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Egyptian Creation Myths

The Main Cosmogonies of Ancient Egypt

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Egyptian cosmogonies were more about explaining the order of the world (personified as Ma'at), especially the rising of the sun and the flooding of the Nile, than the creation of mankind. The world would continue its orderly progression regardless of whether or not we mere mortals lived or died, although the kings and queens, as incarnations of the gods, counted, and religious rites symbolically helped maintain the order.

During the millennia during which ancient Egypt was a Mediterranean power to be reckoned with, different dynasties came to power, some African, some Asian, and later, the Greeks and Romans. One result of the long, heterogeneous history of Egyptian power is great variety in the myths of ancient Egypt. Tobin ["Mytho-Theology in Ancient Egypt," by Vincent Arieh Tobin. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt (1988)] says the different and seemingly conflicting creation myths were but different sets of symbols used to "articulate the same reality," rather than factual accounts of how the universe emerged. Two of the versions below have a sun god as the creator. A version not listed below, at Elephantine, has a potter as the creator god.

There were 3 main Egyptian creation myths, named for the gods and locations involved, which helped justify the political claims of these cities:

  1. Hermopolis - The Hermopolitan Ogdoad,
  2. Heliopolis - The Heliopolitan Ennead, and
  3. Memphis - The Memphite Theology.
Other cities had their own cosmogonies that served to elevate the cities' status. Another major, but short-lived theology was the so-called monotheism of the Amarna period.

Here you'll find information related to the 3 main Egyptian creation myths and the major gods. Go to the hyper-linked articles for more information and the references.

1. Ogdoad of Hermopolis

The 8 gods of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad were mated pairs from a primordial chaos. Together they produced the world, but exactly what they produced varied with the telling, more so than the variation in the powers of the 8 chaotic deities. They may have produced a mass or an egg or the sun. Although the Ogdoad may not actually be the oldest Egyptian cosmology, the gods and goddesses of it, are thought to have produced gods and goddesses of the Ennead of Heliopolis.

Hermopolis

Hermopolis (Megale) is a Greek name for this important city of Upper Egypt. Hermopolis was the spot where the chaos gods brought forth life or the sun or whatever, and then later became an important city for the international set, with layers of temples from different religions, and cultural artifacts from the Greeks and Romans.

Thoth

Thoth
CC Flickr User gzayatz
Thoth (or Amun) is credited with stirring up the old chaos gods to create the primordial mass. Thoth is described as a moon god, a cosmogenic god, a god of thunder and rain, a god of justice, and the patron of scribes. Thoth is also the Egyptian messenger god.

2. The Ennead of Heliopolis

The Ennead of Heliopolis was formed during the Old Kingdom period of ancient Egypt by priests in On, the city sacred to the sun god; hence, the more familiar Greek name Heliopolis. The creative force and sun-god Atum-Re generated (through spit or masturbation) Shu and Tefnut, a male and female pair so normal generation could take place. Symbolically, the creation is repeated each day when the sun (god) rises.

Pyramid Text

The Pyramid Texts refer to the ordering of the gods and the world that informs the Cosmogony of Heliopolis.

Atum-Re

Ra
CC Flickr User Ralph Buckley
Atum-Re is the creator god of the Heliopolitan cosmogony. He was a particular favorite of Akhenaten's father. His name combines two gods, Atum, the god who emerged from the primordial waters to create the other gods, and Re, the basic Egyptian sun god.

3. The Memphite Theology

From the Shabako Stone
CC Flickr User kevan

The Memphite theology is inscribed on a stone dated to 700 B.C., but the date of the creation of the theology is debated. The theology serves to justify Memphis as capital city of Egypt. It makes Ptah the creator god.

The Shabako Stone

The Shabako Stone, housed at the British Museum, thanks to a gift from one of Princess Diana's ancestors, contains the story of Ptah's creation of the gods and the cosmos.

Ptah

Hieroglyph of Ptah
CC Flickr User pyramidtexts
Ptah is the creator god of the Memphite theology. Herodotus thought he was the Egyptian version of Hephaestus. Ptah is normally depicted wearing a skull cap. He created by means of the word.
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