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and the Sumerians. It is from these two great cultures that the later of Gods of Greece and Rome were evolved. At school much time was devoted to the study of "Ancient History" i.e. Greece and Rome, but no such time was spent on the truly ancient histories of Egypt and Sumeria. It is here in the middle east that these two great civilizations cast their vast shadows over the many civilizations to follow.
The Cradle of Civilization.
Both the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations over the millennia evolved a rich, detailed and diverse mythology. Each culture developed its own complex, polytheistic system of deities and worship. But was there a convergence? Was there a starting point? This the first in a series of Pages devoted to the Ancient Gods. In this article I will look at the beginnings in Egypt, Zep Tepi (the First Time).
So where to begin? One of the best sources on the history of Egypt is Manetho, a priest during the reigns of Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II. He is said to have been involved in the creation of the cult of Serapis - a god added to the Egyptian pantheon with both Hellenistic and Egyptian traits during the reign of Ptolemy I -, but this can not be confirmed. Manetho owes his importance to the fact that he wrote the Aegyptiaca, a collection of three books about the history of Ancient Egypt, commissioned by Ptolemy II in his effort to bring together the Egyptian and Hellenistic cultures. In order to do so, Manetho had access to the archives of the temple where he served as a priest. Such archives contained a vast number of different kinds of writings, ranging in contents from mythological texts to official records, from magical formulas to scientific treaties. He thus had all the sources he needed to write down the history of his country. With such sources, however, we may not be surprised to find myths and folk-tale mixed with the facts of the Egyptian history. It is to Manetho's Aegyptiaca that we owe the division of Ancient Egyptian history in 30 dynasties. This division is not always based on historical facts: it was in parts based on mythology and in parts on divisions of ruling families already established in the past. Storytellers in cultures throughout time devote themselves to answering that question by recalling the acts of divine creation. In the land of Egypt, the ancient priests recited several versions, each complementary story designed to highlight the various aspects of divine creative energy. Egyptian Mythology, specifically, the religion of ancient Egypt. The religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were the dominating influence in the development of their culture, although a true religion, in the sense of a unified theological system, never existed among them. The Egyptian faith was based on an unorganized collection of ancient myths, nature worship, and innumerable deities. In the most influential and famous of these myths a divine hierarchy is developed and the creation of the earth is explained
One myth begins in the great abyss. The firmament as yet remained hidden in the awesome, chaotic potentiality of the cosmic waters. All lay in darkness, and forms remained invisible. Then Atum, the divine Being and Non-being, cries out in the darkness. A thousand-petalled lotus arose from the water’s murky depths. Its petals slowly unfurled, and the golden light of the sun emerged as a child called Ra. His light reflected onto Atum, so the priests said, “Only after Atum created Ra was he visible even to himself.” In another myth, it is the goddess Neith (or Net) who uplifts life from the cosmic waters. She is the primordial sea and a great weaver. She casts her net, which is the fabric of her being, into the water. From the waters of herself, she scoops out all creatures— the fish, the fowl, the plants and animals, and humankind. She names them one by one. A third myth tells us that in this sea of possibility there exist the Ogdoad, who are eight cosmic life principles. Four male beings are frogs; four female beings are snakes. Paired male and female, they represent the polarities of infinite time, infinite space, darkness before dawn, and the impenetrable mystery of life itself. These are the eight souls of Thoth, divine architect of the universe whose laws govern all creation. One myth known as the creation myth (The First Time - Zep Tepi) sums up a lot about how the Egyptian gods were created. In this myth, it tells of a time when there was nothing but a powerful being called Nun. Nun was so powerful that a shining egg arose from her, which was Ra. Ra was thought to have been so mighty that he willed his children into being. The first was Shu, who was considered the god of the space and light between the sky and the earth. Next Ra created Tefnut, who was the personification of the moisture of the sky. Then the god of the earth, Geb was created. Next Nut was created. Nut was the goddess of the daytime sky, but was later the goddess of the sky in general. The final god to be made was Hapi, the ancient Egyptian god of the Nile. After all of the gods where created, Ra created men and went down to earth in human form to rule as the first pharaoh of Egypt.
