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The Egyptian myths : a guide to the ancient gods and legends

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An authoritative guide to the Egyptian myths that sheds new light on an ancient way of understanding the world

This survey of Egyptian mythology explores how the ancient Nile-dwellers explained the world around them. It delves into the creation and evolution of the world and the reigns of the gods on earth, before introducing us to the manifestations of Egypt’s deities in the natural environment; the inventive ways in which the Egyptians dealt with the invisible forces all around them; and their beliefs about life after death.

Through his engaging narrative, Garry Shaw guides us through the mythic adventures of such famous deities as Osiris, the god murdered by his jealous brother Seth; the magical and sometimes devious Isis, who plotted to gain the power of the sun god Re; and Horus, who defeated his uncle Seth to become king of Egypt. He also introduces us to lesser known myths, such as the rebellions against Re; Geb’s quest for Re’s magical wig; and the flaying of the unfortunate god Nemty. From stars and heavenly bodies sailing on boats, to the wind as manifestation of the god Shu, to gods, goddesses, ghosts, and demons―beings that could be aggressive, helpful, wise, or dangerous―Shaw goes on to explain how the Egyptians encountered the mythological in their everyday lives.

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About the author

Garry J. Shaw has a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool and has taught at the American University in Cairo. He is managing editor and staff writer for the magazine Al-Rawi: Egypt’s Heritage Review and teaches at the Egypt Exploration Society, London. His previous books include Royal Authority in Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty and The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign.

Other titles of interest published by

Thames & Hudson include:

An Illustrated Dictionary of the

Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt

The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt

The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Ancient Egypt

The Complete World of Greek Mythology

Books of the Dead:

Manuals for Living and Dying


The Complete Guide to Our Imagined Worlds

The Human Past:

World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies

See our websites

For Sean McKenna


Many thanks to Julie Patenaude for reading and commenting on the various drafts of this book. For their support, I am also grateful to Andrew Bednarski (Best Man!), Maggie Bryson, Henning Franzmeier, Campbell Price, the Egypt Exploration Society, the American Research Center in Egypt and the fabulous editorial team at Thames & Hudson. A special thanks also goes to my students at the Egypt Exploration Society, who witnessed the ‘live performance’ of this book in my course, ‘Gods, Goddesses and Ghosts of the Necropolis: Mythology and Religion in Ancient Egypt’. Their valuable comments led to many improvements throughout my developing manuscript.


About the Author

Other Titles of Interest




Disorder and Creation


The Reigns of Kings Re, Shu and Geb


The Reign of King Osiris


The Reign of King Seth and the Triumph of Horus



The Mythic Environment


Dealing with the Invisible in Daily Life



The Trials of the Duat (A Guide)


Your Judgment and Life as ; an Akh

Epilogue: The Myth of Ancient Egypt

Further Reading

Sources of Quotations

Sources of Illustrations




What came before me? What is happening around me? What happens after I die? Like us today, the Egyptians sought answers to these fundamental questions and, like us, they formed theories based on observing the world around them. What we now call ‘ancient Egyptian myths’ was the result of these investigations; from them, a unique worldview was forged.

Mythology, more than collecting simple accounts of heroes and gods, provides a way to understand the world. There is a great ball of light in the sky; each morning it rises, spends the day crossing the sky and then it sinks in the west. What is that? And where does it go? You might ask, how does it move? Whether in the sun you see the god Re sailing across the sky aboard his day barque, or a mass of nuclear reactions pulling us around its sphere, you are observing the same phenomena. The Egyptians, trying to enhance their knowledge of the universe without recourse to particle physics, simply came to different conclusions. Their explanations fuelled their distinctive outlook and shaped their experience; myth became the backbone of society, a culture-wide filter for an impassive reality. Once immersed in the internal logic of its ideology, life made more sense; order took the place of disorder; control replaced helplessness; knowledge overcame ignorance. The world, with its violent desert storms and deadly scorpions, became a little less frightening.

The hawk-headed Re sails aboard his solar barque.

Horus the Child, son of Osiris and Isis.

The mythic narrative of ancient Egypt was ever-present in people’s lives – it played out over the course of each day as an endless repetition of creations, destructions and rebirths, entangled in a net of divine interactions. There was no need to set these events as an immutable narrative. Each person lived as the hero of their own mythic narrative each day. Gods, as personalized forces, were present in every facet of the created world and mythic precedents could be cited as explanations for both extraordinary and mundane events, linking the individual to the world of the gods. Moreover, by invoking mythic events, the Egyptians assimilated themselves with their deities. A person with a headache became Horus the Child, cared for by his mother, who herself became Isis; in death, the deceased transformed into various gods whilst traversing the afterlife realm, assuming each deity’s divine authority for a time. Egypt’s myths were elastic enough to be shaped into everyone’s lives, as each individual sought to explain the natural world and the challenges and joys of existence. Myths, and the acts of the gods detailed therein, answered the question, ‘why did this happen to me?’ There is comfort in precedent.


Today, Egyptologists are faced with scattered and fragmentary references to Egypt’s myths, assembled from the content of disparate sources dating from 3050 BC through to the first centuries AD. As can be seen, the time span covered by ‘ancient Egypt’ is extremely long, over 3,000 years depending on where the lines are drawn. Owing to the difficulty of assigning specific dates to events, Egyptologists tend not to cite dates BC, and instead refer to the reign of the king, his dynasty or the general period in which he ruled. In the 3rd century bc, the Egyptian priest Manetho divided Egypt’s kings into 30 dynasties (later writers added a 31st). Though each dynasty implies a distinct ruling line – an individual bloodline – this is not always the case, as Manetho also used significant events, such as the construction of the first pyramid or a change of royal residence, to draw the line between phases. Modern Egyptologists took Manetho’s dynasties and grouped them into longer phases, divided between periods when there was a single king ruling over the entire country (Early Dynastic Period, Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, Late Period) and when the kingship was divided (First Intermediate Period, Second Intermediate Period, Third Intermediate Period). These major phases of ‘the Pharaonic Period’ were followed by the Ptolemaic Period, when kings of Macedonian-Greek origin ruled, and afterwards the Roman Period. In this book, I have followed these Egyptological dating conventions.

The mounds of the Duat – the afterlife realm.

Egyptian Chronology

Pharaonic Period Early Dynastic Period c. 3050–2660 BC Dynasties 1–2

Old Kingdom c. 2660–2190 BC Dynasties 3–6

First Intermediate Period c. 2190–2066 BC Dynasties 7–11

Middle Kingdom c. 2066–1780 BC Dynasties 11–12

Second Intermediate Period c. 1780–1549 BC Dynasties 13–17

New Kingdom c. 1549–1069 BC Dynasties 18–20

Third Intermediate Period c. 1069–664 BC Dynasties 21–25

Late Period 664–332 BC Dynasties 26–31

Ptolemaic Period 332–30 BC

Roman Period 30 BC–ad 395

The Two Lands

Egypt is a land of stark contrasts: flowing from south to north, the river Nile snakes its way through the Nile Valley, flanked by a narrow band of cultivable land, until it reaches ancient Memphis, near modern Cairo, where it fans out as a series of tributaries to form the great fertile triangle of the Delta. Owing to this dramatic change in terrain, the Egyptians divided their country into Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt – the Nile Valley south of Memphis and the Delta respectively – and referred to it as the Two Lands. A different crown represented each half – the Red Crown for Lower Egypt and the White Crown for Upper Egypt; these were combined as the Double Crown, representative of the king’s dominion over the whole country. Similarly, the Egyptians were struck by the strong contrast between the barren dry desert, which they referred to as the ‘red land’, and the cultivable soil, called the ‘black land’. East and west also had significance; watching the rising sun, the Egyptians came to associate the east with new life and rebirth, while the west, where the sun ‘died’ each evening, became the realm of the dead; this is why cemeteries were often built in the desert on the west side of the Nile.

As there is no single source that neatly explains to us the myths of the ancient Egyptians, Egyptologists are forced to piece them together from the already fragmentary evidence that survives from those distant times. Many myths were recorded on papyri, discovered within burials or at temple sites; others are alluded to on funerary stelae placed in tombs. The modern names given to some sources reflect their original contexts: the Pyramid Texts were found inscribed on the walls of Old Kingdom royal pyramids from the end of the 5th Dynasty onwards, while the Coffin Texts, known from the Middle Kingdom, were painted onto coffins used to bury those who could afford such luxuries. The Book of the Dead (‘The Book of Coming Forth by Day’ to the Egyptians), copied onto papyrus rolls and coffins, provided the deceased with a travel guide to the afterlife from the late Second Intermediate Period, and was in use for over a thousand years beyond that time. In almost all cases, the myths are abbreviated or mentioned only cryptically; sometimes this was due to decorum – the Egyptians shy away from referring to the death of Osiris within their funerary monuments, for example, as the description of this traumatic event in a tomb context could magically harm the deceased – while in other cases, there was no need to explain the myth in full, as it was assumed that the reader would already know the story.

The Greek historian Plutarch recorded many Egyptian myths.

Over the vast span of Egyptian history, Egypt was influenced by cultures throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern World – in certain periods it was even ruled by them, from the Assyrians and Persians, to the Macedonian-Greeks and Romans. Egypt’s myths adapted with their times, soaking up new flavours and finding new expression thanks to these influences. Variations on myths also developed in each Egyptian province (called ‘nomes’); there was thus no single, correct version. This is both distressing and liberating; distressing because any guide to Egyptian myth can never be a true reflection of what the Egyptians believed; but liberating because, as its chronicler, I am not fixed to a rigid retelling. What follows in this book is more akin to the work of Plutarch, who took the elements of the Osiris myth and pieced them together for a Greek audience, than a typical academic analysis. Like Plutarch, in places, I have taken mythic fragments, sometimes from different time periods, and created a coherent narrative; if the reader can forgive Plutarch for such acts of ‘cherry picking’, I am hopeful that I too may be forgiven.


The Egyptian gods are a vibrant and eclectic group; they squabble, fight, murder, form relationships and can die of old age (before being reborn, illustrative of the Egyptian love of cyclical time). They could also manifest in a variety of forms, in various locations simultaneously, whilst their true selves remained distant and invisible in the sky; though malleable in form, they were, nevertheless, neither omniscient nor omnipresent. Charged with specific divine responsibilities (Osiris for regeneration, Min for fertility, for example), they were restricted in their powers, and had to merge with each other to share each other’s powers for a short time, if they needed to achieve a goal beyond their cosmic remit: thus, lacking the ability and power to re-energize himself, the ailing sun god merges with Osiris each night, using this god’s regenerative force to enable him to be born again in a new dawn. Sometimes, when one god assumed the characteristics of another, (s)he transformed into that other deity; so, when Hathor, as Eye of Re, attacked mankind, her violent rage transformed her into the overtly bloodthirsty goddess Sekhmet. Though initially confusing to modern readers, the complex nature of Egypt’s gods should become clearer as the following pages turn.

