Main Treasury of Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Monsters & Mortals (National...

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The new National Geographic Treasury of Egyptian Mythology is a stunning tableau of Egyptian myths, including those of pharaohs, queens, the boisterous Sun God Ra, and legendary creatures like the Sphinx. The lyrical storytelling of award-winning author Donna Jo Napoli dramatizes the timeless tales of ancient Egypt in the year when Angelina Jolie will make Cleopatra a multimedia star. And just like the popular National Geographic Treasury of Greek Mythology, the stories in this book will be beautifully illustrated to bring ancient characters vividly to life. The stories are embellished with sidebars that provide historical, cultural, and geographic context and a mapping feature that adds to the fun and fascination. Resource notes and ample back matter direct readers to discover more about ancient Egypt. With its attractive design and beautiful narrative, this accessible treasury stands out from all other mythology titles in the marketplace.
Abstract: The new National Geographic Treasury of Egyptian Mythology is a stunning tableau of Egyptian myths, including those of pharaohs, queens, the boisterous Sun God Ra, and legendary creatures like the Sphinx. The lyrical storytelling of award-winning author Donna Jo Napoli dramatizes the timeless tales of ancient Egypt in the year when Angelina Jolie will make Cleopatra a multimedia star. And just like the popular National Geographic Treasury of Greek Mythology, the stories in this book will be beautifully illustrated to bring ancient characters vividly to life. The stories are embellished with sidebars that provide historical, cultural, and geographic context and a mapping feature that adds to the fun and fascination. Resource notes and ample back matter direct readers to discover more about ancient Egypt. With its attractive design and beautiful narrative, this accessible treasury stands out from all other mythology titles in the marketplace
Year:
2013
Edition:
1
Publisher:
National Geographic Kids
Language:
english
Pages:
192
ISBN 10:
1426318618
ISBN 13:
9781426318610
Series:
National Geographic Kids
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EPUB, 148.66 MB
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Bastet: Bastet was worshipped as a protector against evil spirits and diseases. But she was also simply a kitty, and Egyptians kept cats as favored pets from the Middle Kingdom on.

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BASTET (BAST)

Cat Goddess

The cosmos was full of animals. But some were better than others.

The bull. Ah, the ancient auroch bull. They originated in India and over the millennia galloped across to northern Africa and Europe. They were enormous, taller than a man at the withers. Their lyre-shaped horns angled forward, perfect for tossing away an attacker. Or impaling him.

The cows and calves were red, but the bulls were kohl-black with a pale-eel spinal stripe that lent a majestic air, marking them as the most lethal of beasts. Not even a lion pride would take on an auroch bull. Hunting them took great courage or stupidity. Domesticating them took smarts and patience.

It made sense then that the gods Ra and Ptah transformed themselves at will into bulls and snorted and pawed the earth to remind everyone of their power. The ability of transformation was a lovely thing indeed.

When it came down to the basics, all deities had similar bodies, really; all were made of precious stones. The bones were silver; the flesh, gold; the hair, lapis lazuli. But divine beings could assume other colors because of associations. Usir’s skin was black-green, to remind people of the rich, fertile soil left behind after the Nile’s floods receded. Ra’s skin was blue when he felt victorious and took on the name Amun-Ra and let swirls of air shoot up from his hands and head, all so that people would think of the destructive powers of wild winds.

Many carried the same objects—a was-scepter in one hand, with a forked bottom designed to catch serpents, and an ankh in the other, the cross with a loop on top. A few carried objects unique to them, though, such as the scribal palette of Tehuti, or objects that showed their nature, such as bow and arrows or a mace in the hand of the goddess Nit or the war god Montu.

Yet; , the gods didn’t all present themselves the same way to humans. The deities’ ability to transform meant sometimes people didn’t realize they were in the presence of a deity until something miraculous occurred.

Some deities refrained from transforming, and walked in human form only. Most older deities were like that—Shu and Nut and Geb. Geb often carried a goose on his head, but he didn’t become a goose. Even Nebet Hut and Aset, the daughters of Geb and Nut, appeared only in human form, although sometimes Aset donned bird wings.


Animal Worship

Many ancient cultures worshipped animals; some scholars believe that’s Egypt’s influence. Still, Egypt was special in worshipping so many animals. Scholars often say the reason for such worship is fear. Perhaps by praying to crocodiles, hippopotami, lions, serpents, people would be spared danger from those animals. But why a cat or frog? Maybe Bastet fended off disease because cats are good at catching vermin. And perhaps frogs ensured plentiful sweet water, since most frogs live in it.

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A bronze and gold statue of the Goddess Bastet



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An assembly of the gods made quite a vision of sleek and scary animals and humans. But the kitty Bastet stood out as always approachable, useful, and, harmless. What a relief.

Other deities appeared in animal form only. The goddess Heket, the wife of Khnum, was a frog. The city of Ineb-Hedj worshipped a bull god called Hapu, the herald of the god Ptah. Lower Egypt worshipped the serpent goddess Wadjet.

Some deities appeared in mixed-animal form. The goddess Taweret had the torso and head of a hippopotamus, but lion limbs, and sometimes her tail was crocodilian while other times she carried a crocodile on her back.

But many gods appeared in multiple forms. The god Sobek was a man with a crocodile head or, instead, fully crocodile. The god Set could appear as a fabulous creature, with squared-off ears, a curved snout, a forked tail, and a canine body. He seemed a blend of aardvark, jackal, and donkey. But sometimes he was a man with only the head of this amazing animal. Upper Egypt worshipped the goddess Nekhbet, who could be fully woman, fully vulture, or a woman with a vulture head.

The ability of the deities to appear in different forms helped distinguish among them. Tehuti, for example, was the only god that appeared as an ibis or with an ibis head.

A god’s appearance reflected his temperament of the moment. Hut Heru could go as a woman with a cow head, nurturing and milky, except when the goddess Sekhmet within her burst forth as a woman with a lion head, or fully lioness. We find the heads or bodies of rams and falcons and vultures and cows and serpents and so many animals all hosting deities, depending on their moods.

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Gods appeared in many forms: human, animal, a hybrid of both. Sometimes they were even a mix of several forms. Imagine looking at a frog and wondering, “Is she Heket?”

But only one goddess was a cat: Bastet. Many went as lions, revered out of fear. But the cat was appreciated out of admiration and affection. Farmers loved cats because they protected grain stores from rodents and snakes. Especially cobras. Oh, mongooses could kill cobras, too, so Maftet, the mongoose goddess, was sometimes mistaken for a cat. But it was only Bastet who purred.

City people, too, encouraged cats to come around. Cats kept the streets free of vermin, after all. And there was a mystery to the cat, the way it stayed aloof at times, yet could be endearingly friendly at others—this behavior made the cat prized. Besides, cats loved to bask in the all-powerful sun; they clearly understood the cosmos.

Rich people hung gold jewelry from the neck of their cats and fed them from their plates—bread, milk, fish slices. When a cat died, the owners shaved their eyebrows in mourning and embalmed the cat with spices and drugs and mummified it in white linen, to preserve it for the everlasting. The penalty for killing a cat, even by accident, was death. Priests had cats roam temples to remind people of the goddess Bastet. When the city of Per-Bast, in the Nile delta, became a residence for the pharaoh, a temple to Bastet was built. It was smaller than some, but more beautiful than all others, with a canal around it and groves of fruit trees. Thousands of people made the annual pilgrimage to Per-Bast in April and May to gaze in awe at the massive statue of Bastet. Women shook sistrum rattles and men blew pipes and beat drums and played tambourines. People clapped and sang and danced in the streets, which ran with wine.

All this for Bastet—just a kitty. But a loved kitty is worth a dozen feared lions.



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BIBLIOGRAPHY

The sources most often used are:


Allen, Thomas George. The Book of the Dead or the Book of Going Forth by Day: Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians Concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in Their Own Terms. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1974.

Atiya, Farid S. Ancient Egypt. Giza, Egypt: Farid Atiya Press, 2006.

Baines, J. “Egyptian Myth and Discourse: Myth, Gods, and the Early Written and Iconographic Record.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 50 (1991): 81-105.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Book of the Dead. Garsington, UK: Benediction Books, 2010. First published in 1895 by the British Museum, London.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt. Kila, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010. First published in 1934 by Oxford University Press.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Gods of the Egyptians, Volumes I and 2. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1969. First published in 1904 by the Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, and Methuen & Company, London.

Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Warminster: Aris and Phillips Ltd., 1973–1978.

Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Goebs, Katja. “A Functional Approach to Egyptian Myths and Themes.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 2 (2002): 27-59.

Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. First published in London.

Hart, George. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volumes I-III. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973–1980.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian Mythology. Santa Barbara: University of California Press, 2002.

Simpson, William Kelley, ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, 3rd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.

Van Dijk, Jacobus. “Myth and Mythmaking in Ancient Egypt.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Volume III, 1697–1709, edited by Jack M. Sasson. New York: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.



 

Many other texts were consulted, both for overviews and for details, including:


Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Allen, Troy D. The Ancient Egyptian Family: Kinship and Social Structure. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Anderson, Kay, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, and Nigel Thrift. Handbook of Cultural Geography. London: Sage Publications, 2003.

Asante, Molefi K. and Ama Mazama. Encyclopedia of African Religion, Volume 1. London: Sage Publications, 2008.

Boylan, Patrick. Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922.

Breyer, Michelle. Ancient Egypt. Westminster, Calif.: Teacher Created Resources, 1996.

Crum, Walter E. A Coptic Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939.

David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt, revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Drobnick, Jim, ed. The Smell Culture Reader. London: Berg Publishers, 2006.

Dunand, Françoise, Roger Lichtenberg, and David Lorton. Mummies and Death in Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Dunand, Françoise, and Christiane Zivie-Coche. Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Garry, Jane, and Hasan M. El-Shamy, eds. Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 2005.

Grimal, Nicolás-Christophe. English translation. A History of Ancient Egypt. London: Blackwell, 1992.

Hornung, Erik. History of Ancient Egypt: An Introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Kassing, Gayle. History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2007.

Keene, John Harrington. Fishing Tackle: Its Materials and Manufacture. New York: Ward, Lock and Co. Made available in 2008 by Amazon’s online publishing: CreateSpace. First published in 1886.

Kerr, Christine, and Janice Hoshino. Family Art Therapy: Foundations of Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Layton, Bentley. A Coptic Grammar. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000.

Lee, Raymond L. and Alistair B. Fraser. The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Littleton, C. Scott. Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology, Volume 11. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2005.

Lucas, Alfred. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 3rd ed. Timperly, Altrincham: The St. Ann’s Press, 1948.

Maspero, Gaston, and A. H. Sayce. History of Egypt, Parts 1 and 2. Reprinted. Kila, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2003.

Massey, Gerald. Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World. Sioux Falls, S. Dak.: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2008.

Meeks, Dimitri, and Christine Favard-Meeks. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Moore, George Foot. History of Religions, Volume 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.

Muller, W. Max. Egyptian Mythology. Norwood, Mass.: The Plimpton Press, 1918.

Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Potts, Albert M. The World’s Eye. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

Radcliffe, William. Fishing From the Earliest Times. Chicago Ridge: Ares Publishers, 1921.

Redmount, Carol A. “Ethnicity, Pottery, and the Hyksos at Tell El-Maskhuta in the Egyptian Delta.” Biblical Archaeologist 58 (1995): 188.

Remler, Pat. Egyptian Mythology A to Z. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2000.

Renouf, P. Le Page. The Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of Ancient Egypt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880.

Sayce, A. H. The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1902.

Schomp, Virginia. The Ancient Egyptians. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish, 2007.