The Egyptians believed that before the world was formed, there was a watery mass of dark, direction less chaos. In this chaos lived the Ogdoad of Khmunu (Hermopolis), four frog gods and four snake goddesses of chaos. These deities were Nun and Naunet (water), Amen and Amaunet (invisibility), Heh and Hauhet (infinity) and Kek and Kauket (darkness). The name of the water of chaos was Nun. It was from Nun (Nu) that Ra (or Amen, another of the Ogdoad who became prominent Middle Kingdom onward, and joined with the sun god as Amen-Ra) created himself, rising up on the first piece of land the primeval mound (Benben) out of the water lily (lotus) blossom, born from the world egg, or as a bnw-bird who then found and landed on the mound. The First Time then began and Ra was thought to have created the universe, including his children - other gods. He brought Ma'at - order - to chaos.
In Egyptian mythology, the supreme sun-god, father of all creation in the form of Atum (also called Ra-Tem or RaAtem). Ra, like Horus, encompassed numerous attributes and was often merged with other gods to form composite gods like Amen-Ra (or Amun-Re). Pharaohs claimed their legitimacy to the throne as descendents of Ra. The center of his worship was the city of Heliopolis, which was located just east of the modern city of Cairo. Ra was the god of the sun during dynastic Egypt; the name is thought to have meant "creative power", and as a proper name "Creator", similar to English Christian usage of the term "Creator" to signify the "almighty God." Very early in Egyptian history Ra was identified with Horus, who as a hawk or falcon-god represented the loftiness of the skies. Ra is represented either as a hawk-headed man or as a hawk. In order to travel through the waters
of Heaven and the Underworld, Ra was depicted as traveling in a boat. During dynastic Egypt Ra's cult center was Annu (Hebrew "On", Greek "Heliopolis", modern-day "Cairo"). In Dynasty V, the first king, Userkaf, was also Ra's high priest, and he added the term Sa-Ra ("Son of Ra") to the titulary of the pharaohs. Ra was father of Shu and Tefnut, grandfather of Nut and Geb, greatgrandfather of Osiris, Set, Isis, and Nephthys, and great-greatgrandfather to Horus. In later periods (about Dynasty 18 on) Osiris and Isis superceded him in popularity, but he remained Ra netjer-aa neb-pet ("Ra, the great God, Lord of Heaven") whether worshiped in his own right or, in later times, as one aspect of the Lord of the Universe, Amen-Ra.
Shu (Su) was the god of dry air, wind and the atmosphere. He was also related to the sun, possibly as an aspect of sunlight. He was the son of the creator god, father of the twin sky and the earth deities and the one who held the sky off of the earth. He was one of the gods who protected Ra on his journey through the underworld, using magic spells to ward off Ra's enemy, the water snake-demon Apep. As with other protector gods, he had a darker side - he was also a god of punishment in the land of the dead, leading executioners and torturers to kill off the corrupt souls. He was generally depicted as a man wearing an ostrich feather headdress, holding a scepter and the ankh sign of life. Sometimes he was shown wearing the sun disk on his head, linking him to the sun. Occasionally, when shown with his sister-wife Tefnut, he is shown in lion form and the two were known as the "twin lion gods". At other times, he was shown with the hind part of a lion as his headdress, linking him to his leonine form. Mostly, he was shown with his arms raised, holding up the goddess Nut as the sky, standing on the body of Geb.
One story says that Shu and Tefnut went to explore the waters of Nun. After some time, Ra believed that they were lost, and sent the his Eye out into the chaos to find them. When his children were returned to him, Ra wept, and his tears were believed to have turned into the first humans. As a god of the wind, the people invoked him to give good wind to the sails of the boats. It was he who was the personification of the cold northern winds; he was the breath of life - the vital principle of all living things. His bones were thought to be clouds. He was also called to 'lift up' the spirits of the dead so that they might rise up to the heavens, known as the 'light land', reached by means of a giant 'ladder' that Shu was thought to hold up.
