Egyptian myths were metaphorical stories intended to illustrate and explain the gods’ actions and roles in nature. The details of the events they recounted could change as long as they conveyed the same symbolic meaning, so many myths exist in different and conflicting versions. Mythical narratives were rarely written in full, and more often texts only contain episodes from or allusions to a larger myth. Knowledge of Egyptian mythology, therefore, is derived mostly from hymns that detail the roles of specific deities, from ritual and magical texts which describe actions related to mythic events, and from funerary texts which mention the roles of many deities in the afterlife. Some information is also provided by allusions in secular texts. Finally, Greeks and Romans such as Plutarch recorded some of the extant myths late in Egyptian history.
Among the significant Egyptian myths were the creation myths. According to these stories, the world emerged as a dry space in the primordial ocean of chaos. Because the sun is essential to life on earth, the first rising of Ra marked the moment of this emergence. Different forms of the myth describe the process of creation in various ways: a transformation of the primordial god Atum into the elements that form the world, as the creative speech of the intellectual god Ptah, and as an act of the hidden power of Amun. Regardless of these variations, the act of creation represented the initial establishment of maat and the pattern for the subsequent cycles of time.
THE PRIMARY GODS OF EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY
THE LEGEND OF OSIRIS
The Legend of Osiris is one of the most ancient myths in Egypt, and it was central to the ancient Egyptian state religion. The myth establishes Osiris’ position as god of the dead and lord of the underworld, and Horus‘ (and thus all the pharaohs) right to kingship. It also demonstrates the powers and duties of the other major gods as well as setting up the Great Adversary, Set. Yet oddly enough, we have yet to find a complete version of the story. What we have has been cobbled together over many years from many different documents and sources. What I have presented here is my own attempt at restructuring one of the oldest stories in the world.
It is an old story, but it is one of what Neil Gaiman calls the “Great Stories.” The Great Stories are part of the core human experience and never change except in the most superficial ways. They defy any attempts to rewrite them with drastic changes, always returning to their original forms. The setting might be modified depending on who’s telling it, the characters have different names, but fundamentally, it’s still the same story. A version of the Osiris myth exists in every culture: the just king murdered by his cruel brother, only to be avenged by the prince who follows in his father’s footsteps. Sometimes the dead king is rewarded for his upright ways and gains great reward in the next life. We find its echoes in nearby civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans, in far-off Japan and China, in Christianity, even in Shakespeare, where the avenging prince is named Hamlet.
O my brothers and my sisters, gather around me that I may tell the tale of the Before-Time, of the Golden Age when the gods walked upon the earth with us. Know then that in those ancient days, long before even the grandfather of our Pharaoh’s grandfather was born, Osiris the great-grandson of Ra sat upon the throne of the gods, ruling over the living world as Ra did over the gods. He was the first Pharaoh, and his Queen, Isis, was the first Queen.They ruled for many ages together, for the world was still young and Grandmother Death was not as harsh as she is now.
His ways were just and upright, he made sure that Maat remained in balance, that the law was kept. And so Maat smiled upon the world. All peoples praised Osiris and Isis, and peace reigned over all, for this was the Golden Age.
Yet there was trouble. Proud Set, noble Set, the brother of Osiris, he who defended the Sun Boat from Apep the Destroyer, was unsettled in his heart. He coveted the throne of Osiris. He coveted Isis. He coveted the power over the living world and he desired to take it from his brother. In his dark mind he conceived of a plot to kill Osiris and take all from him. He built a box and inscribed it with wicked magic that would chain anyone who entered it from escaping.
Set took the box to the great feast of the gods. He waited until Osiris had made himself drunk on much beer, then challenged Osiris to a contest of strength. Each one in turn would enter the box, and attempt, through sheer strength, to break it open. Osiris, sure in his power yet feeble in mind because of his drink, entered the box. Set quickly poured molten lead into the box. Osiris tried to escape, but the wicked magic held him bound and he died. Set then picked up the box and hurled it into the Nile where it floated away.
Set claimed the throne of Osiris for himself and demanded that Isis be his Queen. None of the other gods dared to stand against him, for he had killed Osiris and could easily do the same to them. Great Ra turned his head aside and mourned, he did not stand against Set.
This was the dark time. Set was everything his brother was not. He was cruel and unkind, caring not for the balance of Maat, or for us, the children of the gods. War divided Egypt, and all was lawless while Set ruled. In vain our people cried to Ra, but his heart was hardened by grief, and he would not listen.
Only Isis, blessed Isis, remembered us. Only she was unafraid of Set. She searched all of the Nile for the box containing her beloved husband. Finally she found it, lodged in a tamarisk bush that had turned into a mighty tree, for the power of Osiris still was in him, though he lay dead.
She tore open the box and wept over the lifeless body of Osiris. She carried the box back to Egypt and placed it in the house of the gods. She changed herself into a bird and flew about his body, singing a song of mourning. Then she perched upon him and cast a spell. The spirit of dead Osiris entered her and she did conceive and bear a son whose destiny it would be to avenge his father. She called the child Horus, and hid him on an island far away from the gaze of his uncle Set.
