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The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

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Overview: From Herodotus to The Mummy, Western civilization has long been fascinated with the exotic myths and legends of Ancient Egypt but they have often been misunderstood. Here acclaimed Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley guides us through 3000 years of changing stories and, in retelling them, shows us what they mean. Gathered from pyramid friezes, archaological finds and contemporary documents, these vivid and strange stories explain everything from why the Nile flooded every year to their beliefs about what exactly happened after death and shed fascinating light on what life was like for both rich and poor. Lavishly illustrated with colour pictures, maps and family trees, helpful glossaries explaining all the major gods and timelines of the Pharoahs and most importantly packed with unforgettable stories, this book offers the perfect introduction to Egyptian history and civilization.
Allen Lane
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The Heliopolitan myth may be the best known of Egypt’s creation tales, but it is certainly not the only one. Each temple might, with equal validity, claim to be the original mound of creation and most cults developed their own creation story – usually a version of the generic myth adapted to feature their own god – to explain the origins of the world. Broadly speaking these myths follow set stages: the uncontrolled time before creation is followed by the emergence of a divine creator who then makes light, time, gods and men and, in so doing, imposes maat on chaos. However, the means by which creation is achieved varies from cult to cult.


At the Middle Egyptian site of Hermopolis Magna (modern Ashmunein) the priests of the temple of Thoth told a well-developed tale which they claimed as Egypt’s original creation myth. Unfortunately, their tale is not at all well preserved and, although it has been possible to reconstruct some contemporary elements from inscriptions on coffins recovered from nearby Middle Kingdom cemeteries and from scraps of Theban texts, it is primarily found in fragments of Ptolemaic Period writings which, as they date to the very end of the dynastic age, contain many late additions and distortions. However, the Egyptian name for Hermopolis is Khemnu or ‘Eight Town’, a clear reference to the Ogdoad, the eight gods of the Hermopolitan creation, and this suggests that theirs is indeed an ancient story. The more frequently used Greek name Hermopolis (Magna), literally ‘City of Hermes’, reflects the fact that the Greeks equated Thoth with their god Hermes, messenger of the Olympian deities.

The Hermopolitan myth shares many elements with the Heliopolitan myth. There are several known versions:

In the unknowable time before time there existed four pairs of gods. Nun and Naunet, Heh and Hauhet, Kek and Kauket, and Amen and Amaunet lived together in the primeval waters. Suddenly, with a burst of creative energy …


… the Mound of Flame ; rose out of the waters. The ‘Great Honker’, a celestial goose, laid an egg on the mound and, cackling, made the first sound in the newly created world. The egg cracked open, and the sun god was born. The sun god then created all living things.


… the Mound of Flame rose out of the waters. The sun god in the form of a falcon landed on the mound which was the first land.


… the Mound of Flame rose out of the waters. A lotus bud pushed through the mound. Opening, the blossom revealed the sun god in the form of a child …


… a lotus bud appeared on the surface of the waters. Opening, the blossom revealed the sun god in the form of a child. The sun god brought with him time and creation.

Here, at the beginning of all things, there exist four inert couples; four being a good, well-balanced number signifying totality, which is reflected in the four cardinal points and, later, the four corners of the sarcophagus and the four canopic jars that will be used to house the viscera of the deceased.27 Recognizing that creation requires male and female elements these original deities are gender-specific, the four frog-headed gods and the four snake-headed goddesses representing male and female versions of the principal, negative attributes of the primeval waters: chaos (Nun and Naunet), infinity (Heh and Hauhet), darkness (Kek and Kauket) and hiddenness (Amen and Amaunet). Although inert, together they have the potential to spark life. They will become the fathers and the mothers of the sun god, then, their role complete, they will die and retire to the afterlife where they will control the rising and setting of the sun and the rising and falling of the Nile waters. Later tradition will recognize these deities as the children, or perhaps the souls, of Thoth, Shu or Amen, and they will be represented as the eight baboons who squat to greet the rising sun with loud shrieks and upraised paws. Meanwhile, at the small temple of Medinet Habu, on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, they will receive cult offerings in their ‘sacred place’.

Once again a mound, sometimes described as the ‘Mound of Flame’ or the ‘Isle of Fire’, suddenly rises, emerging either from boundless dark waters or from a primeval slime. This emerging mound is personified by the god Tatenen (literally the ‘land that becomes more distinct’), who also represents Egypt emerging from the annual inundation and so is associated with the earth god Geb. The Book of the Mounds of the First Time, recorded on the walls of the Edfu temple, suggests that the mound offers a desolate, watery vista of islands, pools and reeds. This bleak landscape then bears a lotus bud whose petals open to reveal the blazing sun god in the form of a child or, in different versions, a ram or a scarab beetle whose tears become mankind. Or maybe the lotus blossom emerges directly from the waters of Nun, or the sun god in the form of a falcon (or perhaps a phoenix) alights on the mound which now becomes the first land. Or a cosmic egg – the perfect seed or womb – is laid by either the celestial goose Gengen (equated with the earth god Geb, and later with Amen of Thebes) or an ibis (the symbol of the god Thoth and, presumably, an attempt by his priests to integrate their patron deity into a pre-existing mythology) or, more unusually, a crocodile or snake. Alternatively, the world is created by a god with the power to force back the primal waters. It may be that the original egg, or even the original gods, was/were fertilized by the primeval serpent Amen-Kematef.

Whatever the precise sequence of events, it is clear that the lotus flower played an important role in the creation of the world. The heavily scented blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea) is a form of water lily which flourishes in still water. By day it rises above the water and spreads its petals wide; by night, its bud tightly closed, it sinks out of sight beneath the surface of the water. This, combined with its beauty, made the lotus an obvious symbol of rebirth and resurrection and a suitable decoration for tomb walls. The ubiquity of the blue-lotus motif has, in turn, led to suggestions that the flower may have played a more direct role in religious rituals by serving as a mind-altering narcotic which might have been either inhaled, or added to wine and drunk. Scientific investigation has shown that this is unlikely; the blue lotus has no alkaloids that could produce a narcotic effect. However, the blue lotus flower is a good source of flavinoids, the health-giving colouring agents found in many fruits and vegetables. Today flavinoids are taken in concentrated form in herbal health preparations such as ginkgo biloba, a plant used in Chinese medicine to ward off the effects of old age and improve short-term memory.

In 332 BC, the year that Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Petosiris, high priest of Thoth and controller of the Hermopolis Magna temple, started to build an elaborately decorated family tomb in the nearby desert cemetery of Tuna el-Gebel. Here, in a lengthy autobiographical inscription, we may read how Petosiris had been called upon to restore the temple of Thoth, which had been damaged during the second, turbulent period of Persian rule. He details his administrative improvements – restoring the rituals, maintaining the offerings, controlling the priests and filling the temple warehouses with grain, and its treasury ‘with every good thing’ – before telling how he founded a new temple for Re, ‘the nursling in the Isle of Fire’, and shrines for the goddesses Nehemtawy (consort of Thoth) and Hathor. Finally, he turned his attention to the badly neglected temple park:28

I made an enclosure around the park,

Lest it be trampled by the rabble,

For it is the birthplace of every god

Who came into being in the beginning.

This spot, wretches had damaged it,

Intruders had traversed it;

The fruit of its trees had been eaten,

Its shrubs taken to intruders’ homes;

The whole land was in uproar about it,

And Egypt was distressed by it,

For the half of the egg is buried in it …

It appears that the remains of the first egg to have hatched on the mound of creation were actually buried in the temple park at Hermopolis Magna. No wonder Petosiris was concerned that this area be made secure once again. Clearly Thoth approved of his high priest’s actions, as Petosiris himself tells us that he died ‘distinguished above all my peers, as my reward for enriching him [Thoth]’.

Six of the eight gods of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad sank into relative obscurity. But Amen and his consort Amaunet continued to be revered over 200 miles upstream of Hermopolis Magna, in the southern city of Thebes. Four kings of the 12th Dynasty, Thebans by birth, referenced Amen in their name Amenemhat, or ‘Amen is pre-eminent’. During the New Kingdom Amen of Thebes united with Re of Heliopolis. Together they formed the potent god-king Amen-Re, who was worshipped alongside his new wife Mut (a more user-friendly replacement for Amaunet) and their son Khonsu in the extensive Karnak temple complex on the east bank of the Nile at Thebes. Despite this marital setback, Amaunet’s cult survived in the Theban region until the Macedonian Period, and she was featured on the wall of the Karnak temple nursing and extending her protection to the pharaoh Philip Arrhidaeos: in this instance her protection failed, as Arrhidaeos, half-brother of Alexander the Great, was murdered without ever setting foot in Egypt.

Meanwhile, his increased status had caused a revision of Amen’s back-story. Absorbing some of the mythology of the god Montu, he became a mighty warrior credited with the expulsion of the hated ‘Hyksos’ rulers from northern Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom. As successive pharaohs made increasingly generous donations to his temples, Amen grew in wealth and power until his priesthood controlled valuable assets – extensive tracts of land, mines, ships and peasant labour – throughout Egypt. In appearance a fit young man sporting a short kilt, a curled beard and a crown topped with two tall feathers, Amen was not dissimilar to the king whom he protected. This similarity is no doubt deliberate; no right-thinking king would have been averse to being mistaken for the great god himself. When the 19th Dynasty King Ramesses II found himself in dire straits, abandoned by his cowardly troops at the height of the battle of Kadesh, it was natural that he should turn in his despair to Amen. Although he was many miles away, safe in the dark sanctuary of his Theban temple, the god did not disappoint the king, and the dramatic story of Ramesses’ legendary triumph was carved in prose, poetry and pictures on his stone temple walls for all to enjoy:

There was no officer with me, no charioteer, no soldier and no shield bearer. My infantry and my chariotry had fled before the enemy and not one soldier stood firm to fight with me. Desperate, I prayed aloud:

‘O my father Amen, what is happening? Is it right that a father should turn his back on his son? Are you determined to ignore my plight? Do I not obey your every command? I have followed every order that you have given me. Amen, Lord of Egypt, is surely too great to allow foreigners to impede his way. What do these wretched, godless Asiatics mean to you, Amen? I have built you many monuments, and filled your temples with war booty. I dedicated my mortuary temple to you, and endowed it with all my wealth. I gave you the lands that you needed to support your altars. I sacrificed ten thousand cattle and burned many kinds of sweet herbs before you. I built magnificent gateways to you, and erected their flagpoles myself. I brought you seaworthy ships, and obelisks from Yebu. Will people now say, “There is little to be gained by trusting Amen”? I am counting on you. Do the right thing by me, and I will serve you with a loving heart. I call upon you, my father Amen. I am in the midst of a host of hostile strangers and all the countries are allied against me. I am entirely alone; there is no one with me. My troops have run away, and not one of my charioteers is prepared to defend me. I shout for help, but they do not hear my call and they do not come. Yet I know that Amen will help me more than a million troops, more than a hundred thousand charioteers, more than ten thousand brothers and sons. The deeds of mortals are as nothing – Amen is a far greater help than they could ever be.’

