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.


We talk an awful lot about Egyptian sun deities, but not so often about moon ones. Well, one of them does come up quite often but not in the context of his association with the moon – and anyway, he’s not the deity I was planning to talk about today. But it is the case that at first Thoth was the primary deity associated with the moon, but he became a more general god of knowledge and time, and so Khonsu took over his role as the god of the moon. Much later, in the Late Period, Iah takes on this role – as the concept of Khonsu too has shifted away from association with the moon.

Before I move on to talk more about Khonsu, let’s just back up a moment and I’ll point out something I learnt while reading for this article that I had never really considered before. The names of the “cosmological” gods of Ancient Egypt generally bear little to no relationship to the name of the element of the cosmos that they are associated with. For instance the word for moon is jʿḥ – yes, the Late Period moon god called Iah is the same (accounting for anglicisation of the transliteration), but neither Thoth nor Khonsu are very similar at all. And Erik Hornung cautions that one should therefore avoid a simplistic assignment of a deity as “the moon god” or whatever it might be – the relationship between deity and element of the cosmos is clearly more complex than a straightforward personification.

One of the two proposed etymologies for Khonsu’s name does fit in well with his being a moon god, however – which is that it derives from the verb khenes which means “to cross over or traverse”. Khonsu therefore means “the wanderer” or “he who traverses [the sky]”. The other possible etymology is dismissed by Richard Wilkinson as outdated, although at least one author I read prefers it – this explanation splits the name into kh (meaning placenta) and nesu (meaning king), and sees Khonsu as also being a personification of the king’s placenta. In his book “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby Wilkinson prefers this explanation as it makes sense of a piece of kingly regalia – early depictions of the king show him accompanied by standards topped by various objects which are perhaps each an aspect of kingship. One of these is a bag-like object later associated with Khonsu. There are a few suggestions for what this might be but Toby Wilkinson’s preferred explanation is that it represents a placenta. He also says that the royal placenta may’ve been associated with the royal ka – the spirit that conveys divine kingship on the mortal king – and cites parallels for the deification of the placenta in other related African cultures. However he also says that the royal placenta may’ve been thought to be the king’s stillborn twin, which I’m afraid I completely boggle at – the Egyptians must surely’ve been able to tell the difference between the afterbirth and a dead baby!

Khonsu, as well as Thoth, was involved in the reckoning of time – an appropriate activity for a god associated with the moon. He’s the god associated with Hour 8 of the day, but I didn’t find any discussion of why particular gods had particular hours in my books. His more general involvement in the reckoning of time included influencing the gestation of humans and animals (which again fits well with an association with the placenta). And both he & Thoth were believed to assign a fixed lifespan not only to people but to the gods as well.

Khonsu’s roles change over the length of the Egyptian civilisation. In the Pyramid Texts he is a bloodthirsty deity who helps the king catch and slay the gods, so that the king can eat them and absorb their powers (as described in the Cannibal Hymn with hotly debated levels of symbolism vs. realism). Later he is associated with childbirth, which again ties into the association with the placenta and with an influence on the time of gestation. From the New Kingdom and afterwards he’s most often thought of as part of the Theban Triad, the child of Amun & Mut and worshipped with them in the vast temple complex at Karnak. And as so often the Egyptians didn’t feel the need for strict consistency in their religious thought: he’s also the child in another more minor triad – Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu, who were worshipped at Kom Ombo.

By Ptolemaic times he’s part of a complicated rebirth story for Amun as well – during this time period the Egyptians believed that when Amun died he took the form of Osiris and entered the body of Osiris’s mother Opet-Nut, he was then reborn as Khonsu – and there was a temple for Opet-Nut next to the temple of Khonsu in the Karnak complex where this rebirth was supposed to’ve taken place. Khonsu was also linked to Osiris at Edfu temple (a Ptolemaic structure) and called the “son of the leg” (which was the body part of Osiris that was believed to’ve been found there when Osiris’s body was scattered by Seth). And also by this period of Egyptian history Khonsu’s role had morphed once more and he (or at least one form of him, see below) was seen as a healing god. Ptolemy IV believed that Khonsu had personally healed him, and used the epithet “beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits”.

