Egyptian Myth and Legend


Triumph of the Sun God

Rival Cults--Ptah as a Giant--His Mountain "Seat--Paradise of Osiris--Paradise of Sun Worshippers--Ideas of Hades--The Devil Serpent--The Great Worm of the Bible--The Nine Gods of Heliopolis--Stone and Sun Worship--The Horus Cult--Various Conceptions of the God--Union with other Deities--Legend of the Winged Disk--Ra's Enemies slain--Set as the "Roaring Serpent"----Sun Worshippers as Kings--Ptah Worshippers as Grand Viziers--Unas the Eater of Gods--The Egyptian Orion.

THE rise of the sun god had both theological and political significance. Ra was elevated as the Great Father of a group of cosmic and human deities, and his high priest, who was evidently of royal descent, sat upon the throne of united Egypt. The folk tale about the prophecy of Dedi and the birth of three children who were to become kings appears to have been invented in later times to give divine origin to the revolution which abruptly terminated the succession of Khufu's descendants.

An interesting contrast is afforded by the two great rival religions of this period of transition. While the theology of Heliopolis was based upon sun worship, that of Memphis was based upon earth worship. Ptah, the creation elf of the latter city, had been united with Tanen (or Tatunen), the earth giant, [*1] who resembles Seb. The dwarfish deity then assumed gigantic proportions, and became a "world god" or Great Father. A hymn addressed to Ptah Tanen declares that his head is in

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the heavens while his feet are on the earth or in Duat, the underworld. "The wind", declared the priestly poet, "issues from thy nostrils and the waters from thy mouth. Upon thy back grows the grain. The sun and the moon are thine eyes. When thou dost sleep it is dark, and when thou dost open thine eyes it is bright again."

Ptah Tanen was lauded as "a perfect god" who came forth "perfect in all his parts". At the beginning he was all alone. He built up his body and shaped his limbs ere the sky was fashioned and the world was set in order, and ere the waters issued forth. Unlike Ra, he did not rise from the primordial deep. "Thou didst discover thyself", sang the Memphite poet, "in the circumstance of one who made for himself a seat and shaped the Two Lands" (Upper and Lower Egypt). The suggestion is that, therefore, of a mountain giant with his 'seat' or 'chair' upon some lofty peak, an idea which only a hill folk could have imported.

"No father begot thee and no mother gave thee birth," the poet declared; "thou didst fashion thyself without the aid of any other being."

The further union of Ptah with Osiris is reflected in the conception of a material Paradise) where the souls of the dead were employed in much the same manner as the workers in Egypt. Ethical beliefs pervaded this religious system, as we have seen; men were judged after death; their future happiness was the reward of right conduct and good living. Thus we find men declaring in tomb inscriptions:

"I have constructed this tomb by honest means. I have never stolen from another . . . . I have never seized by force what belonged to another . . . . I was never scourged before an official (for law breaking) since I was born. My conduct was admired by all men. . . . I

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gave food to those who hungered, and those who were destitute I did clothe. . . . No man ever cried out to the god complaining against me as an oppressor."

Men died believing that Osiris would justify their actions. "I shall live like Osiris. He perished not when he died, neither shall I perish when I die."

These professions continued to be recorded after the rise of the sun god. The new religion was embraced mainly by the royal and aristocratic families and the Asiatic element in the population. It was infused by magical rather than ethical beliefs; a man's future happiness depended wholly on his knowledge of magical formulae and his devotion to religious rites.

The Paradise of the sun worshippers was of more spiritual character than that believed in by the cult of Ptah-Osiris. Their great hope was to find a place in the sun bark of Ra. The chosen among the dead became shining spirits, who accompanied their god on his safe journey through the perils of darkness, and they partook of his celestial food and shared his celestial drink; they became one with Ra, and yet did not suffer loss of identity.

