Since Egypt was one of the first major civilisations to ever develop, Egyptian mythology is one of the oldest surviving mythologies in the world.
Despite being so old, it is not obscure. Many people have heard about figures such as Osiris or Horus, even if they have never specifically researched the subject.
But although most people have a basic familiarity with some Egyptian mythological figures, Egyptian mythology as a whole is incredibly complex. For one thing, it was not always consistent across all of Egypt or across all time periods.
Understanding Egyptian mythology requires some effort, but don’t worry – this article will help!
If you’d like to learn more about Egyptian Mythology, we’re consistently putting out more articles where we can. Here are all the latest:
WHAT IS EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY?
Egyptian mythology refers to the myths and legends held by the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptians were extremely religious people. Worship was a constant part of their lives. Even the pharaoh himself was viewed as a god. So when archaeologists uncover Egyptian ruins or artefacts, references to the gods are very common.
The divinities were undoubtedly the most important and prevalent part of their mythology. Most of the stories they had were about the activities or nature of the gods.
Unlike some other cultures – like the Greeks and the Romans – the Egyptians did not have many stories about human or semi-divine heroes. Nor did they have many stories about adventures.
The activities of the gods were often confined entirely to the divine realm, although many stories do show the gods interacting in human affairs. A few stories (though not many) concern human-like divinities who became immortal gods after death.
As noted before, Egyptian mythology was not always consistent throughout the long history of Egypt. Various details changed with time.
For this reason, when a record is found from ancient Egypt that records a myth about the gods, it is very dangerous to assume that this myth was present for most of Egypt’s history (especially in all the details).
TYPES OF EGYPTIAN MYTHS
Although complex, it is possible to divide Egyptian mythology into at least four main categories. These categories help us to understand better the mythology as a whole.
Myths of Origins
The Egyptians had various myths explaining the origin of some part of their world. The most common and fundamental origin myth was the creation myth, describing how the world as a whole came to be.
Various different creation myths exist. One common feature to most of them is that they describe the world emerging from the primeval waters of chaos.
One version presents the primeval water as being represented by eight gods, known as the Ogdoad. These gods bring forth the sun from a mound of dry land (which was, along with the primeval water, another common feature of these creation myths).
Other versions focus on the role of Atum, a sun god. He is presented as a creator god who created himself from the primeval waters. He then went on to create the gods Shu and Tefnut, who then in turn produced more gods.
These gods all play a key role in the functioning of the world. For example, Shu is the personification of air, dividing the land from the sky. And the land and the sky themselves are the gods Geb and Nut, children of Shu.
The origin of humans is not commonly discussed in the Egyptian creation myths, but it does appear sometimes. One version presents humans as coming from the tears of Ra. Another myth presents humans as being moulded from clay by the god Khnum.
Myths of the Gods
Other myths were focused on the activities of the gods. We could consider these ‘adventures’ of a sort.
One of these myths is the story of the reign of Ra, the sun god. He lived on earth as the first ruler of humans, and he was also the king of the gods. His reign was viewed as a golden age of stability, which Egyptians strived to regain.
Despite being fundamentally a golden age, the stories about Ra’s reign feature him battling various forces to maintain this peace (a concept known as Maat in Egyptian mythology). He faces a rebellion from some of the other gods in one story.
In another story, his own eye, the Eye of Ra, acts independently of him in the form of a goddess and rebels against him.
Another story tells of humans rebelling against Ra’s rule, which leads to him destroying almost all of them and then withdrawing into the sky.
The most famous myth about the activities of the gods was the tale about Osiris and Horus. Osiris is another god who was said to have ruled as a king on earth in a kind of golden age.
Osiris was murdered by his brother Set, who then engaged in many battles against Isis (the sister and consort of Osiris) and Horus (the son of Osiris and Isis). Eventually, Horus either became the sole ruler of Egypt, or he received Lower Egypt while Set received Upper Egypt (depending on the version).
Myths of the Present
Many myths in Egyptian mythology were designed to explain the regular processes which go on in the natural world.
One key example is the regular journey of the sun. This normal occurrence, which we see day after day, was the subject of intense interest in Egyptian mythology.
The myths describe how every morning, Ra (the sun god) devours the other deities, representing the stars. He then spits them out again in the evening, explaining why they are there at night but not during the day.
During his journey through the underworld at night, Ra battles Apep, a giant serpent representative of chaos and disorder.