Khonsu in front of offerings

Khonsu is generally depicted as a mummiform human figure or wearing a tight-fitting garment. He might have a hawk head, and is sometimes represented by the same sort of baboon as Thoth (the cynocephalus baboon portrayed in a squatting position). If he has a human head he generally wears the sidelock of youth, and may wear the curved beard of the gods. His arms may be partially or completely unrestricted by his tight clothing or mummy wrappings. And if that sounds a lot like Ptah then Richard Wilkinson provides a handy diagnostic – generally Khonsu wears a necklace with a crescent shaped pectoral and a keyhole shaped counterpoise, Ptah’s necklace will not have that shape of counterpoise. In his hawk headed form to distinguish him from other such gods you need to look for his headdress – he wears a full moon sitting inside a horizontal crescent moon on his head. In his hands he may carry a crook & flail – the sceptres associated with Osiris or Horus, and with the king – and he may carry a was and/or djed sceptre as well or instead of those.

The main temple for Khonsu was inside the Amun precinct at the Karnak temple complex, as I mentioned above. It’s well worth a visit if you’re at Karnak as it still has a roof so a lot of colour has survived and it has recently been cleaned (within the last decade) – I remember the decoration as very striking with a white background and lots of reds & golds. This particular temple building was started in the 20th Dynasty by Ramesses III, and finished by later kings. It’s not unusual for multiple gods to have temple buildings or shrines within one larger complex, but I did find it noticeable that (with one exception) all of Khonsu’s shrines are within other larger complexes. The exception is at Tanis where there is a temple to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu-Neferhotep. At Tanis there is also a temple to the Theban Triad as well as a temple that has shrines for Mut, Khonsu and Astarte. These are all Late Period (and later temples), mostly built when the 21st Dynasty moved the capital north to Tanis.

As part of the Theban Triad Khonsu took part in two major annual festivals in the Theban region. These were the Beautiful Festival of the Valley and the Opet Festival. Both were processional festivals where the cult images of the triad were taken in their sacred barques to visit other parts of the area – Khonsu’s barque had falcon heads at stern & prow. The Beautiful Festival of the Valley had begun in the Middle Kingdom, when it was just Amun who was taken from Karnak to Deir el Bahri. It became more elaborate during the New Kingdom – cult images of Amun, Mut and Khonsu plus statues of dead kings and queens were carried first to Deir el Bahri and then along the West Bank to visit each king’s mortuary temple (such as Medinet Habu) as it was built and added to the route. The Opet Festival was a similar occasion, the three cult statues of the Theban Triad were taken in procession from Karnak to Luxor temple. It’s not documented before the 18th Dynasty and when it began the gods travelled by land on the way to Luxor and by river on the way back, but later in the New Kingdom they travelled by river in both directions (being towed along in their sacred barques). It too became more elaborate over time, and by the time of Ramesses III it lasted for month. The central moment of this festival didn’t directly involve the Theban Triad at all – while they rested in their shrines at Luxor the king entered the most sacred part of the temple where he performed a ritual that merged his mortal self with the royal ka, thus renewing his divinity. None of the books I read that talked about Opet Festival mentioned the possibly outdated link between Khonsu and the royal ka that Toby Wilkinson discusses in the context of Early Dynastic Egypt, but it seems suggestive to me for Khonsu (and family) to be involved in this ritual.

As well as temples, festivals and the trappings of state religion there are also amulets of Khonsu dating to later Egyptian history. And small plaques depicting Khonsu are also found. There are two types of these – the first depicts Khonsu with his Theban parents. The second ties into the healing aspects of Khonsu’s later role – they are cippi, which normally depict Horus the Child standing on a crocodile and are intended to have healing properties. These cippi, however, replace Horus with Khonsu but presumably have a similar function.

Khonsu comes in at least three forms (which don’t seem to correlate with the various roles I talk about above), and one of the only stories about him that we have involves one of them sending another to perform a miracle (essentially). This is a lovely piece of propaganda we call the Bentresh Stela which is now in the Louvre – the story purports to be set in the time of Ramesses II but was almost certainly written in Ptolemaic times. In the story Ramesses II is married to a foreign woman, whose sister (called Bentresh) back home in her native land (somewhere in modern day Syria) falls ill. Pharaoh is asked for help, and after consulting with Khonsu of Thebes (the most important form of Khonsu) agrees to send a statue of Khonsu the Provider (a junior form of Khonsu particularly adept at driving out evil spirits) to take the god to this princess to heal her. On arrival of the statue the evil spirits leave the princess and admit the superiority of even this junior form of Khonsu. Bentresh’s father was supposed to send the statue back, but he was so impressed by its ability to heal that he neglects to do so – until Khonsu the Provider appears to him in a dream where the god flies back to Egypt as a golden falcon. Realising he cannot force a god to stay, the statue is returned.

