Mythology is defined as a collection of interrelated stories of a given culture. Myths tend to describe the creation of the world and give a culture an understanding of the events of nature and the world around them. Myths are also generated to tell the story of the first people to inhabit the earth. These people are elevated to gods and goddesses, which usually associate them as having supernatural and special powers. Myths also express the values or beliefs of a culture, and every culture studied has their own myths distinctive to their group.
Ancient Egyptians tried to understand their place in the universe and their mythology centers itself on nature, the earth, sky, moon, sun, stars, and the Nile River. Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, is located in the ruins of Yunu in northeast Cairo. This is where the cosmic creation of Egyptian myth began. Ancient Egyptian mythology states that in the beginning of time everything began with Nu. Nu is the description of what the planet was before land appeared. Nu was a vast area of swirling watery chaos and as the floods receded the land appeared. The first god to appear out of this watery mess was Atum. This myth was probably created because of the large source of water from the Nile River. In one interpretation, Atum is credited with the fertile land that springs up when the water's of the Nile River recedes, because he was the first to arise out of the watery mess.
Atum emerged from Nu as the sun god at the beginning of time and is the creator of the world. Since Atum was all alone he chose to mate with his shadow. The god Atum was known as the `Great He-She', and a bisexual. The ancient Egyptians found this act acceptable, as they found all types of sexual orientations acceptable. Atum gave birth to two children by spitting out his son (Shu) and vomiting up is daughter (Tefnut). Shu represented the air and the principles of life and Tefnut represented rain and principles of order. The three remained in the watery chaos of Nu and after some time Atum was separated from his children. When they were finally reunited, Atum wept with tears of joy. When his tears hit the ground men grew and he then began to create the world. Shu and Tefnut later gave birth to Geb, the god of the earth in which the throne of the Pharaoh would be decided. Nut was also born from Tefnut and Shu as the Goddess of the sky, the separator between earth and Nu. Geb and Nut then gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. In ancient Egyptian mythology there is an established kinship of the gods and goddesses. Atum is known also as Khepri, the great scarab beetle, Ra-Harakhte, the winged-solar disk, Ra, the midday sun, Aten, the solar-disk, or Horus on the Horizon. By whatever name you call him Atum, is the one and only creator in the universe. The sun god Atum travels along Nut during the day and then is swallowed by Nut at night. At dawn it is seen as Nut giving birth to Atum as the sky opens up to the light.
One of the most famous Egyptian myths is the myth of Osiris. Osiris has been credited with many different titles, god of fertility, king of the dead, god of agriculture, and god of the underworld, controller of the Nile floods, and the rising and setting of the sun. All of these titles have one thing in common: life, death, and rebirth because the myth of Osiris is attributed to his life, murder, and eternal life after death. The myth of Osiris begins when he sets out to spread law and order across the land and to teach people how to farm. Because Osiris was a powerful king and popular with the people, his jealous brother lured him into a coffin and sealed his fate with molten lead. Seth then sent him down the Nile River in the coffin. Later the coffin washed ashore in Lebanon and a tree encased it. A king of Lebanon was impressed by the size of the tree and cut it down and put it in his palace.
Isis was the wife and sister to Osiris who gave birth to Horus and was the protector of the dead. When she received the news of Osiris's death, she knew the dead could not rest without a proper burial. Isis searched and found Osiris' body and brought it back to Egypt. Seth found this unacceptable and cut Osiris into many pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis set out again and had all the pieces she found made into wax duplicates. All the wax duplicates were placed in the temple to be worshipped. Isis preserved his body with linen bandages, used her magic and breathed life back into Osiris. Osiris then rose as a God-King and he chose to rule the underworld. This is where the roots of mummification and rebirth into the afterworld began.
Ancient Egyptian gods:
Amen (Amon): Amen has his origin in Thebes. He is known as Lord of Creation and Protector of the Poor and Weak. His name means �The Hidden One.� He is considered the father of all gods; thus he does not have a mother or father but is husband to Mut, the Great Mother. During the Middle Kingdom, Uast became the state capitol of Egypt and since Amen was the central god of Uast, he became the state god and was later combined with Ra (another creator god) to become Amen-Ra, and worshipped as the King of Gods. Egyptians represent him in art and statue as man or the sun. His sacred animals were the ram and the goose, which were bred and kept at all of his temples throughout Egypt.
Bastet: The Egyptian cat-headed goddess, Bastet was strictly a solar deity until the arrival of Greek influence on Egyptian society, when she became a lunar goddess due to the Greeks associating her with their Artemis. Dating from the 2nd Dynasty (roughly 2890-2686 BC), Bastet was originally portrayed as either a wild desert cat or as a lioness, and only became associated with the domesticated feline around 1000 BC. She was commonly paired with Sakhmet, the lion-headed goddess of Memphis, Wadjet, and Hathor. Bastet was the "Daughter of Ra", a designation that placed her in the same ranks as such goddesses as Maat and Tefnut. Additionally, Bastet was one of the "Eyes of Ra", the title of an "avenger" god who is sent out specifically to lay waste to the enemies of Egypt and her gods.
