There was an exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago, called Living with Gods, which had as its premise that religion is one of the fundamental parts of what it means to be human. While I had my quibbles with the exhibition that’s an idea that’s always fascinated me – if it’s that fundamental, what does it do for us? I think one of the “whys” of religion is explaining the world around us – making sense of the complicated environment we live in and providing the narratives that help us know how to deal with what life flings at us. Of course this is less important in the modern world, where our knowledge of how the world works is based on science and there is less space for the gods and stories to exist in. But for the Egyptians it was a part of their worldview, and many of their gods are fundamental forces of nature personified in order to make sense of them.
The god Shu is one of these: he is a god of air and of sunlight. He’s specifically the dry air, with his sister Tefnut representing moisture – understandable in Egypt with their arid climate to have your air deity separate from your moisture deity, it would be a bit different here in Britain! As befits the god of air, his ba (the way he is manifest in the world) is the wind. It’s important to note that he is the atmosphere – this is not like the Greek gods who control a specific force of nature, the Egyptian gods are those forces in nature. In part of the Coffin Texts Shu says “I am Shu … my clothing is the air … my skin is the pressure of the wind,” and an Egyptian would’ve felt the wind on their face as being Shu brushing against them.
He’s usually represented as a man wearing a plumed headdress – a single ostrich feather (which is actually the same as Maat’s headdress). This headdress is also a hieroglyph which has the phonetic value shut and is used to write the name of Shu. His name probably means “he who rises up” or “emptiness” (or “void”), and may derive from the verb šwj which means “to be empty”. He may also be depicted as a lion – there’s a shrine from the 30th Dynasty which would once have held a cult statue of Shu as a lion. On the back of the inside of the shrine is an image of this statue, a seated lion, and a description of it – it would’ve been rather splendid, made of silver covered with gold and about a foot high!
Shu is also associated with one of the Egyptian ideas of eternal time – the endlessly repeating cycles of time, which they called neheh. The other sort of eternal time is djet – time at a standstill, the sorts of things that remain perpetually the same like mummies or stone buildings. That sort of time was represented by Tefnut. Shu was particularly associated with the cycle of birth, death and rebirth of successive kings. This is linked to the idea that as the air he fills the cosmos with breath and life, which I discuss more below.
There doesn’t seem to’ve been a cult for Shu before the New Kingdom. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t a god before then, far from it – he’s mentioned in both the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts so he was a feature in Egyptian religious thought back to at least the Old Kingdom. In the Pyramid Texts the deceased king is to be purified in the lakes of Shu (probably mists) and will climb up to heaven on the bones of Shu (presumably the clouds). There are also spells that detail the creation of Shu (which I’ll come back to shortly). And in the Coffin Texts there is a suite of 6 spells (no.s 75-80) that are sometimes called the Litany of Shu (by us, not the Ancient Egyptians I think). These spells associate Shu with life and express the hope that he will be able to breathe that life into the dead, as well as detailing Shu’s creation.
His rise to greater prominence in the New Kingdom is probably due to his association with sunlight – the sun became an increasingly important part of Egyptian religion during that period, culminating in Akhenaten’s sweeping changes. And in fact the cult of Shu was one of those which wasn’t suppressed during that period – his solar associations were enough to let him be assimilated into the ideology of Atenism, and he was believed to live in the sun-disc itself. Early on in Akhenaten’s reign Shu was even a part of the names & titles of the Aten – the second cartouche of the Aten in this early titulary included “in his name of light [shu] which is in the Aten”, this was later replaced with a word for light which had no associations with non-Aten gods.
Shu was also seen as having powers that renewed the cosmos – linked to his role as the god of air, in which he was seen as filling the universe with the breath of life, and hopefully the dead too as mentioned in the Coffin Texts. Egyptian gods were, as I said, manifestations of cosmic phenomena but that didn’t mean they were remote from individual people – they also were seen as touching individual lives (in at least some periods of Egyptian history). So Shu was not just bringing life to the whole cosmos, he was also present at every birth and in every human breath. He was also credited with healing powers, that gave him a place in everyday religion in later periods of Pharaonic Egypt as the subject of prayers and spells for protection and he was also conjured to defeat demons. Shu and the stories of his creation also show up in texts dating to the Late Period and Ptolemaic Period, and there are also some amulets of Shu from later periods (tho 3D representations of him are rare).
Shu was one of the deities in the Heliopolitan Ennead – “ennead” is just fancy word for “group of 9” (and is a direct translation of the Egyptian term into Greek). This group is the nine gods or goddesses involved in the Heliopolitan creation myth which stresses the central importance of the sun. I’ve retold the story previously on this blog, it’s the creation myth that begins with the formless waters of chaos out of which the first land rises, on which is sat the first god: Atum. Atum then creates his children, either by masturbating or by sneezing, and these two children are Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). In later texts the two methods of procreation are linked – Atum is said to’ve ejaculated into his own mouth and the twins are born from there. The creation by spitting or sneezing involves some Ancient Egyptian wordplay – Shu’s name sounds a lot like the word for sneeze, and “Tef” translates as “spit”.