This story is clearly based in some sense on history in that Ramesses II did exist, as did a foreign queen with almost the same name as on the stela (Nefru-Re on the stela, Maat-nefru-Re in history). But its primary purpose is to assert the hierarchy of the different forms of Khonsu – it was found in Karnak, so unsurprisingly the senior form is Khonsu of Thebes who is worshipped there. And of course it makes a point about the innate superiority of even junior Egyptian gods over these foreign spirits and peoples – asserting a sense of national pride during a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek outsiders. Yet another role, for a god who turns out to be a rather more complex concept than just a “moon god”.

Resources used:

Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. London: British Museum Press, 1990.
Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press, 2008.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2008.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Weeks, Kent R. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2005.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
———. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.

The Way Things Ought To Be

The Egyptian worldview is full of dualities – Upper & Lower Egypt, the living world and the world of the dead, the cultivated land and the desert, Horus and Seth, and so on and so forth. Probably the most fundamental of these is the duality of maat (order) and isfet (chaos), it’s set up at the moment of creation and underpins everything about the world of the Egyptians.

Translation between languages which are as different as Ancient Egyptian & English is rarely a straightforward matter of replacing one word with another. So although I glossed maat above as “order” we don’t actually have a single word in English that covers the concept in all its nuances (as far as we understand it). In the books I read for this article it was variously translated as: balance, control, connective justice, correctness, decorum, harmony, justice, the norms of society, order, original state of tranquillity at the moment of creation, proper behaviour, righteousness, rightness, the status quo, truth, the way things ought to be. Listing them all out like that (rather than just picking one of them) gives us a flavour of the concept – although I’m pretty sure there’ll be nuances that’ve been missed – but it’s rather unwieldy for referring to the concept, so as everyone else does I’m mostly going to stick to using the Egyptian word rather than a potentially misleading translation.

Maat at the Weighing of the Heart Greeting the Deceased, from the Book of the Dead of Tasnakht

The concept of maat is, as you would expect, personified by a goddess and referred to in mythic terms – this is how the Egyptians conceptualised their world. The goddess Maat is normally represented by a human woman, with no associated animal, wearing a feather as her headdress. She may be standing, but she’s more often seated, and she’s sometimes just represented by her feather. You most often see her being offered to the gods by the king, and sometimes greeting the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart scene. She’s often referred to as the daughter of Re, which gives her a close connection with the Egyptian king who is called Son of Re as one of his titles.

Maat (goddess and concept) comes into being at the very moment of creation – before there was nothing but chaos, and the act of creation brings order (etc.). It is maat that regulates the seasons, the movements of the stars, the inundation of the Nile, the cycle of days and nights. One of the Egyptian conceptions of time (djet) is that the pattern of the universe is fixed and unchanging for eternity – and maat is that pattern. So maat permeates the whole universe, but it’s not something that just “is” it’s something that needs to be maintained and it’s in that context that it affects the lives of humanity.

The primary role of the king – the point of a king, if you like – is to maintain maat and present it to the gods, and if he does that then all will be as it should be in the universe. One of the ways in which he does this is to defeat and control the world outside Egypt and some of the familiar parts of Egyptian iconography represent this. The Egyptian way of life is seen as conforming to maat and all foreign ways of doing things are therefore not in accordance with maat – and so when you see the king smiting foreign enemies on the walls of a temple, that is the king maintaining maat and defeating chaos. When you see the king portrayed with bound captives beneath his feet (or the bows that represent the nine traditional enemies) then once again he’s imposing order and defeating chaos.

Maat also needs to be maintained within Egypt, and this is done via the legal system and administration – maat is the concept that underpins all the bureaucracy. The king is pivotal here as well – with his connection to the gods as the Son of Re he has the duty and necessary knowledge to create laws that uphold maat. But these laws were not handed down as divine in origin – they were essentially practical: behaviour which promoted harmonious and balanced relations between people was maat and should be promoted, behaviour which didn’t was isfet (and thus should be forbidden). It was also not egalitarian in any fashion – all men were not supposed to be equal, but instead were to behave appropriately for their place in society. Jan Assmann quotes Rousseau as saying “Between the weak and the strong freedom is the oppressive and law the liberating principle”* – i.e. the law is what stops the strong from trampling the weak, and this is what maat was in this aspect of Egyptian society.

*that is presumably an English translation of a German translation of the original French

The king also needs to present the maat he has upheld within and without Egypt to the gods. This is frequently depicted on temple walls, with the king shown kneeling and offering up a small figure of the goddess Maat to another god. There is a sense in which this is equated with all the other offerings that are given to the gods in their temples. The food that is offered is maat, the clothing that is offered is maat, the incense that is burnt is maat – all that a god eats, wears, breathes etc is maat. So the king’s upholding of, and offering of, maat maintains the existence of the gods (and their associated concepts and roles) and thus the universe remains as it should be.