It was taught by the priests of Heliopolis that after death the souls of mankind travelled towards the west and entered the first hour-division of the dark underworld Duat. There, in Amenti, "the hidden region", they awaited the coming of the bark of Ra. Those who could repeat the necessary magical "passwords" were permitted to enter, and they journeyed onward in the brightness diffused by the god until they reached the eastern horizon at dawn. Then they ascended the heavens and passed through happy fields. They could even visit old friends and old haunts upon earth, but they had to return to the sun bark in the evening, because evil spirits would devour

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them in the darkness. So they sailed each night through the underworld. They lived in eternal light.

Less fortunate souls resided in the various hour-divisions of Duat. Some were left in the first; others were allowed to enter the sun bark until they reached the particular divisions to which the power of their magical formulae extended. These remained in darkness, faintly lit up by the fire which serpents spat out and the flames of the torture pools, except for one of the four-and-twenty hours, when the sun bark appeared. Then they enjoyed the blessings of sunlight and the special benefits conferred by Ra. Assembling on the river banks they adored the passing deity, and when he departed their voices were raised in lamentation. They enjoyed the privilege of having food supplied without labour.

The supernatural enemies of Ra were slain nightly by spears, which were sun rays, and knives, which were flames of fire, as well as by powerful magic spells. When the god passed on, all the demons came to life again. Ra's human enemies were those apparently who had not worshipped him upon earth. Such were consigned to torture in lakes of everlasting fire. Later Egyptian beliefs retained the memory of this ancient conception. The Copts peopled hell with demons who had the heads of serpents, crocodiles, lions, and even bears. After death these "avengers" seized the doomed man and wrenched the soul from the body with much violence. Then they stabbed and hacked it with knives, and thrust goads into its sides, and carried it to a river of fire and plunged it in. Afterwards the tortured soul was cast into outer darkness, where it gnashed its teeth in the bitter cold. It might also be consigned to a place of horror which swarmed with poisonous reptiles. But although it could be wounded and hacked to pieces it did not perish. In

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time the soul passed to the first hour-division of Duat. Egypt swarmed with serpents in early times, and they were greatly dreaded by the people. Even Ra feared them. He was bitten by the serpent which Isis created, and when he left the earth and ascended to heaven, after reigning over men, he spoke of them as his enemies, and provided magical spells so that they might be overcome. Serpent charmers have not yet disappeared in the land of Egypt. They had great repute in ancient days. Symbolic reference is made to their powers in the Bible. "Their poison", declared the Psalmist, "is like the poison of a serpent; they are like the deaf adder that stopped her ear, which will not hearken to the voice of charmers" (Psalm lviii, 4-5). In Jeremiah, viii, 17, we read: "I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you"; and in Ecclesiastes, xii: "Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment". Those who have watched the genuine serpent charmers at work in Egypt have testified to the efficacy of their wonderful powers. [*1]

In ancient Egypt serpents were believed, especially by the sun worshippers, to be incarnations of evil spirits. [*2] Darkness, the enemy of light, was symbolized as the Apep serpent, which is also referred to as the Great Worm. It rose up each night in the realms of Duat to destroy the sun bark and devour Ra. Occasionally it issued forth in daylight, and appeared in darkening thunder clouds, when a dread battle was waged and lightning spears were hurled against it. At dreaded eclipse it seemed to achieve temporary triumph. In this respect the Apep serpent resembled the Chinese dragon.

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When Ra was in peril the priests chanted powerful spells to assist him, and the people assembled and shouted together to scare away the monster of darkness and evil. The ordinary ritual of the sun worshippers provided magical formulae which were recited to render service to the god at regular intervals. Written spells were also considered to be efficacious, and these were inscribed with green ink upon new papyrus, which was burned. Belief in sympathetic magic is reflected in the ceremony of making and destroying a green wax figure of the great serpent. At midnight, when Ra began his return journey, and the power of evil was strongest, the wax figure was placed in a fire and spat upon. As it melted, the pious worshippers of the sun god believed that the Apep serpent suffered loss of power. The ashes of the figure and of the papyrus were afterwards mixed with filth and committed to the flames a second time. It was also customary to make wax models of the serpent fiends which assisted Apep, and they were given the heads of black and white cats crocodiles, and ducks. [*1] Stone knives were stuck in their backs, and they were thrown in the dust and kicked with the left foot. [*2]

Symbolic references are also made in the Bible to the great Egyptian serpent. In Isaiah, lxvi, 24, we read: "Their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring to all flesh"; and also: "The worm shall eat them like wool" (li, 8). In Coptic literature the Apep serpent is a monster which lies in outer darkness encircling the world and clutching its tail between its jaws, like the Midgard serpent of

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[paragraph continues] Norse mythology. From its mouth issues forth "All ice, [*1] dust, cold, disease, and sickness" (Pistis Sophia).