Geb: Geb was the �Father Earth� or the earth-god. He is said to live forever below his wife Nut, the goddess of the sky. He is the brother and husband of Nut and together they had five children. Geb's sign is the goose, which is thought, according to the mythological creation story, to be the form that the creator took on the day of creation. Geb is thought to be the first ruler of Kemet and some of the ancient king-lists have Geb and his immediate descendants as actual physical kings.
Horus (Heru, Haroeris, Harpocrates): Horus is the son of Isis and Osiris. When Osiris was killed by Set, Horus set out to avenge him. He is the god of the living and lord of the heavens. His name means �He who is above.� Horus is represented as a falcon or hawk-headed deity because of his status as god of the sky and horizon. There are several myths about the eye or eyes of Horus. One source says that Horus gave up his right eye in battle and that it represents strength, vigor and self-sacrifice. Another source simply says that one of his eyes represents the sun and the other represents the moon. During the time he was worshipped in Ancient Egypt, his cult-centers were Behdet in Lower Egypt, and Hierakonpolis and Edfu in Upper Egypt.
Ma'at (Maat): Ma'at was the goddess of truth, justice and harmony. Ra, the sun god, was her father. Offerings were often made of Ma'at to the gods by the pharaohs to show that they wanted to keep harmony and justice on the earth. Ma'at is represented as a woman with an ostrich feather on her head. A vizier, who was a high official in the government and advisor to the pharaohs, were often known as �priests of Ma'at�.
Nut (Nuit): Nut was the goddess of the sky. She created the casing over the earth with her body. She was the sister and wife of Geb, the god of the earth. Shu, the god of air, separated nut and Geb when he lifted Nut up to become the canopy over the earth. Ancient Egyptians believed that in the evenings, Nut would swallow Ra, the sun god, and in the mornings give birth to him. Nut appears as a goddess wearing a blue dress covered in stars.
Ptah: Ptah is the creator god of Memphis, the capital of the dual Kemetic for most of its history. Ptah is symbolized as a mummified man wearing a skullcap and holding the symbols of life, power, and stability in his arms. Ptah is sometimes seen as an abstract form of the self-created one, who effected creation through the actions of his heart and gave all things the breath of life with his tongue. Ptah represents the sun at the time when it begins to rise above the horizon and or right after it has risen. As early as the Second Dynasty, he is regarded as a creator god. He is the patron of painters, builders. architects, artists and sculptors. It was Ptah who built the boats for the souls of the dead to use in the afterlife. In the Book of the Dead we learn that he was a master architect, and responsible for building the framework of the universe. It was said that Ptah created the great metal plate that was the floor of heaven and the roof of the sky. He also constructed the supports that held it up. Some creation legends say that by speaking the names of all things, Ptah caused them to be.
Ra (Re): Another deity represented in human form with the head of a falcon, like Horus. Ra, like Amen, is also thought to be a god of creation. His cult-center is Heliopolis, where he is known as the sun god and supreme judge. Ra is also known as the father of kings and the most important gods. Followers of Ra believe that life on earth was created from the tears of Ra as he wept at the beauty of mankind and his creation. He is considered a living god during the day and a dead one at night. He is born at dawn as a small child, an adult in prime at midday and an old man at sunset. He dies at dark and is reborn again at next dawn.
Seth: Seth was the god of wind and storms and ruler of the deserts. He is seen as the one who brings chaos to Egypt and is the enemy of Osiris and Horus. Nephthys is the wife to Seth and sister to Osiris, Isis, and Seth. She is usually depicted as a protector of the dead. From Osiris and Isis comes Horus, the King of Egypt.
Tawaret (Thoeris, Taurt): Tawaret, or �The Great One�, is the goddess who protects women during their pregnancy and childbirth. Often temples were built to honor gods and goddesses but Tawaret was a goddess who was worshiped by ancient Egyptians in their own homes. Often an amulet of Tawaret was worn or at least kept in a person's home to keep them safe from evil spells or actions. Tawaret has the head of a hippopotamus and arms and legs of a lion. She has the back and tail of a crocodile and the breasts and stomach of a pregnant woman.
These are the gods with whom ancient Egyptians had a relationship for thousands of years. By careful study of the gods and the myths that surround them, we can develop a picture in our own minds of what the ancient Egyptians were like as emotional beings. We know what they did on an everyday basis. We know what kind of jobs they worked, how they ate, their medical technology, their government, and how they created their magnificent monuments. But within the hieroglyphs containing the myths of the gods we can learn what motivated the Egyptians spiritual lives. We can learn why they did the things that they did, what the purpose of the pyramids were, their relationship with the pharaoh, their burial practices and their belief in the afterlife. Maybe the ancient Egyptians knew something about the afterlife or the realm of the spirits that we don't know, or will never know, unless we take the time to understand their mythology as they understood it.
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El Mahdy, Christine: Mummies-Myth and Magic. Thames and Hudson Ltd. London 1989
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Thomas, Angela P. Egyptian Gods and Myths (London, England: Shire Publications Ltd., 1986).