The Cosmogonic Systems of Ancient
Heliopolis, Memphis, and Hermopolis

Jim Safley

Ancient Egyptian myths have rarely survived in a complete and coherent form. Those tales that are complete hail from the later periods, and these no doubt were altered from their original versions. But by collating these myths with the myriad texts and inscriptions uncovered in archeological finds, scholars are able to assemble practical and coherent accounts that most likely approximate the original myths. Of course myths, like all oral tradition, are subject to the vagaries of those telling the story; with each recount the story is revised to some degree. Some features doubtlessly were that of the original, while others were adapted from associated myths or entirely different mythological sources.[i]

The organization of diverse but interrelated myths into a systematic whole was the foundation of Egyptian religion. Of the many divine legends in Egypt, several achieved great prominence and became true cosmogonic and theological systems. Due to their universality, cosmogonic myths, or those explaining the origin of the universe, received much attention in antiquity. Egyptian cosmogony can be categorized into three specific, but not entirely dissimilar, systems: the Heliopolitan system, the Memphite system, and the Hermopolitan system.

Common to all these systems was the belief in a primordial ocean, chaotic and formless, as the precursor to creation itself. It is no wonder that the Egyptians associated water with the pre-creation phase of existence; indeed, the Nile River, with its annual floods, provided the necessary elements of life. Another similarity was the belief that a principle god had been in existence since time began, and he had created the world and all living things. The creator-god was usually endowed with a divine family, who assisted in the actualization of creation and the organization of the cosmos. Thus, according to Egyptian cosmogony, within pre-creation (the primordial ocean) lived a primeval creator-god who, compelled by the impetus of creation, fashioned the cosmos with the help of his divine family.

Heliopolis, a town situated near the head of the Nile Delta, was home of one of the most detailed accounts of creation. The Heliopolitan system developed early in Egyptian civilization – most likely prior to the Third Dynasty. Details concerning its cosmogony can be found scattered throughout the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, and a significantly newer (third century) papyrus that most likely evolved from earlier sources.[ii] From these texts we find the primeval ocean, Nun or Nu, and what is called the Ennead (the nine gods of Heliopolis): the principal god Atum and his divine family, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. The myth of creation centers on these divine characters, each playing a critical role in the organization of the cosmos.

In the beginning there was a kind of chaos, represented as a limitless ocean of inert water cloaked in absolute darkness. The Egyptians did not understand the concept of “nothingness”, therefore pre-creation did not equate to non-existence as it does in other religions.[iii] Rather than an empty void, pre-creation was a material mass, though boundless and infinite. The primordial ocean represented all that was negative to creation; it was inherently the antithesis to life, so therefore it contained within itself the thesis, or the potential for life.

Since antiquity began, a semi-conscious principle laid dormant within the dark, limitless ocean. This principle, personified by the local god of Heliopolis Atum, was the quiescent creative force within pre-creation, the ever-present “potential for life.” Meditating in the primordial ocean, Atum sensed the presence of the first generation of gods, not yet created, but within his being. (In essence his role was that of totality, he contained the life-force of all subsequent deities.[iv]) His unborn son, Shu, who represented “Life,” stirred within him and roused his spirit, which engendered self-awareness in the creator-god. Awaking out of semi-consciousness, Atum conversed with the primordial ocean, Nun, who advised him to “Inhale your daughter Maat… so that your heart may live”(Coffin Texts, vol. 2, 33-34).[v] (The heart in ancient Egyptian thinking was the organ of thought.) Maat personified the ordered structure of the cosmos, diametrically opposite to the notion of chaos, represented by Nun. Therefore, when Atum breathed Maat into himself he received the essential capacity for creation.

The desire for creation was realized with the awakening of Atum’s “heart” (Maat) and the stirring of “Life” (Shu) within him. By speech, which manifested itself through thought, Atum formed his physical body and several serpents to aid him in creation. At this time an egg from which the sun would emerge either rose from the depths of the primordial ocean, or fell from the sky. Now that Atum brought himself into physical being, as he spoke it, “Becoming became” (P. Bremner-Rhind XXVI, 21-23);[vi] more precisely, once he attained full awareness and corporeal form, all beings within him could come into existence. After he had achieved the necessary prerequisites for creation, the next, and wholly unavoidable, step was to create.

