Egyptian Myth and Legend


Father Gods and Mother Goddesses

An Obscure Period--Popularity of Osiris Worship--A Mythical Region--The Lake of Fire--Her-shef, who resembles Ptah--Links with Khnumu--A Wind God and Earth God--Giants and Elves--The God of Mendes--The Ram a Corn Spirit--Deities fused with Osiris--Feline Goddesses--Flying Serpents--The Mother of Mendes--Abydos, the Egyptian Mecca--Foreign Invaders--A Buffer State--North and South in Revolt.

WE have entered upon an obscure and disturbed period which extends over an interval of about three hundred years. The petty states of Egypt continued to wage sporadic wars of conquest one against another, and a prolonged struggle was in progress for supreme power. In time the political units grew less numerous, and several federated tribes were ruled over by powerful feudal lords. The chief centres of government in Upper Egypt were established at Thebes, Siut, and Heracleopolis. Memphis was for a time the capital of a group of allied nomes in Middle Egypt, and at Sais in the north there was a reigning family of whom we know nothing except from casual references in later times. The eastern Delta lay open to the invader, and it is believed that foreign settlements were effected there. Ultimately Egypt was divided into two great states. The southern group of allies was governed by the Theban power, and the northern by the Heracleopolitan. Then history repeated itself, and the kingdom was once again united by a conqueror who pressed northward from Upper Egypt.

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The Eighth-Dynasty kings claimed to be descended from those of the Sixth. But, although they reigned at Memphis, their control of the disordered kingdom was so slight that they were unable to erect any monuments. No royal inscriptions survive at the quarries. After a quarter of a century of weak Memphite rule, the powerful nome governor of Heracleopolis Magna seized the throne and established the Ninth Dynasty. The kings of the Tenth Dynasty are believed to have been also his descendants.

Manetho calls the new king Akhthoes, and his name in the hieroglyphs is usually rendered as Kheti. He is also known as Ab-meri-ra. Like Khufu, he was reputed in the traditions of later times to have been a great tyrant, who in the end went mad, and was devoured by a crocodile. He seems to have held in check for a period the ambitious feudal nobles whose rivalries so seriously retarded the agricultural prosperity of the kingdom. No doubt famines were common.

Each nome promoted its own theological system, and that of Heracleopolis Magna now assumes special interest because of its association with the monarchy. The political influence of the priests of Heliopolis had passed away, but the impress of their culture remained. Osiris worship continued to be popular oil account of its close association with agriculture. A Horus temple had existed at Heracleopolis from early Dynastic times, but the identity of the god does not appear to have survived the theological changes of the intervening period.

Heracleopolis Magna, which the Egyptians called Khenen-su is of special mythological interest. It came to be recognized as the scene of the great creation myth of the sun worshippers. There Ra, at the beginning,

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rose from the primeval deep in the form of the sun egg, or the lotus flower--

He that openeth and he that closeth the door;
He who said: "I am but One".
Ra, who was produced by himself;
Whose various names make up the group of gods;
He who is Yesterday (Osiris) and the Morrow (Ra).

Khenen-su district was the scene of the "war of the gods", who contended against one another at Ra's command--a myth which suggests the everlasting struggle between the forces of nature, which began at Creation's dawn, and is ever controlled by the sun. Somewhere in the nome were situated the two mythical lakes, "the lake of natron" and "the lake of truth", in which Ra cleansed himself, and there, too, at the height of their great struggle--symbolized as the struggle between good and evil--Set flung filth in the face of Horus, and Horus mutilated Set. The ultimate victory was due to Ra, who, in the form of the Great Cat that haunted the Persea tree at Heliopolis, fought with the Apep serpent and overcame it. "On that day", according to The Book of the Dead, "the enemies of the inviolable god (Osiris) were slain."

In the vicinity of Khenen-su was the fiery region. At its entrance crouched the demon who had human skin and the head of a greyhound. He was concealed by the door, and pounced unexpectedly upon "the damned"; he tore out their hearts, which he devoured, and he swallowed their spirits. So the faithful sun worshippers were wont to pray:

O Ra-tum give me deliverance from the demon who devoureth those who are condemned--he who waits at the door of the fiery place and is not seen. . . . Save me from him

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who clutcheth souls, and eateth all filth and rottenness by day and by night. Those who dread him are helpless.

