The blog post for this week is written by Judit Blair, who has a Masters in Ancient Near Eastern religions and a PhD in Hebrew and the Old Testament, both from the University of Edinburgh. Judith is a Teaching Fellow at the Centre for Open Learning (COL) Edinburgh University and a Tutor at Glasgow University where she teaches such courses as Ancient Egypt and the Bible, Aspects of Ancient Near Easter Demonology, and Ancient Monsters. Judith is also a member of Egyptology Scotland and the EES.
In the New Kingdom, there were a number of underworld books; the main motif of these was the sun god’s daily death and rebirth. The main religious text in royal tombs was the Amduat, from the time of Thutmose I to the Amarna Period (Hornung 1982, 155). Two beautiful copies cover the walls of the tombs of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II (Schweizer 2010, 11).
The Amduat, “The Book of What is in the Netherworld”, or as the Egyptians referred to it, “Writing for the Hidden Chamber”, is a map of the underworld, and its spells help the king to achieve eternal justification (to become ỉmꜢḫw). The book describes the sun god’s nightly journey through the twelve hours of the night, which is a symbolic journey of the human soul. He is accompanied by various deities, some of whom live in the underworld, and the blessed dead (fig. 1). They number more than nine hundred along the two banks of the river. When the sun god passes by, they come alive, praise him, help him, and also protect him against the dangers that constantly threaten him. There are many demonic and monstrous beings at every hour; Ra’s progress is endangered all the time. The most dangerous of all is his archenemy, Apep (Schweizer 2010, 18–19). A being of chaos, “the figure of darkness”, he threatens creation itself (Morenz 2004, 204).
|Fig. 1: The barque of Re in the tomb of Seti I |
The sixth hour is the darkest and most dangerous time, as well as the deepest part of the underworld where the mysterious union of the sun god Ra and Osiris takes place (Schweizer 2010, 19). The vignettes for this hour depict, in the lower part, three tombs. Each of these contains parts of the solar scarab, each guarded by a fire-spitting serpent. Ra’s words, which has creative power, awakens the corpse (fig. 2). The register below, again shows the “corpse of Khepri”, this time whole. It is encircled (protected) by a five-headed snake (Hornung 1982, 155). The corpse of the sun god is at the same time the body of Osiris. At the deepest point in the journey through the underworld, Ra becomes Osiris, as his ba-soul unites with his corpse. The image of the sun god as the scarab (solar) beetle—his morning form—foreshadows the sun’s rebirth at the end of his journey (Hornung 1999, 37).
|Fig. 2: Second Hour of the Amduat |
The Amduat shows the tombs of many other deities, too, especially in the seventh and eighth hours of the night (Hornung 1982, 156). Hardly has the sun god passed through the dangers of the first six hours, when he meets Apep at the seventh hour (fig, 3). The creature tries to stop the sun barque.
|Fig. 3: Subduing Apep|
In The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (Wilkinson 2003, 220–221) Apep is listed as one of the serpent deities, the fearsome nemesis of the sun god, although Morenz (2004, 202) has pointed out that Apep was never designated as a nṯr, “god”. Apep is a being of chaos, “the embodiment of the powers of dissolution, darkness and non-being” (Wilkinson 2003, 221). Morenz (2004, 201) describes him as an “impressive supernatural figure”, an “enemy of order”, and an “anti-god”.
Apep is first attested in the Ninth Dynasty (First Intermediate Period) in a tomb inscription of the nomarch Ankhtifi of Moa’lla. In the middle of his self-presentation there is a reference to ts pn n ꜤꜢpp, “this sandbank of Apep”. His name is written phonetically with the regular snake determinative (Morenz 2004, 202). Later writings from the Coffin Texts symbolically “kill” the determinative, i.e., a knife is inserted into it just as we see several knives driven into his body in the vignette to the seventh hour of the Amduat (fig. 4).
|Fig. 4: Seventh Hour of the Amduat|
Apep is featured more frequently in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts (e.g., Spell 414) where he appears as either the enemy of Ra and/or of the dead attacking the barque of the sun god. He is a snake living in the water, which is why he appears as blue in some depictions (Morenz 2004, 203 and n. 19). Most of the evidence for his mythology comes from the New Kingdom funerary texts, including the Amduat and the Book of Gates. His narrative was popular from the Eighteenth through to the Twenty-first Dynasties. His important role in Ra’s nightly journey through the underworld is underlined by his depictions in tombs as a giant serpent encircling the entire burial chamber (Töyräänvuori 2013, 114).
