Ancestral Bust

This rather fine piece is a little over 40cm tall, and represents an ancestor or some sort of revered person. I don’t think the provenance of this piece is entirely known, but other examples have been found in houses or tombs mostly at Deir el Medina dating to the 19th Dynasty.

I don’t think it’s clear what their function was, but one place I looked when looking them up had a drawing of a stela which shows a woman making offerings to a bust like this – so clearly the focus of some sort of ritual.

This example is unusually large and well made, and given how much paint remains it must’ve been particularly vivid and eye catching when it was new. The face has a serene expression that I find compelling, and I like the details like the earrings and the elaborate broad collar.

Ancestral Bust. From Thebes, Deir el Medina. New Kingdom, early Dynasty 19, c. 1320-1297 BCE Acc. No.: 66.99.45

It is now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 66.99.45

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/868

There’s a short paper from the UCLA Encylopedia of Egyptology available here, including the line drawing of a stela showing the bust in use: https://escholarship.org/content/qt59k7832w/qt59k7832w.pdf

Jigsaw Puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=35f80aa4590c
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=1a16b45542ef

The Coffin of the Noble Lady Shep

This coffin belonged to the Noble Lady Shep, and dates to around the 25th or 26th Dynasty (around 2500 years ago). It’s quite a different style to the earlier 21st Dynasty coffins – where they are bright, yellow and busy this one is almost minimalist by comparison!

The scene on the left of her chest (right of the photo) has the Devourer eagerly waiting in front of Osiris. But the scene on the left of the photo shows that she was disappointed – the Noble Lady Shep has passed the Judgement and is escorted by Thoth and Maat to Osiris.

Below these two scenes are, I think, two of the Sons of Horus protecting the deceased. There’s 4 registers of pairs of figures and at the bottom on her feet are two jackals sitting on shrines. Above you can see the bottom of her broad collar necklace and the ends of her wig.

The Coffin of the Noble Lady Shep. Third Intermediate Period-Late Period, Dynasty 25-26, c. 760-525 BCE. Acc. No.: O.C.6B

I don’t think it’s known where the coffin comes from, but it’s now in the Met Museum (acc. no.: O.C.6b). I don’t have a full length photo of it, but there’s one on the museum’s website: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/552621

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/940

Jigsaw Puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=031e7f7d95ba
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=1b0b5bdd195b

”Understanding ’Composite’ Forms of Egyptian Divine Beings”, Jordan Miller

At the beginning of March Jordan Miller visited the Essex Egyptology Group to give the talk at our first in person meeting since the pandemic began! He talked about understanding composite forms of Egyptian divine beings, click through to read my write up of his talk on my sister blog Other People’s Tales.

Apotropaic Rod

This is an apotropaic rod – it was used to ward off harmful spirits. It comes in four segments, which might be related to the “birthing bricks” used to protect women during childbirth. And it’s covered in protective motifs, particularly protective animals.

This is a Middle Kingdom object but the animals on the top remind me a lot of some Early Dynastic objects that are also in the Met. I don’t know if they had the same meaning or not – the earlier frog & crocodile were donated to temples, these are magic in a domestic setting.

Apotropaic Rod. Provenance unknown. Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, reign of Senwosret III, c. 1878-1640 BCE. Acc. No.: Met Museum 26.7.1275

It’s not known where this rod was found, but it’s now in the Met Museum (acc. no.: 26.7.1275).

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/1640
Frog & Crocodile Early Dynastic figurines: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/1396
Lion Early Dynastic figurines: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/1397

I’ve written about frogs on the blog before: https://talesfromthetwolands.org/2019/12/21/hundreds-of-thousands/

Jigsaw Puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=16f85b538b17
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=26cad3d879fe

Ptah: Relationships to People and Deities

As with almost everything about the way Ancient Egyptians saw the world their deities were not one note entities, even though we try and put them in little boxes when we talk about them today. So Ptah is not just the “creator as craftsman” that I discussed in my last article on him. That was his primary role, but he also had other roles and associations with other deities.