Although I prayed in a distant land my prayer was heard in faraway Thebes. Amen listened when I called to him; he gave me his hand and I rejoiced. He spoke to me as clearly as if he was nearby.

‘Go forward, for I am with you. Your father is with you and is guiding your hand. I will triumph over a hundred thousand men, for I am the lord of victory and I will reward your valour.’

Suddenly my heart grew strong and my breast swelled with joy. I knew that I was invincible and unstoppable. I had become the great god Montu. I appeared before the enemy like Seth in his moment. The enemy chariots scattered before my horses. Not one of them stood to fight. Their hearts quaked with fear when they saw me and their arms went limp so they could not shoot. They simply did not have the heart to hold their spears. I made them plunge into the river just as crocodiles plunge into the water. They fell on their faces, one on top of another, and I slaughtered them at my will. They did not look back and they did not turn around. Those who fell down did not get up again.

But Amen was not simply the larger-than-life warrior that this ‘true’ story suggests. He was also ‘the hidden one’ whose real name would never be revealed; an ancient and powerful yet invisible creator with a strong affinity to the highly visible sun. The 19th Dynasty Papyrus Leiden is one of many texts to document this, recognizing Amen as the ‘one who crafted himself, whose appearance is unknown’, and the forerunner of all the gods.

As befits a hidden one, Amen keeps a low profile: his deeds are, for the most part, hidden from us. However, we do know that he could be identified with both the Great Honker, the goose who created the first sound and laid the first egg, and with Amen-Kematef, ‘Amen who has completed his moment’, the potent snake who fertilized that first egg in the Medinet Habu temple. Amen’s sexual potency was an important aspect of his persona. New Kingdom rituals (unspecified) required that he be stimulated by the royal priestess known as the God’s Wife or the God’s Hand; he even occasionally made love to the human queen to father a semi-divine king. During the Middle Kingdom Amen had become associated with the fertility god Min in the form of the ithyphallic Amen-Min and the self-engendered Min-Amen-Kamutef, ‘bull of his mother’. By the end of the New Kingdom he was also recognized as a sexually potent ram.


The Old Kingdom capital city of Memphis lay about 20 miles across the river from Heliopolis. Here Ptah, an ancient earth god with a particular interest in masons, builders and sculptors, was worshipped by a priesthood led by the ‘Greatest of Those who Supervise the Craftsmen’. Ptah’s temple, the royal palaces and administrative quarters and the nearby pyramid complexes would have created a constant demand for high-quality artefacts, which may in turn have contributed to the importance of the craftsman god in the city. In its heyday, the Memphite temple complex of Ptah must have rivalled or even surpassed the Karnak temple complex of Amen in both size and complexity, with major and minor temples, lesser shrines, monumental gateways, processional avenues and sacred lakes. Unfortunately, Ptah’s complex is today almost entirely destroyed, its stone re-used in later buildings.

The human-form Ptah invariably wore a long, tight-wrapped cloak or shroud which left his hands free to hold a sceptre combining the symbols of the djed pillar (the backbone of Osiris which signified stability), the was (symbol of dominion) and the ankh (the looped cross which signified life). He wore a tight-fitting artisan’s skullcap and a broad collar with a prominent tassel-tie hanging down his back. His face was blue, the colour of the sky, while his beard, initially curved like the beards of the other male gods, was, by the Middle Kingdom, straight. At Memphis Ptah was associated both with the god Tatenen, the emerging mound of creation, and with Sokar, another ancient craftsman deity who is associated with metalwork, the cemetery and the afterlife. The triple deity Ptah-Sokar-Osiris came to symbolize the cycle of life – creation (Ptah), death (Sokar) and rebirth (Osiris) – and so made a suitable judge in the afterlife. Ptah’s wife, Sekhmet, was the fierce lion-headed alter ego of the gentle goddess Hathor, while their son, Nefertem, was the personification of the blue lotus and so was associated both with Re and with the first flower that blossomed on the Isle of Flame. Other parents laid claim to Nefertem, however, and he might also be recognized as the son of the goddesses Wadjet or Bastet.

Egypt’s gods seldom had direct contact with ordinary mortals. Ptah, however, listened and responded to the prayers of the people. In recognition of this, stelae dedicated to Ptah are often ornamented with large carved ears to help the god to hear, while Ptah himself is sometimes associated with the divine personification of hearing, Sedjem. Ptah’s ever-listening ears were not always a good thing. When the New Kingdom draughtsman Neferabu offended Ptah by swearing a false oath, the god responded by striking him blind:29

I am a man who swore falsely by Ptah, Lord of Maat.

And he made me see darkness by day.

I will declare his might to the fool and the wise,

To the small and the great.

Beware Ptah, Lord of Maat!

For he does not overlook anyone’s deed!

Refrain from uttering Ptah’s name falsely,

Lo, he who utters it falsely, Lo, he falls.

Ptah’s better-known role as the creator who brings agricultural fertility to Egypt is mentioned in the Coffin Texts, and is explored again in hymns dating to the Ramesside age where he is described as ‘Ptah, father of the gods, Tatenen, eldest of the originals … who begot himself, by himself’. It seems that Ptah the metalworker designed and smelted the whole land, forging a body for the deceased and newly divine king from electrum (a precious mixture of gold and silver), copper and iron. Metals were reserved for the gods, whose gold flesh covered silver bones, and this was reflected in the golden cult statues found in most temple sanctuaries, although Re and his fellow solar deities had no need of a golden cult statue as their temples were open to the skies, allowing the officiating priest direct communication with the god himself. The Ptolemaic Papyrus Jumilhac30 offers an explanation for the unusual, and extremely expensive, silver cult statue of the falcon-headed god Anti. Having committed an awful crime (possibly the decapitation of a cow deity), Anti was stripped of his skin, and his golden pelt was hung on a pole, leaving his silver bones exposed. Eventually the wronged goddess forgave him and restored his flesh with her milk, but his cult statue was henceforth made of silver. The rather disjointed Coffin Texts spell 942 adds to the tale by telling us that Anti was either flayed alive or had his side-whiskers shaved because he ‘turned the land upside down’.

Ptah’s creation myth is primarily preserved in sixty-two columns of hieroglyphic text carved on a dark green breccia slab known today as the Shabaqo Stone.31 The Shabaqo Stone has no known provenance, although its text suggests that it is likely to have come from the temple of Ptah at Memphis. During Roman times, when some of the temple blocks were re-used, it was employed as a millstone, and this has caused considerable damage to the middle of the text. The Stone tells how the 25th Dynasty Nubian King Shabaqo, an ardent antiquarian with a strong interest in traditional Egyptian religion and an equally strong wish to align himself with the pharaohs of old, was horrified to discover that an ancient papyrus scroll housed in the library of the temple of Ptah had been partially eaten by worms. Shabaqo immediately ordered that the undamaged part of the scroll be copied on to a stone slab (the Shabaqo Stone) and exhibited in the temple.

The archaic language of the text initially persuaded scholars that Shabaqo had indeed copied an ancient papyrus, dating, most probably, to the Old Kingdom. However, it is now realized that the text is, in fact, a much later composition couched in deliberately archaic terms to give it a patina of old age and wisdom. It seems unlikely that the text was composed much earlier than Shabaqo’s own reign, and certainly not before the New Kingdom; it would therefore appear that it was a deliberate attempt to ingratiate Egypt’s new royal family, who now ruled from Memphis, with the ancient priesthood of Ptah. Although Ptah is an ancient god worshipped during the Early Dynastic Period, his early mythology is lost and he is barely mentioned in the Pyramid Texts. And so, the unanswerable question is whether Shabaqo preserved an already existing myth, or invented his own tale.

Shabaqo’s myth is today known as the Memphite Theology. Eleven columns of text on the right side of the stone reconcile the mythology of Ptah to the Heliopolitan creation story. They confirm that Ptah-Tatenen came into existence before Atum, and that he was able to create all things ‘through his heart and through his tongue’. It is through this heart and tongue that Atum and the Ennead themselves are born. Ptah, the supreme creator, has no need of a partner and does not need to resort to masturbation. Shunning the physical, he is able to reproduce using intelligence (the heart rather than the brain being assumed to be the centre of the intellect) and the spoken word (command).32 The actual order of creation is obviously important to Shabaqo, and is listed in some detail:33

Thus it is said of Ptah: ‘He who made all and created the gods.’ And he is Tatenen, who gave birth to the gods, and from whom every thing came forth, foods, provisions, divine offerings, all good things. Thus it is recognized and understood that he is the mightiest of the gods. Thus Ptah was satisfied after he had made all things and all divine words.

He gave birth to the gods,

He made the towns,

He established the nomes,

He placed the gods in their shrines,

He settled their offerings,

He established their shrines,

He made their bodies according to their wishes,

Thus the gods entered into their bodies,

Of every wood, every stone, every clay,

Every thing that grows upon him

In which they came to be.

Thus were gathered to him all the gods and their kas (souls),

Content, united with the Lord of the Two Lands.

This seemingly simple story, when deconstructed, becomes amazingly complex. Born from the heart and tongue of Ptah, Atum is both a child of, and manifestation of, Ptah, who houses either or both Nun and Naunet. Alternatively, in a later tradition, Tefnut might be considered to be the tongue of Ptah; Tefnut thus becomes a creator goddess. The Coffin Texts personify the creative attributes of the sun god as the deities Sia (perception), Hu (authoritative speech) and Heka (magic, or creative energy); combined, these three beings serve as a catalyst which helps the sun god, either Atum or Re, to create. Later tradition maintains that Sia and Hu grew from blood which dripped from Re’s slashed penis on the mound of creation, and so both could be classed as children of the sun god. During the New Kingdom they were also recognized as the heart and tongue of Ptah. With Sia and Hu by his side, Ptah was first able to plan creation, then articulate it. Later writings would link Ptah more firmly with the Hermopolitan theology, recognizing him as the father of the Ogdoad.

Within the precincts of his Memphite temple lived the physical manifestation of the soul of Ptah. The Apis bull was not Ptah himself, and Ptah never appeared as a bull. Rather, the Apis was the avatar of the god. He may, however, have started life as a deity in his own right, as festivals linking the Apis with royalty were celebrated from the 1st Dynasty onwards. There could only ever be one living Apis. Following the death of the old bull, his successor was identified by his distinctive markings, which were, according to Herodotus, ‘black, with a white diamond on its forehead and, the image of an eagle on its back, the hairs on its tail double, and a scarab under its tongue’.34 Once recognized by the priests, the new Apis was taken to Memphis where he lived the pampered life of a king, with his own palace and a harem of nubile young cows. His mother, who was identified with Isis, enjoyed a similarly luxurious life. Following his death, mummification and burial in the Sakkara Serapeum (the bull cemetery), the Apis was transfigured into Osirapis, a form of Osiris who was himself known as the ‘Bull of Abydos’. Meanwhile, as the old Apis underwent the rituals of the embalming house, an Egypt-wide search began to find his successor.

