Egyptian Cosmology

We can reconstitute the general outline of Egyptian cosmogony which was probably already very ancient by the time of the Pyramid Texts.

The oldest known [Egyptian] religious texts, the so-called Pyramid-Texts, are found in the burial chambers of the royal pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. Consisting of long vertical columns of hieroglyphs engraved into the stone walls, these inscriptions have the central purpose of facilitating the king's ascension into the heavens and his return to the side of his father, the Supreme God, where he will live eternally in the form of a pure and luminous spirit (akh).

The One, the Eternal, can be defined only through his countless qualities, which alone are amenable. These names then represent the active functional principles or vital powers which find expression as the genesis of the world unfolds. Thus, through the invocations addressed to these powers - not gods but 'divine entities' or divine attributes.

There are four great Egyptian religions, and doubtless many more minor ones, which shared (as in the Hindu family of religions) overlapping mythologies, theologies, and iconographies.  All adopt a more or less Henotheistic approach.  It is wrong to consider them as strict polytheism as in the Homeric pantheon.

The different creation accounts were each associated with the cult of a particular god in one of the major cities of Egypt: Hermopolis, Heliopolis, Memphis, and Thebes. To some degree these myths represent competing theologies, but they also represent different aspects of the process of creation.

The Hermopolis Cosmology

The primordial Eight principles Creation from formative Chaos


The creation myth promulgated in the city of Hermopolis focused on the nature of the universe before the creation of the world. The inherent qualities of the primeval waters were represented by a set of eight gods, called the Ogdoad. The god Nu and his female counterpart Naunet represented the inert primeval water itself; Huh and his counterpart Hauhet represented the water's infinite extent; Kuk and Kauket personified the darkness present within it; and Amun and Amaunet represented its hidden and unknowable nature, in contrast to the tangible world of the living. The primeval waters were themselves part of the creation process, therefore, the deities representing them could be seen as creator gods. According to the myth, the eight gods were originally divided into male and female groups. They were symbolically depicted as aquatic creatures because they dwelt within the water: the males were represented as frogs, and the females were represented as snakes.

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The primordial Eight, (the Ogdoad), together form a single entity. The Nun is envisaged as a swampy mire, a seething primal cradle in which live four couples of serpents and frogs. Their names are Naun and Naunet, meaning both 'the initial waters' and 'inertia', Heh and Hehet, meaning 'spatial infinity'; Kek and Keket, 'the darkness'; and Amun and Amunet, 'That which is hidden'. This latter couple is sometimes replaced by Niau and Niaut, 'the void'.

As might be suspected, these qualities of the primordial state have often been compared with the shadowy waters of the Biblical Genesis, when 'the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep'. But rather than regard the Nun as an initial or primal chaos, in the Biblical mode, it seems more fruitful to see it as indefinable substance, the eternal and infinite source of the Universe. The lotus, which has its roots in mud, its stem in water and its leaves and flowers opening out into air, receiving the celestial dew and the sun's rays, has always been a symbol of the four elements.  This symbol is employed often in Egypt, in architecture as well as in myth. It appears in many legends of the Creation, including this very explicit one in which the Eight also figure:

"You [the Eight] have made from your seed a germ [bnn], and you have instilled this seed in the lotus, by pouring the seminal fluid; you have deposited in the Nun, condensed into a single form, and your inheritor takes his radiant birth under the aspect of a child." (Edfu VI, 11-12, and Esna V, 263.)

Here we have the principle of Creation out of chaos. Chaos, the original Ogdoad, is the formative and nurturing principle from which creation springs.

The Heliopolis Cosmology


In Heliopolis, the creation was attributed to Atum, a deity closely associated with Ra, who was said to have existed in the waters of Nu as an inert potential being. Atum was a self-engendered god, the source of all the elements and forces in the world, and the Heliopolitan myth described the process by which he "evolved" from a single being into this multiplicity of elements. The process began when Atum appeared on the mound and gave rise to the air god Shu and his sister Tefnut, whose existence represented the emergence of an empty space amid the waters. To explain how Atum did this, the myth uses the metaphor of masturbation, with the hand he used in this act representing the female principle inherent within him. He is also said to have "sneezed" and"spat" to produce Shu and Tefnut, a metaphor that arose from puns on their names. Next, Shu and Tefnut coupled to produce the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, who defined the limits of the world. Geb and Nut in turn gave rise to four children, who represented the forces of life: Osiris, god of fertility and regeneration; Isis, goddess of motherhood; Set, the god of chaos; and Nephthys, the female complement of Set. The myth thus represented the process by which life was made possible. These nine gods were grouped together theologically as the Ennead, but the eight lesser gods, and all other things in the world, were ultimately seen as extensions of Atum.