Shafer, Byron E., ed. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Shorter, Alan W. The Egyptian Gods: A Handbook. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1937.

Smith, William Stevenson, and William Kelly Simpson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Taylor, John. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Traunecker, Claude. The Gods of Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Van De Mieroop, Marc. A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Van Sertima, Ivan. Black Women in Antiquity. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1988.

Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Lives of the Ancient Egyptians. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Wilkinson, Toby A. H. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010.






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Tehuti: Tehuti was expansive. He was the helmsman of Ra’s boats, he gave wise advice to gods who were in trouble, and he taught humans to write and to understand the science of the earth and the skies.

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TEHUTI (THOTH)

God of Knowledge

It’s not easy being Ra’s tongue, Tehuti could attest to that. Others interpreted his words as the sun god’s wishes alone, as though Tehuti were but an instrument.

The truth was, without Tehuti, Ra couldn’t make it through a day. Tehuti stood at the prow of the boat Manjet as it crossed the sky, while Ra went from being a newborn hardly bigger than a scarab hatching from dung, to a youth strong and bold as a falcon, to an old man the wind could toss. So Tehuti’s responsibility for guiding the boat expanded as the daylight shrank.

Oh, Tehuti wasn’t alone in that job. Ma’at, the spirit of cosmic balance and a child of Ra, also rode the boat. Though the goddess Ma’at was only an idea, she supported Tehuti in tasks. Tehuti loved Ma’at as his partner. In a sense, they were wed.

Others sometimes entered the boat—gods, animals—but as passengers, along for the ride.

In evening, Ma’at shared a dreadful task with Tehuti. That’s when the old man Ra traveled the twelve caverns of the underworld Duat in the boat Mesektet, going now from west to east. Hungry serpentine monsters infested the waters, and the old man Ra was too feeble, in body and heart, to conquer them. Ma’at spied the monsters; Tehuti veered around them.

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Apep is the beast that inhabits our worst nightmares. And he was that to Ra, as well, for he reappeared every night, threatening shipwreck and, thus, the end of time.

But every night when they reached the ninth cavern, Apep attacked. Apep was the worst creature imaginable, without eyes, ears, nose. Nothing scared this nearly insensate demon. His breath was a roar of terror. Nightly Ra and Ma’at and Tehuti fought Apep until Apep sprayed poison into Ra’s eyes. Then Tehuti wiped Ra’s eyes clear so he could spear Apep through his iron scales into his pitiless heart; the monster’s blood then spurted up and up and colored the sky rosy, the backdrop for Ra’s reappearance as newborn dawn.

Tehuti sang his victory, like baboons sing at the rising sun. Sometimes he got so carried away he took baboon form himself.

The god Set claimed it was he who fought Apep each night, the liar. The vanquishing of darkness, the coming of light—all that depended on Tehuti.

And it wasn’t just the day’s cycle that Tehuti ensured; he made the year’s cycle work. In the beginning, the year was 360 days, and the waters of Nun were sterile. But Tehuti played a high-stakes dice game with the moon god Khonsu. He won, and got a seventy-secondth of the moon’s light: five days. Over those days, Nun was fertile; the first deities were created. In gratitude to Khonsu, Tehuti curved his ibis bill to match the crescent moon’s shape.

Looked at from a certain perspective then, Tehuti was creator of the cosmos, not Ra. Tehuti would never voice this, of course. But facts were facts.

Tehuti served whoever needed him. He was aware of what could go wrong—he heard the waiting phantoms of pandemonium calmly licking their chops. Their appetites must never be satiated.

Tehuti convinced Tefnut to come back to Egypt after Ra had refused to show her fair appreciation. He spoke with reason; that’s all it took.

It was Tehuti, always Tehuti, who solved the problem, whatever the problem. When Set ripped Usir into 14 pieces and Aset could find only 13, Tehuti whispered to her sounds to make Usir whole and alive long enough to conceive Heru Sa Aset. Then he protected Aset during pregnancy. And when Heru Sa Aset fought with Set for 80 years, Tehuti maintained the power balance. If one gravely injured the other, Tehuti’s words healed the underdog. Once Tehuti recovered all but a small fraction of the eye Set had gouged out of Heru Sa Aset, and once he brought fatally wounded Heru Sa Aset back to life. Tehuti restored order. That was the bottom line. He honored Ma’at; Tehuti was god of wisdom.


Hieroglyph Records

Tax records in hieroglyphs date back to 3300 B.C., and many later hieroglyphs exist as well. But scholars could not decipher them. Then in 1799 scholars studied a stone slab with parallel texts in Greek, Demotic (the script of late Egyptian), and hieroglyphs. The first two scripts helped decipher hieroglyphs. Some hieroglyphs stood for sounds, some stood for meanings, and some distinguished between homophones. That’s why the code was hard to crack—it was complex.

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The Rosetta Stone inscribed with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, among other writings



In his wisdom he gave people words, to philosophize and pray. He gave them hieroglyphs, to record when, where, why, how, who—to keep track of history. He taught them numbers to calculate the layout of the heavens, the stars, the earth, and all within them, and to understand astronomy. He helped them look around objectively, so they could know—not just imagine; he gave them science.

One might conclude Tehuti was the most important god—for isn’t wisdom the most important virtue? And if one did, Tehuti might agree. But he would never say it; he was far too wise.


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Inpu: Inpu loved the stealthy ways of the desert dogs. He followed them and soon his head looked like theirs, only black. Sometimes he took the form of a canine completely.

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INPU (ANUBIS)

God of Mummification

Inpu was only a small boy when he discovered the pleasures of the wild. It all started because of his mother Nebet Hut. She doted on him lavishly, but also furtively, as though her love for him had to be kept secret. That’s how he learned to be stealthy, copying the way she stepped, moved, breathed. That’s how he became expert at following the animals.

He loved the desert dogs best. Maybe because the dogs themselves were stealthy, that gold fur blending with the sands, even as they worked cooperatively to take down a prey. Or maybe it was because the dogs so obviously enjoyed eating. They even ate fruits, scorned by desert cats. Inpu wasn’t omnivorous, of course, but he liked that enthusiasm. Or maybe it was because the dogs had scruples. If they were going to kill an animal to eat, they consistently chose old or sick animals—ones who would die soon anyway. Or newborns. Which might seem gruesome, but, really, newborns were the prey of so many animals; if a mother let her newborn out of sight, the babe was almost sure to get eaten by something. The point was, desert dogs never attacked a strong animal that had a good chance of many more years of life. They weren’t ugly about death—they weren’t brutal like lions and crocodiles.

Desert dogs ate carrion, too. They gathered at cemeteries and even dug up corpses and ate them. That was hideous, of course. But understandable, given their bestial natures.

The long hours trailing behind desert dogs brought Inpu in contact with death over and over. He thought about it; he dwelled on it. Some deaths seemed almost merciful, some ruthless, some random. He noted that discussions of death are intrinsically intertwined with discussions of life and of how one manages one’s way through the ever-changing needs and choices we all face. So it came as no surprise to his parents Set and Nebet Hut when Inpu announced he was going to the underworld Duat to preside over the dead.

Inpu assumed the head of a desert dog and sometimes even the whole body, just in the color black instead of gold. Black was the color of Duat. But it was also the color of the fertile soil along the Nile banks, the soil from which life came. It was the right color. He went about the business of ruling Duat. So far so good, in Inpu’s life.


Canines and Felines

Dogs and cats have been pets since ancient times, but they differ in biology and behavior. Dogs belong to the canine family, which is omnivorous. Canines are sociable and cooperative, often living in packs. Cats belong to the feline family, which is carnivorous. Your cat will turn up his nose at pumpkin pie, while your dog will wolf it down. Felines are usually solitary. Cats were sacred to ancient Egyptians; dogs were valued for guarding and hunting.

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A wooden sarcophagus showing a man walking his pet dog



Then, for no reason at all, his father Set killed his truly wonderful uncle Usir, behaving in the most despicable of ways, drawing out the drama like so much ripped flesh. Inpu went fragile inside. He wrinkled his snout, holding in howls of loss and confusion. His aunt Aset—who was beyond compare, the sweet wind that refreshes—plunged into a secretive and solitary state. His own mother Nebet Hut disappeared for long periods. No one seemed to care about Inpu at all. That nearly drove him crazy.

But at least Inpu had his beloved uncle again. Usir came to Duat and Inpu embalmed him himself. Then he behaved as a loyal nephew should: He stepped into the shadows and let his uncle Usir take over the more overarching role.

Inpu, instead, became the patron of orphans and other lost souls. He felt at ease with them, as though he belonged. And he oversaw funeral rites.

Inpu was actually grateful Usir had come to the underworld. Preparing a soul was one thing, judging it was another. Inpu never begrudged abdicating the throne of Duat to Usir.

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Inpu was at home in the underworld, serving souls who felt as lost as he had when he walked aboveground, and aiding Usir, his uncle, or maybe, maybe, his father.



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TIME LINE OF ANCIENT EGYPT

THROUGH THE FINAL DYNASTY

circa 7000 B.C.

The earliest settlers came to the Nile valley.

7000 B.C.–3900 B.C.

Many villages arose in the Nile delta. People hunted, fished, and practiced agriculture. Housing consisted of mud huts. Pottery had decorative illustrations or geometric patterns, and often was painted, first with white and later with reds.

3900 B.C.–3050 B.C.

People developed papyrus scrolls, metal tools and weapons, and gold, silver, and copper jewelry. Linen was developed (the first record of linen sails for boats is circa 3200 B.C.). Many local deities were worshipped, most having animal heads and human bodies.

3050 B.C.–2950 B.C.
Archaic Period (Dynasty 0*):

Village kings banded together into Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Local deities were replaced by the universal gods of the Great Pesedjet. Many stone vessels from this time have been preserved. (*The “zero” dynasty was discovered later, after the others had already been numbered, hence it was simply tacked on as zero.)

2950 B.C.–2575 B.C.
Early Dynastic Period (1st through 3rd Dynasties):

Domestic and foreign trade flourished. Upper and Lower Egypt unified under the Pharaoh Den in 2880 B.C.

2575 B.C.–2125 B.C. Old Kingdom (4th through 8th Dynasties):

The time of the pyramids. The great pyramids were constructed circa 2500 B.C.

2125 B.C.–2010 B.C.
1st Intermediate Period (9th through 11th Dynasties):

This era was riddled with civil war in the region.

2010 B.C.–1630 B.C.
Middle Kingdom (12th and 13th Dynasties):

Another period of unification. Circa 1800 B.C. the Hyksos people of western Asia began moving into the eastern Nile delta. The Hyksos brought new crops and new breeds of domesticated animals, and introduced the horse and chariot. They took power at the end of the 13th Dynasty, which would result in the 2nd Intermediate Period.

1630 B.C.–1539 B.C.
2nd Intermediate Period (14th through 17th Dynasties):

Another period of civil war.

1539 B.C.–1069 B.C.
New Kingdom (18th through 20th Dynasties):

A period of unification, during which Nubia, to the south, was taken over.

1069 B.C.–664 B.C.
3rd Intermediate Period (21st through 25th Dynasties):

A period of internal conflict and invasions. The Libyans from the northwest took control during the 22nd Dynasty. The Kushites from the west then invaded, and gained power from the Libyans. The Assyrians from Mesopotamia invaded multiple times, and finally brought down the 25th Dynasty.

664 B.C.–332 B.C.
Late Period (26th through 31st Dynasties):

Egypt reunified under Assyrian rule and fought off the Babylonians. The Persians invaded once, and then again, remaining for the last 11 years.




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INDEX

Boldface indicates illustrations.