It must be noted that, although useful, detailed analyses of the gods’ development and assorted cults over time distract from their character, and as such, have been largely omitted from this book in favour of stressing their personalities and ‘human’ characteristics. For those readers or students new to ancient Egypt, or those with only a casual interest, I am hopeful that my approach will be beneficial, providing a useful introduction to the myths, allowing the stories to breathe with only a limited amount of modern, analytical intrusion. Above all else, reading these myths and learning about how the Egyptians engaged with the world through them, should be enjoyable: as well as being explanatory, myths were meant to entertain. It is in this spirit that I hope the reader will approach this book.

To address the questions posed at the start of this introduction, I have divided this book into three parts: 1) The Time of the Gods (Or Explaining Where We All Came from); 2) The Living World (Or Explaining the World around Us); and 3) The Mythology of Death (Or Explaining the Life Hereafter). As you read on, my hope is that you will place yourself into the sandals of an ancient Egyptian and try to see the world from his or her perspective. Take these mythic explanations and imagine what it was like to see, and understand, the world in this way. These myths are insights into ancient psychology, windows into the Egyptian mind, and can introduce you to a whole new – yet simultaneously old – way of experiencing the world.



Understanding ancient Egyptian thought on creation, or indeed reconstructing Egyptian myth overall, is like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle when the majority of the pieces are missing and someone has thrown away the box.

In the past, faced with scattered, diverse and apparently contradictory remnants of creation myths from different parts of the country, Egyptologists divided these mythic snippets according to the cult centre that they assumed had produced (or standardized) the source material – scholarship on these would refer to ‘the Memphite Theology’ (from the city of Memphis) or ‘the Heliopolitan Theology’ (from Heliopolis). Sometimes it was argued that these cult centres, with their various interpretations, were ‘competing’, implying that Egypt’s priests snubbed their noses at their counterparts in different cities because one might prioritize the god Amun in his guise as ‘the Great Honker’ over the divine cow that engendered Re.

Perhaps they did. But whatever the case may be, these various creation accounts, in actuality, display remarkable cohesion, exhibiting the same fundamental themes and following similar structures. The regional cult centres, it seems, put their own spin on generally agreed mythological essentials, emphasizing the roles of particular actors, phases or aspects of creation, and substituting their own local gods for those mentioned in other versions. In this way, Egypt’s various priesthoods put forward alternative, rather than competing, views, thereby reducing the risk of inter-faith fisticuffs.

So, although no universally followed creation myth existed, there was, at least, an overarching concept – a shared foundation – for how creation generally occurred: deep within Nun (the limitless dark ocean) a god awakened, or conceived of creation. Through his power, he, or his manifestations, divided into the many aspects of the created world, creating the first gods and the first mound of earth to emerge from the water. Afterwards, the sun – in some accounts the independent eye of the creator, in others, newly hatched from an egg – dawned for the first time, bringing light to where once had been darkness.

The god Nun raises the solar barque into the sky.

The Hermopolitan Ogdoad flank the solar barque: four on each side.

During the New Kingdom, in about 1200 BC, there was an attempt at Thebes to unify Egypt’s main traditions under the god Amun as ultimate creator. This period is, therefore, a perfect standpoint from which to describe creation in more detail, as its texts provide the best insight into the Egyptian conception of where the world came from, while also incorporating the preferred traditions of the country’s most important cult centres – predominantly those of Hermopolis, which focused on the eight gods (Ogdoad) of the pre-creation universe (see below); of the god Ptah’s temple at Memphis, in which the spoken word brought all things into existence; and of Heliopolis, in which the god (Re-)Atum evolved from a single egg or seed into the physical world. Thus, in this chapter, drawing on the work of Egyptologist James P. Allen, and guided by quotations from the Ramesside Great Hymn to Amun – a unique text that presents the conclusions of the Amun priesthood’s theological explorations – we will investigate the creation of the world.


Nun – The Infinite Waters

The pre-creation universe is an infinite body of water, an expanse of darkness, inert and motionless; a place to bring a submarine rather than a spaceship. There is no separation of the elements, no earth and sky, nothing is named, and there is no death or life. It has existed in this form for all eternity, unending, still, silent. Though beyond true human comprehension, to conceptualize and discuss this infinite watery expanse, the Egyptians personified its intertwined aspects as indissoluble male and female couples – the males as frogs and the females as snakes. There was Nun and Naunet as the limitless waters; Huh and Hauhet as infinity; Kuk and Kauket as darkness; and Amun and Amunet as hiddenness. These forces are often collectively referred to as the eight primeval gods of Hermopolis, or the Ogdoad (from the Greek for ‘eight’).

The shape of this pyramidion probably represents the first mound of creation.

To the theologians of Hermopolis, who emphasized these forces of pre-creation in their myths, the eight gods created the first mound of earth (or island) together, and then formed an egg from which the sun god hatched. Depending on the myth at hand, sometimes the sun is said to hatch from an egg laid by a goose called the Great Honker, or by the god Thoth (see p. 51) in the form of an ibis. In other variations, the eight gods create a lotus in Nun, from which the sun is born, first taking the form of the scarab beetle Khepri and then as the child-god Nefertum whose eyes, when open, gave light to the world.

Of the eight aspects of the pre-created universe, Nun, as the limitless waters, was of particular importance. Though sometimes depicted like his male companions as a frog, he could also be shown as a human with a tripartite wig, or as a fecundity figure, representing bounty, fruitfulness and fertility, for, as we shall see, though Nun was inert and motionless, dark and infinite, he was also generative – a place of birth and possibility. This might seem counterintuitive: how can a place of darkness and disorder be a force for growth and life? As an optimistic civilization, the Egyptians saw in Nun potential for being and regeneration: light comes from darkness, land emerges from floodwater with renewed fertility, flowers grow from dry, lifeless seeds. The potential for order existed within disorder.

It is from within Nun that all things began.

Amun ‘Who Made Himself into Millions’

The Eight were your [Amun’s] first form…

Another of his [Amun’s] forms is the Ogdoad…


Amun, listed above as just one of the eight primeval gods, was by 1200 BC of unparalleled importance in Egyptian state religion, so much so that the Ogdoad of Hermopolis was now regarded as the first development of his own majestic hidden power. The Egyptians depicted Amun as a man with blue skin, wearing a crown of two tall feathered plumes. His title ‘the Great Honker’ demonstrates his association with the goose, the bird who broke the silence at the beginning of time with his honking; and he could also be shown as a ram – a symbol of fertility. Although Amun’s divine wife was normally said to be Mut (see box opposite), as one of the primeval forces of Nun, he found his female counterpart in Amunet (who is sometimes shown wearing the crown of Lower Egypt and carrying a papyrus-headed staff).

King Seti I (right) bows his head to the god Amun-Re.

In the Middle Kingdom (2066–1780 BC), Amun rose to prominence in the Theban region, and in the New Kingdom (1549–1069 BC) reigned supreme as ultimate deity, referred to as King of the Gods. Representing all that was hidden, Amun existed within and beyond Nun, transcendent, invisible, behind all things, in existence before the gods of creation, and self-created. He ‘knit his fluid together with his body to bring about his egg in isolation’, we are told, and was ‘creator of his [own] perfection’. Even the gods did not know his true character.

He [Amun] is hidden from the gods, and his aspect is unknown. He is farther than the sky, he is deeper that the Duat [the afterlife realm]. No god knows his true appearance, no processional image of his is unfolded through inscriptions, no one testifies to him accurately.


Amun’s inaccessibility is probably a good thing, as we are also informed that anyone who ‘expresses his secret identity, unknowingly or knowingly’, would instantly drop down dead.

Simultaneously within and beyond Nun, Amun, the ultimate hidden deity, decided to create the world:

He began speaking in the midst of silence…

He began crying out while the world was in stillness, his yell in circulation while he had no second, that he might give birth to what is and cause them to live…


Amun, Mut and Khonsu: The Theban Triad

According to Theban theology, Amun’s wife was the goddess Mut. She was depicted predominantly in human form, but also as a lioness. Mut was a divine female pharaoh, and served as a mother goddess; consequently, she can be shown wearing the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, and a vulture headdress, associated with goddesses and queens. Amun and Mut’s trinity was completed with their son, Khonsu, depicted as a child with full and crescent moons together upon his head (see also pp. 122–23).

Ptah – The Creative Mind

You took your [next] form as [Ptah]-Tatenen…

He [Amun] is called [Ptah]-Tatenen…


Amun’s straightforward, intellectual act of thinking and speaking required the intervention of another god: Ptah, god of arts and crafts, the divine sculptor and the power of the creative mind. To the priests of Ptah, all things were a ‘creation of his heart’: whether deities, the sky, the land, art or technology, each was conceived of and spoken into existence by their god. Worshipped primarily at Memphis, near modern Cairo, Ptah was shown as a man tightly wrapped in cloth like a mummy, standing on a pedestal, gripping a sceptre, wearing a skull cap and with a straight beard (unusual for a god, as they normally preferred curving beards). He formed a family triad with the volatile lion goddess Sekhmet, and their son Nefertum, depicted as a child with a lotus flower on his head. From the Ramesside Period, when the Great Hymn to Amun was composed, the god Tatenen (‘the risen land’) was regarded as a manifestation of Ptah; consequently, the two were united as Ptah-Tatenen, a combination of divine sculptor and the first land to rise from the waters of Nun.

Left, the god Ptah.

Right, the god Tatenen


The goddess Sekhmet, meaning ‘powerful’, was depicted as a lion-headed woman, with a long wig and solar disc upon her head. Rarely, she was shown fully as a lioness. She was wife of the god Ptah, and mother of Nefertum.

Sekhmet could be either a dangerous or protective force. She was associated with plagues (brought by the messengers of Sekhmet), warfare and aggression, but was also prayed to for protection from disease; if a person became sick, he could summon priests of Sekhmet, and ask them to use their knowledge of magic to cure his illness. Sekhmet also served as a protector to the king, breathing fire at his enemies and accompanying him during warfare. In her manifestation as the bloodthirsty Eye of Re, Sekhmet attempted to destroy mankind, but was tricked into halting her rampage (see pp. 58–59). Her main cult centre was at Memphis.