One god, giving birth to two child-gods – sounds quite straightforward really. But it’s actually not quite that linear or simple. In Spell 80 of the Coffin Texts (part of the Litany of Shu) Atum has a conversation with Nun (the waters of chaos) before creation begins and in that conversation we learn that his children are the attributes that give him life. They already exist before they are born and the birth is better seen as a separation from Atum rather than an act of creation. Shu is the life that makes Atum’s heart beat and his mind function – taking him from a state like death to a state like a coma. Tefnut (here referred to as Maat) is the breath that Atum inhales to wake to full consciousness. It is only after this awakening that creation begins – and it begins with Shu expanding within his father Atum to create a void filled with air and now, finally Atum can self-create the cosmos from and within his body. So you can see that Shu is pretty integral to the whole process – he and his sister aren’t “just” the first created beings, but an important part of the process of creation itself.
Once separate from Atum, Shu and Tefnut are not yet properly alive as independent beings. At this point they lack one of the crucial parts of a person – they have no ka. So Atum must pass on his ka to them, and now they are complete. And at this moment time begins – as I said above that Shu and Tefnut are two forms of eternal time, which now exist in the cosmos.
Shu & Tefnut then become a couple, and have children of their own – Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). And in their turn Geb and Nut grow up and have their own children – these are the stars in the sky and Nut swallows them, much to Geb’s fury. Nut then stretches herself as far from Geb as she can get, trying to escape his wrath. Shu sees this, and steps between his children to prevent Geb from hurting Nut. Not all versions of the story have the same explanation for the separation, that’s the more common explanation but another version is that Shu disapproved of Geb & Nut’s love for each other so forced them apart. And a third one is that initially Geb and Nut lay so close together that Nut could not give birth and so Shu had to force them apart before her children could be born. This scene of Shu separating Nut from Geb is one of the key parts of Shu’s iconography. Quite often when you see it there are other little gods depicted helping Shu – these are the Heh gods, there are eight of them (two for each of Nut’s limbs). It seems that Shu got weary of holding up the sky on his own, and created these gods to help him.
And so here we have a narrative that explains the basic layout of the world: the earth is at the bottom and the sky at the top, separated by the air. Every morning the stars vanish (are swallowed) and the sun rises (is given birth to) and then at night the stars are given birth to and the sun is swallowed. The world we live in and the days of our lives, in one story.
This is not the only explanatory mythology involving Shu (and Tefnut). There’s a winter solstice myth (I think primarily known from the Graeco-Roman period) which has several incarnations with different participants but the same overall narrative arc. In the myth a solar associated goddess goes to the south, to Nubia, normally in a rage or out of annoyance at something. A male deity (sometimes her partner) then follows her and persuades her to return. So this is a narrative about the sun getting lower and lower in the southern sky before the solstice and then beginning to return afterwards. Generally the goddess is one of those associated with the Eye of Re, one of whom is Tefnut. And when the story is about Tefnut, it is often Shu who follows her and gets her to return to Egypt.
Shu has other associations outside his explanatory mythology. He’s not actually one of the solar deities, but as he’s the god of sunlight as well as air he has a strong association with solar deities such as Re (and the Aten, as mentioned above). As part of this he is one of the protectors of Re during his journey through the underworld overnight, helping to fight off the snake Apophis, after which he seals the entrance to the underworld after Re has emerged as the young sun at the end of the night. And later on he becomes even more intimately connected with Re. Over time Atum and Re began to merge and their mythologies and attributes overlapped more and more, so in later mythology the children Atum became known as the Eyes of Re (throughout Egyptian mythology the goddess called the Eye of Re was regarded as the daughter of Re). So Shu as one of the eyes is an exception to the general femininity of the Eye of Re but he’s still a child of Re (Atum). In this role Shu and Tefnut took on the form of lions, and were worshipped in these forms at sites in the Delta. Somewhat oddly to our modern Western need to put things in neat little boxes another part of the merging between Re and Atum is a story about the Eye of Atum, in which she rescues the children of Atum who have become separated from him. So clearly in this case the Eye of Re/Atum is not either of Shu or Tefnut.