One of the epithets of Ptah is mesedjer-sedjem which means “the ear that hears” – this refers to Ptah’s role as a hearer of prayers from the ordinary person. Many votive stelae dedicated to Ptah in this role have been found, in his temple at Memphis or Deir el Medina as well as other places. They generally depict ears to show that he is listening. One example includes a text from a man called Neferabu who has sworn a false oath in the name of Ptah and is now blind, and the text begs Ptah in his role as “the ear that hears” to forgive him. Also in this role Ptah is found depicted inside chapels that we call hearing ear chapels. Egyptian temples were not open to the public in the way that a church or mosque are and the further into an Egyptian temple you go the more restricted access is, until the inner sanctuary where only the Pharaoh or High Priest can go. So these hearing ear chapels were built on the periphery of the temple where more people had access, and they could go there to leave their prayers for the god inside. Quite often Ptah was depicted in these chapels even if he didn’t have a sanctuary inside the temple proper – he was the hearer of prayers and would help sort things out for you!

Stela of Ptah with Ears

As an important deity connected with the state religion Ptah might also be seen as one of the rulers of said state. After the gods made the world (however it was whomever it was did it) the Egyptians thought that various of the gods ruled as kings. Some have stories (like Shu or Osiris), others are just referenced. Ptah is one of the latter – in the Memphite Theology he is referred to as the ruler of a unified Egypt, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and his name appears first at the head of the Turin King List. But there are no stories. This might just be because none survive – there are surprisingly few mythological narratives that survive from Pharaonic Egypt, most are bits and pieces and fragments that we can see match with a later source (like Plutarch retelling the myth of the death of Osiris). Or maybe he was conceptually king, because he’s a universal creator and an important god in the pantheon, but no-one really thought he was an actual king like the current ruler was king.

And of course as with many Egyptian deities Ptah was worshipped as part of a “family” grouping. The primary triad he is part of is referred to as the Memphite Triad and it was one of the most important ones in Egyptian religion. It consisted of Ptah and his consort Sekhmet, and had Nefertem as their child. The development of the triad didn’t happen all at once – Ptah and Sekhmet were associated and worshipped as a duo before Nefertem was added to make a full triad in the New Kingdom. I put “family” in scare quotes, because the family relationships between Egyptian deities in a triad shouldn’t be treated like a genealogical puzzle – the relationships aren’t necessarily exclusive nor commutative, a god doesn’t necessarily have a consistent pair of parents across all places and all times and nor a consistent consort etc. So Ptah’s “son” Nefertem in the Memphite triad is actually not referred to as his son (tho he is Sekhmet’s son), but in other times and places Imhotep may be referred to as the son of Ptah (with no link to Sekhmet). And the Syrian goddess Astarte is sometimes assimilated into the Egyptian pantheon as Ptah’s daughter (or as Re’s daughter in other contexts).

And not all triads are families anyway. Ptah is also grouped together with Amun and Re, and it seems clear this isn’t intended as a family. This grouping is partly a way of representing “all the important gods”. It’s also part of a strand of Egyptian thought that arises in the New Kingdom that seeks to bring together the various gods and mythologies into a unified scheme which centres the god Amun. So this triad can be seen as three different facets of Amun – Re is his face, Ptah is his body and Amun is his own hidden nature.

There are also other ways that Ptah is associated with other deities. A general rule within the Egyptian thinking about divine beings is that they can overlap, merge or separate at various different points in time (or even different places). Ptah is no exception – whilst he’s venerated as himself on his own from the Early Dynastic Period through to the Roman Period he’s also merged with other deities to form composite deities who can also be quite prominent.

One of these composites is Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, whose statues turn up in non-royal funerary contexts (particularly in the Late Period and afterwards). He represents the whole cycle of life – creation (Ptah), death (Sokar) and rebirth (Osiris). The composite deity is attested from at least the Middle Kingdom, even though the statues aren’t common until the Late Period. He did not spring into existence in a single step – the two Memphite gods Ptah and Sokar merged quite a lot earlier, based on similarities in location, role and associations with minerals. At a later date (but still before the time of the Pyramid Texts) the god Sokar merged with Osiris. By the Middle Kingdom these two composites, Ptah-Sokar and Sokar-Osiris, had merged with each other leading to the worship of the composite called Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

Ptah and Tatenen became associated as the composite deity Ptah-Tatenen from the reign of Ramesses II. They are linked together in three different ways – firstly both are Memphite deities (and Ptah did subsume several other Memphite deities, like the Apis Bull, over time). The pair can also be seen as the creator and the substance that he creates with – either Ptah as sculptor and Tatenen as the earth he uses, or Ptah as creator and Tatenen as the primeval mound which is the first created land. And lastly Ptah himself is associated with the mineral components of the earth, whilst Tatenen is also an earth god.