She then went to Thoth, wise Thoth, who knows all secrets, and implored his help. She asked him for magic that could bring Osiris back to life. Thoth, lord of knowledge, who brought himself into being by speaking his name, searched through his magic. He knew that Osiris’ spirit had departed his body and was lost. To restore Osiris, Thoth had to remake him so that his spirit would recognize him and rejoin. Thoth and Isis together created the Ritual of Life, that which allows us to live forever when we die. But before Thoth could work the magic, cruel Set discovered them. He stole the body of Osiris and tore it into many pieces, scattering them throughout Egypt. He was sure that Osiris would never be reborn.
Yet Isis would not despair. She implored the help of her sister Nephthys, kind Nephthys, to guide her and help her find the pieces of Osiris. Long did they search, bringing each piece to Thoth that he might work magic upon it. When all the pieces were together, Thoth went to Anubis, lord of the dead. Anubis sewed the pieces back together, washed the entrails of Osiris, embalmed him wrapped him in linen, and cast the Ritual of Life. When Osiris’ mouth was opened, his spirit reentered him and he lived again.
Yet nothing that has died, not even a god, may dwell in the land of the living. Osiris went to Duat, the abode of the dead. Anubis yielded the throne to him and he became the lord of the dead. There he stands in judgment over the souls of the dead. He commends the just to the Blessed Land, but the wicked he condemns to be devoured by Ammit.
When Set heard that Osiris lived again he was wroth, but his anger waned, for he knew that Osiris could never return to the land of the living. Without Osiris, Set believed he would sit on the throne of the gods for all time. Yet on his island, Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, grew to manhood and strength. Set sent many serpents and demons to kill Horus, but he defeated them. When he was ready, his mother Isis gave him great magic to use against Set, and Thoth gave him a magic knife.
Horus sought out Set and challenged him for the throne. Set and Horus fought for many days, but in the end Horus defeated Set and castrated him. But Horus, merciful Horus, would not kill Set, for to spill the blood of his uncle would make him no better than he. Set maintained his claim to the throne, and Horus lay claim himself as the son of Osiris. The gods began to fight amongst another, those who supported Horus and those who supported Set. Banebdjetet leaped into the middle and demanded that the gods end this struggle peacefully or Maat would be imbalanced further. He told the gods to seek the council of Neith. Neith, warlike though wise in council, told them that Horus was the rightful heir to the throne. Horus cast Set into the darkness where he lives to this day.
And so it is that Horus watches over us while we live, and gives guidance to the Pharaoh while he lives, and his father Osiris watches over us in the next life. So it is that the gods are at peace. So it is that Set, wicked Set, eternally strives for revenge, battling Horus at every turn. When Horus wins, Maat is upheld and the world is at peace. When Set wins, the world is in turmoil. But we know that dark times do not last forever, and the bright rays of Horus will shine over us again. In the last days, Horus and Set will fight one last time for the world. Horus will defeat Set forever, and Osiris will be able to return to this world. On that day, the Day of Awakening, all the tombs shall open and the just dead shall live again as we do, and all sorrow shall pass away forever.
Lo, this is my tale. Keep it in your hearts and give it to others, as I gave it to you.
THE BATTLES OF RA & APEP
Another important mythic motif was the journey of Ra through the Duat each night. In the course of this journey, Ra met with Osiris, who again acted as an agent of regeneration, so that his life was renewed.
He also fought each night with Apep, a serpentine god representing chaos. The defeat of Apep and the meeting with Osiris ensured the rising of the sun the next morning, an event that represented rebirth and the victory of order over chaos.
Battles with Ra
Tales of Apep’s battles against Ra were elaborated during the New Kingdom. Since nearly everyone can see that the sun is not attacked by a giant snake during the day, every day, storytellers said that Apep must lie just below the horizon. This appropriately made him a part of the underworld. In some stories Apep waited for Ra in a western mountain called Bakhu, where the sun set, and in others Apep lurked just before dawn, in the Tenth region of the Night. The wide range of Apep’s possible location gained him the title World Encircler. It was thought that his terrifying roar would cause the underworld to rumble. Myths sometimes say that Apep was trapped there, because he had been the previous chief god and suffered a coup d’etat by Ra, or because he was evil and had been imprisoned.
In his battles, Apep was thought to use a magical gaze to hypnotize Ra and his entourage, attempting to devour them whilst choking the river on which they travelled through the underworld with his coils. Sometimes Apep had assistance from other demons, named Sek and Mot. Ra was assisted by a number of defenders who travelled with him, the most powerful being Set, who sat at the helm.
In a bid to explain certain natural phenomena it was said that occasionally Apep got the upper hand. The damage to order caused thunderstorms and earthquakes. Indeed: it was even thought that sometimes Apep actually managed to swallow Ra during the day, causing a solar eclipse, but since Ra’s defenders quickly cut him free of Apep, the eclipse always ended within a few minutes. On the occasions when Apep was said to have been killed, he was able to return each night (since he lived in the world of the dead already). In Atenism it is Aten who kills the monster since Aten is the only god in the belief system. But in other myths, it was the cat goddess Bast, daughter of Ra, who slayed Apep in her cat form one night, hunting him down with her all seeing eye.