A

Abjad (writing system) 4.1, 4.2

Afterlife god see Usir

Agriculture itr.1, 5.1, 5.2, 10.1, 10.2, 16.1

Alphabet 4.1, 4.2

Ammit (embodiment of divine retribution)

Amset (human-headed god) 17.1, 19.1

Amun-Ra (god of victory) 14.1, 18.1, bm3.1

Anat (Syrian war goddess)

Animals

creation 2.1, 2.2

desert animals 6.1, 6.2

worship 18.1, 18.2

Ankh (symbol of life) 3.1, 18.1

Anubis see Inpu

Anuket (goddess)

Apep (god) 11.1, 11.2, 13.1, 15.1, 17.1

Architecture god see Imhotep

Aset (devoted wife and mother) 4.1

appearance

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

as fertility goddess

funeral ritual role 4.1, 19.1

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2, 9.1

grief over Usir 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4

helping human beings 3.1, 4.1, 13.1

Heru Sa Aset’s birth 4.1, 4.2

Heru Sa Aset’s challenge of Set 7.1, 17.1

Heru Sa Aset’s childhood 6.1, 6.2, 7.1

love for Usir 3.1, 3.2, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 5.1

love of lotus

Nebet Hut’s assistance 6.1, 6.2

as nursemaid 4.1, 4.2, 4.3

power of words

pregnancy 4.1, 4.2

Ra’s snakebite 4.1, 4.2, 9.1

recovering pieces of Usir’s body 4.1, 5.1, 17.1

stories about

as swallow 4.1, 4.2

as sweet wind that refreshes

tears causing Nile River flooding

Tefnut’s opinion of

Tehuti’s assistance

tjet (girdle)

Astarte (Syrian war goddess)

Atum

Auruch bulls

B

Ba (personal power) 19.1, 19.2

Bast see Bastet

Bastet (cat goddess) 18.1, 18.2, 18.3, bm2.1, bm2.2

Beer 6.1, 10.1, 14.1, 17.1

Beetles

Birds 2.1, 10.1

Book of the Dead bm3.1, bm3.2

Bull god see Hapu

Bulls

C

Camels 6.1, 6.2

Canopic jars 19.1, 19.2, bm3.1

Cat goddess see Bastet

Cats 8.1, 18.1

Cedar tree 4.1, 4.2

Childbirth 6.1, 13.1, 16.1

Children 7.1, 16.1, 16.2

Chnoumis see Khnum

Clay 10.1, 16.1

Cleopatra, Queen

Click beetles

Cloth and clothing 15.1, 15.2, 15.3, 15.4, 15.5

Cobras 1.1, 2.1, 2.2, 18.1

Coffins

Coins bm3.1

Colors, creation of

Creation story

Crocodile god see Sobek

Crocodiles 12.1, 17.1

D

Dance 13.1, 13.2, 13.3

Death, funeral rites 18.1

Delights goddess see Hut Heru

Desert animals

Djoser, Pharaoh

Dogs 8.1, 8.2

Drought 9.1, 20.1

Duamutef (jackal-headed god) 17.1, 19.1

Duat (underworld)

Inpu’s work 3.1, 8.1

journey of the dead 19.1, 19.2, 19.3

link to world of living

Ra’s travels 1.1, 11.1

Usir’s ruling role

Usir’s safety

E

Earth god see Geb

Egypt

history

map

protector (see Heru Wer)

time line

Envious god see Set

F

Falcons

Family and home 16.1, 16.2

Farming itr.1, 5.1, 5.2, 10.1, 10.2, 16.1

Feather, for judging the dead 19.1, 19.2

Fertility god see Sobek

Fish goddess see Hatmehyt

Fishing

Fishing god see Sobek

Food

ancient Egypt 17.1, 17.2

for the gods

in tombs

Funeral rites 18.1

G

Geb

appearance 18.1, 18.2

birth 1.1, 2.1, 9.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

children 2.1, 9.1

as earth 1.1, 1.2, 9.1

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2

Ra’s snakebite

Gods

number of

viewed as a whole

Great Pesedjet 2.1, 7.1, 9.1

H

Hapi (baboon-headed god) 17.1, 19.1

Hapu (bull god) 18.1, 18.2

Hathor see Hut Heru

Hatmehyt (fish goddess) 9.1, 10.1

Healing goddess see Sekhmet

Heket (frog goddess of creation) 16.1, 16.2, 16.3, 18.1, 18.2, 20.1

Helios see Ra

Heru Sa Aset (young warrior god and king) 7.1

birth 4.1, 4.2, 10.1, bm3.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

childhood 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 6.1, 6.2, 7.1, 17.1

confusion with Heru Wer

fight with Set 7.1, 7.2, 11.1, 13.1, 15.1, 17.1

funeral ritual role

as link to underworld

mothers

night vision

teaching humans to make weapons

Heru Wer (winged sun disk and protector of Egypt) 12.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

drinking for courage in battle

as embodiment of Ra

feeling unappreciated

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2, 9.1

role 9.1, bm3.1

sons 17.1, 17.2, 19.1, bm3.1

Temple 12.1

warfare 12.1, 12.2

Hierarchy of gods see Great Pesedjet

Hieroglyphs prf.1, prf.2, 11.1, 11.2, bm3.1

Hippo goddess see Taweret

Hippopotami

Honey 20.1, 20.2

Horus the Elder see Heru Wer

Horus the Younger see Heru Sa Aset

Household goddess see Nebet Hut

Human beings

afterlife

Aset’s help 3.1, 4.1

creation itr.1, 1.1, 1.2

cunningness

funeral rites 18.1

origins

Hunting 10.1, 10.2

Hunting goddess see Nit; Satet

Hut Heru (goddess of delights) 13.1

appearance 18.1, 18.2

assisting humans 10.1, 13.1

beer and wine 10.1, 17.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

duality with Sekhmet 14.1, 15.1

emergence as goddess

enriching the world 2.1

funeral ritual role

as lioness 13.1, 13.2, 14.1, 14.2, 18.1

Milky Way

as Ra’s new eye 2.1, 2.2

restoring Heru Sa Aset’s eyes 7.1, 7.2

similarity to Nit 15.1, 15.2

vengefulness 13.1, 13.2, 14.1

see also Sekhmet

I

Iaret 1.1, 2.1

Ibises prf.1, prf.2, 4.1, 11.1

Imhotep (god of medicine and architecture) 20.1

as architect 20.1, 20.2

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

as physician

Imuthes see Imhotep

Ineb Hedj, Egypt 14.1, 18.1, 20.1, bm3.1

Inpu (mummification god) 8.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

childhood

father

funeral ritual role 19.1, 19.2, 19.3, 19.4

judging the dead

love for dogs

love for Usir 3.1, 8.1

origins

work in Duat (underworld) 3.1, 5.1, 8.1, 8.2

Insects

Isis see Aset

Iunu, Egypt

K

Ka (body’s double)

Karnak Temple bm3.1

Kenaani (Phoenicians) 4.1, 4.2

Khent-min, Egypt

Khnum (god of the potter’s wheel) 16.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

creating humans 10.1, 14.1, 16.1

as fertility god 16.1, bm3.1

role in Ta-senet

teaching humans

wives 10.1, 16.1, 16.2, 16.3, 16.4

Khnum-Ra

Khonsu (moon god) 11.1, bm3.1

Khufu, Pharaoh

Knowledge god see Tehuti

Kubna (city)

palace 4.1, 4.2

queen 4.1, 4.2

Usir’s coffin 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, bm3.1

L

Language

Lotus 10.1, 14.1, 14.2

M

Ma’at (goddess of cosmic balance) 9.1, 11.1, 17.1, 19.1

Maftet (mongoose goddess) 18.1, 18.2

Maiherperi (noble)

Manjet (Ra’s boat) 1.1, 1.2, 11.1

Map

Mastabas (tombs) 20.1, 20.2, 20.3, 20.4

Medicine 20.1, 20.2

Medicine god see Imhotep

Mehet-Weret (tide) 13.1, 19.1

Menat (turquoise necklace)

Menhit (lion-headed war goddess) 16.1, 16.2, 16.3

Mesektet (Ra’s boat) 1.1, 11.1, 15.1

Milky Way

Min (god of masculine fertility) 16.1, bm3.1

Moisture goddess see Tefnut

Mongoose goddess see Maftet

Mummification 19.1, 19.2

Mummification god see Inpu

Mut (Amun-Ra’s wife)

Mut (goddess)

N

Names

of gods prf.1, 4.1

importance 4.1, 4.2, 19.1

secret names

Nebet Hut (service goddess) 6.1

appearance

assistance with childbirth 6.1, 13.1

assisting Aset 4.1, 6.1, 6.2, 7.1, 9.1

brewing beer

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

desert skills 6.1, 6.2

funeral ritual role

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2, 9.1

as household goddess

interlude with Ra

interlude with Usir 5.1, 6.1, 9.1

marriage to Set 3.1, 6.1

motherhood 6.1, 6.2, 8.1, bm3.1

night vision 6.1, 6.2, 7.1

Nebtu (goddess of desert oasis) 16.1, 16.2, 16.3

Necropolis

Nefertem (god) 14.1, 14.2, bm3.1

Neith see Nit

Nekhbet (goddess) 18.1, 18.2

Nekhen, Egypt

Nephthys see Nebet Hut

Nergal (Babylonian god)

Netjerikhet, Pharaoh see Djoser, Pharaoh

Nile River 9.1

clay 10.1, 20.1

fish

flooding 5.1, 5.2, 10.1, 10.2, 16.1

guardian

role in hunting

symbols from

Nine (number)

Nit (warrior goddess and weaver of the cosmos) 15.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

children 15.1, 17.1

duality 15.1, 15.2, 15.3, 15.4

funeral ritual role 19.1, 19.2

marriage 15.1, 16.1, 16.2, 16.3

self-creation

weaving 15.1, 15.2, 15.3

wisdom

Nubia 9.1

Nun (cosmos) 1.1, 11.1, 13.1, 15.1

Nut (sky goddess) 18.1

birth 1.1, 2.1, 9.1

birthing Ra

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

children 2.1, 9.1

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2

Ra’s snakebite

shape 1.1, 1.2, 2.1

as sky 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 9.1

O

Oasis goddess see Nebtu

Osiris see Usir

P

Papyrus 10.1, 10.2

Pesedjet see Great Pesedjet

Pharaohs 14.1, 20.1, 20.2

Phoenicia see Kenaani

Pomegranates 17.1

Pottery 10.1, 10.2, 16.1

Pottery god see Khnum

Protector of Egypt see Heru Wer

Ptah (god) 14.1, 18.1, 18.2, bm3.1

Pyramids 10.1, 10.2, 16.1, 20.1, 20.2, 20.3

Q

Qebehsenuef (falcon-headed god) 17.1, 19.1

R

Ra (god of radiance) 1.1

as bull

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

challenges to

in charge of seasons

as complement to Usir

creating all matter

creating animals 2.1, 2.2

creating colors

creating himself

creating human beings itr.1, 1.1, 1.2

creating other gods itr.1, 1.1, 2.1, 9.1, 15.1

creating rainbows

evil words against 13.1, 13.2, 14.1

eyes 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2, bm3.1

fatherhood 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 6.1, bm3.1

food

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2

importance

old age

rebirth

role

secret name

Set-Heru Sa Aset dispute

skin color

snakebite 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 9.1

storytelling

Tefnut’s anger 9.1, 9.2

threat from Apep 11.1, 11.2

tongue 2.1, 11.1

traveling to underworld

travels 1.1, 1.2

in triad 1.1

war with Set

see also Amun-Ra; Khnum-Ra; Ptah

Ra-Herakhty 2.1, 4.1

Ra-Khepra 2.1, 4.1

Radiance god see Ra

Rosetta Stone 11.1

S

Sachmis see Sekhmet

Satet (goddess) 10.1, 16.1, 16.2, 19.1, 19.2

Scarabs

Scorpions

Sekhmet (vengeance goddess) 14.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