As time went by the Apis developed his own birth story. It was generally accepted that he was born to a virgin cow who had been impregnated by Ptah. Plutarch, however, tells us that the Apis was born from the pale light of the moon, while Herodotus was convinced that he was conceived in a flash of lightning. The priests of Re even claimed that their own sacred bull, the Mnevis bull of Heliopolis, was the father of the Apis. The Mnevis (or Mer-Wer) served as an avatar for Re-Atum. The son of the previous Mnevis and one of his sacred cow wives, the Mnevis was black all over. When illustrated he, like the Apis, wears a solar disk and uraeus between his horns.

From the very beginning of the dynastic age, wild bulls had been accepted as symbols of male dominance and fertility. As such, they quickly became equated with political power. The Nagada III/Dynasty O Narmer Palette is a large ceremonial cosmetic palette recovered from the ruins of the ancient temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis (modern Kom el-Ahmar). Too large to have had any practical use, the Palette is presumed to have been a part of the original temple paraphernalia, and may perhaps have been displayed in a frame designed to show the elaborate scenes carved on both faces. Here we may see Egypt’s first king taking the form of a bull to gore an enemy outside a walled town. The two principal scenes show Narmer in human form, with a bull’s tail attached to his belt and dangling down below the level of his kilt. The bull’s tail would remain a part of the royal regalia, and part of the costume of some gods (including Atum, Re, Shu, Amen and Thoth) throughout the dynastic age.

The first bull-hunting scene dates to the 1st Dynasty reign of Narmer’s son Aha. Bull-fighting (bulls fighting each other rather than men fighting bulls) features in several Upper Egyptian Old Kingdom tombs, with the southern cemetery of Akhmim providing the best representations. Here the black-and-white Buchis Bull, a fighter of national renown who specialized in curing eye diseases, was associated with the local warrior god Montu of Armant.

[image: image]

The Narmer Palette

There is no writing to explain the Narmer Palette and the other, similarly decorated Predynastic palettes, but the link between strong leadership and powerful animals – bulls and lions in particular – is obvious. It seems that the hunter who kills a wild animal may absorb part of the essence of that animal, while the warrior who takes the form of an animal to kill possesses the characteristics and strength of his chosen animal. Royal hunting scenes will always be an important part of the artistic repertoire as successive kings use real or imaginary adventures in the hunting field to confirm their superiority over the chaotic natural world. So, when Amenhotep III boasts of slaughtering 96 wild bulls and 102 (or 110) lions he is both confirming his own fitness, and emphasizing his ability to maintain maat which, in turn, shows that he has the favour of the gods. By the end of the dynastic age this hunting symbolism was taken to almost ridiculous extremes. The Ptolemaic kings were happy to be depicted ‘spearing the tortoise of Re’, not because they actually left their palaces to hunt tortoises, but because the tortoise, along with the snake, the onyx, the Seth animal and foreigners, had come to symbolize chaos.

In a similar vein, all of Egypt’s kings used ‘smiting scenes’ to emphasize their control over chaos. The smiting scene is a set-piece image depicting the king wielding a club, mace or sword to kill a smaller-scale enemy who grovels, unresisting, at his feet. Again this image is first found on the Narmer Palette, and again it persists, almost unchanged, to the end of the dynastic age. Battlefield images of kings riding in chariots to crush small-scale enemies convey a similar message of ruthless royal control. It is generally assumed that smiting scenes represent the symbolic bringing of justice (maat) to a defeated (and chaotic) enemy. But, given the acceptance of animal sacrifice plus the contempt felt for prisoners of war, it may be that such scenes should be read as a literal representation of an occasional ritual.


Khnum dwelt at Egypt’s southern border, on the Island of Elephantine (opposite the modern town of Aswan). Here he controlled the waters of the inundation which poured into Egypt from Nun via secret underground caverns. The so-called Famine Stela, a Ptolemaic inscription carved on a rock face at Sehel Island, near Aswan, celebrates his prowess. It tells how King Djoser, worried by seven years of famine caused by drought, consulted a priest of Imhotep. The priest retired to study the problem in the temple library, then returned to tell the king about Khnum’s role as director of the floodwaters. That night, before retiring, Djoser performed a series of tasks set by the priest. He was rewarded with a dream visit from the great god himself. Khnum promised to end the famine: ‘I shall allow your people to fill up … the hungry years will end.’ With his problem solved, the grateful king granted a generous endowment to the Elephantine temple.

The River Nile was not only the centre of Egypt, it was central to Egyptian thought. It was quite simply impossible to conceive of a land without a river, and every imagining of the afterlife included some form of waterway. So, it is very difficult to understand why Egypt never developed a powerful river deity to stand alongside the gods of sun, atmosphere, earth and sky created at the beginning of time. Instead, Egypt had Hapy, the god of the inundation who might also, on occasion, represent the river itself.

Hapy, ‘lord of the fishes and the birds’, is a plump, blue- or green-skinned man whose swollen belly and drooping breasts give him an androgynous look. In a land where elite women were invariably depicted as svelte, their husbands and fathers often chose to appear with the rounded stomach and stylized rolls of fat which testified to an enviable, food-rich life, and so we can assume that Hapy is well-rounded because he has eaten often and well. He wears a headdress of papyrus and lotus stems and a long wig, dresses in a brief loincloth, and often carries an offering tray piled high with produce. Other, anonymous, river deities who appear in temple scenes to bring their own copious offerings to the king, celebrate Egypt’s abundance but have no known mythology.

Hapy was believed to live in the underground caverns near Aswan (although in some accounts the inundation began further north, at Gebel Silsila); here he was supported, most appropriately, by crocodile gods and frog goddesses. His potency was undeniable: the Famine Stela tells how ‘he brings the floodwaters; jumping up he copulates as a man copulates with a woman’. Of course, this being Egypt, there were alternative interpretations of the annual floods, which might be the gift of Sothis, or the tears that Isis wept for her dead husband, or even the liquids that seeped from the decaying body of Osiris.

As controller of the inundation Khnum was associated both with rebirth and with Nile mud; a freely available resource of immense economic importance which not only served as a fertile soil, but also provided pottery and the mud-bricks used to build domestic architecture that was appropriately warm in the chill of winter and cool in the fierce summer heat. Mud, or clay, was a mysterious, magical substance capable of taking and retaining shape. While children formed small mud animals as toys and their parents made bricks and pots, Khnum fashioned human beings and their souls from clay that he shaped on his potter’s wheel. His use of the potter’s wheel must, however, have been a relatively late development in his mythology as, while Khnum was worshipped at Elephantine during the Early Dynastic Period, the potter’s wheel is not known in Egypt before the 5th Dynasty. This career progression is confirmed by the Pyramid Texts, which tell us that Khnum started life as a craftsman-builder making inanimate objects – boats and ladders – rather than living things. By the Middle Kingdom Khnum had progressed to the creation of the living, but was not yet recognized as a universal creator god. Coffin Texts spell 882, a spell to be spoken by the sun god, mentions that either ‘the potter’s wheels are broken’ (Raymond Faulkner’s translation) or ‘the flame of the potter’s wheel when the disk is spun’ (Peter Dorman’s translation):35 the spinning potter’s wheel which emits light while giving life to the inanimate clay is therefore linked to the solar disk, as it will be again in New Kingdom funerary literature, where it serves as a symbol of regeneration.

The New Kingdom Khnum was credited with the creation of gods, people (both Egyptians and foreigners who spoke other languages) and animals, a role that he retained to the end of the dynastic age. The predominantly Roman-period temple of Khnum at Esna preserves the details of his work, and of the cult festivals that celebrated that work, on the walls and columns of its hypostyle hall. The Great Hymn to Khnum was recited at the annual ‘festival of installing the potter’s wheel’. The hymn provides an almost anatomical breakdown of the construction process, making it clear that the creation of mankind is here a deliberate, well-thought-out act:36

He knotted the flow of blood to the bones,

Formed in his [workshop] as his handiwork,

So the breath of life is within everything.

Blood bound with semen in the bones,

To knit the bones from the start …


He made hair sprout and tresses grow,

Fastened the skin over the limbs;

He built the skull, formed the cheeks,

To furnish shape to the image.

He opened the eyes, hollowed the ears,

He made the body inhale air;

He formed the mouth for eating,

Made the [gorge] for swallowing …

With the body complete, Khnum supervises conception and, at the appropriate time, initiates the contractions that herald the onset of labour. The Great Hymn concludes by detailing the various aspects of Khnum, who is identified with the other creator gods.

Khnum does not have a particularly rich mythology, but he does have a complicated family life. Originally he was associated with the divine midwife and frog goddess Heket, but later mythology links him with the goddesses Satis and Anukis. Satis, the original deity of Elephantine and the guardian of Egypt’s southern border, wears the white crown of southern Egypt. When Khnum is identified with Re, she may be identified with the Eye of Re; in other mythologies she is the consort of Montu of Thebes. Anukis the huntress wears an unusual, tall, feathered headdress. Both Satis and Anukis, who may or may not be mother and daughter, are daughters of Re, while Anukis may also be the daughter of Khnum. As a mother goddess associated with Hathor, Anukis was sometimes shown nursing the king. Meanwhile, at Esna, Khnum was associated with the obscure lioness goddess Menhyt (another uraeus goddess) and with the creator goddess Neith; his role as ‘lord of the crocodiles’ suggests that he may have fathered Neith’s otherwise fatherless crocodile son, Sobek.

Khnum was a ram-headed god. Originally he sported the long, rippling horns of Ovis longipes, the first sheep to be reared in Egypt. Later he acquired a second, additional set of horns, the curled horns of Ovis platyra occasionally worn by the god Amen. The Egyptians appreciated the consistent fertility of the ram, and this fertility, naturally, was transferred to Khnum. The Egyptian word for ram, ‘ba’, sounded like the word ‘ba’ meaning spirit or personality and, because of this, Khnum was variously recognized as the ba or spirit of the sun god Re, the earth god Geb and the king of the underworld, Osiris. Re, on his nightly journey through the underworld, was often shown with a ram’s head and occasionally identified as Khnum-Re.