Another example is the myth about the flooding of the Nile, which was an event vital to Egyptian life which occurred once a year. In Egyptian mythology, this event is sometimes referred to as ‘the Arrival of Hapi’, Hapi being the name of a god.
Another myth describes how Tefnut, the goddess of moisture, escaped to Nubia in a jealous rage and killed many people there. The deity Thoth convinced her to return. Some people view this is an explanation for the annual flooding of the Nile.
Myths of the Future
This is a somewhat more obscure category of Egyptian mythology. There was not a great deal of interest in myths about the future. Nonetheless, there are a few records about this subject.
The end of the universe is something which Egyptian mythology presents in some texts as a possibility, not an inevitability.
On the other hand, other texts present it as something which is destined to happen eventually.
In one of these texts, the creator god Atum declares that the day will come in which he will return all creation to its original, chaotic form. Even Atum himself will return to his original, inert form in the primeval waters.
The only survivor apart from Atum will be Osiris, although the Egyptian texts do not explain what that will mean for the souls of the dead who are closely associated with Osiris.
PROMINENT EGYPTIAN MYTHS
Here are some of the major stories within Egyptian mythology:
- The Creation: Many different versions of the creation of the world exist. Most of them agree that there was a mound of earth that came up from the primeval waters of chaos, and then Ra or Atum appeared. From this first god came the other gods, who formed the elements of nature.
- The Rampage of Hathor: Based during the reign of Ra, this story explains how death and suffering came into the world. Ra sent Hathor to punish humans for disrespecting him. She began destroying them so effectively that Ra had to trick her into becoming drunk so she would stop before she killed them all. But after that, Ra ascended to the sky and the golden age of his rule ended.
- Osiris and Set: One of the most popular stories in ancient Egypt, this myth tells of Osiris being murdered by his brother Set and his corpse being scattered throughout Egypt. Isis, the sister and consort of Osiris, gathered the pieces together and then with the body conceived Horus.
- Horus versus Set: A continuation of the previous myth, this story tells of the many battles that occurred between Horus and his uncle Set. Various different challenges were involved, and Set often came off victorious. Eventually the gods intervened and gave either all of Egypt or northern Egypt to Horus.
- Weighing the Heart: Myths about death explain that Anubis was believed to guide the souls of the dead to the underworld, and he was also the one responsible for weighing their hearts to determine their fate.
- Tefnut and Thoth: Tefnut became jealous over the attention her grandchildren were receiving, so she ran off to Nubia. She took the form of a lioness and caused havoc in that land, killing many. Egypt became drier and drier due to her absence, until Thoth went to retrieve her and convinced her to return by calling her ‘honourable’.
EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY CHARACTERS
Egyptian mythology had a phenomenally large pantheon. Here are just a few of the most important figures in Egyptian mythology:
- Atum: The creator god. He was said to have formed himself in some texts. As well as a creator god, he also acted as a solar deity, but was particularly associated with the sun when it set.
- Ra: Ra was closely associated with Atum, so much so that some texts speak of ‘Atum-Ra’. He was also a solar deity, although he seems to have been primarily associated with the sun during the day.
- Hathor: The daughter of Ra. She was a sky deity and a mother deity of major importance to the Egyptians, usually depicted as a cow.
- Shu: Shu was the son of Atum (or Ra). He was the personification of air, creating a division between the land and the sky. He was depicted as physically holding up the sky goddess.
- Tefnut: The daughter of Atum (or Ra). She was the goddess of moisture and the consort of her brother Shu.
- Geb: The son of Shu and Tefnut. Geb was the god of the earth. His laughter was believed to cause earthquakes.
- Nut: The daughter of Shu and Tefnut. She was the goddess of the sky, depicted as being held up by Shu, the god of the air. Her consort was her brother Geb.
- Osiris: The son of Geb and Nut. He ruled as a king over humans until being murdered by Set. He was the god of the dead, resurrection, agriculture, fertility, and vegetation.
- Isis: The daughter of Geb and Nut. She was the consort of her brother Osiris. She was a mother goddess, although she was also the goddess of kingship, magic, wisdom, and the sky.
- Set: The son of Geb and Nut. He was a god of disorder, violence, storms, deserts, and foreigners. He murdered his brother Osiris and tried to steal the kingship over humans.
- Horus: The son of Osiris and Isis. He was born by his mother having relations with his father’s reconstructed corpse. He fought numerous battles against Set, his father’s murderer, and eventually become the king of northern Egypt.
