god who brought her back. Her pacification restores order and renews life.
As Ra grows older and weaker, even humanity turns against him. In an episode called “The Destruction of Humanity”, mentioned in the Book of the Celestial Cow, Ra discovers that humanity is plotting against him and sends his Eye to punish it. He kills many people, but eventually Ra decides he doesn”t want to destroy all of humanity. He dyes himself red to resemble blood and spreads it across the earth. The goddess Eye drinks the beer, gets drunk, and stops her destructive work. Ra then retires to the sky, tired of ruling the earth, and begins his daily journey through the heavens and Duat. The people who were saved are frustrated, and attack the people who conspired against Ra. The events are the beginning of wars, death, and the constant struggle of humans to protect maat from the destructive acts of other humans.
In the Book of the Celestial Cow, the results of the destruction of humanity seem to mark the end of the immediate reign of the gods and the linear time of myth. The beginning of Ra”s journey is the beginning of the cyclical time of the present. But in other sources, mythical time continues after this change. Egyptian accounts deliver a series of divine rulers who take the place of the sun god as king of the Earth, each reigning for many thousands of years. Although accounts vary as to which gods reigned and in what order, succession from Ra-Atum to the descendants of Su and Geb – where kingship passes to the male in each generation of the Ennead – is common. Both of these face revolutions corresponding to those in the reign of the sun-god, but the revolt which holds the most attention in the Egyptian sources is that against Gheb”s successor Osiris.
Myth of Osiris
The collection of episodes relating to the death of Osiris and his succession is the most detailed of all Egyptian myths, and the most widely influential in Egyptian culture. In the first part of the myth, Osiris, who is associated with both fertility and the institution of kingship, is killed and his place is usurped by his brother Seth. In some versions of the myth, Osiris is dismembered and his pieces are scattered throughout Egypt. Osiris”s sister and wife, Isis, finds her husband”s body and restores it to its integrity. She is assisted by funerary deities such as Nephthys and Anubis, and the process of restoring Osiris” body reflects Egyptian traditions of embalming and burial. Isis briefly resurrects Osiris, makes contact with him, and conceives a successor with him, the god Horus.
The next part of the legend concerns the birth of Horus and his childhood. Isis gives birth to and raises her son in secluded places, hiding from Seth”s wrath. The episodes in this part of the myth concern Isis” attempts to protect her son from Seth or other hostile beings, or to heal him from illness or injury. In these episodes Isis is the epitome of maternal devotion and the one who wields healing magic with powerful powers.
In the third phase of the story, Horus competes with Seth for the kingdom. Their struggle involves a large number of separate episodes and varies in character from violent clashes to judgement by a court composed of other gods. In one major episode, Seth plucks out one or both of Horus” eyes, which are then restored through the healing efforts of Thoth and Athor. For this reason, the Eye of Horus is a prominent symbol of life and prosperity in Egyptian iconography. Because Horus is a sky deity, with one eye corresponding to the sun and the other to the moon, the destruction and restoration of one eye explains why the moon is less bright than the sun.
The texts present two outcomes to the divine conflict: one in which Egypt is divided between the two claimants, and another in which Horus becomes the sole ruler. In a later version, the accession of Horus, Osiris” rightful successor, symbolizes the restoration of Maat after the unjust reign of Seth. With order restored, Horus can perform the funeral rites for his father that are his duty as son and heir. Through these rituals Osiris is given new life in Duat, of which he becomes ruler. The relationship between Osiris as king of the dead and Horus as king of the living applies to the relationship between any king and his dead predecessors. Osiris, meanwhile, represents the rebirth of life. In his land is attributed the annual growth of crops, and in Duat it is associated with the rebirth of the sun and the human souls of the dead.
Although Horus represents to some extent every living pharaoh, it is not the end of the succession of the power of the gods. He is succeeded first by gods and then by spirits representing the faint memories of Egypt”s Predynastic rulers, the Psyches Peh and Nekhen. They connect all the mythical rulers in the final part of the succession, that of the historical kings of Egypt.
Birth of the royal child
Many different Egyptian texts refer to the same theme: the birth of a child with a father god who is the heir to the kingdom. The earliest known occurrence of such a story appears to be not a myth but an entertaining tale, found in the Papyrus Westcar of the Middle Kingdom, concerning the birth of the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. In this story, the three kings are the sons of Ra and a mortal woman. The same theme appears in a purely religious context in the New Kingdom, when the rulers Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, and Ramses II depict their conception and birth in temple reliefs, in which their father is Amun and the historical queen is their mother. By stating that the king is descended from the gods and was deliberately created by the most important god of the period, the story gives a mythological background to the king”s coronation, which appears alongside the birth story. Divine descent legitimizes the king”s authority and provides the rationale for his role as mediator between gods and humans.