As the power of the creative mind, Ptah represented the transformative force that turns a creative thought into action and material reality – from the flash of inspiration that a craftsman might suddenly experience in his mind while strolling down the street, to the act of physically carving his statue, manipulating the stone into the image he had perceived in his mind’s eye. This is reflected in a text known as the Memphite Theology, which is normally interpreted as stating that creation occurred through the heart and tongue of Ptah, this god conceiving of the elements of creation in his heart, and announcing them into existence with his divine words as he pronounced their names: whatever he thought became real. It was creation ex nihilo. However, James P. Allen has recently argued that the heart and tongue in question in fact belong to the ultimate creator, Amun, with Ptah simply supplying the transformative force. So, the priests of Amun might have admitted, although Amun spoke ‘in the midst of silence’, this hidden god providing the vision of creation, it was Ptah, as personification of the creative process, who enabled Amun’s thoughts to be realized.

Hu, Sia and Heka

The intellectual act of creation was possible because of three facets of the creator, his sia ‘divine perception’, hu ‘authoritative utterance’ and heka ‘magic’. With the power of heka, he perceived the created world in his heart, and through his authoritative utterance spoke it into existence. Each of these three forces was personified as an individual god, with Hu and Sia said to come into being from drops of blood dripped from the phallus of the sun god.

Heka, however, came into existence, ‘before two things had developed in the world’, and thus, when personified, is sometimes presented as a creator god. Illustrated as a man or sometimes as a child, Heka often sports a curved divine beard. The hindquarters of a lion can be shown atop his head, and he sometimes holds snakes in his hands. He is one of the select deities that protect the sun god as he travels in his solar barque, but similarly protects the god Osiris in the afterlife realm of the Duat.

The gods Sia (left) and Heka (right) flank the ram-headed soul of the sun god.

If, then, we imagine Amun as a wealthy benefactor, a man commissioning a statue to his particular requirements, and Ptah as the divine artist and craftsman hired to realize this work, what, or who, was the raw material upon which Amun, as ultimate creator, and Ptah, as translator of the creator’s will, were to work? Who or what were they to affect with their actions? Every artisan requires a substance to mould, to enable him to extract his vision from his mind and make the abstract concrete for all to see. In Egyptian creation mythology, this raw material was the god Atum (or Re-Atum), ‘sculpted’ into the created world we all exist within.

Atum and Physical Evolution

He [Amun] completed himself as Atum,

being of one body with him.


These intellectual acts – the vision of Amun and the creative force of Ptah – set the physical evolution of the world in motion, acting upon and stirring into consciousness an egg or seed floating in the limitless and dark expanse of Nun. In the Heliopolitan tradition, this seed was the god Atum (also referred to as Re-Atum). At this point a fusion of all matter and gods, mixed together and undifferentiated, Atum was like the singularity at the start of the big bang or, as he himself relates:

I was alone with the Primeval Ocean [Nun] in the inertness, and could find no place to stand … [the gods of the] first generation had not yet come into being, [but] they were with me…


Atum, meaning ‘the finisher’, was the Lord of Totality, a god that simultaneously represented evolution and the completion of evolution. Typically depicted in human form, wearing the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, Atum could also take the form of a mongoose, scarab beetle, lizard, snake, a bow-and-arrow wielding baboon or the benu-bird; he is also sometimes depicted as the first land to emerge from the waters during creation. As the evening form of the sun god, he was shown with a ram’s head.

The god Atum (left) sits before Queen Nefertari.

Within Nun, Atum (still only a seed) began a conversation with the limitless expanse of Nun:

I am floating, being entirely numb, totally inert.

It is my son, “Life” [here, the god Shu], who will constitute

my consciousness, who will make my heart live…


Nun responded:

Inhale your daughter Maat [here, a form of the goddess Tefnut] and raise her to your nostril so that your consciousness may live. May they not be far from you, your daughter Maat and your son Shu, whose name is “Life”… it is your son Shu who will lift you up.


This curious first conversation ever held requires explanation. At this point in creation, the gods Shu and Tefnut, representing life and the concept of maat (see box opposite), are within Atum, existing as part of him. In order for Atum to separate himself from the infinite waters and enjoy an independent existence, ‘life’ takes position as his consciousness, initiating his heartbeat, as if resuscitating him from death. His heart beating and his mind now active, Atum, nevertheless, remains unconscious until he inhales Maat/Tefnut, taking her into his body as the breath of life to awaken him to full consciousness. As if passing from death into a coma and then awakening from that dream-like state, Atum becomes fully conscious and able to act, roused from his dormant, inert state by the power of breath, heartbeat and mind.

Now fully in control of his actions, Atum takes advantage of his independence to ‘subtract’ the waters of Nun from him and become ‘the remainder’ – this, the first significant matter in the universe, represented by the Egyptians as the mound of creation (itself personified as the god Tatenen), was perhaps the inspiration behind the pyramid form; in variations of the creation myth, the sacred benu-bird, an aspect of Atum, arrives to perch on this mound and its cry is the first sound in existence.

Left, the goddess Tefnut.

Right, the god Shu.

Maat and Isfet

Maat, whether as a goddess, a concept or indeed as a form of Tefnut, plays a key role in the Egyptian conception of the universe. As a concept, maat represented the correct balance between order and disorder, while also encompassing justice and right action. The Egyptians acknowledged that disorder (isfet) could never be eradicated, nor should it be, for it was part of creation, necessary to its correct functioning. Isfet had been an integral part of the cosmos since the beginning of time.

It was, however, not made by the creator, and he dissociated himself from the isfet performed by humans:

I made every man like his fellow, I did not command that they do isfet: it is their hearts that destroy what I have laid out.


The aim of every living being, from the gods to the pharaoh and mankind, was to ensure that order (maat) was not overtaken by disorder (isfet). To the Egyptians, maat permeated all things, and those who broke its laws were punished, whether they knew of them or not. The gods even lived on maat, referring to it as their beer, food and drink. When personified, Maat was a goddess wearing a tall feather on her head – the hieroglyphic symbol for maat. Perhaps due to her connection with Tefnut, Maat is cited as a daughter of Re(-Atum), and is sometimes described as the consort of the god Thoth.

The goddess Maat.

Returning to our narrative, the god Shu, within Atum, now expands, as if Atum is a balloon filling with air:

It is in the body of the great self-developing god [Atum] that I have developed… It is in his feet that I have grown, in his arms that I have developed, in his limbs that I have made a void.


Atum now evolves into the created world, taking form as he desires. This self-creating power is frequently celebrated in Egyptian spells:

It was through my [Atum’s] effectiveness that I brought about my body. I am the one who made me. It was as I wished, according to my heart, that I built myself.


Hail Atum! – who made the sky, who created what exists; who emerged as land, who created seed; lord of what is, who gave birth to the gods; great god, self-developing.



The First Generation of Gods

Shu and Tefnut now become separate from Atum, ejected from his body as divine fluid through his sneezing, spitting or masturbating, depending on the variant of the myth. They remain within the confines of his expanding shape, stuck in the ‘balloon’ of the created world. However, despite now being detached, Shu and Tefnut each lack their own life force, remaining dependent on their creator for their survival. To remedy this, just as they, in the form of ‘life’ and Maat, had given Atum the power necessary to separate from Nun, Atum now embraces his twin children and passes his ka or ‘life force’ to them, allowing them full freedom of movement and existence.

Shu (centre), arms raised, separates Nut as the sky, from Geb, lying below as the earth.

As an independent god, Tefnut is sometimes depicted as a human woman, but is most often shown as a lioness with a human body. Her role in the created world is rather uncertain; Egyptologists refer to her as ‘moisture’ or ‘corrosive moist air’, or believe that she served as the upper limit of the Duat – the afterlife realm. For certain, however, she acted as the mother of all future gods.

Shu, on the other hand, is easier to describe. Typically shown as a man with a feather on his head, he could also be depicted as a lion, in the same manner as his sister/wife. In illustrations of the cosmos, he stands with his arms raised, separating the sky from the earth in his role as the atmosphere. Like a void within a sealed cave, Shu acted as a dry and empty space within the confines of the created world of Atum – delineating the firm limits of our existence. Creating and ensuring the separation between above and below, Shu formed the space in which all life and movement could now exist.

The creation of a space in which all life could thrive was not the only result of Shu and Tefnut’s separation from Atum: time also came into being. Shu represented neheh, the Egyptian concept of cyclical time, or never-ending recurrence, such as the rising and setting sun, the annual inundation, the cycle of birth and death, growth and decay. Tefnut, on the other hand, was djet, meaning time at a standstill, covering everything that is remaining and lasting, such as mummies or stone architecture.

With physical and temporal space now in existence, the scene was set for the first sunrise and the creation of mankind.

The Sole Eye of Atum and the First Sunrise

Shu and Tefnut were nurtured in the waters of Nun – regarded as a generative and regenerative force owing to its role in creation. There, they were overseen by Atum’s Sole Eye, who was sent out to follow, or to go in search of, the twin children by their father. The Eye of Atum (more often referred to as the Eye of Re due to the close association between these two gods, see Chapter 2) is a recurrent character in Egyptian mythology. As well as representing the solar disc, the god’s eye could represent the moon or the morning star, depending on the myth at hand. It acts independently of his whole, and, in this separate form, appears as a manifestation of a goddess – often Hathor, Bastet or Mut (see boxes pp. 58, 35 and 24). By sending out his Sole Eye to search for Shu and Tefnut, Atum initiated the first sunrise. This in itself would not have been possible without Shu creating a void. For this reason, Shu says, ‘I made light of the darkness’, and ‘it is I who make the sky light after Darkness’. Still, despite the Sole Eye appearing as a goddess and being separate from Atum, the solar disc nevertheless remained part of him; the sun was still ‘Atum in his disc’ or Atum who ‘goes forth from the eastern horizon’ or, more succinctly, Re-Atum – the visible sign of the creator’s power (for Re was the name of the sun (god) at his most powerful at midday, and Atum his name in the evening, when in old age, see Chapter 2). (Re-)Atum now began his daily journey across the sky, and passed through the afterlife realm of the Duat at night (see Chapter 5).


At first depicted as a lioness, and later as a cat or cat-headed woman, often holding a sistrum decorated with cats, Bastet (probably meaning ‘She of the Ointment Jar’) acted as a divine mother and nurse to the king. She was also associated with female fertility, and provided protection to pregnant women, as well as the deceased. As the ‘Cat of Re’ she destroyed the chaos snake Apophis, and, like many goddesses, was associated with the Eye of Re, leading to her being described as his daughter. Bastet’s cult centre was at Bubastis (Tell Basta) in the Delta, and she was the mother of the god Mahes, who was shown as a lion or lion-headed man.


According to one myth, when the time came for Shu, Tefnut and the Eye to return to Atum, the Eye was shocked to discover that she had been replaced with a new solar eye, called ‘the Glorious One’. The unwanted eye became so angry that she cried in rage; her tears created humanity. To soothe her pain, Atum placed her on his forehead, where she ‘exercised governance over the entire land’. It seems that she transformed into a uraeus – a rearing cobra, worn by all pharaohs, that spits fire at the enemies of order.