The mythology of Shu is also part of the narrative of kingship in Ancient Egypt. Part of the Heliopolitan Creation myth is the setting up of the social order of Ancient Egypt – so once you have the ground and air and whatnot it moves on to kings who rule over the whole of the population. This initial line of kings are the male gods of the Ennead, starting with Atum (or Re, depending how linked they are at the time of telling the myth) and moving on down in the line of succession to Horus (via that unpleasantness with Seth). And after Horus the kings are human, but nonetheless still divine by their association with this unbroken line and by each king being an incarnation of Horus. One result of this is a high degree of incestuous royal marriages at various points in Egyptian history – like Ahmose I and his sister-wife Ahmose-Nefertari – this set the royal family apart from the rest of the population (who didn’t tend to practice incestuous marriages) and linked them to the gods.
So after Re (Atum) retires to the heavens his son Shu takes over as king. He’s positioned in the mythology as ruling well, and doing the things a good king should (building monuments and cities, maintaining maat etc.) The fly in the ointment is his son Geb who repeatedly rebels – in some variants this is due to his rage at Shu separating him from his sister-wife Nut. Eventually Shu, like his father, retires to the heavens leaving Geb to become ruler. There are a couple of different explanations given for this abdication – one is that he has become weak and tired, and so stepped aside to let his fitter son rule, perhaps after being overwhelmed by the forces of Apophis. Another story is that Geb overthrew him in one of his rebellions and forced him to retire (and one variant of that story has Geb seizing and by implication raping his mother Tefnut as part of his revenge).
An interesting aspect of this part of the mythology is what it tells us about Egyptian kingship. The official story of kingship in Egypt is a seamless transition from father to son, each following in their turn for an unbroken line from Horus himself down to whoever the current Pharaoh is. Obviously we know this isn’t true – we can point to specific examples where this doesn’t happen – but the narrative that’s presented is of smooth and orderly transitions of power. And yet the myths tell us a different story – a story of anxiety about the fitness of the king to rule, and a sense of the fragility of the state at the moment when power is transferred from one ruler to the next.
So far we’ve been building up a pretty coherent picture of Shu as a deity. He’s a god of air, and helps explain things about the air. He’s a god of sunlight (which given the Egyptian climate feels like an obvious association with air) and he helps explain things about sunlight (like the solstice). His sister Tefnut is his counterpart – goddess of moisture, and also associated with the sun as an Eye of Re. He’s a part of establishing the pattern of kingship for eternity. Ok there’s that oddity where Shu & Tefnut both are and are not the Eye of Atum or Re depending on the precise myth, but in general it’s a pretty cohesive story. But Egyptian culture did not share our obsession with neat Linnaean boxes filled with segregated categories of things. So because of Shu’s solar associations, Tefnut was linked to the moon (despite being a part of the sun). And Shu himself was often associated with lunar deities like Thoth or Khonsu – perhaps because his air carries moonlight much as it carries sunlight, or perhaps because Tefnut is often associated with the moon (yes, rather circular!). As so often, we need to embrace the power of “and” when thinking about Egyptian religion.
And that theme continues when we look at some of the other associations that Shu has. Egyptian gods themselves did not remain in neat little boxes – I’ve talked about that before, one example is Taweret who has multiple names or is it that she’s multiple goddesses? Another example is the merging of Sekhmet and Mut in some times and places, or the fact that the deity called the Eye of Re might be any one of a number of goddesses depending on context. And Shu has his own mergings. One of these is late on in the Ancient Egyptian period: he merges with Arensnuphis who is a Meroitic deity first attested in the late 3rd Century BCE (Meroë was the culture which lived in Nubia during this period). The cult of Shu-Arensnuphis is not only found in northern Nubia but also in southern Egypt. A little earlier (in the Late Period) and much further north (in the Delta) Shu merged with Onuris, god of war and hunting. This was because Onuris and his consort Mehit were one of the other possible pairs of protagonists in the winter solstice myth I talked about earlier in this article.
Shu is also an example of the ambiguity that often shows up in Egyptian gods – they’re not neatly divided into the “good gods” and the “bad gods.” Shu is associated with Bes in some instances – a protective role – along with his other benign associations, but he’s also described as an executioner at the head of a group of torturers in the underworld (Wilkinson 2003). In this he shows similarities with other lunar associated deities – Khonsu is a bloodthirsty god in the Pyramid Texts, as is Thoth (Tyldesley 2010).
But really a lot of this stuff is details – most importantly, Shu was the atmosphere, the air that they breathed and their understanding of a fundamental part of the cosmos.
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Goddio, Franck, and Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, eds. 2016. Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. Thames & Hudson.
Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press.
Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
6 thoughts on “The Air They Breathed”
Well stated. Well written.
Good to see interpretation/information extending beyond the simplistic “God of air, forcing apart Nut and Geb” (not only simplistic but incorrect).
Keep up the good writing !
It is common for Western-oriented people to identify all/any Neteru as “force”.
We must return to the original manner of seeing the Great Universe – and talk and think/appraise it terms of ENERGY.
Neteru are Light Beings of wave for energy.
Auto Typo 😩”…wave FORM energy”