The idea that the sun was an incarnation of the Creator was imported from Asia, but the conception of Duat, with its lakes of fire, is of Egyptian origin. In the Babylonian Hades, to which Istar descended, eternal darkness prevailed, and doomed souls partook of filthy food and drank unclean waters; they were not tortured by flames, but by pestilent odours and by diseases. [*2]

Ra theology developed upon Egyptian lines, and was fused with pre-existing local beliefs. The sun bark, which was called "Bark of Millions of Years", sailed upon an underworld Nile by night and a celestial Nile by day, and the seasonal changes of its course over the heavens were accounted for by the celestial inundation. Ra occupied the Maadit bark in the forenoon, and the Sekti bark in the afternoon. The change was effected at noon, when special magical formulae were chanted. [*3]

As the theology of the sun worshippers developed at Heliopolis, other gods, which were imported or had their origin in Egypt, were included in the divine family. The number three and its multiple had evidently magical significance. Ra, Khepera, and Tum formed the sun triad. The sun god and his children and descendants: Nut, the heavens, Shu, the air, Seb, the earth, with the lioness-headed Tefnut, "the spitter", Osiris, the deified king and corn spirit, Isis, the Delta "Great Mother",

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and her sister Nepthys, and the Semitic Set, formed the Ennead of Heliopolis. The group of Nine Gods varied at different periods. In one Horus displaces Set, and in another Osiris is absent and his place is occupied by Khepera, the beetle god. The inclusion of Horus probably marks the union of the Horite creed with that of Ra. Attempts were frequently made by kings and priests to absorb the Osiran cult at Heliopolis, but they were never successful. A compromise was evidently effected in time, for in Duat a "division" was allocated to Osiris, and there he judged his followers. Ultimately the two ideas of Paradise were confused rather than fused, and in the end the earlier faith achieved the victory after centuries of repression. We have already noted that Ptah was rigidly excluded from the Ennead of the sun worshippers.

Archaic religious beliefs also received recognition at Heliopolis. The priests of the sun were evidently prepared to recognize any god so long as Ra was acknowledged as the Great Father. They not only tolerated but perpetuated the worship of trees and wells, and of stones and sacred mounds. Reverence is still shown for the well in which Ra was wont to wash his face daily, and it is called by the Arabs "the spring of the sun". A sycamore near it is also regarded with veneration. Sacrifices were offered up on a holy sand mound, and the custom prevailed at funeral services in tombs of setting up the mummy case in erect position on a heap of sand. One of the spirits [*1] of the sun god was believed to inhabit a great block of stone. Indeed On, the Egyptian name of the sacred "city of the sun", signifies "stone pillar". In the Fifth Dynasty the Ra kings erected

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roofless temples in which there towered great broad obelisks surmounting mastaba-like square platforms. One of these stone idols at Abusir measured 138 feet at the base, and was 111 feet high. Outside the temple was a brick sun bark over 90 feet in length.

This form of temple was discontinued after the Sixth Dynasty, when the political power of the Ra priests was undermined. The tradition of stone worship survived, however, in the custom of erecting in front of temples those shapely obelisks similar to the familiar "Cleopatra's needle" on the Thames Embankment. One still remains erect at Matarieh (Heliopolis) to mark the site of a vanished temple. It bears the name of King Senusert I of the Twelfth Dynasty.