Some traditions have Atum floating in Nun without a “place to stand” during his acts of creation (P. Bremner-Rhind XXVI, 21-23);[vii] others have them performed on a kind of primeval mound, later formalized as the Benben, which emerged from Nun and was said to have been the petrified semen of the creator-god.[viii] The significance of the Benben should be clarified in order to appreciate its role in Heliopolitan cosmogony. When Atum distinguished himself from the primordial ocean, a life-principle emerged from its depths, represented by the primeval mound. Therefore, to the Egyptians, the Benben would likely have represented the life-giving flood plains of the receding Nile. Here Atum is associated with the scarab-god Khepri, the incarnation of the newborn sun whose name connoted “creation” or “transformation”: “Hail Atum! Hail Khepri, he who becomes from himself! You culminate in this your name of ‘hill’…” (Pyramid Texts, 1587).[ix] Upon breaking away from Nun, Atum-Khepri, the combined creator-god, formed a “hill” – the primeval mound and life-principle that disassociated itself from pre-creation.

Whether creation occurred floating in Nun or upon an emerged mound, without a female counterpart Atum was forced to bear his children alone. This quandary was resolved by taking into account the creator-god’s totality: he possessed all potential life within him. Therefore creation could be achieved simply by liberating this potential life from his own being. But, as a male deity, Atum felt the powerful and primal urge to copulate, and to satisfy his sexual frustration he resorted to masturbation: “Taking his phallus in his grip and ejaculating through it to give birth to the twins Shu and Tefnut” (PT, 527).[x] Another account of the first act of creation also involved Atum copulating with his hand, but instead of ejaculating his progeny, he “sneezed out Shu,” and “spat out Tefnut” (P. Bremner-Rhind).[xi] The apparent dissociation between masturbation and the two secretions (mucous and saliva) is reconciled by the ancient Egyptian penchant for wordplay. The name Shu in hieroglyphics resembles the word for “sneeze”, and the first two consonants in Tefnut’s name translate to “spit.”[xii]

Though the first “created” beings, Shu and Tefnut receive only minor roles in Egyptian mythology. Shu, the god air (or the transparent space between the sun and the rest of creation), and his sister Tefnut, the lion-headed goddess of moisture, serve more as the first couple to achieve sexual union. Once created, brother and sister, compelled by their youthful curiosity, explored the depths of the dark primordial ocean and became lost to Atum. When he found them he wept and the tears changed into the first human beings.[xiii] By natural means Shu and Tefnut produced the second divine couple, the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. And from these came the deities of kingship: Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Creation thus became a natural, self-perpetuating process involving the procreative desires of a male and female.

Closely analogous to the cosmogony of Heliopolis was that of the city of Memphis. The most detailed account on Memphite cosmogony is inscribed upon a large basalt stone, the Shabaka stone (the Coffin Texts and other inscriptions provide additional details).[xiv] It is plain to see that the Memphite system borrowed much of its theology from the Heliopolitan Ennead – many of its divine characters were present. This was most likely an intentional assimilation by the priests of Memphis to underscore the primacy of their local god over those of other cities.[xv] It was also a shrewd political maneuver inasmuch as it confirmed the primary status of Memphis, the new capitol of Egypt. Moreover, by incorporating other theological systems into their own, they avoided unnecessary conflict with still influential cult centers.[xvi] Nonetheless, the two principal differences between the cosmogonies were significant: the designation of the creator-god, and the method in which creation unfolded.

Before creation, Ptah, the local god of Memphis, existed within Nun (the same primordial ocean found in the Heliopolitan cosmogony). At an unspecified time Ptah coalesced with the deity Ta-tenen, which translates to “the land which rises up”, or more precisely, the land that distinguished itself from the primordial ocean.[xvii] (The land that emerged from Nun as a result of the coalescence of Ptah and Ta-tenen is comparable to the primeval mound (Benben) of Heliopolis.) With a place to stand and unhindered by the chaotic and destructive forces of Nun, Ptah was free to initiate creation. But before we delve into the divine act of creation, we must first understand the time before the emergence of Ta-tenen.

