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Topics: Topics: Myths
Religion and Spirituality > Myths

Early Egyptians lacked scientific knowledge to explain events such as why the Nile flooded annually, how the sun rose and set each day, and how the world was created. They used stories about gods and goddesses, called myths, to explain these natural events and to reflect their society's ideals. Religious significance separates myth from folk tales or legends as myths are considered both sacred and true.

One ancient Egyptian creation myth originating from Heliopolis relates the story of the Ennead, or group of nine gods. It tells of a time when nothing existed. The primordial waters of chaos receded and left in their wake a mound of fertile black soil on which the god Atum was seated. From himself, he created the deities Shu and Tefnut. Shu and Tefnut gave birth to Geb and Nut who gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys.

Another creation myth originated in Hermopolis, where Thoth was worshiped as the patron god. In this tradition there are eight gods, called the Ogdoad, who are made up of four male and female couples: Nun and Nunet, Amun and Amunet, Heh and Hehet, Kek and Keket. The males had the heads of frogs and the females had serpent's heads. The Hermopolis creation myth has several variations. The Cosmic Egg from which the god of creation was born was laid by a celestial goose or in some versions, the ibis, the bird associated with the god Thoth. Or a lotus flower rose from the waters and opened to reveal a child-god.

Most ancient Egyptians would not live past the mid-twenties, so they sought comfort in the idea of life continuing after death. Their observations of nature supported this belief; the sun died in the west and was reborn in the east each day and grain that appeared dead sprouted into a new plant once it was put in the ground. The myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris strengthened the Egyptians belief that they would live again.

After the creation of the world, Osiris took the throne and married his sister, Isis. He is said to have introduced agriculture, built the first temples, and set fair laws for his people. Osiris was killed by his evil brother Seth, who tore the body to pieces and scattered them. Isis was able to gather all the pieces of the body except one, which had been eaten by a fish. She bandaged them together, creating the first mummy, and used her magic to restore Osiris to life. Osiris then traveled to the underworld to be king and judge of the dead. Before Osiris was killed, Isis became pregnant with Horus, who would grow up to defeat Seth and avenge his father's death.

When the Greeks and then the Romans conquered Egypt, they found many similarities among the gods of Egypt and the Greco-Roman gods. Their gods and goddesses were guided by human emotions and stories about them were used to entertain, teach morals, and explain the unknown. Ptolemy the First introduced a god named Serapis who was intended to be a supreme deity shared by the Greek and Egyptian people in Egypt. Serapis, whose name is a combination of Osiris and the Apis Bull, was the god of fertility, healing, supreme leadership, and the afterlife.

By the Islamic period, Egyptian mythological influences were still present in religious thinking. The Muslims were concerned with a life after death in heaven as well. Although not specifically mentioned in the Qur'an, some religious scholars made references to the scales in the afterlife in which the books containing the deceased's deeds are weighed, similar to the weighing of the heart against the feather of Ma'at, or what is true and right.

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