The development of Egyptian myth is difficult to trace. Egyptologists must make educated guesses about its earliest phases, based on written sources that appeared much later.One obvious influence on myth is the Egyptians' natural surroundings. Each day the sun rose and set, bringing light to the land and regulating human activity; each year the Nile flooded, renewing the fertility of the soil and allowing the highly productive farming that sustained Egyptian civilization. Thus the Egyptians saw water and the sun as symbols of life and thought of time as a series of natural cycles. This orderly pattern was at constant risk of disruption: unusually low floods resulted in famine, and high floods destroyed crops and buildings. The hospitable Nile valley was surrounded by harsh desert, populated by peoples the Egyptians regarded as uncivilized enemies of order. For these reasons, the Egyptians saw their land as an isolated place of stability, or maat, surrounded and endangered by chaos. These themes—order, chaos, and renewal—appear repeatedly in Egyptian religious thought.
Another possible source for mythology is ritual. Many rituals make reference to myths and are sometimes based directly on them. But it is difficult to determine whether a culture's myths developed before rituals or vice versa. Questions about this relationship between myth and ritual have spawned much discussion among Egyptologists and scholars of comparative religion in general. In ancient Egypt, the earliest evidence of religious practices predates written myths. Rituals early in Egyptian history included only a few motifs from myth. For these reasons, some scholars have argued that, in Egypt, rituals emerged before myths. But because the early evidence is so sparse, the question may never be resolved for certain.
In private rituals, which are often called "magical", the myth and the ritual are particularly closely tied. Many of the myth-like stories that appear in the rituals' texts are not found in other sources. Even the widespread motif of the goddess Isis rescuing her poisoned son Horus appears only in this type of text. The Egyptologist David Frankfurter argues that these rituals adapt basic mythic traditions to fit the specific ritual, creating elaborate new stories (called historiolas) based on myth. In contrast, J. F. Borghouts says of magical texts that there is "not a shred of evidence that a specific kind of 'unorthodox' mythology was coined... for this genre."
Much of Egyptian mythology consists of origin myths, explaining the beginnings of various elements of the world, including human institutions and natural phenomena. Kingship arises among the gods at the beginning of time and later passed to the human pharaohs; warfare originates when humans begin fighting each other after the sun god's withdrawal into the sky. Myths also describe the supposed beginnings of less fundamental traditions. In a minor mythic episode, Horus becomes angry with his mother Isis and cuts off her head. Isis replaces her lost head with that of a cow. This event explains why Isis was sometimes depicted with the horns of a cow as part of her headdress.
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 ideology of kingship became an important part of mythology. In the wake of unification, gods that were once local patron deities gained national importance, forming new relationships that linked the local deities into a unified national tradition. Geraldine Pinch suggests that early myths may have formed from these relationships. Egyptian sources link the mythical strife between the gods Horus and Set with a conflict between the regions of Upper and Lower Egypt, which may have happened in the late Predynastic era or in the Early Dynastic Period.
After these early times, most changes to mythology developed and adapted preexisting concepts rather than creating new ones, although there were exceptions. Many scholars have suggested that the myth of the sun god withdrawing into the sky, leaving humans to fight among themselves, was inspired by the breakdown of royal authority and national unity at the end of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 BC – 2181 BC). In the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC), minor myths developed around deities like Yam and Anat who had been adopted from Canaanite religion. In contrast, during the Greek and Roman eras (332 BC–641 AD), Greco-Roman culture had little influence on Egyptian mythology.
Definition and scopeScholars have difficulty defining which ancient Egyptian beliefs are myths. The basic definition of myth suggested by the Egyptologist John Baines is "a sacred or culturally central narrative". In Egypt, the narratives that are central to culture and religion are almost entirely about events among the gods. Actual narratives about the gods' actions are rare in Egyptian texts, particularly from early periods, and most references to such events are mere mentions or allusions. Some Egyptologists, like Baines, argue that narratives complete enough to be called "myths" existed in all periods, but that Egyptian tradition did not favor writing them down. Others, like Jan Assmann, have said that true myths were rare in Egypt and may only have emerged partway through its history, developing out of the fragments of narration that appear in the earliest writings. Recently, however, Vincent Arieh Tobin and Susanne Bickel have suggested that lengthy narration was not needed in Egyptian mythology because of its complex and flexible nature. Tobin argues that narrative is even alien to myth, because narratives tend to form a simple and fixed perspective on the events they describe. If narration is not needed for myth, any statement that conveys an idea about the nature or actions of a god can be called "mythic".
