Ancient Egypt: Cosmology and the Myth
The Myth is used to communicate knowledge. In fact, the Egyptian Myths that are handed down to us from the texts of the Pyramids, also transmit the social history of an ancient and highly cultivated people.
A testimony is provided to us by the Stone of Palermo: it is a fragment of a black stone slab, which bears the list of the kings of Egypt starting with Menes, first king of the 1st dynasty, and at least up to Neferirkara, third king of the 5th dynasty. Unfortunately the document is incomplete and its origin is unknown.
It was acquired by the Museum of Palermo following a bequest in 1877 and, in the following years, six new fragments appeared in the antiques trade, now preserved in the Cairo Museum and University College London.
In particular, the Cairo fragments list the kings who alternately wear the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt on their heads.
In the third century BC the Egyptian priest and historian Manetho, who at the request of Ptolemy I wrote the history of Egypt in Greek and the Canon of Turin, a papyrus from the time of Ramses, both present a cosmological formulation of the origins of Egypt according to which the integration of Myth with history is made by resorting to the existence of a Golden Age during which the gods reigned on earth.
Ra, with eight other gods, was part of the "Great Enneade of Heliopolis", personification of all beauty, magic and power which was soon followed by the "Little Ennead" which included Horus, Thoth, Anubis, Maat. Although there were nine gods in the Great Ennead, each was alone and always the true One, each representing an aspect of the great creator god, Atum.
O you, Great Ennead who are in On [Heliopolis] (namely) Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys; O ye sons of Atum extend his good will to his sons.
The Nine, now with one name now with another, reigned for many centuries, until the Egyptian world, first influenced by the Greeks and Romans and later by Christianity, changed definitively with the advent of the sacrificial man-god, Yeshua (Jesus), but even then it continued to be believed that the nine had simply withdrawn into a celestial kingdom or another dimension; the Ennead was gone, perhaps to return one day gloriously.
The primordial god of cosmogony is therefore Atum, the sun god.
It is the true god of Egypt, the Sun, object of adoration everywhere even if called with various attributes and names. He is Ra, the greatest of all the gods of Egypt, the Sun-God of On (Heliopolis, the oldest and most prosperous trading center of Lower Egypt). It is the Sun itself, usually depicted with the head of a falcon that supports the solar disc between two wings or between two snakes. His symbol is the obelisk.
There are two myths that both concern his old age.
The first is commonly called "The Myth of the Destruction of Men"
Ra, ruler-god of Egypt for millennia, lived in Heliopolis in a splendid palace and every day, aboard his sumptuous boat, he brought his light and its beneficial rays throughout the country; at night he went to illuminate the kingdom of darkness (Duat).
But, as the years passed, it became decrepit; "His bones were silver, his flesh gold, his hair lapis lazuli." And the respect for the sovereign on the part of the subjects failed. The great Ra, indignant, decided to punish humanity for this outrage to his majesty and convened the council of the gods. Nun, the dean, proposed that only the guilty be judged; but Ra observed that they, sensing the danger, would take refuge in the desert. It was therefore decided to act indiscriminately and, as soon as the terrible eye of Ra turned "against his blasphemers", they fled, as expected, into the desert. Ra called the goddess Hathor to him and transformed her into a ferocious lion-headed goddess of war Sekhmet, who made a horrific slaughter. But Ra only wanted to give an example, not to destroy the whole humanity; realizing that Sekhmet, thirsty for blood, was escaping her control, she sent messengers to Elephantine with the order to collect as many "gods" as they could, while she commanded her maids to prepare large quantities of beer. Mixing the juice of the berries, she flooded the fields with them "with seven thousand jugs". Sekhmet, believing it to be her blood, drank his fill, got drunk "and no longer recognized men." Humanity was saved, but Ra lost the will to reign ("My heart is tired of being with them") and decided to go up to heaven. Nun then called the goddess Nut, transformed her into a cow and Ra climbed her back on her back. It stood up on her paws, very high her: but looking down "she trembled for the height." Then Ra called the air god Shu and ordered him to support her.
By order of Ra, Sciu separated them: and Nut, pointing hands and feet, it rose high in the sky forming the celestial vault which, in this case, is the belly of a goddess.
The second myth concerns the secret name of Ra, although the protagonist is Isis, represented here as Ra's handmaid, but in reality a very cunning goddess who, in order to acquire maximum power, still had to reveal a single secret: the sacred and hidden name of Ra.