The deity Ptah, the deity Pataikos and dwarves are all associated with each other in Ancient Egyptian iconography and thought – the composite deity Ptah-Pataikos is represented as a dwarf in Egyptian art and dwarves are often shown working as craftsmen in Old Kingdom tomb reliefs. Although I can’t disentangle which came first (the association with each other, or with craftsmen) it seems clear that the association of all three with craftsmen is the link that holds them together.

And last, but not least, in his role as a universal creator god Ptah is associated with the waters which existed before creation – personified by the pair of deities Nun and Naunet. As Ptah-Nun he is called the “Father who begot Atum”, and as Ptah-Naunet he is called the “Mother who begot Atum” – inserting him at the very beginning of the Heliopolitan creation myth.

I feel a bit like with this article I’ve come full circle to the beginning of the first in this series on Ptah – he’s everywhere and everywhen, with seemingly a finger in every important pie of Ancient Egyptian religious thought.

Resources used:

Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Fisher, Marjorie M. 2012. ‘Abu Simbel’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Griffin, Kenneth. 2021. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. British Museum Press.
———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Routledge.
Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press.
Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge.Malek, Jaromir. 2003. ‘The Old Kingdom’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw Oxford University Press.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
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.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. 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.
———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.

Stela of Pakeshi

This stela was set up by a man called Pakeshi, who held the title God’s Father of Amun, as did his father Nespautitawi. Pakeshi stands before Osiris and the Four Sons of Horus, and the text below is a fairly standard offering formula. It’s not known where it was found.

It dates to the 25th or 26th Dynasties, somewhere around 750-525 BCE. It’s made of wood with gesso over it and painted in this pastel style that’s typical of the time period (so says the Met Museum, and I assume it’s on this basis that they date it to this period).

Despite looking nicely made it’s got one feature that looks like the artisans who made it dropped the ball – you can see in front of the face of each figure there’s a neatly outlined space where the name should go, but no-one’s come back and written the text in!

Stela of Pakeshi. Provenance unknown. Third Intermediate Period – Late Period, Dynasty 25-26, c. 750-525 BCE. Acc. No.: 90.6.30

It’s now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 90.6.30

See it on my photo site: https://photos.talesfromthetwolands.org/picture.php?/1482/

Jigsaw Puzzles:
easier: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=09c7a3ed2e1f
harder: https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=2629c0245248

Ptah, Maker of Things

Last time I talked about the deity Ptah I talked about the way he looks, and where and when we find him. The sort of things you’d find in a “Spotter’s Guide to Egyptian Deities”. But today I’m going to talk about what the point of Ptah was, his main role in the ancient Egyptian system of thought. Ptah was a maker of things – both in terms of crafts and in terms of the whole world.

Throughout most of Pharaonic Egyptian history, from at least the Old Kingdom, Ptah was seen as both the patron deity of craftsmen and as a universal creator deity. Ptah’s original role was as the patron deity of crafts and craftsmen. He was associated with the mineral aspects of the world – the stone, the metal ores – and was seen as a metalworker. He was thus the patron of those who created metal objects, as well as those who created using metal objects. And this role became expanded to covering all the crafts, which he was said to have created. The places associated with Ptah (in particular Memphis from very early on and Deir el-Medina in the New Kingdom) were centres of crafts and production for the royal court and funerary complexes. The titles of his High Priest reflect this – one of these titles was wer kherep hemw which means “Supreme Leader of Craftsmen” (or “Greatest of Those who Supervise the Craftsmen”).