- Anubis: The god of the underworld. His parentage was varied across the different sources. He was the protector of graves. He also guided dead souls to the underworld and then weighed their heart to determine their fate.
EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY SOURCES
Some of the main sources for Egyptian mythology are:
- Pyramid Texts: This is a collection of hundreds of religious incantations dated by scholars to about 2400 BCE. These incantations were carved into the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids at Saqqara. They are funerary texts, although they focus on the celestial realm.
- Coffin Texts: These are funerary texts written somewhat later than the Pyramid Texts. These texts focus on the underworld. They talk about how all humans will be judged by Osiris and his associate deities on the basis of their deeds.
- Book of the Dead: This is a collection of funerary texts which contain spells designed to assist a person’s journey through the underworld. The earliest of these date from about 1700 BCE.
- Books of Breathing: This is a collection of funerary spells designed to assist people in their journey in the afterlife. It is essentially a simplified version of the Book of the Dead. It dates from between the fourth century BCE and the second century CE.
- Diodorus Siculus: This Greek historian of the first century BCE recorded numerous stories from Egyptian mythology, such as the account of Osiris’ murder by Set and Horus’ subsequent battles against him.
FAMOUS EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY ARTEFACTS AND WEAPONS
Egyptian mythology does not have as many artefacts and weapons as some other mythologies. Here are some of the ones that it has:
- Tyet: This symbol was like an ankh, except its arms pointed down along the main shaft. It was associated with the goddess Isis and was believed to have healing powers.
- Was: This was the name given to a special sceptre which was depicted as being carried by gods, priests, and the pharaohs. It represented dominion over chaos, as well as other things.
- Mandjet and Mesektet: These were the barges that the sun god Ra sailed in through the sky in the day and through the underworld at night.
- Both of Thoth: This book was said to have been written by the god Thoth. It contained two spells. One would enable the reader to understand the speech of animals, while the other would enable the reader to perceive the gods.
- Scales of Maat: These scales were used by Anubis to weigh a person’s heart against the feather of Maat, to judge the deeds the person had committed throughout their life.
EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY CREATURES
Here are a few of the creatures that feature in Egyptian mythology:
- Apep: This was a giant, monstrous snake that lived in the underworld and was a creature of chaos, opposed to Maat (order). It fought against Ra each night as Ra travelled through the underworld.
- Ammit: This was a chimera, a creature made up of multiple different animals. It had the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion, and the hind limbs of a hippopotamus. It devoured the hearts of those who did not measure up to the feather of Maat.
- Serpopard: It is not known what the ancient Egyptians called this creature. The name ‘serpopard’ is modern. This creature was a cross between a leopard and a snake. Its long neck is sometimes shown entwined with the neck of another serpopard facing it. No one knows what this creature represented.
- Bennu: The Bennu was a divine bird which was involved with the creation of the world in some stories. It was associated with the sun, and some believe this led to the legend of the Phoenix in Greek mythology.
EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY IN POPULAR CULTURE
Egyptian mythology is still popular in the modern world. Here are just some of the many examples of it being featured in modern pop culture:
- Doctor Who: In the 1975 story Pyramids of Mars, the main villain is an alien named Sutekh, said to be the origin of the god Set in Egyptian mythology.
- Stargate: This 1994 film features an alien race who presented themselves as gods to the ancient Egyptians, coming to be worshiped by them. Some of the alien characters include Ra, Anubis and Osiris.
- Age of Mythology: This real-time strategy game, released in 2002 by Ensemble Studios, features several Egyptian deities, such as Hathor and Nephthys.
- Gods of Egypt: This 2016 film presents a version of the story of Horus battling Set. It includes the new detail of Horus partnering with a human thief to help him.
- Moon Knight: In the Marvel TV show for Disney+, several mythological characters (notably Khonshu) appear in the show.
- Thor: Love and Thunder: In this 2022 film, the goddess Sekhmet appears as a member of a council led by Zeus, from Greek mythology.
Clearly, Egyptian mythology still has appeal in today’s world.
Egyptian Mythology Bibliography
- Armour, R., 2010. Gods and myths of Ancient Egypt. The American University in Cairo Press
- Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Clayton, M., 2017. Egyptian Mythology: A Fascinating Guide to Understanding the Gods, Goddesses, Monsters, and Mortals.
- Wilkinson, R., 2017. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
- Lewis, S., 2018. Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Egyptian Myths, Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters.