There exist over a thousand Egyptian deities, each with a unique and riveting story. The development of ancient Egyptian myths remains difficult to trace, especially considering most stories passed down by word of mouth for generations, are never fully recorded. While most myths are only symbolic in nature, some came about as a result of real historical events.
Here are five ancient Egyptian myths.
1. The Story of Khnum
Every year, the annual flooding of the Nile brings with it silt and clay that brings life to its surroundings. There is an ancient Egyptian myth that tells the story of Khnum, also spelled Khnemu, the ancient Egyptian god of fertility, thought to use that clay to create life.
The Egyptians believed that he created human children from the clay with the help of a potter’s wheel, before placing them into their mother’s womb. He is also said to have made the other deities himself, earning him the title of “Divine Potter”. Khnum was once the most worshipped god of all Egypt until he was later surpassed by Re (also Ra), the sun God.
2. The Story Of Osiris
The story of Osiris and Set is the only myth that was ever written down completely.
Osiris was an adored god, all over the country, which angered his brother Set. Envious, Set threw a large gathering to lure his brother, and made the guests play a game: each would have to try to enter the sarcophagus, disguised as a chest, decorated with gold sheets and symbols. Whoever could get in would get to keep it. Each tried and failed, as it would only hold Osiris. When it came to be his turn, Set hurried and locked the chest with his brother inside and tossed it into the Nile.
Osiris’s wife Isis, upon learning of her husband’s death and disappearance, could not bear it and went searching for him. After months of travel, she finally found the chest in Byblos. By that time, a tree had grown around the wooden box. Before she could free the chest, Set stole the body and this time, cut it into fourteen pieces, scattering them all around Egypt. Devastated, Isis sailed all over the country to collect each part. She only managed to find thirteen of the pieces. A fish ate the last piece before she could get to it.
Incomplete, he could not return to the mortal world. Resurrections in Ancient Egypt only worked if the body was intact and protected (which is why embalming was a crucial part of taking care of the dead). No amount of magic could bring Osiris back. He could no longer walk among humans, so he became the ruler of the Underworld (or Duat), where Egyptians believed they went when they died.
3. The Story of Re
Egyptian Gods were always depicted as half mortals, half animals, for these creatures held an important status in Ancient Egypt, and showcased the power these Gods possessed. The sun god Re (or Ra), one of the most important deities, was a man with the head of a hawk, meant to represent the sky and travel. According to the myth, Re passed through the underworld each night, where he battled demons, and then rose each morning as the sun, bringing life to the world.
The Egyptian people highly-revered him and built temples in his honor; the creator god.
4. Magical Creatures
Whether as deities, fertility symbols, or powerful totems of fear, protection, and luck, animals always played an important role in ancient Egypt. Many papyrus drawings featured animals in the homes of Egyptian people.
Cats were not worshipped as gods, but rather the vessels that the gods chose to inhabit. They were also believed to protect people’s homes, as well as bring good fortune and luck. To Egyptians, they were magical creatures, thus harming a cat was a big crime, sometimes punishable by death.
5. The Underworld
Ancient Egyptians believed that there was still life after death and that one would need their physical body in order to ensure that their soul could go on. Otherwise, the spirit could not enter the afterlife, which is why tomb preparation was a crucial ritual for Egyptians. Egyptians embalmed the bodies of the dead to preserve them as much as possible, through the process called mummification.
One of the oldest myths told was that once you died, your soul made its way to the underworld, where you stood in the Hall of Truth for Osiris to pass judgment. Weighing your heart on a golden scale against the white feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice, would determine your fate.
If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul moved on to the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian concept of heaven. If the heart was heavier than the feather, the monster Ammut ate it, and the soul ceased to exist.
Ancient Egypt is full of mysteries humans may never uncover. Like many other cultures, their myths serve to address fundamental questions about human traditions and the world. They provide us with answers through symbolism about one of the world’s oldest civilizations.