This initial association with crafts then expanded into a more general role in creation. The imagery used to describe Ptah’s creative powers is full of references to his origins as a craftsman. For instance he’s described as the craftsman who crafts kings – he moulds the body of the deceased and newly divine Ramesses II from electrum, copper and iron, a reference to his particular association with metalworkers. He’s described as crafting bodies for the gods to inhabit – in the same way as human craftsmen would make the cult statues for the temples. As an aside, this also leads to him being credited with “inventing” one of the key funerary rituals, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. These bodies of the gods (statues) need to have their mouths ritually opened (with an instrument reminiscent of a craftsman’s chisel) before the ka of the god can enter and live in the statue. This ritual is then recapitulated on the mummy or coffin of the deceased as part of the funerary rites, opening the mouth so the deceased will live in the afterlife. But back to the main point – even the way in which he creates the universe uses this same language of crafts: he is referred to as the sculptor of the world, or as having smelted the world.

Statue of Ptah

And this genesis as a craftsman fundamentally shapes the sort of creator deity that Ptah is. Creation narratives come in multiple flavours – the world might be created by the substance of the deity becoming the the world, or perhaps that deity makes it like you’d make a pot, or procreation is involved i.e. the world is birthed by the deities. The better known Egyptian creation myth (the Heliopolitan one, where Atum “gives birth” to Shu and Tefnut to start the whole thing off) is a procreative myth, in contrast to the Christian myth where God brings the world into being by commanding it (which is a making myth – he’s not quite a potter, but the potter works on his orders!). But the Heliopolitan creation myth is not the only Ancient Egyptian creation myth. There are broadly speaking three different creation narratives with three different focuses – once upon a time Egyptologists would think of these as competing traditions, but that’s now a rather outdated view (tho our names for the myths still reflect that idea). The Hermopolitan myth is interested in how the universe went from non-being to being and what there was before there was anything. The Heliopolitan myth is interested in how, given we have a universe in existence, it formed into the world around us complete with all its parts including human society. And the Memphite Theology (which tells us about Ptah’s creative power) is interested in the mechanics of creation itself.

Although all three are told in terms of narratives (this god, that god, doing those things, sometimes to each other) under the hood they’re actually really rather abstract, the various deities are personifications of forces and aspects of the world (like Shu is the air etc). And that is definitely the case for Ptah in the Memphite Theology – he is the personification of the transformation of an idea or concept into a real physical object, he is the creator as a craftsman. And like the Christian God (tho in actuality the linkage will be the other way round) he is creator as commander – Ptah thinks, and speaks, and it is so. In the Memphite Theology he is said to create the world via the thoughts he forms in his heart and the words he forms on his tongue. This is a part of Egyptian ideas about the power of language, particularly the written word – words can shape reality. Ptah is also said to have created the hieroglyphs as he created the objects – the thing and its written form in one moment of creation – and the hieroglyphic script was called “the god’s speech” in Ancient Egyptian.

In the Memphite Theology Ptah was positioned as the ultimate source of creation. But this was not the only tradition involving Ptah as this craftsman creator of the universe. During the New Kingdom there was an effort to merge the various Egyptian conceptions of creation into one coherent whole with Amun as the primary creator. As part of this the deity Ptah was no longer seen as a creator in his own right instead he was seen to be the means by which Amun created the universe. Amun “spoke in silence” to kick off the creative process, but this speech operated via Ptah. Garry Shaw (in his book on Egyptian Myths) uses the metaphor of commissioning a sculpture (or other piece of craft), which I rather like. Amun is the commissioner – without him there would be no creation, but he does not make it himself nor is he the material from which the sculpture takes shape. Ptah is the craftsman, who moulds the raw material but does so only by the request of the commissioner. And finally Atum and/or Tatenen are the raw material from which the creation is actually made – by themselves they cannot transform into the sculpture but it takes shape from their substance.

But the Ancient Egyptians rarely seem to’ve had only one explanation or understanding of any given phenomena (over time, or even simultaneously). And so it’s possible to overstate the idea that Ptah’s creative abilities operate via a crafting model – the ways that he is merged into broader Egyptian ideas about creation often have some flavour of procreation to them, particularly when he is being positioned as the ultimate creator. For instance one of his epithets translates as the “father of the gods, from whom all life emerged”. And in the Memphite Theology as Ptah-Nun he is referred to as the “father who begot Atum” and as Ptah-Naunet the “mother who bore Atum” – positioning him as the father & mother of the sun and creation itself. Ptah is also sometimes shown in art creating an egg on a potter’s wheel, and in a very late myth (dating to the Graeco-Roman period) he’s said to have fertilised this egg he created with his seed and thus created the Hermopolitan Ogdoad (whom he then goes on to bring together into Amun).

