Egyptian Mythology (Charles H.Long )


From time immemorial Egypt has been known as the country of two lands: The desertlike Upper Egypt, or the Red Land, and Lower Egypt, or the Black Land, where the soil is fertile. Even today 99 percent of the Egyptian population live in the Black Land. The significance of this duality is more than a geographical and demographic fact; it is a basic element in the very beginnings of the culture of the ancient Egyptians and finds significant expression in their religion and myths.

Ancient Egyptian culture, myth, and religion might be characterized as a duality with rhythmic structures contained within a static unity. Unlike Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt as a civilization did not develop several powerful city-states along two rivers. Egypt had one river of significance, the Nile, and smaller villages grew up alongside its banks. Each of these village communities manifested a mythology, but these mythologies did not create tensions among the communities. In ancient Egypt the tendency was toward unity and stasis, not confrontation and tension. A text that exemplifies this attitude, while taking into account older historical and local traditions, is the theology of Memphis, recorded on the Shabaka Stone. The Memphite theology presents the teachings of Menes, who established (c.3000 BC) a new capital at Memphis. In this theology all local and former mythological traditions are brought to their theological goal in the god Ptah. The text is a cosmology that describes the creation of the world and the unity of the land of Egypt as a process in the eternal ordering of the world. Ptah creates everything from notions that were in his heart and are then pronounced by his tongue. All things--the universe, living beings, justice, beauty, and so on--are created in this manner. The gods are also created in this way; coming forth first as concepts of Ptah's mind, they enter into the material forms of the world--stone, metal, wood--that have equally been created out of Ptah.

The Memphite theology takes over older local notions of creation, such as that of Hermopolis, which describes creation proceeding from eight primordial beings of chaos who inhabited the primeval slime. The four males are toads, and the four females snakes, forming the pairs of Nun and Naunet (primordial matter and primordial space); Kuk and Kauket (the illimitable and the boundless); Huh and Hauhet (darkness and obscurity); Amon and Amaunet (hidden and concealed ones). These eight bring forth the sun, and in the Memphite theology they are said to come forth from Ptah himself.

Another part of the Memphite mythology takes up myths from the Old Kingdom about the gods Horus and Seth. These two deities contend for authority over Egypt; another deity, Geb, the earth-god, acts as mediator. Geb first partitions the country between the two, then, changing his mind, gives the entire country to Horus. In the Memphite theology, the pharaoh Menes is identified with Horus. That theology also makes Geb homologous to Ptah, but in another mythological context Geb, the power in the earth, is supreme. He is the primeval hillock that is the symbol of the first creation. For the Egyptians the earth deity is male rather than female.

In the Old Kingdom mythology the sun Atum (or Aten) often appears as the first creator. He makes Shu and Tefnut (air and moisture) out of himself, and they in turn produce Geb and Nut (earth and sky). The children of the latter couple are Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nepthys. Thus the first four deities establish the cosmos, and the later four are mediators between humans and the cosmos. Osiris is the symbol of the dead king, who is succeeded in the form of Horus, the living ruler. Isis is the consort of Osiris, and after his murder by Seth, she reconstitutes his body and thus achieves for him eternal life; her ally in this role is Nepthys, the consort of Seth. Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, ultimately vanquishes Seth, a symbol of antistructure or antiorder. Seth is related to the desert of Upper Egypt. As a deity of clouds, he opposed Atum, the sun.

Although kingship appears as the pivot around which Egyptian mythology revolves, the key mythological themes are creation, procreation, revival, and the unity of the two lands. The temporal pharaoh was only a symbol of these orders. The power behind them is expressed in the sun, in the earth, and in animals, especially cattle. The language and symbols of power may at any time be translated from one into another--for example, the sun might be described in the symbolism of cattle or the earth in the symbolism of the sun. In the theology of the New Kingdom, the supreme god was Amon-Re, an identification of the Theban (and Hermopolitan) creator-god Amon with the sun-god Ra (successor to Atum).

From an article by Charles H.Long