Similar scenes appear in temples of the post-New Kingdom era, but this time the events they depict involve only the gods. During this period most temples are dedicated to a mythical family of gods, usually father, mother and son. In these versions of the story, the birth is that of the son in each triad. Each of these gods” children is the heir to the throne, who will restore stability to the land. The shift in focus from the human king to the gods associated with him reflects a decline in the pharaoh”s prestige in the latter stages of Egyptian history.
The journey of the sun
Ra”s movements in the sky and the Duat are not fully described in Egyptian sources, although funerary texts such as the Amduat, the Book of Gates, and the Book of Caves refer to the night half of the journey in a series of images. This journey is central to the nature of Ra and the preservation of all life.
Travelling in the sky, Ra brings light to the earth, sustaining all things that live on it. He reaches the peak of his power at noon and then grows old and weak as he moves into the west. In the afternoon, Ra takes the form of Atum, the creator god, the oldest of all things in the world. According to older Egyptian texts, at the end of the day he vomits up all the other deities he had swallowed during the sunrise. Here the stars are represented, and the story explains why the stars are visible at night and seemingly absent during the day.
At sunset Ra passes through the akhet, the horizon, in the west. Sometimes the horizon is described as a gate or door leading to the Duat. At other times, the sky goddess Nut is said to swallow the sun god, and thus his journey to Duat is associated with the journey through her body. In the funerary texts, the Duat and the deities in it are described in extensive, detailed and iconography of great variety. These images are symbolic of the amazing and enigmatic world of the Duat, where gods and the dead are renewed by contact with the original forces of creation. Indeed, although the funerary texts avoid saying so explicitly, Ra”s entry into Duat is seen as his death
Some themes appear repeatedly in representations of the journey. Ra overcomes many obstacles along the way, representing the effort necessary to maintain maat. The greatest challenge is dealing with Apep, a serpent god who represents the destructive side of disorder, and who threatens to destroy the sun god and plunge creation into chaos. In many of the texts, Ra overcomes obstacles with the help of other deities who travel with him. They represent the various forces necessary to maintain Ra”s power. In his passage Ra also brings light to Duat, reviving the blessed dead who reside there. Instead, his enemies-people who had undermined maat-are tortured and thrown into dark pits or pools of fire.
The central event of the journey is Ra”s meeting with Osiris. In the New Kingdom, this event became a complex symbol of the Egyptian concept of life and time. Osiris, having been exiled to Duat, is like a mummified body in his grave. Ra, eternally in motion, is like the ba, or soul, of the deceased man, which may travel during the day, but must return to its body every night. When Ra and Osiris meet, they are united into one single being. Their union reflects the Egyptian concept of time as a repeating pattern, with one member (Osiris) always static and the other (Ra) living in a perpetual cycle. Once united with the rejuvenating power of Osiris, Ra continues its journey with renewed vitality. This renewal makes possible Ra”s emergence at dawn, which is seen as the rebirth of the sun – expressed in a metaphor in which Noon gives birth to Ra after she had swallowed him – and the repetition of the first sunrise at the moment of creation. At this point, the rising sun swallows the stars again, absorbing their powers. At this point of rejuvenation, Ra is depicted as a child or as the scarab god Hepri, both of which represent rebirth in Egyptian iconography.
The end of the universe
Egyptian texts generally treat the dissolution of the world as a possibility to be avoided, and for this reason it is often not described in detail. However, many texts refer to the idea that the world, after countless cycles of rebirth, is destined to end. This end is described in a passage in the Sarcophagus Writings and in greater detail in the Book of the Dead, in which Atum says that one day he will dissolve the orderly world and return it to its primordial, static state in the waters of chaos. All things except the creator will cease to exist, except Osiris, who will survive along with him (the creator). The details of this eschatological perspective are left vague, including the fate of the dead associated with Osiris. However, with the creator god and the god of rebirth together in the waters that gave birth to the fair world, there is the possibility of a new creation being created in the same way as the old creation was created.