Tefnut (Tefenet, Tefnet) was the lunar goddess of moisture, humidity and water who was also a solar goddess connected with the sun and dryness (more specifically, the absence of moisture). She was the daughter of the creator god, mother of the twin sky and the earth deities and the 'Eye of Ra' as well as a creative force as the 'Tongue of Ptah'. Her name itself is related to water tf is the root of the words for 'spit' and 'moist'. Her name translates to something like 'She of Moisture'. Tefnut was generally shown as a woman with a lion's head, or as a full lioness. She was occasionally shown as a woman, but this is rare. She was shown with the solar disk and uraeus, linking her with the sun. She was often shown holding a sceptre and the ankh sign of life. Related to moisture, she was also linked to the moon, as were other deities of moisture and wetness. She was originally thought to be the Lunar Eye of Ra and thus linked to the night sky as well as to dew, rain and mist. As with other water deities, she took on some form of a goddess of creation.
Geb, God of the Earth, In the Earth and Under the Earth... Geb (Keb, Seb) was a god of the earth and fertility. He was also a god who imprisoned the dead in his body. He could be a malevolent being as well as beneficial deity. Originally he was a local god, worshiped as a goose, though the specific city where he was first worshiped is unknown, it seems to have been around the Iunu (On, Heliopolis) region. Known as 'The Great Cackler', Geb sometimes took on the form of a goose, but was usually shown as a man. Sometimes he was depicted wearing the headdress of a goose, but more often he was shown as a reclining man - sometimes ithphallyic - laying far underneath his sister-wife, the goddess Nut. Sometimes he was coloured green to show that, as with the ithphallyic form, he was a god of fertility. He was also sometimes shown wearing the crown of Lower Egypt or the atef crown. As an earth god, the earthquakes were thought to be his laughter. It was believed that he supplied the minerals and precious stones, and so was also a god of the mines. The earth itself was referred to as ("The House of Geb").
Nut, Sky Goddess, Mother of the Gods... To the ancient Egyptians Nut (Nuit) was the personification of the sky (originally she was a goddess of just the sky at day, where the clouds formed) and the heavens. She was believed to be the daughter of the gods Shu and Tefnut, the granddaughter of the sun god Ra. Her husband was also her brother, Geb. She was thought to be the mother of five children on the five extra days of the Egyptian calendar, won by Thoth - Osiris who was born on the first day, Horus the Elder on the
second,Set on the third, Isis on the fourth, and Nephthys the last born on the fifth day. The days on which these deities were born were known as the 'five epagomenal days of the year', and they were celebrated all over Egypt:
Hapi, God of the Nile, Fertility, the North and South... Hapi (Hep, Hap, Hapy) was a probably a predynastic name for the Nile - later on, the Egyptians just called the Nile iterw, meaning 'the river' - and so it became the name of the god of the Nile. ('Nile' comes from the Greek corruption - Neilos - of the Egyptian 'nwy' which means 'water'.) He was mentioned in the Pyramid Texts ("who comest forth from Hep") where he was to send the river into the underworld from certain caverns, where he was thought to have lived at the 1st Cataract. The Nile was thought to have flowed from the primeval waters of Nun, through the land of the dead, the heavens and finally flowing into Egypt where it rose out of the ground between two mountains which lay between the Islands of Abu (Elephantine) and the Island of Iat-Rek (Philae). Hapi was also mentioned in the Pyramid Texts as a destructive power, but one that worked for the pharaoh. As a water god, Hapi was a deity of fertility - he provided water, food and the yearly inundation of the Nile. He was also known as 'Lord of the Fishes and Birds of the Marshes,'indicating that he provided these creatures to the Egyptians along with the Nile itself. Without Hapi, Egypt would have died, and so he was sometimes revered even above Ra, the sun god.