The religion of the Horite sun worshippers, which was introduced by the Dynastic Egyptians who pressed northwards and conquered the whole land, appears to have differed from that of the Ra cult. It is not possible now to distinguish the original form of the tribal god, or to discover what particular religious rites were associated with him. There are several forms of Horus. The most familiar is the hawk, which symbolized the spirit of the sun. It protected the early kings, who were "the priests or descendants of Horus"--a royal title which continued ever afterwards in use. Like the Ra cult, the cult of Horus absorbed Egyptian beliefs, and the conception of the hawk god varied accordingly in different districts.

The two outstanding Horuses arc the elder and the younger--the Horus who was the brother of Osiris an-d the Horus child who was the son of Osiris and Isis.

Horus of Letopolis, near Memphis, was a hawk-headed man and the son of Hathor, the sky goddess. In Upper Egypt he was similarly represented, or simply

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as a hawk. At Edfu in particular he has the attributes of a sky god, and at Shedenu, a city in Lower Egypt, he was "Horus of the Two Eyes", the sun being one and the moon another, thus resembling the conception of Ptah Tanen. He was also Harmachis, "Horus of the Two Horizons", and in this character became one of the chief forms of Ra. As the "golden Horus" he was a dawn god, and in this character received the dead in the Judgment Hall of Osiris. The planet Saturn was "Horus the Bull", Mars was "Red Horus", and Jupiter "Horus, revealer of secrets". At Letopolis a temple was erected to "Horus of Not Seeing". In this form he is supposed to have represented the sun at solar eclipse, but he may have simply represented the firmament at night. It is possible that Hathor, as the chaos cow, was originally the Great Mother; and that the sky, sun, moon, and stars were the various forms assumed by her son Horus, or her various Horus sons.

When the child Horus became the son of Isis there may have been simply a change of mother. Isis and Hathor are similar conceptions, indeed the deities were ultimately confused. Both also resemble Nut as Great Mothers, but Nut represented Mother Heaven and Isis Mother Earth, while Hathor was the World Cow, representing fertility in that form. Nut was also represented as a cat. In her human form she gave birth to the sun daily, and the moon every month, and in another conception the sun and moon were her eyes. Ere Ra became the "Great Father" he was born of Nut.

The tribal aspect of the Osiris, Isis, and Horus myth is dealt with in a previous chapter. There is abundant evidence in Egyptian mythology that the union of deities signified the union of the tribes which worshipped them. The multiplicity of deities was due to the fact that an

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original conception remained in its old tribal form, and was perpetuated alongside the new conception. Two gods might be fused into one, but Egypt retained not only the new deity, but the two old deities as well, and thus instead of one god we have three. We need not be surprised, therefore, to find more than one Horus. The name alone may survive in some cases, for the process of blending varied in districts and at various periods. Egyptian religion is made up of many forms of faith.

Horus was united with Ra as Harmachis, and the sun god of Heliopolis became Ra Harmachis. The hawk god was thus symbolized as the winged sun disk. The legend which was invented to account for the change may here be summarized.

When Ra reigned as king over Egypt he sailed up the Nile towards Nubia, because his enemies were plotting against him. At Edfu Horus entered the bark of the great god and hailed him as father. Ra greeted the hawk god and entreated him to slay the rebels of Nubia. Then Horus flew up to the sun as a great winged disk, and he was afterwards called "the great god, the lord of the sky". He perceived the enemies of Ra, and went against them as a winged disk. Their eyes were blinded by his brightness, and their ears were made deaf, and in the confusion they slew one another. Not a single conspirator remained alive.

Horus returned to the bark of Ra, and from that day he became Horus, god of Edfu, in the form of a winged sun disk. Ka embraced him and said: "Thou hast made the water wine-red with blood, and my heart is glad."

Ra afterwards visited the battlefield, and, when he saw the dead bodies of his foes, he said: "Life is pleasant." The name of the place thus became Horbehudti, which means "Pleasant Life".

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The slain men were covered by water (at inundation) and became crocodiles and hippopotami. Then they attacked Horus as he sailed past; but his servants slew them with iron lances. Thoth rejoiced with glad heart when he beheld the enemies of Ra lying dead.

The legend continues in this strain, and relates that Horus pursued the enemies of the god Ra downstream. Apparently Egypt was full of them. We then learn that they were the followers of Set, who was driven towards the frontier. He was afterwards taken prisoner, and with manacled hands and a spear stuck in his neck he was brought before Ra. Then we find that there are two Horuses. The elder Horus is commanded by the sun god to deliver Set to Horus, son of Isis. The younger Horus cuts off the head of Set, and the slayer of Osiris becomes a roaring serpent which seeks refuge in a hole and is commanded to remain there.

Osiris is not mentioned in the legend, and Ra refers to the younger Horus as his own son. Apparently the theorists of Heliopolis desired Ra to supplant Osiris. Place names are played upon so that their origin may be ascribed to something said by the sun god, and grammatical construction is occasionally ignored with this end in view.

Horus worship never became popular in Egypt. It was absorbed by the various cults, so that, as we have indicated, its original form is confused. The religion of the sun cult at Heliopolis, which was imported by the Asiatic settlers, was the religion which received prominence at the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty. A new title was given to the Pharaoh. He became the "Son of the Sun" as well as "Priest of Horus", "Priest of Set", "lord of the north and south", &c.

The rise of the sun god involved far-reaching political

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issues. Although the high priest of Ra sat upon the throne, he did not become a tyrannical dictator like a Fourth-Dynasty king. A compromise had to be effected with the powerful faction at Memphis, and the high priest of Ptah became the vizier, a post previously held by the Pharaoh's chosen successor. Nome governors were also given extended powers as administrators, as a reward probably for the share they had taken in the revolution, or at any rate to conciliate them and secure their allegiance. This decentralizing process weakened the ruling power, but Egypt appears to have prospered as a whole, and the peaceful conditions which prevailed imparted activity to its intellectual life, as we shall see. Small and roughly constructed pyramid tombs were erected by the monarchs, who could no longer command an unlimited supply of labour.

The Fifth Dynasty lasted for about a century and a quarter. It began with Userkaf, the first babe mentioned in the Dedi folk tale, and he was succeeded in turn by the other two, who were not, however, his brothers. The ninth and last king of the Dynasty was Unas. In the so-called "Pyramid Texts", in his own tomb and that of Teta, the first king of the Sixth Dynasty, the monarch was deified as a star god, and has been identified with the constellation of Orion. The conception is a remarkable one. It smacks of absolute savagery, and we seem to be confronted with a symbolic revival of pre-Dynastic cannibalistic rites which are suggested, according to Maspero, by the gnawed and disconnected bones found in certain early graves. At the original Sed festival the tribal king, as Professor Petrie suggests, appears to have been sacrificed and devoured, so that his people might derive from his flesh and blood the power and virtues which made him great. The

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practice was based on belief in contagious magic. Bulls and boars were eaten to give men strength and courage, deer to give fleetness of foot, and serpents to give cunning. The blood of wounded warriors was drunk so that their skill and bravery might be imparted to the drinkers. [*1] King Unas similarly feasts after death on "the spirits" known at Heliopolis as "the fathers and the mothers", and on the bodies of men and gods. He swallows their spirits, souls, and names, which are contained in their hearts, livers, and entrails, and consequently becomes great and all-powerful. [*2] The resemblance to the man-eating giants of Europe is very striking.

The rendering which follows of the remarkable Unas hymn is fairly close. It is cast in metrical form with endeavour to reproduce the spirit of the original.


Now heaven rains, and trembles every star
With terror; bowmen scamper to escape;
And quakes old Aker, lion of the earth,
While all his worshippers betake to flight,
For Unas rises and in heaven appears
Like to a god who lived upon his sires
And on his mothers fed.


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                        Unas the lord
Of wisdom is; the secret of his Name
Not e'en his mother knows. . . . His rank is high
In heaven above; his power is like to Tum's,
His sire divine. . . . Greater than Tum is he.

His shadowy doubles follow him behind
As he comes forth. The uraeus on his brow
Uprears; the royal serpent guides him on;
He sees his Ba [*1] a flame of living fire.

