Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths: Of Water and Gods

From the lecture series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Explore ancient Egypt’s stories of water gods, primordial hills, and the birth of some of their most iconic deities.

Relief in the Hathor temple at Dendera representing the Ogdoad
Depiction of the Ogdoad with serpent and frog heads. (Image: Photography by Olaf Tausch/Public domain)

Ancient Egypt’s Eight Water Gods

For the Egyptians, in the beginning, there was water. In the primordial waters were eight gods called the Ogdoad, who came in pairs: a husband and wife, or a male and a female. These eight gods are often shown as having the heads of frogs because they are water deities, however, there isn’t more known about them except their attributes.

First, there was Hok and Hoket, and their attribute was formlessness. To remember which is the male and which is the female of the pair, the female named always ends in “t.” Thus, Hok is the male, Hoket is the female. An interesting note about the Egyptian language is that the feminine form of Egyptian words ends in “t.”

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Next come Kuk and Kuket: darkness. Then Amun and Amunet, representing hiddenness, are next. Amun became perhaps the most important god in ancient Egypt, thousands of years later, with the appearance of the pharaoh Amunhotep, whose name means “Amun is pleased.”

The last pair is Nun and Nunet. Nun is the primordial waters with Nunet as his consort.

What are the Egyptians trying to explain with these eight gods? Think about the attributes: formlessness, darkness, hiddenness. These are not positive attributes, they’re negative, representing chaos at the beginning of the universe.

Then the moment of creation takes place.

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Gods of Air, Moisture, Earth, and Sky

Atum depicted in a copy of the Book of Breathing . Louvre Museum , Paris
Atum (Image: Di Rama – Opera propria/Public domain)

Out of the waters arises the primordial hill, and standing on that primordial hill was the god Atum. Atum is a special god. He creates the gods that interact with the earth. He is called the self-created.

Atum by himself has two children: Shu and Tefnut. Shu is air and Tefnut is moisture. The myth tells us that in the beginning, we have air and moisture.

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Think about the first line of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void. There was darkness over the deep.” Notice the similarity that in the beginning there is a formless void. Of course, the Egyptian myth is thousands of years older than the Old Testament, but, the point is that people seem to agree the beginning was turbulent.

Details of the astronomical ceiling in tomb KV9 showing Nut.
Painting of Nut on the ceiling of a royal tomb. She is bending over with her arms down one wall (left) and her legs down another (right), with her belly as the ceiling. (Image: Photographed by GoShow/Public domain)

Shu and Tefnut have two children, Geb and Nut. Geb is the earth, and Nut is the sky. There’s a painting of Nut on the ceiling of a royal tomb, bending over with her arms down one wall and her legs down another, with her belly as the ceiling. What Nut does is she swallows the sun in the evening, it travels through her, and she gives birth to it in the morning symbolizing birth and rebirth.

Isis, Osiris, Seth, and Nebthet

Geb and Nut gave birth to four gods who are central to Egyptian mythology.

Osiris as a ruler of the hereafter, detail from the tomb of Sennedjem
Osiris (Image: Photographed by Ignati/Public domain)

First are Isis and Osiris, who are brother and sister and also husband and wife. Note that the name Isis, the female god, doesn’t end in a “t.” This is because her name came from the Greeks. Her real name in Egyptian is Ist, but the Greeks added their language’s “is” endings, so Ist became Isis.

Isis and Osiris also have a brother and sister: Seth and Nebthet. Seth (sometimes known as Set) and Nebthet (or Nephthys in Greek) are also brother and sister, and husband and wife.

These four—Isis, Osiris, Seth, and Nebthet—are crucial to the entire subsequent story of ancient Egyptian mythology.

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Common Questions About Egyptian Creation Myths

Q: How was Egyptian mythology created?

Egyptian creation myths are still mysterious as many texts contradict each other and are still being uncovered. We do know they are based on nature and natural patterns such as the sun rising and the Nile flooding, and they greatly informed Egyptian culture.

Q: Who is the central god of Egyptian creation?

In known Egyptian creation myths, the central god is Ptah. He is the creator whose existence was before all things, and he conceived the world through thought and word.

Q: How does Ra play into the Egyptian Creation Myths?

The Egyptian creation myths introduce Ra as the sun god and he who created beings by using their secret name to bring them into existence. Many myths intersect, but one posits Ra bringing Earth into existence from the watery nature of Nun.

Q: How old are Egyptian creation myths?

According to scholars, the Egyptian creation myths began around 3100–2686 B.C., otherwise called the Early Dynastic Period. These deities emerged during the Predynastic Period, which solidified around 3100 B.C. as pharaohs took on traits of gods.

This article was updated on December 12, 2019

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