Thoth, God of the Moon, Magic and Writing... The wisest of the Egyptian gods was Thoth (Djhuty, Djehuty, Tehuty), the baboon and ibis god of the moon. Thoth was the god who
overcame the curse of Ra, allowing Nut to give birth to her five children, with his skill at games. It was he who helped Isis work the ritual to bring Osiris back from the dead, and who drove the magical poison of Set from her son, Horus with the power of his magic. He was Horus' supporter during the young god's deadly battle with his uncle Set, helping Horus with his wisdom and magic. It was Thoth who brought Tefnut, who left Egypt for Nubia in a sulk after an argument with her father, back to heaven to be reunited with Ra. When Ra retired from the earth, he appointed Thoth and told him of his desire to create a Light-soul in the Duat and in the Land of the Caves, and it was over this region that the sun god appointed Thoth to rule, ordering him to keep a register of those who were there, and to mete out just punishments to them. Thoth became the representation of Ra in the afterlife, seen at the judgement of the dead in the 'Halls of the Double' Ma'at. The magical powers of Thoth were so great, that the Egyptians had tales of a 'Book of Thoth', which would allow a person who read the sacred book to become the most powerful magician in the world. The Book which "the god of wisdom wrote with his own hand" was, though, a deadly book that brought nothing but pain and tragedy to those that read it, despite finding out about the "secrets of the gods themselves" and "all that is hidden in the stars".
Anubis (Inpew, Yinepu, Anpu) was an ancient Egyptian god of the underworld who guided and protected the spirits of the dead. He was known as the 'Lord of the Hallowed Land' - the necropolis and Khenty Amentiu, 'Foremost of the Westerners' - the Land of the Dead was thought to be to the west, where the Egyptians buried their dead. (Khenty Amentiu was the name of a previous canine deity who was superseded by Anubis.) The worship of Anubis was an ancient one - it was probably even older than the
worship of Osiris. In the pyramid texts of Unas, his role was already very clear - he was associated with the Eye of Horus and he was already thought to be the guide of the dead in the afterlife, showing them the way to Osiris. In the text, it was written that "Unas standeth with the Spirits, get thee onwards, Anubis, into Amenti, onwards, onwards to Osiris." He was generally depicted as a black jackal-headed man, or as a black jackal. The Egyptians would have noticed the jackals prowling around the graveyards, and so the link between the animal and the dead was formed in their minds. (It has been noticed by Flinders Petrie that the best guides to Egyptian tombs are the jackal-trails.) Anubis was painted black to further link him with the deceased - a body that has been embalmed became a pitch black colour. Black was also the colour of fertility, and thus linked to death and rebirth in the afterlife. Anubis was also seen as the deity of embalming, as well as a god of the dead. To the Egyptians, Anubis was the protector of embalming and guardian of both the mummy and the necropolis. Anubis was often identified by the word sab, 'jackal' rather than 'dog' (iwiw). Though to the Egyptians there was not a great deal of difference between the two canines, so there is some confusion over which animal Anubis actually was. The animal is sometimes referred to as the 'Anubis animal' as it is unknown which exact species of canine that Anubis actually was based on.
Ma'at, Goddess of Truth, Balance, Order... Ma'at, unlike Hathor and Nephthys, seemed to be more of a concept than an actual goddess. Her name, literally, meant 'truth' in Egyptian. She was truth, order, balance and justice personified. She was harmony, she was what was right, she was what things should be. It was thought that if Ma'at didn't exist, the universe would become chaos, once again! For the Egyptian believed that the universe was above everything else an ordered and rational place. It functioned with predictability and regularity; the cycles of the universe always
remained constant; in the moral sphere, purity was rewarded and sin was punished. Both morally and physically, the universe was in perfect balance. Because of Ma'at, the Egyptians knew that the universe, that everything in the universe, worked on a pattern, just as, later on, the Greeks called the underlying order of the universe logos (meaning, order, pattern). "In the beginning was the logos*, and the logos* was with God and the logos* was God." - John 1:1 * Logos was the 'Word', another name for Jesus. Egypt, then, was seen to be nothing without Ma'at. Unlike the Sumerian belief in a group of gods creating everything, Egyptians believed Ra created the earth and living things. Also Egyptians, like the Sumerians, believed that their religious leaders were actually gods themselves. Egyptians did not believe that there was a patron god for each city although each god had a city that was considered their center of worship. Also, unlike the Sumerians, the Egyptians did not have a complex system of levels for their deities, although some deities defiantly stand out as being the prominent gods. This is probably because those gods were thought to have affected the everyday life of the Egyptians. Egyptian gods were worshiped in huge temples that were scattered throughout Egypt. In many of these temples hieroglyphic writings about many Egyptian gods, because of this we now know an enormous amount of information about this cultures' gods.
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