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In the Beginning: The Story of Egyptian Cosmology

A lot can change and evolve over 2,500 years, and the story of Egyptian cosmology is mind-bendingly complex. At its root, however, there is a story of creation that is as elegantly simple as it is intriguingly evocative.

In the beginning, there was chaos, and all was filled with the primordial, unformed, and unconscious waters known as Nun. From these waters, a god, Ra, willed himself into physical existence. This god was alone and contained both male and female principles. Ra spat from his mouth two children: Shu, who became God of Air and was shown in paintings wearing an ostrich feather on his head, and Tefnut, who was the Goddess of Mist and depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness. As a result, the world was ordered, and the chaos abated.

You will often see Ra in a solar barque, which he used to traverse the sky each day. On his head, he has a rearing cobra. It seems that early in the story he had to send out his eye -- at that moment he was still incompletely formed and had only the one -- in search of his children. When the eye returned, it found that, while it had been gone, Ra had grown a second one, which angered it. In order to calm the situation, Ra gave his first eye, the sun, greater power than his second, the moon. The first he also expressed as the rearing cobra that you will see on his head, and which you will also see as a protective headdress worn subsequently by the Pharaohs.

Once he had eyes and children, Ra wept, and his tears became humans. Meanwhile, Shu and Tefnut had been busy procreating, and the results of their union were Geb, the God of the Earth, and Nut, the Goddess of the Sky. Geb was depicted with a goose on his head, and is often referenced with a picture of a goose alone. Nut, on the other hand, was frequently depicted as a naked woman arched over the world. It is in this capacity that she was thought to give birth to the Sun each morning and then eat it in evening.

It was Geb and Nut who ultimately gave birth to most of the rest of the gods who figured in ancient Egyptian cosmology, but first there was a problem that had to be overcome. It seems that Ra himself, the most powerful god, was in love with Nut, and when he found out that she and Geb were involved (so to speak), he cursed her, saying that she would not be able to give birth on any day of the month. The cosmos was evolving, however, and soon enough a loophole opened up. Thoth, the God of Wisdom, who was also associated with the moon, somehow wrested from the moon 5 extra days (my favorite account has them playing a board game for time, with the moon losing badly).

The connection to the mundane world is clear: The ancient Egyptian calendar added 5 days to the end of the year to make up for the shortcomings of the lunar year. The cosmological significance, however, was even more profound. During these days -- which belonged to no month -- Nut rapidly began to have children. In short succession, she gave birth to Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys. With these, the basic cosmological population of ancient Egypt was complete, and the long drama of their conflicts and loves could begin in earnest.

The Cruelest Cut: The Tale of Two Brothers -- One of the most dramatic conflicts of Egyptian mythology took place between Osiris, the god of the Underworld, and his brother Seth, the red-headed god of violence and darkness. The story developed over centuries, adding some aspects and altering others, but one of the more complete versions goes like this:

Osiris, in his human form, was a good and wise king of the humans, bringing them civilization, agriculture, and wine with the assistance of Thoth, god of wisdom. He was so popular and successful, in fact, that he aroused the jealousy of his brother Seth, who one day tricked him into laying down in an elaborately decorated coffin. Seth then sealed the coffin with hot lead so that his brother would asphyxiate, and threw it into the Nile. When Osiris's wife Isis found out about the murder, she set out to find the coffin. The first thing she found, however, was that her husband had had a brief affair with her sister, Seth's wife, and that a child had been born as a result. Fearing Seth's anger, Isis's sister had abandoned the child in the forest. Isis immediately went out and found the boy, who had (in a manner typical of the abandoned progeny of gods) been protected by wild dogs and took him in, naming him Anubis.

Eventually the coffin was found on the shores of a distant land (one account has this as the coast of Syria) and brought back to Egypt. The unremittingly vengeful Seth, however, tracked it down, and this time tore Osiris's corpse into between 14 and 42 pieces (sources vary on this point). He threw the pieces, once again, into the river.

Isis set out untiringly once again to find the body, this time traveling the length of Egypt to retrieve the pieces. Whenever she found a piece, she engaged in an elaborate ruse to conceal from Seth what she was up to. She pretended to bury the body part on the spot, but actually concealed it about her person and transported it to her home, where Anubis, with the help of Thoth, was gradually putting his uncle back together again. In the end, she found almost all the pieces -- unfortunately Osiris's phallus had been eaten by a Nile carp and a fake one had to be substituted. Even so, the story had a happy ending: The reassembled Osiris was revived and was able to father Horus before ascending to heaven. Horus subsequently vanquished Seth in a series of trials and banished him to the desert.

The Ancient Pharaohs

The traditional starting point for ancient Egyptian history is around 3,000 B.C. Documentary evidence isn't very good this far back, and what there is tends to be subject to periodic academic reinterpretation. What we do have, however, is a tablet known as the Narmer Palette (which is now on display in room no. 43 on the ground floor of the Egyptian Museum), which shows a Pharaoh (Narmer) wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt and pondering a stack of headless prisoners. Dug up in 1894 and dated to about 3,000 B.C., this palette was long thought to represent the moment at which the two kingdoms were united under a single ruler, whose capital was Memphis. Academics being what they are, this view has fallen out of fashion in the last 20 years, and the unification is now thought to have happened some time earlier.

The Pharaohs subsequently ruled Egypt for an enormous period of time -- more than 2,700 years -- and devised precise theories for predicting the motion of the stars and planets; developed systems of taxation and government that gave them the power to construct enormous temples, complexes, and monuments that have survived until modern times, and built sophisticated irrigation systems. Their years are divided, according to their own system, into the regnal years of their rulers, and these in turn are grouped into dynasties, which are divided into three kingdoms -- Old, Middle, and New -- divided by intermediate periods.

The Old Kingdom saw the construction of some of the most enduring and best known symbols of ancient Egypt, including the great pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) on the Giza Plateau. Khufu (who reigned from 2589-2566 B.C.) was only the second ruler of the 4th dynasty (which was, a little confusingly, the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom), but building pyramids already ran in the family: His father, Sneferu, built the Bent and Red pyramids in Saqqara. Only one, very small sculpture in Khufu's likeness has ever been found. It is on display in room no. 37 of the Egyptian Museum, and the location of his mummy, if it still exists, has never been discovered. Khufu represents the height of Old Kingdom power -- subsequent rulers appear to have had less concentrated control of the country. By the 7th and 8th dynasties (2181-2125 B.C.), centralized control of Egypt had broken down, ushering in what is now called the First Intermediate Period, which separates the Old Kingdom from the Middle Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom was characterized by the expansion of Egyptian territory to include Nubia (now sunk beneath the waters of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan High Dam) and the development of a vast and sophisticated bureaucracy that was able to exert influence over most aspects of life in the country. It is the New Kingdom, however, with which most people associate the glories of ancient Egypt. While Memphis retained its ancient administrative role, Thebes, with its chief god Amoun, became the religious center of an extraordinary period in human history. Modern-day Luxor is a feast of their monuments.

Hatshepsut, who reigned between 1473 and 1458 B.C., was one of the most successful rulers of the New Kingdom, and doubly notable for having been a woman. Her spectacular mortuary temple on the West Bank of the Nile is one of the must-visits for anyone with an interest in the Pharaohs. Akhenaten is also notable, though you'll find little evidence of his reign (1352-1336 B.C.) during your tour of Luxor. This is because after only 5 years on the throne, he abruptly abandoned Thebes and its gods and attempted to found a new capital near modern Al Amarna in Middle Egypt dedicated to the worship of Aten, the sun disk. Room no. 3 of the Egyptian Museum has some of the most extraordinary, stylized depictions of this unusual man. The most famous of the Pharaohs, however, is the New Kingdom Ramses II, who reigned an incredible 66 years between 1279 and 1213 B.C. A good candidate for the position of the Old Testament Pharaoh, Ramses II also built some very well-known monuments including the temple at Abu Simbel.

Who's Who: A Guide to the Key Gods & Pharaohs

Akhenaten (1390-1352 B.C.): Though he started his reign as Amenhotep IV, this Pharaoh veered suddenly into a dramatic religious and political shift about 5 years into his reign, changing his name and establishing a new capital city at Amarna in Middle Egypt. With the new capital came a new religion, the worship of Aten. The upheaval ultimately came to nothing, as after his death, Thebes and Memphis were restored to their former positions, and religious life returned to normal.

Amun (Amun-Ra): Though worshipped as early as the 5th dynasty, it wasn't until the 11th dynasty that this god had temples dedicated to him. His importance was linked with the shift of power from the north to the Upper Egyptian city of Thebes, where he became the King of Gods. His temple at Karnak is one of the most impressive monuments in Egypt. He was usually shown as a human with a double crown, with a staff in one hand and an ankh in the other.

Anubis: The God of Mummification and Death is usually depicted as a human figure with the head of a dog or as a long-eared dog. You will see him frequently around tombs, where he protected the contents against the depredations of jackals and tomb robbers. His black coloration associates him both with the color of decaying bodies (death) and the black, fertile soil of the Nile Valley (rebirth).

Hathor: The Goddess of Joy, Music, and Love is depicted as a woman with the head of a cow, the ears of a cow, or simply with cow horns (and a sun disc) perched above her head. She was understood to be the divine mother of the reigning Pharaoh. One of her jobs was to greet and protect arrivals (the recently dead) on the West Bank of the Nile.

Hatshepsut (1473-1458 B.C.): Apparently a strong-willed and wily woman, Hatshepsut found herself widowed early and took over as regent while the heir to the throne -- her dead husband's son by a concubine -- was still too young to rule. She extended her power by having herself declared king and asserting her divine birth. She left behind a magnificent mortuary temple in Luxor and a reputation for fearsome independence that has made her a heroic figure in some modern feminist circles.

Horus: Horus was a multifaceted and almost ubiquitous god, of whom there were more than a dozen manifestations. One of these is the winged sun-disc that you will see over the doorways of many temples, which signifies that you are under the protection of the gods. Horus was also the falcon, and in this form you will see him all over the place, including on the EgyptAir logo.

Khufu (2589-2566 B.C.): The son of Sneferu, who had both the pyramids in Dahshur built, and the father of Khafre, for whom the second biggest pyramid on the Giza Plateau was built, Khufu (whom you may also see as Cheops) acquired a reputation for cruelty from a number of historians (including Herodotus), but he doesn't seem to have deserved it. As the builder of the largest of the pyramids, he is thought to have presided over a period of exceptional organization and centralized political power.

Nun: The God of the Primeval Waters, which were Ra's pre-creation dwelling. After order was imposed by Ra's act of spitting out Shu and Tefnut, Nun did not vanish but receded to the edge of being and became the abode of liminal beings. If you can spot the wavy-patterned paving at the edges of Karnak Temple, you will have found the realm of Nun surrounding the well-ordered and safe home of the god. If you see Nun depicted as a man bearing a solar boat laden with human figures, he is representing the underworld.

Nut: The Goddess of the Sky is seen arched over other figures, depicted as a naked woman. She was the protector of the gods and the mother of Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys.

Osiris: A god of wide-ranging powers over death and resurrection, as well as the underworld, Osiris was also the first king of humans. He is often shown as a mummy whose hands stick out through the white cloth wrapping his body and wearing a distinctive crown with twin plumes.

Ra: Ra is the god who gave birth to the first two other gods, Shu and Tefnut, and brought order to the original chaos. One of his main functions was to pilot the solar boat across the sky each day, and you will often see him seated in a boat with the rearing cobra of the sun on his head.

Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.): This extraordinarily long-lived Pharaoh is commonly identified as the Pharaoh responsible for the plight of the Jews in the Old Testament. He left Egypt scattered with monuments to himself, including the colossal temple at Abu Simbel, the Ramesseum, and large parts of both Luxor and Karnak temples, and outlived a series of heirs.

Seth: One of the children of Geb and Nut, Seth was the God of Violence, Darkness, and Chaos. He was driven to the desert by Horus, his nephew, after he murdered his brother Osiris.

Thoth: Depicted with the head of an ibis, or sometimes just as an ibis, Thoth was the God of Wisdom and Science. It was Thoth who helped Osiris to bring civilization to mankind, and who helped Anubis with the first rites of mummification that led to Osiris's resurrection.

Tutankhamun (1336-1327 B.C.): It is one of those little historical ironies that this little-known Pharaoh, who probably ascended to the throne as a boy of about 8 years old, is now one of the most famous of all rulers of ancient Egypt. His (almost) immediate predecessor was Akhenaten, who attempted to overthrow the established political and religious order of Egypt, and Tutankhamun's reign saw its rapid reestablishment. Though he was born in Amarna, there is some doubt as to whether he was Akhenaten's son, or perhaps his brother.

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