And maat is also something that an individual should adhere to in his or her life. There’s a whole genre of Egyptian literature (the wisdom texts) which discusses how to live one’s life in accordance with maat – once again in terms of practical measures rather than as a theoretical concept. Over the course of Egyptian history ideas about how transgressing maat would affect you changed. In the Old Kingdom it was assumed that a failure to act in accordance with maat would lead to failure in this life. From the Middle Kingdom onward the Egyptians expected to be judged in the afterlife, and only those who had done maat in this life would be permitted to become an akh and to reach the Field of Reeds. And later, from the Ramesside Period on, people had more direct relationships with any given god – offending a deity would lead to divine punishment in this world – but that doesn’t mean maat was no longer important, it did still affect one’s afterlife.

There are at least a couple of different antonyms for maat. One of these is fairly narrow – the word gereg means falsehood and is the opposite of maat in its sense of speaking truth. The more commonly found one is isfet and its meaning is much broader in scope. As with maat it’s translated in a variety of ways by the different authors I read, but they generally seem to regard the concept as more straightforward – isfet is chaos, disorder, wrongness. It can also be translated as “sin”, which Boyo G. Ockinga does (writing in “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson), but he cautions that one needs to be wary when reading that translation. The concept of isfet is of actions that are chaotic or wrong, there is not the concept of humanity as being essentially sinful in the way that there is in Christian thought. Theoretically one can maintain maat in all one does, failure is not inevitable.

This is not the only way that the Egyptian duality of maat vs isfet is different to our own cultural duality of right vs wrong or good vs sinful. Another fundamental difference is that “good” is not the same as “ordered”, and this has ramifications that shape the rest of society (and that we should carefully keep in mind when thinking about Ancient Egypt). In our culture it is easy to see that “doing the right thing” can in some cases mean going against the law or transgressing the norms of society – it’s possible for the individual to be good whilst not conforming, and it is possible to see society as needing to be changed in order to become a better society. But in the Ancient Egyptian culture maat has much heavier overtones of keeping in one’s place and this leads to a much more conservative outlook on life. Obviously Egyptian culture did change over time, but it had to be carefully justified as “returning to what had been done before”. Change itself was seen as undermining maat and the proper order of things. Things should be done the way they have always been done, and then the pattern of the universe is maintained in the way that it should be and all will be well in the world.

Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

Parts of a Person

What makes a person a person? What is it that makes a person alive and conscious? What are the necessary constituent parts and what happens to them when the person dies? In Western Christian thought there’s the body and the soul, and the soul lives on once the body is dead. In a more secular framing you might wonder if there’s any such thing as a soul, but would then replace it with the idea of the mind. And is that a separate thing – there’s the body and then there’s also a separate mind that somehow animates the body – or is it rooted deeply in the physical body? It’s a slippery subject even when talking about one’s own cultural concepts, which makes it even more difficult to get a proper handle on a different long dead culture’s ideas. There’s also all the usual problems of ancient Egyptian history – many fewer texts have survived than were written, and those that survive are biased towards particular types. In this case at least the bias is towards texts that deal with making sure the right things happen to the parts of a person after death, but then again these texts don’t start by defining their terms. And anyway, there’s several millennia of Egyptian history and their culture did not stand still any more than ours did. I mean, even if I could give a coherent theologically correct definition of the modern Christian conception of the soul it wouldn’t be the same as the same definition from 500 years ago, let alone 3 millennia (when there wasn’t even any Christianity). So this already slippery and esoteric subject gets a bit more slippery.

So having established that this is complicated, what did the Ancient Egyptians think were the constituent elements of a person? There were at least 5 parts – the body, the ba, the ka, the name and the shadow. The body is the easiest to get a handle on as it’s pretty much the same as our own concept of a body. Of course the Egyptians didn’t realise that the brain is the organ we think with, so the heart was the most important part of the body in their eyes – the seat of reason and emotion. For a person to survive into the afterlife they needed all their parts and so it was important for the body to be preserved after death as a mummy. In a case where the mummy was destroyed statues labelled with the person’s name could function as a substitute. Which means that the many statues of a king were an aid to his long term survival after death rather than simply a matter of propaganda during his lifetime.

The next easiest to think about is the name. For us a name is a label – a convenient way of identifying someone in particular. But for the Egyptians one’s name was an integral part of one’s self, and a person didn’t come properly into being until they were named. Thus it should be no surprise that a person could not survive in the afterlife if their name was erased. People would have their names written as often as possible in their tomb decoration to make it more likely that one instance would eternally survive. Erasing someone’s name – as happened with Hatshepsut or with Akhenaten – wasn’t just eliding someone from the history books it was also an attack on that person’s existence in the afterlife.