The strength of Unas shields him. . . He is now
The Bull of Heaven, doing as he wills,
Feeding on what gives life unto the gods--
Their food he eats who would their bellies fill
With words of power from the pools of flame.

Against the spirits shielded by his might,
Unas arises now to take his meal--
Men he devours; he feasts upon the gods
This lord who reckons offerings: he who makes
Each one to bow his forehead, bending low.

Amkenhuu is snarer; Herthertu
Hath bound them well; and Khonsu killer is
Who cuts the throats and tears the entrails out--
'Twas he whom Unas sent to drive them in . . .
Divided by Shesemu, now behold
The portions cooking in the fiery pots.

Unas is feasting on their secret Names;
Unas devours their spirits and their souls--
At morn he eats the largest, and at eve
The ones of middle girth, the small at night:
Old bodies are the faggots for his fire.

Lo! mighty Unas makes the flames to leap
With thighs of aged ones, and into pots
Are legs of women flung that he may feast.

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Unas, the Power, is the Power of Powers!
Unas, the mighty god, is god of gods!
Voraciously he feeds on what he finds,
And he is given protection more assured
Than all the mummies 'neath the western sky.

Unas is now the eldest over all--
Thousands he ate and hundreds he did burn;
He rules o'er Paradise. . . .Among the gods
His soul is rising up in highest heaven--
The Crown is he as the horizon lord.

He reckoned livers as he reckoned knots;
The hearts of gods he ate and they are his;
He swallowed up the White Crown and the Red,
And fat of entrails gulped; the secret Names
Are in his belly and he prospers well--
Lo! he devoured the mind of every god,
And so shall live for ever and endure
Eternally, to do as he desires.

The souls of gods are now in his great soul;
Their spirits in his spirit; he obtains
Food in abundance greater than the gods--
His fire has seized their bones, and lo! their souls
Are Unas's; their shades are with their forms.

Unas ascends. . . . Unas ascends with these--
Unas is hidden, is hidden [*1] . . . . An One
For him hath ploughed . . . . The seat of every heart Is
Unas's among all living men.


^155:1 The lion Aker was another earth god.

^159:1 See Lane's Manners and Customs the Modern Egyptians. (Chapters xi and xx).

^159:2 See Chapter V.

^160:1 The duck-headed serpent recalls the fire drake of the Beowulf poem. Giants with cats' heads and dogs' heads are found in Celtic folklore.

^160:2 King James in his Daemonology (Book II, Chap. v) says: "The devil teacheth how to make pictures of wax or clay, that by roasting thereof, the persons that they beat the name of may be continually melted or dried away by continual sickness."

^161:1 In the Reign of Rameses II, Khattusil, the Hittite king, visited Egypt. An inscription at Abu Simbel expresses the hope that on his journey homeward he will not be delayed by snow and ice on the mountains. Isaiah makes symbolic reference to the serpent: "In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing (or stiff) serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea" (Isaiah, xxvii, 1).

^161:2 As in the Nifel-hel of Teutonic mythology.

^161:3 The Mohammedan noonday prayer is probably a survival of the sun worshippers' custom.

^162:1 Gods and Pharaohs had several Kas. Ra had fourteen, and he had also seven Bas (souls).

^168:1 In the Nibelungenlied the Burgundians drink the blood of fallen heroes and are refreshed and strengthened. See Teutonic Myth and Legend.

^168:2 Dr. Budge is of opinion that human beings were sacrificed to the sun god. The practice was "of vital importance". Referring to the Ra obelisk in the early sun temples, he says that "the size and number of conduits to carry away blood bears evidence of the magnitude of the slaughterings" (Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection and Gods of the Egyptians).

^168:3 Osiris, in his fusion with Ra, is addressed as "thou first great sun god", and Isis says: "There proceedeth from thee the strong Orion in heaven at evening, at the resting of every day."--The Burden of Isis ("Wisdom of the East" Series) trans. by Dennis, p. 24.

^169:1 Soul.

^170:1 Hail, thou hidden god, Osiris in the underworld."--The Burden of Isis, p. 54.

Egyptian Myth and Legend

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