The Origin of the Egyptian Myth of Ra & Heliopolis
The Egyptian creation myths are a series of ancient accounts concerning the origins of the sun, earth, moon and stars as well as the creation of life. While there are many variations on the myth, the one originating at Heliopolis -- one of the oldest cities along the Nile -- is perhaps the most well-known. The story tells of several deities and the role each played in creation. Ra, the god of the sun, is the primary deity in the myth, but other gods, including Khnum and Nut, play a part. The Egyptian creation myth takes place over a period of seven days, similar to the Hebrew creation story.
1 Sources of the Myths
Most of the information on the Egyptian creation myths comes from pyramid texts, tomb wall decorations and writings dating back to the Old Kingdom (2780 - 2250 B.C.). The different creation stories are associated with the cult of a particular deity in the major cities -- Hermopolis, Heliopolis, Memphis and Thebes. Heliopolis was the center of worship of the sun god Ra. Ancient Egyptian religion was polytheistic, having many gods that existed in a hierarchy; Ra was believed to be the most powerful of the gods. The myths recount eight primordial deities called the Ogdoad and they make reference to a god called Atum who willed himself into being. Many gods appear in artwork from the Early Dynastic Period (3000 - 2575 B.C.), but a more important source is the non-religious literature that began to appear in the Middle Kingdom. Several works completely recount earlier creation narratives. An early educational text called "Teaching for King Merykara" from the Middle Kingdom references the Heliopolis myth, and the earliest known short story, "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor," reconceptualizes many of the gods' characteristics.
2 Commonalities Between Myths
While these differing creation stories competed to some extent, in other ways they are complementary, representing different aspects of the overall Egyptian understanding of creation. All of the stories hold that the world arose from a lifeless water of chaos, called Nu. A benben, or pyramid-shaped mound, is the first element to emerge from Nu. This was likely inspired by the flooding of the Nile each year. All of the myths also have as their central figure Ra, the sun god. Another common element is the figure of a "cosmic egg," a life-giving egg that in some myths birthed Ra and in others emerged from the chaotic Nu.
3 Atum and Mythical Theology
In Heliopolis, the creation of the world is attributed to Atum, a god so closely identified with Ra that he would become known as Atum-Ra. Atum is thought to have exited from Nu as an inert potential being until he willed himself into existence. Atum's power was so great that he was thought to have been the source of all the elements and natural forces in the universe. Atum also created the air god Shu and his sister Tefnut who would later give birth to the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. In turn, Geb and Nut have four children, each representing a force of life. Osiris is the god of fertility and regeneration; Isis is the goddess of motherhood; Set is the god of male sexuality; and Nephthys is the goddess of female sexuality. In totality, Atum's "family" of gods and goddesses represents the process by which life is made possible. Together the nine deities are called the Ennead.
4 Comparison to the Hebrew Myth
The Egyptian creation myth at Heliopolis was historically developed before the Hebrew creation story found in the Bible, but there are many similarities between the two stories. Both myths concern nature and the creation of human beings, and both take place over a period of seven days. The Egyptian story takes the Nile River as its cosmic starting place. Water is considered the primary element for life that existed before anything else. This element of the story was passed to the Hebrews and adapted to their own myth. However, while the Egyptians believed in many gods, the Hebrew story is essentially monotheistic.