Ancient Egypt thrived for thousands of years thanks to the Nile River providing rich soil that gave life to a great civilization. Egyptians wish to understand their origins and provide meaning to their existence. Creation stories provided the answers. Three creation stories (Hermopolitan, Heliopotian, and Memphite) arose in three cities. They provided somewhat different answers. The ultimate meaning of life might involve a combination of all three.
Many couples have a story about how they met or when they decided to get married. These “creation stories” often improve in the telling, details being added and changed.
Ancient peoples also had creation stories. They wanted to know how they came to be, which also helped to provide meaning to their existence. Creation myths were not only intended to provide a scientific analysis of what happened. Often, more importantly, they explained why:
Myths are sacred tales that explain the world and man’s experience. Myths are as relevant to us today as they were to the ancients. Myths answer timeless questions and serve as a compass to each generation.
The Nile River was the lifeblood of Egyptian civilization. The steady ebb and flow of the river, providing rich soil for a thriving society, was a constant. The sun provided light and energy.
An agricultural society accepts death as part of life. Crops grow, are harvested, land is fallow, and then crops grow again. Creation stories would help explain how this all began. They would also supply a meaning that reflected Egyptian experiences.
Many people are familiar with the story of creation found in the Bible.
The biblical creation story speaks of the world in the beginning as a dark state of chaos with water covering the earth. Many cultures in ancient times, including Ancient Egypt, shared this basic understanding. For instance, Ancient Egypt called the lifeless chaos “Nu.”
Different cultures, however, had their unique spins on the details.
Egyptians disagreed on what happened next. There were three explanations of how creation came about, each arising in different cities of Egypt. The stories reflected the ways the tellers experienced the world. The myths tell us about the perspectives of the storytellers.
We have multiple Egyptian texts, most notably the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead, which discuss these creation myths. These accounts have spells to send the deceased to the afterlife. They also explain how everything all began.
The oldest of the three Egyptian creation myths was the Hermopolitan myth. The myth arose in Khemnu, more commonly known by its Greek name, Hermopolis.
The Hermopolitan Creation Myth focuses on four sets of gods and goddesses, who ultimately produce a “cosmic egg.” The result of this egg is the great sun god, who lights the world.
Amun was the most important god. For instance, the woman pharaoh Hatshepsut proclaimed herself the “God’s wife of Amun.”
This myth developed in Heliopolis (Egyptian “Iunu”), the cult center of the sun god Atum. Atum was closely associated with the sun god Ra (Re), who ultimately won out.
The Heliopolitan Creation Myth argues that Atum, the creator god, started things off, always existing in the chaos. Atum creates other gods and brings order to the universe.
This account was the most widely accepted and famous of the creation myths. The sun was of central importance in Egyptian civilization. Osiris, in control of the underworld, is also part of this myth. People were very concerned about proper preparation for the afterlife.
Memphis was the first capital of Ancient Egypt. It remained important throughout Ancient Egyptian history. The Greek word for “Egypt” comes from their pronunciation of “Memphis.”
Ptah was the god of Memphis. The Memphite Creation Myth has Ptah, the god of metal workers and craftsmen, handle things.
Ptah did not craft the world as a sculptor might. The myth states the Ptah, like the God of Genesis, was created by wishing it in his heart and speaking commands:
There took shape in the heart; there took shape on the tongue the form of Atum. For the very great one is Ptah, who gave [life] to all the gods and their kas [aspect] through his heart and through this tongue, in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah.
The importance of Memphis made this creation myth stand out. Nonetheless, the Egyptian people overall never adopted it as their own.
Three Stories, One Truth
The different theories of creation could be rival understandings about the meaning of life. Their adherents might believe only one was correct.
Nonetheless, others believed each told part of the story. Think about three people talking about the same event. They might have conflicting accounts. You might find the truth by factoring in all three versions. We obtain accuracy by balancing multiple sources.
Creation Stories In Action
The multiple creation stories also guided Egyptian life.
The pharaoh (leader) was the representative of the gods on Earth. A pharaoh’s words (like the commands of Ptah’s) were law. “Let it be written, let it be done,” to quote a famous film.
The sun played a central role in the life of an agricultural society. Different gods, especially those involving the sun and afterlife, played central roles. These gods are present in the myths.Egyptian creation stories did not only explain how things began. They provided a context for everyday life. Egyptian society believed in order and balance. Their myths helped to explain why.
- Why was the Nile River crucial for the thriving of Ancient Egyptian civilization, and how did it impact their society?
- What were the main purposes of creation stories in Ancient Egypt, and why were they considered important?
- How did creation myths in Ancient Egypt serve as a compass for each generation, according to the passage?
- When and where did the birth of Ancient Egyptian civilization occur, and how long did it last under different rulers?
- In the context of an agricultural society, how did creation stories help explain the cycle of life, death, and renewal?
- What similarities exist between the biblical creation story and Ancient Egyptian creation stories, particularly in their depiction of the early state of chaos?
- What were the three different versions of Egyptian creation myths, and what did each of them explain about the origins of the world?
- How did the beliefs in creation stories influence Ancient Egyptian society, especially in the roles of pharaohs and the importance of gods like the sun god Ra?