But Khnum was not the only creator ram. Heryshef (literally ‘he who is upon his lake’) of Herakleopolis Magna (ancient Hnes; close by the mouth of the Faiyum) emerged from the waters of Nun at the beginning of time to serve as the ‘lord of blood and butchery’, who protected the weak against evil. The Book of the Dead tells how, when the syncretized deity Osiris-Heryshef was crowned king, all other gods bowed before him; even the discontented Seth bowed, although his suppressed rage made his nose bleed. However, Osiris-Heryshef soon overreached himself. When he placed the uraeus of Re on his brow his head swelled alarmingly, causing him unbearable pain. Re was able to cure him by cutting into the swelling, releasing a lake of blood and pus, which became the sacred lake at Herakleopolis. A similar, Ptolemaic tale is told about the time Geb rashly attempted to don the uraeus of his father Shu. At the very end of the dynastic age, Heryshef, now identified with the deified Hellenistic hero Heracles, was credited with helping Alexander the Great to expel Egypt’s hated Persian overlords.


While Hapy’s plump physique hinted at his fecundity and his access to rich food, some gods displayed a more obvious sexuality. At the southern city of Koptos (modern Qift) the god Min was worshipped from late predynastic times until the end of the dynastic age. Min was a fertility god blessed with the ability to create: to celebrate his prowess he was consistently depicted as a mummy wearing a tall plumed crown, carrying a flail in his raised right arm and displaying an erect penis. His black face emphasized his rejuvenative powers, and he was often shown standing in front of a garden of lettuce plants. Lettuce, which grew long and tall and emitted a milky substance when squeezed, was considered a potent aphrodisiac. Min’s Early Dynastic temple boasted a series of colossal limestone figures, Egypt’s earliest anthropomorphic cult statues, measuring over 4 metres high, each with a left hand supporting a now vanished (perhaps made of wood?) erection and each bearing the curious symbol of Min, which has been variously identified as a lightning bolt, a meteoric rock, a door bolt, an arrow or a shellfish.37

The mythology of Min developed as the dynastic age progressed. Initially a relatively insignificant local god, during the Middle Kingdom he was absorbed into the extended Heliopolitan mythology, becoming ‘Min-Horus the victorious’, either the son of Isis and Osiris, or the husband of Isis and the father of Horus. By the New Kingdom Min was associated with the creator god Amen of Thebes and both now wore a headdress of two tall plumes. Min-Amen was recognized as Kamutef, the ‘bull of his mother’, a god who secretly, at night, fornicated with his mother and so incestuously fathered himself. Mother–son incest was not considered acceptable in the human world, yet Kamutef, a means of emphasizing the continuous nature of kingship, was acceptable within the semi-divine royal family. During the Festival of Min, celebrated at Karnak, the queen consort played the role of the mother of Min: as first the wife and then the mother of a king (albeit different kings) she effectively continued the tradition of the king fathering himself.

The Greeks associated Min with their own deity Pan; a half-man, half-goat god of shepherds, fields and fertility, Pan was the seducer of many innocent maidens and was frequently depicted with an erect penis. The fact that Min, in two-dimensional art, is always shown from the side with his two legs bandaged together, has inspired the development of a entirely modern myth told to tourists today; the tale of the one-legged god who travelled, or hopped, around Egypt impregnating all the women.


You have gone, but you will return, you have slept but you will awake, you have died but you will live.

Pyramid Texts spell 670


All formal images of kings and their families carry a mixture of propaganda and myth. At the most obvious level there is the myth of the perfect royal family. Kings appear young, fit and good-looking; their queens are slender, pale and beautiful. If they are depicted at all, their daughters are perfectly formed miniature adults. Their sons are generally invisible. None of these ‘portraits’ can be assumed to be true-to-life, nor were they intended to be. In a land lacking the concept of purely decorative art, all royal images were designed to convey selected aspects of kingship, and so the kings of the Old Kingdom appear as the remote embodiment of semi-divine authority; the Middle Kingdom kings are the careworn guardians of their people; the New Kingdom kings show a renewed confidence in their role; and the Late Period kings reflect on their country’s glorious past. Conformity to this stereotype was extremely important as any deviation might imply a challenge to maat. And so we find the 19th Dynasty King Siptah appearing as a healthy young man while his mummy proves that he had a deformed left foot, and the 18th Dynasty Hatshepsut appearing with a man’s body even though she is a woman.

A closer look at the royal images reveals a sub-text. The royal family is the earthly representative of the divine family. Every living king represents Re or his son Horus; every king’s wife plays the part of Maat or Hathor (for a living king), or Isis (for a dead king who would himself take the role of Osiris); royal daughters assume a protective role, mirroring the role played by the various daughters of the sun god. There is no place in this intimate family group for sons and brothers, or for children of either sex born to lesser queens, and so they rarely appear. Not only is it difficult to differentiate between individual kings, it is difficult to distinguish between the royal women and, increasingly, between queens and goddesses. We have already noted the physical similarity between the human queen and Maat, the constant companion of the king. As the dynastic age progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the human queen, Hathor and Isis, as all three now wear the solar disk and cow horns that were once the exclusive property of Hathor. This confusion is deliberate. It seems that, just as the king could represent either all or one of the gods, so his queen could represent either all or one of the goddesses. Together king and queen formed a perfect balance of male and female that would serve the gods, rule Egypt and confound chaos – at one and the same time. For a king to rule without a woman by his side was unthinkable.

Although the badly fragmented Graeco-Roman tale of Prince Pedikhons and Queen Serpot83 tells of a Syrian ‘land of the women’, whose highly effective female warriors are inspired by Isis and Osiris and who are prepared to fight to the death (or, rather, until their queen falls in love with Pedikhons), mortal Egypt had no tradition of female soldiers. The gods, however, had a different tradition, and gods, kings and the dead were happy to harness the protective feminine loyalty – and the highly effective weaponry – of Egypt’s goddesses. Some goddesses were adept at brandishing axes, spears, sharp knives or bows and arrows, while others included fire, pestilence and plague in their arsenal. Mother goddesses – the fiercest of all goddesses – shunned weapons, preferring to manifest as dangerous animals: rearing snakes, stinging scorpions, hippopotami, crocodiles and lions. Here we will meet some of ancient Egypt’s fiercest female fighters.


Male snake deities might be either good or bad; they might appear as bizarre mutants equipped with multiple limbs and heads, as insignificant, slender, wriggling worms, or as long, fat, python- or dragon-like creatures. Generally speaking these monsters dwelt in the Duat, and did not trouble the living Egyptians overmuch. We have already met the malignant serpent Apophis and his counterpart, the benign Mehen, and the snake god Nehebu-Kau, son of either Serket or Renenutet, who, impervious to magical trickery, protects and feeds the dead king in the underworld.

Female snakes, invariably cobras, played a more important role in daily life. Cobras were considered exceptionally good mothers and it is no coincidence that Isis and Neith, who were also considered good mothers, occasionally assumed cobra form. The Egyptian cobra, Naja haje, can grow to be nine feet long and can, when angry or threatened, raise a third of its body from the ground, and expand its ‘hood’ (cervical ribs). A rearing cobra is a frightening sight. This, coupled with a strong filial devotion to the sun god, made the female cobra a useful royal bodyguard. A rearing cobra (the uraeus) worn on the brow watched over the gods and the royal family, cobra amulets incorporated in mummy wrapping protected the deceased, and a painted pottery cobra, placed in the corner of a room, was a tried and tested means of warding off evil ghosts and spirits.

As, each year, the rising Nile waters caused a rise in the number of snakes attracted to the settlements by the increased numbers of vermin flushed from the low-lying ground, cobras also came to be associated with the fertility of the Nile. In some traditions the mysterious cavern which served as the font of the Nile was guarded by a serpent who controlled the water level. Renenutet, ‘she who nourishes’, lived in the fertile fields where, as goddess of the harvest and granaries, she ensured that Egypt would not go hungry. As a divine nurse Renenutet suckled and raised babies in general and the king in particular; as the fierce uraeus she protected the adult king in life; as a fire-breathing cobra she also protected him in death. While Renenutet was generally recognized as the mother of the corn god Neper, or of Nehebu-Kau, in the Faiyum she was celebrated as the wife of Sobek and the mother of Horus.

Meretseger, ‘She who Loves Silence’, served as the guardian of the Theban cemetery where she gained a loyal following among the residents of the village of Deir el-Medina, which was, unusually, situated in the desert rather than on the edge of the cultivated area. In this extract from his votive stela, the hapless draftsman Neferabu reflects on his folly in annoying Meretseger, ‘Peak of the West’, the Peak being a reference to the snake-infested pyramid-shaped desert mountain overshadowing the Valley of the Kings, which served as one of the entrances to the underworld:84

I was an ignorant man and foolish,

Who knew not good from evil;

I did the transgression against the Peak,

And she taught a lesson to me.

I was in her hand by night as by day,

I sat on bricks like the woman in labour,

I called to the wind, it came not to me,

I libated to the Peak of the West, great of strength,

And to every god and goddess.

The accompanying illustration on the stela shows Meretseger as a snake with two serpent heads and one human head. Fortunately, this time Neferabu’s story has a happy ending.

The goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet, the ‘Two Ladies’ who guard the king, his name and his double crown, may be represented as twin cobras. Nekhbet, ‘Lady of Nekheb’ (Hierakonpolis), is the vulture goddess of southern Egypt and, as such, is closely associated with the white crown. She is a very ancient being: we can see a vulture hovering protectively over the head of Egypt’s first king on the Narmer macehead, a ceremonial artefact recovered with the Narmer Palette from the remains of the ancient temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis. Vultures, like snakes, were considered to be good mothers; indeed, the vulture hieroglyph represented the word mut, or ‘mother’. By extension, Nekhbet herself was recognized both as a good mother and as the mother of the pharaoh, and in the 5th Dynasty mortuary temple of Sahure she takes human form to suckle the king.

Nekhbet’s counterpart, Wadjet of Buto (the ancient Delta city of Pe/Dep), the ‘Green One’, was a cobra who lived in the marshy thickets of northern Egypt. As Nekhbet personified the white crown, so Wadjet was associated with the red crown. While Nekhbet was mother to the king, Wadjet was his protector. She was the fire-spitting uraeus, the rearing cobra with an expanded hood who, as ‘Lady of the Devouring Flame’, helped Re to defeat his enemies including Apophis. Wadjet, too, suckled the king, feeding him the right to rule along with her divine milk.

The cobra (or occasionally lioness) Weret-Hekau, ‘Great in Magic’, personified the magic of the royal crowns. As she, too, served as the uraeus she might also be considered an aspect of Wadjet, or of Hathor/Sekhmet. Weret-Hekau is featured on a beaded pendant found inside the small golden shrine recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen; here we see her in her human-headed snake form suckling the king to prepare him for his coronation. The shrine itself, essentially a gilded wooden box with a double door, is decorated with scenes of the king and his sister-wife Ankhesenamen. The young queen shows a conventional wifely concern for her husband as she accompanies him on hunting and fishing trips, entertains him with her sistrum and menyt, and ties his necklace firmly in place. Howard Carter, the first to view the shrine in over 3,000 years, was charmed by what he saw:85

… a series of little panels, depicting, in delightfully naïve fashion, a number of episodes in the daily life of king and queen. In all of these scenes the dominant note is that of friendly relationship between the husband and the wife, the unselfconscious friendliness …

The images on the shrine certainly appear to be domestic, rather than funerary, in nature. But analysis by a variety of experts has demonstrated convincingly that the simple, intimate scenes should actually be read as confirmation of the queen’s role in supporting her husband in his royal duties. More specifically it seems that she is preparing him for his coronation and for his participation in the New Year rituals.86 While Ankhesenamen here serves as the earthly representative of Maat, or of Hathor/Sekhmet, Tutankhamen is the son of Ptah and Sekhmet, the son of Amen and Mut, and the image of Re.

At the end of the dynastic age the Ptolemaic capital city of Alexandria mixed Egyptian and Hellenistic tradition to develop its own protective snake deity. The Alexander Romance, a legendary account of the life of Alexander the Great, compiled some five centuries after his death, tells how the workmen building the city were worried by a snake. Alexander had the snake killed, then, perhaps regretting his order, built a shrine where it had died. Soon the shrine filled with snakes, which started to infest the neighbouring houses. These were the Agathoi Daemones, the ‘good spirits’ who would protect the city and bless its inhabitants. They are perhaps a version of the earlier snake deity Shai, the personification of destiny, who determined both lifespan and the means of death. Shai was often linked with Renenutet and the birth-goddess Meskhenet, and all three could appear as a human-headed birthing brick.


One of the oldest known depictions of an Egyptian shrine is inscribed on an ivory label recovered from the Abydos tomb of the 1st Dynasty King Aha, son of Narmer. The shrine is an open compound with a simple hut at one end and what appear to be two flagpoles at the other. The ‘flagpoles’, which are actually poles wrapped with cloth, form the hieroglyphic word netcher, or ‘god’. Standing in front of the hut are the crossed arrows and shield which symbolize the warrior Neith, a goddess whose name has been translated as either ‘the terrifying one’ or ‘that which is’. Later, Neith’s symbol will evolve two stylized bows that the goddess might wear as a crown.

Even at this early date, Neith is strongly linked with royalty in general, and with queenship in particular. Several of the 1st Dynasty royal women bear names compounded with ‘Neith’, including Neithhotep, ‘Neith is Satisfied’, wife of Narmer and mother of Aha, and Meritneith, ‘Beloved of Neith’, the daughter of King Djer and widow of King Djet who ruled as regent for her infant son Den, and who was rewarded with the honour of a regal tomb in the royal cemetery at Abydos. At the same time, we know of several priestesses of Neith. Yet this obviously important goddess makes only a fleeting appearance in the Pyramid Texts, where she is classed with Isis, Nephthys and Serket as one of the four female guardians of the deceased king. A thousand years later, these same four goddesses will protect coffins, canopic chests and the four corners of the royal sarcophagi.

Neith is widely acknowledged as either a warrior or a hunter, yet she is consistently depicted in a linen sheath dress so tight that, if we were to take the representations literally, it would have been difficult for her to walk, let alone function effectively on the battlefield. Human-form, wigless and bald, from the 5th Dynasty onwards she wears the red crown of Lower Egypt.87 Her accessories are far from conventional feminine equipment, and they lead directly to her titles ‘mistress of the bow … ruler of arrows’. Beyond this, however, she has a surprising shortage of warrior-based mythology, although texts in the temple of Khnum at Esna, a temple which includes a celebration of the cult of Neith, do describe the Roman festival which celebrated Neith’s use of her bow and arrows to save Re and defeat the enemies of the sun. This lack of epic tales of fighting and adventure suggests that Neith’s role as a warrior should not be over-emphasized, but regarded as just one aspect of her multiple personae. Plutarch was writing under a misapprehension when he informed his readers that ‘In Sais the statue of Athena, whom they believe to be Isis, bore the inscription “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered.”’88 Athena of Sais was Neith rather than Isis. Nevertheless, his statement, and Neith’s statue inscription, contain more than a grain of truth. It seems that no one has yet managed to strip away the veil of privacy which shrouds this goddess.

Like all goddesses Neith has a family and, while her partner is uncertain (he may, perhaps, be Seth), she is recognized as the mother of the crocodile-headed Sobek (or in some cases Re, Horus, Osiris or even Apophis). In this role, she may appear as a woman suckling one or two miniature crocodiles. She might also be the daughter, and Eye, of Re.

Her title ‘mother of the gods’ identifies Neith with the creative force present at the beginning of the world, and it may even be that she invented birth: the 18th Dynasty King Amenhotep II tells us that he has been moulded by Neith, while the sarcophagus of the 19th Dynasty King Merenptah tells us that she is the mother of both Re and Osiris. In the New Kingdom funerary text known as the Book of That Which is in the Beyond she appears at the fourth, tenth and eleventh hours of the night. Here, at the eleventh hour, she is simultaneously identified as a child, the two queens of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the pregnant goddess through whom the sun will be reborn. On the wall of the temple of Khnum at Esna we see Neith emerging from the primeval waters as a cow-goddess. As she rises she creates the land by speaking just seven words: ‘Let this place be land for me.’ Neith is now father and mother of the gods; like all other creator gods, she has male and female aspects. She first creates thirty gods, then the great god Re, who in turn creates mankind from his tears. Finally Neith travels north to found the Delta city of Sais. Meanwhile, back at Esna, Neith is able to call forth the waters of the inundation – a role that she shares with Khnum and which associates her with the celestial creator-cow Mehet-Weret.

Neith is an intellegent goddess. As such, she is one of the few divinities to be treated with any degree of respect by the author of the Contendings. Indeed, her opinion is held in such high regard that she is asked to rule in the tedious dispute between Horus and Seth. Her judgement is both legally and morally sound: while Horus must be placed on his father’s throne, Seth must be compensated for his loss (she suggests that he be given Anath and Astarte, the two daughters of the sun god, as his wives). Her ability to judge the dead is made clear in Coffin Texts spell 630, where we learn that ‘Judgement has been made in the presence of Neith.’ Her role as patroness of weavers reinforced this link with the deceased, who required vast amounts of linen for their bandages.89

Neith was worshipped throughout Egypt. There were important Neith temples at Mendes and Memphis, but she was particularly associated with the western Delta town of Sais (modern Sa el-Hagar) where her temple became known as the ‘house of the bee’. Her cult waned slightly during the Middle Kingdom and early New Kingdom, only to revive in the later New Kingdom: when the 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II was crowned at Karnak, Neith was present as a witness. During the 26th Dynasty, a time when Sais served as Egypt’s capital city, she became the dominant state deity and the kings were buried in the grounds of her temple. Unfortunately, her temple is now ruined and inaccessible; the royal tombs are therefore lost and we cannot confirm the claim of the philosopher Iamblichus, writing in c.AD 300, that the temple walls were carved with the secret of how the soul may unite with God.


As the vulture hieroglyph is read as mut, or ‘mother’, Mut of Thebes is, quite literally, a mother goddess. More specifically, she is the consort of Amen and the mother or adoptive mother of the lunar deity Khonsu. Meanwhile, in Memphis, she might be the consort of Ptah. She is a relatively late-dating deity; her first reference is found in Middle Kingdom sources and we know little of her story before she displaces Amaunet from Amen’s side during the New Kingdom. Although it is difficult to tell the ages of subjects in Egyptian art (the convention being that almost everyone should appear as eternally young and fit), Mut’s image is often interpreted as that of a more mature woman; if this is the case, we may guess that, in flaunting convention, the artists are reflecting her political authority and wisdom. Mut usually wears a brightly coloured sheath dress, a long, heavy wig, and the feathery vulture headdress that takes the form of a limp bird draped over the wearer’s head.90 Her regalia, royal sceptres and either the white crown of southern Egypt or the double crown of the united land, again emphasize Mut’s political authority.

Curiously, Mut never appears as a vulture. As the daughter of the sun god, however, she may be a lioness, a snake or the knife-wielding cat who slays the serpent Apophis in the shade of the ishtar tree. As the fierce Eye of Re she is Mut-Sekhmet, the wandering goddess who quarrels with her father and has to be persuaded to return to Egypt so that she might give birth to the divine king. This form of Mut is a powerful healer who can both cause and cure sickness. As the mother of the pharaoh, Mut, like the uraeus, defends Egypt, and the king, with her flame; enemies were symbolically (and, some have argued though with little supporting evidence, literally) burned on braziers within her temples. As yet another creator deity she may appear as a mummiform lion-headed (or three-lion-headed) goddess with an incongruous erect penis: this syncretized transgender being, Mut-Min, was a potent deity ‘Great of Magic’. Alternatively, she might be Mut-Sekhmet-Bast, a fearsome being equipped with wings, a penis and three heads: one human, one lion and one vulture.


Anath and Astarte were fierce Semitic warrior goddesses who offered an effective protection against dangerous animals, enemies and daemons. As atypical, foreign women capable of violent, chaotic behaviour and, or so it was rumoured, sexual aggression, they made suitable partners for the unconventional Seth, who was himself equated with the Canaanite storm god Baal.91

The impetuous, Amazon-like Anath was the daughter of the great Canaanite god El and the sister-wife of Baal. As an unmarried girl on the brink of womanhood, she was allowed to participate in male activities such as hunting, which would be denied to a sexually mature or married woman. Anath arrived in Egypt during the late Middle Kingdom, at a time when increasing numbers of easterners, or ‘Asiatics’, were settling in the Delta. She was accepted as ‘the woman who acts like a warrior’, a loyal daughter who protected both her divine father (and perhaps husband) Re and all of Egypt’s kings, with her axe, spear and shield. She was afraid of nothing and no one; impressed by her strength, Ramesses II named both his daughter (Bint-Anath, ‘daughter of Anath’) and a favourite dog (‘Anath-in-Strength’) after her. A historiola used in several healing spells, including Papyrus Chester Beatty VII,92 was initially interpreted as telling the tale of Seth’s rape of Anath. However, it is now apparent that the otherwise unidentified ‘Seed Goddess’ was Seth’s victim. Re, enraged by Seth’s villainy, poisoned him. Only when Anath pleaded on Seth’s behalf did he relent and allow Isis to effect a cure.

Astarte, the equivalent of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and the Sumerian Inanna, arrived during the Second Intermediate Period and became particularly associated with horses and chariots, which had just been introduced to Egypt. She was often depicted naked, wielding a weapon or weapons, and either riding a horse or driving a chariot. As yet another daughter of Re she was identified with the fierce leonine form of the solar Eye; alternatively, she might be the daughter of Ptah. The disjointed 18th Dynasty story known today as Astarte and the Insatiable Sea, is almost certainly derived from a story originally told in the Syrian port of Ugarit (modern Ras-Shamra):93

In the beginning, the world was created. But the sea, Yam, challenged the authority of the creator god and demanded tribute. The gods were frightened and Renenutet, goddess of the harvest, was sent with the tribute – boxes of silver, gold, lapis-lazuli and turquoise – to placate Yam. This was not enough. Yam was displeased, and Renenutet sent an urgent message, via a bird, to Astarte asking her to bring more. Astarte was reluctant, and wept, but she did as she was asked. Arriving at the seashore she sang and danced for Yam before sitting on the beach. Entranced by her beauty, Yam decided that he wanted Astarte for his wife. The Ennead collected a dowry for Astarte, but when Yam came to collect it, he was challenged by Seth …

The end of the tale is lost, but comparisons with the Ugaritic version, which features Yam, Astarte and the storm god Baal, suggest that Seth would have defeated Yam and claimed Astarte as his prize.


Egypt has left us a small library of entertaining legends and stories which, 2,000 years after the end of the dynastic age, are still a pleasure to read. Here we meet heroes whose bravery is matched by their loquacity and occasional magical prowess.


Twenty-five lines of this ill-preserved 12th Dynasty tale have survived on the back of the complex lament known as The Man Who Was Tired of Life, a dialogue between a man who longs for death and his ba, or soul. This would, however, appear to have been an altogether more cheery story:

… The herdsman tells of what he has seen: ‘One day I decided to take my charges down to the marshy land. There I saw a woman, who did not look like other, ordinary women. My own hair stood on end when I saw the woman’s hair, because it was such a beautiful colour. But I will never do what she asked me to do, because I am terrified of her …’

… But, when the night sky grew light with the dawn, what he had related did happen. The goddess met him at the pool, and she had removed all her clothes, and unbound her hair … 


The Eloquent Peasant is a Middle Kingdom composition preserved in snatches on four separate and incomplete papyri, two of which also tell the Story of Sinuhe. Here all four have been combined to re-create the whole story. The tale is full of literary flourishes, repetitions and puns designed to appeal to an educated elite readership. In order to spare the modern reader the full weight of Khun-Anup’s lengthy oration, his court appearances have been condensed.

The tale has none of the excitement of magic, or travel to foreign lands and long-gone times; it sets out to instruct rather than entertain. It is saved from dullness by the extreme loquaciousness of Khun-Anup, an innocent and ill-educated man of humble origins who knows his rights and never shuts up. Khun-Anup is a frustrated, over-emotional peasant making a fuss about a relatively trivial matter. In contrast, the High Steward Rensi son of Meru is a restrained, self-controlled member of the elite who, acting under strict royal orders, communicates through silence. His silence serves as a spur to Khun-Anup’s speechmaking, and Rensi knows this. The story carries a twofold message. In Egypt, justice or maat will always prevail; the king will ensure that this happens. And, as we have already seen in The Shipwrecked Sailor, there will always be an appreciation of eloquent speech.

Here we are shown a darker side to the glowing, sunny Egypt so often pictured on tomb walls. It is an Egypt of casual thefts, corruption and careless brutality, a land where the elite think nothing of ordering a beating for the inferior who has offended them. This land needs a firm legal system to uphold the rights of the downtrodden. Ancient Egypt recognized two broad classes of crime. Criminal offences – regicide, theft from the temples and palaces, tomb-robbing – were serious matters. As such they would be dealt with by the state, which had a formidable array of physical punishments at its disposal. In this story, however, we are looking at a civil offence, a crime against a private person which would not, under normal circumstances, be of any interest to the state. Ideally, a downtrodden private person would have an influential patron to support his cause. But Khun-Anup, a stranger to the Nile Valley, stands very much alone, and it is only by chance that the First Intermediate Period King Nebkaure becomes involved in his case. Nebkaure is a monarch who, like Snefru before him, seeks amusement through the spoken word. There is a certain amount of cruelty in Nebkaure’s justice; although he has the common sense to realize that the peasant’s family must be in need of food, he appears completely indifferent to the mental stress caused to poor Khun-Anup.

Khun-Anup and his family live in the Wadi Natrun, an oasis famous for its precious natron salt, a key ingredient in mummification. He is probably more of a trader than a farmer or peasant, and he is clearly wealthy. He owns a valuable string of donkeys and has an impressive range of luxury goods. But he dwells on the outskirts of Egypt – the very edge of the civilized world – and so he appears as something of a country bumpkin to the sophisticated city-dwelling officials he meets in his quest for justice. In the absence of coinage, Khun-Anup is obliged to barter his produce for foodstuffs. His journey takes him from the Wadi towards the Middle Egyptian city of Neni-Nesut (Herakleopolis), the capital city of the 9th and 10th Dynasties. Medenit is the twenty-second nome, or province, of Upper (southern) Egypt. Per-Fefi is today unknown.

Once upon a time there lived a simple farmer named Khun-Anup. Khun-Anup dwelt in the Wadi Natrun with his wife Merit and their children. He was a hard-working and decent man; his children were well fed, his wife was happy and his barn was filled with home-grown produce. One day Khun-Anup called his wife to him.

‘Our supplies of food are getting low. The time has come for me to travel to Egypt to trade my produce for food. Go to the barn, and see how much barley we have left from last year’s harvest.’

So Merit went to the barn, and measured out twenty-six gallons of grain. This Khun-Anup divided into two unequal heaps. Twenty gallons would provide ample food for his family while he was away. The remaining six gallons were to be made into the bread and beer that would serve as his rations for the journey. And this was done.

Khun-Anup set off southwards on his travels, heading towards Neni-Nesut. His heart was light though his load was heavy, and his donkeys were making good speed under the weight of a vast array of goods. There were rushes, grasses and rare plants, natron and salt, precious woods, animal pelts including panther and jackal skins, pigeons and ostriches, and much, much more besides. Eventually the small caravan reached the district of Per-Fefi, to the north of Medenit. And there, standing on the riverbank, Khun-Anup encountered the man named Djehuty-Nakht, an employee of the High Steward Rensi son of Meru.

Djehuty-Nakht, an unscrupulous and incurably lazy man, ran a practised eye over Khun-Anup’s merchandise. He recognized the value of the load at once, and wished with all his greedy heart that he had a magic charm which would allow him to hijack the goods there and then. But he had no such charm, and so would be forced to rely on his wits if he wanted to commit such an outrageous crime. Which of course he did. After a great deal of thought Djehuty-Nakht smiled in triumph. He had devised a plan cunning enough to strip the naive peasant of all his precious goods and his donkeys as well. Running ahead of Khun-Anup, he spread a shawl across the narrow public road that ran in front of his house.

Khun-Anup, happily jogging along on the lead donkey, found that his path suddenly narrowed until it was no wider than a shawl. To one side of him there ran the waters of the canal; to the other there was a field of barley; in the distance there was a house – the house of Djehuty-Nakht. And in front of him there was indeed a shawl, spread across the road so that its fringe dipped into the canal water and its hem lay on the earth of the barley field. Standing beside the shawl was Djehuty-Nakht, an unpleasant smile on his lips. Djehuty-Nakht spoke first, his tone carelessly offensive:

‘Take care, peasant. For I absolutely forbid you to step on my valuable shawl. And,’ he added, as Khun-Anup attempted to reverse his donkeys so that he might go round the garment via the field, ‘I also forbid you to step on my precious barley.’

As the other side of the road was bordered by the canal, Khun-Anup now had no way forward. He tried to reason with Djehuty-Nakht:

‘My way is completely blocked. I cannot go into the water, the field is forbidden to me, and you are obstructing the road with your shawl. Will you not lift it, so that I may pass by?’

But even as Khun-Anup spoke, one of his donkeys lowered its head and ate an ear of barley from the field. This was exactly what Djehuty-Nakht had been hoping for.

‘This is an outrage! You have deliberately allowed your miserable donkey to eat my valuable barley. Now, peasant, I will seize your donkey as compensation. It will pay for its crime by working for me.’

Khun-Anup, baffled by this ridiculous turn of events but still courteous, immediately made an offer of reasonable payment for the ear of barley eaten by his donkey. But Djehuty-Nakht was deaf to reason. Seizing a green tamarisk rod he thrashed poor Khun-Anup until he cried out in pain, then he drove all the donkeys and their goods away to his own stables. The peasant was left alone on the road, his loud sobs stifled by Djehuty-Nakht’s threat of murder should he make a fuss about his treatment.

Djehuty-Nakht expected to hear no more from the intimidated peasant. But Khun-Anup knew his rights and was not prepared to let the matter drop. After a week spent pleading with Djehuty-Nakht for the return of his property he travelled to the town of Ninsu to appeal in person to Rensi son of Meru, High Steward and employer of Djehuty-Nakht. Khun-Anup met Rensi as he came out of his house and told him – at some length – all that had happened. Rensi was appalled by the injustice. He laid the matter before the local magistrates expecting them to support Khun-Anup, but they were inclined to take a different view:

‘This story can’t possibly be right. Djehuty-Nakht is one of us, a gentleman. He would never steal from an honest man. This miserable complainant must be one of Djehuty-Nakht’s own peasants, who has been caught out in wrongdoing and who is trying to gain revenge on a decent master. Why should we punish a good man like Djehuty-Nakht over such a trivial matter? If he is asked to replace a few grains of salt, he will surely do so.’

Rensi son of Meru listened to this unfair judgement, but made no comment.

The peasant Khun-Anup lodged a formal appeal with Rensi son of Meru. He spoke with great eloquence before him:

‘If you go down to the river of truth you will sail on it with a fair wind. Your boat will remain sound and whole, and you will not capsize. You will not have to look upon the dark face of fear. Instead fine fish will swim to you and plump birds will fly to you. For you are the guardian of the unprotected. You are father to the orphan, husband to the widow, and brother to the abandoned wife. And your name will be remembered for ever. For you are a great man, free of all avarice and greed, who ensures that right triumphs over evil. Allow me justice, O Lord. Take away my grief and listen to my plea, for I have been sorely wronged.’

Rensi, amazed by what he had heard, referred the matter straight to King Nebkaure.

‘Your Majesty, I have discovered an amazing thing: an uneducated peasant who is nevertheless capable of truly beautiful speech. This man came before me because he had been robbed and he wanted justice. I thought that it would amuse you to hear his words.’

The king, fascinated by Rensi’s tale, replied:

‘If you wish me well, detain this talkative peasant. Do not respond to his pleas, for if you do not reply, he will be forced to carry on speaking. Have his words written down, and send them to me so that I may learn everything that he says. But do not be cruel. Make sure that the peasant is well fed – give him food without letting him know who provides it. And send food to his family, for peasants come to Egypt to trade their goods only when their larders are empty at home.’

So Khun-Anup was detained. He was provided with ten loaves of bread and two jugs of beer every day. This ration came not direct from the hand of Rensi, but via a friend so that the peasant would not know who was feeding him. And Rensi wrote in secret to the mayor of Wadi Natrun, asking him to provide Khun-Anup’s family with three baskets of grain each day.

The time came for the peasant Khun-Anup to made a second appeal before Rensi son of Meru. This time Khun-Anup spoke with equal fluency but in less flattering terms:

‘Great High Steward, richest of the rich, you are the dependable rudder of heaven and the plumb-bob of the scales that carry the weight of truth. Do not be swayed from justice. A truly great man will take only ownerless property, and you have all you need for your own satisfaction. Surely you will agree that it is wrong that a balance may be allowed to tilt, or a plumb-bob stray from the straight and narrow? But look around you. Justice flees from you, the magistrates are dishonest and all speech is twisted away from its original meaning. He who should punish the wrongdoers is now causing trouble himself …’

At this point Rensi interrupted the speechmaker with a threat of arrest which Khun-Anup, unstoppable in mid-flow, ignored.

‘Yes, you are strong and mighty. But your heart is greedy and you show no mercy. How miserable is the wretched man whom you have destroyed. You are a messenger of the crocodile, you are worse than Sekhmet, Lady of Pestilence. The wealthy man should always be merciful. Violence should be left to criminals, and robbery to those who have nothing. We cannot reproach the poor robber as he is merely seeking to provide for himself (as indeed I myself may need to provide for myself if I lose all my goods). But you have enough food to make you vomit, and enough beer to make you drunk. You are rich in all kinds of treasure … Straighten your tongue, don’t tell lies, and warn the magistrates to behave. Wisest of all men, do not ignore my case.’

Rensi, following the king’s orders, heard this remarkable spate of words without making any response, and declined to make any sort of judgement. Khun-Anup, growing increasingly frustrated and bitter, was driven to following Rensi on a daily basis, appealing again and again against his harsh treatment at the hands of the court. On one occasion, pushed too far, Rensi ordered a casual beating for his impolite petitioner, but otherwise he remained impassive and gave no sign of listening. Eventually the desperate Khun-Anup found himself making his ninth appearance before the silent Rensi. And all this time, unbeknown to him, his words were being copied down so that they might be sent to the king. On this occasion the desperate Khun-Anup did not mince his words:

‘My Lord, High Steward, the tongue is a scale that will always betray men’s deficiencies. Truth will out. He who benefits from falsehood has no heirs; his boat will not harbour at the mooring place. Do not be heavy, and do not be light. Do not be late, yet do not hurry. Do not turn your face away from one you know, nor be blind to one you have seen. Above all, do not betray the one who petitions you now. Abandon your reticence and speak. I have spent many hours pleading with you, but you have not listened to me. I shall now go and plead about you before Anubis.’

On hearing this, Rensi sent two men to bring the peasant to him. Khun-Anup was afraid that he had said too much too often, and that he would be punished for his rudeness. But Rensi, speaking at last, quickly set his mind at rest:

‘Do not be afraid my friend, but stay here with me and listen to all your petitions.’

And to Khun-Anup’s great amazement a scribe read out his words just as they had been copied down on nine lengthy papyrus scrolls. The scrolls were then sent to the court, where they gave King Nebkaure great pleasure.

The king ordered Rensi son of Meru to pass judgement. And Rensi found in Khun-Anup’s favour. Djehuty-Nakht was arrested, and all his goods confiscated and passed to the peasant whose eloquence had earned him the respect of the king.

It is finished …


Just one version of this remarkable story survives, recorded on a 19th Dynasty papyrus by the scribe Ennana. It starts out as a simple, almost believable account of two brothers and a faithless woman; a story highly reminiscent of the Biblical tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which is also set in Egypt, and not too different from the story of the high priest Webaoner and his faithless wife that we read in Papyrus Westcar. But from the point our hero leaves the controlled land of Egypt, the story evolves into a complex fantasy involving travel, gods, magic, another faithless woman and the resurrection of the dead.

The two brothers have the names of gods. Anubis is the jackal-headed funerary deity of the cemeteries and mummification rituals, while Bata is a version of Seth who is here heavily equated with the Canaanite storm god Baal. Bata’s self-emasculation is perhaps a reminder of the castration of Seth which follows the blinding of Horus.

Their story is partly set in Canaan, with Bata travelling from his homeland to the Valley of the Cedar before returning to become king of Egypt. The Valley is a real place – the story of the Battle of Kadesh tells us that Ramesses II also passed through the Valley of the Cedar en route to war. While Egyptologist Wolfgang Wettengel has suggested that the tale should be read as the story of the descent of Egypt’s Ramesside kings from the divine entity Seth/Bata, others have argued, with equal persuasion, that it is a parable, telling the story of the sun’s twenty-four-hour journey across the sky. The Ramesside kings certainly felt a very personal bond with Seth, the Red One, god of their eastern Delta hometown of Avaris. At least one of them – Ramesses II – is likely to have had red hair.

Hair certainly plays an important role in this story. As in our own culture, a clean, well-groomed head of hair – or an elaborate wig – was considered attractive and socially desirable in a woman, but the neat plaits would be loosened and the wig would be removed for comfort when the woman lay down to sleep. Neat hair signified control and the presence of maat, whereas disordered or unbound hair indicated chaos. This is made clear in the few illustrations showing women in labour – the ultimate loss of control, when the forces of life and death breach the security of the home – where the mothers-to-be adopt wild-looking, archaic hairstyles. Those in mourning tousle their hair, while women preparing to abandon themselves to wild love-making liberate their locks. Thus hair became inextricably linked with sexuality and lust and references to hair may be read as veiled references to eroticism. Bata’s faithless, anonymous wife is an Egyptian Pandora: purpose-made by the gods, she is fatally tempted by the luxuries offered by palace life. So seductive is the god-given scent of her hair that the king of Egypt is prepared to search the whole world for its owner.

Towards the end of the story Bata transforms into a bull who, by rather roundabout means, is able to impregnate the queen, who then gives birth to himself in a non-bull form. The link to the theology of the creator god as the ‘bull of his mother’, who effectively sires himself, would not have been lost on the original audience.

Once upon a time there were two brothers, born to the same mother and the same father. The elder brother was named Anubis, and the younger brother was named Bata. Anubis was a prosperous man with a house and a wife. Anubis cared for Bata as a father cares for a son, and Bata in turn worked hard for his brother, herding his cattle, ploughing his fields and harvesting his grain. Bata was an excellent and exceptionally handsome young man with the strength of a god; there was none so fine in the whole of Egypt.

Bata had a simple daily routine. He would rise at dawn and head for the fields with the cattle. Returning home at nightfall he would bring armfuls of good things; vegetables, milk and wood. These he would give to Anubis as he sat with his wife in the house. Bata would eat his evening meal, then leave to sleep in the barn with the animals. But Bata was no ordinary herdsman. He had an unusual and secret gift: he was able to speak to the cattle. By listening to their conversation he was able to find the best grazing lands, and so the cattle under his charge became the fattest and most fertile cattle in the land. Anubis did not know this secret, but was very pleased with the way his brother cared for the cattle.

When the time came to plough the fields Bata made all the preparations. Then Anubis left the house to work alongside his brother. They ploughed with light hearts, happy to be working together. But then Anubis realized that they had not brought enough seed with them and so he sent Bata home to collect some. Arriving at the house, Bata found his brother’s wife languidly plaiting her long hair. Disconcerted, he blurted out his instructions: ‘Get up and fetch me some seed, for Anubis is waiting in the fields. Don’t dawdle.’

But the wife did not move. ‘Go to the grain-store and fetch what you need yourself. Don’t make me leave my hairstyle unfinished.’

And so Bata went to the store and filled a large sack with barley and wheat seed. Hoisting the load on to his shoulder, he turned to leave the house. Once again he had to pass close by his sister-in-law.

‘How much grain are you carrying there?’ she asked.

Puzzled, Bata replied: ‘Three sacks of wheat and two sacks of barley, that is all. Why?’

‘Mmm …’ the wife continued, running an appraising glance over his sweating torso, ‘what well-developed muscles you have, and how strong you must be. I have been watching you work in the fields for many days, your bare chest exposed to the sun …’

To Bata’s intense alarm, she jumped to her feet and took hold of his arm.

‘Come, let us spend an hour lying together. You will enjoy it. And afterwards I will make you some fine new clothes.’

This proposal filled the honest Bata with the rage of a leopard, and his wanton sister-in-law was filled with fear.

‘How can you say such things? You are like a mother to me, and my beloved brother is my father. My older brother took me in as a child, and raised me. What you have suggested is repugnant to me. Never mention it again. And I in turn swear that I will not let one word of this disgraceful matter pass my lips.’

And turning on his heels he ran to the fields and resumed his work alongside Anubis. When evening came Anubis returned to the house. And Bata tended the cattle and drove them back to their barn.

Back at the house, the faithless wife had grown increasingly frightened. What if Bata were to tell Anubis of her attempted seduction? Quickly she smeared fat and grease over her body so that she looked like the victim of an assault. And when Anubis returned home he found his wife lying down, feigning illness. She did not bring the water to wash his hands and she had not lit the lamp, so the house was in darkness. Peering through the gloom, Anubis found his wife retching and groaning on her bed.

Anubis was horrified. ‘Who has done this terrible thing to you?’

‘No one has spoken to me except your brother Bata. When your brother came to collect some seed for you he saw me sitting alone. He suggested that I lie with him, and asked me to loosen my hairstyle, but of course I refused. I reminded him that I have raised him as a mother, and that you have raised him as a father. Hearing this he became frightened and beat me, to stop me telling you this sorry tale. Now, if you let him live, I shall surely die. You must kill him at once, when he comes home.’

Anubis was filled with the hot rage of a leopard. He sharpened his spear to a fine point, then stood patiently behind the barn door, waiting for Bata’s return. As night fell, Bata made his way back to the barn, his arms loaded with produce and his cattle walking before him. But as the first cow entered the barn she stopped, and spoke.

‘Be very careful. Your brother is hiding behind the door, and he intends to kill you with his spear. You must run away.’

A second cow entered behind the first, and spoke the very same words.

‘Be very careful. Your brother Anubis is hiding behind the door, and he intends to kill you with his spear. You must run away.’

Mystified, Bata looked under the door, and caught a glimpse of his brother’s feet. Realizing that the cows were speaking the truth, he dropped his load and fled. And Anubis, enraged, charged after him brandishing his spear.

Bata prayed aloud as he ran: ‘Great God Re-Horakhty, you can distinguish right from wrong. Help me now.’

And Re, moved by Bata’s plight, caused a great river of crocodile-infested water to spring up between the two brothers. They now stood facing each other in the gathering gloom, one on the left bank, and one on the right. Anubis was furious with himself, for he had failed to kill Bata. Then Bata shouted across the watery divide. ‘Wait there, and when the Aten rises we will sort this matter out, with the sun as our witness. Then I shall leave your house and be with you no more, for I shall travel to the Valley of the Cedar.’

Eventually the long night ended and Re-Horakhty rose. The two brothers stared at each other across the waters, and Bata asked his brother why he had attempted to murder him without listening to his side of the story: ‘For when you sent me to fetch the seed, your wife attempted to seduce me and I resisted her, yet somehow, in your eyes, the true sequence of events has been distorted.’

He told Anubis the whole sorry tale, ending with an oath shouted out before Re-Horakhty: ‘You have no reason to kill me, save the word of a dirty whore.’ And taking a reed dagger, Bata hacked off his own penis and threw it into the water. A catfish swallowed the penis, and Bata grew weak from loss of blood. Anubis, stranded on the opposite bank of the crocodile-infested river, could only weep for his young brother, for now he believed his story, but could not cross the waters to comfort him.

Then Bata cried out again: ‘You find it easy enough to believe ill of me – can you not search your heart and remember some good deed that I have done for you instead? Go back to your home, and look after your cattle. For I can no longer live with you, but must go to the Valley of the Cedar. I ask just one thing of you. If you learn that something bad has happened to me, come and look after me. I shall take out my heart, and place it in the blossom of the topmost bough of the tallest cedar tree in the Valley. If that tree should fall, come and search for my heart. Do not stop looking, even if it takes you seven years or more. And when you find it, place it in a bowl of cool water. For thus I will live again to avenge those who have wronged me. You will know that something bad has happened to me when the jug of beer in your hand starts to foam and froth. Do not ignore this sign, but come at once to help me.’

Bata turned away from his brother, and set off on his lonely journey to the Valley of the Cedar. And Anubis wiped away his tears and returned home grieving, his hands raised to his head and his skin smeared with the mud of mourning. He killed his faithless wife and threw her body to the dogs. Then he sat for many days mourning his loss.

Many days later Bata reached the Valley of the Cedar. All alone, he spent his days hunting game in the desert. At night he always returned to sleep beneath the great cedar tree that held his heart. Soon, his strength restored, he started to build himself a house besides the great pine, for he longed to start a family.

One day Bata met the Ennead – the nine great gods – as they walked about, ruling the entire world. The gods stopped to speak to him.

‘O Bata, the lies told by your brother’s wife have caused you to flee your home town, and now you live here all alone, isolated from your family and friends. But cheer up, Anubis has killed his faithless wife, and thus you are avenged.’

Understanding Bata’s loneliness, Re-Horakhty ordered Khnum to make a companion for him, and this the god did. The woman made by Khnum for Bata was more beautiful and more fragrant than any woman in the entire land. Then the seven Hathors came to forecast her fate: ‘She shall die by the executioner’s blade.’

The beautiful woman moved into Bata’s splendid house, and into his heart. He desired her with every fibre of his being but he had cut off his penis, and was impotent. On his orders the woman spent her days in the shade of his house while he went out into the hot sun, hunting game for them both to eat. The woman chafed against her confinement, but Bata would not allow her to go outside, for he was worried that she might be snatched by the cruel sea and ‘If that were to happen, I could not rescue you, for I am a woman just like you. I tell you this. My heart lies in the blossom of the topmost bough of the tallest cedar tree in the Valley. If anyone finds it there, I shall fight him to the death.’

One hot, dull day, while Bata was, as usual, out hunting, the woman strolled in the shade of the great cedar tree. Then she saw the sea surging towards her. She ran for the safety of the house, and nearly made it, but the sea called out to the cedar tree, ‘Catch her for me.’ And the cedar tree snatched a lock of the woman’s hair, and gave it to the sea. The sea carried the hair all the way to the Nile, and dropped it in the waters used by the palace washermen. And thus the scent of the woman’s hair perfumed the king of Egypt’s clothes. No one knew what the exotic new scent could be. The king quizzed the washermen, who angrily denied using any new products. Everyone remained baffled until the chief laundryman discovered the lock of perfumed hair still floating in the waters of the washing pool. The king’s most learned scribes soon identified the tress: ‘It is the hair of the most beautiful woman ever made, a daughter of Re-Horakhty. It has been sent to you as a greeting from another country. Send your men to search the whole world for her. Look everywhere, but pay particular attention to the Valley of the Cedar. You can collect this treasure, and she shall be yours.’

And so it was done. The men set out to search the whole world and came back empty-handed; only the men sent to the Valley of the Cedar failed to return, for Bata had killed them, leaving just one alive. The king of Egypt tried again. This time he sent not only troops and chariots, but also an older, experienced woman who could tempt the unworldly younger woman with clothing, jewellery and feminine trinkets. The woman was successful in her mission, and the king of Egypt was delighted with his prize. He married the young woman, and made her his queen. Then he quizzed her about Bata, but all she would say was, ‘Cut down and chop up the great cedar tree that grows outside his house.’

The king’s troops returned to the Valley of the Cedar and hacked down the great tree that held Bata’s heart. Instantly, Bata died.

The next day, in a land far away, Anubis came home from the fields. He washed his hands, then called for a jug of beer. But as soon as the beer was placed in his hands it started to foam and froth. Alarmed, Anubis called for a jug of wine which turned sour in his grasp. Then he understood what he must do. He packed his bag, laced his sandals, took up his staff and set off for the Valley of the Cedar. Here he soon found his brother’s house and, inside, his brother lying dead on his bed. Anubis wept over Bata’s body. Then he set to work. For three years he searched in vain for Bata’s heart. Just as he was about to give up he found a pinecone, and somehow he knew that this was the thing he had been searching for. Anubis dropped the pinecone into a bowl of cool water, and then sat beside Bata’s bier to watch what might happen.

As night fell the heart inside the cone absorbed the water and Bata’s stiff body shuddered and jerked. Bata’s dead eyes rolled towards his brother, and Anubis held out the bowl so that Bata might drink from it. Thus Bata’s heart made its way to its proper place, and Bata was alive once again. The brothers embraced each other, and talked throughout the night. For Bata had a plan to revenge himself on those who had betrayed him:

‘I shall transform myself into a bull, the most beautiful, multicoloured bull ever seen, and you can ride upon my back. By sunrise we will have reached the place where my wife is. You must present me to the king of Egypt. He will welcome the gift of the splendid bull, and you will receive a great reward of silver and gold. You can then return home, leaving me behind.’

The plan was carried out in every detail. The king of Egypt was enormously pleased with the magnificent gift, and Anubis was soon on his way home, a wealthy man. Meanwhile, Bata remained in the palace disguised as the multicoloured bull. As the king’s favourite, he was permitted to roam from room to room.

One day the bull entered the kitchen where the king’s beautiful young wife stood. And he began to talk to her:

‘See, despite all your efforts, I am still alive.’

‘Who are you?’ gasped the queen, horrified.

‘I am Bata. I know that it was you who told the king to chop down the cedar tree, and I know that you must have done this because you wanted me dead. But look, I am alive again. Not a man this time, but a bull.’

Hearing this, the queen was terrified.

The king of Egypt sat down to a splendid banquet with his beautiful young wife. She poured him many drinks, and he grew increasingly pleased with her. Then she murmured: ‘Husband, will you promise me something before the gods?’

‘Anything you want.’

‘I want you to sacrifice the great multicoloured bull that wanders around the palace, and I want to eat his liver. After all, he is a beast with no practical use.’

The king heard these words with a heavy heart, for he was fond of his magnificent bull, but he had promised. So the next day he ordered his steward to make the sacrifice. The bull was killed, and as he died two drops of blood flew from his neck. One landed on the left doorpost of the palace, and one landed on the right. Instantly, two tall persea trees grew from the blood to stand straight and beautiful before the palace. This marvel caused great celebrations throughout the whole of Egypt, and the king himself rode out in his golden chariot to view the trees. The queen, too, came out to see the wonder. And as the king sat in the shade of one tree, she sat under the other.

Then Bata spoke again to his wife: ‘Greetings, faithless one. I am your husband, Bata. In spite of all you have done, I am still alive. I know that it was you who told the king to chop down the cedar tree, and I know that it was you who told the king to sacrifice the magnificent bull.’

The desperate queen knew what she had to do. A few days later, as she again poured wine for her doting husband, she spoke in a sweet voice:

‘Husband, will you promise me something before the gods?’

‘Anything you want.’

‘I want you to cut down the two great persea trees that stand at the portal of the palace, and I want you to use their wood to make exquisite furniture.’

The king listened with a heavy heart, for he was fond of his beautiful trees, but a promise was a promise. So the next day he ordered the carpenters to set to work. The queen stood watching as both trees crashed to the ground. And a splinter flew upwards and entered her mouth, and she became pregnant with Bata.

Nine months later the queen gave birth to a fine and healthy son. Delighted with the new arrival, the king decreed that there should be celebrations throughout the whole land. The king immediately appointed the boy viceroy of Kush. And eventually he became crown prince, his father’s sole heir. When the old king died the prince took his place on the throne of Egypt. Then the new king spoke. ‘Have all the high officials brought before me, so that I might tell them my story.’ And it was done.

Next the faithless wife was brought in, and Bata judged her before the whole court. Finally Anubis appeared before the court. To reward his loyalty, Bata appointed his brother crown prince. And when Bata eventually died after thirty years on the throne, it was Anubis who ruled in his place. Thus everything ended happily.


Like Anubis and Bata, Truth and Falsehood are brothers. But theirs is a bitter, unhappy relationship more akin to the relationship between Osiris and Seth. Their story is an elaborate allegory dealing with the restoration of maat. It provides us with an interesting, if exaggerated, view of the Egyptian judicial system. In particular, it introduces us to the idea of compensation payments, and to the use of court-sanctioned physical punishments.

The lost beginning of this 19th Dynasty tale would have told us that Falsehood once lent his brother Truth a fantastic dagger. For some reason Truth failed to return the dagger, and so Falsehood denounced him before the court of the gods. As we join the trial, Falsehood is describing his lost property, the like of which has never been seen before. Clearly, Falsehood is exaggerating:

‘All the copper of Mount El went into its blade; all the timber in the Koptos wood was carved into its haft. Its sheath was the size of a rock-cut tomb; its belt was sewn from all the hides of the herd of Kal. And Truth has lost this most precious blade. Let Truth now be brought before you, and let him be blinded in both eyes in punishment. Then let him serve as my doorkeeper as a permanent reminder of his crime.’

The Ennead, judging Truth guilty, did as Falsehood asked.

One day Falsehood suddenly realized how truly good his brother was. And this realization disturbed him. So Falsehood summoned Truth’s servants. He ordered them to lead their blind master into the desert where he might be eaten by a wild lion with many hungry lionesses. The servants did as Falsehood commanded, and Truth was led away. But Truth realized what was happening and pleaded with his servants to let him go. This they did, because they loved Truth and hated Falsehood. The servants returned home and lied to Falsehood, telling him that they had actually watched as a hungry lion devoured Truth.

Many days later a lady came out of her house accompanied by her servants. The servants found Truth lying under a bush, and were impressed by his muscular phys