Similar myths provide variant tales of the origin of mankind. In one, people are said to be the result of the ‘blindness that is behind the god’, suggesting that the Eye cried so much that she lost her sight, while in Coffin Text 80, Atum refers to human beings as having come forth from his Eye. Another myth presents the sun god weeping because he is alone after his birth and unable to find his mother; these tears created mankind. The gods themselves, on the other hand, are described as springing from the sun god’s smile, or as emerging from the creator’s sweat (this is not as derogatory as it may at first seem, as a god’s sweat was believed to smell of incense).

Despite mankind being an accidental consequence of the Eye’s despair, anger and sadness, the creator performed four good deeds for their benefit. He created the four winds to give the ‘breath of life’ to everybody; he made the annual Nile flood to ensure that there would always be enough food; everyone was created equal (other than the king, naturally, who existed in his own category); and he made every person’s heart remember the ‘West’ – the afterlife. There, they could continue their existence in the company of the gods. Indeed, the creator was not indifferent to his accidental creation:

For it is for their sake that He created heaven and earth. He stilled the raging of the waters, and created the winds so that their nostrils might live. They are His images who come forth from His body, and it is for their sake that He rises in the sky. For them He created plants and cattle, fowl and fish to sustain them… For their sake He creates the daylight… And when they weep, He hearkens… [It is He] who watches over them by night as by day.


Additionally, a hymn to Amun elucidates what this god did for the world’s non-human population, stating that he was ‘creator of pasture that keeps the animals alive … who makes it possible for the fish in the river to live and the birds to populate the air’. Amun even cares for the smallest of creatures, the hymn relates, for it is he ‘who makes it all possible for the mosquitoes to live together with the worms and fleas, who takes care of the mice in their holes, and keeps alive the beetles (?) in every tree…’.

The god Atum fights the chaos snake Apophis.

Apophis and His Origins

Each night, from the moment of creation, Apophis, a monstrous snake, 120 cubits (about 63m or 206ft) long, who represented disorder, attacked the sun god and fostered rebellion. As the ultimate destructive force in the universe, Apophis was leader of the forces of disorder and had to be repelled from the sun god Re’s solar barque by his followers in order to ensure the sunrise and the continued stability of the world. Described as ‘the Roarer’ and lacking nose, ears and eyes, Apophis nevertheless still managed to possess the Evil Eye, which gave him the ability to paralyse men and gods. For this reason, kings performed a ritual in which they struck the Eye of Apophis with a bat, flinging away his evil gaze.

Despite Apophis’ prominent role in Egyptian mythology, his origins are rather shadowy. There is only one late reference to his creation. In this, he comes into existence from the discarded spittle of Neith. For most of Egyptian history, however, there is no reference to Apophis coming into being, as if he were regarded as somehow self-created or in existence before creation.

Apophis: Still Out to Get Us

Unlike the snake Apophis, who threatened to destroy the sun each day, the asteroid named Apophis represents an intermittent danger to the Earth and Moon. As you’ll be happy to learn, the predicted 2004 Earth impact did not in fact happen, but calculations made soon after that (non-)event showed that impacts were also possible in 2029 and 2036; luckily, both have since been discounted as extremely unlikely. Interestingly, the asteroid was named Apophis not because of its danger to the survival of the world, but because its discoverers were fans of the television series Stargate sg1, which included a character named Apophis as the main villain.

The Next Generation

Shu and Tefnut engendered the next generation of gods: Geb and Nut. As a force, Nut served as the sky vault, a transparent barrier between the created world and the surrounding waters of Nun, stopping them from crashing down upon the earth. Personified, she is most often depicted as a naked woman, holding herself up by her arms and legs, which are either to be envisioned as making contact with the earth at the cardinal points, or as held closely together, causing her body to be a thin path for the sun, moon, and stars to travel along. Quite unusually for Egyptian art, Nut can also be portrayed face-on, looking directly at the viewer, as if you are gazing up into the sky and seeing her staring down at you from on high.

The goddess Neith (centre) stands between Isis and the enthroned Osiris.

Geb, the god who became the earth, is normally personified as a human with green skin, sometimes decorated with plants, lying on his side and leaning on his elbow. When standing, he often wears the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, though this is sometimes replaced by a goose – the hieroglyphic symbol of his name.

One myth tells us that at first Geb and Nut embraced each other so closely that Nut was unable to give birth, but Shu forced them apart to allow her children to be born; this neatly explains why the atmosphere separates the earth from the sky. In another myth, presented by the Greek historian Plutarch, Geb and Nut were unable to sleep together because Shu held them apart, forcing them to meet in secret. Re, however, discovered their secret liaisons and placed a curse on Nut, rendering her incapable of giving birth 360 days of the year – the whole of the year at this early point in creation. The wise god Thoth (whose technical lack of existence in creation at this point we’ll quietly ignore for the moment) offered to help and went to play draughts with the moon. As good at gambling as he is at scribal practice (see p. 51), Thoth defeated the moon and won ‘the seventieth part of each of her illuminations’. From this he composed five days to add to the end of the year, taking the calendar to 365 days, and allowing Nut the chance to give birth to her children; this she did on each of these five days.

The god Geb.

The children of Nut and Geb, in the order in which they were born, are: Osiris, Horus the Elder, Seth (breaking through his mother’s side), Isis and Nephthys. In non-Greek sources, Horus the Elder is typically omitted, leaving us with Egypt’s traditional Great Ennead – the group of nine gods who represented the physical creation of the world (see box p. 23).


The Ennead is combined in your [Amun’s] body:

your image is every god, joined in your person.

You emerged first, you began from the start.


And so, the priests of Amun might have told you, what began with Amun yelling in the midst of silence culminated with the evolution of the physical world; he is the ‘original one who begot the original ones and caused the sun to be born, completing himself in Atum, one body with him’. Creation was a result of the actions of Amun, and each development in the world after that moment was a development of him. Similarly, every facet of the universe is a manifestation of his hidden force, acting as independent forces and personalities, permeating all existence within our bubble of creation, but all interlocking and unified.

Members of the Heliopolitan Ennead (Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut and (side by side) Isis and Nephthys) followed by Horus and Hathor. Re-Horakhety is at their head. Osiris and Seth are missing.

These forces are the netjeru, ‘the gods’.



Before men were kings of Egypt, the gods themselves reigned and lived among humanity. The first of these is sometimes said to be Ptah, but no myth tells us about his reign. His name was added to the Turin King List, which is one of our main sources for the order of Egyptian kings’ reigns, going far back into early history, even to include the gods themselves; however, the inclusion of Ptah’s name at the head of this list may reflect only a local tradition. More widely acclaimed as the first king of Egypt was the sun god, Re(-Atum).


As one of Egypt’s most important deities, Re was worshipped throughout the country, though his main cult centre was at Heliopolis (‘City of the Sun’), now encompassed by modern Cairo. Typically depicted as a falcon with a human body and with a sun disc atop his head, Re could also be shown purely as a sun disc, encircled by a protective cobra, sometimes with outstretched, feathered wings emerging from either side of the disc. Like all Egyptian deities, the sun god manifested himself in a variety of forms. In the morning he was Khepri – the scarab beetle – slowly rolling the great ball of the sun above the horizon; at midday he was Re, the most powerful manifestation of the sun god; and in the evening, he was the weary ram-headed Atum, ready to pass below the horizon into the afterlife realm of the Duat to be re-energized for the coming morning. Another frequently attested manifestation is Re-Horakhety (‘Re-Horus of the Two Horizons’), in which Re and Horus were united and associated with the rising and setting sun.

The Secret Name of the Sun God

As king, Re ruled over both men and gods, and on a daily basis manifested himself in many forms under many names; his own true name, however, was unknown to all but he alone. This was not out of embarrassment, or because he preferred to use a pseudonym, it was for his own security. Knowing a deity’s (or even a person’s) true name gave an individual power over the deity, allowing him to utilize the god’s power for his own purposes. For this reason, gods hid their true names deep in their bellies, to protect them from misuse by magicians.

Isis, a powerful sorceress, ‘more rebellious than an infinite number of men, smarter than an infinite number of gods’ (see box p. 46) knew this and wanted to become equal in power to Re. If she could learn Re’s name and gain his power, she could pass on this knowledge to her unborn (yet to be conceived even) son Horus, ensuring his primary role in the cosmos.

When Re had grown old, Isis implemented her plan. As the sun god sat on his throne, idly drooling on the floor, she collected a small amount of his saliva and kneaded it with some earth to form a snake. Divine fluids are infused with creative power, and her creation sprang to life. At this time, however, the snake remained motionless, and Isis placed it at a crossroads where Re, despite his advanced age, walked each day with his entourage to view creation. Taking his stroll the next day, his eyes weak, the elderly Re failed to spot the snake and was bitten by it. Searing pains burned throughout his body and the fire was so intense that a nearby pine tree burst into flames. Re’s screams reached the sky and disturbed the gods. As the poison overwhelmed his body, taking possession of him like the Nile inundation takes possession of the land, the god’s lips quivered, his limbs trembled and he was left unable to speak.

Re’s pained screams brought his followers to his side. He explained that something had stung him, an unknown creature, one that his eyes did not see, his heart did not know, that his hand did not make, and one that he did not recognize as his creation (surely an extra nagging irritation to the creator of the world). ‘I have not tasted a suffering like it; there is no greater pain than this,’ Re said, pondering on the creature that attacked him. ‘It is not fire, nor is it water – (though) my heart is seized with heat, my body is trembling and my limbs are goose-flesh all over.’ The seriousness of his predicament dawning on him, Re asked for the children of the gods to be brought, people conversant with spells and whose words had magic power.

The hawk-headed sun god, Re-Horakhety, sits with the goddess Hathor.

Isis and the Growth of Her Cult

The goddess Isis was closely associated with magic, motherhood and love. Shown in human form, Isis wears a long dress and sometimes holds a sistrum. The symbol of a throne rests upon her head; this hieroglyph proclaims her name, which itself can be translated as ‘seat’ or ‘throne’, highlighting her importance to the kingship. Owing to her close associations with Hathor, Isis is sometimes depicted in a similar manner, with cow horns and a sun disc upon her head. Rarely, she is shown as a rearing cobra, for example in the New Kingdom Book of Gates.

In myth, Isis was the sister–wife of Osiris and one of the four children of Geb and Nut. The myths about the conception of her and Osiris’ son Horus, and the child’s long struggle for the kingship are told in Chapters 3 and 4. During funerary ceremonies, mourners were associated with Isis and her sister Nephthys, while in the afterlife Isis was believed to sustain the deceased. The Egyptians also associated Isis with the star Sirius, whose annual disappearance and return marked the time of the inundation and the subsequent harvest.

From the Ptolemaic Period, the cult of Isis spread throughout the Mediterranean world, leading her to become assimilated with other notable goddesses, so much so that she became known as ‘The One with Many Names’. Her medicinal and curative powers were praised, and she was regarded as a compassionate mother goddess. With the growth of the cult of Isis, Horus became associated with the Greek god Apollo, and came to symbolize the defeat of evil by good.

The children of the gods soon arrived; they crowded around Re, trying to discover a cure, while Isis, standing among them, pretended to know nothing about the creature that had struck down her king. She approached Re, asking him what the problem was: ‘A serpent that has brought weakness over you?’ she asked. ‘One of your children who has raised his head against you?’ She promised to slay the evil with her sorcery and cause it to retreat from seeing his rays. Re, covered in sweat, trembling and blind, related again how he had been stung, complaining, ‘Heaven pours rain down into my face in summertime!’ The time was right for Isis to play her hand; she told the king that she could only help him if she knew his name. In response, Re, probably battling his delirious state, blurted out a series of his names, many of which described his good deeds for the cosmos: he said that he was the one who made the sky, earth, mountains and water; who made the hours so that days came into existence; and who divided the years. He added that he was Khepri in the morning, Re at noon and Atum in the evening.

Isis wearing the cow horns and sun disc more often associated with Hathor.

The scarab-beetle-headed god Khepri.

Isis was unimpressed, the poison remained in Re’s body and the god felt no better. The goddess leaned closer to Re, saying that his true name couldn’t have been among those listed. If he wanted to be healed, he’d have to be more forthcoming. The poison bit into Re’s body ever stronger, more powerfully than flames. Beaten, he told Isis to listen carefully, so that his true name might leave his belly and enter hers, adding that she could pass it onto her son Horus, so long as he vowed never to tell anybody else. At long last, her plan successful, Isis used her magic to cure the sun god, saying:

Break out, scorpions! Leave Re! Eye of Horus, leave the god! Flame of the mouth – I am the one who made you, I am the one who sent you – come to the earth, powerful poison! See, the great god has given his name away. Re shall live, once the poison has died!


It was perhaps such traumatic events that led Re occasionally to punish the gods. One short myth refers to Re summoning all the gods and goddesses and, upon their arrival, swallowing them. While they wriggled inside his body, he killed them and vomited them up as birds and fish. Nevertheless, there wasn’t always a scheming god behind Re’s illnesses. In one myth, Re falls ill and can only be cured by the powerful denizens of the Duat. To reach these afterlife dwellers, the god’s entourage write a letter to the authorities of Heliopolis, worried that Re may become stuck in the Duat if his pains continue, and ask that an appeal be made to the people of the West (the dead), by shouting through a hole in the ground. Another myth presents Re as collapsing after treading on an un-named creature, and feeling convulsions. On this occasion, the unlucky god had to reveal the true name of his mother in order to be cured.

Onuris (left), wearing double plumes on his head, and his wife, the lion-headed goddess Mekhit.

Onuris (Anhur)

Onuris was a god of war and hunting, whose origins lie in the area of Abydos. He is typically depicted as a bearded man, standing upright and with a short wig surmounted by a uraeus and two to four plumes. He raises his right hand, and often holds a length of rope in his left. His name means, ‘he who leads back the distant one’, a reference to his mythical role as the god who brought back the leonine Eye of Re from Nubia; she then became his wife, Mekhit. This myth is virtually identical to that of Shu bringing back the Eye of Re as Tefnut, which was probably derived from the Onuris myth. Consequently, Onuris was often equated with Shu, the more dominant god in the pantheon, and was regarded as a son of Re, who hunted and slew the enemies of the sun god.

The Myth of the Eye of the Sun

During Re’s reign, he and his Eye quarrelled so much that the Eye decided to leave, storming off to Libya or Nubia, depending on the variant of the myth, and attacking everyone she met along the way. Her absence, however, left Re defenceless from his enemies, as she served as his protection and was crucial to his own power. To rectify the situation, Re sent out a god to retrieve the angry Eye. As ever, there are many variants of this myth, and the names of the gods involved change accordingly: one version tells that Onuris (see box above) tracked down the Eye and married her afterwards. Another version presents Shu hunting for her. In the longest preserved account, however, it is Thoth, a god famous for his counsel and wisdom (see box opposite), who travels to seek out the Eye. In this variant, the Eye is named as Tefnut and takes the form of a Nubian cat.

After tracking down the Eye, and in order to approach her without being recognized, Thoth transformed himself into a dog-faced baboon, but Tefnut saw through his ruse and became enraged, ready to attack the god. Thoth, thinking quickly, told her that fate punishes every crime. His wise words convinced her to halt her unprovoked attack. Having gained Tefnut’s attention, and in the hope of convincing her to return home, Thoth extolled the beauty of Egypt and regaled her with a series of animal fables (sometimes placing a fable within a fable), infused with moral lessons on the importance of peace and how the strong benefit from friendship with the weak. In the process, Tefnut, angered by Thoth’s attempts to influence her, transformed into a terrifying lioness, but Thoth refused to give up. He succeeded in convincing her to return to Egypt, and they were met at the border with music and dancing. When they had arrived in Memphis, Re organized a festival in Tefnut’s honour at the Mansion of the Lady of the Sycamore – a chapel of Hathor (see box p. 58) – and she recounted to Re the tales that Thoth had told her. The sun god then praised Thoth for his success.

Thoth and the Corpus Hermeticum

The god Thoth, depicted as an ibis, an ibis-headed man, or as a squatting baboon, was a moon god associated with wisdom, knowledge and learning; given Thoth’s lunar associations, it is possible that the ibis’ long curved beak was thought to resemble the crescent moon. In his baboon form, he often wears a full and crescent moon combined upon his head.

The Egyptians regarded Thoth as the inventor of writing, and as a protector of scribes. He was a master of magic and secret knowledge, who recorded the passage of time and oversaw the weighing of the deceased’s heart in the afterlife; his presence was an assurance that all affairs would be conducted fairly. Though normally presented as a diplomat, whose wise words counselled the gods, in the Pyramid Texts Thoth performs violent acts against the enemies of maat.

Thoth is sometimes presented as the result of the union between Horus and Seth, however, other inscriptions describe him as a son of Re or Horus. His wife was Nehemetawy, while the goddess of writing, Seshat, was his daughter (though sometimes she replaces Nehemetawy as his wife). Thoth’s main cult centre was at Hermopolis (modern El-Ashmunein) in Middle Egypt; to the priests of Hermopolis, Thoth appeared on the first mound of creation and created the Ogdoad, the first gods in existence.

As Thoth was also a divine messenger, the Greeks associated him with their god Hermes, calling him the ‘Thrice Great Hermes’ or Hermes Trismegistus. In this form, he was believed to have passed on his teachings to disciples, his wise words collated as the Corpus Hermeticum in the first centuries AD. Thanks to Byzantine editors and copyists, these important teachings were preserved, enabling them to influence Renaissance thinkers over a thousand years later, especially regarding their approach to magic and alchemy.

Some Myths of Rebellion against the Sun God

A frequent theme of myths set during the reign of Re are rebellions against his rule. The locations of the rebellions vary, as do the identities of those involved: sometimes it is humanity, at other times it is Apophis and his followers, or even Seth (see box p. 55). Another variant is the age of the sun god – sometimes he is a child, while in some myths he is elderly. In both cases, the creator is at a vulnerable stage in life, which explains why the rebellions erupt at this time. These two phases of the sun god’s life represent sunrise and sunset – traditional periods of danger – or signify his weakening over the course of the solar year, until his rebirth and renewal at the new year.

The Rebellion in the Neith Cosmogony from Esna

At the Temple of Esna, a myth recounts a rebellion that occurred during the sun god’s youth. After his creation from Neith’s discarded spittle (see p. 38), Apophis immediately conceived rebellion in his heart, and his plans for revolt were aided by his associates among mankind. Re, learning of Apophis’ plans, became bitter, and Thoth emerged from the sun god’s heart to debate the situation with him. Re decided to send Thoth, as ‘Lord of the Words of the God’, to battle Apophis, while he himself fled to safety with his mother, who had by this time manifested in the form of the celestial Ihet-cow, who became known as Mehet-Weret ‘the great swimmer’. Re sat on her brow between her horns while she swam to Sais in the north, where they could hide in safety. There, Re’s mother breastfed the young god, making him strong enough to return south to massacre his enemies.

The Book of the Faiyum

This composition, first found during the Ptolemaic Period, includes a number of myths from Egypt’s Faiyum Oasis; among them is a tale of rebellion against Re. The sun god heard that men and gods were plotting against him, and went to fight them at Herakleopolis, an important city, just south of the Faiyum. He was victorious, but before a second battle could commence, the aged god withdrew to the town of Moeris in the Faiyum in order to seek refuge with his mother, the Ihet-cow (here a personification of Lake Moeris). Safe, the god hid for 12 months, suckling his mother’s rejuvenating milk, before the two flew to the heavens, Re upon his mother’s back, where she transformed into the sky.

A Myth of Rebellion from Kom Ombo

This myth from Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, the location of a temple dedicated to Sobek and Horus the Elder, also begins with Re’s enemies plotting against him. Learning of their plans, Re, along with Thoth and Horus the Elder (see box p. 56), went in search of them, tracking their movements to Kom Ombo. Arriving at the city, Re settled in his palace and sent Thoth to seek out and spy on his enemies. The wise god found them camped on the shore of a great lake, and, from a safe distance, standing on the banks of a river, counted 257 enemies, led by eight officers. All were standing around, slandering the sun god. Thoth swiftly returned to Re to report all that he had seen.

Naturally, Re became enraged and announced that he would not allow a single one of them to live. Perhaps a little too tired to engage in battle himself, or just wary of the enemies’ numbers, Thoth suggested Horus the Elder (in this myth an aspect of the god Shu) as a suitably skilled warrior to annihilate Re’s enemies. Re followed his advice and sent out Horus the Elder armed with all his weapons of war; he slaughtered with such rage and violence that his face turned crimson from the blood.

The Legend of the Winged Sun Disc at Edfu

A particularly detailed myth of rebellion against the sun god is preserved in Ptolemaic Period inscription on the walls of the Temple of Horus at Edfu. In the 363rd year of Re’s reign, the sun god and his entourage were sailing in Nubia when Horus of Behdet (the ancient name of Edfu) spotted enemies – associates of the trickster god Seth – plotting against the king. In a pre-emptive strike, Re sent out against them Horus, who flew up into the sky as a great winged disc. ‘He stormed against them before him’, we are told, ‘and they neither saw with their eyes nor heard with their ears, but [each] one slew his fellow in the twinkling of an eye, and not a soul lived.’ Faced with the bloodthirsty god, the enemies had lost their senses and begun to swing their weapons around, slashing one another instead of their opponent. Re then descended from his solar boat to view his fallen enemies, who lay on the ground ‘with broken heads’.

As the crew of the solar boat celebrated, more enemies arrived and launched an attack, taking the fearsome forms of crocodiles and hippopotami. In retaliation, Horus and his followers fought them with harpoons. The enemies that survived this divine onslaught fled north, but Horus took chase and slaughtered most of them near Thebes. The remaining survivors continued north, but Horus followed, sailing in the barque of Re.

Seth roared with anger at the slaughter Horus had led, and the two began to fight. Horus threw his spear at Seth, and hurled him to the ground, taking the god prisoner by binding his hands and tying a rope around his throat. Defeated and embarrassed, Seth was brought before Re and his entourage for his fate to be decided.


A god associated with violence, confusion and evil, Seth can be depicted as a creature with a long snout, tall rectangular ears and an erect tail; in human form, he only bears the creature’s head. He can, however, manifest in many other forms too, including that of a red ox, a desert oryx, a pig or a hippopotamus.

According to Pyramid Text 205, Seth tore himself from his mother Nut during birth, highlighting his violent nature from the start of his life. He was the brother of Osiris, whom he murdered to become king of Egypt, and later became embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with his nephew Horus for the throne (see below). Various goddesses are cited as Seth’s consort; most frequently, Nephthys is said to be his wife, though Taweret, Neith, Astarte and Anat are also mentioned.

As lord of the Red Land, Seth was god of the desert, yet he was also connected with storms (his voice was thunder), cloudy weather and the sea, and could be prayed to for calmer weather. He also presided over foreign countries. Though he is often presented as an enemy, Seth used his great strength to protect the sun god Re from the chaos snake Apophis during his nightly journey through the Duat. Unlike most gods, whose bones were said to be of silver, Seth’s were formed from iron, and he could be described as lord of metals. Many temples were dedicated to Seth, especially in the northeast Delta, but his primary cult centre was at Nubt (Ombos) at the entrance to the Wadi Hammamat, a source of gold.

Thoth, as advisor to the sun god, suggested that Seth’s followers be given to Isis, so that she could do whatever she wished with them. Not the most forgiving of deities, Horus and Isis beheaded them all, leaving Seth, no doubt aware that he was next on the hit list, to transform into a snake and disappear into the ground. Afterwards, Horus continued to chase the remaining enemies all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, before turning his attention southward, finding and killing a final group of enemies in Nubia.

The god Horus as a falcon wearing the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Which Horus? Horus of Behdet, Horus the Falcon, Horus the Elder and Horus the Child

There is a confusing array of Horus figures in Egyptian mythology and though often treated as separate gods with different parents, they should each be regarded as aspects of the same divinity.

Horus of Behdet, from the Legend of the Winged Sun Disc, is the form of the god worshipped at the Temple of Edfu in Upper Egypt and possibly at Tell el-Balamun in the Delta. He was the husband of Hathor and father of the gods Horus Uniter-of-the-Two-Lands (Horus-Sematawy or Harsomtus) and Ihy. Like all forms of Horus, he is typically shown as a hawk, often hovering over the pharaoh, though he could also be depicted as a lion. The winged sun disc, carved into temple walls across Egypt, and most often seen decorating lintels, is also an image of Horus of Behdet.

Horus the Falcon, whose cult centre was at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) in the south of Egypt, was a god of kingship, associated with Egypt’s kings from the earliest periods. As a sky god, Horus the Falcon’s eyes were regarded as the sun and moon.

Horus the Elder, depicted as a man with a falcon’s head, was the son of Nut and Geb, or Hathor and Re, depending on the variant of the myth. He fathered the Four Sons of Horus (see box p. 174) with his (sometime) sister, Isis. The early Pyramid Texts present Horus the Elder as helping Isis and Nephthys to gather together the pieces of Osiris’ body, and then avenge him.

Horus the Child, typically shown as a child with a sidelock of youth, was the son of Isis and Osiris. He was added to the Pyramid Texts in the 6th Dynasty, and absorbed into the Heliopolitan mythology.

Beer Saves the World

When Re reached old age, his bones silver, his flesh gold and his hair lapis lazuli, mankind (as usual) plotted against him. Before they could launch their assault, however, Re discovered their nefarious plans and commanded that his Eye be summoned, along with Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, the fathers and mothers who were with Re when he was in Nun (meaning the eight primordial gods), Nun himself and Nun’s courtiers. The sun god wished to consult them for advice, but wanted to ensure that mankind wouldn’t suspect a thing, so they were brought to his palace in secret.

The gods and courtiers duly assembled in two rows before the sun god, who was sitting upon his throne. ‘O eldest god in whom I came into being [Nun], and ancestor gods,’ Re said. ‘Look, mankind, which issued from my Eye, is plotting against me. Tell me what you would do about it, for I am searching. I would not slay them until I have heard what you might say about it.’ Having considered the options, Nun advised Re that fear of him was greatest when his Eye was upon those who schemed against him. Re knew that the rebels had fled to the desert, ‘their hearts fearful that I might speak to them’, and decided to follow Nun’s suggestion – he sent out his Eye to smite them.

The Eye took the wrathful form of Hathor, and immediately began to slaughter with utmost relish, first killing the enemies in the desert, and then turning on everyone else. Witnessing the indiscriminate destruction of his creation, Re had second thoughts and convinced himself that with some extra effort, he could continue to rule over mankind as king. The only problem now was Hathor – his Eye – who was rather enjoying massacring everyone she met. If Re were to stop her, he’d have to devise a cunning plan.


Meaning ‘House of Horus’, in human form, Hathor can be identified by her long black wig, tied with a filet, surmounted by a uraeus and sun disc, set between two cows’ horns. Sometimes she can be seen wearing a vulture headdress. Hathor is also commonly depicted as a divine cow, again wearing a sun disc between her horns. In a third form, she appears human, staring full-faced at the viewer, but displays cow’s ears and wears a wig.

At Dendera, Hathor was presented as the wife of Horus, with whom she bore her sons Ihy and Horus-Sematawy (Horus Uniter-of-the-Two-Lands). Other sources present her as wife of the sun god Re, though she can also be named his mother and, in her manifestation as his Eye, his daughter.

As a divine cow, Hathor protected the king and acted as his royal nurse, just as she had nursed the child Horus in Khemmis; she is also said to be the king’s wife and mother. To the general population of Egypt, however, she was associated with love, female sexuality, fertility and motherhood, providing divine assistance with all aspects of childbirth. They also identified her with joy, music, dance and alcoholic drinks. As the Mistress of the Sycamore, representing the natural world’s fertility, she gave shade, air, food and drink to the dead, while as Mistress of the West, she looked after those buried at Thebes, welcoming them into the afterlife. Hathor was also associated with minerals and resources brought from the deserts and foreign lands, especially turquoise and copper, and protected those working in remote mining areas.

Though many cult centres were associated with Hathor, her most prominent temple, at least in later Egyptian history, was at Dendera.

To bring an end to the violence, Re sent messengers to Elephantine, far in the south of Egypt, with orders to bring back red ochre. After receiving the raw mineral, he told the High Priest of Re at Heliopolis to grind it up until it resembled human blood. He then mixed it with seven thousand jars of beer. During the night, Re sent the beer to where Hathor – now in the overtly violent form of Sekhmet – was resting, and had it poured into the fields, in the hope that when the goddess awoke she would believe herself to be surrounded by blood, her new favourite drink. Just as planned, Hathor-Sekhmet opened her eyes the next morning to a sanguine dream; she drank until drunk, and quickly forgot all about her anger towards mankind.

The goddess Sekhmet.

Re’s Departure

Despite saving mankind, Re decided that he was too weary to continue ruling Egypt personally. The gods tried to dissuade him from leaving, but he was adamant – it was time to go. ‘My body is weak for the first time,’ he told them. ‘I won’t wait until another [rebellion] gets to me.’ Reluctantly accepting Re’s decision, Nun told Shu that his eye would serve as Re’s protection and that Nut should allow the sun god to sit on her back. This confused the sky goddess, who was unprepared for such an unexpected responsibility and unsure of the logistics involved. ‘How exactly will Re sit on my back?’ she asked Nun. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he responded, as Nut transformed into a cow, providing ample back space for the elderly sun god. As Re took his place atop the newly bovine Nut, men approached, explaining that they had come to overthrow his enemies and anyone who plotted against him. Re ignored them, however, and departed for his palace, leaving Egypt to fall into darkness.

At dawn the next day, Re awoke to discover that mankind had developed bows and clubs to shoot at their enemies. Angered, the sun god announced, ‘Your baseness be behind you, O slaughterers; may your slaughtering be far removed [from me].’ Their actions strengthened Re’s decision to leave; he commanded Nut to raise him into the sky, saying, ‘Stay far away from them!’ They rose into the sky, and Nut remained with Re through both the day and night, helping him to make some final adjustments to the cosmos: from his distant position in the sky, Re commanded Nut to create the Milky Way. He himself then formed the Field of Reeds and Field of Offerings, both locations associated with the dead, as well as the planets and the stars. When Nut began to tremble because of the great height, Re created the Infinite Ones, two groups of four gods, charged with assisting Shu to support her.

Re then summoned Geb to provide him with instruction: ‘Take heed because of your snakes which are in you!’ he commanded, in reference to the snakes that hide in the earth (Geb’s body). ‘See, they feared me when I was there. Also you have become acquainted with their magical power. Go now to the place where my father Nun is and tell him to keep watch over terrestrial and aquatic snakes.’ He added that Geb should draw up notices to be placed on the mounds where snakes dwell, telling them to ‘beware of disturbing anything’. ‘They should know that I am here’, Re proclaimed, ‘for I am shining for them.’ For all time, Geb was to keep an eye on the snakes’ magic and watch over them.

A scene from the Book of the Heavenly Cow. The cow is supported by the god Shu and the eight heh-gods.

Having spoken to Geb, Re summoned Thoth and installed him as the moon and as vizier (his divine deputy, an office paralleled in the bureaucracy of the pharaoh’s court). Re also embraced Nun and told the gods who ascend in the eastern sky to give praise to Nun as eldest god in whom he (Re) himself originated. Re then made his final statement to creation:

It is I who made the sky and set [it] in place in order to install the bau of the gods in it so that I am with them for the eternal recurrence [of time] produced through the years. My ba is Magic. It is [even] greater than this.


A god’s ba or bau (in the plural, for gods could have many ba) was a form through which he or she could be felt or experienced on earth, a manifestation of divine force and personality. In this newly re-organized world, wind was the ba of Shu, for example, the rain the ba of Heh; night was the ba of darkness, and Re himself the ba of Nun; crocodiles were the bau of the god Sobek, while the ba of Osiris was the sacred ram of Mendes. The ba of each deity dwelled within snakes. The ba of Apophis was in the Eastern Mountain and the ba of Re was in magic throughout the world.

Re’s Retribution for the Rebellions

Re not only punished mankind by distancing himself from the earth, he also shortened human life-spans:

They have made war, they have stirred up turmoil, they have made evil, they have created rebellion, they have done slaughter, they have created imprisonment. Moreover, they have made [what was] great into [what is] little in all that I have made. Show greatness, Thoth, says he, [namely] [Re]-Atum. You shall not see [further] wrongdoing, you shall not endure [it]. Shorten their years, cut short their months since they have done hidden damage to all that you have made.



Re withdrew to the heavens and his son, Shu, took his place as king, ruling as the perfect god of heaven, land, Duat, water and wind. He swiftly smote those that had rebelled against his father and sacrificed the children of Apophis. Afterwards, as the air cooled and the ground became dry, Shu erected cities and founded nomes (the administrative regions of the Nile Valley and Delta), defended the borders of Egypt and built temples in the north and south. All was well, except for his relationship with his troublesome son, Geb. At one time, Geb transformed into a boar and swallowed the Eye of Re that remained with Shu to protect him. Though Geb denied this act, the Eye bled from his skin like a disease, and had to be put back in place on the horizon by Thoth. Geb then attacked Shu, and was forced to drink urine as punishment. Geb also enraged his father by taking the form of a bull and having sexual intercourse with his own mother, Tefnut; as before, at first he refused to admit his crime to Shu, but a lance thrust into his thigh loosened his tongue.

One day, while residing in Memphis, Shu summoned the Great Ennead of gods and told them that they were to accompany him on a walk eastward, to a place where he could meet his father, Re-Horakhety (Re in his form as Horus of the Horizon), and spend some time with him. They happily obliged, and soon afterwards the royal court had taken up residence at the abdicated king’s earthly home. It was not to be a pleasant experience, however. While the gods enjoyed the company of Re, the children of Apophis, marauding rebels of the desert, arrived from the east, intent on causing havoc. Their aim was not to conquer territory, but to destroy; any territory that they passed through, whether on land or water, lay abandoned, scorched and uninhabitable in their wake. Hearing of the chaos afflicting Egypt’s east, Shu mustered his followers and the followers of Re, and ordered his men to take up positions on the hills of Iat-Nebes (modern Saft el-Henna, a site in the desert just southeast of the Delta). These hills had existed since the time of King Re, and would serve as a perfect defensive line from which to protect the sun god and Egypt. As expected, the Children of Apophis arrived and battle began; Shu quickly slaughtered his enemies and drove back all who opposed his father.

Shu may have won the battle, but he did not win the war. Shortly after his success over the children of Apophis, revolution erupted in Shu’s palace, led by a band of rebels. Overwhelmed, the land fell into chaos and Shu, like his father, ascended into the sky, leaving his wife Tefnut behind on earth. Perhaps fleeing the surrounding danger, Tefnut left Memphis at midday to visit another, more secure palace elsewhere, but instead found her way to Pekharety, a town in Syria-Palestine. As during the reign of Re, when Tefnut, in her form as the sun god’s Eye, attempted to leave Egypt, but was brought back by Onuris, Shu or Thoth, on this occasion Geb went in search of his mother and returned her to the palace.

Thoth (right) inscribes the length of the king’s reign on the sacred ished (persea) tree.

Not that Egypt was any safer than foreign lands. A great turmoil still engulfed the palace, and a powerful storm arose, one so intense that neither human nor god could see one another. Nobody left the palace for nine days, not until the chaos abated and the weather returned to normal. Now, finally, Geb formally ascended the throne of his father, and his courtiers kissed the ground in his presence. Geb then honoured his father’s name on the sacred mythical ished-tree of Heliopolis, which bore the name of each king of Egypt, inscribed by Thoth, along with the length of their reigns.


A short time after ascending the throne, Geb left his palace to travel to the Egyptian Delta, following his father as he flew through the sky, to visit the town of Iat-Nebes. Upon arrival, Geb enquired about the locality, asking the gods to tell him of everything that had happened there to Re, of any battles that had occurred, as well as of any events concerning Shu. As they regaled Geb with the tale of Shu’s great victory against the children of Apophis, they mentioned that the former ruler had worn a living uraeus – a rearing cobra – on his head. This was news to Geb, who now desired to wear the living uraeus himself, just as his father had done. Unfortunately, it had been sealed in a chest, hidden somewhere in Pi-Yaret (near modern Saft el-Henna in the Delta), and would first need to be located. Such trivialities would not deter the newly crowned king, however: without delay, he assembled his followers, and set out on his quest for the living uraeus.

Geb and his entourage quickly discovered the chest’s location, but as the divine king leaned forward to open the lid, the uraeus leapt from within and breathed a great flame against him. Geb’s followers died instantly, incinerated by the force of the fire. The king survived, but with his head badly burnt. Reeling from the pain, Geb made his way to the Field of the Henu-Plants to search for relief, but found none. He then commanded one of his followers to bring the Wig of Re, a magical item, infused with power, regarded as the only object capable of healing his wounds. The wig successfully healed Geb, and later performed further miracles; for one, it transformed into a crocodile, who became known as Sobek of Iat-Nebes.

Healed and resting in his residence at Itj-Tawy, just north of the Faiyum Oasis, Geb’s next act was to despatch a military force against rebellious Asiatics, bringing large numbers back to Egypt as prisoners. He then listened to more tales of the reign of Shu, before asking for a list of all places that both Re and Shu had commanded be built on earth. Most of these locations had been destroyed by the rebellious children of Apophis, so Geb commanded that they be rebuilt. Millions of settlements were re-founded and their names were recorded in great lists (including on the side of the naos from which this myth derives), testaments to Geb’s good deeds for Egypt.

Despite his successes as ruler, Geb saw in his son, Osiris, a worthy king of Egypt, a god who could lead the land to good fortune, and so decided to abdicate his throne, just as Shu and Re had done before him. He awarded Osiris the land, ‘its water, its wind, its plants, and all its cattle. All that flies, all that alights, its reptiles and its desert game…’ Thus, Osiris became king, and a new era in the reign of the gods began.



With the abdication of Geb, the crown passed to his son Osiris, a god associated with fertility and regeneration, who in death – for Egyptian gods were not immune to death – became king of the Duat and ruler of the blessed dead. In art, Osiris is depicted as a tightly wrapped mummy, standing upright or sitting enthroned, with skin coloured green or black to represent the fertile soil. He holds the crook and flail of a pharaoh in his hands, and wears an elaborate collar around his neck, as well as the atef-crown on his head. This crown is similar to the pharaonic White Crown of Upper Egypt, being tall and tapering to a bulbous peak, but with the addition of two tall plumes at the sides; it is sometimes embellished with sun discs and horns.


Re crowned Osiris with the atef-crown in the Heliopolitan Nome, but the crown’s powerful heat was such that it caused the new king to fall ill; its effects were so long lasting that after the ceremony, Re found Osiris sitting in his house, his face all swollen. It was an inauspicious start to his reign, but Osiris quickly gained the reputation of being a great and benevolent king; indeed, he was well prepared for the job, having served as vizier, chief priest of Heliopolis and royal herald before inheriting the crown. And, standing 8 cubits, 6 palms and 3 fingers tall (about 4.7m or 15.4ft), he could certainly intimidate any enemies on the battlefield. His reign is described as a time of prosperity, when all resources were well controlled and the land was stable. Life was good, the disordered waters of Nun were kept at bay, the cold north wind blew (something particularly longed for in the fierce Egyptian heat) and animals procreated. Conspirators were crushed and Osiris was respected among the gods. In fact, the only significant problem faced by Osiris during his early reign happened when, one night, a storm hit Egypt and the goddess Sekhmet had to save him using her power over water.

Osiris wears the atef-crown, with the crook and flail of kingship in his hands.

In later legend, preserved for posterity by two Greek historians, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch (who wrote in the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD respectively), we find that the establishment of various social structures and customs was attributed to Osiris during his reign. Plutarch relates how, as king, the god taught the Egyptians how to cultivate the land; he also gave them laws and taught them to honour the gods. According to Diodorus Siculus, Osiris did many good deeds for the social life of mankind, for a start, making them give up cannibalism – since Isis had discovered wheat and barley, they took up eating these instead of each other. Isis also established laws, while Osiris built temples to his parents and other gods at Thebes. Both deities honoured those who nurtured the arts and made technological advances. One advance in particular was the development of copper tools, which helped people to kill animals and conduct agricultural activities more effectively. According to Diodorus, Osiris was the first to invent and taste wine, and he took counsel with Thoth on every matter. Another source describes Khentiamentu, a deity who is normally a form of Osiris, serving as the god-king’s vizier. The god Hu (the personification of authority) served as Osiris’ general in Upper Egypt, while Sia (perception) was his general in Lower Egypt.

The ibis-headed god Thoth.

Afterwards, both Diodorus and Plutarch relate, Osiris gathered a great army and travelled the world teaching its population about wine and how to sow wheat and barley, leaving Isis (his sister–wife, with whom he had apparently begun his relationship in the womb) to rule Egypt in his absence with Thoth as her counsel. Osiris took his sons Anubis (see box p. 174) and Macedon (a Greek name, substituting for the Egyptian god Wepwawet) along with him, as well as Pan (Min). His army consisted of men experienced in agriculture, musicians, singers and dancers – Osiris was apparently fond of laughter, food and entertainment. Plutarch says that he would win over those he met through charm and persuasiveness, along with the allure of music and dance.

Like many gap-year students, when he set off on his travels Osiris decided to let his hair grow until returning home. First, he marched south into Ethiopia, where he founded cities, taught people the wonders of agriculture and left men to rule in his name; these were trusted individuals from whom he could collect tribute. Eventually, he made his way to India and founded further cities. Osiris’ journey was not entirely peaceful, however; in Thrace, for example, he slew the king of the barbarians. After making his way around the entire world, Osiris returned to Egypt with countless exotic gifts.

Osiris, tightly wrapped like a mummy, and Isis stand before the four sons of Horus.


