In her chapter for the Feminist Companion to the Bible
, Lana Troy contrasts the Egyptian creation stories with the Biblical version of events. In the latter, gender only becomes "relevant" when human beings appear. In Egypt, however, says Troy, "the origin of all life, the source of both creators and creation, was not asexual, or presexual, but androgynous..." (p 239). (ETA: Englund remarks that the "absolutely homogenous" origin must contain "a potential heterogenity" to produce plurality; for the Egyptians, that heterogenity was the duality of gender, which was "only latent, only exist[ing] as a predisposition". (pp 20-21). I can't help thinking of the Big Bang - the tiny random flaws which gave rise to the large-scale structures of our universe, the asymmetry between matter and anti-matter, and most of all, the four forces which split apart from each other in those first fractions of a second.)
For example: Nun, the Father of the Gods, is a vast watery container, a sort of uterus; Nut, possibly his female counterpart, is the equivalent heavenly body of water through which the sun barque travels to be reborn each morning. The male creator deity Atum masturbates, swallows his semen, and spits out his children Shu and Tefnut; his hand becomes hypostastized as a goddess in her own right, and his mouth plays the role of a womb. Atum's Eye is also a female hypostasis, his "active element", which can retrieve Shu and Tefnut and return them to him. te Velde remarks that this female aspect of Atum or re is "carried over to Tefnut", Eye of Re (p 249); he connects the Eye's retrieval of the twins to the story of the Distant goddess, in which Shu or another god must in turn retrieve the sulking Eye of Re. Troy points out that the eye is womblike, a container of water whose tears produce the human race (p 263). Even in the Theban creation, where the waters of Nun are the god's semen, his semen becomes personified as a goddess!
OTOH, in the creation story from Esna, the creatrix Mehetweret appears to be solely female. Troy suggests this was conceivable to the Egyptians where male-only reproduction was harder to imagine. ETA: But Cooney - see below - quotes from an Esna hymn which describes Neith, aka Mehetweret, as "two-thirds male and one-third female". Also at Esna, Khnum not only "moulds" people, but also both begets and gives birth to them. (ETA: Englund: "All the gods of the Heliopolitan Ennead are hypostases of the androgynous Atum" (p 11).)
To come back to Troy, while male and female are both needed for the creation, they're not equal partners. She remarks, "Just as male fertility is incidental in the Esna version of creation, at Thebes the feminine reproductive mode is largely subsumed as an attribute of the male creator." (p 258) But the female aspect of the creator can also act independently, for example, in the conflict between father and daughter when the Eye returns to discover she's been replaced (resolved by the creator placing her on his forehead as the uraeus). (p 265)
One point which Troy makes which struck me as odd, however, was her suggestion that Seth and Nephthys "appear to reflect male and female characteristics in their most absolute form... The name Nephthys, in Egyptian Nbt-Hwt
, 'Mistress of the House', suggests a personification of the womb", by parallel with Hathor's name, Hwt-Hr
, "House of Horus", "referring to her role as his mother". But, as Troy notes, Set and Nephthys are childless (can you imagine how it might complicate the mythology if they weren't
?!). Although later she is considered to be the mother of Anubis, surely Nephthys' most important role is as a sister, not a mother. te Velde points out that she is even "sometimes said to lack a vulva". (Pinch: "Perhaps because of her sham marriage, Nephthys is described in one of the Pyramid Texts [Utterance 534
] as 'an imitation woman with no vagina.'" (p 171)) te Velde remarks that she "plays those parts in mythology that women without a husband filled in the Egyptian society, ie as a wailing-woman and nursemaid." (p 253) (ETA: Pyramid Text 1154
says of the king, "Isis has conceived (šsp
) him, Nephthys has begotten (wtt
Anywho, Troy concludes by pointing out that gender is "an indissoluble link between the divine and mortal worlds", something humans share with the gods. (By contrast, in the Bible, gender is "the culmination of the creator's labours", which is also "elevating".)
ETA: Bit more from my box o' photocopies. Kathlyn M. Cooney describes five Late Period / Ptolemaic bronze figurines of pantheistic deities, which combine not just human and animal elements, but male and female
as well. "By combining numerous divine forms into a complex composite, these creative divinity figures incorporate as many magical and divine powers (b3w
) as possible into one small statuette." Other than the creator gods, androgynous deities like this are rare (the ithyphallic Mut being one example). Cooney suggests such a figure combines "male potency for creation" with "female protection, as the catalyst and vessel for healing", and perhaps manifests the primal creator god "in visible form that is accessible to worshippers". (Another example would be Atum's parents in the Late Period Memphite Theology - Ptah-Nun, and Ptah-Naunet.)
ETA: Set's birth was "the beginning of confusion (hnnw
)." :) (te Velde, p 252)
Cooney, Kathlyn M. Androgynous Bronze Figurines in Storage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. in D'Auria, Sue H. (ed). Servant of Mut : studies in honor of Richard A. Fazzini
. Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2008. pp 63-69.
Englund, Gertie. Gods as a Frame of Reference: On Thinking and Concepts of Thought in Ancient Egypt. Boreas
20 1991, pp 7-28.
Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian mythology : a guide to the gods, goddesses, and traditions of ancient Egypt
. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.
te Velde, Herman. "Relations and Conflicts between Egyptian Gods, particularly in the Divine Ennead of Heliopolis", in Struggles of Gods. Papers of the Groningen Work Group for the Study of the History of Religions
. Berlin, New York : Mouton, 1984. pp 239-257.
Troy, Lana. "Engendering Creation in Ancient Egypt: Still and Flowing Waters." in Brenner, Athalya and Carole Fontaine (eds). A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: approaches, methods and strategies
(The Feminist Companion to the Bible, vol. 11). Sheffield, England, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. pp 238-268.