duality 14.1, 15.1, 18.1

healing powers

as lioness

marriage to Ptah

sacred triad

thirst for blood 14.1, 14.2

see also Hut Heru

Serpent goddess see Wadjet

Service goddess see Nebet Hut

Set (envious god) 3.1

appearance 4.1, 18.1, 18.2

box for Usir 3.1, 3.2, 4.1, 9.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

claiming to fight Apep

desire for Aset

destroying Usir’s body 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 8.1, 17.1

drunkenness

envy toward Usir 3.1, 3.2, 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 6.1

fight with Heru Sa Aset 7.1, 7.2, 11.1, 13.1, 15.1

as fish

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2, 9.1

relationship with Inpu 6.1, 6.2, 8.1

rule of storms

stubbornness

war with Ra 12.1, 12.2

wives 6.1, 15.1

Seth see Set

Shu (god) 18.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

childhood 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5

children 1.1, 1.2, 9.1

creation 1.1, 2.1, 9.1

as god of good winds

in Great Pesedjet 2.1

persuading Tefnut to return to Egypt

Ra’s snakebite

in triad 1.1

Sky goddess see Nut

Smell culture 9.1, 9.2

Snakes

cobras 1.1, 2.1, 2.2, 18.1

creation

Ra’s snakebite 4.1, 4.2

Sobek (crocodile god) 17.1

appearance 18.1, 18.2

carrying sons of Heru Wer to safety 17.1, 17.2

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

childhood

eating Usir’s arm

as fertility god

love of meat 17.1, 17.2, 17.3

mother

rule of river animals

Set-Heru Sa Aset battle 12.1, 17.1

tongue 17.1, 17.2

Souchos see Sobek

Step pyramids 20.1, 20.2

Sun god see Ra

Sweetness

T

Ta-senet, Egypt 16.1, 16.2, bm3.1

Taweret (hippo goddess) 10.1, 12.1, 18.1, 18.2

Tefnut (moisture goddess) 9.1, 18.1

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

childhood 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5

children 1.1, 9.1

creating rainbows

creation of 1.1, 2.1, 9.1

feeling unappreciated

in Great Pesedjet 2.1

as lioness 9.1, 9.2, 9.3

opinions about other gods

persuaded to return to Egypt 9.1, 11.1

Ra’s snakebite

sweetness

in triad 1.1

Tehuti (knowledge god) 11.1

appearance 4.1, 11.1, 18.1, 18.2

assisting Aset and Usir

assisting Heru Wer

assisting humans

as baboon

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

creation from Ra’s tongue

as creator of cosmos

feeling unappreciated

funeral ritual role

guiding Ra’s boat 11.1, 13.1

judging hearts of dead 19.1, 19.2

name prf.1, prf.2

persuading Tefnut to return to Egypt 9.1, 11.1

as Ra’s tongue

serving others

Set-Heru Sa Aset dispute

wisdom

Temple at Karnak bm3.1

Thoth see Tehuti

Time line

Tjet (girdle) 3.1, 4.1

Tombs 19.1, 20.1, 20.2

Tphenis see Tefnut

Transformations 18.1, 18.2

U

Usir (god of the afterlife) 5.1

appearance

assistance from Tehuti

in cast of characters bm2.1, bm2.2

as complement to Ra

fondness for animals

funeral ritual role

in Great Pesedjet 2.1, 2.2, 9.1

interlude with Nebet Hut 5.1, 6.1, 9.1

judging hearts of dead 19.1, 19.2

love for Aset 3.1, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3

love of papyrus

and Nile River flooding

relationship with Inpu 3.1, 6.1, 8.1

as ruler of Duat (underworld) 4.1, 5.1, 8.1, 10.1

as ruler of Egypt 3.1, 3.2

Set-Heru Sa Aset dispute

Set’s beautiful box 3.1, 4.1

in Set’s beautiful box 3.1, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 5.1, 5.2

Set’s destruction of his body 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 8.1, 9.1, 10.1, 17.1

Set’s envy 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1

V

Vengeance goddess see Sekhmet

Victory god see Amun-Ra

Voice, importance of 4.1, 19.1

W

Wadjet (serpent goddess) 10.1, 18.1

War goddess see Menhit

Warrior god see Heru Sa Aset

Warrior goddess see Nit

Waset, Egypt 14.1, bm3.1

Water 1.1, 1.2, 1.3

Weapons 10.1

Weaver of the cosmos see Nit

Weaving 15.1, 15.2, 15.3, 15.4

Wine

Winged sun disk see Heru Wer

Words, importance of 4.1, 19.1

Writing

abjad (writing system) 4.1, 4.2

hieroglyphs prf.1, prf.2, 11.1, 11.2, bm3.1

origins


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Set: The god Set appeared as a mix of parts from different animals: aardvark, jackal, donkey. Over time, he came to be viewed as increasingly evil. Perhaps this conglomeration reflects the lack of peace within him.

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SET (SETH)

Envious God

The goddess Aset, great-granddaughter of Ra, was beautiful in every way. Humans gravitated toward her naturally. She listened to the worries, hopes, dreams of everyone, from the richest to the slaves. She listened to those who were abused and even to their abusers. And by listening, she helped them understand their own thoughts and find their own paths to solving their troubles or fulfilling their dreams. In a sense, it was through Aset’s faithful and careful listening that human beings really learned to trust in the deities. She wished strength and health for all of them; she wished good life. And so she wore the tjet, a girdle with a knot at the front, and carried in one hand the ankh, a small straight key with two straight arms and a loop on top. Both the tjet and the ankh were symbols of life. In her other hand she often held a simple wooden staff.

That wooden staff was useful when she walked with her brother-husband Usir in the fields. Usir loved to wander among the animals, particularly the animals that humans quickly gathered around them. And even more particularly those fat woolly sheep with the wide-set eyes that made that little baaa baaa noise Aset found so pleasing. In fact, Usir was so fond of sheep, he wore ram horns on his crown. He was a benevolent god, bringing robustness to the sheep and fertility to the land. He taught humans to plow and he gave them laws to live by, rising to become king of Lower Egypt and then, so popular was he, king of all Egypt. And so it was impossible for this benevolent god not to love his ever-so-benevolent wife Aset. He adored her. They were meant for each other.

Their brother god Set watched them gaze at each other, this Aset and this Usir, eavesdropping on their fond murmurings. He could smell how they changed when they approached each other. Usir grew musky, like a young ram; his muscles rippled under his skin. Aset became as fragrant as those water flowers she picked so often, those blue lotuses. She grew intoxicating, as though her very essence was lotus oil.

Set had a sister-wife of his own—what was her name? Ah, yes, Nebet Hut. But Set couldn’t think about her. He couldn’t even look at her. He looked instead at Aset.


THE LOTUS: God Scent

Ancient Egypt had both white and blue lotuses, and from both an oil can be extracted that is pungently sweet to smell. People used the flowers as decoration and women used the essence of the lotus as perfume. Egyptian perfumes have been famous from ancient times through modern times. But the blue lotus also has a high plant nutrient content, so this flower may have been used by the ancients in medicines for its healing properties.

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Blue lotus flowers are still used in perfume manufacture today.



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All that love heaped on his brother galled Set. Alas, he couldn’t think of anything else, he couldn’t enjoy ordinary things, he couldn’t love anyone.

And he looked at Usir. He looked until his eyes burned as dry as the desert he prowled.

Then the strands of envy twisted even tighter around Set’s innards, for his brother Usir fawned over Set’s son Inpu. Set’s teeth went grimy with disgust. And Inpu, the ingrate, he responded to this attention, caring for his uncle Usir too much—he even seemed to take after him. Intolerable—it was Set the boy should love like that! So Set was glad when the boy left home to go work in the underworld Duat. Who needed such a son around?

But still Set had to watch Aset’s face as she gazed at Usir. And now he looked around and noticed how humans adored this sister and this brother that they had chosen as their queen and king, and his top lip curled. There were so many humans by now—they just kept multiplying. And that meant Set’s brother Usir was king of far too much, and was loved by far too many.

Sometimes a brother doesn’t need a reason to be spiteful toward another brother. Set was almost sure he would have hated Usir no matter what, regardless of how Aset loved him, regardless of how his own son Inpu admired him. But the way all those people loved Usir—well, that went beyond the pale. King of Egypt! Bah! Set’s insides swirled like the very strongest of tempests, with lightning and thunder and shrieking winds—and in this stormy state he vowed to himself to crush Usir.

Set held a banquet. He arranged cones of scented fat in a large circle and set them ablaze to keep away pesky mosquitoes. He gave the goddesses lotus flower necklaces—knowing, of course, that this would endear him to Aset. He filled a basin with sparkling clean water for everyone to wash their hands in. Then he served them bread and great quantities of beer. As they were lolling around, satiated, he pulled a cloth away to reveal a beautiful box.

Usir ran his hand appreciatively along the intricate carvings. “Where did you get this, brother?”

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Usir slid happily into the majestic cedar box. It felt like the most comfortable of beds. How cold must Set’s heart have been, planning the doom ahead.

The combination of gold gilt, the color so dear to the great god Ra, and deep blue paint, the color so dear to his beloved wife Aset, made the box nearly irresistible to the unsuspecting Usir.

“It’s superb, isn’t it?” Set leaned in toward Usir with a brotherly intimacy. “Tell you what. Whoever fits perfectly in this box, well, that’s the rightful owner of it. I will regale that person with this fine box.”

Each guest took a turn at lying in the box. But each was too short or too long or too fat or too thin. In contrast, Usir fit perfectly. Naturally. For Set had taken all the relevant measures of his brother as he slept, and had the box built just so.

The instant Usir lay inside, Set and his helpers rushed forward, closed the lid, and sealed it. Set lifted the box over his head and flung it with all his might into the raging Nile River. And for the first time in so long he couldn’t remember, Set felt triumph. He was rid of Usir, rid of the scourge of his life. At last, he could be all he wanted to be; he stood in no one’s shadow.

Such is the brutality unchecked envy can wreak.

But good has its own way of responding—and both Aset and Usir were deeply good. This story was far from its end.


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Nit: Nit was among the most ancient dieties, and she reflected aspects of many other gods and goddesses. But mostly she was known as a creator; some say she wove the whole world into being.

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NIT (NEITH)

Warrior Goddess and Weaver of the Cosmos

There’s more to every story than meets the eye. It isn’t simply that some things are invisible (which they surely are). And it isn’t simply that the eye is sometimes blind (which it surely can be, by choice or by being duped). It’s that stories have so many sides, it’s impossible to see every facet at once. And it’s that stories evolve over time, telling and retelling themselves, becoming and re-becoming in ways we might not have anticipated originally but that ultimately feel inevitable.

That’s why it’s easy to fail to see Nit. She is herself and at the same time she is facets of so many other gods and goddesses. Nit is elusive.

Life needs a source. In the beginning, the primordial waters of Nun parted as the god Ra created himself through words. Yet, still, this self-generation was within the lapping wetness of Nun. Nun was his source.

Ra went on to create others—all on his own, without a partner. So he tells us. But, really? Did he really do it all on his own? Nun couldn’t bear to leave the rest of creation entirely up to the sun god. Ra was a burly fellow, a shouter, indefatigable, and somewhat blunt. These qualities could be assets in many situations, but not all. He needed the help of Nun’s feminine aspects. He needed the help of Nit, that more subtle side of Nun.

