The Heliopolitan Ennead: An Ancient Egyptian Myth

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One of the major groups of gods worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians, the Heliopolitan Ennead1 was chiefly worshipped at the city of Heliopolis2, in the
southern Nile Delta just north of modern Cairo. Like many similar local cults, the gods of Heliopolis spread to be worshipped on a national scale, becoming part of the official state religion and venerated throughout Egypt.

The main gods of this group are Shu3, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Seth and usually Horus: sometimes Atum is included and Horus left out. Trying to keep this ennead down to nine gods is quite tricky as both Atum and Horus take part in this myth-cycle, as do Anubis and Thoth.

This story begins with the creation of the world by Atum, who has created himself4 out of the sea of Nun or Chaos. Atum first creates Shu and his sister Tefnut, who are the air; in some way Shu seems to represent dry air or wind while Tefnut is moist or corrosive air. The method of their creation is not entirely clear: Victorian archaeologists held that they were spat forth from Atum's mouth, made from his saliva. That's the sanitised version; Egyptian accounts show Atum masturbating, often into his mouth, and spitting forth the two deities created from his semen.The latter version seems more likely; the
Egyptians were an earthy and realistic people, not prudish like the Victorians.

Shu and Tefnut in turn become mother and father to Geb, the earth and Nut,
the sky. Depictions often show Geb lying down as the Earth with his sister Nut stretched over him to form the sky, her body encrusted with stars. Their father Shu stands between them, as the air, keeping them apart. As this is Egypt and Geb and Nut are brother and sister, they also have children together: Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Seth. These gods take part in what is probably the
most famous of Egyptian mythic stories.

The Osiris Myth

In this legend, Osiris is considered to be the first Pharaoh. He ruled Egypt with a fair and even hand and instituted many of the social and civil structures that would have been familiar to any ancient Egyptian. His sister Isis sat at his right hand as The King's Great Wife, or Queen as we would say. But all was not well in the land, for Osiris' brother Seth was jealous of the Pharaoh and wanted the Two Crowns5 for himself.

Seth held a banquet in Osiris' honour. At the height of the celebrations Seth's followers brought in a long wooden box, suspiciously coffin-shaped but nobody at the banquet seemed to
notice.The box was beautifully decorated, finely gilded and inlaid with precious stones. Seth announced to the throng that anyone who could fit exactly into the box could keep it.Osiris stepped forward and climbed into the box, lying down he was a perfect fit.Seth and his followers
quickly shut the lid of the box, sealed it and made off with it. They threw it into the Nile and Seth prepared to take over the kingdom.No one tried to stop them apparently.

Isis and her sister Nephthys went searching for Osiris. They were able to turn into kites6 and so could cover a lot of
ground. They eventually found the casket entangled in a cedar tree near the city of Byblos (in modern day Lebanon).The sisters returned the casket to Egypt and hid it in the marshes while Isis looked for a place to give her husband a decent burial.

Seth found the body of his brother and in a fit of anger cut it into pieces, different accounts giving the number of pieces as anywhere between thirteen and forty-two7. When Isis returned she discovered her brother's new treachery and set about searching for the pieces of Osiris' body. Having located all but one of the pieces Isis was shown by the jackal-headed god Anubis how to bind them together with bandages, anointing them oils to make the body whole again. The missing part of the body was the penis8, for which Isis made a wooden replacement. Thus, Osiris became the first mummy. After Osiris' mummification the ibis-headed god Thoth performed magical rituals to imbue the body with new life, allowing Isis to conceive a son with Osiris before his body was entombed.

Thanks to Thoth's rituals Osiris now had eternal life in the Duat, or underworld, and became Pharaoh there. Isis gave birth to a son, Horus, who was now the rightful ruler of Egypt. Horus confronted Seth in combat, fighting him for the right to rule the Two Lands9. Though he lost his left eye in the process, Horus vanquished Seth and succeeded his father as Pharaoh.

1Ennead: a group of nine Gods 2For the sake of simplicity the Hellenised form of Egyptian place names is used in this Entry. These Greek style names are more familiar to most of us.3 The Hellenised versions of gods' names are used for familiarity4Clever chaps, these gods! 5The symbols of ancient Egyptian kingship6The bird of prey, not the thing on a string7Is this number a coincidence?8Or the generative organ as the Victorian archaeologists liked to put it9The kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt

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