The Vocabulary of Myth, Part VII

Egyptian Cosmogony…

The Primeval Hillock…

The Creator God Atum…

The Ogdoad…The Ennead

Chaos and Order

Logos and Eros…

     So much for Egyptian cosmology; now to cosmogony.  I’ve mentioned that Nun was the primordial watery abyss out of which the sun was reborn, the life-giving Nile was fed, and the world first emerged–atop, that is, what the Egyptian myths refer to as the “primeval hillock”.

The image of the primeval hillock was undoubtedly suggested by events that recur every year when the flood waters of the Nile begin to recede, bringing into view the first little peaks of mud that have been fecundated by the Nile’s fertile silt.  These peaks, emerging into the warmth of the sun, would have been the first patches of earth to sprout with life in the new year, and indeed modern Egyptians still believe that there is a special life-giving power in this putrefying slime.

In any case, it was crowning this primeval hillock that the Egyptian creator-god first appeared, and his triumphant theophany thereon was duly eternized in the Egyptian psyche.  Just as moments in time–the first day of creation; the nativity of the new year; the birth of the soul—coalesced in the ancient mythic imagination, so too, atop this creative eminence, did discrete locations in space.  In Egypt, accordingly, the high place of every local god was identified with the primeval hillock upon which the creator-god took his stance; so were the pyramids, insofar as they were the birth-chambers of souls about to be delivered into a new eternal order of being.

 

In a passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, we read that the creator-god’s name was Atum-Re (Atum when he was alone in Nun, the primordial waters; Re when he began to rule what he had made upon the primeval hillock).  The text then goes on to emphasize that Atum-Re was self-created, and that he proceeded to bring forth the rest of the gods “who are in his following”.

The earliest of these, much earlier than even Geb or Nut, were known as the Ogdoad, the Eight, which emanated from Atum-Re in four symmetrical contra-sexual pairs.  The first was Nun (the primordial watery chaos) and his consort Naunet; then came Huh, the boundless stretches of  primordial formlessness, and his consort Hauhet; then Kuk, “darkness”, and his consort, Kauket; and finally Amon, “the hidden”, representing the indefiniteness of chaos, with his consort Amaunet.

All of which is to say what the priestly author of Genesis would say almost a thousand years later:  that the “earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep”.  I don’t wish to anticipate, but the idea of creation as the imposition of “form” or “order” upon a pre-existent “formless chaos” is a ubiquitous archetype in cosmogony, present even in a biblical creation story that later Jewish and Christian theologians have piously pretended taught a doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

The Ogdoad, in fact, represent both a kind of pre-cosmogonic chaos and the original generation of the gods, just as in the Greek theogony of Hesiod, the monstrous Titans came before the shining and beautiful Olympians of Zeus’ era.  And thus, in due course, after the Eight came the Nine, the Ennead, consisting of Atum and four more contra-sexual pairs who constituted Atum’s governing council.

The Ennead were conceived by and proceeded from Atum; and here again, we observe the transition from chaos to order.  The name Atum itself means “everything”, and like To Apeiron (the Infinite), which was the Pre-Socratic Anaximander’s cosmogonic first principle, Atum is the incohation of the all.

From his universal womb proceeded Shu (air) and his consort Tefnut (moisture), who in turn gave birth to earth and sky, the god Geb and goddess Nut.  Or, in another version, Shu, the air god tore asunder earth and sky who were originally locked in an infertile pre-cosmogonic embrace; thus separated, they re-combined to give birth to the last two divine couples, the god Osiris and his consort Isis, along with their brother Seth and his consort Nephthys.

 

Here again, as we will see in due course, two universal motives present themselves:  the process whereby the contrarian elements (later identified by the Greeks as earth, water, air, and fire, and in Genesis as the “light and darkness”, and the “waters above” and the “waters below”) are originally commingled in an undifferentiated chaos, before they are separated out and set within their proper provinces; and more specifically, a theme which I call the pre-cosmogonic divorce, in which the earth and sky (the opposing male and female principles) have to be sundered before they can come together again in a fecund union.

I’ll leave you to ponder the fundamental human and psychic significances of these processes of separation and recombination, of abstraction and synthesis–the logos and eros of modern psychology–as we encounter them in other examples.

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