At Heliopolis the name Atum is given to the First Principle, the Creator or Demiurge. The word Atum means both "All" and "Nothing", (c.f. the words attributed to Christ, "I am the alpha and the omega").  He represents the potential totality of the Universe which is as yet unformed and intangible.  There are three basic variants by which Atum gives rise to creation

The Primordial Hill

In this version Atum is in the midst of the Nun, the primordial chaos or nothingness (equivalent to the tohu or "the deep" of the Hebraic book of Genesis). Atum begins by "becoming", by projecting himself into existence', by distinguishing himself from the Nun, and thereby annihilating the Nun in its original inert state. This is represented by the primordial hill, like the first mounds of dirt and mud that can be seen when the floodwaters of the Nile recede. The image of the scarab god Khepri, representative of being and becoming, are also used here.

Hail Atum! Hail Khepri, he who becomes from himself!
You culminate in this your name of 'hill', you become in this your name of Scarab Khepri. (Pyramid Texts, 1587)

Atum-Khepri, you culminate as hill, you raise yourself up as Benu Bird from the ben-ben stone in the abode of the phoenix at Heliopolis. (Pyramid Texts, 1652.)

Atum emerges from the cosmic waters in the form of the primordial hill. He then 'spits out' (ishish) the first of the divine qualities or powers: Shu, the Principle of air and of space, symbolized by the feather he wears on his head.  Atum then 'expectorates' (tfnt) the second Principle, the lion-headed Tefnut, who probably represents the element of Fire, or perhaps the solar principle (in Western astrology the lion is associated with the sun).


In another version, "Atum gives birth to himself through masturbation at Heliopolis', causing 'the seed from the kidneys to come" (Pyramid Texts, 1248). He then brings the twins Shu and Tefnut into the world.  This strange (to us) image is an attempt to explain the eternal question, "if God created the universe, who created God?"  Answer, why, God of course)  Masturbation here is a metaphor of self-creation (autopeoisis). Atum's power is so great that he can give birth to his own parents.  The theme of the "Self-Begotten" is a recurring one in Sethian Gnosticism, and is also found in later Neoplatonism.

Projection of the heart

In a third version, Atum creates himself by the projection of his own heart - or in other word divine soul. Atum then brings forth the other eight elementary principles: Shu (air) and Tefnut (fire), then Geb (Earth), Nut (Sky), and finally Osiris and Isis, Seth and Nepthys. Together with himself, make up the Nine, the Great Ennead of Heliopolis.


It is written that 'none of these entities is separate from him, Atum' (Pyramid Texts, 1655).  Again, in Judaic Kabbalah the ten sefirot or attributes are not separate from the En Sof or Godhead or Absolute (interpreted theistically as the Creator)

The Nine principles form a series from the more subtle to the more manifest, like the tattwas of Samkhya or the sefirot of Kabbalah  First there is the abstract Source, Atum.  Then the initial polar pair of Shu and Tefnut.  Then the manifest polarity, the cosmos, of Earth and Sky.  And finally, incarnate in that, the last four gods who are directly tied up with the drama of existence, duality, birth, death, sacrifice and resurrection.

The Memphite Theology


The Memphite version of creation centered on Ptah, who was the patron god of craftsmen. As such, he represented the craftsman's ability to envision a finished product, and shape raw materials to create that product. The Memphite theology said that Ptah created the world in a similar way. This, unlike the other Egyptian creations, was not a physical but an intellectual creation by the Word and the Mind of God. The ideas developed within Ptah's heart were given form when he named them with his tongue. By speaking these names, Ptah produced the gods and all other things.

The Memphite creation myth coexisted with that of Heliopolis, as Ptah's creative thought and speech were believed to have caused the formation of Atum and the Ennead. Ptah was also associated with Tatjenen, the god who personified the pyramidal mound.

The Memphite religion was political, justifying the primary status of the new capital. Ptah, the principal god of Memphis, had to be shown to be the great creator-god, and a new legend about creation was coined.  But it was also important to organize the new cosmogony so that a direct breach with the priests of Heliopolis might be avoided. Ptah was the great creator-god, but eight other gods were held to be contained within him, including some of the Heliopolitan Ennead and the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. The Heliopolitan Atum held a central position, and the Hermopolitan Nun and Naunet were also included.

