Friday, August 13, 2010


A section of the Egyptian Book of the Dead written on papyrus showing the Weighing of the Heart in Duat where Anubis can be seen on the far right, the scales are shown with the feather balance, and Ammit awaits hearts that she must devour - the presence of Osiris at the gateway to the paradise of Aaru dates the papyrus to a late tradition of the myth.

The ancient Egyptians thought of the world as consisting of three parts. The flat Earth, situated in the middle, was divided by the Nile and surrounded by a great ocean; above the Earth, where the atmosphere ended, the sky was held in its position by four supports, sometimes represented by poles or mountains. Beneath the Earth was the underworld, called Duat. This dark region contained all things which were absent from the visible world, whether deceased people, stars extinguished at dawn, or the Sun after having sunk below the horizon. During the night, the Sun was thought to travel through the underground region, to reappear in the east next morning.

Although the universe of the Egyptians was static and essentially timeless, apparently they imagined that the world had not always existed in the form in which they knew it. Theirs was a created world, the creation being described in cosmogonies, of which there existed at least three different versions. Common to them is that they start with a state of primeval waters, a boundless, dark, and infinite mass of water which had existed since the beginning of time and which would continue to exist in all of the future. Although the gods, the Earth, and its myriads of inhabitants were all products of the primeval waters, these waters were still around, enveloping the world on every side, above the sky, and beneath the underworld.

To the Egyptians, the universe and all its components were living entities, some of them represented as persons. The original watery state of chaos was personified as the god Nun, who, in one of the cosmogonies associated with Heliopolis (‘the city of the sun’), gave rise to Atum; according to other versions, Atum emerged out of the primeval waters, as a hill or standing upon a hill. Atum was the true creator-god, and he created out of himself—by masturbation, according to one source—two new gods, one personified as Shu, god of the air, and the other as Tefenet, goddess of rain and moisture. A passage from the Book of the Dead expresses the first creation as follows: ‘I am Atum when I was alone in Nun; I am Re in his [first] appearances when he began to rule that which he had made,. . .[meaning that] Re began to appear as a king, as one who existed before Shu had lifted [heaven from Earth], when he [Re] was on the primeval hillock which was in Hermopolis.’The Earth and the sky came next, represented by the deities Geb and Nut, respectively. However, the Earth and the sky had not yet been created as separate parts, for initially they were locked closely together in a unity. It was only when Shu raised the body of Nut high above himself that the heavens came into existence; at the same time Geb became free and formed the Earth. The creation story continues with the emergence of a variety of new gods, but what has been said is enough to give an impression of the nature of the Egyptian cosmo-myths.

Another text, dating from the old kingdom in Memphis (about 2700–2200 BC), likewise includes Nun as the original god of the waters, but it differs from the other cosmogonies by speaking of an even more original god or spirit, Ptah, who is described more abstractly as a cosmic eternal mind, the maker of everything. Ptah was the one god, a cosmic intelligence and creator who was responsible for all order in the universe, physical as well as moral. Atum and the other gods were said to emerge from Ptah, or be contained in him, Atum being the heart and tongue of Ptah. According to the text, ‘Creation took place through the heart and tongue as an image of Atum. But greatest is Ptah, who supplied all gods and their faculties with [life] through his heart and tongue—the heart and tongue through which Horus and Thoth took origin as Ptah.’