At first glance, Egyptian mythology seems almost impossible to tackle. There’s a myriad of creation myths, legends and tales – some which complement or contradict each other. Then there’s the various mythology of different periods (for example Old Kingdom vs. New Kingdom literature) – some traits, characters, Deities, symbolism, etc. are preserved, others completely changed or interchanged, transformed, given new meaning and sometimes completely left out.
This is quite intimidating at time, although it need not be. First, step out of the ‘logic – the comfort zone’.
Myth, like logic, is a word derived from the Greek world. The Egyptians had no equivalent word or concept, and they did not feel the need to separate their thoughts into ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Nor, for that matter, did they have the words for ‘religion’ or ‘philosophy’. (1)
There is also to consider the various social, economical and political changes Egypt has undergone since pre-dynastic times up to Roman occupation. This is where the importance of knowing a bit about Egypt’s history comes into play. There are of course various aspects to consider, such as:
-different Pharaohs (even from the same dynasty) have had various Deities as patrons so it made sense that the cult of that particular Deity had priority.
- different nomes had different governing Deities, with different mythology, at times even clashing with Deities/mythology of neighbouring nomes.
- along Egypt’s history mythology has gone through various changes such as: the same Deity being given attributes of another Deity, sometimes Deities were merged together to form a Deity which would have attributes of both Deities merged (for example like Atum-Re or the later graeco-egyptian Serapis). This basically meant seeing a Deity under different forms or manifestations, governing different aspects or domains. This particularly poses difficulty when trying to figure out Deities like Hathor/Sekhmet/Bast – especially when different myths either fuses one with the other or presents them as completely different Goddesses, at times even with little in common, other than titles and attributes such as ‘Great Healer’ or ‘Solar Eye’. And another note – consider the changes through which Aset/Isis has gone through from pre-dynastic times all the way to graeco-roman times.
As for creation myths, there were three main creation mythologies:
The Helipolitan Scheme – the creation mythology of Heliopolis – where Atum is the Creator Deity, self created and self creating – he rises from the primeval waters of Nun and creates other Gods and Goddesses through self copulation or spittle. (note the symbolical importance of bodily fluids, pertinent to performing certain magical acts)
The Hermopolitan Scheme – the creation mythology of Hermopolis – where Thoth is the primary Creator Deity, he creates through speech, through the Divine Word / and where the Sun God is ‘born’ either from an egg or a lotus blossom which sprouts forth from the waters of Nun.
The Memphite Scheme – the creation mythology of Memphis – where Ptah is One, and who creates through thought (‘speech of the mind’)
These aren’t the only creation mythologies, just the main ones. Another well known example is Elephantine with the creator God Khnum.
And when we look at the various other myths there is much diversity in attributes and roles given to any particular Deity. The important thing is to get familiarized with as many of them as possible, doing a bit of serious reading on the history of ancient Egypt (the longer back the better – all the way to pre-dynastic times) and always keeping in mind the symbolism and ‘reading between the lines’ and recognizing/understanding metaphors and allegories.
For example I don’t take the *ahem* dealings of Horus and Seth ad literam. Instead I read and understand the whole thing as a way of proving power and dominion over the other. I understand Seth’s virility not channelled into fertility and procreation but rather as showing power and dominion (or rather the quest for dominion). Or Isis’ cunning trickery of gaining Ra’s secret name in order to acquire (even more) magical powers as a feat of intelligence and resourcefulness. I don’t judge these events as ‘a puny mortal’ because Gods don’t adhere to our ethics (in fact many times it’s the other way around, and of course what They allow Themselves to do will not be allowed for us ;) ).
Footnotes and recommended reading:
(1) The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley (pg.2)
(2) for more insight on this topic (and much much more, check this site)