Main Handbook of Egyptian Mythology

Handbook of Egyptian Mythology

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Examines Egyptian mythology, providing an overview essay, chronology of the mythological universe, and alphabetically-arranged entries covering major deities, rituals, themes, and beliefs.
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Handbook of
Egyptian Mythology

Handbooks of World Mythology
Handbook of Arab Mythology, Hasan El-Shamy
Handbook of Celtic Mythology, Joseph F. Nagy
Handbook of Classical Mythology, William Hansen
Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, Geraldine Pinch
Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology,
Kay Almere Read and Jason J. Gonzáles
Handbook of Norse Mythology, John Lindow


Handbook of
Egyptian Mythology
Geraldine Pinch

Santa Barbara, California • Denver, Colorado • Oxford, England

Copyright © 2002 by Geraldine Pinch
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, except for
the inclusion of brief quotations in a review, without prior permission in
writing from the publishers.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Pinch, Geraldine.
Handbook of Egyptian mythology / Geraldine Pinch.

cm. — (Handbooks of world mythology)

Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-57607-242-8 (alk. paper)—ISBN 1-57607-763-2 (ebook)
1. Mythology, Egyptian.

I. Title.

II. Series.


06 05 04 03 02

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This book is also available on the World Wide Web as an e-book.
Visit for details.
130 Cremona Drive, P.O. Box 1911
Santa Barbara, California 93116–1911
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Manufactured in the United States of America


Chronology, xi

1 Introduction, 1
What Is a Myth? 1
Myth and Geography, 2
History and the Sources of Egyptian Myth, 4
Protodynastic (Dynasty 0) and Early Dynastic Periods (Dynasties 1–2):
c. 3200–2686 BCE, 5
Early Kings, 5
The King and the Gods, 6
Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3–6) and First Intermediate Period (Dynasties
7–11): c. 2686–2055 BCE, 8
The Pyramid Builders, 8
The Pyramid Texts, 9
Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (Dynasties;  11–17):
c. 2055–1550 BCE, 12
The Coffin Texts, 13
Literature, 16
Magic and Popular Religion, 17
New Kingdom (Dynasties 18–20) and Third Intermediate Period
(Dynasties 21–24): c. 1550–747 BCE, 19
Temples and Kings, 21
Underworld Books, 24
The Book of the Dead, 26
Mythology in Literature, 28
The End of the New Kingdom, 30
Late Period and Ptolemaic Period (Dynasties 25–30 and the Ptolemies):
747–30 BCE, 31
The Memphite Theology, 32
Persians and Greeks, 34
Alexandria and Memphis, 35



Priests and Temples under the Ptolemies, 37
Isis and Horus, 39
Roman Period: 30 BCE–395 CE, 40
Plutarch’s Osiris, 41
Demotic Literature, 42
Land of Magicians, 43
Post-Pharaonic Egypt, 45

2 Mythical Time Lines, 57
Linear Time, 57
Chaos, 58
Emergence of the Creator, 59
Creation, 61
Period of Direct Rule by the Creator Sun God, 68
Period of Rule by Other Gods, 76
Period of Rule by Kings, 85
Return to Chaos, 89
Cyclical Time, 89
The Egyptian Year, 90
The Solar Cycle, 91
The Journey of the Soul, 93

3 Deities, Themes, and Concepts, 99
Aker, 99
Akhet, 99
Ammut, 100
Amun (Amon, Ammon, Amen), 100
Anat (Anath, Anta), 102
Andjety (Anedjeti), 102
Anti (Anty), 103
Anubis (Anpu, Inpw), 104
Anuket (Anukis), 105
Apis, 105
Apophis (Apep), 106
Arsaphes, 108
Ash, 108
Astarte (Ashtarte), 108
Aten (Aton), 109
Atum (Atem), 111
Baal, 112
Babi (Baba), 112
Baboons, 113

Banebdjedet (Banebdjed), 114
Bastet (Bast, Boubastis, Pasht), 115
Bat, 117
Bata, 117
Benu Bird (Phoenix), 117
Bes and Beset, 118
Birds, 120
Boats, 121
Cattle, 123
Crocodiles, 126
Djed Pillar, 127
Ennead of Heliopolis, 128
Eye of Ra, 128
Eyes of Horus, 131
Feline Deities, 132
Geb, 135
Hand of Atum, 136
Hapy (Hapi), 136
Hathor (H
. wt-h. r), 137
Hatmehyt, 139
Heh Gods, 139
Heka (Hika), 139
Heqet (Heqat, Hekat), 139
Heryshef (Arsaphes, Harsaphes), 141
Hippopotamus Goddesses, 141
Horemakhet (Harmachis), 143
Horus (Hor), 143
Horus the Child (Harpokrates, Harpocrates), 146
Hu, 147
Ihy, 148
Imhotep (Imouthes), 148
Ipet (Opet), 149
Isis, 149
Iusaas, 152
Khentamentiu (Khentamenti), 152
Khenty-Khety, 152
Khepri (Khepry, Khopri), 152
Khnum (Chnum), 153
Khonsu (Khons, Chons), 155
Kings and Princes, 156
Lotus, 158



Maat (Ma’et), 159
Mafdet, 161
Magicians, 161
Mahes (Mihos), 163
Mehet-Weret (Mehurit, Methyer), 163
Mehit (Mehyt, Mekhit), 164
Meretseger, 164
Meskhenet, 164
Min, 164
Montu (Mont, Month), 165
Moon, 166
Mut (Mout), 168
Nefertem (Nefertum), 169
Nehebkau, 169
Neith (Neit), 169
Nekhbet, 170
Nemty, 171
Neper (Nepri), 171
Nephthys, 171
Nun (Noun, Nu), 172
Nut (Nout), 173
Ogdoad of Hermopolis, 175
Onuris (Anhur, Inhur, Inhert), 177
Osiris, 178
Pakhet, 180
Primeval Mound, 180
Primeval Ocean, 181
Ptah, 181
Ra (Re, Pre), 182
Raet-Tawy (Raiyet), 185
Ra-Horakhty, 185
Renenutet (Ernutet, Hermouthis, Thermouthis), 185
Satet (Satis) and Anuket (Anukis), 186
Sekhmet (Sakhmet), 187
Serqet (Serket, Selkis), 189
Seshat (Sechat), 190
Seth (Set, Sutekh), 191
Seven Hathors, 194
Shai (Shay), 194
Shed, 195

Shentayet, 195
Shezmu, 195
Shu (Schu, Chou) and Tefnut (Tefenet), 195
Sia and Hu (Hw), 198
Snakes, 198
Sobek (Suchos), 200
Sokar (Soker, Sokaris), 202
Sons of Horus, 204
Sopdet (Sothis), 205
Sopdu (Sopedu, Soped), 205
Sothis, 206
Souls of Pe and Nekhen, 206
Sphinx, 206
Stars and Planets, 207
Tatjenen (Tatenen), 209
Taweret (Tweret, Taurt, Thoeris), 209
Tayet, 209
Tefnut, 209
Thoth, 209
Two Ladies, 211
Wadjyt (Wadjet, Ouadjet, Uto), 213
Wepwawet (Upwaut), 213
Weret-Hekau, 214
Wosret, 214

4 Egyptian Myth: Annotated Print and Nonprint Resources, 215
Print Resources, 215
General Works on Egyptian Culture, 215
Egpytian Religion and Myth, 217
Books and Articles on Egyptian Myth in other Languages, 220
English Translations of Ancient Texts, 220
A Selection of Literature Influenced by Egyptian Myth, 222
Nonprint Resources, 224
Videos, 224
Web Sites and CD-Roms, 224
Glossary, 227
Appendix: Primary Sources, 233
Index, 239
About the Author, 257



Most of the dates for the kingdoms and periods into which Egyptian history is
traditionally divided are only approximate.
This chronology mainly follows that given in I. Shaw and P. Nicholson,
British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press,
1995). Abbreviations used are as follows: BCE = before common era (also known
as BC); CE = common era (also known as AD); and c. = circa (the approximate
time of).
Predynastic c. 5500–3200 BCE
Protodynastic c. 3200–3100 BCE (Dynasty 0)
Early Dynastic c. 3100–2686 BCE (Dynasties 1–2)
Old Kingdom c. 2686–2181 BCE (Dynasties 3–6)
First Intermediate Period c. 2181–2055 BCE (Dynasties 7–11)
Middle Kingdom c. 2055–1650 BCE (Dynasties 11–13)
Second Intermediate Period c. 1650–1550 BCE (Dynasties 14–17)
New Kingdom c. 1550–1069 BCE (Dynasties 18–20)
Third Intermediate Period c. 1069–747 BCE (Dynasties 21–24)
Late Period c. 747–332 BCE (Dynasties 25–30 and three Persian kings)
Greco-Roman Period 332 BCE–395 CE
(Macedonian Dynasty 332–310 BCE; Ptolemaic Dynasty 305–30 BCE;
Roman rule 30 BCE–395 CE)



e River

Gebel Barkal/





Abu Simbel


Philae Island

Sehel Island

Elephantine Island

Kom Ombo




















Oasis- Hibis
Deir el Medina, Medinet Habu,
Valley of the Kings
Medamud Nagada/Ombos










Lake Moeris




200 Mi.


300 Km.



Siwa Oasis


el-Hagar Buto




Map One. Ancient Egypt and Nubia. The Nile river flows from south to north, so
Egypt's southern boundary on the First Cataract was thought of as the top of the
country, and the Mediterranean coast as the bottom.
















N ile








ite N




e R.

ile R .


Map Two. The Egyptian World. This map shows the only countries and civilizations
known to the Egyptians through direct contact up to the end of the second
millennium BCE.


If asked this question, most people would reply that a myth is a story that is not
true, even though you might want it to be. Scholarly arguments about the definition of a myth have been going on for more than 2,000 years. Many definitions have been proposed. Among the most common are that myths are stories
about gods, myths are sacred stories, myths are stories that explain the way the
world is, or myths are simply traditional stories that hand on collective knowledge or experience.
Writers from various disciplines and intellectual movements have interpreted myth in different ways. Myths have been seen as a “disease of language,” as garbled memories of historical events, as a mode of prelogical
thought, as expressions of the subconscious mind, as symbolic descriptions of
the natural world or symbolic statements about the social order, and as the
spoken part of ritual.1 As theories to explain the whole of world mythology,
these interpretations all have flaws, but each of them is applicable to some
Egyptian myths.
In his book on the meaning and functions of myth, G. S. Kirk proposed
three main categories of myths.2 His first category is myths told for entertainment. This is a reminder that myths may be sacred, but they are not necessarily
solemn. The validity of this category might be challenged, but some cultures do
seem to have told one version of a myth for entertainment while another, more
secret version, was used in rituals.3
Kirk’s second category includes operative, iterative, or validatory myths.
These are stories about things that may not have really happened, but the stories themselves are thought to have power to transform the real world. Such
myths “tend to be repeated regularly on ritual or ceremonial occasions . . . to
bring about a desirable continuity in nature or society.”4 Myths that are used to
justify and maintain a particular institution or state of affairs are sometimes
known as charter myths. In Kirk’s third category are explanatory or speculative
myths. These may be simple etiological myths that explain the origin of an object, custom, or natural feature,5 or they may be complex myths that try to an-



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
swer the questions that have always troubled humanity, such as why people
die. Some myths seem to acknowledge that these questions may be unanswerable but provide strategies for coping with the sorrows and contradictions of human life. Examples of all these different categories of myths can be found
within Egyptian mythology. In order to explore this mythology, we must first
look at the geography and history of Ancient Egypt.

Egypt is a large country in the northeast corner of the continent of Africa, but
modern geographical terms have little relevance to how the Ancient Egyptians
saw themselves. They had no conception of the huge size of Africa. In the third
millennium BCE the Egyptians’ known world extended only from what are now
Greece and Turkey in the north to what is now Ethiopia in the south, and from
Libya in the west to what is now Iraq in the east (see Map Two). The Egyptians
believed that they were set apart from the people who lived in these surrounding countries. The ancient word Kemet (usually translated as Egypt) literally
means Black Land. This referred to the rich black soil of the land on either bank
of the great river Nile, which flows through the center of Egypt. The Egyptians
were claiming to be the people of the valley, but they had not always been so.
For many millennia North Africa enjoyed a moist climate. Vast areas that
are now desert were then grasslands with large animal populations. Nomadic
peoples, all with a fairly similar culture, ranged across the grasslands. From
around the sixth millennium BCE on, the climate became drier and hotter, and
the grasslands gradually turned into desert. The first Egyptians built villages on
the edges of the Nile valley, where they mainly survived by hunting and fishing.
By the fourth millennium BCE, agriculture-based communities were established
in the Nile valley and Delta. This great climatic and cultural change may have
shaped the idea found in Egyptian myth that the world had once been different.
Egypt had become one of the driest places on earth and a hard country to
get in or out of. To the north there were marshes, saltwater lakes, and the
Mediterranean Sea. The Ancient Egyptians were never enthusiastic seafarers
and were one of the few coastal cultures to worship no deities of the sea. To the
east, west, and south there were deserts that were dangerous to cross. These
deserts made up about 90 percent of Egypt’s territory. The Egyptians called
them the Red Land in contrast to the Black Land of the valley.6 The mountainous areas of the deserts contained gold, gemstones, and types of hard stone that
could be used to make long-lasting buildings and artifacts. The south of the
country often went without rain for many years at a stretch. When rain did


Figure 1. The Nile Valley (Black Land) seen from the desert hills (Red Land). (Courtesy of
Geraldine Pinch)

come, it was in the form of violent desert storms that could lead to destructive
flash floods. The usually cloudless skies made it particularly easy for the
Egyptians to observe the stars and planets. Much early mythology may have developed to explain the movement of celestial bodies.
The habitable part of Egypt was effectively a giant oasis created by the Nile
and its annual flood, which is known as the inundation. Every year a combination of melting snows and monsoon rains in the mountains of Ethiopia caused a
huge increase in the amount of water in the Nile. When the swollen river
reached Egypt, it flooded all the low-lying land in the Nile valley and Delta, depositing a thick layer of silt.7 As the floods went down, the fields were planted,
and crops such as emmer wheat and barley grew very quickly in the moist, fertile soil. In a good year, the Egyptians could grow more grain than they needed
to feed the population. In bad years, the flood might not be high enough to
reach all the fields, or it might be too high and sweep away villages and towns
and drown thousands of people. The whole welfare of the country depended on
this one phenomenon, and because of this the Ancient Egyptians seem to have
felt both uniquely blessed and uniquely vulnerable.
Aspects of the inundation were personified as deities (see “Hapy” in
“Deities, Themes, and Concepts”), but there was no god or goddess of the Nile.



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
The annual rising of the Nile was thought of as part of the divine order of things
decreed by a creator deity. This divine order was known as maat, and the creator was often identified with the god of the sun. The sun was the great
provider of the light and warmth necessary for life. Its rays were also powerful
enough to blind or kill. From early times on, the Egyptians believed that they
needed a spiritual leader who could treat with the dangerous world of the gods
on behalf of humanity. This leader was usually a king with semidivine status.
In Egypt, concepts that might in other cultures belong to the realm of abstract philosophy were expressed by symbols, images, and, to a lesser extent,
myths. The divine order envisaged by the Egyptians placed their country at the
center of the created world. This world was still surrounded by the primeval
waters (the nun) from which the creator had originally emerged. The ultimate
source of the Nile and the inundation was believed to be in the nun. Foreign
lands and the deserts that bordered the Nile valley were said to belong to the
realm of chaos (isfet), the force that constantly threatened the divine order.
There was a tradition that the creator and the numerous gods and goddesses
whom he/she had created originally lived in Egypt itself. At the beginning of
history they withdrew up into the heavens or down under the earth, though
their spirits might be persuaded to reside in shrines built for them by the king.
The Egyptians believed that some supernatural beings could still be encountered in the wilder regions of the earth, such as the remote desert and the areas
of untamed marshland on the edges of the Nile valley and in parts of the Delta.
Many of the key events in Egyptian myth, such as the burial of the murdered god Osiris, were supposed to have happened in specific places in Egypt or
in its neighboring countries. Thus a mythical geography can be superimposed
on the physical geography. Every major Egyptian temple was designed as a
miniature cosmos in which the main events in mythical history were repeatedly played out, so there came to be many “tombs of Osiris.” It is this kind of
apparent contradiction that has led many distinguished scholars to write about
Egyptian myth in a tone of baffled irritation. G. S. Kirk complained that a “liberalism of interpretation, amounting at times to a chaotic indifference to consistency and meaning, is characteristic of Egyptian thought.”8 Much of this confusion can be resolved if the myths are examined in the contexts in which they
occur, rather than in isolation.

Ancient Egyptian religion had no official holy book equivalent to the Bible or the
Koran (Quran). The relationships between deities did not become fixed at one

moment in time but went on changing and developing for thousands of years.
Egyptian mythology was never gathered by priests into one “authorized version”
or harmonized in any long literary work comparable to Hesiod’s Theogony, an
important source for the study of Greek mythology. Comparatively few literary
treatments of myths survive from any stage of the Egyptian language.
The mythology of Ancient Egypt has to be laboriously pieced together from
a variety of written and visual sources. The extent and nature of these sources
varied greatly during the 3,500 years that the native Pharaonic culture dominated Egypt. The remainder of this chapter will give a historical overview of the
sources for Egyptian myth.

C. 3200–2686 BCE
According to a tradition found in ancient chronologies, Egypt was originally divided into separate kingdoms of Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt. A
King Menes was said to have united these kingdoms and founded a new capital
at Memphis to be the “balance of the Two Lands.” Menes cannot easily be identified with any specific king known from contemporary records.

Early Kings
There is plenty of archaeological evidence for a series of powerful southern
kings in the late fourth millennium BCE. The hieroglyphic system of writing
may have been invented for administrative and ritual purposes at the court of
these kings.9 Two early towns were associated with their rule: Nagada, later
known as Ombos, where the local god was Seth, and Nekhen, later known as
Hierakonpolis, where a falcon god was prominent. This falcon god came to be
identified with Horus, although Horus seems to have been a northern god
in origin.
There is much less evidence for a unified northern kingdom at this time.
The gods Seth and Horus were later presented as warring opposites in need of
reconciliation. Some Egyptologists have argued that a historical war between
Ombos and Hierakonpolis, or between the north and south of Egypt, was the
origin of the myth of the conflict between Horus and Seth.10 This kind of “historicizing” approach to myth has been out of fashion for many years but has recently been revived.



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
Objects from the late Protodynastic Period belonging to kings called
Narmer, Aha, and Scorpion have been recovered from temple deposits at
Hierakonpolis and Abydos. These kings may have been rulers of most of
Egypt. They probably all contributed to the legend of Menes the Uniter. Their
ritual objects belong to a formative stage in Egyptian art. Strict rules were being developed to govern the content and style of the art used in palaces, temples, or tombs. This formal court-based art rapidly replaced previous styles
and became the standard canon for over 3,000 years.11 Myths often focus on
episodes of intense conflict or tragedy, but the Egyptian rules of “decorum”
usually made it impermissible to illustrate such episodes in formal art. The
images used in art were felt to have power to affect the real world, so order
had to be shown triumphing over chaos and good over evil. Violent mythical
episodes such as that in which Seth tears out the eye of Horus were not represented directly.

The King and the Gods
From the First Dynasty onward, every Egyptian king was called a Horus. The
extent to which Egyptian rulers were regarded as divine is much disputed,12
but the kings of the Early Dynastic Period certainly enjoyed more power and
responsibility than anyone else in their culture. They were rulers of the first
large nation-state in history. The king was the political, religious, and military leader of this state. Royal annals for the Early Dynastic Period partially
survive in a copy on the Palermo Stone and related fragments.13 The annals
list the kings of Egypt, starting with a series of prehistoric kings.
Seal impressions and small bone or wood labels of the Early Dynastic
Period portray kings engaging with a variety of deities.14 Mesopotamian seals
and sealings of a comparable date appear to show episodes or characters from
myths set in the realm of the gods. The Egyptian pieces mainly show deities
as “resident” in statues or cult objects in man-made shrines. The labels record
(or anticipate) visits by kings to shrines in different parts of the country. The
royal annals record many years for which the most important events were
deemed to be the dedication of cult images or the king’s participation in rituals, such as visiting the sacred lake of the god Heryshef (“He who is upon his
lake”) or “spearing the hippopotamus.”15
There is plenty of evidence by the Early Dynastic Period for a complex
pantheon of Egyptian deities who could be represented in a variety of human,
animal, or semihuman forms. Whether myths about these deities were cur-

rent at this stage is hard to say. The unification of the country and the subsequent patronage of local cults by each king must have led to some kind of organization of the pantheon at this time. Deities began to be grouped into
pairs, groups, or hierarchies. The creation of relationships between deities
who had previously been worshipped in isolation may have generated myths.
Among the earliest pairings of deities were the Two Ladies and the Two
Lords. The Two Ladies were the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjyt. In the symbolic language that had developed to express ideas about kingship, the Two
Ladies represented Upper and Lower Egypt and were identified with the
White Crown of the south and the Red Crown of the north. The Two Lords
were Horus and Seth. Most Early Dynastic Period kings associated themselves with Horus by showing a Horus falcon on the serekh that enclosed
their names. The names and titles taken by a king at the start of his reign
identified the ways in which he manifested Horus and acted as a kind of policy statement.
During the Second Dynasty a king called Peribsen replaced the Horus falcon with the curious composite animal that represented the god Seth.
Peribsen may have been trying to assert the primacy of his local god, but he
seems to have lost his throne to a king called Khasekhemwy from
Hierakonpolis. Khasekhemwy placed both the Horus falcon and the Seth animal above his name and included the phrase “the Two Lords are at rest in
him” in his title. This seems to be an early example of the Egyptian tendency
to present actual conflicts in mythological terms.
Two sculptures of Khasekhemwy wearing the White Crown may be the
oldest known statues of a specific historical ruler from anywhere in the
world. The king’s enemies are shown as a chaotic mass of contorted figures
under his feet, so the statues embody the triumph of order over chaos. The
reign of Khasekhemwy seems to have marked a change in royal policy.
Recent excavations have confirmed that he built several huge funerary complexes at several different sites. A greater proportion of the country’s resources seems to have been diverted toward the royal mortuary cult. The emphasis was shifting from a system in which the king honored the gods and
goddesses in their local shrines to one in which the gods and goddesses were
brought together to help sanctify the king in life and the afterlife.
This trend developed further in the Third Dynasty. Some Egyptologists
place the Third Dynasty at the end of the Early Dynastic Period, whereas others put it at the beginning of the Old Kingdom. Ancient Egyptian king lists
gave particular prominence to a Third Dynasty ruler called Netjerikhet, later
known as Djoser (Zoser). His reign was regarded as the beginning of a new era.



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology

C. 2686–2055 BCE
In later times the Egyptians looked back on the Old Kingdom as a golden age of
stability and achievement. King Djoser was remembered for thousands of years
as the king for whom the first pyramid was built. This was the step pyramid at
Saqqara, one of the world’s earliest great stone buildings. Early Dynastic kings
had high-walled funerary enclosures in mud brick and separate tombs under
great mounds. The two forms were put together at Saqqara, so the mound had
to become higher to be visible above the great enclosure walls. A mound was
also found as the focal point of some early temples, such as at Hierakonpolis.
Such mounds may represent the Primeval Mound that features in Egyptian creation myths (see “Deities, Themes, and Concepts”), but there is no written evidence from this period to confirm this.

The Pyramid Builders
The man in charge of building the pyramid complex of Djoser was an official
named Imhotep. At this period, literacy was mainly confined to such officials
and their households. Many of these officials served as part-time priests in the
cult places of deities and deceased kings.16 Imhotep, who was a priest of the sun
god at Heliopolis, was later credited with writing a book of wisdom. This
earned him a place as the first of Egypt’s great sages and eventual deification
(see “Deities, Themes, and Concepts”). The tradition may reflect an actual advance in the uses of writing at this period.
The development of long, connected texts only seems to have taken place
in Egypt centuries after the introduction of writing. An incomplete naos (inner
shrine) from Heliopolis that dates to Djoser’s reign is carved with some of the
earliest known integrated texts and reliefs. The images of the gods shown in the
carvings on the naos are accompanied by short speeches saying what they will
do for the king. These images may be the oldest surviving representation of the
Ennead of Heliopolis, a group of nine deities that was very important in the creation myths recorded in later times. Some of these myths could already have
been current, but whether they were written down or existed only in oral form
is not clear. A type of religious text that does seem to have developed in this period was the topographical list.17 This listed deities according to their cult
places and summarized their functions and qualities with epithets. Some epi-

thets, such as Horus, “protector of his father,” suggest the existence of a story
behind them.
In the Fourth Dynasty the king’s role was redefined as being “‘the son of Ra,”
the deputy of the sun god on earth. Sneferu, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty,
was one of Egypt’s greatest builders. Three pyramids were completed in his reign,
each with two temples for the funerary cult of the king. Later literary tradition
was favorable to Sneferu but not to his successor Khufu (Cheops), the builder of
the Great Pyramid at Giza (see under “Kings and Princes” and “Magicians” in
“Deities, Themes, and Concepts”). Writing in the fifth century BCE, the Greek
historian Herodotus reported a legend that King Khufu had been cursed by the
gods for closing down their temples to divert resources to his pyramid.
Archaeological evidence suggests an element of truth to this tradition.
Local temples seem to have received little royal support during the Fourth and
Fifth Dynasties. The huge pyramid complexes of this era seem to concentrate
wholly on the divinity of the king, but this is partly an accident of preservation.
Reliefs and statues in the badly damaged pyramid temples did once show the
king interacting with many of the deities of Egypt. Pyramid complexes have
been interpreted as “resurrection machines” for the king and as models of the
Egyptian cosmos, making them a kind of mythology in solid form.18 The kings
of the Fifth Dynasty had smaller pyramids, but several of them built magnificent temples for the sun god.
The favored elite who served Old Kingdom rulers were rewarded with beautifully decorated tombs in the royal cemeteries. Many of these tomb owners had
personal names that linked them with deities, such as Ptah-hotep (“the god
Ptah is satisfied”). The inscriptions in their tombs tell us that many of them
were part-time priests in the temples and shrines of deities, but at this period it
was not permissible to show even a statue of a deity in a private tomb. The prevailing reticence about religion in daily life makes it difficult to know much
about the gods at this period. A rich new source of evidence appeared in the
twenty-fourth century BCE, when hieroglyphic inscriptions were carved inside
the pyramid tomb of King Weni (Unas). These inscriptions, composed in the
language known as Old Egyptian, are now called the Pyramid Texts.

The Pyramid Texts
The Pyramid Texts are the oldest of the three principal collections of Egyptian
funerary literature.19 They are also among the earliest religious writings known
from anywhere in the world. The texts are divided into sections; each is preceded
by an Egyptian phrase meaning “words to be spoken” but sometimes translated



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology

as “spell” or “incantation.” These
incantations can be as short as a
single sentence or many paragraphs long. The pyramid of King
Weni contains around 300 incantations, but more than 800 are
currently known. Pyramid Texts
have been found in the pyramids
of five Old Kingdom kings and
three queens. No two pyramids
have exactly the same selection.
No illustrations accompany
the Pyramid Texts, though the
ceilings of royal burial chambers
were usually decorated with stars.
Many hieroglyphic signs consist
of images of living creatures.
In the writing of the Pyramid
Texts, potentially harmful creatures such as snakes, scorpions,
and some kinds of birds and
people are often shown dismembered or skewered with knives.
This suggests that there was a
Figure 2. A section of the Pyramid Texts in the
strong fear of the latent power of
antechamber of the pyramid of King Weni. The
images during this period.
antechamber represented the Akhet, the place where
The texts themselves seem to
the dead king would be transformed and rise again
have been adapted from a variety
like the sun above the horizon. (Courtesy of Princeton
of genres, such as hymns, lists of
divine names and epithets, spells
from the type of magic used in
daily life, and the “recitations” that accompanied ritual actions. Many were
composed in the first person and would have been highly dramatic when spoken or chanted aloud. Some of the incantations may have been passed down
orally for many generations and only written down when the Pyramid Texts
were first assembled. The majority of the texts probably belong to the “secret
knowledge” written on leather or papyrus rolls, which is known to have been
kept in the libraries attached to some Old Kingdom palaces and temples. The
composing, copying, and reading out of these sacred books were the province of
a special class of priests, known as lector priests. No actual books of this kind

have survived from the Old Kingdom, and they are rare from later periods too.
No major temple library has ever been discovered intact, and this gap is one of
many in the sources for Egyptian myth.
The main purpose of assembling these texts and inscribing them inside
pyramids was to help the body of the deceased king to escape the horror of putrefaction and his spirit to ascend to the celestial realm where he would take
his place among the gods. Some of the texts were probably recited during the
king’s funeral or as part of the mortuary cult that continued after his death.
Others may have been intended to be spoken by the deceased king as he entered
the afterlife. In this type of incantation, the king took on the role of many different deities.
Around 200 deities are mentioned in the Pyramid Texts. Some are the
major deities already known from cult temples, such the fertility god Min and
the creator goddess Neith. Others are entities such as snake deities and celestial ferrymen who inhabit a complex and intensely imagined realm of the
gods. The most frequently mentioned deities are Anubis, Atum, Geb, Horus,
Isis, Nephthys, Nut, Osiris, Ra, Seth, Shu, and Thoth (see “Deities, Themes,
and Concepts”). These include most of the deities who make up the Ennead of
Heliopolis, and it is often argued that the Pyramid Texts largely represent the
theology of the solar temple at Heliopolis. A stellar element was also important in the Pyramid Texts. The king was destined to join the “imperishable
stars,” and the god Osiris was identified with the constellation of Orion and
the goddess Isis with the Dog Star, Sirius.20 The cult of Osiris is hardly known
before the Fifth Dynasty, but he gradually became the most important funerary god.
One thing the Pyramid Texts are not is a collection of narrative myths.
They do contain numerous allusions to myths, many of which are difficult to
interpret. Some passages include what have been called “mythical statements.”
These give the bare outlines of an event that has taken place in the divine
realm, such as “Horus comes and Thoth appears. They raise up Osiris from
upon his side and make him stand erect in front of the two Enneads.”21
Many of the most important themes of Egyptian mythology, such as the
journey of the sun god in his solar barque, the murder of the good god Osiris,
and the violent conflict between Horus and Seth, are already present in the
Pyramid Texts. These texts are also the earliest source for the complex array of
myths and symbols that the Egyptians constructed on the theme of creation.
The gods as depicted in the Pyramid Texts often seem violent, hostile, and terrifying beings, and this is a consistent picture in Egyptian funerary texts.
Near the end of the Sixth Dynasty, sections of the Pyramid Texts began to be
used in the tombs of important but nonroyal people in various parts of Egypt.



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
This has been seen as one of the symptoms of a breakdown of royal authority
that led to the fall of the Old Kingdom.22 In the twenty-second century BCE, Egypt
entered a time of disunity, which historians call the First Intermediate Period.
There were still kings ruling from Memphis, but they did not control the
whole country. A rival dynasty emerged from a place called Herakleopolis. One
of these kings was traditionally credited with writing the remarkable work
known as the Teaching for King Merikare. This text mentions a brutal civil war
in which the king had been involved. Later Egyptian literature generally portrayed the First Intermediate Period as a time of chaos and misery when the
gods had withdrawn their blessing.
Only one First Intermediate Period king had a pyramid inscribed with
Pyramid Texts, but they continued to be used in some private burials.23 A group
who benefited from the relaxation of royal authority was the nomarchs (provincial governors). These nomarchs had close ties with their local temples, and it
was probably among the priesthood of these temples that an innovative new
body of funerary texts began to develop. The independence of the nomarchs and
the period of disunity were brought to an end in the late twenty-first century
BCE by a king called Nebhepetra Montuhotep (Mentuhotep), who came from the
southern city of Thebes.

PERIOD (DYNASTIES 11–17): C. 2055–1550 BCE
Once Nebhepetra Montuhotep was established as king of all Egypt, he ruled
from Memphis, but he built shrines for important gods all over the country. He
was eventually buried at western Thebes in a mortuary complex whose chief
feature seems to have been a representation of the Primeval Mound, the place
where creation began.
In the twentieth century BCE, kings of the Twelfth Dynasty built a new
royal residence called Itjtawy and were buried under pyramids at various desert
sites. None of these royal tombs was inscribed inside. Elaborate temples for the
royal mortuary cult were built near these pyramids, but none of them has survived in good condition. Nor have many of the temples built for deities during
this period survived. One tantalizing text known as the Ramesseum Dramatic
Papyrus seems to be the script for a religious ritual in which the king took part
in the reenactment of mythical events, such as the coronation of the god Horus
(see Figure 3).24
More is known about the religious life of the government officials and their
families who formed the elite of Egyptian society. In their decorated tombs, no-



Figure 3. A page from the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus. This Middle Kingdom papyrus contains
the script for a royal ritual based on mythical events. (British Museum)

marchs could be shown presiding over religious festivals and venerating sacred
objects. Other modes of religious activity and belief could be presented in encoded ways.25 Short hymns to deities, of the type that might have been sung at
festivals, start to be written on tomb walls or funerary stelae. The coffins in
elite burials of this period were sometimes painted with texts and scenes that
formed part of the second of the major collections of funerary literature: the
Coffin Texts (CT).

The Coffin Texts
Coffin Texts is a modern name for the diverse body of spells or recitations used
on burial equipment during the Middle Kingdom. These texts were mainly
painted on wooden coffins, but they also appeared on tomb walls and on funerary items such as stelae and canopic chests. The Coffin Texts were composed in
Middle Egyptian, a form of the Egyptian language that became standard for literary works. The texts were usually written in cursive (simplified) hieroglyphs,
but some examples are in hieratic, a script developed for administrative and lit-


Handbook of Egyptian Mythology

Figure 4. Outer coffin of Gua. Middle Kingdom coffin painted with a map showing the
safest routes for the soul to take through the underworld. Such maps formed part of
the Book of Two Ways. (British Museum)

erary uses. Modern editors of the Coffin Texts have so far assembled 1,185 different spells. Only a small selection of these was used in any one burial.
Many spells in the Coffin Texts are also known from versions in the
Pyramid Texts. Both collections may derive from an archive of mortuary texts
written on papyrus that does not survive. Some of the Coffin Texts spells are
given titles that define their function, such as Spell for Navigating in the Great

Barque of Ra, or include instructions for the rituals that should accompany
them. A few spells incorporate elaborate glosses to explain obscure passages.
These may reflect the way that religious knowledge was expounded among the
elite. Some spells are monologues spoken in the person of a deity, beginning
with phrases such as “I am the Inundation-deity who provides food”(CT 320);
others are dialogues between deities that amount to miniature religious dramas.
A few sections of the Coffin Texts have vignettes: illustrations that form an integral part of the spell. The most elaborate of these are the maps that belong to
a section of the Coffin Texts known as the Book of Two Ways (see Figure 4). 26
These maps, which were usually painted on the floor of coffins, are the earliest known maps from any culture. The Book of Two Ways was nothing less
than an illustrated guidebook to the afterlife. It claimed to give two routes (by
water and by land) through a sinister divine realm beyond the horizon and to
provide the deceased with the spells they would need to get past the monstrous
guardians they would meet on the way. The deceased had to pass through the
mysterious region of Rosetau, where the body of Osiris lay surrounded by walls
of flame. If the deceased man or woman proved worthy, he or she might be
granted a new life in a paradise called the Field of Offerings. The Book of Two
Ways has been described by Erik Hornung as representing “the results of government-funded research into the hereafter,”27 but research may be too academic a word. The extraordinary visual detail in which the afterlife is presented
has a hallucinatory quality similar to that of the “spirit voyages” induced by
shamans in many cultures. 28
Although they are not narratives, some spells in the Coffin Texts describe
major events in the Egyptian creation story and even provide evidence for
Egyptian views about the end of the world (see “Return to Chaos” under
“Linear Time” in “Mythical Time Lines”). The creator god Atum-Ra and his
offspring Shu and Tefnut are particularly prominent. Many texts deal with
transformations of the sun god into various forms. A new element is a stress on
the dangers faced by the sun god during his celestial voyages, such as attacks by
the chaos monster Apophis. The prominence of the solar cult leads some
Egyptologists to believe that the Coffin Texts were, like the Pyramid Texts,
mainly generated by the priests of Heliopolis. Other Egyptologists point to the
huge range of deities that feature in this collection and see the Coffin Texts as
being more representative of regional traditions.29
Coffin Texts spells have been found in sites all over Egypt, but the majority
come from the geographical region known as Middle Egypt. The local deities of
Middle Egypt, such as Thoth and the group of primeval beings later known as
the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, feature in many of the spells. Thoth also appears in
many of the spells that allude to the conflict between Horus and Seth and the



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
rescue of the body of Osiris. By the time of the Coffin Texts, all the elite dead
could be identified with Osiris, the god who died and rose again.

The same learned class of priest-officials who composed or used the Coffin
Texts were also the writers and readers of Middle Kingdom literature. The
hymns that were sung to deities each dawn in temples and when statues of
deities left their sanctuaries during festivals can contain beautiful poetry.30
Such hymns were sometimes copied onto papyrus to be enjoyed as literature
or inscribed on stelae dedicated by pious individuals. Middle Kingdom hymns
mainly consist of sequences of divine epithets, but these can be helpful in
reconstructing the myths that may have been current about deities in this
Popular in the Middle Kingdom were texts in which a father instructs his
son on the right way to behave in life. These are often known as Instruction or
Wisdom Texts. One of the topics Instruction Texts deal with is the proper relationship between humanity and the gods, so they sometimes allude to mythical
events, such as the sun god’s decision to destroy rebellious humanity. Other literary works that deal with ethical issues are in the form of prophecies or dialogues between a man and a supernatural being.31
In a text comparable to the biblical Book of Job, a man named Ipuur
(Ipuwer) questions the Lord of All about why suffering and injustice are rife in
Egypt. The god’s replies are not very well preserved in the only surviving
manuscript, but the gist is that people must accept responsibility for their own
actions.32 Some Egyptologists assign the Dialogue of Ipuur to a genre of pessimistic literature that describes Egypt as a society in chaos. It used to be
thought that these texts were written during the turbulent First Intermediate
Period or very shortly afterward, but they have now been redated to the high
Middle Kingdom or even to the Second Intermediate Period. The texts mythologize the past in order to praise the present or predict the future. They see Egypt
as a battleground in a continuing cosmic struggle between order and chaos.
Literary narratives had developed by this period, though only a few have
survived. There was almost certainly a parallel tradition of oral storytelling.
Most Egyptian texts were intended for reading aloud, and stories could have
passed from an oral tradition into a written one and back again, as they have in
Arab storytelling in more recent times.33 In some Middle Kingdom stories, gods
feature as characters. If the definition of myth as “stories about gods” is accepted, these narratives might count as myths, but they are really about people

who happen to encounter gods. Another common definition of myth is “stories
about the world of the gods,” but these Middle Kingdom tales are set in the human world, sometimes in a specific historical period.
A series of linked stories set in the Third and Fourth Dynasties describes
marvels performed by the magicians of this era, such as transforming a wax
crocodile into a real one.34 In the framing story, five deities disguise themselves
as people to help a mortal woman who is about to give birth to triplets destined
to be kings. An incomplete story tells of an alarming encounter between a
herdsman and a seductive goddess.35 Another relates how an official sent on a
mission was shipwrecked on a mysterious island.36 There he encounters a giant
serpent who seems to be a form of the creator sun god.
One Middle Kingdom narrative that only features divine characters is a
fragmentary story about the attempted seduction of Horus by Seth, an event alluded to in the Pyramid Texts. Some Egyptologists refuse to class this as a genuine myth because it may have formed part of a spell used in healing magic.37

Magic and Popular Religion
Heka, the Egyptian term usually translated as “magic,” was one of the forces
used by the creator to make the world. Humans were permitted to use magic in
daily life to protect themselves or to heal others. Knowledge of written magic
was confined to the literate elite, so it is not surprising that some spells have a
distinct literary quality. Healing spells often identify the doctor-magician with
a deity skilled in the use of heka, such as Isis or Thoth; the patient with a deity
who suffered in myth, such as Horus the Child (see “Deities, Themes, and
Concepts”); and the disease or problem with a hostile supernatural force.
These identifications were sometimes extended into a narrative of the misfortune that befell the deity and its ultimate resolution. A complex story about
the poisoning of the sun god, known as the True Name of Ra (see “Period of
Direct Rule by the Creator Sun God” under “Linear Time” in “Mythical Time
Lines”), is an example that may have been composed as early as the Middle
Kingdom. By creating these links, the doctor-magician hoped to mobilize cosmic forces to act on behalf of the patient as they once had on behalf of the deity.
J. F. Borghouts, who has edited and translated many of the magical texts, commented that although some mythical themes that occur in spells are not known
from other sources, “There is, however, not a shred of proof that a specific kind
of ‘unorthodox’ mythology was especially coined à bout portant for this
genre.”38 Indeed, the efficacy of such spells may have partly depended on the patients’ being familiar with the story of which they were being made a part.



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
Similar links between human and divine events were created in visual form
on magical objects of the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period.
Ivory wands that were used to protect newborn children and their mothers
show a wide array of divine beings, some in monstrous forms (see Figure 30).
Many of these have been identified with the deities of Middle Egypt who feature in the Coffin Texts. Brief inscriptions on some of the wands state that
these deities have come to fight on behalf of a particular child. The wands seem
to be based on a myth of an endangered divine child hundreds of years before
such a myth is clearly delineated in narrative sources. Some of the creatures
shown on the wands, such as the griffin, feature in Egyptian animal fables
known from much later periods.
The wands suggest an almost lost world of oral traditions concerning the
gods. They were also among the first private objects to include depictions of
deities, although most of these are not in the formal style found in temples. The
late Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period were times of intellectual and religious change. At the height of the Twelfth Dynasty, the power
and influence of the provincial elites had been suppressed by the crown. This
seems to have been one of the factors that led to a decline in the use of the
Coffin Texts.
By the Thirteenth Dynasty royal authority was also in decline, and this
may have led to greater freedom of expression in religious art and literature.
Images of deities started to be shown on votive objects dedicated by nonroyal
people, particularly in the holy city of Abydos. Middle Kingdom inscriptions
tell of festivals at Abydos in which large numbers of people joined in ceremonies that reenacted key events in the myth of Osiris.39 It was around this
time that an ancient royal tomb at Abydos was reidentified as the burial place
of Osiris. This merging of mythical and physical geography was to become increasingly characteristic of Egyptian culture.
That culture seemed to suffer a setback when a Palestinian dynasty took
control of the Delta region of northern Egypt during the seventeenth century
BCE. These foreign rulers, known as the Hyksos, established a capital at Avaris,
a region where Seth was the leading deity. Seth was equated with the
Palestinian god Baal, and the worship of foreign goddesses such as Astarte and
Anat (see “Deities, Themes, and Concepts”) seems to have been introduced into
Egypt at this time.
Hyksos kings called themselves Sons of Ra, but one of them bore the name
of Ra’s archenemy Apophis.40 A legend tells how King Apophis picked a quarrel
with the Egyptian ruler of the Theban area by complaining that the roaring of
the hippopotami kept 500 miles away in Thebes was disturbing his sleep.41 This
New Kingdom story restates the political conflict in mythological terms by

making it into a fight between the Followers of Horus (the Thebans) and the
hippopotamus-worshipping Followers of Seth (the Hyksos). The Theban rulers
who made up the Seventeenth Dynasty gradually drove the Hyksos out of
Egypt. Under the Seventeenth Dynasty, a new collection of funerary texts developed that was to become the famous Book of the Dead. The expulsion of the
Hyksos was completed by King Ahmose I (c.1550–1525 BCE). The Egyptians considered him to be the first king of a new dynasty and a new era.

C. 1550–747 BCE
Ahmose, and the other warrior kings of the early Eighteenth Dynasty, took
Egyptian armies as far as the Euphrates. They established an empire in Syria
and Palestine and took control of much of Nubia. In the late sixteenth century
BCE, the royal court moved back to Memphis, but Thebes became the religious
capital. Most New Kingdom rulers were buried there in underground tombs in
the desert wadi now known as the Valley of the Kings (see Figure 5). The offering cults for the dead kings were carried out in separate mortuary temples some
way from their tombs. Amun, who had been the most important god in Thebes
since the Middle Kingdom, united with the sun god and became the King of the
Gods. The temple of Amun at Karnak in eastern Thebes developed into the
biggest and richest temple complex in Egypt.
The Eighteenth Dynasty is often considered the high point of Egyptian culture. Much great art and architecture was produced during the reigns of Queen
Hatshepsut (c. 1473–1458 BCE); her nephew and stepson, King Thutmose
(Tuthmosis) III (c. 1479–1425 BCE); and the latter’s great-grandson, Amenhotep
(Amenophis) III (c. 1390–1352 BCE). Hatshepsut’s famous mortuary temple at
Deir el-Bahri in Thebes had many innovative features, such as an open court for
solar worship inscribed with a summary of the ruler’s secret knowledge about
the sun god. 42 Both Hatshepsut and Thutmose III built special shrines where ordinary people could come to pray to deities such as the goddess Hathor in her
cow form or Amun “of the Hearing Ear.”43 Amenhotep III enlarged or founded
numerous temples, and many of the features introduced by his architects remained standard for c. 1,500 years. He commissioned huge numbers of divine
statues to stress his identification with all the deities of Egypt. Amenhotep III
sometimes gave himself the attributes of a lunar deity while his chief wife,
Queen Tiy, was identified with the goddesses who could play the role of the solar eye (see “Eye of Ra” in “Deities, Themes, and Concepts”).44



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology

Figure 5. View of the desert hills at western Thebes showing the pyramid-shaped mountain peak
that overlooks the Valley of the Kings. (Courtesy of Richard Pinch)

Amenhotep III and Tiy were the parents of Amenhotep IV (c. 1352–1336
BCE), who early in his reign changed his name to Akhenaten. King Akhenaten
and his chief wife, Nefertiti, were dedicated to the cult of Aten, a form of the
sun god represented by the solar disk. Akhenaten built huge temples for Aten
that were open to the sky. He established a new capital and a new royal burial
ground at Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna). Akhenaten suppressed the cult
of Amun, but the idea that he closed down all of Egypt’s temples seems to be an
exaggeration.45 In Akhenaten’s theology the worship of Aten as the creator sun
god and the king as his representative on earth made other deities and their
myths superfluous. Belief in a separate realm of the dead ruled by Osiris was replaced by the idea that spirits of the dead could live on in the Aten temples.
Akhenaten’s religious and political policies were not popular, and under the
boy king Tutankhamun (Tutankhamon) (c. 1336–1327 BCE), Thebes was reestablished as the religious capital and Amun-Ra as the national god. Horemheb (c.
1323–1295 BCE), the last king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, presented Akhenaten’s
reign as a time of chaos in which the gods had abandoned Egypt. Horemheb was
succeeded by his vizier Rameses (Ramses, Ramesses), the founder of the
Nineteenth Dynasty. Rameses’ son, Seti (Sety) I (c. 1294–1279 BCE), was a vigorous king who reestablished Egyptian authority over parts of Syria, but the art of
his reign has a serene beauty. Seti’s son Rameses II ruled Egypt for sixty-seven

years and became a legend in the ancient world for his grandiose achievements.
His battles against the Hittite empire were celebrated in narratives, poetry, and
pictures on the walls of the numerous temples he constructed in Egypt and
Nubia. Rameses eventually made peace with the Hittites and married two
Hittite princesses. He constructed a new capital in the eastern Delta, but he did
not neglect Thebes. The 21-meter-high columns of the central hall at Karnak
built under Seti I and Rameses II give a sense of limitless power.
After Rameses’ long and prosperous reign, the international situation became more difficult for Egypt. His son Merenptah had to fight off invasions by
the Libyans and the mass migration known as the Sea Peoples. The same enemies in even greater numbers faced Rameses III (c. 1184–1153 BCE), the second
king of the Twentieth Dynasty. He defeated them by sea and land in battles that
are recorded on the walls of his fortresslike mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.
This whole temple is a monument to the triumph of order over chaos, but
Rameses III was the last great temple builder of the New Kingdom.

Temples and Kings
Throughout the New Kingdom much of the wealth generated by the empire and
by the exploitation of Egyptian and Nubian gold fields was spent on building
and endowing temples. All over the country the small, mainly mud-brick, temples that had been common in earlier periods were replaced by large stone structures whose walls were carved with hieroglyphic texts and scenes of kings with
deities. Major temples were like small towns, with their own granaries, slaughterhouses, workshops, offices, schools, libraries, and housing. Large numbers of
priests, some working full-time, were needed to run such temples.46
Like the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom, New Kingdom temples
were models of the Egyptian cosmos.47 The undulating mud-brick walls that
surrounded temples may have represented the primeval waters that were
thought to surround the inhabited world. Sacred lakes were used for reenactments of myths of the emergence of the creator from the primeval waters or for
the pacification of his fiery daughter, the Eye goddess. In the outer courtyard
the king was represented in reliefs or colossal statues as the champion of maat.
The battles that he was shown fighting were sometimes real and sometimes
imaginary, but the foreign enemies always represented the forces of chaos.48
The massive pylon gateways resemble defensive structures, but they also stood
for the mountains of the eastern horizon, between which the sun rose. The
plant-shaped columns of the inner halls formed a stone replica of the marsh
where gods were born or reborn. The innermost sanctuary that contained the



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology

Figure 6. The Osireion at Abydos was built to represent both the Primeval Mound and the tomb of
the god Osiris. (Courtesy of Richard Pinch)

cult statue was said to be built on the Primeval Mound, the very place in which
the creator first brought forth life.
Each temple was dedicated to one main deity, but in the New Kingdom it
became common to group deities into divine “families,” with subsidiary temples for the chief deity’s consort and child. So at Karnak, for example, Amun
was worshipped as part of a triad, with Mut as his consort and Khonsu as his
son. Not all these groupings seem to have been based on existing myths, but
some of them eventually generated myths to explain features of their cult. The
relationships between deities could be expressed by moving divine statues between temples during religious festivals. These processions, in which the god
was carried inside a boat-shaped shrine, gave ordinary people their only chance
to get close to the sacred images of their deities.
The names of some of the festivals listed in temple calendars suggest that
reenactments of myths were involved, but such reenactments were rarely depicted. The majority of New Kingdom temple reliefs show a ritualized exchange
between the king representing humanity and a deity representing the divine
realm. The king makes offerings or performs rituals. The god responds with a
gesture or an object that symbolizes the bestowal of divine gifts, such as long

life or power. Among exceptions are scenes that form a narrative sequence
about the divine conception and birth of rulers such as Hatshepsut, Amenhotep
III, and Rameses II.49
It is typical of Egyptian pictorial narratives that some incidents or details
are only found in the text whereas others are shown only in the reliefs. The
text, for instance, describes a sensuous encounter between a queen and the god
Amun, who has taken the form of her husband in order to sleep with her. The
accompanying relief complies with the strict rules of Egyptian art and shows
the god, in his usual appearance, barely touching the queen’s hand (see
Figure 20). The queen gives birth to the future ruler surrounded by deities who
will nurse and protect the child and its spirit-double, the ka. This royal birth
scene may be based on mythical prototypes, but it predates all the known depictions of the birth of infant gods. Greek myth has equivalent stories of Zeus’s
disguising himself to seduce mortal women, but their focus is on very human
emotions of lust and jealousy. The seductions by Zeus are set in a mythical age
of heroes, and the god’s behavior may be criticized. In Egypt, such stories were a
solemn part of the myth of divine kingship and were told about living people.
Each Egyptian king was the “son” of the supreme creator god Amun-Ra but
also Horus, the avenger of his father, Osiris. Some New Kingdom rulers took a
renewed interest in the holy city of Abydos and the cult of Osiris. Ironically, the
finest temple at Abydos was built by Seti I, a king who was named after Seth,
the great enemy of Osiris.50 This temple of Seti I is so large and well preserved
that its scenes and inscriptions have been used to reconstruct the daily ritual
that went on in every Egyptian temple. This ritual was influenced by the concept of the daily rebirth of the sun god and by the myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris.51
Some episodes from the Osiris myth are shown in the temple of Seti I, with
the king in the role of Horus. These include a very rare depiction of Isis in bird
form magically conceiving Horus by sexually arousing her murdered husband.
This was a moment of triumph and hope, but it was still not intended to be
seen by any but the highest grade of priests. The murder of Osiris was not
shown on the walls of Seti’s temple, but he was celebrated as a dead god in a remarkable building known as the Osireion (see Figure 6).52 This was built in the
style of an ancient royal tomb. A long passage leads down to an underground
hall where a sarcophagus once stood on an artificial island surrounded by water,
providing a symbolic tomb for the king. An adjoining chamber is inscribed with
the images and texts that form the Book of Nut, a major source for reconstructing Egyptian cosmology.
A hymn inscribed on a New Kingdom private stela from Abydos provides
the most detailed account in Egyptian of the Osiris myth.53 After the usual lists



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
of divine epithets, there is a section of narrative verse that begins with Osiris
“appearing on his father’s throne” and ends with Horus being acclaimed as his
rightful successor. If this were our only source for the myth, the story would be
very difficult to follow because the actual death of Osiris is not mentioned and
his enemy is only identified as “the disturber.” Rules still prevented explicit
images of those moments when maat was threatened by terrible events. There
was one place in which it did become permissible to show the forces that daily
threatened the divine balance, and that was in New Kingdom royal tombs. In
the great crisis of death, the king needed to identify with gods in crisis and
share in their triumph in overcoming the forces of destruction.

Underworld Books
Underworld Book is a general term for a type of mortuary text used in royal
tombs and cenotaphs of the New Kingdom. It is taken from an Egyptian term
for the genre to which these books belonged: “that which is in the underworld.”
The earliest of these books, the Book of the Hidden Chamber (now known as
the Amduat), may be derived from solar rituals performed by the king at
Heliopolis and other temples. The versions on the walls of the tomb of
Thutmose III and his successor Amenhotep II look as if they have been directly
copied from a papyrus scroll (e.g. Figure 45). This gives us an idea of what these
temple copies must have been like.
By the end of the New Kingdom about twelve different books were in use.54
They were painted on the walls or ceilings of the tomb or inscribed on important items of burial equipment such as shrines and shrouds. The books were
composed in Middle Egyptian, but the later ones show considerable influence
from Late Egyptian, a form of the language current in writing from the late
Eighteenth Dynasty onward. The texts are all written in hieroglyphs, but sometimes in ways that make them difficult to read. These books contained very restricted knowledge, which was supposed to be known only to the king and
people who held high-ranking priestly offices.
The purpose of the Underworld Books was to maintain the cosmos and,
secondarily, to aid the king’s transition to the afterlife through his identification
with the sun god. Their common theme was the daily journey of the sun god,
Ra-Atum. Most concentrated on his perilous passage through the night sky,
which was equated with the underworld. The dangerous journey is probably the
world’s oldest narrative motif, but the Underworld Books are not presented as
stories. The structure of the books is provided by the passing of time55 or by the
geography of the underworld, which was imagined as divided into caverns or re-

gions separated by guarded gates. Every Underworld Book presents a different
view of the topography of the afterlife, yet from the late Eighteenth Dynasty on,
royal tombs included more than one book in their decoration.56
The pictorial element is dominant in most of the Underworld Books. With
a few exceptions, the text is mainly in the form of captions to the images.
Underworld Books such as the Book of Gates and the Book of Caverns are essentially more detailed forms of the maps of the underworld found on Middle
Kingdom coffins. Each hour or gate or cavern is represented by giant tableaux of
hundreds of deities, demons, and monsters. Some Egyptologists have called
such groupings “image-clusters.” Individual symbols can modify their meaning
when incorporated into one of these clusters.
These secret books admit the vulnerabilty of the divine order and illustrate
the ordeals faced by the creator sun god. Virtually the entire cast of Egyptian
mythology is drawn in to crew the sun boat and defend the sun god from
Apophis and the other chaos monsters. Even more remarkably, the corpses of
Osiris and the rest of the dead can be shown waiting for their temporary revival
by the sun god in the sixth hour of the night. The Osireion at Abydos was probably constructed as a setting for this mystical union between Ra and Osiris.
In two compositions that are often counted as Underworld Books, the Book
of the Heavenly Cow and the Litany of Ra, the genre develops in different directions. The former is centered on a complex image of the sky goddess in cow form
(see Figure 26), but part of the text is a lively narrative about why Ra felt driven
to leave earth after crushing a rebellion among humanity (see “The Destruction
of Humanity” under “Linear Time” in “Mythical Time Lines”). This story may
have originated in a dawn myth first recorded in the Pyramid Texts,57 but by the
New Kingdom it had changed into something more profound. Ra is credited with
human emotions of anger, bitterness, and pity, and the story answers the important question of why creation includes pain and death.
In contrast, the book known as the Litany of Ra conveys the utter mysteriousness of the creator sun god through heightened language and powerful visual
images. The sun god is evoked as the animating force behind the universe in
seventy-five nocturnal manifestations. These manifestations range from major
deities such as Horus and Isis to obscure entities such as the “Great Tom Cat”
and “He of the Cave,” yet part of the Egyptian title for this book was “adoring
the united one in the west.” The characteristic acts of independent beings that
are the mainspring of mythical narratives become almost irrelevant in such a
New Kingdom hymns, such as those preserved in Papyrus Leiden I 350, explore the idea that all deities are aspects of the creator. They speculate on the
miraculous process by which the one creator, usually named as Amun-Ra, was



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
able to divide himself into many.58 The worship of the creator sun god as the
maintainer of the universe was widespread among the Egyptian elite. Solar
hymns celebrating the day and night voyages of Ra were inscribed at the entrances to some New Kingdom private tombs or on statues of priests and officials. By the end of the New Kingdom, a version of the Litany of Ra was appended to the mortuary texts known as the Book of the Dead.

The Book of the Dead
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a term coined in the nineteenth century CE
for a body of texts known to the Ancient Egyptians as the Spells for Going Forth
by Day. After the Book of the Dead was first translated by Egyptologists, it
gained a place in the popular imagination as the Bible of the Ancient Egyptians.
The comparison is very inappropriate. The Book of the Dead was not the central
holy book of Egyptian religion. It was just one of a series of manuals composed
to assist the spirits of the elite dead to achieve and maintain a full afterlife.
The collection was used for over a thousand years and eventually consisted
of more than 190 spells or “formulas.” Individual copies of the Book of the
Dead vary greatly in the number and selection of spells they include. The order
of the spells did not become fixed until around 650 BCE. In the New Kingdom,
spells from the Book of the Dead were occasionally inscribed on items of funerary equipment such as shrouds and coffins or on the walls of royal tombs and
mortuary temples. The majority of copies were on papyrus. These were included in the burials of wealthy priests, priestesses, and officials.
The spells in the Book of the Dead were most commonly written out in hieroglyphs or in a cursive (simplified) form of the hieroglyphic script. The majority of the spells are in Middle Egyptian. By the New Kingdom, the spoken language had changed considerably, so the number of people who could understand
texts in archaic Middle Egyptian would have been very restricted. This may be
one of the reasons why the vignettes to the Book of the Dead became increasingly important. By the end of the New Kingdom nearly every spell had its traditional vignette. In some copies the illustrations alone are used to represent
the spells they should accompany. The vignettes can also occur as tomb decoration, since from the fourteenth century BCE onward it became acceptable to
show deities on the walls of private tombs.
Copies of the Book of the Dead have been found all over Egypt, but the
temples of Thebes seem to have been the main center of production. Many of
the spells were adapted from earlier funerary literature, particularly the Coffin
Texts. In Spell 17, quotations from the Coffin Texts are interspersed with com-



Figure 7. Vignette to Spell 125 of the Book of the Dead. From right to left, a dead woman is brought
into the Hall of the Double Maat by the two goddesses of truth; her heart is weighed against the
feather of truth by Horus and Anubis; the result is recorded by Thoth and announced to the Ammut
monster, the four sons of Horus, and Osiris. (Gift of Martin Brimmer, Courtesy Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston. Illustration by Peter Manuelian used with permission.)

mentaries headed “this means.” In these explanatory passages, ancient creation
myths are reinterpreted in terms of later theology. This is a clear example of the
way in which the meaning and functions of Egyptian myths could change from
period to period.
Many deities are mentioned or depicted in the Book of the Dead, but the afterlife that the spells envisage is dominated by two gods, Ra and Osiris. Some of
the spells concerning Ra were adapted from solar hymns used in temples. The
spirits of the dead could join the “crew” of the sun boat or seek a place at the
court of Osiris, the ruler of the underworld. Most of the spells designed to help
nourish and protect the spirit on its journey to these destinations were based on
earlier prototypes, but there was a new emphasis on judging the past life of the
This is seen most clearly in Spell 125, the formula for “descending to the
great hall of the Double Maat.” Before the throne of Osiris, the deceased had to
face a jury of gods and goddesses and declare himself or herself innocent of
forty-two specific sins. Most of the sins in this negative confession are offenses


Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
against deities, temples, or ritual purity, so Spell 125 may derive from an initiation ritual for priests.59 The vignette for Spell 125 supplements rather than illustrates the text. In one of the most famous of all Egyptian images, the heart of
the deceased person is shown being weighed against the feather that represents
Maat, the goddess of truth. If the heart were found to be heavy with sin, it
would be devoured by a monster.
In origin, this trial was just one of a series of perils that could be overcome
by magic, but the popularity of Spell 125 in the later New Kingdom coincided
with a new emphasis on god as a just but forgiving judge. In prayers of this period, people turn to gods such as Thoth and Amun to help them survive in an
unjust society. Other individuals humbly acknowledged that their sufferings
were a just punishment for actions such as breaking an oath sworn in a god’s
name.60 These “penitential texts,” like much of our knowledge of religion in
daily life, come from Deir el-Medina, the village of the artists who built and
decorated the Theban royal tombs. This exceptionally well preserved desert site
was also the place where most New Kingdom literature was found.61

Mythology in Literature
Only about ten Late Egyptian narratives survive from the New Kingdom. The
authors of these stories obviously assumed that their readers would have a detailed knowledge of Egyptian myth.
A story about a prince who is doomed by seven goddesses to be killed by a
snake, a crocodile, or a dog has been called the world’s oldest fairy tale. The
ending of the story is missing, but the prince was probably saved by the spirited
princess whose hand he wins in a jumping competition. The story known as
Truth and Lies has been interpreted as an allegorical version of the Osiris myth,
with the deities transformed into a dysfunctional human family.62 The plot involves a son who grows up to avenge his father, Truth, and defeat the enemy,
Lies. In contrast to Isis, the hero’s mother is presented as lustful and heartless.
The female characters also prove to be evil in the story of the Two Brothers.
The hero is falsely accused of attempting to rape his brother’s wife and then betrayed by the woman given to him as a wife by the gods. Many mythological
themes appear in semidisguised form in this story.63 The two brothers have the
same names as two gods (Anubis and Bata) and exhibit some superhuman powers. The story is set in a time when, just beyond the borders of Egypt, it was
still possible to encounter gods and monsters. The motif of the sea’s attempts to
seize a beautiful female occurs both in the Two Brothers and in another New

Kingdom tale about Seth’s fight with a god of the sea to save the goddess
Astarte. This seems to be a partially Egyptianized version of a foreign myth (see
“Astarte” in “Deities, Themes, and Concepts”). Even more fragmentary tales
involve a woman who turns into a lioness and the god Heryshef’s recruitment
of a human to help him in his war with a divine falcon.64
The most controversial of the stories that date to the New Kingdom is the
Contendings of Horus and Seth. This is the longest narrative to survive about
the conflict between the two gods and its eventual resolution. That does not
mean that it should be taken as the most important or the standard version of
the myth. As many scholars have emphasized, a myth consists of all its versions. This text is in narrative form because it appears to have been read aloud
for entertainment. It combines a retelling of the ancient myth with a satire on
the difficulties of obtaining justice in the New Kingdom legal system and perhaps with veiled comments on recent problems with the royal succession.65
Some Egyptologists believe that the comic treatment of many of the characters and events in the Contendings of Horus and Seth disqualifies it from being a true myth, but a robust, often cruel, sense of humor is displayed in the
myths of many cultures. Some of the story’s more scandalous episodes, such as
Seth’s failed attempt to seduce his nephew Horus or Horus cutting off his
mother’s head in a tantrum, are also found in funerary and magical texts.
A devoted but dominating mother who gets her way through cunning and
magic, Isis is the first fully realized character in Egyptian myth. A New
Kingdom ostracon gives part of a story in which Isis and her attendant scorpions take shelter with a fisherwoman (see “Serqet” in “Deities, Themes, and
Concepts”). This story was used hundreds of years later on magical statues and
stelae as part of a sequence of spells to drive out poison. Many of the myths
now known only from magical texts were probably adapted from other types of
source material or from oral tradition. Quite a number of spells survive on papyri of the later New Kingdom. The Harris Magical Papyrus, now in the British
Museum, contains a sequence of anticrocodile spells that is full of allusions to
myths such as the rape of Isis.
Myths are often thought of as communal artifacts, but in Egyptian culture
they had many personal applications. Another example was the use of lists of
lucky and unlucky days, based on calendars of temple festivals. In the so-called
Cairo Calendar, each day of the year is associated with a particular deity or
mythical event.66 These associations were believed to affect what could be done
on a day, making the calendars rather similar to horoscopes. For example, the
twenty-ninth day of the second month of Peret (spring) was the day on which
the “children of Geb” had rebelled against the creator. “Do nothing on this



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
day,” the calendar warns. Some entries summarize well-known mythical incidents, such as the reconciliation of Horus and Seth; in contrast, others allude to
very obscure myths, such as that of “the lost children of Bedesh.”

The End of the New Kingdom
By the eleventh century BCE, the kings, who lived in the eastern Delta, seem to
have had little influence over the south of the country. The last king of the
Twentieth Dynasty, Rameses XI (c. 1099–1069 BCE), had a tomb cut in the
Valley of the Kings but was probably never buried in it. In the Theban area,
power had fallen into the hands of one family whose members served as generals in the army and high priests in the temple of Karnak. Several members of
this family gave themselves royal titles, even after a new line of kings, the
Twenty-First Dynasty, took control in the north. A series of marriages between
the two families kept the peace.
Some of the most beautifully illustrated Books of the Dead were made for
royal and aristocratic women who served as priestesses in the temples of
Thebes during the eleventh and tenth centuries BCE (see, for example, Figure
24). It became the custom for elite burials to include a selection of spells from
the Book of the Dead and a papyrus based on one or more of the royal underworld books. During this period most of the royal mummies were moved from
their original resting places by the Theban priesthood, so the secret Underworld
Books on the walls of their tombs became available for copying.67
The papyri based on Underworld Books are often referred to as “mythological papyri.” They can consist almost entirely of drawings, with just a few brief
captions. Mythological episodes known from texts of the third millennium BCE
onward, such as the creator’s engendering life or the separation of the earth and
the sky, are illustrated for the first time on papyri and coffins of this period (see
for example, Figure 42). These extraordinary papyri illustrate the Egyptian tendency to think in images. Language is rarely adequate to express the numinous.
Instead the Egyptian priesthood devised a complex system of visual symbols to
convey difficult concepts without the use of words.
In the ninth century BCE the production of funerary papyri suddenly
stopped. This may have been the result of disruptions in temple life caused by a
civil war between the Thebans and a new dynasty of kings in the north. The
kings of the Twenty-Second Dynasty were of Libyan descent, but they seem to
have completely adopted Egyptian religion. They favored the cult of the feline
goddess Bastet and rebuilt part of her temple at Bubastis. Reliefs in the Festival
Hall of Osorkon II (c. 874–850 BCE) show all the deities of Egypt gathering at

Bubastis to honor the king’s jubilee. Bastet was one of the goddesses who could
take the role of the Eye of Ra, the fiery protector of the sun god and of every
king. The cycle of myths associated with the Eye goddess became increasingly
prominent during the first millennium BCE.
Most of the northern kings were buried in the city of Tanis, in tombs
within the temple of Amun-Ra. Some of these tombs have versions of New
Kingdom Underworld Books, such as the Book of the Day and the Book of the
Night, inscribed on their walls.68 The temples of Tanis were adorned with
Middle and New Kingdom statues brought from all over Egypt. This was probably more than an economy measure. The reuse of old royal statues gave new
structures an instant past and invoked the protective presence of the royal ancestors.
In spite of this tendency to look back on past glories, innovations did appear among small objects. A wide range of amulets in the form of deities was introduced during the Third Intermediate Period. These were probably used to
protect the health and safety of the living as well as the bodies of the dead.
Some of the amulets depict mythological episodes such as those in which
Horus harpoons Seth or Isis nurses the baby Horus in the marshes.69 The choice
of such amulets suggests a widespread knowledge of the stories behind these
images. Until the Third Intermediate Period, scenes of nursing goddesses had
always shown a king playing the role of Horus. As Horus the Child ceased to be
so closely identified with the living king, he developed an important role in
mythology and popular religion.
By the eighth century BCE, Egypt was split up into a number of regions
ruled by petty kings and chieftains. The Theban area was under the control of a
line of royal high priestesses known as the Divine Adoratrices of Amun. In temple rituals these priestesses acted the mythological role of the Hand of Atum,
the partner of the creator.70 Egypt’s divisions were eventually brought to an end
by invaders from the south.

747–30 BCE
The first millennium BCE saw the rise and fall of a series of great empires. Egypt
suffered invasions and occupations by the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Persians,
and the Greeks; so for most of this period the country was either ruled by a foreign power or fighting for its independence. Egypt’s culture was under pressure
from new ruling elites, yet many of the best sources for Egyptian myth date to



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
this era. Indeed, some scholars do not recognize that Egypt had a developed
mythology before the Late Period. It is a common cultural phenomenon that after a change of rulers, religion, or language, native people or scholarly incomers
become anxious to record a country’s traditions before they disappear. This often involves codifying these beliefs and traditions for the first time.
Respect for ancient traditions was a policy of the Nubian kings who ruled
Egypt as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. These kings came from an area of Nubia
known as Kush. Their culture combined Nubian and Egyptian elements. The
chief religious site in Kush was the holy mountain of Gebel Barkal near ancient
Napata, where there was a temple for Amun-Ra and Hathor as the Eye of Ra.
King Piye (Piankh) and his brother King Shabaqo (Shabaka) were the first two
kings of this dynasty to rule Egypt. A victory inscription of King Piye
(c. 747–716 BCE) is full of references to Egyptian deities and myths. It records
that he seized the capital Memphis “like a desert storm, just as Amun-Ra had
commanded me.” 71 Some pyramid tombs of Nubian kings near Napata are inscribed with extracts from Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts. In Thebes, priests appointed by the Nubian kings revised and codified the Book of the Dead. Some of
the spells they added contain passages that are probably in the Nubian language.72 Also dating to this Nubian period is the Shabaqo Stone with a copy of
the text known as the Memphite Theology (see Figure 8).

The Memphite Theology
This text tells how the earth god Geb judged between the rival gods Horus and
Seth and how Osiris was established as ruler of the underworld. It reconciles
the separate creation myths of Atum of Heliopolis and Ptah of Memphis and includes a first-person account by Ptah of how he created all life through his powers of thought and speech. This section has often been compared to the famous
opening of St. John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was
with God and the Word was God.” The whole text may have been read aloud
during religious festivals.
King Shabaqo (c. 716–702 BCE) claims to have had the Memphite Theology
copied onto stone because the original was “eaten by worms.” The new version,
which was set up in the temple of Ptah in Memphis, was to prove equally unlucky. The slab on which it was inscribed was eventually reused as a millstone,
so parts of the text have been ground away. The preface to the Memphite
Theology states that Shabaqo thought this text worthy of preservation because it
was found “to be a work of the ancestors.” In the past, Egyptologists accepted



Shabaqo’s word that this was a
very ancient text and assigned
it to the Old Kingdom or even
the Early Dynastic Period.
Recent work has shown that
the Memphite Theology cannot
be earlier than the late New
Kingdom. It was probably rewritten under Shabaqo using a
deliberately archaic style to
give the contents added authority.73
Figure 8. The ‘Memphite Theology’ inscribed on the
Much of the Memphite
Shabaqo Stone. The inscription was damaged when the
Theology is similar to accounts stela was reused as a grindstone. (Courtesy of Geraldine
of creation in the so-called Pinch)
Bremner-Rhind Papyrus, which
dates to around the fourth century BCE (see “BRP” in “Appendix: Primary
Sources”).74 Among the texts inscribed on this papyrus are rituals designed to attack the enemies of the king, the state, and the cosmos and render them harmless. The Book of Knowing the Transformations of the Sun and of Overthrowing
Apophis gives instructions on making models and drawings of enemies and destroying them by methods such as stabbing, trampling, burning, and burying.
These sections are prefaced by speeches from the creator god describing the creation of life and the establishment of the divine order. This identifies the ritual
as part of the continuing cosmic struggle. Until recently, the Bremner-Rhind
Papyrus cosmogony has received much less attention from scholars than the
Memphite Theology, partly because the former conforms to modern ideas of
what a religious text should be like, whereas the latter was seen as belonging to
the primitive world of magic. Of the two, it is probably the Bremner-Rhind
Papyrus that is more characteristic of the way in which mythology was used in
Egyptian culture.
In the seventh century BCE, most Egyptians must have felt that the forces of
chaos had triumphed when their country endured a series of brutal invasions by
the Assyrians. Unlike most invaders, the Assyrians showed little respect for
Egypt’s gods. They looted the temples of Heliopolis and Thebes, taking away
vast quantities of treasure. The Nubian kings were driven out of Egypt, but they
continued to reign over Kush for almost a thousand years.
The Assyrians did not have enough manpower to leave a large army in
Egypt. They appointed Egyptians to govern the country on their behalf and col-


Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
lect tribute. A family from the region of Sais in the Delta collaborated with the
Assyrians for awhile. As soon as the Assyrians were occupied with problems
elsewhere in their empire, this family made Egypt independent again and ruled
as the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. Under these kings, Greek merchants were allowed to trade and settle in the Delta.
The cult center of the goddess Neith at Sais became one of the most important temples in Egypt. According to a later tradition, the secret of how the soul
can unite with God was inscribed in hieroglyphs in the sanctuary at Sais.75 At
this time a script known as Demotic was introduced to write texts in the contemporary form of the Egyptian language. It soon replaced hieratic for most purposes.