The shadow was the least discussed part of the person in the books I looked at while writing this article, and the least consistently described. The general idea seems to be that as the shadow is an image of the body that emanates from the body it is therefore integral to and contains some part of the person, and is thus necessary for existence. It is associated with the ba and some of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with its survival in conjunction with the ba. The books variously discuss it as being important for free movement after death and being protective.

There is much more known (and said) about the ba and the ka, which are the two parts of a person that come closest to the concept of the soul as we know it in Western culture. In fact the word ba is often translated as “soul” but I think that’s misleading as it carries all sorts of connotations that don’t really sit right. The ba is more closely akin to our idea of personality – it’s all the things that make someone uniquely themselves other than the physical body. After death the ba is the part of the person that can move freely between the tomb and the living world, and many of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with this – in fact the Egyptian name for this text, “The Book of Coming Forth By Day” references this ability of the ba. Many of the spells in this text give the ba the ability to change into another form so that it can go where it wishes. Many of these forms are those of birds, and the normal representation of the ba has a bird’s body and a human head (and sometimes human arms as well as wings). But the ba does not just get to flit about, changing form and enjoying its time in the living world. Each night the ba must return to the tomb and reunite with the body and this rejuvenates the body and is part of what ensures survival in the afterlife.

The Ba Reuniting with the Body

Human beings are not the only possessors of a ba – gods have them, and so can inanimate objects (like doors, apparently). The bas of gods may be rather more substantial than the human ones, and can be thought of as the earthly manifestation of the god. So the Apis Bull was the ba of Ptah, and the wind was the ba of Shu.

And the fifth part of a person, the last of those I began by listing, is the ka. This is sometimes translated as “spirit” or as “life force” and the latter made the most sense to me in the context of what I read. The ka is made by the creator at the same time as the physical body – shaped by the god Khnum on his potters wheel. Each person has their own, and it is what makes the difference between a living being and a piece of flesh. Once the person dies and the parts of the person separate the ka continues its existence and remains in the tomb (although separate from the body). The ka must be nourished (in life as well as in death) by the energy in food and drink – it is the ka to whom the offerings in a tomb are made. As the physical food and drink is not consumed, just the energy, it makes sense that depictions on the wall might also magically contain the energy required to sustain the ka. The ka was often shown as a double of the body, standing behind the person.

Where the concept of the ka gets really slippery is that it is both this spirit uniquely associated with one individual, and also a life force that is passed from father to son, down the generations from the creator god Atum through his divine offspring to the king and thence to all humanity. This may be the origin of the symbol of the ka as two outstretched arms – it is the embrace that passes on the ka. Kings have two kas – the one that everyone is born with, and also a divine royal ka that they receive during the coronation ceremony. Gods also have kas and these are the part of the god that can temporarily reside in the cult statues that are kept in temples.

I started out this discussion talking about five parts to a person. But even that confident assertion gets a bit slippery once you look a little closer. It’s clear that the Egyptians thought a person was composed of multiple elements, but there isn’t a definitive list of exactly what they all are or how many of them. So these five are the most commonly mentioned in ancient texts, but there may be more – Jan Assmann refers to a text that has 14 different parts, including things like “birthplace”. The mummy is also sometimes elevated to be a part of a person as something distinct from the body (which has ceased to exist with the ending of life in this way of thinking about it). And of course with this being such a long lived civilisation ideas evolved over time. The one that modern scholars seem not quite sure whether to include in the standard list or not is the akh – which doesn’t exist in life, but is absolutely critical to generate in the afterlife. This non-physical form is the result of a union between the ba and ka of the individual that will only occur once they have passed the Weighing of the Heart and been judged as having been virtuous and followed ma’at in their life. If you fail to make it to the Hall of Judgement you are just dead; if you get there and are deemed unworthy you die the second permanent death; and if you pass you are transfigured into a glorified being of light. The word akh can be translated as “effective” and it’s thought it refers to the ability of the deceased now to function effectively in both life and death. The akh has the most freedom of all the parts of the deceased – it can move anywhere in the created world whether that be in the sky, in the Duat (underworld) or the living world.

So that’s my understanding of the modern understanding of the answers ancient Egyptians would give to my opening questions. But I must confess I’m left wondering what the ordinary man on the Nile boat would really think. This is all the stuff of priests and theologians – complex and nuanced and really rather slippery. Would a normal person have had these ideas in mind when they were taking their food offerings to Granddad’s tomb?

Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Death and Salvation” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization” Barry J. Kemp
“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
“Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” ed. John H. Taylor
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson