The rich panorama of ancient Egyptian mythology has survived through tomb paintings, temple inscriptions, and papyri. This account begins with the creation legends of Heliopolis, Memphis, and Hermopolis and illustrates the intellectual struggles of the Egyptians to explain the beginning of the world. The myths that follow range from stories about the gods—the murder of Osiris and vengeance of Horus, Isis and the seven scorpions, Sakhmet and the virtual slaughter of mankind—to fables such as the Shipwrecked Sailor and the Enchanted Island. Through these delightful and often amusing tales, we can appreciate more fully the beliefs and imagination of the ancient Egyptians.
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Egyptian mythology is a rich and perplexing panorama of visual and written images. In an attempt to clarify some aspects, I have divided the subject into two broad categories. The most manageable material is quite straightforward and includes the tales and legends involving escapism to exotic lands, amusement at the exploits of magicians and the apotheosis of historical heroes.
The other category is what I venture to call 'myths of the higher consciousness'. My personal view is that these formed an active, integral element in ancient Egyptian government and society; they are far from being a series of fossilised mémoires on gods and goddesses. Those concerning the origins of the cosmos, the concept of lawful succession to the throne and the vision of a regenerative journey made by the sun at night, stand out as the projections of the ancient Egyptians' thoughts, hopes and fears about the human condition and the troubles experienced in the course of one lifetime.
Investigation of natural phenomena and confrontation with the 'mysterious' mattered deeply to the ancient Egyptians, even if there was not always an explanation and if the result was occasionally incomprehensible and contra dictory. Consequently, metaphysical myths of creation and magical formulae directed against the forces of chaos--manifest in the threat of the underworld snake Apophis--signify the ancient Egyptian quest for ultimate knowledge. This is echoed in what has been called the modern dilemma:
'We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time...'(from T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding)
But it is not only on modern times that Egyptian myths have left their mark. Throughout the last two and a half thousand years, foreign visitors to the Nile Valley have recorded their reactions to the vast pantheon of deities inscribed on tombs, temples and papyri. Herodotus, the fifth-century Greek historian and ethnographer, gives some accounts of Egyptian religion but is respectfully reticent about divulging sacred rites:
I have held converse with the priests of Hephaistos [Ptah] at Memphis. I went to Thebes and to Heliopolis intent on discovering if the information I gathered in Memphis would be verified, since the Heliopolitans are regarded as the wisest of Egyptians. As to their explanations of the `sacred', I am not keen on fully disclosing that knowledge except perhaps in giving the names of certain rituals which I consider to be already `common currency' among men.(Histories II, chapter 3)
In a similar vein are the comments by the entertaining novelist Apuleius, who has his hero Lucius undergo degrading adventures while in the form of an ass, and who Isis transforms as an initiate into her mysteries. In contrast, however, the xenophobic Roman satirist Juvenal openly mocks Egyptian beliefs and scorns the cult of Isis. Even ordinary tourists in late antiquity have left their impressions (unforgivably as graffiti) about Egypt's complex mythology: 'I, Dioskorammon, looked upon this nonsense and found it bewildering!' (scratched on the wall of the tomb of Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings).
But Egyptian myths, though seemingly outlandish to some, have survived because the society out of which they originated considered them crucial to the creation of a view of the world. Scribes, priests and story-tellers transmitted myths to explain aetiological phenomena, to provide data for the continuity of existence in the afterlife and to exhibit the versatility of their imaginations. So whether as part of a religious quest or anthropological investigation or whether for an adventure into the surreal, the myths and legends of ancient Egypt leave us richer for their speculation and imagery.