Because the Egyptians rarely described theological ideas in detail, the implicit ideas of mythology formed most of the basis of Egyptian religion. The purpose of Egyptian religion was to preserve maat, and the concepts expressed in the myths were believed to be essential to maat. The rituals of Egyptian religion were to make the mythical events and the concepts they represented real again, thus renewing maat. The rituals were believed to achieve this purpose through the power of the heka, the same connection between the physical and divine realms that made the original creation possible.
For this reason, Egyptian rituals often include acts that symbolize mythical events. Temple rituals include the destruction of models (e.g., idols) depicting malevolent gods such as Seth and Apophis, private magical incantations invoking Isis to heal the sick as she did with Horus, and funerary rituals such as the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, and ritual offerings to the dead that refer to the myth of Osiris” resurrection. But rituals rarely, if ever, include dramatized reenactments of the myth. There are instances in between, such as the ritual mentioned in the Osiris myth in which two women took the roles of Isis and Nephthys, but scholars disagree whether these reenactments formed a series of events. Much of Egyptian ritual was focused on basic activities such as offerings to the gods, with mythical themes taking the place of an ideological framework rather than being the focus of the ritual. However, myth and ritual exerted a great influence on each other. Myths could inspire rituals, such as the ritual of Isis and Nephthys. And rituals which originally had no mythical meaning could be reinterpreted to have one, as in the case of offering rituals, in which food and other objects offered to the gods or the dead were equated with the Eye of Horus.
The institution of kingship was a central element in Egyptian religion, through the role of the king as a link between humanity and the gods. Myths explained the background for this connection between kingship and divinity. The myths about the Ennead established the king as the successor in the line of succession of rulers going back to the beginning of creation. The myth of divine birth states that the king is the son and heir of a god. And the myths of Osiris and Horus emphasize that equitable succession to the throne is essential for the preservation of maat. Thus, mythology provided the rationale for the very west of Egyptian governance.
Representations of gods and mythical events appear extensively along with religious texts in tombs, temples, and funerary texts. Mythological scenes in Egyptian art are rarely placed in sequential order as a narrative, but individual scenes, especially those depicting the resurrection of Osiris, sometimes appear in religious art.
References to myth were very widespread in Egyptian art and architecture. In temple design, the central corridor of the temple axis was connected to the corridor of the sun god in the sky, and the sanctuary at the end of the corridor represented the place of creation from which he rose. The decoration of the temples was full of symbols of the sun that emphasized this association. Similarly, the corridors of the tombs were associated with the god”s journey to Duat, and the burial chamber with the tomb of Osiris. The pyramid, the best known of all Egyptian architectural forms, may have been inspired by mythical symbolism, for it represented the reason for creation and the first sunrise, symbolism appropriate for a monument whose purpose was to ensure the rebirth of its owner after death. Symbols in the Egyptian tradition were often reinterpreted, so that the meaning of mythical symbols could change and multiply again, just like the myths themselves.
More common works of art were also designed to evoke mythical themes, such as the amulets worn by the Egyptians to invoke divine powers. The Eye of Horus, for example, was a very common shape for protection amulets because it represented the prosperity of Horus after the restoration of his lost eye. Scarab-shaped amulets symbolized the renewal of life, referring to god Hepri, the form the sun god was said to take at dawn.
Themes and motifs from mythology appear frequently in Egyptian literature, even outside of religious writings. An early didactic text, the “Teachings on King Merikare” from the Mmeso Kingdom, contains a brief reference to a myth, perhaps of the Destruction of Mankind. The earliest known short Egyptian story, “The Tale of the Wrecked Navy,” incorporates ideas about the gods and the eventual dissolution of the world into a story set in the past. Some subsequent stories draw their plots from mythological events: the “Tale of the Two Brothers” adopts parts of the Osiris myth into a fictional story about two normal people, and “Blinding Truth from Lies” transforms the conflict between Horus and Seth into an allegory.
A passage of text about the deeds of Horus and Seth from the Middle Kingdom dates from the Middle Kingdom, suggesting that stories about the gods appeared around that time. Many types of these texts are known from the New Kingdom, and many more were written in the Late and Greco-Roman periods. Although it is clearer that these texts are derived from myths than the earlier ones, they adopt the myths for non-religious purposes. “The Philonics of Horus and Seth,” from the New Kingdom, recounts the conflict between the two gods, often in a humorous and seemingly irreverent tone. The story from the Roman period “Myth of the Eye of the Sun” incorporated fictions in the main body of the story taken from the myth. In general, the variety of ways in which all of these stories handle mythology shows the wide range of purposes that myth could serve in Egyptian culture