In order to get hold of the secret name of Ra, Isis took some mud, formed a very poisonous snake out of it, spat on it and squatted it on the road that old Ra usually walked. One day, as he passed by, the god was bitten by the serpent; his screams rose very high, while the poison invaded his flesh as the Nile invades Egypt. As soon as he could say a word he said: “No one has ever suffered such pain; it is not fire, yet my heart burns, it is not water, yet my body is wet with sweat and shivering ”. Isis noticed that she revealed the cause of her atrocious suffering and she said she was ready to use all the possible magic formulas against the poison; but she, she added, to give them effectiveness it was necessary that the secret name of Ra (He whose name is pronounced, will live) be inserted.
Ra rattled off all his interminable protocol titles as ruler, then all his infinite attributes as sun-god and all those as god of gods and men. He is of no use. In the end, drooling in his mouth, devoured by poison, torn by unbearable suffering, he gave in. His secret name was locked up in him and to know him Isis had to open his chest and extract it from his heart.
Having said that name, the pain ceased by magic.
To understand the meaning of the myth of the sacred name of Ra we must underline the singular importance that the Egyptians gave to the name of things; in fact, everything had its own name, the pyramids, the palaces, the scepters of the kings, the statues. The latter, then, bore the name of the one they represented deeply engraved in the stone so that they were not usurped by their successors.
Heliopolis inspired and motivated the construction of the great monuments of Giza. For the people of that time and place, theology represented the pinnacle of all knowledge. Everything that existed was god and everything was a manifestation of him.
The Texts of the Pyramids are one of the major sources of knowledge of ancient Egypt and from their reading it is possible to know the main protagonists of the Elyopolitan religion.
The pyramid of Unas became the first talking pyramid; it dates back to around 2350 BC, although many Egyptologists are of the opinion that the Pyramid Texts are much older than the earliest surviving inscriptions and that they are the oldest surviving religious writings in the world. The stonecutter's chisel engraved the first signs of the Pyramid Texts
Pharaoh did not go dead,
he went away alive.
The central theme of these Texts is the journey to the afterlife in which the king identified with Osiris ascends to heaven, but in them we also find the beautiful account of Creation, which is the first Egyptian Myth.
Before the creative act of Atum, the universe was a formless water vacuum called Nun. From this void a hill emerged, the sacred Mount of Atum.
Despite its metaphorical character, it was also believed that this element was a physical place, the concrete place of the beginning of all things. The temple of Atum in Heliopolis was probably built on this hill. Although some Egyptologists have recently argued that it was actually the raised ground of the Giza plateau.
According to others, the pyramids were intended to represent the Primordial Mountain.
The god ejaculated the universe with an explosive orgasm caused by masturbating. This emission of life-giving energy fertilized the void of Nun. rejecting its boundaries to make room for the expansion of the creation of matter.
In the original version Atum is presented as an androgynous being: the phallus represented the male principle and the hand the female one. This defines one of the cornerstones of the heliopolitan system and all Egyptian thought, the idea of the eternal eternal balance between masculine and feminine, the yin-yang polarity without which chaos would rule.
From the jet of Atum's sperm the universe began to unfold. gradually coming to manifest itself in the physical and material world in which we live, but only after having gone through numerous other stages. Two beings emerged from the creative act, Shu and Tefnut. (the dry element and the wet element).
The word Shu also means "to lift": the god Shu separates Nut from Geb by "lifting" the dome of the sky from the earth. His name is written in the shape of a feather (which the god in fact wears on his head). The "bones of Shu" are used by the pharaoh to ascend to heaven.
Tefnut, like morning dew, welcomes the solar god and for this reason it is also called "eye of Ra". Its name means "spit" and is written with the shape of a mouth from which a stream of water comes out.
From the union of Shu and Tefnut were born Geb (the god of the earth) and Nut (the goddess of the sky), to represent the elements of the visible cosmos, further manifest forms of their "parents".
Geb and Nut in turn generated two pairs of male and female twins: the famous quartet made up of Isis and Osiris and Nephthys and Seth.
They express the principle of duality: masculine-feminine, positive-negative, light-dark. Nephthys is the "dark sister" of the beneficent Isis, while Seth is the destructive force that hinders, opposing the civilizing and creative nature of Osiris.
The cosmological system continues and the Great Ennead leads to another series of gods, the Lesser Ennead . The link or "through" is Horus, the magical son of Isis and Osiris. He is considered the god of the material world, with a role that recalls that of Atum in the universe.
These three gods, which constitute the first Triad or Trinity were in a certain way the national gods, revered throughout the country, their stories can be considered the national poem of the Egyptians; poem, however, which was never written, although Plutarch handed down to us in brief the beautiful Myth.
Isis, the sister-wife, for her part, healed their illnesses, chased away evil spirits with magical arts; she founded the family, taught men to make bread and women all female arts, weaving and embroidery; in short, they invented civilization.
Thus Egypt found itself in the Golden Age. Companion and friend of Osiris was Thoth, god of the sciences, who had the task of teaching the Egyptians to read and write.
