In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte and his French troops conquered Egypt. They were the latest in a succession of foreign forces to dominate in the wake of the pharaohs. The expedition’s reports of countless temples, tombs and monuments lining the banks of the Nile – the remains of an ancient yet sophisticated civilisation – helped to spark a new interest in the region that has never abated. The power of ancient Egypt, at its zenith in circa 1450 BC, extended from the border with Libya in the west to the river Euphrates in the east, and from the Nubian deserts in the south to Syria in the north. The heart of the empire lay along the Nile, a haven from the surrounding deserts in which the Egyptians could nourish their own unique vision of the world. A stark duality – harsh desert versus fertile river margins – was woven deeply into Egyptian thought. Myths were expressed in Egyptian iconography, hieroglyphics and ritual, but no one version of a story was held to be authoritative. Egyptian religion was a cult of the pharaohs’ ancestors, with the attendant rituals conducted in temples open only to priests and the pharaohs themselves. Indeed, so pervasive was the presence of the gods and goddesses in every aspect of life that there was no separate word to denote religion. The gods, the world and the planets were all part of the same cosmic order, known as ma’at, which humans sought to maintain.
The myths of the Egyptians were referred to by various classical writers including the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the country in 450 BC. However, most of our knowledge comes from the discovery of abundant sacred texts and images preserved by the desert sand across Egypt. The main source for ancient Egyptian myths concerning creation, the gods and rebirth are tombs, coffins and scrolls. However, the principal purpose of the texts and images recorded there was not to recount the myths but to assist the dead on their perilous journey into the afterlife. The stories are therefore only implicit. Further insight into the Egyptians’ beliefs is given by inscriptions on temple walls, spells, prayers, incantations and hymns. In the hearts of all Egyptians was the fear that they might fail to speak the correct words that would help them reach eternity when their heart was weighed against the feather of truth before the throne of Osiris, ruler of the underworld.
The Egyptians’ understanding of the universe was limited by what they could see around them. According to ancient texts, the waters of chaos surrounded their world, which was separated into three parts: the Earth, the sky and the underworld (which was known as the ‘Duat’). The sun journeyed into the perilous Duat at night, which was why it could not be seen. Sacred hills were a common feature in creation myths. As the place where the sun first rose, or where the first divine being was created, the ‘primeval mound’ fulfilled a vital, if passive, function. Its exact location was never certain, but at each major religious site a facsimile of it was built within the temple boundaries. For this reason, pyramids have been interpreted as replicating the shape of this ‘primeval mound’.
Snakes played a rich and complex role in Egyptian myth, but most often appeared as elemental symbols of chaos and evil – reflecting the real danger posed by their deadly bite. The monstrous serpent Apophis was vanquished nightly by the mighty sun god Ra, often pictured in the form of a cat. Ra regulated the passing of hours, days, months, seasons and years. He brought order to the universe and, as an essential source of energy, made life on Earth possible. His daily emergence from the Duat symbolized the cyclical nature of creation. But Ra’s manifestation as the sun was merely one of his many aspects. He was simultaneously a creator, the ancestor of the pharaohs and an agent of daily rebirth. When Ra was angered by his human subjects’ lack of respect, the god sent his Eye, deified as the goddess Hathor, to take vengeance. Hathor’s bloodlust was only slaked eventually when Ra drugged her with vast quantities of beer! Other important deities included the cat goddess Bastet, the death god Anubis, the aforementioned Osiris, his son Horus and his arch-enemy Set, Lord of Disorder.
The Egyptians were also firm believers in magic. The goddess Isis was considered to be especially potent in the magical arts. One of her greatest coups came when she persuaded great Ra to divulge his secret name so that she held power over him. The magical tradition known as Kemetism – which is still practiced today – is a pagan movement which focuses on a thematic reconstruction of ancient Egyptian spirituality. Based upon the mythology of ancient Egypt, Kemetism is the belief that sorcery animated all creation. Through Ka, which is both the Kemetist word for sorcery and the deification of sorcery in the form of the god of the same name, creation had come into being and was sustained. Thus Ka was more ancient, and consequently more powerful, than the gods themselves. Ka was also the extraordinary means for acquiring knowledge about one’s surroundings – above all the hidden parts of them – and gaining control over them. Gods, demons and the dead could be implored, cajoled or threatened and their help could be enlisted to avert evil or achieve one’s desires. Ka was tightly bound up with writing, and most Ka practitioners gained arcane knowledge by studying ancient scriptures carefully. In dealing with the gods care was required, for they were powerful and, consequently, highly respected.
It should be no great surprise that numerous science fiction, fantasy and horror authors have made extensive use of the richness of Eygptian mythology. James Lovegrove’s Age of Ra tells of a time when the ancient Egyptian gods have defeated all the other pantheons and claimed dominion over the earth, dividing it into warring factions. Tim Powers wrote The Anubis Gates, a time-travelling fantasy novel which tells of how in 1801 the British have risen to power in Egypt and suppress the worship of the old Egyptian gods. A cabal of magicians plan to drive the British out of Egypt by bringing the gods forward in time from an age when they were still powerful and unleashing them on London, thereby destroying the British Empire. Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune draws deeply on the culture, history and myths of ancient Egypt in depicting the planet Arrakis in the far future. The cradle of the ancient Egyptian night has produced myths and legends that have been told for over five thousand years. If their continuing popularity as a source of inspiration is anything to go by, I suspect that they will be around for a good few years yet.