At Khenen-su lived the Phoenix [*1]--the "Great Bennu". It resembled an eagle, and had feathers of red and golden colour. Some authorities identify this mythical bird with the planet Venus, which, as the morning star, was "the guide of the sun god".

The religion of Heracleopolis Magna was, no doubt, strongly tinged by the theology of the sun worshippers. It seems also to have been influenced by Memphite beliefs. The chief god was Her-shef, who bears a stronger resemblance to Ptah Tanen than to Horus. He was a self-created Great Father, whose head was in the heavens while his feet rested upon the earth. His right eye was the sun and his left the moon, while his soul was the light that he shed over the world. He breathed from his nostrils the north wind, which gave life to every living being.

"Wind" and "breath" and "spirit" were believed by many primitive peoples to be identical. [*2] Her-shef was therefore the source of universal life. As a "wind god" he resembles the southern deity Khnumu, who was also called Knef (the Kneph of the Greeks). The Egyptian knef means "wind", "breath", and "spirit"--"the air of life". In Hebrew nephesh ruach, and in Arabic ruh and nefs have similar significance.

Ptah Tanen, Khnumu, and Her-shef, therefore, combined not only the attributes of the earth giant Seb, but also those of Shu, the wind god, whose lightness is symbolized by the ostrich feather, but who had such great strength that he was the "uplifter" of the heavens.

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Both Seb and Shu are referred to as self-created deities.

It has been suggested that the elfin Khnumu, of whom Ptah was the chief, had a tribal origin, and were imported into Egypt. In European lore, dwarfs and giants are closely associated, and are at times indistinguishable. The fusion of the dwarf Ptah with the giant Tanen is thus a familiar process, and in the conception we may trace the intellectual life of a mountain people whose giants, or genii, according to present-day Arabian folk belief, dwell in the chain of world-encircling hills named "Kaf".

In what we call "Teutonic" lore, which has pronounced Asiatic elements, the giant is the "Great Father", and in what we call "Celtic", in which the Mediterranean influence predominates, the giantess is the "Great Mother". The Delta Mediterranean people had "Great Mother" goddesses like Isis, Neith, the virgin deity of Buto, and Bast. At Mendes there was a "Great Father" deity who links with Ptah, Her-shef, and Khnumu. He is called Ba-neb-tettu, the ram god, and "lord of Tettu", and he became, in the all-embracing theology of Heliopolis, "the breath (life) of Ra". In the Book of the Dead there is a reference to Ra as "the Lord of Air who giveth life to all mortals".

The god of Mendes was reputed to have made "the wind of life" for all men, and was called "chief of the gods", "ruler of the sky" and "monarch of all deities". The earth was made fertile by his influence, and he was the origin of the passion of love; he caused the fertilizing Nile flood. Like Ptah Tanen, from whose mouth issued forth the waters, and like Ptah, Khnumu, and Shu) he was the pillar (dad) of the sky. Osiris is also associated with the sky prop or props. All these deities appear to

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have had their origin in crude conceptions which survive in various stages of development in European lore. [*1]

Like Ba-neb-tettu, the Mendes "Great Father", Hershef of Heracleopolis was also a ram god, symbolizing the male principle; so was Khnumu of the First Cataract district. In some representations of Ptah the ram's horns appear on his head. The ram was the primitive Min, who was worshipped throughout Egypt, and was absorbed by all the Great Father deities, including Ra. Min was honoured at harvest festivals, and was therefore a corn god, a character assumed by the deified King Osiris.

One of the figures of Her-shef of Heracleopolis is almost as complex as that of Sokar, the Memphite god of the dead. He is shown with four heads-a ram's head, a bull's head, and two heads of hawks. The bull was Mentu, who, like Min, represented the male principle, and was also a war god, the epitome of strength and bravery.

