Major Events in Ancient Egyptian Mythology
Ancient Egyptian mythology and religion shaped millennia of history, encompassing tales of gods, life after death, and rituals.
From the Atum’s emergence from the vast primordial waters of chaos to the fierce conflict between Horus and Seth over the throne of Egypt, World History Edu presents eight major events or themes that are pivotal within this ancient religious framework:
Creation of the World
Different cities had various creation myths. In the Heliopolitan creation myth, the sun god Ra (or Atum) emerged from the chaotic waters of Nun and then proceeded to create the first deities and subsequently all life.
In some versions of the myth, Atum spat out or sneezed to produce the first divine pair: Shu (god of air) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture). In other interpretations, he produced them through masturbation.
From Shu and Tefnut came two more deities: Geb (the earth god) and Nut (the sky goddess). These two were initially intertwined, but Shu separated them, holding Nut above him and standing on Geb. This act created a space between the earth and the sky, giving room for creation.
And then from Geb and Nut came four more significant deities: Osiris, Isis, Set (Seth), and Nephthys. These gods play central roles in various myths, including the story of Osiris’ death and resurrection and the struggles between Osiris’ son, falcon-headed god Horus, and his brother Set.
READ MORE: 13 Creations Myths in World History
Seth’s murder of Osiris
The story of Seth’s murder of Osiris is one of the most famous and enduring myths in ancient Egyptian mythology, centering around themes of betrayal, revenge, resurrection, and the struggle for power.
According to the myths, Osiris was killed by his younger brother Seth, who was jealous of his kingship and the immense love and admiration the people of Egypt showered on Osiris. Known as the god of vegetation, Osiris introduced civilization to the people, teaching them agriculture, laws, and worship. Because of his just rule. Basically, he was beloved by everyone except his jealous brother, Seth.
Seth schemed to kill Osiris by crafting a beautiful chest (or sarcophagus) made to fit only Osiris. At a grand feast, Seth promised to gift the chest to whomever it fit perfectly. When Osiris lay down inside it, Seth and his conspirators immediately closed and sealed it, then threw it into the Nile River.
Osiris’ wife, Isis, was devastated upon hearing about her husband’s fate. She searched tirelessly for the chest. Eventually, she found it embedded in a tamarisk tree that had grown around it in the city of Byblos.
After recovering the chest and returning it to Egypt, Isis used her magical abilities to temporarily revive Osiris. During this brief reunion, Isis conceived their son, Horus.
When Seth learned that the chest had been retrieved and Osiris’ body was back in Egypt, he was furious. He stole Osiris’ body, cut it into fourteen pieces, and scattered them throughout Egypt to ensure that Osiris would never be resurrected again.
Despite the odds, Isis once again went on a quest, this time to retrieve all the pieces of her husband’s body. She managed to find and piece together thirteen of the fourteen parts (all except for his phallus, which had been eaten by a fish). With the help of other gods like Anubis, she embalmed Osiris’ body, creating the first mummy.
Though Osiris could not return to the world of the living, he was resurrected as the king of the afterlife or the Underworld, judging the souls of the deceased.
The Revenge of Horus – aka the Contendings of Horus and Seth
Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, sought to avenge his father’s death by challenging Seth. After many battles, Horus became the ruler of the living world, while Seth was banished.
The Osiris Myth as well as Horus-Seth conflict symbolizes the eternal conflict between order (Ma’at) and chaos (Isfet). It also underscores the themes of death, resurrection, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. The story had profound religious implications in ancient Egypt, influencing beliefs about death, the afterlife, and the power of the gods.
The Eye of Ra goes missing
The story of the Eye of Ra going missing is an integral part of Egyptian mythology. It’s often conflated with, or told in conjunction with, the Eye of Horus, but the two are distinct. The Eye of Ra typically represents the sun and the destructive aspect of Ra’s power, while the Eye of Horus is more protective.
At one point in time, the Eye of Ra (often represented by the goddess Tefnut but also by Sekhmet, Hathor, or Bastet in various versions) decided to distance herself from her father and the land of Egypt. She traveled to Nubia, transforming the once lush region into a desert due to her absence from Egypt.
READ MORE: Most Powerful Ancient Egyptian Goddesses
Ra was deeply distressed by the departure of his Eye. Her absence led to chaos and disorder in the world. The sun god was not only weakened by her departure but also saddened by the void she left.
To address this imbalance and bring back harmony, Ra sent the god Thoth, renowned for his wisdom and eloquence, to Nubia to retrieve his daughter. Thoth, in the guise of a baboon (a sacred animal associated with him), went to Nubia to find the Eye of Ra.
Thoth approached the distraught and angry goddess with gentleness, using persuasive words and stories to soothe her. He spoke of Ra’s immense love for her and how her absence had plunged Egypt into chaos. Through his wisdom and eloquence, Thoth was able to convince her to return to Egypt with him.
