Egyptian Creation Myths
What were the Egyptian creation myths?
The creator gods in the various Egyptian traditions emerged as the first light, the first consciousness, out of the primeval mound in the original dark, watery chaos, the Nun. Creation required differentiation—between light and dark, male and female, high and low. The creator in some myths contains these opposites: that is, is originally both male and female. In the Memphite theology, the god Ptah created by “heart and tongue”—by thinking reality and speaking it (“In the beginning was the word”). Or, as Khnum, he shaped creation on a potter’s wheel, acting as a deus faber.
Atum, the creator in the dominant mythology of Egypt, who was also the sun god Ra as Atum-Ra, created the first gods, and, therefore, life itself, ex nihilo—that is, from nothing, or, in other words, not from previously existing material but from within himself. The Pyramid Texts report that Atum produced Shu and Tefnut (air and moisture—necessities for life) through an act of masturbation. Theologically speaking, this is a logical understanding of how things began, since the only mate available to the creator was himself. One ancient papyrus description is still more explicit and even more logical. It reveals that Atum, at the culmination of the masturbatory act, took his penis into his mouth and received the seed of life with himself. Here the mouth becomes the womb of creation. The Pyramid Texts also say that Atum, as Atum Khepri (another name for the creator) eventually spat out Shu and Tefnut. The Coffin Texts report that Shu emerged from Atum’s nose. Myths from Memphis agree with this but emphasize that it was Atum’s thought that changed his seed into Shu and Tefnut. In any case, only when Shu and Tefnut were born did Atum become differentiated as a male and a father. In a later development, The Hand of Atum used in the creative act of masturbation was personified as a goddess—usually as Hathor.
In the Coffin Texts Shu was also seen as life itself and Tefnut as maat (divine order). Tefnut as maat was the essential principle of creation and, by extension, of life on earth, at the center of which was Egypt. When Shu and Tefnut became independent of their father, they came together in the universe’s first sexual act between male and female entities. The result was the birth of Geb and Nut (Earth and Sky).