The Shabaka Text enumerates Ptah's eight hypostases or qualities as "the Neterw who have come into existence in Ptah". Ptah himself incarnates the primordial Eight, and then becomes Tatenenn, 'the earth which rises up', an evocation of the primordial hill. "He who manifested himself as heart, he who manifested himself as tongue, in the likeness of Atum, is Ptah, the very ancient, who gave life to all the Neterw." Tongue means speech, or in later philosophical idiom the logos. Ptah conceived the world intellectually before creating it 'by his own word'.  The heart and the tongue 'have power over' all the other members, since the tongue describes what the heart conceives. Thus Ptah re-creates the Great Ennead, and gives rise to all the qualities of things, through the Desire of his heart and the Word of his tongue.

Ptah's name means "Creator". He is depicted as a mummified man with only his hands free to grasp a sceptre composed of the symbols of life (ankh), power (was), and stability (djed). He is also typically shown wearing a skullcap and standing on the plinth-shaped hieroglyph that is part of the name for Ma'at, the goddess of fundamental truth.

The Memphite theology, like the Theban religion, is based on a primordial triad of deities. In this case we have Ptah who is accompanied by Sekhmet, the great lioness whose name means 'the powerful', and Nefertum, 'the accomplishment of Atum', thus making up the first causal triad.

The monotheistic element is here as well, in the Memphite Theology it is said of Ptah:

'He who made all and created the gods.' And he is Ta-tenen, who gave birth to the gods, and from whom every thing came forth, foods, provisions, divine offerings, all good things. Thus it is recognized and understood that he is the mightiest of the gods. Thus Ptah was satisfied after he had made all things and all divine words.
(Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdom translated by Miriam Lichtheim)

We have here a strongly developed theism, which gives the lie to the oft-asserted statement that Akhenaten was the first monotheist. Ptah constitutes a creator figure, in contrast to Atum is more of an Emanator. Yet this was still within the same overall tradition (albeit with a different deity). Emanationism is more prone to a philosophical based mysticism in which human growth is the key issue, while creation based is more on a creator who gives laws that you must follow. The Hermopolic creation story (in which everything emerges from the primordial Eight or the Nun) is more prone to left-hand path belief systems since there is no pre-existent God, and the Theban seems like it would be purely mystical, with it's abstract symbolism.

Ptah as the divine craftsman also recalls Judaeo-Christian themes of God fashioning the world, making Adam out of clay, etc.  I leave it to the reader to decide whether this similarity is due to diffusion (the Memphite ideas filtering through to the rest of the Mediterranean world) or archetypal convergence (the same symbol or motif reappearing)

Ogdoad with serpent and frog heads, Thoth & Ptah

The Theban Theology


Theban theology claimed that Amun was not merely a member of the Ogdoad, but the hidden force behind all things. There is a conflation of all notions of creation into the personality of Amun, a synthesis which emphasizes how Amun transcends all other deities in his being "beyond the sky and deeper than the underworld". One Theban myth likened Amun's act of creation to the call of a goose, which broke the stillness of the primeval waters and caused the Ogdoad and Ennead to form. Amun was separate from the world, his true nature was concealed even from the other gods. At the same time, however, because he was the ultimate source of creation, all the gods, including the other creators, were in fact merely aspects of Amun. Amun eventually became the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon because of this belief. Amun is synonymous with the growth of Thebes as a major religious capital.

The Theban theology, like the Memphite theology, is based on a primordial triad.  In this case it is the triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. The Theban myth of creation is somewhat complicated and wrapped in obscure symbolism.  As Lucy Lamy explains:

At the origin of time, there existed a serpent, Kam-at-f, 'he who has accomplished his time'. As his name indicates, this serpent ceased to exist when his time was past. He had, however, a son, Ir-ta, 'Creator of the Earth'. Ir-ta continued the work of his father and created the Eight Primordials of Hermopolis, among whom of course we find Amun, who declares himself to be the initial serpent, and Amonet. The genealogy is presented as follows, in terms of four generations:

  1. The serpent Kam-at-f, assimilated to Amun-Re of Karnak.
  2. The serpent Ir-ta, assimilated to Min-Amun of Luxor.
  3. The Eight Primordials, one of whom is Amun, who thus re-generates himself.
  4. The solar child who comes forth from the lotus at Hermopolis, in other words Re, product of the Fight Primordials, and also assimilated to Amun.