Egyptian mythology answers the question of where people come from in multiple ways (as ever with the Ancient Egyptians, they were not fond of restrictively singular answers to questions). Some are highly symbolic (the joyful tears of Atum) and some rather more practical: the god Khnum, controller of the inundation, fashions people from the clay brought with the flood on his potter’s wheel.

Khnum is an Upper Egyptian god, and his main cult centre is on the Island of Elephantine near the modern town of Aswan. From this position at the traditional southern border of Egypt he’s said to control the annual flooding of the Nile. This doesn’t mean that he is “the God of the Nile” – rather oddly the Egyptians don’t seem to’ve had any god who was the personification of the river in the same way that for instance Geb was the personification of the land. Instead he’s regulating the floodwaters which were said to start in a hidden sacred pool on the island. Clearly the Egyptians can’t’ve believed this in any literal sense – they traded with Nubia throughout their history, they conquered bits of it several times, so they must’ve known that the floodwaters came from far further south than the Island of Elephantine. But as a symbolic belief it was a strong one, persisting into the Ptolemaic era and beyond. There is a text carved into a rock face on the nearby island called Sahel which is called “the Famine Stela” which purports to tell of events during the reign of Djoser in the Third Dynasty – it says that at that time there was a famine throughout Egypt, caused by poor inundations for 7 years. Djoser asks Imhotep for guidance and is given some rituals to perform in honour of Khnum, the director of the floodwaters. After he has done these Khnum appears to him in a vision and promises to bring a flood that will end the famine. Despite the events being set in the Old Kingdom it was actually carved during the Ptolemaic Period, and most scholars agree that it was also composed then – the temple of Khnum projecting a sense of the longevity of their cult and showing us that Khnum was still regarded as controller of the floods in this later period.

Mummy of a Ram, The Osiris the Ram of Khnum. From a necropolis of rams dedicated to Khnum, at Elephantine.

The association with the inundation develops over the course of Egyptian civilisation into Khnum’s role as a creator god. The flooding of the Nile brings silt which not only fertilises the land but is also a useful material for making pots and mudbricks to build houses. So it’s not surprising that a god who brings the flood has associations with making things. In the Old Kingdom in the Pyramid Texts Khnum is referred to as a creator of inanimate objects, like boats and ladders. By the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom he is seen as creating living things from on his potter’s wheel but he is not yet a universal creator. He only gains that role in the New Kingdom when he becomes the creator of gods, people (explicitly both Egyptians and foreigners), animals and even plants.

A lot of our knowledge of the details of the cult of Khnum come from his surviving temple at Esna – the structure as it currently exists is mostly from the Roman Period, but founded in the Ptolemaic Period on the site of a temple that’s referred to in texts as early as the time of Thutmose III (a king of the 18th Dynasty, in the early New Kingdom). The texts in the temple detail the annual round of cult festivals, and describe Khnum’s attributes. They include a “Great Hymn to Khnum” which is to be recited at the “festival of installing the potter’s wheel”. It details how he shapes the bodies of mankind in anatomical detail, then supervises the moment of conception and 9 months later initiates the contractions that begin the birthing process. These activities of Khnum appear in earlier texts as well. For instance the Westcar Papyrus which dates to the Second Intermediate Period and tells stories set in the Old Kingdom. In one of these tales the first kings of the Fifth Dynasty are born in secret and three goddesses along with Khnum come to assist at the birth. And in the New Kingdom Khnum is depicted on temple walls supervising the conception and birth of Pharaohs (most famously at Deir el-Bahri where Hatshepsut is detailing her divine parentage).

Khnum is normally represented as a man with a ram’s head (or sometimes as a ram). He is often shown seated at a potter’s wheel shaping a person and their ka, and may be wearing two tall plumes, the Atef Crown or the White Crown. His ram’s head hints at his early origins in Egyptian history. There were two sheep species domesticated by the Egyptians over the course of their history – the first one was Ovis longipes which has a heavy build and the ram has horns extending horizontally out from its head which are wavy. This is the ram which is associated with Khnum, and is also the ram depicted by the hieroglyph E10 in Gardiner’s sign list. In the Middle Kingdom the species Ovis platyra was domesticated – it is of a lighter build, has a fat tail and horns that curve downwards around the face. This is the ram that the ram-headed sphinxes at Karnak depict. Amun doesn’t get his association with the ram until relatively late through a partial absorption of the cult of Khnum, hence the newer species being used for his ram.

The word for ram in Ancient Egyptian is ba which sounds the same as the word for one of the spirit parts of a person, and this pun leads to another of Khnum’s roles in Egyptian religion. He is seen as the ba (spirit) of a variety of gods – most often Re but also Osiris and Geb. Because of this when Re is shown travelling through the netherworld during the night he is often shown in his barque with a ram’s head, representing his ba Khnum, and sometimes this deity is called Khnum-Re.

Khnum also has the typical family associations of Egyptian gods – he has consorts and children, who are different in different times and places. On Elephantine his family is Anuket (consort) and Satet (child/consort) who are also both daughters of Re, but in Esna his consort is the minor lioness goddess Menhyt and he also has strong associations with Neith in that temple. He is sometimes also regarded as the father of Sobek, the crocodile god, with Neith as the mother. In some situations his female counterpart is the goddess Heket, a frog goddess who was the personification of childbirth.

Khnum doesn’t just illustrate how the Egyptians had multiple ideas on where people came from, he’s also a good example of how Egyptian culture & religion wasn’t static. Over the millennia he develops in an organic fashion from a local controller of the floods to a universal creator deity associated with the major cults of the Egyptian state.

Resources used:

“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture” Richard H. Wilkinson

2 thoughts on “Shaped on His Potter’s Wheel

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