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Regine C. Schulz:
The Creation of the World.
On the Variety of Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths.

in: Beinlich H, Schulz R, Wie­cz­orek A (eds). Egypt's Mysterious Book of the Faiyum.
125 pages. J.H. Röll Verlag. Dettelbach, Germany.
ISBN 978-3-89654-439-0

Regine C. Schulz:
The Creation of the World.
On the Variety of Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths.

Section 1

he religion of the ancient Egyptians was one of the most successful and long-lived of the ancient world. Its roots are already tangible in the fourth millennium BC, with its last traces surviving from the fourth to fifth centuries AD. Its success was based on the degree of openness and fle­xi­bility of this institution, which is truly astonishing for an ancient society. Because it was able to adapt to new problems and changing needs, it was able to balance contradicting, disparate interpretations and cult traditions, and even absorb foreign elements without ever calling into question its own fun­da­men­tal beliefs and structure (Fig. 1). In this way, Egypt was only rarely dis­rupted by religiously motivated conflicts in antiquity, one prominent example being the short-lived outlawing of the national god Amun under King Akh­en­a­ton (ca. 1351–1334 BC) in the 18th Dynasty.

Figure 1:
Egyptian stela showing the Syrian-Palestinian god Reshef.
Hildesheim, Pelizaeus Museum 1100. Limestone. Presumably from Qantir/Piramesse. 19th Dynasty (13th century BC).
Height 46.8 cm.

Looking back today at the models in ancient Egyptian religion for answering questions about the origin and the perpetuation of our world, we see that the Egyptians had a keen power of observation that seems almost modern, as well as an extremely rational way of dealing with the facts that were available to them [⇒1]. Thus their search for concrete metaphysical truths never strayed far from reality, instead adhering as closely as possible to their own ob­ser­va­tion and analysis of the world around them. In this pursuit, they aimed to con­vey a definite system of rules and laws to be followed, and the results they ex­pe­cted in practice as well as in ritual.

Knowledge is power and was therefore not made available to everyone with­out restrictions. Since this maxim applied not only to human beings but also to the gods, the distinction of various different levels of knowledge and ini­ti­a­tion was considered fundamental to world order. For this reason, the real na­mes and outward manifestations of the gods were kept secret, especially the name of the sun god. This becomes clear in, for example, a magical-medical recitation for healing against the poison of a scorpion bite. According to this text, the goddess Isis uses her magical power to cause the sun god to be bitten by a scorpion. She promises to heal him, but only if he reveals to her his hid­den name, which he ends up having to do to be cured [⇒2]. Since the gods relied on the offerings and rituals performed for them by mankind, and the people depended on the help and protection of the gods, these things needed to be verbally named and visually represented in images. The outward forms and names of the gods followed the tradition of each cult locality and the in­struc­tions of the responsible theologians. In this way, new manifestations of gods could be recognized and incorporated into cult practice when necessary. Thus, for instance, the dynastic god of the new Ptolemaic rulers, who was named Serapis, was created towards the end of the fourth century BC (Fig. 2).

Figure 2:
Pendant with image of the god Serapis.
Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum 57.1524. Gold. Ptolemaic Period, 2nd to 1st century BC.
Height 3.7 cm.

The cults practiced by mankind to honor the gods and preserve the created world were indispensable, but the Egyptians knew how unreliable humans could be. Therefore, they hoped that by making two- and three-dimensional images and texts of the necessary rituals being performed, they could insure that the gods would be served perpetually. To their minds, the artistic re­pre­sen­ta­tions and texts about the performance of rituals in tombs and temples were as good as the real thing (Fig. 3). Yet while these texts and images (sta­tues or pictures) belonged together, they generally expressed different, com­ple­men­tary aspects of the same subject.

Figure 3:
King Ptolemy I purifies the air with incense, which he proffers towards the god Osiris in a so-called incense arm.
Hildesheim, Pelizaeus Museum 1883. Scene from a chapel of King Ptolemy I in Tuna el Gebel. Painted limestone.
Height 46.6 cm.

Much like modern day scientific theories, the metaphysics of the ancient Egyp­tians were concerned less with single phenomena and more with the systems and procedures of these actions, with disruptive and transitional phases. The Egyptians understood existence as a continuous process and non- existence as a standstill. To convey their beliefs, they often used for­mu­la­ically composed images and texts, and only later also epic narrative forms. This does not mean that myths did not play a large role from the beginning, but they were un­doub­tedly originally passed on by word of mouth and only later be­came part of the written tradition. The images (pictures and sculptures) and texts often contained subtle meanings in addition to the superficial subject matter, so that they would have only been partially understood by some re­ci­pients, and entirely by others, depending on a person’s depth of knowledge (Fig. 4).

Figure 4:
Magical stela showing the child god Horus standing on crocodiles and holding dangerous animals in his hands.
Baltimore, Walters Art Museum 22.140. Late Period, ca. 380–359 BC. Steatite.
Height 23.5 cm.

The ancient Egyptian creation myths sought to explain in detail the creation of the world (“cosmogony”), of the gods (“theogony”) and of the human race (“anthropogony”), whereby the latter aspect only played a minor role. To the Egyptian theologians, the most important questions were the following [⇒3]:

   What was before the Creation?
   How did "existence" arise out of "non-existence"?
   How did the Creator bring the world into being?
   How did life come about?
   How were space and time, this world and the Netherworld, created?
   Which dangers threaten the Creation?
   What has to happen to preserve the world?

Some of the creation myths deal with these questions directly, while others emphasize certain individual aspects. The basic concepts are similar in all ver­sions, however; only the method of explaining these concepts varies. Al­most all of these models assume one creator god, but its name and the manner of achieving the Creation can differ.

According to Egyptian belief, the development and the stages of the Creation depend on complementary entities (for example, heaven and earth, this world and the Netherworld) and the many forms of existence (gods and men, plants and animals), but also on opposite forces (such as Osiris representing ci­vi­li­za­tion and Seth representing the realm of nature) and disruptions (such as in the myth of the Revolt of Mankind against the Sun God). Structure and Chaos pro­vide the inevitable conflict, which results in the development and the re­new­al of Creation. This situation is most evident in the myths about the battles of Horus or Osiris against Seth. Osiris and Horus, as gods installed by the Creator as kings, are charged with the task of ensuring the preservation and per­ma­nence of the ideal world and with it the system that has been created. The inherent perils and threats of natural catastrophes and enemy forces are re­pre­sen­ted in the god Seth, who likewise strives to claim the power of a king. Seth is still part of the Creation, which is why his uncanny powers can also be deployed against enemies of the Creation. This occurs, for instance, in the battle against Apophis, who wants to stop the passage of the sun over the sky and thereby destroy the world (Fig. 5), since Apophis is part of the primeval body of water, not a part of the Creation.

Figure 5:
Mythological papyrus showing Seth at the prow of the bark of the sun god fighting the enemy of Creation, Apophis, represented as a snake. 20th Dynasty, 1186–970 BC.

When reviewing some of the most important standard myths of the ancient Egyptians, a basic theoretical model can be reconstructed that is common to all of them but which, of course, was subject to new variations repeatedly in the course of time.

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List of Contents


Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9


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