Egyptian Concept of Creation

(from Egypt Uncovered by Vivian Davies and Renee Friedman)

To the Egyptians, creation was not a single, isolated event but an ongoing cycle of renewal to be repeated daily with the rising of the sun, as the sun god emerged anew from the mound of creation victorious over the demons of the netherworld who sought to destroy him each night. Chief among these demons and agents of chaos was the giant snake Apep, who tried to hinder the progress of the sun boat with the coils of his writhing body. Every god played a part in warding off Apep's attacks throughout the night and ensuring creation each morning. Only by constant and correct observance of their cults could the creative cycle be guaranteed and the forces of chaos kept at bay.

The cult of the gods took place in temples that were carefully designed to mirror the cosmos at that first perfect moment of creation, and the rituals that took place within them were a metaphor of the process of creation itself. At the height of Egypt's greatness in the New Kingdom (15501069 BC), temples were built to embody creation on a grand scale. At the front of each temple stood a soaring monumental gateway, called a pylon. Aligned so that the sun rose or set between its twin towers, it represented the horizon. On each tower scenes of pharaoh overwhelming his enemies served as powerful sentinels, conferring protection against the imperfection and threats of the exterior world. Each morning just before dawn, priests, ritually purified, shaven of all hair and clad only in the purest linen, entered through this gate into the festival courtyard, open to the sky, decorated with the kings' exploits undertaken on the god's behalf. From here, as the floor level rose and the ceilings became lower, the priests travelled from the outermost edges of the ordered world to the inner core of creation — the mound.

One ramp led up to a semi-lit hall filled with columns shaped like the papyrus and lotus plants which grew in the primeval marsh surrounding the rising mound. Then another took them into the inner sanctum and the pitch blackness of the holy of holies, the pinnacle of creation. Here in his shrine the deity rested in his cult statue in the pure silence and darkness of pre-existence. Breaking the seal on the door to this sanctuary, the priests entered the holy place chanting prayers and burning incense. As the sun rose the god was roused and the cosmos was reborn.

On the temple walls, every need of the god was shown attended to by the king. It was the king who bathed, adorned, and anointed the statue of the god. It was the king, too, who laid out sumptuous feasts for the god's nourishment. In reality a cadre of priests enacted the rituals in the name of their master, declaring to the god, "It is the king who sends me". This was not a matter of self-aggrandizement on the part of the king, but a necessary part of the maintenance of the Egyptian world. The king was the representative of mankind. Offering the fruits of the earth to the god enabled the god to reciprocate by offering important things back to the king, such as years of eternity upon the throne, stability in government, strength and success. In this fashion the offerings would reconfirm the creation of the world as the Egyptians knew it.

Unlike a modern house of worship, Egyptian temples functioned more like machines engineered to keep the cycle of the universe in motion. This was a technical operation that required a qualified staff and specialized knowledge, thereby excluding the majority of the population, in order to ensure that the crucial task of survival was never impaired. The fact that the people couldn't go in, however, did not mean that the god couldn't come out.


from Vivian Davies and Renee Friedman, Egypt Uncovered (NY: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998), pp. 154-159.


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Last modified on September 18, 2008 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)