All the Great Fathers--Her-shef, Ptah, Khnumu, and Ba-neb-tettu--were fused with Osiris. Ptah united with Osiris as ruler of the dead, Khnumu became a form of Osiris at Heliopolis, Ba-neb-tettu of Mendes was also Ba-neb-ded, another name for Osiris, and Her-shef of Heracleopolis was "he on the sand", a form of Osiris, who is called "the god on the sand".

Her-shef is usually represented as a ram-headed man, wearing the white crown with plumes, surmounted by two


From the limestone statue in the Cairo Museum

Isis and the Child Horus
(British Museum) 

Bast, the Cat Goddess, holding a Hathor-headed sistrum and an aegis
(British Museum) 

Sekhet, Lion-headed Goddess, Wife of Ptah ("Sekhet, the Destroyer")
(British Museum)


disks (sun and moon) and two serpents with disks on their heads. Plutarch regarded him as the symbol of "strength and valour", a conception which accords with the military reputation of at least some of the kings of Heracleopolis who lived in stormy times.

The goddess associated with Her-shef was Atet, who was also call Mersekhnet, a "Great Mother" deity similar to Hathor, Isis, Neith, and others. She was a cat goddess, and in her cat form was called Maau, an appropriate name. She slew the Apep serpent--a myth which, as we have seen, was absorbed by Ra. Other feline deities are Bast of Bubastis, Sekhet, wife of Ptah, and Tefnut. [*1]

At Heracleopolis there was a shrine to Neheb-Kau, who, like the virgin deity of Buto in the Delta, was a serpent goddess, symbolizing the female principle. She is represented as a flying serpent, [*2] a reptile which Herodotus heard much about in Egypt but searched for in vain; she also appears as a serpent with human head, arms, and legs. She was worshipped at the Ploughing Festival before the seed was sown. Like the sycamore goddess, she was believed to take a special interest in the souls of the dead, whom she supplied with celestial food and drink.

Another Heracleopolitan deity was the vine god Heneb, who suggests an Egyptian Bacchus; he was probably a form of Osiris.

The female counterpart of the northern god, Baneb-tettu, was Heru-pa-Kaut, "Mother of Mendes", who was represented as a woman with a fish upon her head.

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She was in time displaced by Isis, as her son was by Horus. The ceremonies associated with all the "mother goddesses" were as elaborate as they were indecent.

Osiris worship flourished at Abydos, which became an Egyptian Mecca with its holy sepulchre. The tomb of King Zer, of the First Dynasty, was reputed to be that of the more ancient deified monarch Osiris, and it was visited by pious pilgrims and heaped with offerings. Elaborate religious pageants, performed by priests, illustrated the Osiris-Isis story. Set, the fearful red demon god, was execrated, and the good Osiris revered and glorified. Isis, mother of the god Horus, was a popular figure. "I who let fall my hair, which hangs loosely over my forehead, I am Isis when she is hidden in her long tresses."

Pious worshippers sought burial at Abydos, and its cemetery was crowded with the graves of all classes. Nome governors, however, were interred in their own stately tombs, like those at Beni Hassan and elsewhere, but their mummies were often carried first to Abydos, where "the Judgment of the Dead" was enacted. The Pharaohs appear to have clung to the belief in the Ra bark, which they entered, as of old, by uttering the powerful magic formulae. The victory of the early faith was, however, complete among the masses of the people. With the exception of the Ra believers the worshippers of every other deity in Egypt reposed their faith in Osiris, the god of the dead.

Some Egyptologists regard the Heracleopolitans as foreign invaders. Their theology suggests that they were a mountain people of similar origin to the Memphite worshippers of Ptah. But no records survive to afford us definite information on this point. The new monarchs were evidently kept fully engaged by their military operations,

