THE COSMOGONY OF HELIOPOLIS
Brian E. Colless
(587) Hail to you, Atum; hail to you Kheprer, who brought himself into being.
You are on high in this your name of High One.
You came into being in this your name Kheprer. (hprr, He who comes/brings into being)
(527) Atum is he who created by his masturbation in On (Heliopolis).
He took his phallus in his fist and aroused desire.
Then a pair of twins was born, Shu and Tefnut. . . . .
(600) Atum-Kheprer, you were on high on the Primeval Hill.
You arose as the ben bird* of the ben stone in the Ben House in On (Heliopolis).
You spat out what was Shu (god of air), and spurted out what was Tefnut (god of moisture).
You put your arms about them as the arms of a ka-symbol (the hieroglyph has 2 arms)
that your divine essence (ka) might be in them. . . .
O great Ennead in On, namely Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys,
whom Atum begot, spreading his heart wide with joy in his begetting you
in your name of the Nine Bows (potential foes ), may none of you separate from Atum
as he protects this King Nefer-ka-Rey*, *(Pepi II, Sixth Dynasty, 24th century B.C.E.)
as he protects this pyramid of King Nefer-ka-Rey,
as he protects this his construction work from all gods and from all dead people,
and as he guards lest anything of harm befall him throughout the course of eternity.
(77) I am this soul of Shu which is in the flame of the fiery blast that Atum kindled with his
own hand, when he produced an orgasm and caused fluid to fall from his mouth.
He spat me out as Shu together with Tefnut, who came forth after me.
(78) I am the soul of Shu, for whom Nut was placed above him and Geb beneath his feet; and I was between them.
The separation of the Sky (Nut) from the Earth (Geb) by their father Shu.
Book of the Dead
(15) Hail to you, Rey when you rise, Atum when you set,... having dawned as king of the gods.
You are lord of the sky and earth, who made the stars above and humankind below, sole god who came into being at the beginning of time....
(17) I am Atum, when I was alone in Nun (the primeval waters).
I am Rey at his dawning when he began to rule over all that he had made.
What does it mean?....
It means that Rey began dawning in the kingdom he had created before the uplifted one of Shu (namely Nut, the Sky) had come into being, when he was on the hill that was in Hermopolis....
I am the great god who came into being by himself.
Who is he?
The great god who came into being by himself is water.
He is Nun (the Deep), the father of the gods.
Another version: He is Rey.
He who created his names, the Lord of the Ennead.
Who is he?
He is Rey, who created the names of the parts of his body; and thus brought into being the gods in his retinue.
I am the irrepressible one.
Who is he? He is Atum, who is in his sun disk.
Another version: He is Rey, when he arises on the eastern horizon of heaven.
Mine is yesterday, and I know tomorrow.
Who is he?
Yesterday is Osiris; tomorrow is Rey, on that day when the enemies of the Lord of the Universe are annihilated and his Son Horus is made ruler.
The words to be spoken are:
The Lord of All said after he came into being:
I am he who came into being as Khepri. When I came into being, being came into being, and all beings came into being after I came into being. Many were the beings that came forth from my mouth, before the heaven came into being, before the earth came into being, before the ground and creeping things were created in this place. I raised some creatures in Nun (the Primordial Waters) as inert (nenu) things, when I had not yet found a place to stand on. I found it good in my heart, and I conceived with my sight. I made all forms, I being all alone, before I had spat out (ishesh) what was Shu, before I had spurted out (tef) what was Tefnut, before there came into being one who could act together with me.
(2) I conceived in my own heart and there came into being a vast number of forms of divine beings, as the forms of children and the forms of their children.
(3) I was the one who aroused desire with my fist and copulated with my hand. I spat out from my mouth. I spat it out as Shu; I spurted it out as Tefnut. It was my father Nun who brought them up, with my Eye following after them since the aeons when they were distant from me.
(4) After I had come into being as the only god, there were three gods (Nun, Shu, Tefnut) beside me. I came into being in this earth, but Shu and Tefnut rejoiced in the waters of Nun, in which they were. They brought back to me my Eye, which had followed after them. After I had reunited my members I wept over them, and that was the coming into being of humankind (remet), from the tears (remyt) that came forth from my Eye. It was angry with me after it came back and found that I had made another in its stead, having replaced it with the Glorious Eye (the sun). So I advanced it to a place on my brow (as the uraeus-serpent), where it held sway over this whole land; and its wrath fell away entirely, for I had restored what had been taken from it.
(5) I came forth from among the roots (of the newly created vegetation?), and I created all creeping things and all that exists among them. Thereupon Shu and Tefnut brought forth Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). Then Geb and Nut brought forth Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys from the womb, one after the other, and they brought forth their multitudes in this land.
(6) When they spoke, rich in magic as they are, it was the very soul (ka) of magic, for they were ordered to destroy my enemies by the effective charms of their speech; I sent them out, these gods who had come into being from my body, to overthrow that evil enemy.
(7) He is one who has fallen into the flames, Apophis (Apep), with a knife on his head. He is not to be seen, and his name is no more in this land. I have commanded that a curse be cast upon him; I have consumed his bones; I have destroyed his soul, in the course of every day; I have cut his vertebrae at his neck, severed with a knife which hacked up his flesh and pierced into his hide. . . . His soul, his corpse, his state of glory, his shadow, and his magic are not. His bones are not, and his skin is not. He is fallen and overthrown. . . .
(8) See now, O Rey; hear now, O Rey Behold, I have driven away your enemy; I have wiped him out with my feet; I have spat upon him. Rey is triumphant over you. . . .