Procreation needs both male and female, and the Egyptians square this circle for the Hermopolitan Ogdoad by having female counterparts for each of the male deities/forces (e.g. the waters are Nun and Naunet). But for Ptah they chose another solution – he combines both male and female within himself. This concept is seen in references to Ptah in multiple periods of Egyptian history, both early and late. In this context he was referred to as “the Ancient One” and this is how he is associated with both Nun and Naunet – he is also seen as self-creating (by begetting himself).

And this multiplicity of understandings doesn’t stop there – Ptah isn’t “just” the craftsman creator, he has other roles and other associations. In the last of these articles on Ptah I’ll be looking at these other aspects.

Resources used:

Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press.
———. 2014. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. Abridged and updated by the author, repr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.
Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge
Griffin, Kenneth. 2021. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press.
———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2nd ed. Routledge Dictionaries. Routledge.
Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press.
Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge.
Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. 1993. Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. New aspects of antiquity. Thames and Hudson.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
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.
Teeter, Emily. 2010. ‘Temple Cults’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. 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.
———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.
———. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.

Ptah Through Time and Space

Ptah is one of the more important gods of the Egyptian pantheon through the whole of Egyptian history, and his name and image are all over the place in the monuments and texts. Yet somehow he’s not one of the gods that we (amateurs, at least) talk about much – he doesn’t have good stories (like Osiris), he’s not associated with heresy and controversy (like the Aten), he’s just there. He’s attested very early in Egyptian history – he is drawn on a bowl dating to the First Dynasty, probably the reign of Den. Unusually for such an early object this bowl has a secure provenance (tomb 231 at Taharkan, excavated by Petrie) and the drawing of the deity not only has the right iconography for Ptah but is labelled with his name in hieroglyphs. As this appears to be a fully developed depiction of Ptah it seems probable that he was worshipped back into Predynastic times.

There are some suggestions that his ultimate origins may lie in cultures to the west of Egypt, but there is little evidence for this. What there is mostly hinges round the fact that the name “Ptah” does not have any secure etymology within the Egyptian language and was not written with the determinative or emblem of a deity until the New Kingdom. However it may be that it is cognate with words that mean “to sculpt” and was based on a root for those words which had gone extinct by later periods, and I am inclined to agree with those that see this as a more plausible explanation. It relates to his identity as a god of craftsmen (which was probably his first role), and as he is such an early deity it would also make sense that his name reflects ancient forms of the language.

During the course of Pharaonic Egyptian history the iconography of the god Ptah changes very little. He is generally represented as a human man (sometimes with blue skin) wrapped up in a tight-fitting garment or mummy wrappings and standing on a plinth. He wears a skull cap like Old Kingdom craftsmen do (often blue in colour) and has a straight beard (added during the Middle Kingdom as the only significant change in iconography). He often wears a heavy broad collar necklace with a counterpoise at the back, and if he doesn’t then he still has a feature that looks like the counterpoise – a tassel from the neckline of his garment. His hands emerge from his wrappings and hold a sceptre topped with the was, ankh and djed hieroglyphs (meaning “power, life, stability”). I’ve illustrated this article with the fabulous statue of Ptah that was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb which has these features.

Statue of Ptah

You’ll’ve noticed that unlike many of the Egyptian deities the iconography of Ptah has no animal elements, no matter the period of Egyptian history. However there is nonetheless a sacred animal associated with this god – a singular bull, the Apis bull, who was regarded as the ba or physical manifestation of the god.

By the Old Kingdom it is clear that Ptah was regarded as a creator deity as well as the god of craftsmen, however he doesn’t show up very much in the Pyramid Texts – in fact he’s almost an aside. Some of the books I’ve looked at suggest that this is because of rivalry between the priesthood of Ptah in Memphis and the priesthood of Re in Heliopolis (who were heavily involved in the funerary cult of the king). But I think this idea of the priests of the various cults being in opposition to each other is fairly old-fashioned, the Egyptians didn’t actually seem to view their gods like we view football teams! So instead I think it’s more likely to be some combination of Ptah not rising to national prominence till later on, or that he simply wasn’t very much involved in the funerary sphere at this point in time.