As mentioned above, in the Amduat, the confrontation between Ra and Apep takes place during the seventh hour. Apep, pictured as a large serpent lying on his sandbank in front of the barque of Ra, is trying to stop the sun god and his entourage perhaps by swallowing up the water on which the barque travels (Hornung 1999, 38; Schweizer 2010, 140). The inscription accompanying the scene makes reference to his “terrifying roar” (Wilkinson 2003, 221).
It is said of Apep: “It is his (Apep’s) voice that leads the gods to him.” Similarly, in the Book of Gates, during the sixth hour we read:
One without its eyes is this snake,
without its nose and without its ears:
it breathes its screaming (hmhm.t),
it lives on its own shouting.
(Morenz 2004, 204)
Both of these texts refer to Apep as an “antisocial” and “noisy” creature who lacks “proper sensory organs” (Morenz 2004, 205).
However frightening Apep is, he cannot succeed in attacking the sun god. Ra is protected on multiple levels. There is a wall between his barque and the serpent, so he is relatively safe. Furthermore, the sun god appears on his barque encircled, and thus, protected, by the Mehen serpent. The goddess Isis and a god called the Eldest Magician stand in front of him in the prow of the barque, both using their magic against Apep. Hornung (1999, 38) and Schweizer (2010, 141) both take this god to be a form of Seth (fig. 5). Elsewhere, for example in the Book of the Dead spell 108, Seth is the one referred to as standing at the prow of the sun barque repelling Apep (Schweizer 2010, 141). This role of Seth as the defender of Ra against Apep was known before the New Kingdom, and there are several textual as well as pictorial references to it (Te Velde 1967, 99–108; Wilkinson 2003, 207).
|Fig. 5: Seth spearing Apep|
Next to Isis and the Eldest Magician/Seth, there are others who help in defeating and slaughtering Apep. The monster is bound, and the coils of his body are pierced through by several knives. The goddess Serket holds his chains at the head end, and a god, referred to as “He-above-his-knives”, binds him at the other end. Behind this deity, four goddesses holding knives in their hands are oversee the process. Their names are “She-who-binds-together”, “She-who-cuts”,” She-who-punishes” and “She-who-annihilates” (Schweizer 2010, 138). Their names reflect the fate of Apep. Although defeated and destroyed, Apep would revive and start the whole cycle anew.
At the same time as Apep is being punished in the middle register, in the one above, the enemies of Osiris have also been defeated. We see kneeling figures bound and decapitated, and others also bound and lying on the ground. Similarly to Ra, Osiris is also encircled and protected by the Mehen serpent (Hornung 1999, 38).
After the seventh hour, the sun barque starts its ascent and thus, the process of regeneration of all creation begins. At the twelfth hour, just before the sun is reborn, the barque enters the body of a huge snake from its tail end. It travels through its body to come forth from its mouth (fig. 6). During this journey, the weary Ra is transformed into Khepri, the young sun god. Nut gives birth to the rejuvenated sun god in the morning, Shu lifts his day barque into the sky, and he resumes his journey through the twelve hours of the day (Schweizer 2010, 19–20).
|Fig. 6: Twelfth Hour of the Amduat |
Hornung, Erik 1982. Conceptions of god in ancient Egypt: the one and the many. Translated by John Baines. London; Ithaca NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Cornell University Press.
Hornung, Erik 1999. The ancient Egyptian books of the afterlife. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press.
Morenz, Ludwig D. 2004. Apophis: on the origin, name, and nature of an ancient Egyptian anti-god. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 63 (3), 201–205.
Schweizer, Andreas 2010. The sungod’s journey through the netherworld: reading the ancient Egyptian Amduat. Edited by David Lorton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Te Velde, H. 1967. Seth, god of confusion: a study of his role in Egyptian mythology and religion. Translated by G. E. van Baaren-Pape. Probleme der Ägyptologie 6. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Töyräänvuori, Joanna 2013. The northwest Semitic conflict myth and Egyptian sources”, in J. Scurlock and T. H. Beal, eds. Creation and chaos. A reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf hypothesis. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.