(9) May you drive away, consume, and burn up every enemy of Pharaoh (Life! Prosperity! Health!) whether dead or living. . . .
(10) Now you shall be in your shrine; you shall journey in the evening ship; you shall cross your two heavens (above and below the earth) in peace. . . .
(11) Rey is triumphant over you Apophis. To be said four times.
(12) Pharaoh (Life! Prosperity! Health!) is triumphant over his enemies.
(13) This spell is to be recited over Apophis drawn on a new sheet of papyrus in green colour, and put inside a box on which his name is set. He is to be tied and bound and put on the fire every day, wiped out with your left foot, and spat upon four times in the course of every day. . . .
(14) Now when you have written inside the box the names of every male and female who is to be overthrown, of whom your heart is afraid, that is, every enemy of Pharaoh (Life! Prosperity! Health!) whether dead or alive, and the names of their mothers, and the names of their children, then they are to be made in wax and put on the fire following the name of Apophis and burned up at the time when Rey shows himself, . . . at the height of the sun, and when Rey sets in the west. . . .
The ancient Delta city of On or Ionu (near modern Cairo), which the Greeks called Heliopolis (City of the Sun), had a very old cosmogony. We find the Heliopolitan account of creation cropping up here and there
(a) in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom (2700 2200 B.C.);
(b) in the Coffin Texts of a later period;
(c) in The Book of the Dead (from about 1500 B.C. onwards);
(d) The Book of the Overthrowing of Apophis.
In the Heliopolitan system the sun god is the creator. He is Khepri (or Kheprer), the rising sun who "comes into being" and "brings into being"; he is Rey, the sun high in the sky; and he is Atum "the completing one" or the setting sun. Khepri (Kheprer) is depicted as a scarab beetle pushing the sun disk (since this beetle had been observed pushing its eggs over the ground in balls of cattle dung).
Atum, it is related, was the first god to emerge from Nun (the Primordial Waters, the Watery Abyss, the Deep). Finding nowhere to stand he created a hill amidst the waters. This was the site of the temple of Heliopolis, though other cities (such as Hermopolis, Thebes, and Memphis) claimed that the primeval hill (the benben) lay beneath their particular temple.
Atum brought two more gods into being, namely Shu (god of the atmosphere) and Tefnut (who became the consort of Shu). Atum produced Shu and Tefnut through sexual generation, but as he had no female counterpart he had to give them birth from his own body, by means of spurting and spitting. From the union of Shu and Tefnut came Geb (earth) and Nut (sky-goddess). Geb and Nut in turn gave birth to Isis and Osiris, Nephthys and Seth (or Set). Together with Atum-Rey-Khepri these four pairs make up a group of nine known as the Ennead of Heliopolis (as distinct from the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, a cluster of eight divine beings). As offspring of Isis and Osiris came Horus, the archetype of the pharaohs.
The myth of the separation of sky (Nut) and earth (Geb) by the air (Shu, his name possibly representing the rushing wind) is also found in the selected texts presented above. The Egyptian system was unusual in making the earth masculine and the sky feminine. The earth is characteristically mother in other cultures, as in Maori religion, which has a similar myth of heaven and earth having their embrace broken by Taane coming between them and holding them apart. Enlil the wind god does likewise in Sumer.
Egyptian mythology has a battle between the king of the gods (here Rey) and a primeval monster. This can be compared with the Babylonian creation myth, where the king-god Marduk defeats the female dragon Tiamat. The Egyptian monster is Apep (Apophis is the Greek form of the name), sometimes portrayed as a crocodile but more often as a coiling serpent. Apep lay underneath the earth and sought to destroy Rey, the sun, as he made his underworld journey from west to east every night. However, Rey always defeated his foe Apep and emerged victorious on the eastern horizon at every break of day.
This myth has been preserved in a late text (from the fourth century B.C.E.), The Book of the Overthrowing of Apophis. It is found in a collection of ritual writings held in the British Museum (Bremner-Rhind Papyrus). Being the enemy of Rey, Apep is also a foe of the Pharaoh; and indeed he represents all the hostile forces that threaten the safety and welfare of the Egyptian people. Therefore elaborate spells and rituals had to be directed against Apep every day. The language of the book is that of two thousand years before the date of the papyrus itself, and it contains a version of the Heliopolitan story of creation which must have been at least three thousand years old by that time.
In the selections from the Pyramid Texts there is mention of the ben bird and the ben stone. In the temple of Heliopolis there was a sacred stone which was associated with a wondrous bird. This ben (or bennu) bird was eventually taken to be the phoenix. The sun god is thus imagined as rising out of Nun in the form of a bird and alighting on the benben, the pyramidal top of an obelisk; the stone's gilded surfaces were positioned so as to catch and reflect the rays of the morning sun.
Another motif which needs explanation is the Eye of Rey. On one occasion it wept, and its tears (remyt) became humankind (remet). Another time it wandered from its socket and returned to find that it had been replaced by a substitute. Rey decided to place it in a higher position, on his forehead, as the uraeus serpent, to rule the whole world. This is why the Pharaoh also wore it on his brow, to symbolize his universal rule and his descent from the sun god.
J.A. Wilson, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1-7.
J. Kaster, The Literature and Mythology of Ancient Egypt, 51-57.
R.O. Faulkner. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (1969).
R.O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, I, 80-81 (Spells 77 and 78).
Thomas George Allen, The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day (1974), 26-27 (Spells 15, 17).
Marshall Clagett, Ancient Egyptian Science: A Source Book (1989), 407-470; 587-593 (Apep).