Myths, Origin Story and Significance of Shu, the Ancient Egyptian God of Peace and Air
Shu was an ancient Egyptian god revered for his control of the air, wind and lions. Typically depicted in a human form holding the ankh symbol, Shu was one of the first gods created by the creator/sun god Atum-Ra (Re) in ancient Egyptian mythology. As the god of air, he was the deity who kept the earth and sky from touching each other. Just how important was Shu to the ancient Egyptians? And what were some examples of his powers?
In this article, we cast light on some ancient myths about the god Shu. It also highlights Shu’s origin story, powers, symbols and worship.
Fast Facts about Shu
God of: Air, peace, air, wind, and lions
Father: Amun-Ra (Re)
Symbols: Lion, ostrich feather, wind, air
Epithets: He who rises up; Son of Re
Greek Equivalent: the Titan Atlas
Shu’s Family Background
In the beginning, Atum – the Egyptian creator god – sat atop a primordial mound (benben) and set about creating the first Egyptian gods and goddesses. According to the myth, Atum spat out a thick substance into the vast cosmos. Out of that substance came forth Shu and his sibling/wife Tefnut (goddess of moisture). Those deities were the first two Egyptian deities created by Atum.
Shu’s family of gods and goddesses are commonly called the “Ennead of the Heliopolis” (the nine major gods in Egyptian mythology). Those gods are Atum-Ra (creator), Shu (air), Tefnut (moisture), Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth (Set), and Nephthys.
Meaning and Epithets
The word “shu” translates into “dry” or “empty” or “sunlight”. Some notable examples of Shu’s epithets are “He who Rises up” and the “Son of Ra”.
Shu and Tefnut
The relationship between Shu and Tefnut was not always smooth. At one point in time, Shu is believed to have angered Tefnut, forcing the latter to leave Egypt. To ward off attempts by the gods to bring her back, Tefnut transformed herself into a lethal cat. Kind courtesy to the cunning attitude of Thoth (the Egyptian god of wisdom and hieroglyphics), Tefnut eventually had a change of heart and returned to the land of Egypt.
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Shu and Geb
Incensed by one of Geb’s transgressions, Atum-Ra dispatched Shu (the god of air) to create an atmosphere that would separate Geb and Nut. The separation was too much for Geb to handle and he would often cry.
The first humans
According to ancient Egyptians, Shu and Tefnut’s disappearance led to the creation of the first human beings. The story states that Shu and Tefnut took a long journey into the vast waters of Nun (the infinite abyss of chaos). Fearing for their safety, Ra took out his eye (the Eye of Ra) and sent it into chaos to find his children. The eye found Shu and Tefnut, returning them home to Ra. Upon seeing his children, Ra, filled with so much emotions, wept. The ancient Egyptians believed that the first humans emerged from Ra’s tears.
Depictions and symbols
Generally, Shu was depicted as a well-built man holding the Egyptian symbol of life, the ankh. On top of his head is an ostrich feather – most likely the same feather associated with the goddess Ma’at (goddess of law and order). In Shu’s case, the ostrich feather translates into “emptiness” or “tranquility”.
Other very important symbols of Shu are clouds and Fog. Egyptians believed that clouds up in the sky were the body or bones of Shu.
How important was Shu in Ancient Egypt?
- The Egyptian god Shu was seen as a very tranquil deity. He was the deity the land of Egypt prayed to whenever they needed calm and peace. For this role, he was revered as the “Divine Pacifier”.
- Another huge role of Shu came in the form of keeping the sky (Nut) from collapsing on the earth (Geb). The Egyptians literally saw Shu as the air/atmosphere.
- Shu’s separation of the sky and earth resulted in the concept of duality – up and down; light and darkness; ugly and beautiful and; good and bad.
- In the underworld, Shu is one of the 42 judges who judge the souls of the dead.
- Being the god of the wind, Shu was generally called upon by sailors for a safe and speedy voyage on the sea.
Other Interesting Myths about Shu
- In Greek mythology, the Greek Titan Atlas is seen in similar light as the Egyptian god Shu. Atlas was one of the strongest deities in Greek mythology. For his support of the Titans during the battle (Titanomachy) against the Olympians, Atlas was punished by Zeus – chief of the gods. Atlas was asked to hold the sky/cosmos for an eternity.
- Shu was also seen as one of the gods who defended Ra from the serpent called Apopis (Apep). In this role of his, he is believed to take on the head of a lion.
- According to some accounts of the myth, Atum mated with his shadow to bring forth Shu and Tefnut. Other accounts say that he Shu and Tefnut emerged from Atum’s seamen.
- Shu’s worship was at its peak during the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050- c.1650). Some people in that era saw Shu as the creator god.
- After Shu came in between Geb and Nut, Geb took revenge on his father Shu by taking his wife/sister (Tefnut) away from him. Geb went on to marry Tefnut and made her his queen consort of Egypt.
- Shu was often associated with the Egyptian warrior god Onuris.
- The ancient Egyptians believed that Shu inherited his father’s crown and became the second pharaoh of the land of Egypt. Shu in turn was succeeded by Geb, who was then succeeded by Osiris (the god of the dead and rebirth).
- Owing to the injuries he sustained while battling the snake-demon Apopis, Shu was forced to abdicate the throne of ancient Egypt.
- Archaeological evidence about worship places and temples of Shu is a bit lacking. It’s most likely that he was widely worshiped throughout ancient Egypt. However, it has been stated that the worship of Shu peaked between the latter years of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom era.
- Pharaoh Akhenaten (possible father of Tutankhamun) and his wife Nefertiti were sometimes depicted as Shu and Tefnut respectively.