In the Middle Kingdom Ptah also shows up in the Coffin Texts as a creator deity – crafting the gods, ripening vegetation, and creating the sun – but he really rises to prominence in the New Kingdom. This can be seen by the proliferation of temples dedicated to him (particularly in Nubia during Ramesses II’s reign) and by his worship alongside the extremely important deities Amun and Re in a triad (thus he must be on a par with them). He retains this importance through the rest of Pharaonic Egyptian history and into the Roman Period. In the Ptolemaic Period and the Roman Period the Greeks & Romans tended to equate the Egyptian gods with their own, to bring the two cultures of ruling elite and local peasantry closer together – so during this time Ptah is first associated with the Greek smith god Hephaestus and later the Roman smith god Vulcan. Perhaps oddly, despite this importance very few amulets depicting him have survived – even from periods where large numbers of amulets survive of other gods. Those that have been found are generally plaques dating to the 26th Dynasty with Ptah flanked by the other members of his triad (Sekhmet and Nefertem), and appear to’ve been used in a living context rather than a funerary one.

Ptah was worshipped in many places across Egypt and into Nubia (when it was under Egyptian control), and many temples had a sanctuary dedicated to him. His primary cult centre was at Memphis, where he had been worshipped since at least the Early Dynastic Period if not before. Several of his epithets – like “Lord of Ankh-Tawy” or “South of His Wall (res-ineb-ef)” – reference Memphis, and his largest temple complex was in that city. In fact the modern English name of the country of Egypt ultimately derives from the name of Ptah’s Memphite temple – hwt-ka-ptah (house of the ka of Ptah) became pronounced as “Αίγυπτος” (Aigyptos) in Greek, and then misapplied to the whole country. Sadly not much is known of the temple (or the whole city of Memphis) because people still live in the region and the archaeology is underneath the modern city. The parts of the temple that remain mostly date to Ramesses II’s reign in the New Kingdom, but there is evidence of earlier structures including re-used blocks in that Ramesside temple. The first temple may’ve been built at the time of the unification of Egypt in the reign of Narmer (but the only evidence of that is a reference in the work of the ancient historian Manetho, who wrote c.3000 years after Narmer’s reign). And at its height the complex may’ve rivalled Karnak Temple in size (although I’m not sure what the actual evidence for this is, if nothing much survives!). In another parallel with Karnak and Amun, there was more than one temple dedicated to Ptah in his city of Memphis – for instance there was another one built next to the palace of Merenptah (Ramesses II’s successor).

And speaking of Karnak, Ptah also had a sanctuary in that temple complex). This dates back to at least the Middle Kingdom, and there is also other evidence of Ptah at Karnak dating to that period. Fragments of stone columns which were originally in the first court of Karnak have been found, showing Senwosret I worshipping gods including Ptah. The sanctuary of Ptah was rebuilt by Thutmose III after it had fallen into disrepair – or so he says, but this is also a common trope in Ancient Egyptian kingly rhetoric. Every king is responsible for maintaining maat in the world, and how better to demonstrate that than to do a bit of work on a temple and then write a grand announcement of how you found it in ruins and restored it to its full glory?

Deir el-Medina was another site where Ptah was particularly venerated – not surprisingly as like Memphis this was a place where craftsmen lived and worked. So the patron deity of craftsmen was also the patron deity of the village. More generally Ptah was particularly important during the New Kingdom, and so many temples were built dedicated at least in part to him in contexts outside those where craftsmen were working. For instance several temples in Nubia were dedicated in part to Ptah – in this context it’s due to his associations with Amun. Many of these temples were built during the reign of Ramesses II – not just the famous one at Abu Simbel but also including temples at Gerf Hussein and el-Derr . As a prominent state deity Ptah also has a presence in temples like that of Seti I at Abydos and Ramesses II’s mortuary temple (the Ramesseum).

So as I said Ptah shows up all over Ancient Egypt across both time and space. In the next article in this short series on Ptah, out in a few weeks, I’ll look more in depth at his role as a craftsman and a creator.