Not content with this, Osiris wanted to carry his beneficial mission also to the rest of the world and, during his absence, he left the regency of the throne to Isis.
But here is that his brother Seth, excluded from the throne as a cadet son, began to plot to usurp him, but the vigilant Isis managed to crush every maneuver.
Osiris returned from the journey, happily concluded, in the company of Thoth and Anubis (god of the dead).
The perfidious Seth, the exact opposite of Osiris, plotted a horrible deception and organized a big party in honor of his brother and during the banquet he showed the guests a magnificent casket finely decorated and studded with gems and. jokingly, he proclaims that he will give it to those who, entering it, will occupy it exactly with their own body (he had made it custom-made for Osiris, who had a gigantic stature).
Each of the diners, admired for the preciousness of the work and eager to have it, tried to enter it, but it was always too small.
In the end it was the turn of the king, whose stature was adapted to a brush, Seth, lightning, with his accomplices closed the lid, sealed it with molten lead and threw the casket into the Nile.
The terrified gods took animal forms to escape such a fate. Isis, desperate, tore off her clothes and with Thot's help she managed to escape and set off in search of the bridegroom's body to give him at least a worthy burial.
She was escorted by a terrible bodyguard, seven very poisonous scorpions; she arrived exhausted in the city of Pa-sin, but torn and exhausted as she was, she did not find hospitality perhaps also because of the disreputable following.
A woman, named USA, ostentatiously closed the door in her face so the seven scorpions consulted each other on how to avenge the insult made to the goddess, and one by one approaching their leader Tefen injected all their own into her tail. poison.
Tefen, who entered the house of the unkind woman, found her child and stung him; the power of the poison was such that the house caught fire.
Meanwhile, a merciful and humble peasant woman, Taha, moved to pity by that face hollowed out in pain, spontaneously welcomed Isis; Usa did not find a single drop of water to put out the fire and desperate, with the dying child in her arms, she wandered in search of help but no one answered her. Isis took pity on her and gave the poison the order not to act so the child was cured immediately, while a miraculous rain put out the fire; the anger of heaven had subsided and Usa, repentant, realized that she was faced with a supernatural being thus offered gifts to Isis begging for forgiveness
Isis resumed her wandering among the infinite difficulties that the evil spirits servants of Seth put on her path; arrived at Tanis she learned from some children that the chest, carried by the Nile current, had reached the open sea, desperately continued to walk and reached Byblos where the coffin had landed, stopping among the branches of a bush which, in contact with the divine body , had turned into such a splendid acacia that one day the king of Byblos, seeing the wonderful tree, ordered it to be cut down to make a column for his palace.
Upon learning of this fact, Isis turned into a swallow every night and whirled around the column, uttering excruciating cries, but no one paid any attention to her; in the end she decided to act, she sat down at the source, and when the queen's maids came to draw water she began to converse, to comb them and to offer divine perfumes, so much so that even the queen wanted to meet the stranger who, in a very short time, entered the her graces and was appointed governess of the prince; but every night, having taken her swallow aspect, she would not stop crying.
The queen, one evening, wanting to make sure that the child was asleep, entered her room and saw with horror the cradle of the child surrounded by high flames and, at the foot of the bed, seven threatening scorpions who were standing guard. She screamed in terror; the guards, the king and Isis herself came running, at whose sign the flames went out by magic. At this point the goddess revealed her identity; she explained to the queen that out of gratitude for the hospitality she had decided to make the prince immortal and so she immersed him every night in the purifying flames, but unfortunately now her spell was broken. The queen was deeply saddened and the king, honored to have given hospitality to a goddess, offered her everything she wanted. Isis, of course, asked for the great column and she herself recovered the casket,
Resuming the way back escorted by two sons of the king, she could not resist for long without opening the chest, at the appearance of her husband's face her screams of pain filled the air with such fear that one of the king's sons he went out of his mind. Worse fate fell to the other who fell struck by the look of her that Isis gave him when she realized she was being watched while she was crying on her dear face.
Left alone, Isis tried everything. She used all possible sleeve formulas in vain to call the bridegroom back to life; she transformed into a hawk, and waving her wings on him to try to give him the breath of her life, she miraculously remained fertilized.
Arriving in Egypt, she hid the coffin near Buto, among the inextricable swamps of the Delta that protected her from dangers, but by chance Seth, going hunting in the moonlight one night, found it, opened it and saw the body of his brother, in prey to the most unleashed fury, he cut it into fourteen parts which he scattered throughout Egypt.
The unhappy Isis, to the new destruction, began the pitiful search for the macabre remains and after immense efforts managed to reassemble them (except for the virile member devoured by an oxyrin, a kind of Nile sturgeon).
On the places where the remains were found, chapels were built and then temples where pilgrimages called «of the search for Osiris» were made.