Content and meaningLike myths in many other cultures, Egyptian myths serve to justify human traditions and to address fundamental questions about the world, such as the nature of disorder and the ultimate fate of the universe. The Egyptians explained these profound issues through statements about the gods.
Egyptian deities represent natural phenomena, from physical objects like the earth or the sun to abstract forces like knowledge and creativity. The actions and interactions of the gods, the Egyptians believed, govern the behavior of all of these forces and elements. For the most part, the Egyptians did not describe these mysterious processes in explicit theological writings. Instead, the relationships and interactions of the gods illustrated such processes implicitly.
Most of Egypt's gods, including many of the major ones, do not have significant roles in mythic narratives, although their nature and relationships with other deities are often established in lists or bare statements without narration. For the gods who are deeply involved in narratives, mythic events are very important expressions of their roles in the cosmos. Therefore, if only narratives are myths, mythology is a major element in Egyptian religious understanding, but not as essential as it is in many other cultures.
The true realm of the gods is mysterious and inaccessible to humans. Mythological stories use symbolism to make the events in this realm comprehensible. Not every detail of a mythic account has symbolic significance. Some images and incidents, even in religious texts, are meant simply as visual or dramatic embellishments of broader, more meaningful myths.
Few complete stories appear in Egyptian mythological sources. These sources often contain nothing more than allusions to the events to which they relate, and texts that contain actual narratives tell only portions of a larger story. Thus, for any given myth the Egyptians may have had only the general outlines of a story, from which fragments describing particular incidents were drawn. Moreover, the gods are not well-defined characters, and the motivations for their sometimes inconsistent actions are rarely given. Egyptian myths are not, therefore, fully developed tales. Their importance lay in their underlying meaning, not their characteristics as stories. Instead of coalescing into lengthy, fixed narratives, they remained highly flexible and non-dogmatic.
So flexible were Egyptian myths that they could seemingly conflict with each other. Many descriptions of the creation of the world and the movements of the sun occur in Egyptian texts, some very different from each other. The relationships between gods were fluid, so that, for instance, the goddess Hathor could be called the mother, wife, or daughter of the sun god Ra. Separate deities could even be syncretized, or linked, as a single being. Thus the creator god Atum was combined with Ra to form Ra-Atum.
One commonly suggested reason for inconsistencies in myth is that religious ideas differed over time and in different regions. The local cults of various deities developed theologies centered on their own patron gods. As the influence of different cults shifted, some mythological systems attained national dominance. In the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC) the most important of these systems was the cults of Ra and Atum, centered at Heliopolis. They formed a mythical family, the Ennead, that 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 overlaid old religious ideas with new ones. For instance, the god Ptah, whose cult was centered at Memphis, was also said to be the creator of the world. Ptah's creation myth incorporates older myths by saying that it is the Ennead who carry out Ptah's creative commands. Thus, the myth makes Ptah older and greater than the Ennead. Many scholars have seen this myth as a political attempt to assert the superiority of Memphis' god over those of Heliopolis. By combining concepts in this way, the Egyptians produced an immensely complicated set of deities and myths.
Egyptologists in the early twentieth century thought that politically motivated changes like these were the principal reason for the contradictory imagery in Egyptian myth. However, in the 1940s, Henri Frankfort, realizing the symbolic nature of Egyptian mythology, argued that apparently contradictory ideas are part of the "multiplicity of approaches" that the Egyptians used to understand the divine realm. Frankfort's arguments are the basis for much of the more recent analysis of Egyptian beliefs. Political changes affected Egyptian beliefs, but the ideas that emerged through those changes also have deeper meaning. Multiple versions of the same myth express different aspects of the same phenomenon; different gods that behave in a similar way reflect the close connections between natural forces. The varying symbols of Egyptian mythology express ideas too complex to be seen through a single lens.
The Egyptian word written m3ˁt, often rendered maat or ma'at, refers to the fundamental order of the universe in Egyptian belief. Established at the creation of the world, maatdistinguishes the world from the chaos that preceded and surrounds it. Maat encompasses both the proper behavior of humans and the normal functioning of the forces of nature, both of which make life and happiness possible. Because the actions of the gods govern natural forces and myths express those actions, Egyptian mythology represents the proper functioning of the world and the sustenance of life itself.
To the Egyptians, the most important human maintainer of maat is the pharaoh. In myth the pharaoh is the son of a variety of deities. As such, he is their designated representative, obligated to maintain order in human society just as they do in nature, and to continue the rituals that sustain them and their activities.
Shape of the worldIn Egyptian belief, the disorder that predates the ordered world exists beyond the world as an infinite expanse of formless water, personified by the god Nun. The earth, personified by the god Geb, is a flat piece of land over which arches the sky, usually represented by the goddess Nut. The two are separated by the personification of air, Shu. The sun god Ra is said to travel through the sky, across the body of Nut, enlivening the world with his light. At night Ra passes beyond the western horizon into the Duat, a mysterious region that borders the formlessness of Nun. At dawn he emerges from the Duat in the eastern horizon.
The nature of the sky and the location of the Duat are uncertain. Egyptian texts variously describe the nighttime sun as traveling beneath the earth and within the body of Nut. The Egyptologist James P. Allen believes that these explanations of the sun's movements are dissimilar but coexisting ideas. In Allen's view, Nut represents the visible surface of the waters of Nun, with the stars floating on this surface. The sun, therefore, sails across the water in a circle, each night passing beyond the horizon to reach the skies that arch beneath the inverted land of the Duat. Leonard H. Lesko, however, believes that the Egyptians saw the sky as a solid canopy and described the sun as traveling through the Duat above the surface of the sky, from west to east, during the night. Joanne Conman, modifying Lesko's model, argues that this solid sky is a moving, concave dome overarching a deeply convex earth. The sun and the stars move along with this dome, and their passage below the horizon is simply their movement over areas of the earth that the Egyptians could not see. These regions would then be the Duat.
The fertile lands of the Nile Valley (Upper Egypt) and Delta (Lower Egypt) lie at the center of the world in Egyptian cosmology. Outside them are the infertile deserts, which are associated with the chaos that lies beyond the world. Somewhere beyond them is the horizon, the akhet. There, two mountains, in the east and the west, mark the places where the sun enters and exits the Duat.
Foreign nations are associated with the hostile deserts in Egyptian ideology. Foreign people, likewise, are generally lumped in with the "nine bows", people who threaten pharaonic rule and the stability of maat, although peoples allied with or subject to Egypt may be viewed more positively. For these reasons, events in Egyptian mythology rarely take place in foreign lands. While some stories pertain to the sky or the Duat, Egypt itself is usually the scene for the actions of the gods. Often, even the myths set in Egypt seem to take place on a plane of existence separate from that inhabited by living humans, although in other stories, humans and gods interact. In either case, the Egyptian gods are deeply tied to their home land.
TimeThe Egyptians' vision of time was influenced by their environment. Each day the sun rose and set, bringing light to the land and regulating human activity; each year the Nile flooded, renewing the fertility of the soil and allowing the highly productive agriculture that sustained Egyptian civilization. These periodic events inspired the Egyptians to see all of time as a series of recurring patterns regulated by maat, renewing the gods and the universe. Although the Egyptians recognized that different historical eras differ in their particulars, mythic patterns dominate the Egyptian perception of history.
Many Egyptian stories about the gods are characterized as having taken place in a primeval time when the gods were manifest on the earth and ruled over it. After this time, the Egyptians believed, authority on earth passed to human pharaohs. This primeval era seems to predate the start of the sun's journey and the recurring patterns of the present world. At the other end of time is the end of the cycles and the dissolution of the world. Because these distant periods lend themselves to linear narrative better than the cycles of the present, John Baines sees them as the only periods in which true myths take place. Yet, to some extent, the cyclical aspect of time was present in the mythic past as well. Egyptians saw even stories that were set in that time as being perpetually true. The myths were made real every time the events to which they were related occurred. These events were celebrated with rituals, which often evoked myths. Ritual allowed time to periodically return to the mythic past and renew life in the universe.
End of the universeEgyptian texts typically treat the dissolution of the world as a possibility to be avoided, and for that reason they do not often describe it in detail. However, many texts allude to the idea that the world, after countless cycles of renewal, is destined to end. This end is described in a passage in the Coffin Texts and a more explicit one in the Book of the Dead, in which Atum says that he will one day dissolve the ordered world and return to his primeval, inert state within the waters of chaos. All things other than the creator will cease to exist, except Osiris, who will survive along with him. Details about this eschatological prospect are left unclear, including the fate of the dead who are associated with Osiris. Yet with the creator god and the god of renewal together in the waters that gave rise to the orderly world, there is the potential for a new creation to arise in the same manner as the old.