Resources Used:

Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. Routledge.
Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13.
Bryan, Betsy M. 2003. ‘The 18th Dynasty Before the Amarna Period’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, Oxford University Press.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Fisher, Marjorie M. 2012a. ‘Abu Simbel’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012b. ‘Derr’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012c. ‘Gerf Hussein’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012d. ‘The Art and Architecture of Nubia During the New Kingdom’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Griffin, Kenneth. 2021a. ‘The East Bank Temples (Karnak and Luxor Temple)’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Thebes: The City of 100 Gates’, March 28.
———. 2021b. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press.
———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2nd ed. Routledge Dictionaries. Routledge.
Hawass, Zahi. 2012. ‘Saving Nubia’s Legacy’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press.
Leblanc, Christian. 2011. ‘The Ramesseum: The Temple of Rameses II’. In Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West, edited by Kent R Weeks. White Star Publishers.
Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. 1993. Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. New aspects of antiquity. Thames and Hudson.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
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.
Snape, S. R. 2014. The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. 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.
———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.

Scarab Beetles, Creation and the Sun

One doesn’t normally think of beetles and gods in the same thought, or at least I don’t at any rate. Well I suppose, there is that famous (and perhaps apocryphal) quip of Haldane’s about God’s inordinate fondness for beetles. But a beetle as a manifestation of a god, or an integral part of the correct functioning of the cosmos, or a symbol of the beginning of the universe, no that doesn’t spring easily to my mind. But if I was an Ancient Egyptian that would make perfect sense to me. The Egyptians had observed young scarab beetles emerging from balls of dung, and as far as they could tell this was spontaneous generation of beetles (obviously we now know that a female scarab had laid an egg in there first, but that bit the Egyptians didn’t see). So as a result they thought of the scarab as being associated with creation, and specifically with self-creation. And this then generated a comparison with their god Atum – Atum who emerged from the primordial mound at the beginning of creation, like a scarab beetle emerges from its dung. And yes, that does mean that there is a direct comparison between a ball of dung and the land we live on but it doesn’t seem that that was an important part of the analogy (or then again maybe it was, dung is a good fertiliser after all and the fertility of the land they lived on was essential to them).

And that’s not all that was compared to a ball of dung. Another thing that scarab beetles do, as well as emerge from dung, is push dung balls across the ground (in search of a safe place to eat it). And that made the Ancient Egyptians think of the sun – how does it move across the sky? One of their answers was that it was in a boat, that floated on the waters of Nun that were held back by the sky goddess Nut. But another of their answers was that it was pushed across the sky by the god Khepri in the form of a scarab beetle. So Khepri is another god who is associated with this beetle – he’s a solar god, and more specifically the god of the sun rising on the eastern horizon. There is one pretty big difference between reality and iconography in this case – real scarab beetles stand up on their forelegs and push their dung ball along backwards using their back legs. However Khepri pushes the sun moving forwards and using his forelegs. I find this quite intriguing and wonder if it’s related to how one of the bad things that one didn’t want to happen in the afterlife was to walk upside down on one’s hands – perhaps it was considered an ill-advised way to portray a sun god? Or maybe it was just considered more aesthetically pleasing? I find it a bit unlikely it was just random chance, the Egyptians seem to’ve been keen observers of nature so I’m sure they wouldn’t’ve just got it wrong!

Khepri’s iconography is all about the beetle as well. As with many Egyptian gods he had three main forms – a person, a person with animal attributes, and an animal. Khepri is therefore sometimes shown as a man with a beetle headdress, as a man with a whole beetle as his head, and as a scarab beetle. The beetle is often blue, like in the necklace I’m using to illustrate this article. The real beetle, unsurprisingly, is not blue – it’s black – so this colour was chosen for its symbolism, and was intended to emphasise the link between the beetle and the heavens. Some exceptions to this colour choice are in funerary texts, where the beetle is its natural black – perhaps because black signifies fertility and rebirth?

Scarabs on a Pectoral from Tutankhamun’s Tomb

The link between Khepri and the scarab beetle goes much deeper than his iconographic representation. The original name of Khepri was kheprer, which is quite literally the word for the scarab beetle in Ancient Egyptian – so he’s not just represented by a beetle, he is a beetle. It is also linked to the verb kheper, which means “to develop” or “to come into being,” and you can see how this links the concepts of creation (and the rising sun) even more deeply into the nature of the beetle and the god Khepri as well as linking them both again to that initial moment of creation and the emergence of Atum from the primeval waters. It’s also another illustration of something I mentioned when I was talking about Khonsu – the names of the cosmological gods in Egyptian generally aren’t the names of the cosmological entities that they represent. Nothing of the sun about the name Khepri, instead it’s all about the beetle and the metaphysical ideas.