Nit was self-begotten, just as Ra was—but again, she came from Nun, she had a source. And she formed herself as a wise one. What was the point of doing otherwise, after all?


Fine Clothing

Hemp and flax are indigenous to Egypt and were used as far back as the Neolithic period (9500 B.C.) for weaving clothing. Ancient Egyptians herded sheep and spun woolen coats. Silk (originally from China) came to Egypt at least by the first century B.C.; Queen Cleopatra is known for silk garments. Today Egypt is famous for cotton clothing, but cotton (originally from India) came to Egypt via Nubia and wasn’t used in clothing until A.D. 125 or later.

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Colorful woven cloth in an open-air market



She was immediately respected for her wisdom. When the god Heru Sa Aset, the son of the goddess Aset and the god Usir, fought with his uncle god Set, Nit was called upon at one point as arbiter. Nit took the side of Heru Sa Aset; it was his right to inherit his father’s throne. But she recommended that Set receive compensation; he’d already usurped the throne, so he was being forced to abnegate it. That smarted, and that meant compensation could help. She said Set should be given the two Syrian war goddesses, Astarte and Anat, as wives. That wasn’t the end of the conflict, of course—it went on and on for years. But it could have been, if Set hadn’t been stubborn and had listened to the wisdom of Nit. In this way Nit was like a side of the god Tehuti, Ra’s tongue and the champion of reason and balance.

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Nit guided women at the loom so well that Egypt became known not just for the gauze that wrapped mummies, but for all cloth. Even today Egyptian woven goods are prized.

There was something commanding about Nit, something that made you pay attention. She was determined to create, and so she picked up the weaver’s loom—the most prized possession of women—and she wove and wove. Some say Nit wove the world. But she didn’t need people to believe such a grandiose thing. She was satisfied with women weavers honoring her. She paid them back by offering her protection. She extended that protection to all married women. In this way she was not just a side of Nun and of Tehuti, she was a side of the gentle, loving goddess Hut Heru.

Nit had a core of pity that looked at the loom and realized there were others she could help. So she wove and wove again. She wove the white linen swaths that circled bodies in mummification. This was her gift to the dead. And she took special interest in the innards of the dead, for it was often injuries to the torso that caused death—injuries in battle.

Nit cared about battle injuries because she was goddess of war. “How?” one might ask. “How could a goddess protect married women and at the same time lead their men into the dangers of war?” But look again. Look as hard as you can. Nit looked hard. She knew there would always be enemies, always be threats. War could be an evil in itself, but it might also be a response to threats. War was complex. So Nit was a side of the ruthless, furious goddess Sekhmet.

The goddess Hut Heru and the goddess Sekhmet were two sides of a single coin, but they walked separately, with different faces and names. The goddess Nit, instead, was the whole coin, good and evil inextricably intertwined. And she felt more whole than anyone, for that’s the way the world was, as she saw it—not one color, not just bad or good, but the whole rainbow, the whole span from decent to indecent.

Nit wore a shield that some thought was the figure eight on its side. Others thought it was a symbol for the infinite. But, in fact, it was the outline of two click beetles head to head. Nit loved the click beetle. It was less showy than the scarab, so dear to Ra. Nit liked modesty. But, even better, the click beetle surprised you. Whenever it wanted, it could flip through the air with a loud click and wind up far from where it started. Nit loved that fact; life was surprising, after all. Life could fling itself this way and that, leaving you searching for what you thought was right in front of you a moment before, leaving you wondering what was reality and what was illusion.

Maybe it was because of her role as goddess of war and maybe not, but Nit also became goddess of the hunt. She helped men spot prey and take them down. This was one more way she protected marriages: Families got fed.

She had her own marriage; she was wife to the god Khnum. Soon she was mother to two sons. One was the crocodile god Sobek, and she nursed him with love, which may be why this beast never became cruel. The other was the god Apep, who arose by accident when Nit spat into the waters of Nun. Apep immediately dove to the underworld abyss, as the serpentine demon that attacked Ra’s boat Mesektet every night and got speared, his blood splashing everywhere, only to mend and then fight the same battle the next night. That both her children belonged to the water made sense—Nit was an extension of Nun. That one lived above and one lived below also made sense—Nit was always a mix, always half this and half that. Aren’t we all?

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Nit could nurture … and punish; she gave birth to a god who did much good and to one who did evil; she was a mix, a surprise, a tough one to pin down.


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Khnum: Khnum was a potter. Some say Ra took Khnum’s form when he created all life, using clay as the medium. He also had many wives, so he appeared with the head of a strong, fertile ram.

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KHNUM (CHNOUMIS)

God of the Potter’s Wheel

The god Khnum was the husband of Nit. They lived together in the city Ta-senet. Sometimes, that is, for Nit was just one of Khnum’s wives.

At the island Abu, far south in Upper Egypt, Khnum had a wife named Satet. Satet was no slouch. As Ra’s daughter she was so fine an archer that she was the local hunting goddess. She helped Khnum in his task as guardian of the Nile’s source in the underworld. She helped so much, some say she was the Nile guardian. And since the Nile’s flooding ensured fertile soil for the next planting, and that planting and harvest, in turn, ensured human survival, Satet strutted proudly, with ostrich plumes in her crown. She was as much a fertility goddess as Hut Heru. Her daughter, Anuket, stayed at her side or took the form of a gazelle and raced south through beautiful Nubia, where she was a favored goddess. So Khnum had a satisfied and satisfying life in Abu.

At the town Her-wer Khnum had another wife: Heket. Often thousands of frogs gathered on the Nile banks to praise Heket, the frog goddess of creation. You see, Khnum was the great creator; the job was a natural for him, because he had the materials right at hand. After flooding, when the Nile waters receded, they left behind silts and marls—the basics of clay. Khnum invented the potter’s wheel and formed humans from clay. Then Heket hopped in, as frogs will do. She breathed life into the little bodies and tucked them inside their mothers’ womb. She did this even to the children of the wicked pharaoh Khufu, who was building greater pyramids than anyone before him, but who showed little mercy to his people. Heket was merciful, though. Pregnant women knew Heket had helped to start the life within them, and they counted on her. They wore frog amulets to protect them through gestation. And near labor time, they begged Heket to start the work and assist in the delivery. In this way she was like the goddess Nebet Hut. Again, Khnum had chosen well—this partner wife gave people breath so that Khnum’s creation of them led to true life.

And in the city Ta-senet, along with Nit, Khnum had two other wives: Menhit and Nebtu. Menhit was a lion-headed war goddess, close in aspect to angry Sekhmet. But she walked on two legs and radiated hot light. She gave off a white aura, like marl pottery. Nebtu, in contrast, was the goddess of a nearby desert oasis—the watery counterpart to Menhit. She dressed in red, like silt pottery. It was as though Khnum had created these two wives from the same clay he used to create people. Being around them made him relish his accomplishments.


Family and Home

Families in ancient Egypt consisted of father, mother, children. The law protected the rights of women, allowing them to inherit, own, and cede property. Judging from artwork, we believe children were played with and tenderly loved. Many men, including pharaohs, had more than one wife, with all wives and children living in the same home, all equally valued by the law and all interacting lovingly.

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An Egyptian painting showing parents receiving offerings from their sons



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Khnum was a greedy god, with many wives: Here we see the hot lioness Menhit, the red-dressed but cool Nebtu, the frog goddess of birth Heket, and our weaving goddess Nit.

So Khnum was pretty busy, keeping all these wives happy. He declared himself the god of masculine fertility and called himself Min. He had a ram’s strength and energy. He appeared as a ram, or as a man with a ram head or ram horns. Whatever his form, he was always ready to please his wives.

Still, Nit was in many ways his most important wife. The two were almost male and female aspects of a single deity. Like Nit, Khnum was there at the very beginning, and, like Nit, Khnum was an aspect of many gods. Through work with Satet, he was a Nile god, like Usir. Through work with Heket, he was an air god, like Shu. And because he was a potter, he created life, like Ra. In fact, when Ra created all matter, many believed he did it in the form of Khnum. They spoke of Khnum-Ra. Perhaps it was Khnum-Ra who wept with joy that day long ago when his lost children Shu and Tefnut finally returned. Perhaps the teardrops of Khnum-Ra mixed with clay to form those first humans. Maybe Khnum’s story and Ra’s story are one.



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POSTSCRIPT

How many deities did the Egyptians worship? And what were their stories? The answers to these questions are not simple. Prehistoric communities were active in Egypt during the Paleolithic Period (the Stone Age), gathering plants and scavenging animals. By around 5400 B.C. Neolithic cultures had formed in the Nile valley, consisting of several agricultural villages and nomadic necropolises. At some point Lower Egypt (including the delta area) and Upper Egypt (all the way to the cataracts of the Nile) became a cohesive country. That is, they united culturally and, eventually, politically. Books give different precise dates for the various periods of the country’s history, where these differences can be as much as centuries and where the number of dynasties is recorded to be fewer or more. One approximation of ancient Egypt is given in the Time Line, which covers our earliest information about human habitation in Egypt through the final dynasty, which ended in 332 B.C.

The Macedonian Period followed, from 332 to 305 B.C. During this time Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered the Persian empire, and captured Egypt along with it. The rule of the Macedonian dynasty ended when Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals and the governor of Egypt, declared himself an independent king, thus founding the Ptolemaic dynasty—the last line of independent pharaohs of Egypt (albeit of foreign origin). The Ptolemaic Period ran until 30 B.C.; Macedonian and Greek immigrants ruled Egypt in this time of great unrest, during which the Romans intervened in conflicts between members of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Romans made Egypt an Imperial province (30 B.C.–A.D. 395), and then the Byzantines ruled (395–640).

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This bronze coin shows a profile. It might be Ptolemy IV, the fourth Greek ruler of Egypt; or it might be Alexander the Great, who ruled lands around the Mediterranean Sea from Greece through Egypt.

Over the nearly 5,000 years before the Greeks took over, we have few authoritative and extensive texts telling us about the deities, unlike the situation in ancient Greece, where we have individual poets (Hesiod, Homer, Apollodorus, and others—but they were quite late, dating from around 800 B.C. and later) whose writings have survived through the ages. Instead, from Egypt we rely on scattered papyrus books (scrolls), usually only partial, and inscriptions in temples and tombs.

Writing began in Egypt very early; in fact, Egyptian tax records are among the earliest proto-writings we have yet discovered in the world. Proto-writing is rudimentary writing, consisting mostly of numbers and symbols used as mnemonic devices. It was employed in record-keeping centuries before people used actual script for representing the utterances of language. The oldest true writing we know of goes back to around 3200 B.C., in Sumer. Egypt also shows true writing around then, perhaps influenced by Sumer. In tombs of officials from as early as the Third Dynasty we find continuous texts, mostly royal edicts. Soon stories about the deities appeared, though abbreviated. Some famous ones are called the Pyramid texts; they are composite works written by several scribes over many years, starting in the Old Kingdom (Fifth Dynasty, found in the tomb of Pharaoh Unas). From the Pyramid texts it would appear that as new ideas about the deities arose, they did not supplant old ones, but, rather, coexisted with them, as though the contradictions didn’t matter. By the time of the Middle Kingdom a full-fledged literature had developed. A famous text from the New Kingdom is known as the Book of the Dead, and it tells us about funerary rituals. Like the Pyramid texts, it is a composite work, sometimes internally inconsistent. The New Kingdom also spawned hymns to various gods.

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Funerary papyri make up the Book of the Dead. In this one, we see the weighing of the heart. It was found in the tomb of the noble Maiherperi, who died circa 1450 B.C.

Additional information about the deities comes from hymns and religious inscriptions carved in hieroglyphics on ancient walls, from statues and drawings of them, from temples built in their honor. All these taken together would suggest the ancient Egyptians worshipped hundreds of deities, at the least.

Yet, unlike the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece or Rome, the Egyptian gods and goddesses were not easily distinguishable, one from another. Many gods were hailed as the creator of everything and everyone. Many goddesses were prayed to for help in childbirth. Often deities seemed to be flip sides of the same coin. For example, both Ra and Usir ruled over eternal matters; Ra is associated with the passage of the sun from sunrise to sunset, when it appears to die, but then reappears, as though reborn, the next dawn, while Usir is associated with the infinite everlasting state that follows life on earth. They complement each other in that one rules the life of light, the other rules the life of dark—one rules above the firmament and one rules below it. Only together do we see a complete sovereignty.

So how on earth does one make a definitive list of these slippery, entangled deities?

The people of ancient Egypt were spread out over a vast distance, and even though the Nile connected them, most people didn’t travel far from their home. That may be why only a few deities were known at the national level. Instead, there were, eventually (that is, by the time of the New Kingdom), 42 administrative districts, each with multiple small villages, and each locality had at least one of its own gods. For example, Ptah played a similar role in the city Ineb Hedj (and, later on, nationally) to that played by Amun in the city of Waset, and to that played by Atum in the city of Iunu, and to that played by Khnum in the city of Ta-senet (he was called Min in his role as fertility god in the city of Khent-min), and to that played by Heru Wer in the city of Nekhen—and all of them overlapped with the national role of Ra. Sometimes these gods had a goddess partner and a child, so that they formed triads in their localities. Ptah, for example, formed a sacred triad with Sekhmet and Nefertem; Amun formed a sacred triad with Mut and Khonsu; and so on. Since the gods and goddesses were responsible for the very same set of natural phenomena (the rising and setting of the sun, the wind, the stars, the moon, rain, the flooding of the Nile River, fertility, survival through childbirth and childhood, eventual death, and so on) and for the same set of values and skills (divine order, justice, agriculture, writing, weaving), viewed all together there were, quite naturally, many overlapping deities. Competing cities had competing accounts of the creation and of various stories about the deities as well as their own unique stories—and all of this changed over time, as always happens in human society.

Still, even within a local set of gods and goddesses, the tendency to have them share traits is strong. While there was a hierarchy among the deities, with some being older than others and some being generally more powerful or important than others, it is hard to find stories in which the Egyptian deities have clearly delineated personalities, except for a handful—such as Set and Sobek and Aset. In fact, there aren’t many stories about the deities, and most of the ones that we have today were written down not by the ancient Egyptians, but by the Greeks, who may well have embellished tales they heard from Egyptians, imposing their own views of numinous behavior. But if the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses really weren’t discrete, that would be a natural reason not to have multiple stories recounting their individual acts.

So perhaps the best approach is not to work so hard at teasing the Egyptian deities apart, but, instead, to view them as a gigantic whole, responsible for the cosmos in all its various predictable and unpredictable events, and thus having myriad parts that reflect that regularity and that capriciousness. With this view, the Egyptian religion might have been closer to monotheist ones than to polytheist ones.

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The largest ancient religious site in the world, the Temple at Karnak was built in the Middle Kingdom and was expanded many times over the centuries. Some of the columns are 69 feet (21 m) tall.

In this book I have worked from the sources available to me, relying first on those written by Egyptians, but not eschewing those written by Greeks. Certain themes and images come up so often on the ancient walls and in the ancient statuary and other artifacts that it would be remiss of me to fail to use them in this book, no matter who recorded the tales concerning them. For example, in Aset’s chapter the part of the story that takes place in Kubna comes from a story by the Greek scholar Plutarch. So it might or might not be of Egyptian origin. But many likenesses of Aset show her holding the infant prince, so I wanted to present that to the reader.

Further, when I faced conflicting stories, I made choices on aesthetic grounds. For one, there are alternative accounts of the origin of people. Many involve tears. But in some there is a complication regarding the eyes of Ra. Did the first eye get replaced in her absence and then weep in rage? Was it instead the first eye that went wandering, and Ra sent Tefnut and Shu to bring her back and she cried in rebellion at being forced to return? I chose the present version because it may go back to early 3rd millennium B.C.—so it might be the oldest—and because it is more lovely to me.

For another, in some versions of the myths, Heru Sa Aset was already born before Set ripped Usir apart. But I chose the version with him born after Usir was killed, because it is more dramatic and more poignant, in my eyes.

Other times gaps in the myths left me with a patching job. For example, accounts of Inpu’s origins vary widely in details, some conflicting and some simply missing. The one commonality is that Nebet Hut is his mother. I have kept this commonality and crafted an origin for him that slides into the other tales here well, I hope.

And, finally, some of the choices I made were nearly random. For example, some myths say the four gods who guarded the funerary canopic jars were the children of Ra, not Heru Wer. But there’s much confusion and melding between Heru Wer and Ra generally, so the choice had no consequences I could see, and Heru Wer seems to be in the older account of this myth.

I exercised the liberty of adding details that rounded scenes out: for example, the rhythm leading to the beating heart of Ra in the creation myth and the presence of the hoopoe birds in the story of Aset going to Kubna.

My constant and sincere hope is to have presented stories with as genuine an ancient Egyptian sensibility as I could manage to glean from the many sources I consulted.

I thank Samir Abbass for guiding me in Egypt in 2010 and discussing with me not just inscriptions on temples and tombs, but the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus and variations between Egyptian and Greek versions of some myths. I thank Ian Moyer for giving comments on drafts, feeding me bibliographic sources, making both factual and creative suggestions, and generally being a wonderful and cheerful support. I thank the editorial and design staff at National Geographic for countless details, including Priyanka Lamichhane, David M. Seager, and Jennifer Emmett.





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THE GREAT PESEDJET

A Hierarchy of Gods

The sun god Ra created himself, then his children: the air god Shu and the moisture goddess Tefnut. They created their children: the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Now the ball was rolling; Geb, in all his lush splendor with plants growing from him, and Nut, in all her quiet splendor with winds caressing her, did their part, singly and together. Soon there were five children in the next generation: the goddess Nebet Hut and her husband-brother god Set, the goddess Aset and her husband-brother god Usir, and the god Heru Wer. Ra was progenitor to nine more deities now, the Great Pesedjet. (See illustration)

Ra had been pleased at the triad that he and Shu and Tefnut formed. But now, all these progeny totaled nine, and nine was better. Nine was three squared. A nine-pointed star could be formed by superimposing three identical equilateral triangles, so that each was rotated precisely 40 degrees over from the next lower one. A magic square could be formed by making a matrix of nine cells within a square, each one filled with a distinct numeral from 1 to 9, where the numbers in each row, the numbers in each column, and the numbers in each of the two diagonals added up to the same total. The geometric and algebraic games one could play with nine were a delight. They were a promise of an extraordinary future. And the best thing about the Great Pesedjet was that Ra’s great-grandson Heru Wer was really just the embodiment of Ra himself at midday. So Ra could count himself as part of this miraculous nine. Ra was pleased beyond measure.

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Hut Heru was grace itself, enriching the world with the joys of the senses. She was dance and music, inextricably intertwined, and decoratively beautiful, night and day.

That pleasure excited Ra into an even more heated frenzy of creativity that needed to live up to the cleverness of the number nine. The molten flow that had emerged from the watery Nun with Ra’s first words still sizzled. It now inspired Ra. With flame coming from his pointing finger he made the basic elements to build all things. He started with iron and blew it over this rapidly forming ball of a world. It glittered golden. A royal satisfaction enveloped Ra; this was fated to be his color, the rightful color of the father of everything and everyone.

But the world needed more colors. Another jab of Ra’s fire fingertip scattered red lithium to the winds. Next calcium burned bright orange. Then sodium flamed yellow, copper sparkled green, selenium glowed blue, cesium flashed indigo, potassium gave violet luster.

The luminosity of colors seduced Ra’s new eye to step forward as a goddess, and she called herself Hut Heru. She danced over the earth, on which the iron had now cooled into a crust, and laughed, filling the cosmos with music. The twirling of her skirts swished the remaining gassy colors high. When the sun god Ra shone his light through the moisture goddess Tefnut, a rainbow arched across the world, echoing the arched body of Nut, the daughter of Tefnut and Shu.

Hut Heru didn’t always dance, though. She loved night. She lay back in those hours and gazed upward into nothingness. So she wanted calming colors for those quiet times. Ra knew this, of course, for Hut Heru was his very eye. With a scorching finger, he made the silver of aluminum. From it the stars and moon formed, and Hut Heru was glad and grateful.

Now there were nine colors. Nine again. Luscious nine.

Ra shrugged and a cloud of insects filled the air in all imaginable colors. He loved scarabs best. They rolled dung into balls and laid their eggs inside, so the little balls emitted heat as the dung decayed. Later, when the eggs hatched, it seemed like spontaneous generation—like the self-generation of the royal Ra. What charming creatures! Ra took to assuming scarab form and calling himself Ra-Khepra in the morning, when he was just a babe pushing the sun up into the sky. From then on the scarab was sacred before all other creatures.

But the insects swarmed, far too many, plaguing the Pesedjet of deities. So the tongue of Ra stepped forward, as the god Tehuti, and with ever-powerful words he created birds to eat them. Clever Ra was wiser now about the ways of life, so he didn’t stop there; he made Tehuti speak again, and now some birds preyed upon others, to keep the pop-ulations of both insects and birds under control. The master predator and most intelligent was the falcon, and so Ra declared it his bird. Ra often assumed the head of a falcon, particularly in midday at the sun’s zenith. In that form he called himself Ra-Herakhty.

The falcons were such skillful hunters, they would soon have eaten up all the smaller birds except for the fact that they had the snakes to prey upon, as well. Perfect.

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There was a whole world to fill, and Ra did it all. Just a blink, a shrug, a chin flick, and wings flapped, feet scurried, bodies wriggled.

And those snakes—good glory, what killers the cobras were! Their tongues picked up the faintest smells and the pits behind their nostrils were so sensitive to heat that they could hunt even at night. Ra had been brilliant to add the sacred iaret to his headdress.

Through words, Ra created little creatures of land and sea and air. Then medium-size ones. Then enormous ones. He created plants and mushrooms. He created rocks and metals and gases. And it was all so painfully beautiful.

Ra gazed at the world through his new eye Hut Heru, wearing his sacred iaret, and the complexity impressed him—the deities, the plants, the beasts, the humans. But somehow those humans kept worrying him. They were cunning in a different way from the beasts. Ra had the terrible sense that he had known those humans would bring trouble, that he had willfully played his part. This was how it had to be. And just as strongly he felt all creation was teetering, close to going out of control.


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Heru Sa Aset: Heru Sa Aset grew up in the Nile delta reeds, where his mother hid him to protect him from his wicked uncle, Set, who for many years was the headache of his life.

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HERU SA ASET (HORUS THE YOUNGER)

Young Warrior God and King

Heru Sa Aset was born in the Nile delta and felt comfortable there, perhaps because his dead father Usir was god of the surrounding thick papyrus. The tiny boy jumped happily along the backs of hippopotami. He grasped the tails of crocodiles and swished through the waters laughing. He wove boats from papyrus reeds and paddled under flapping, funny pelicans. He invited swamp cats to sleep with him on papyrus matting in the daytime. For like those cats, he preferred to be active at night.

There was a reason for this: Life was full of mysteries. He sucked his finger and looked around. He convinced the goddess Nebet Hut to teach him to see in the dark. That way he could defend, against what he knew not, but this ability was crucial. Heru Sa Aset thought of his vision in historic terms: The eye of Heru Sa Aset looked out over the vast maw of the world with knife-edge ferocity.

He fashioned hunting tools—spears, boomerangs, bows and arrows. But the idea of defense, and maybe even offense, lurked persistently.

In a sense the boy had two mothers. One was the wary-eyed Aset, who taught him the rules by which a society runs well, laws his father had given people. She told him, mysteriously, he’d need to know these things. The other mother was the sad-eyed Nebet Hut, aunt and nursemaid. She taught him to take the form of a falcon while she became a kite. They swooped over desert and glided on air currents, searching mysteriously. Between the two mothers the workings of the entire cosmos were cloaked in opaque dread.


Children and the Law

Ancient texts give us insight into the rights of children during ancient times. For example, in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Cain killed his brother Abel, and in the Book of Matthew King Herod ordered the massacre of male children in Bethlehem. Murder of adults has been illegal probably since the earliest laws. But in the western world it wasn’t until the fourth century that law protected a baby. Before that, a father could dispose of a child as he wished.

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Egyptian children shown in the marshes with their parents



Once Heru Sa Aset grew to adulthood, he learned the nature of that dread: His uncle Set hated him, simply because he was his father’s son. Set had usurped his father’s throne. Now Aset wanted Heru Sa Aset to claim it back.

Heru Sa Aset challenged Set valiantly, demanding his due. Set refused, of course. So Heru Sa Aset appealed to the gods’ council, the Pesedjet. The god Tehuti urged the Pesedjet to favor Heru Sa Aset. But Set argued that he protected Egypt from foreign enemies; if he were dethroned, Egypt would return to chaos. So the Pesedjet looked like it would find in favor of Set.

Aset thought she’d lose her sanity. She transformed herself into a ravishingly beautiful maiden. The disguised Aset told Set she was a widow, and a stranger had seized her land and threatened her son. She asked his aid.

Anyone in his right mind would have seen how this maiden’s story matched Aset’s story. But Set wasn’t in his right mind. The maiden was luscious; he was hot-blooded. Blind to the trap, he declared this usurper a villain. He swore to fight him and return to the son what was rightfully his.

Aha! Aset revealed her true identity. Aha! The whole Pesedjet listened. Aha, aha! Set would have to yield now; he had as much as admitted his guilt.

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Heru Sa Aset and his uncle Set each suffered brutalities at the hand of the other. But the boy got the worst of it. Fortunately, Hut Heru restored his eyes.

But Set didn’t. Battles ensued and persisted for 80 years. Set used brute force in unspeakable ways, including plucking out Heru Sa Aset’s eyes, which the goddess Hut Heru, the very eye of Ra, restored by pouring the milk of the starry Milky Way across his brow. Heru Sa Aset used crass trickery. Once he agreed to a boat duel with Set. Both were to use stone boats and try to sink each other. Set’s stone boat sank immediately. But Heru Sa Aset’s boat was cedar painted to appear stone, so it whipped along until Set, in a rage, turned into a hippo and sank it. Nothing was too low for these gods to stoop to.

At long last, Ra sent a message to Usir in the underworld Duat, beseeching him to end the struggle. Usir sent a return message. The Pesedjet agreed that Heru Sa Aset deserved the throne. Set yielded.

And so Heru Sa Aset wore the red and white crown and ruled all Egypt. People looked to him for guidance in hunting and martial arts, for he had avenged his father against the most frightening of gods, Set.

Avenged his father—ah. Heru Sa Aset didn’t know his father. He knew only Usir’s story. Now he wanted a filial tie. So he became the link between the world of the living and Duat, accompanying the dead to Usir. Father and son worked together. It felt good. Finally, finally, the sense of dread that Heru Sa Aset had carried almost all his life dissipated.


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Aset: Aset loved lotuses, the symbol of Upper Egypt. Usir loved papyrus reeds, the symbol of Lower Egypt, especially where the Nile flows into the sea. Together they made the perfect ruling couple for all Egypt.

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ASET (ISIS)

Devoted Wife and Mother

The god Set was so envious of his brother Usir that he committed a dastardly act. He nailed Usir into a box and threw it into the Nile River.

“Ahiii,” screamed Aset. She ran along the shore, arms outstretched futilely. She must catch up, she must pull the box to safety. She imagined her husband trapped inside, panicked. She ran.

But the current raced north, carrying her husband inexorably toward the sea. And the wind blew south, impeding Aset’s every step. She ran hard, seeing the white-foamed swirl of the swift and wild river. She ran harder, hearing nothing but the shriek of the wind rasping her ears raw. The box was already out of sight! Aset had to run yet faster. That was her husband—the love of her life!

Aset ran all that day, all that night, all the next day. Her feet bled. Her legs ached. When she arrived at the seashore, she raced back and forth, calling out over the green and blue and purple waters, calling, calling. She rent her hair. She grabbed a clamshell and shaved off her eyebrows. She beat her chest.

The world spun around this goddess, this woman in love, bereft and alone, who had no choice but to prostrate herself on the beach and wait for the dizziness to pass and hope against hope that her husband had managed to get out of the box before he suffocated.


Our Alphabet’s History

The Kenaani’s land became known as Phoenicia. It spread between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. The people were known for sea trading and purple dye made from murex snails. But we know them most for their abjad, a writing system with letters that represented consonant sounds. The Greeks borrowed this abjad and added letters for vowels. The Etruscans then borrowed it, then the Romans, each making changes—hence our alphabet.

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A tablet showing the Phoenician alphabet



Meanwhile the box that held Usir had washed out to the middle of the vast Mediterranean Sea and floated in that wadj wer—that great green—aimlessly, a rudderless, sail-less skiff, until the currents eventually carried it toward shore again. But not back to the mouth of the Nile where miserable Aset lay crying, no. The box settled far to the east, near the city of Kubna in the land of the Kenaani.

The coast there was thick with strong reeds that reached out. Like tentacles, they slipped around and over and under each other and pulled the box in, wrapping themselves about it over and over, caressingly. Somehow one reed pushed against another so insistently that the two reeds merged, and then another merged with them, and soon the mass of reeds was a single shrub engulfing the box. And then the shrub grew.

This sort of magic doesn’t happen every day—and magic it surely was. For inside that box lay the corpse of the god Usir, who had known how to bring fertility to the earth, who could make anything grow. So perhaps that very power had transferred from the god to the box as he gave his last breath. Who can know such a thing? Yet that shrub grew faster than any shrub had ever grown before, and became a massive cedar tree, 130 feet tall, studded with cones. Hoopoe birds came in droves to give themselves sand baths under the tree and to nest among its silver-green needle-like leaves.

The mighty cedar could be seen from afar, but it could be smelled even before it was seen, for it gave off a spicy, alluring aroma. Soon the king himself noticed the tree, and he called his queen to his side to inhale its essence. She swooned at the cedar perfume. After all, she was late in her pregnancy and she was given to swooning.

There was no question about it: The tree was majestic, it must grace the king’s palace. It took a troop of workers to cut through the base and haul the tree to the palace, where it became a beautiful column that all could admire. And they did. The column made them feel a certain peace; it offered a sense of assurance that all would be well with the world. It was almost godly in that way. Yet still, no one guessed that inside the trunk nestled the box that held Usir.

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The gigantic cedar that held Usir’s trunk was one of many colossal trees in that land. They could live thousands of years. But this tree was doomed.

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Grief-stricken Aset somehow sensed the birds knew best. She followed their calls to the palace of Kubna, where her husband Usir was hidden within the cedar column.

Back on the shore of Egypt, the goddess Aset lay desperate. Moons had passed and still she remained immobile. But now she was woken from her grief-stricken stupor by the insistent calls bu bu bu, and again bu bu bu, all around her bu bu bu. She sat up, agog at the flock of hoopoes with their colorful crests, strutting in profusion. These were the birds who had nested in the cedar the king had cut down; they were mourning its loss. They had flown all this way searching for a substitute tree when they’d spotted Aset, and instinctively they were drawn to her, instinctively they understood her grief matched theirs.

The birds called bu bu bu and Aset stood. Bu bu bu. The birds took to the air and circled above her. Aset followed, and the procession moved east, a wavering line along the sands, a spiraling in the heavens.

Aset sensed an urgency in the birds and hope swelled her heart. These birds were leading her to Usir. What else could this mean? With each day her hopes grew till her heart was ready to shred.

There, at long last, was the splendid palace of Kubna. Aset wandered, sure the box would be just past that wall, just ’round that corner, just under that eave. But the box was nowhere!

Without warning, without preamble, reason finally coated Aset’s tongue with a bitter salt: Usir was dead. Whether she found the box or not, he was dead. It was almost as though he was nearby, with his spirit telling her that, forcing her to understand.

Aset found a large, smooth, warm rock in the courtyard. She sat and wept. But these were tears of acceptance and exhaustion. It was over. At last.

So she thought.

But inside the Kubna palace the royal handmaidens whispered. A morose stranger sat in the courtyard. She was thin as a wind-whipped pine, but still one could see a beauty in those cheekbones, that long neck, those cupped hands. The royal handmaidens peeked out at her, wary at first, but then, gradually, worried for her. Grief weighed on the stranger so heavily, it hurt them to watch. This woman was broken. They approached on quiet feet.

Aset turned and saw their frightened faces and her wounded heart opened. After all, her grief was due to no fault of theirs. She smiled through tears and patted the empty spot on the rock beside her. These handmaidens were hardly older than girls, innocent and fresh. She plaited their hair and exhaled perfume onto their golden skin, and when they asked what had happened to her, she talked sweetly of nothing. Deities knew that humans weren’t good at discussions about death.

The afternoon passed and one by one the maidens left. Aset folded one hand inside the other and sat. She wasn’t waiting. There was nothing to wait for. She was resting.

Soon those maidens reappeared and took Aset by both hands and led her to their queen, recommending her sincerely.

The queen paused, a finger pressed to her cheek. “You’re not like what the girls said. Not at all.”

Aset didn’t speak. She wasn’t even sure why she was still standing there. She might as well leave.

“You’re older than my usual handmaidens. But I sense your true value.”

Aset jerked to attention. She looked closely at this queen now, at the tired eyes, the flushed cheeks. Did she really know she was in the presence of a goddess?

“I sense the good in you. You can help me in the way I most need help.” The queen bid Aset to follow her into another chamber—an infant’s chamber. The queen picked up her newborn son and placed him in Aset’s arms. “You’re his new nursemaid.”

Beautiful child! Tiny hands with slender fingers and nearly transparent nails, tiny feet with toes that curled at a touch. A mouth that rounded when Aset rounded hers. Eyes that blinked when Aset blinked hers. A round head that gave off the scent of honey, with hair softer than down. What a perfect thing was a baby. Oh, how Aset wished that she and Usir had had children, for then she could go on loving him through the babe.

But for now it was enough to love this queen’s baby, this perfect prince. Aset bathed him and sang to him and held him close. She nuzzled his ear. She adored him.

And soon the tiny prince adored Aset.

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Bereaved Aset, the woman who thought she would never bear a child now that she was a widow, received the precious prince into her loving arms.

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The swallow that was Aset flew above the flames that engulfed her sweet prince. This was to be magic, to render the boy immune from death. Alas, the queen thwarted all.

Then one day, as she leaned against a wide pillar she had taken a liking to, it occurred to Aset that the prince would grow old and die. He would leave her, just as Usir had. She couldn’t go through that pain again.

She had to prevent it. She would confer immortality upon the babe. She could do that! All it took was the right spell and the purification of fire.

Aset gathered cedar brush—for there was much lying near the pillar—and set it aflame. She placed the baby in the fire. He screamed. It was all she could do to keep herself from snatching him back. Yet she mustn’t—she mustn’t. She transformed herself into a swallow, flying round the huge pillar. The child shrieked. But it wouldn’t be long now, the spell was nearly complete, Aset had to keep circling that pillar.

The queen rushed in and pulled the blistered baby from the embers. Aset’s yowl pierced the cosmos. The queen had ruined everything. Instantly, Aset became herself again and revealed that she was a goddess. She demanded that the pillar be split open and that a massive fire be built so she could make the prince immortal.

When the workers split the pillar, the box with Usir fell out. It was still nailed shut, sealed off from air. Aset’s cry of grief nearly strangled her.

And it did strangle the baby prince. He died in his mother’s arms.

Tragedy upon tragedy.

Aset put the coffin in a boat and brought it back to Egypt. She would bury her husband as soon as they arrived home. Yet once they were on Egyptian soil, the desire seized her to open the coffin for one last embrace. Alas, piteous sight. Aset wept on the wasted body of Usir. She closed the coffin and hid it in a swamp while she prepared herself for the rituals of burial.

But during these months Set had learned to transform himself into a fabulous beast, the terror of the desert, with the belly and back of a wolf, a long snout that could pick up any odor, square ears that could detect any sound, and a bent tail that warned others off. Fearsome and vicious, he hunted in that form by night. And that very night Set, when he was out hunting, came across the coffin.

He opened it and ripped Usir’s body into 14 pieces. He threw the scrappy lumps of his brother as far as he could, across the face of Egypt. This way Aset could never give him a proper burial; Usir could never be whole in the ever-after. Set had made mayhem of Aset’s and Usir’s lives.

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Monstrous with envy, Set shredded his brother Usir’s corpse, scattering the pieces. This way he thought he’d steal Usir’s peace in the afterlife, just as he’d stolen it in this life.

In victory, he yowled so loud the earth shook.

Yet still the story is not at its end, for good must prevail—or we would all be strangers to hope.

Aset wept. She sobbed.

Set’s sister-wife Nebet Hut felt splintered. No one could watch the misery of Aset and not be touched. But it was Nebet Hut’s husband who had caused this misery. It was Set—that wild god Set. Didn’t a wife owe loyalty to her husband, even if he was wild? Nebet Hut chewed her knuckles. Her eyes grew glassy.

Aset’s tears fell in the Nile River till it overflowed and flooded the lands. And still she cried.

Nebet Hut shook her head. There were all kinds of loyalty. Aset was her sister, and Usir was her brother, after all. And there was also a touchy and secret matter concerning Nebet Hut’s son Inpu—something that involved Usir and that made Nebet Hut feel she owed Aset.

And so she went to Aset and helped her gather the parts of Usir. They watched for circling birds of prey—a clue every time—and ran from one grisly site to another, until they had collected 13 pieces. But the fourteenth, where was it?

“Lossst,” hissed a passing serpent. “Lossst in a marsh monssster.”

In grief, Aset rolled in the mud.

An ibis waded past making his quiet grrrr, the throaty noise of breeding. And Aset knew this was the god Tehuti, the tongue of the god Ra, come to give advice. So she let out a low, guttural wail, mimicking Tehuti’s, and the pieces of Usir assembled themselves, and Aset fashioned the missing part out of wax and clay, so Usir was whole, and she kissed him into consciousness.

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Aset and Usir had one last night together as man and wife before he had to leave her forever. They used it wisely to seal their love in a child.

Usir looked at her with a vacant, slack face, but Aset kept kissing him and soon both were lost in the sweet delight of matrimony.

When Aset woke in the morning, she reached for her love. Alas! Usir was gone. She had known he had to leave, it was inevitable. The magic wail Tehuti had taught Aset, the wail that brought Usir to life again, was not strong enough to maintain that life. Husband and wife were together only one night. Blessed and wondrous night, unique in its shattering beauty. But gone. Done.

Yet Aset was not alone: She was with child. She’d sensed this even the night before—it was an instant understanding. No one aboveground knew, however, and it was essential that no one find out, for the world had turned hostile. Usir was now safe in the underworld Duat. But Aset was still above, still walking the hot sands of Egypt, still haunted by her murderous brother Set. Set had usurped the lands formerly ruled by Usir; he sat on his brother’s throne, shameless. Aset’s bones would have clacked if her flesh didn’t clothe them. No evil was beyond the monster Set. He must not find out about the child within Aset.

So Aset took off her tjet, the girdle with the filigreed buckle and the intricate knot, and let her gowns flow loose. She bent forward, leaning over her staff, as though her back ached. No one saw the bulges in her belly when the child inside thrashed about. Sometimes Aset couldn’t hold in the smiles those kicks brought. But if anyone asked what made her happy, she recounted the antics of the human children that she was so fond of visiting. Indeed, human women watched how Aset played with their children and they called her the goddess of fertility. They asked her help on matters of family life. They asked how to maintain domestic tranquillity, questions that flustered Aset, because she was the last one to understand that. Look what her brother had done to her husband, just look if you dared. A shiver shot up her spine.

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Aset knew the monster Set would be a danger to her and Usir’s child. So she hid the babe within by walking stooped in flowing gowns.

But she was defiant. Though she was not beside Usir physically, she was beside him in thoughts. The last night they were together, he had said she was like the welcome north wind on the hottest days. He called her the sweet wind that refreshes, and that new name now lived around her as an aura. It brushed her cheek so softly that she couldn’t help but turn her face toward it, like a babe turns to meet the source of food. She felt more enlivened with each day. Yes, she could manage in this life—yes, this was good.

And it could get better. Aset learned that Usir had taken a ruling role in the underworld. She decided to help him in this task. Why not? She couldn’t abide down in Duat—for she was alive. And she couldn’t be a true wife to Usir—for he was dead. But she could visit and stand behind him as he judged the dead. She could blow him kisses, she could be truly the sweet wind that refreshes. Why not? Oh, why not? Who could begrudge her this small concession?

What a joy it was the first time to stand before Usir again in Duat. His eyes were pools of devotion, salty sweet and buoyant—a place to swim, not drown. Then Usir reached out his large hand—that hand that had caressed Aset, whose memory she indulged in each night—and laid it heavily on Aset’s belly and felt the life within, and Aset cried out. Just one cry of loss. For she had to smile, as well. She could manage in this life. Now that she could see Usir again, she could really manage.

Finally, the labor pains started. Aset fled to that same swamp in the delta where she’d hidden Usir’s coffin nine months earlier. There the child was born, and Aset named him Heru after his uncle Heru Wer. Since Ra and Heru Wer spent much time together, Aset hoped Ra would take a special interest in Heru Sa Aset—Heru son of Aset—and might even protect him. But she didn’t count on it. Up aboveground, Aset counted on no one but herself.

She raised her son in secret.

But she knew it would take more than determination and cleverness to keep Heru Sa Aset safe. It would take magic. A spasm racked her—for she had failed so badly in the magic she’d tried to wield to make the little prince of Kubna immortal. Still, Aset shouldn’t be so scared. After all, she had brought Usir back to life that one beautiful night—that was magic. The key was not in transformations and fires, but in the power of words. How obvious. The god Ra had created everything from words. Aset should have recognized that was the right route from the start. Words were the charm.

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Heru Sa Aset was born among lotus blossoms, just as his father Usir died there. That swamp became his home for years—his special place, safe from Set.

And so Aset decided to cultivate the magic of words. She would succeed this time.

How? How could she learn?

And there they were: humans. They swarmed like bees. They were both weak and foolish, so they were continually getting sick and injured. They presented the perfect opportunity for a budding magician to practice on.

Aset cured a cold. Simple enough. She made firm a broken bone. Ha! She calmed a head gone crazy from fear and banished a growth that would have eventually sucked life away. Wahoo! Whatever the ailment, Aset found within herself the words to heal it. She was good at this, and she kept getting better. She had to get perfect—nothing less could protect against Set.

One day a lethal scorpion stung Heru Sa Aset, Aset’s treasured child. She had never tried to cure a god before. But instantly, without prompt, she named the scorpion. That’s all it took. A name, and with it Aset gained power over the scorpion and his poison. The god-boy revived in one breath.

Yes! Aset was at the top of her prowess.

And still fear gnawed at her. Set was the prince of darkness, the blight of the cosmos. Aset had to be the most powerful magician ever. So Aset resolved to take a terrible chance.

The sun god Ra had grown old, and stumbly in his walk. He drooled, as old men do.

Aset followed him, quiet as a shadow. She scooped up that drool and mixed it with dirt and rolled out a snake that she filled with a poison only she knew the antidote to.

In the morning, when Ra went to make his journey across the sky, the snake struck so fast Ra never saw it. The god groaned and threw himself around. The pain was terrible and terrifying. His leg swelled double. His arms tingled. His whole body tingled. He screamed.

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Snakebites were one of the greatest dangers in ancient Egypt, not just to humans and animals, but also to gods. Even Ra was helpless against the cobra’s venom.

Geb and Nut and Tefnut and Shu came rushing.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. Heal me. Use magic.”

“Tehuti! I’ll fetch Tehuti.”

“Not just Tehuti. Find Aset. She’s the best magician.”

But Aset was already there. She’d been there all along, of course, hiding. She stepped past the others now and made a show of examining Ra carefully. Her hands trembled from the deceit. But she was a mother—whatever else she was, she was a mother with a son to protect. She proclaimed, “A snakebite.”

“Ack! The very worst!” Ra fell to the ground and panted. “Heal me!”

“I will.” Aset turned to the others. “Stand back. We need room for the magic to work.” When the others were out of hearing range, Aset put her lips to Ra’s ear. “I’ll cure you. But first, tell me your secret name.”

Every deity had a secret name. If Aset knew Ra’s, she could have Ra’s powers. She would become as powerful as him. She could protect her son Heru Sa Aset.

Ra rolled his head from side to side. No god had yet revealed that secret to any other. But the serpent’s toxins were fierce. Already his vision blurred. The rosy dawn turned gray. He was dizzy and nauseated. “I am the creator of the cosmos,” he choked out, “the ripener of crops. I wear a solar disk on my head and I bring heat.”

“Those aren’t names.”

“At dawn I am Ra-Khepra, the scarab.” Ra breathed with difficulty. “At noon I am Ra-Herakhty, the falcon.” His throat was closing. “At night I am—”

“No!” Aset’s own eyes blurred with tears. This old man was her great-grandfather and she was letting him decay, moment by moment. She had caused this. If he remained stubborn, his blood would stain her hands for eternity. Yet she wouldn’t say the magic words—she wouldn’t abandon her son. “Everyone knows these names, great Ra. I need your secret name.”

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Aset made the snake whose bite only she could cure. A treacherous thing for a great-granddaughter to do. But she was a mother first; she had a son to protect.

“Help me, Aset.”

Her heart broke. But she controlled her tongue; those magic words must not escape. “Your secret name. Your essence. Don’t fail me. Please. Nothing less will do.”

And so Ra whispered to Aset with what would have been his last breath, and she cured him in the nick of time.

From then on, Ra ruled only in the heavens, and Aset ruled on earth, and, of course, her husband Usir ruled below. Everyone thought this was Aset’s grand plan; she wanted supreme power. They didn’t know about her son. They didn’t know her goal was simply to protect him.

But that’s exactly what she did, until he was a young man, strong and clear-eyed and ready. Then she told the other deities that Heru Sa Aset was here, his father’s so