Reassembled the body, Isis called to her beloved sister Neftis (innocent wife of the evil Seth), Thoth and Anubis. And with the science inherited from Osiris, they all worked together to give Osiris his life. Anubis embalmed the body and thus made the first mummy, which was wrapped and covered with talismans. On the walls of the sepulcher, in Abido, the ritual magic formulas were engraved. A statue resembling the deceased was placed next to the sarcophagus.
Osiris thus resurrected, but could no longer reign on this earth and became king of the "Site which is beyond the Western Horizon" and transformed it from a gloomy and sad place into a fertile land full of crops.
Having completed the rite of burial, Isis went back to hiding in the swamps to protect herself and above all the unborn child from Seth's vengeance. When Horus was born, his mother protected him with all love, she invoked on him the help of all the gods, taught him science, educated him in the cult of his father. Horus grew "like the rising sun, his right eye was the sun, his left eye was the moon" and he himself was a great bright hawk that streaked across the skies. And when he was old enough, Osiris returned to earth once to make a soldier out of him.
Then Horus, having gathered all the faithful of the betrayed king, set out in search of Seth to avenge his father.
The terrible battle lasted three days and three nights; Seth and his turned into the most terrible and impregnable animals to try to escape defeat; Horus mutilated Seth, but he turned into a huge black pig and swallowed the left eye of Horus, the moon ceased to shine. Eventually Seth was about to succumb, when Isis began to intrude, to beg her son for the slaughter to end, after all Seth was her brother and the husband of her beloved sister Neftis. Horus, in a fit of anger, cut off his mother's head. Thoth immediately healed her by placing a cow's head in place of hers. The battle resumed and lasted indefinitely with no winners or losers until Thoth intervened authoritatively, he healed Seth but ordered him to return the eye to Horus. The moon shone again. Then the gods also intervened and brought the question to Thoth's judgment. It was a river process that lasted eighty years. Seth accused Horus of not being the son of Osiris, having been born too long after his father's death. Horus countered by accusing Seth of bad faith and in the end the Divine Tribunal ruled that Horus had the kingdom of Lower Egypt and Seth that of Upper Egypt.
All this, according to Manetone, would have taken place 13,500 years before Menes.
Osiris and Ra are the best known gods. Divine light, and Osiris, lord of the resurrection process, are not opposites but complementary.
The epic, like the Trojan Cycle or that of the Round Table, could expand at will with the addition of other episodes and new characters but to understand its intimate meaning we must prune the story of all the marginal events.
Then the death of Osiris remains standing, the frantic search for his body by Isis which ends with the finding in the bush, then the conception of Horus and the embalming of Osiris. At this point we realize that in the story Osiris is the first man to die, killed by another man, and this was an unprecedented, unnatural fact, which had to remain absolutely unique, only a tragic accident.
The ancient Egyptians loved life so much that the concept of death, at least as we understand it, was stubbornly rejected along with the sad words that accompany it. Death is "Perpetual Life", the tomb "the Perpetual Abode", the afterlife "the Place subject to the god (Osiris)" or "the Fields of the Hereafter" where the word Beyond does not mean Heaven or Hell or Nothingness , but simply a beautiful place that is to the west and that the Sun (Ra) lights up from dusk to dawn, when it gets dark here. This is why the dead are simply called "Westerners".
Man is immortal, he cannot die. Therefore the good Isis was able to oppose the catastrophe and to re-establish the laws of nature with three fundamental means: magic, mummification and the miraculous conception.
Isis is the symbol of maternal love, of fraternal love, of conjugal dedication, she was always very dear to the people and was represented on statuettes with the child in her arms like the images of the Madonna and Child. Her cult lasted a long time both in Greece and in Rome; a testimony is the engraving of the image of Isis that Julian the Apostate (4th century AD) made on his coins.
Furthermore, Isis is the Great Sorceress who tries to secure power over Ra by revealing the secret of the vital energy that animates him, that is the hidden name of her ka. Isis the Great Mother who managed to find the scattered limbs of the body of Osiris and resurrect it to give birth to Horus.
Often Isis is represented with the symbol of the throne which is indicative of how the goddess is the personification and the very synthesis of the throne of Egypt. The assistance and protection she offers to her son Horus in assuming the role of sovereign to which she is entitled to her causes her to become the dispenser of the divine right to the throne to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. In the position of mother of Horus, Isis was also the symbolic mother of the pharaohs. It was said that the ruler of Egypt sucked the milk from the breast of his mother Isis: it is a common image, in fact, that of the goddess sitting on the throne with the little Horus on her lap, attached to her breast.
The triad Isis, Osiris and Horus represents the continuity of life, the victory over death, life beyond death and Osiris is reincarnated in Horus, born from the union with Isis after the resurrection.