According to Plutarch, Osiris had an affair with his sister Nephthys, wife of Seth, believing her to be Isis (well, they do look alike). Despite the shock of this infidelity, Isis went in search of the child born of her husband’s adulterous union because Nephthys had left him exposed – a typically Roman practice, and so perhaps a detail added to the myth by Plutarch – out of fear of Seth’s retribution for her extramarital affair. After much trouble, Isis tracked down the child with the help of dogs. She brought the child up and he became her guardian, Anubis.

Anubis was not Osiris’ first child, however. Although his most famous child, by his sister–wife Isis, is Horus the Child (see box p. 56), he first fathered an obscure daughter, known only from a spell of late Middle Kingdom date, who had the role of moulding mud-bricks. Apparently, she had been of the opinion that Osiris should live only on djais-plants (a form of poisonous herb) and honey, which is bitter to those of the Duat – Osiris’ afterlife home. Given these sentiments, she was perhaps sent to mould mud-bricks as a form of punishment for her murderous thoughts towards her father. The god Babi, an aggressive divine baboon, who lived on human entrails (see box p. 188), was also said to be the eldest son of Osiris, and Sopdet, the personification of the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, to be another daughter. In the Coffin Texts, the jackal god Wepwawet, associated with funerals and cemeteries, is also described as a son of Osiris.


Typically depicted in human form as a goddess, but sometimes as a kite, Nephthys (meaning ‘Mistress of the Mansion’) was one of the four children of Nut and Geb, and wife to her brother Seth. According to later legend, she was also the mother of Anubis. In myth, she helped her sister, Isis, to protect and resurrect Osiris, mourned his death with her and helped guard Horus from Seth. She played a similarly protective role for the deceased; her image is often found on sarcophagi, and she, along with the god Hapy, guarded the lungs of the dead, kept separately from the mummified body in a canopic jar. Nephthys had no cult centre of her own, but is found frequently on amulets from the 26th Dynasty onwards.


The only complete reconstructions of the story of Osiris’ death come from accounts provided by the Greek authors we met above, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch. Ancient Egyptian sources shine little light on what happened because to describe the god’s death in any detail was against decorum. Here we shall first recreate the full account from the Greek sources and then show how they are backed up by details from ancient Egyptian texts from tombs and papyri. Although Plutarch’s account is later in date, it is the fuller of the two and we begin with it.

The Osiris Myth According to Plutarch and Diodorus

After Osiris returned home from his travels, his brother Seth plotted against him, gathering 72 conspirators and working in co-operation with an Ethiopian queen. Seth secretly measured Osiris’ body and made a beautiful chest to his size, ornamented with jewels. He ordered it be brought into a chamber where festivities were being held, so that everyone present could marvel at its beauty. His guests suitably impressed, Seth announced that whoever best fitted the chest when lying within could keep it. Enticed by his offer, the guests took turns trying to fit inside, but without success, until Osiris lay within and found it perfectly matched his size. At that moment, Seth’s conspirators leapt forward and sealed it shut, hammering nails into its wooden frame and pouring molten lead over any gaps. Without wasting time, they hurled the chest into the river and watched as it sailed along the Nile towards the sea. This is said to have occurred in either the 28th year of Osiris’ reign or of his life.

Hearing of these macabre events, Isis, in the city of Koptos, cut off a tress of hair and donned a garment of mourning. She wandered at her wits end, until one day she came across a group of children and asked if they had seen the chest. Luckily for her, they had, though at the time it was heading towards the sea. After further investigation, Isis learnt that the chest had made its way to Byblos, where the sea had deposited it in a clump of heather. There it had grown into a great tree, which concealed the chest within its trunk. Unwilling to waste any further time, Isis set off to retrieve the chest, but while she travelled, the king of Byblos came to the seashore to admire the great size of the tree. Wanting a sturdy pillar to support the roof of his palace, he cut down the thickest section of the tree – the part concealing Osiris’ chest – and took it home with him, so that, when Isis arrived, she found nothing but the remains of the trunk. She sat by a spring, dejected and tearful, and there met the queen’s maidservants. She spoke with them, plaited their hair and gave them a wondrous fragrance. When the maidservants returned to the palace, the queen smelt their perfume and immediately asked for Isis to be brought before her; she then appointed Isis as nurse to her baby.

Each night, while the king and queen slept, Isis magically burnt away the mortal portions of the baby prince’s body, and transformed into a swallow to fly around the pillar that bore the corpse of Osiris, wailing and lamenting the loss of her husband. One night, the queen heard the noise outside her bedroom door and crept out to investigate. Finding her baby on fire, she screamed, halting Isis’ magic and denying the baby prince immortality. Discovered, Isis now displayed her true form as a goddess and demanded the pillar. The queen, unable to deny the request, looked on as Isis removed the pillar (luckily it wasn’t load bearing) and cut away at the wood until the chest was revealed. Isis immediately threw herself upon the coffin wailing; so intense were the goddesses emotions, that the baby prince dropped dead.

Mourned by Isis (right) and Nephthys (left), the god Osiris lies on his funerary bier.

Returning to Egypt, Isis hid the chest, but Seth, out hunting one night by the light of the moon, came across it. Recognizing the body, he tore it into 14 pieces and scattered them across Egypt. Isis learned of his desecration and sailed through the swamps in a papyrus boat, searching for the pieces of her husband. She found every part of Osiris’ body, except for his phallus, which had been eaten by Nile fish, so she fashioned a replacement instead. Plutarch relates here that some myths present Isis holding a separate funeral for each body part wherever she found it, explaining why so many locations claim Osiris’ tomb. Other myths report that she only pretended to bury parts of the body in these locations so as to receive more divine honours for her husband. Multiple burials also had the added benefit of preventing Seth from ever discovering the god’s true tomb.

Diodorus’ (earlier) account of Osiris’ death is a little more succinct. He relates how Seth murdered his brother and cut the body into 26 pieces, each of which was given to one of his followers. But Isis and Horus (presumably the Elder Horus, see box p. 56, who does not feature in Plutarch’s account) took revenge, slaughtering Seth and his followers. Afterwards, Isis sought out and gathered together all the pieces of Osiris, except for his penis, which had been lost. To protect her husband’s body from Seth (seemingly immune to slaughter), Isis decided to keep his burial place a secret, but this created a dilemma: how could the people of Egypt honour Osiris if there was no tomb to visit?

Her solution was ingenious: she took each part of Osiris’ body, and formed a complete replica of his shape from spices and wax, so that irrespective of the body part presented, Osiris appeared complete. She then summoned priests in separate groups, and bestowed upon each of them their own ‘corpse’, explaining that this was the true body of Osiris and instructing them to look after it by burying it in their district and performing daily cult offerings. Honoured, each group of priests departed to build a tomb for the dead god. For this reason, very many locations across Egypt claimed the true burial of Osiris. Diodorus adds that Isis vowed never to remarry and spent her life ruling Egypt. She became immortal in death and was buried near Memphis.

Ancient Egyptian Sources for the Osiris Myth

The paucity of Egyptian sources for the myth of Osiris’ death is complicated also by the fact that the myth changed over the thousands of years of Egyptian history, with the first evidence for it found in the Pyramid Texts (see box p. 129) inscribed on the walls of the pyramid of King Unas of the Old Kingdom.

The Account in the Pyramid Texts

From scattered references across the Pyramid Text spells, it is possible to reconstruct that Isis and Nephthys, in the form of kites, went in search of the body of Osiris, who had been ‘thrown to the ground’ on the river banks at Nedyt by Seth (seemingly because Osiris had kicked him). Upon finding the body, Isis and Nephthys made the ritual gestures of mourning: Isis sat with her arms atop her head, and Nephthys seized the tips of her breasts. The goddesses managed to halt Osiris’ decay by preventing his bodily fluids from dripping to the ground and by stopping his corpse from smelling foul. Finally, through ritual and magic, they revived their brother.

A variant of the myth in the Pyramid Texts tells that Osiris’ body was discovered in Geheset, ‘Gazelle-land’, after he had been ‘felled on his side’ by Seth. Further spells, however, indicate that Osiris drowned, or at least that he was thrown into the water after he had been killed. This detail, that Osiris died by drowning, is in fact supported by later texts: an inscription, probably from the New Kingdom, quotes Horus’ command to Isis and Nephthys that they grasp Osiris to save him from becoming submerged in the water that had drowned him. An early 26th Dynasty papyrus also refers to Osiris as having been thrown into the river and floating all the way to Imet in the northeast Delta.

Papyrus Salt 825

Papyrus Salt 825, whose text is a ‘Ritual for the End of Mummification Operations’ that incorporates elements of this myth, places Osiris in Tawer, ‘the Great Land’ – a reference to the nome in which Abydos, his main cult centre, was traditionally found – at the time of his death. Seth intercepted Osiris there, attacking him within Nedyt in Hatdjefau (two locations in Abydos). Under the aru-tree, on the 17th day of the first month of inundation, Seth committed an act of violence against Osiris and threw him into the waters. The god Nun, as water, rose to cover Osiris’ body and took him away to hide his mysteries. Hearing of these events, Re came in haste to see what had occurred. Shu and Tefnut cried and screamed and the cosmos fell into chaos. The gods and goddesses placed their arms on their heads, there was night without day, the sun disc became obscured and the earth became inverted, so that the rivers were unnavigable. The cardinal points fell into disorder and every being in existence, whether man or god, cried.

The goddess Isis as a kite.

Osiris’ Body in Pieces?

Although there is no explicit reference in these mythological snippets to Seth hacking Osiris into many pieces, as recorded in later times by Diodorus and Plutarch, in the Pyramid Texts, there is mention of Horus collecting up the pieces of Osiris, seemingly after Seth had dismembered him and thrown his remains into the Nile: ‘I am Horus,’ the inscription reads. ‘I have come for you that I might purify you, cleanse you, revive you, assemble for you your bones, collect for you your swimming parts, and assemble for you your dismembered parts.’ Additionally, some temples list parts of Osiris’ body as being buried at different sacred sites; in particular, sometimes a piece is described as buried in each of Egypt’s nomes. A New Kingdom papyrus that records myths concerning Osiris and Seth similarly mentions Osiris’ body as broken into pieces and, in a later papyrus, Tefnut, Isis and Nephthys find the god’s shoulder blade and tibia in a bush in Letopolis.


When Isis found the body of Osiris (or had reconstructed it), she used her magic to resurrect him just long enough to become pregnant. How she resurrected Osiris differs depending on the source. A late tradition at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera refers to Isis standing to the god’s right and Thoth to his left. They place their hands on each part of Osiris’ body, performing the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony (see pp. 170–71) in order to reinvigorate him (this ritual was practised by Egyptian priests over a mummy to ‘awaken’ the dead ready for their journey in the afterlife). Another tradition has Isis, in the form of a kite, flapping her wings to provide Osiris with the breath of life:

His sister was his guard, she who drives off the foes, w