September 25, 2010 by Korshi
Although it’s only known from a few first century papyrus fragments found in the village of Tebtunis in the Fayum, aspects from this cosmology crop up in the Greek Magical Papyri (specifically PGM IV.1596-1715), written about 300 years later at the opposite end of Egypt, making it likely that this cosmology represents more broadly one of the final developments of Egyptian theology, the culmination of a tradition at least 3000 years old. It’s a fascinating piece of work, an attempt to meld together several originally separate mythologies, and I’ve had to simplify it a bit in this infographic.
First of all, it’ll make things a bit simpler if I tell you that the Egyptian word for ‘the’ was p or pa; like several other languages (modern Greek, for example) they used this word in instances where we wouldn’t, but there you go. For the Egyptians, the universe began with Nun, the watery abyss. In the Nun was the god Pshai Pa Nun. Pshai means, simply, ‘the Shai’, and shai was the Egyptian concept of fate; everyone had a shai,who functioned like a guardian angel, but Shai himself was a deity associated with Agathos Daimon (the ‘good demon’), the patron god of Alexandria, and was quite important in the Greek and Roman period. He was usually pictured as a serpent, often with a human head. Pa Nun is, obviously, ‘the Nun’, and taken together Pshai Pa Nun means ‘Shai, the Nun’ or ‘Shai in the Nun’; we don’t know which.
Pshai came to rest upon a reed thicket upon the sand: this part drawns onthe creation myth of Heliopolis, in which the creator god Atum-Re raises a primal mound from the Nun and stands upon it to create the cosmos. Pshai, like Atum, masturbates and scatters his seed as his first act of creation, but in the Tebtunis cosmology the seed becomes Ptah, the creator god of the city of Memphis. Ptah fashions eight eggs from his thoughts, and scatters them; these hatch into the Ogdoad (‘Eight Gods’), the four primal gods and four primal goddesses of the creation myth of Hermopolis, representing the attributes of the Nun; they are Amun and Amaunet (deities of invisibility), Nun and Naunet (wateriness), Kuk and Kauket (darkness), Huh and Hauhet (endlessness). They are usually imagines as snakes (in the case of the goddesses) and frogs (in the case of the gods). The Egyptian word for Ogdoad is khemeniu, and Ptah makes a pun on this calling them khem meniu (little images’).
The little images then merge into two deities, one male and one female, who merge again to produce Amun, the god of Thebes, in the form of a black bull with eight hypostases (or aspects). He seems to create, or become, the four winds, which then merge into one wind, which separates the earth from the sky, allowing the cosmos to come into existence.
Pshai has been hidden until now in the Nun, but Amun fertilises an egg, and from it Pshai is reborn as the sun god Pre (‘the Re’). Pre speaks Thoth, the god of the moon and wisdom, into existence. Then there is a sequence of events I haven’t shown on the infograph, but you can read about in the Book of the Heavenly Cow: Pre grows old, mankind rebels against him, he sends his Eye against them in the form of a lion goddess, but repents and saves mankind from total destruction. Then he rises into the sky to leave mankind behind. The Ogdoad die and their burial rites are performed by Thoth; in ancient times you could apparently visit the graves of these eight gods in Hermopolis.
The cosmology then talks about the birth of Horus, and how he is protected by his mother Isis until he grows old enough to become king. This seems to presuppose the Heliopolitan creation myth, which is what I’ve inserted into the bottom of the diagram: Pre creates the Ennead (‘Nine Gods’), starting with Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), who give birth to Geb (earth) and Nut (sky); their children are Osiris, Isis, Nephthys (who I’ve called by her Egyptian name Nebt-Het for space reasons), Set and Horus. Isis and Osiris together are the parents of Horus. Now if you’ve been paying attention you’ll have noticed that there are two Horuses; in the diagram I call one Hor-Wer (‘Great’ or ‘Elder’ Horus); he is better known by his Greek name Haroeris, while the other Horus is often called Harsiese (‘Horus son of Isis’). In some myths, like that written on the walls of the temple of Edfu, they are treated like two different deities, but the right way of thinking about them is probably to say that they are both hypostases (or expressions) of the one Horus.
There is an interesting bit that then discusses the forces of life and death; the breath of life emanates from the Nun, and causes growth, while the breath of death emanates from ‘the Serpent’, who I think is probably Apep/Apophis, the enemy of Re. There aren’t many myths explaining his origins, but I’ve chosen to make him an emanation of the Nun; he’s probably best understood as a representation of ‘uncreation’, the chaotic force of nothingness outside the created order. The third breath, the breath of the Nun, also comes from the Nun, and seems to be responsible for regenerating hills and mountains; ancient Egyptians seem to have believed that the earth itself, the rocks in it and so on, grew like living things; Plotinus tells us that rocks continue to grow until they are pulled out of the earth.
Source: M Smith, ‘A New Egyptian Cosmology’ in Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, C J Eyre (editor), Uitgeverij Peeters, Leuven, 1998, pp. 1075-1080