From the beginning, according to the Shabaka stone, the creator-god possessed eight intrinsic qualities, which eventually manifested themselves in order for Ptah to realize his creative ability.[xviii] These qualities took the form of gods who, before creation, resided in the mouth of Ptah, “which pronounced the names of all things” (more about the power of speech later) (Shabaka Stone).[xix] Though personified as distinct deities, the gods were merely components of Ptah’s divine essence. Nonetheless, it was they who stimulated the creator-god by creating “the sight of the eyes, the hearing of the ears, the breathing of the nose, that they may transmit to the heart” (Shabaka Stone).[xx] Floating within Nun and deprived of his vital senses, Ptah existed in suspended animation, unable to fulfil his role as creator. As soon as his intrinsic “qualities” supplied him the means to interact with his surroundings (sight, hearing, and breathing), his “heart” could realize creation (remember that the heart was the organ for thought).

As did Atum when he felt “Life” stirring within him, Ptah gained full consciousness when his intrinsic “qualities” provided him the capacity for thought. Here we see that the awakening of his “heart” enabled Ptah to initiate creation:

It is he (the heart) who causes that every conclusion should come forth, it is the tongue which announces the thought of the heart. Thus all gods were fashioned, Atum and his Divine Ennead …; while every divine word came into being through that which the heart thought and the tongue commanded; and thus the stations (official positions) were made and the functions (of government) were assigned, which furnished all nutrition and all food, by this (preceding) speech (Shabaka Stone).[xxi]

For ancient Egyptians, the spoken word carried powerful and mystical properties; for it was speech that had the power to command, and thus the power to create. The natural consequence of thought was speech, so when Ptah gained the means by which things are conceived (his “heart”), he gained the ability to vocalize his creative intentions.[xxii] By divine utterance (his “tongue”) Ptah created the divine college (the Ennead) and the ordered structure of the cosmos. The creator-god was then “satisfied after he had made all things and every divine word” (Shabaka Stone).[xxiii] Considering his position as architect of the universe, it is no wonder that Ptah was also the patron of craftsmen.

Whereas the preceding two cosmogonic systems concerned themselves primarily with the divine act of creation, the system from the town of Hermopolis, on the other hand, focused more on the state before creation. Hermopolis, a town in Middle Egypt, was the seat of Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing and the sciences. Its theology originated as early as the Pyramid Texts, but most texts that depict the Hermopolitan system are of a later date and have been influenced by external sources.[xxiv] The most comprehensive account of Hermopolitan cosmogony has been gathered from monuments at Thebes by a German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe.[xxv]

Ancient Egyptians called Hermopolis “Khemnu,” which is translated “The City of the Eight.” The “eight” in its name undoubtedly represents the eight primordial deities that constitute pre-creation in Hermopolitan cosmogony, known as the Ogdoad (group of eight). The Ogdoad exemplified a conscious effort by the priests of Hermopolis to comprehend the physical properties of the chaotic and limitless primordial ocean (Nun) found in other cosmogonies. It was not enough for them to accept an abstract and inscrutable portrayal of chaos, so they formulated a comprehensible system that consolidated four aspects of chaos into an organic whole. These four aspects were personified as primordial deities – four males and their feminine counterparts: they were Nun and his consort Naunet, the god and goddess of the primordial ocean; Heh and Hehet, god and goddess of boundlessness; Kek and Keket, god and goddess of darkness; and, lastly, Amun and Amunet, god and goddess of hidden power (also known as Niu and Niut, god and goddess of nothingness).[xxvi]

In the beginning the Ogdoad coalesced as the primordial matter, which the ancient Egyptians envisaged as an infinitely dark and limitless mire. The concept of primordial matter as a swampy mire was quite appropriate, being that the male deities were depicted with the heads of frogs and the female deities with the heads of snakes (both animals associated with the untamed swamps surrounding the Nile). Floating within the chaotic primordial matter was a primeval hillock, described later as the “Isle of Fire,” which symbolized the quiescent potential for creation. (The hillock was not unlike the Heliopolitan Benben or Ta-tenen found in Memphite cosmogony.) At an unspecified time, the eight primordial deities explosively interacted and separated from each other, differentiating the four aspects of chaos (primordial ocean, boundlessness, darkness, and hidden power). The power unleashed from the cataclysm churned the waters of primordial matter and exposed the hillock. With a place to stand the primordial deities gathered and combined their essences to bring into existence the solar star (thus the name Isle of Fire).[xxvii]

This act of creation is best understood as the inevitable consequence of the separation of the eight primordial deities. It seems that each aspect of chaos also possessed an intrinsic capacity for creation: the primordial ocean (Nun and Naunet) represented the antithesis of creation, and thus the measure for which creation was compared; boundlessness (Heh and Hehet) represented the heights where the sun was to be raised; darkness (Kek and Keket) represented the black space where the light from the sun would radiate; and hidden power (Amun and Amunet) represented the invisible forces behind the impetus of creation (including the life-giving air under the sun).[xxviii] When the four aspects of chaos (the Ogdoad) distinguished themselves from absolute chaos (the primordial matter), each aspect could now effectuate its intrinsic ability to create:

You [the Eight] have made from your seed a germ, and you have instilled this seed in the lotus, by pouring the seminal fluid; you have deposited in the Nun, condensed into a single form, and your inheritor takes his radiant birth under the aspect of a child (Edfu VI, 11-12, and Esna V).[xxix]

From a lotus, growing on the Isle of Fire, spawned Nefertum (the child manifestation of the sun-god Re), who, in turn, sustained creation in perpetuity.

As with all theological cosmogonies, the ancient Egyptian cosmogonies attempted to rationalize what was entirely irrational. But by relating the essential characteristics of their everyday lives (i.e. the Nile, the Nile floods, animals, etc.) to their cosmogonies, they could thus apprehend the abstract concept of the origin of the cosmos. The primordial ocean, therefore, symbolized the Egyptian’s intimate relationship with water; the primeval mound symbolized the first mounds of fertile earth that could be seen when the floodwaters of the Nile receded; the lotus that brought the sun into life represented the four elements so important to ancient Egyptian religion (the lotus grew its roots in the mud, its stem in water, and its leaves in the open air, receiving the sun’s rays).[xxx] The cosmogonies of Heliopolis, Memphis and Hermopolis demonstrated the adept imagination and inventiveness of the ancient Egyptian priests.

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[i] Pierre Grimal, Larousse World Mythology (New York: Putnam Press, 1965), 30.

[ii] George Hart, Egyptian Myths (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 9.

[iii] Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks, Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods (Ithaca: Cornell University press, 1996), 13.

[iv] Hart, 11-12.

[v] Meeks, 14.

[vi] Ibid., 15.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Hart, 11.

[ix] M. Alan Kazlev, “The Heliopolis Theology” (Internet: http://www.kheper.auz.com/topics/Egypt/Heliopolis.html).

[x] Hart, 12.

[xi] Ibid., 13.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] John Baines and Geraldine Pinch, “Egypt,” in Roy Willis, ed., World Mythology (New York: Putnam Press, 1965), 40.

[xiv] Hart, 9-10, 18.

[xv] Grimal, 33. (LWM 33)

[xvi] Kazlev, “The Memphite Theology” (Internet: http://www.kheper.auz.com/topics/Egypt/Memphis.html).

[xvii] Hart, 18.

[xviii] Kazlev, “The Memphite Theology”; Grimal, 32.

[xix] James H. Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 35.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Grimal, 32; Breasted, 34.

[xxiii] Breasted, 36.

[xxiv] Grimal, 32.

[xxv] Hart, 20.

[xxvi] Grimal, 32.

[xxvii] Hart, 21.

[xxviii] Grimal, 32.

[xxix] Kazlev, “The Hermopolis Theology” (Internet: http://www.kheper.auz.com/topics/Egypt/Hermopolis.html).

[xxx] Ibid.