Upon their return, the waters of the Nile flooded the land, making it fertile again. Ra, overjoyed by the return of his daughter, shed tears that became humans. The Eye of Ra, once reconciled with her father, was placed on his forehead in the form of a cobra (known as the Uraeus), signifying her protective and vigilant role.
The narrative symbolizes the cyclical patterns of discord and harmony, underscoring the essential interplay between different forces in maintaining balance in the universe.
READ MORE: Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Symbols
The time when Ra’s daughter Sekhmet almost wiped out the human population
Ra sent his eye, personified as the goddess Sekhmet, to punish humanity for its rebellion. She went on a rampage, slaughtering humans, until Ra, regretting his decision, tricked her into drinking beer dyed red (which she mistook for blood), causing her to become drunk and halt her massacre.
The rampage of the Eye of Ra serves as a symbolic tale emphasizing the balance of Ma’at (order) in the universe. It shows that unchecked power and rage can lead to chaos, and underscores the necessity of restraint and balance.
READ MORE: Reasons why the Eye of Ra went on a rampage
The Sun’s Daily Journey
Another significant event in ancient Egyptian religion was Ra’s daily journey across the sky. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun god traveled across the sky in a boat (or barge), bringing light to the world. At night, he journeyed through the Underworld, facing many challenges, including the serpent Apophis, who tried to devour him. It’s believed that deities like Sekhmet and Seth rode in the boat and always came to the aid of Ra.
Ra’s ascension to the heavens
As time passed, Ra, the sun god and the first ruler of all creation, grew old. His reign on Earth was characterized by wisdom, but also by the inevitable frailties of age. As he aged, humans, whom he had created, began to plot against him, seeing his vulnerabilities.
Disheartened by the rebellion and ingratitude of humans, Ra decided to remove himself from the earthly realm. He chose to ascend to the sky, distancing himself from the world below. The divine celestial cow, often associated with the goddess Nut or Hathor, played a role in this myth.
In some versions of the story:
- Ra transformed into a celestial cow or rode upon one to rise into the heavens.
- As he ascended, various deities and beings accompanied him, creating the various celestial bodies. The tears he shed during his ascension became stars.
- Nut, the sky goddess, is often described as arching her body over the Earth, becoming the firmament and cradling Ra in her midst.
This ascension marked the beginning of a new cosmic order. While Ra would no longer rule directly over the Earth, he continued his daily journey across the sky, symbolized by the sun’s movement. Every morning, he would be reborn at dawn, traverse the sky, and then descend into the underworld at dusk, before being reborn again – an eternal cycle of death and rebirth.
READ MORE: Importance of Ma’at in Ancient Egypt
The Tale of Two Brothers
The story of Bata and Anpu, often called “The Tale of Two Brothers,” is one of the oldest known narratives from ancient Egypt. It offers a rich tapestry of human emotions, divine intervention, and symbolic transformations.
In the myth, Anpu (or Anubis) and Bata are brothers that live together in relatively harmony. Anpu is married, and one day, while Bata is working in the fields, Anpu’s wife attempts to seduce him. Bata, being loyal and righteous, refuses her advances.
Angered and embarrassed by the rejection, Anpu’s wife decides to accuse Bata of trying to seduce her. When Anpu returns home, she plays the victim, falsely claiming that Bata tried to assault her. In her deceit, she uses physical harm upon herself to make her story more believable.
Anpu, enraged by the supposed betrayal of his brother, sets out to kill Bata. However, the god Ra intervenes by creating a body of water between the two brothers, preventing Anpu from reaching Bata.
Bata then explains his innocence and even takes an oath by cutting off his genitals and throwing them into the water, where they’re eaten by fish. This act is a definitive proof of his sincerity and also symbolizes his renunciation of earthly desires.
To protect himself from further harm, Bata undergoes a series of transformations. First, he becomes a bull – an animal revered in ancient Egyptian culture as a symbol of strength and fertility.
However, Anpu’s wife, still filled with lust and spite, persuades her husband to sacrifice the bull. Upon the bull’s death, two drops of Bata’s blood fall to the ground, from which two trees miraculously grow, marking Bata’s transformation from a bull to a tree. This shift underscores themes of rebirth, resilience, and eternal life.
The tale further unfolds with a series of magical and divine occurrences, leading to the eventual death of Anpu’s wife and the restoration of Bata to his human form. The two brothers reconcile, and Bata ascends to the heavens, becoming the constellation of the “Lone Star.”
The story is rich in its layers of symbolism, touching on themes of loyalty, deceit, the vindictive nature of lust, the protective power of the divine, and the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It showcases the ancient Egyptians’ intricate understanding of human nature and their profound belief in the power of transformation and redemption.