Persians and Greeks
In 525 BCE the Persian king, Cambyses, conquered Egypt and executed most of
the Egyptian royal family. It is probably only a legend that Cambyses showed
his contempt for Egyptian gods by stabbing the sacred Apis bull (see “Deities,
Themes, and Concepts”). The Persians did not try to impose their own religion
on Egypt, and they were willing to honor Egyptian deities. The innovative reliefs in the temple of Hibis in the western desert were mainly carved under
Darius I, one of the Persian kings who made up the Twenty-Seventh Dynasty
(see Figure 33). The reliefs include some very unusual forms of deities. These
forms and the epithets used in the captions, such as Atum “scarab who appeared at the First Time,” help to define the deities’ mythological roles.76
It was during the first period of Persian rule that the Greek historian
Herodotus of Helicarnassus (c. 484–420 BCE) seems to have visited Egypt. Book
Two of his Historia is a description of the geography, history, customs, and
marvels of Egypt. Some Classicists and Egyptologists think that Herodotus
made up his account from travelers’ tales, but others believe him to be a reliable eyewitness and take everything that he writes very seriously.77 Herodotus
claims to have talked with Egyptian priests in several important religious centers, but his information mainly seems to derive from Memphis and the eastern Delta. He argued that the priests’ knowledge was important to humanity
because, unlike the Greeks, the Egyptians had access to very ancient and continuous records.
Herodotus thought it possible to identify many Egyptian deities with Greek
ones, so he calls Osiris, Dionysus, and Horus, Apollo. It became a general practice among Classical writers to use Greek names for Egyptian deities, but these
cross-cultural identifications are not always consistent. Herodotus says more
about religious architecture and rituals than about mythology. “As for the sto-

ries told by the Egyptians,” he wrote, “let whoever finds them credible use
them.”78 He does not relate the full Osiris myth because he saw it as comparable to the Greek Mystery cults, which devotees had to vow to keep secret.
Herodotus does outline some brief myths to explain curious features of
buildings or statues, such as why the temple grounds at Buto contained a floating island or why Amun could be shown with a ram’s head. These are not unlike
the kinds of tales told to gullible tourists by unofficial Egyptian guides at the
monuments today. The bizarre legends Herodotus relates about some Egyptian
kings, such as a tale of King Mycerinus (Menkara) raping his own daughter and
burying her inside a cow, may have reflected contemporary folktales. The
Egyptians had a long tradition of telling unflattering stories about past kings.
Between 404 and 343 BCE, several dynasties of Egyptian-born kings were
able to keep the Persians out of Egypt. The three kings of the Thirtieth Dynasty
instituted a style of art and architecture that was to continue under their foreign successors. A Thirtieth Dynasty mythological text about the reigns of Shu
and Geb defines a ruler’s duties as defending Egypt from foreign enemies, maintaining the country’s defensive walls and irrigation systems, and rebuilding the
temples of the gods.79 A huge granite temple was begun at Behbeit el-Hagar for
the goddess Isis, whose cult was becoming increasingly important. Later legend
claimed that it was the failure of King Nectanebo II (360–343 BCE) to complete a
temple for the god Onuris-Shu that led to his defeat when the Persians invaded
again.80 This time the Persians seem to have punished the Egyptians by destroying some important temples.
The second period of Persian rule was brief because the Persian empire was
soon under attack from the Greeks, led by the young king of Macedonia,
Alexander the Great. Alexander “liberated” Egypt in 332 BCE and was crowned
king in the temple of Ptah at Memphis. During his stay in Egypt, he declared
himself a living god and founded the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean
coast. After Alexander’s death, one of his generals, a Macedonian called
Ptolemy, made himself ruler and then king of Egypt. The Ptolemy family were
to rule Egypt for around 300 years.

Alexandria and Memphis
Under the Ptolemies, the country was governed from Alexandria, and nearly all
the important posts in the government went to Greek settlers rather than to
Egyptians. In the third century BCE, King Ptolemy II (285–246 BCE) founded a
great library. The contents of the famous Library of Alexandria have been lost,
owing to fires, earthquakes, and tidal waves, but its 700,000 book-scrolls proba-



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
bly contained little about Egyptian mythology. Greek philosophy, science, and
literature were the main interests of the scholars at the Mouseion, a kind of
protouniversity attached to the library.
Most members of the Ptolemy family never learned the Egyptian language,
but they were conscious that they were ruling a multicultural society and that
they needed the support of influential Egyptians. As a symbol of cultural fusion,
the Ptolemies established the cult of a new god, Serapis, who combined features
of the Egyptian deities Apis and Osiris with aspects of Greek deities such as
Zeus and Dionysus. Many of the Ptolemies were crowned in the temple of Ptah
at Memphis, and they often contributed to the cost of religious ceremonies in
the ancient capital.
Ptolemaic kings and queens were happy to identify themselves with
Egyptian deities and to rule in their names. They encouraged the Egyptians to
worship them as divine rulers. The Memphis decree of King Ptolemy V
(205–180 BCE) ordered the setting up of Egyptian-style statues of “Ptolemy who
has preserved Egypt” in every temple. In the decree, Ptolemy refers to slaughtering rebels just as Ra and Horus, son of Osiris, had slaughtered those who rebelled against them “in the First Time.” The Memphis decree is best known
from the copies in Greek and two forms of Egyptian on the Rosetta Stone (see
Figure 10).81
Among the cults supported by the Ptolemies was that of the Apis bull, who
lived in a special enclosure at the temple of Ptah. When an Apis bull died, it
was mummified and given a funeral as elaborate and expensive as that of a king.
A papyrus of the first century BCE summarizes the rituals to be performed, including mythological dramas. The conflict between Horus and Seth and the victory of Ra over Apophis were acted out on boats on the lake of the temple of
Ptah. This is typical of the way in which Egyptian rituals lifted events out of ordinary time and made them part of the whole sequence of mythological history.
Two young women, preferably twin sisters, played the roles of Isis and
Nephthys to mourn the Apis bull as if he had been Osiris himself. Versions of
the types of laments that they sang have survived in the Bremner-Rhind
Papyrus and other sources.82 The laments are notable for their emotional intensity. Osiris is mourned not just as a king but as a beloved husband and brother.
Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has pointed out that although poetry is notoriously difficult to translate from one language to another, myths often pass
easily between languages and cultures because their content is far more important than the way in which they are told.83 Greeks and other immigrants found
the joys and sorrows of Isis to have meaning for their lives. Isis and Osiris came
to be the most famous Egyptian deities among foreigners, but the native
Egyptians continued to worship a multiplicity of deities.

Priests and Temples under the Ptolemies
The Ptolemies undertook massive temple rebuilding programs to legitimize
their rule in the eyes of the Egyptians and their gods.84 Native Egyptian society was more temple centered than ever, and the priesthood became the custodians of Egyptian culture. Working for a temple was virtually the only form
of advancement available to talented Egyptians. The priesthood turned into a
hereditary caste, jealous of its rights and privileges. Yet this was not a period
of decadence. Egyptian art, literature, and theology continued to flourish and
The architecture of the Ptolemaic temples reflects their use by the general
population. Inside the enclosure walls there were sanatoria where people could
visit statues with healing powers or spend the night in the hope that a deity
would come to them in a dream and tell them how their illness could be cured.
Crowds took part in the annual festival of Osiris and left miniature mummy
figures of Osiris in special shrines. Many temples kept large numbers of the
type of animal that was sacred to the main deity of the temple. People could
pay for these animals to be ritually sacrificed and then mummified to act as
messengers to the realm of the gods. Wealthier temple visitors continued the
Late Period practice of dedicating beautifully made bronze images of deities
(see, for example, Figure 13). An area of the temple that may have been a particular focus for women was the mammisi (Birth House). These structures
were decorated with texts and scenes describing the conception and birth of a
deity, most usually a form of Horus.85
By the Ptolemaic Period, religious texts, such as detailed festival calendars,
cycles of hymns, and the scripts for rituals, were commonly inscribed on temple walls. This was thought to allow the temple to function even if there was
nobody to perform the rites. Some of the most interesting texts are found in the
extraordinarily well preserved temple of Horus at Edfu, which was built between 237 and 57 BCE. Scenes and inscriptions on the walls have allowed scholars to reconstruct annual ceremonies such as the Festival of the Beautiful
Union, which celebrated the coming together of Horus and Hathor. The Festival
of Victory commemorated the triumph of Horus over Seth and his followers
(see Figures 31 and 32). This conflict seems to have been acted out on and
around the temple lake.86 A second mythological drama, the Legend of the
Winged Disk, has Horus defending Ra against his enemies, a role usually taken
by the Eye goddess. The foundation of the temple is traced back to the First
Time in a series of texts sometimes known as the Edfu Cosmogony.87
Every major Ptolemaic temple seems to have had its own creation myth,
with the principal deity of the temple playing the role of creator. Texts of this



Handbook of Egyptian Mythology
type, such as the Khonsu Cosmogony at Karnak,88 use wordplay to incorporate
the myths of other creator deities and show them as aspects of the same phenomenon. At some temples members of the priesthood used their knowledge of
history and legend to devise stories to support their claims to land and privileges. The Famine Stela on Sehel island in the First Cataract and the Khonsu
Stela at Thebes are examples of Ptolemaic charter myths in which deities interact with historical figures (see “Khnum” and “Khonsu” in “Deities, Themes,
and Concepts”).
Among the inscriptions found on the walls of Ptolemaic temples are
lengthy lists of all the sacred places in the forty-two nomes (districts) of Egypt.
The richness of this mythical geography is brought out by Papyrus Jumilhac, an
illustrated selection of the myths and legends of the Jackal nome, the seventeenth district of Upper Egypt.89 There were probably similar collections for
other regions. Most of the brief narratives are about the conflict between Horus
and Seth, with a particular emphasis on the struggle to protect the body of
Osiris (see Figure 21). Episodes from this cycle become etiological myths to explain topographical features, or elements of ritual, such as why Egyptian priests
wear leopard skins. These are national gods localized, rather than local gods
Papyrus Jumilhac was not just an antiquarian collection, as its texts seem
to have been recited during religious festivals. The first Egyptian to write about
Egyptian religion purely as a scholarly exercise may have been a priest called
Manetho who