There are also tweaks to the representation of the scarab and Khepri that link them with other gods and other ideas within Egyptian cosmology. For instance Khepri could be shown as a scarab beetle in a boat being held up by the god Nun which is then a recapitulation of creation with the solar creator god rising up from the primeval waters. And also one of the other ways that the sun is supposed to travel across the sky – in a boat, floating on the waters of Nun which are held back above us by the goddess Nut as the sky. There are also scarab beetles with wings and the feet and tail of a bird – normally a falcon or a vulture, the former linking perhaps to Re-Horakhty (another solar god). And there are also ram-headed scarab beetles which represent Atum-Khepri – the solar creator god in multiple aspects, and also a symbol of the rising and setting sun together. And of course as a solar god Khepri was also considered a manifestation of Re, and sometimes he’s associated so closely with Re that it’s Re who’s said to be a scarab beetle pushing the sun in the morning with no explicit mention of Khepri.

And in something that starts to feel a little like a pattern – the solar associated scarab beetle can also be associated with the moon (c.f. Shu and Tefnut), and be depicted pushing the moon in front of it in a visually and conceptually analogous fashion to pushing the sun. There’s also a pectoral from the tomb of Tutankhamun (not the one I’ve got as my illustration) which has a winged scarab beetle holding up the boat of the lunar eye, above which is the usual moon symbol of the full moon sitting in a crescent moon. And this imagery may be associated with one of the moon gods – Iah.

As I’ve alluded to a couple of times already, scarabs beetles show up in funerary contexts. Sometimes this may be linked to something about the person – for instance because one of Tutankhamun’s names is Nebkheperure (with the “kheper” in the middle written with a beetle) the scarab beetle is used as a visual pun on his jewellery and other funerary goods. But more generally there were strong links in Ancient Egyptian thought between their creation stories and their ideas about the afterlife – linking the moment of first creation with the rebirth and renewal to come after death. Thus imagery associated with creation often shows up in funerary contexts. Rather more specifically for the scarab beetle, in his role as the pusher of the sun across the sky Khepri was thought to be swallowed by Nut each night along with the sun and reborn again in the morning. This idea that he was constantly reborn mean that he was also directly associated with resurrection. And in this sort of context he might be explicitly linked with Osiris, symbolically linking the solar realm with the netherworld. For instance in the Late Period tomb of Petosiris there is a depiction of Khepri wearing Osiris’s atef crown, and there are other depictions elsewhere of Osiris with a scarab beetle for a head with the atef crown on top.

Much later authors like Plutarch (2nd Century CE) and Horapollo (5th Century CE if he existed) take the association of scarab beetle imagery and the funerary context much much further. They say that the tunnels of Old Kingdom mastabas were built to resemble the tunnels of the scarab beetle, and that mummified bodies are wrapped to mimic scarab beetle pupae. This is dubious at best – there’s no evidence at all that this was a part of Pharaonic Egyptian thought so it’s almost certainly a flight of fancy on the part of some Roman or Greek. But it entertained me enough to tell you about it, despite its lack of foundation in fact!

So in summary, if you were an Ancient Egyptian when you saw a scarab beetle you wouldn’t just think “oh look, a beetle pushing some dung around” – you’d think of the sun, of the beginnings of the world and of life after death. A pretty weighty load for a beetle to push around.


Resources Used:

Boonstra, Stephanie. 2019. “Reconstructing the Mid-Second Millennium BCE Using Scarab Amulets.” Spring Lodge Centre, Witham, Essex, November 3. Write up on Other People’s Tales.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press.
Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Robins, Gay. 2010. “Art.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
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.
Taylor, John H. 2010a. “Life and Afterlife in the Ancient Egyptian Cosmos.” In Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead., edited by John H. Taylor. British Museum Press.
———. 2010b. “The Perfect Afterlife.” In Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead., edited by John H. Taylor. British Museum Press.
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.

The Air They Breathed

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.

Shu Separating Nut and Geb

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.

Resources used:

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.