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and not until nearly the close of the Tenth Dynasty do we obtain definite information regarding the conditions which prevailed during the obscure period. There then came into prominence a powerful nome family at Siut which remained faithful to the royal house and kept at bay the aggressive Thebans. In their cliff tombs we read inscriptions which indicate that for a period, at least, the Pharaohs were able to maintain peace and order in the kingdom. One of these records that the royal officials performed their duties effectively, and that war had ceased. Children were no longer slain in their mother's arms, nor were men cut down beside their wives. The rebels were suppressed, and people could sleep out of doors in perfect safety, because the king's soldiers were the terror of all doers of evil. Further, we learn that canals were constructed, and that there were excellent harvests--a sure indication that a degree of order had been restored. A standing army was in existence, and could be dispatched at short notice to a disturbed area. The Siut nobles appear to have been Pharaoh's generals. They enjoyed intimate relations with the ruling house. One, who was named Kheti, was educated with the Pharaoh's family, and learned to swim with them, and his widowed mother governed the nome during his minority. He married a princess. His son, Tefaba, reduced the south by military force, and won a great naval battle on the Nile. The younger Kheti, Tefaba's son, was also a vigorous governor, and stamped out another southern rebellion, and made a great display with his fleet, which stretched for miles. But although southern Egypt was temporarily pacified, a rebellion broke out in the north, and the Pharaoh Meri-ka-ra was suddenly driven from Heracleopolis. He took refuge with Kheti, who pressed northward and won a decisive victory. Meri-ka-ra was

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again placed on the throne. But his reign was brief, and he was the last king of the Tenth Dynasty.

The Delta was now in a state of aggressive revolt, and the power of the Theban house was growing in Upper Egypt. Ultimately the Siut house fell before the southern forces, and a new official god and a new royal family appeared in the kingdom.


^188:1 At a later date it was located in Arabia.

^188:2 "Spirit" is derived from spiro, "I breathe". The Aryan root "an" also signifies "wind" and "spirit", and survives in words like "animal", "animate", &c.

^190:1 In Scottish archaic lore the mountains are shaped by the wind hag, who is the mother of giants. The Irish Ann or Danu, associated with the "Paps of Anu", has the attributes of a wind goddess and is the mother of deities the Irish hag Morrigu and her two sisters are storm hags and war hags. On Jochgrimm Mountain in Tyrol three hags brew the breezes. The Norse Angerboda is an east-wind hag, and she is the enemy of the gods of Asgard. The gods who are wind deities include Zeus and Odin, "the Wild Huntsman in the Raging Host". The Teutonic hags are evidently of pre-Teutonic origin; they are what the old Irish mythologists called in Gaelic "non gods".

^191:1 The Norse Freyja, goddess of love, is also a cat goddess. In the Empire period Astarte was added to the Egyptian collection of feline deities.

^191:2 Isaiah refers to Egypt as "the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young lion and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent" (Isaiah, xxx, 6; see also Isaiah, xiv, 29).

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From the painting by Maurice Greiffenghagen



From the painting by Maurice Greiffenghagen


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From the painting by Maurice Greiffenghagen


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From a plaster cast of the relief on the wall of the Temple at Der-al Bahari (By courtesy of Mr. William Waldorf Astor)


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From the painting by Maurice Greiffenghagen


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(Fresco from tomb at Thebes, XVIII Dynasty, about B.C. 1580-1350; now in British Museum)

The deceased, accompanied by his wife and daughter, stands in a reed canoe in a marsh filled with large papyrus reeds, and is occupied in knocking down birds with a stick, which is made in the form of a snake. In front of him is his hunting cat, which has seized three birds, one with its hind claws, one with its fore claws, and one by the wings with its mouth. Numerous butterflies are represented, and the lake is well stocked with fish. The line of hieroglyphs at the back of the deceased indicates that the scene is supposed to represent the state of felicity which he will enjoy in the next world.

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(Fresco from tomb at Thebes, XVIII Dynasty, about B.C. 1580-1350; now in British Museum)

In the upper register the seated scribe is preparing to make a list of the geese, which are being marshalled before him. Below we see a group of goose herds with their flock, who are making obeisance before him, whilst one of their number places the birds in baskets. The scribe has risen and is engaged in unrolling a new papyrus, whereon to inscribe his list. The horizontal line of hieroglyphics above the geese contains an exhortation of one goose herd to another to "make haste", so that he may bring his flock before the scribe. In front of the scribe is a red leather sack, or bag, in which he kept his clothes, &c., and round it is rolled the mat on which he sat.

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After the painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R.A., in Preston Art Gallery

Egyptian Myth and Legend

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