Two important factors that shaped and facilitated the emergence of Egyptian civilisation are climate and geography. The climate around Pre-Dynastic times was moister than it is today (Murnane 1983, p. 19) which led to suitable conditions for plant and animal life to develop along the Nile and consequently to provide a rich source of food for humans to utilise. Brewer and Teeter (2007, pp. 32-33) note that the drying of the climate led to the increasing importance of agriculture and hence a settled lifestyle. This, in turn, led to the development of city-states and a unified civilisation (Brewer & Teeter 2007, p. 38).
The geography of Egypt meant the regular inundation of the Nile provided a rich source of fertile land for growing crops (and hence establishing a stable economy and the development of a civilisation). The significance of this to Egyptians is reflected in the division of the Egyptian year into three periods marked by the stages of the Nile flooding (Murnane 1983, p. 20). Contrasted with this, the desert surrounding the Nile provided a buffer against other developing civilisations. How important this was can be seen by how Egyptian society changed as a result of incursions by the Hyksos and other peoples in the Second Intermediate Period (Brewer & Teeter 2007, p. 46), spending more time defending its borders. This geography led as Murnane notes (1983, p. 23) to the Egyptian peasantry viewing Egypt as a duality, ‘Black Land’ and ‘Red Land’, Nile and desert. This dualism permeated Egyptian society and culture.2.3
The different Egyptian cosmogonies all provide an explanation for the creation of the world out of a primeval state of chaos (Ahn 2011) and many of the characteristics of that world, as well as providing a divine authority and origin. Each of the four main cosmogonies differs, however, in how the creation came about and which particular god was preeminent in the process. The Heliopolitan myths ascribe the creation to Atum through an act of masturbation which leads to a divine genealogy (Hart 1990, p. 12), while the Memphite cosmogony claimed Ptah as preceding Atum and bringing the world into being through speech (Hart 1990, p. 18). The Hermopolitan theology created a more complex primeval chaotic state, consisting of eight entities (the Ogdoad) who interacted to form creation (Hart 1990, p. 21). In the New Kingdom, Atum was promoted in importance in contrast to the Ogdoad, and believed to have created the world through an act of selfwill (Hart 1990, p. 24). In contrast to these, the Theban cosmogony specifically related the origin of humans rather than the world as a whole (Hart 1990, p. 26).
These similarities and differences can be explained by a number of factors. While the myths arose in the one culture they did not all arise at the same time. The Egyptians also considered creation an ongoing process that required new definitions (Hornung 1992, p. 40, p. 53). In different places different gods were considered more or less important and feature correspondingly in different roles of importance in the myths. Myths were often reconciled after they had become established (Hart 1990, p. 14). The various cosmogonies also established the political and religious authority that varied from place to place and during Egyptian history, such as the rise in importance of Amun as Thebes became important in the New Kingdom (Hart 1990, p. 22; Hornung 1992, p. 44).
Osiris was a god associated both with death, as lord of the underworld, (“Who dwells distant in the graveyard” as the Great Hymn to Osiris puts it (Lichtheim 1973, p. 82)) and with fertility and agriculture (“Plants sprout by his wish, Earth grows its food for him” says the Great Hymn (Lichtheim 1973, p. 82)), especially the annual inundation of the Nile (Wilkinson 2003, p. 118). The legend of Osiris tells of his conflict with his brother Seth, of his dismemberment and resurrection (“Mighty Isis who protected her brother, Who sought him without wearying” (Lichtheim 1973, p. 83)), and how the various parts of his body were dispersed to numerous locations throughout Egypt (Wilkinson 2003, p. 119). The Great Hymn to Osiris begins by listing various places associated with him (Lichtheim 1973, p. 81): “…he presides in Djedu, He is rich in sustenance in Sekhem, Lord of acclaim in Andjty, Foremost in offerings in On” and so on. His son Horus, by his sister Isis (“Received the seed, bore the heir” (Lichtheim 1973, p. 83)), eventually overcame Seth to become ruler of Egypt (Thomas 1986, p. 46) (”Placed the son on his father’s seat” (Lichtheim 1973, p. 82)). His characteristic representation is as a mummy, with a crook and flail as attributes (Wilkinson 2003, p. 120). He was also associated with the moon (Wilkinson 2003, p. 122).
A letter from the deceased to his family, based upon Silverman (1991), Taylor (2001) and O’Donoghue (1999).
Now that I have entered ‘the night of going forth to life’ and made my journey to ‘the beautiful West’ let me relate to you the nature of my journey. It is good and proper that my body has been mummified as I become divine and so that it might join with my ba, and my heart entombed with me with protective amulets and spells. Do not forget to provide offerings in my tomb, the ‘house of the ka’, for my ka and at the festivals. Also, do not forget to remember and pronounce my name in order to ensure I continue to live. In return, if there is any way for me to assist you, write to me and I will pursue your case with the tribunal of the afterlife. Here in the underworld I have travelled the nightly journey of the sun in his barque with him, until his morning rebirth. The Coffin Texts aided me through the underworld and assisted my passage. Anubis led me to the judgement of my heart which, weighed in the balance with the feather of Ma’at, was found to be lighter and free of sin, as recorded by Thoth in his book, and witnessed by Osiris. Therefore I was not condemned to perpetual torment, but am now tilling the abundant crops of the Field of Reeds.
Ahn, B 2011, Ancient Egyptian religion, part 2 – concepts of creation, God, and eternity, viewed 10 March 2012, .
Brewer, D & Teeter, E 2007, ‘A chronology and history of Egypt’, Egypt and the Egyptians, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 30-59.
Hart, G 1990, ‘Creation legends’, Egyptian myths, British Museum Publications, London, pp. 9–28.
Hornung, E 1992, ‘Origins’, Idea into image: essays on ancient Egyptian thought, Timken Publishers, New York, pp. 39-54.
Lichtheim, M 1976, ‘The great hymn to Osiris’, in M Lichtheim (ed.) Ancient Egyptian literature: The New Kingdom, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 81-86.
Murnane, WJ 1983, ‘The land and the river’, The Penguin guide to ancient Egypt, Penguin, Middlesex UK, pp. 17-24.
O’Donoghue, M 1999, ‘The ‘Letters to the Dead’ and ancient Egyptian religion’, Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology, vol. 10, pp. 87-104.
Silverman, DP 1991, ‘Divinity and deities in ancient Egypt’, in BE Schafer (ed.) Religion in ancient Egypt, Routledge, London, pp. 7-87.
Taylor, JH 2001, ‘Death and resurrection in ancient Egyptian society’, Death and the afterlife in ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, London, pp. 10-45
Thomas, AP 1986, ‘The myth of Osiris’, in Egyptian gods and myths, Shire Publications, Aylesbury, pp. 43-49.
Wilkinson, RH 2003, ‘Osiris’, in The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 118-123.