There are many creation myths from Ancient Egypt. The interesting thing is that ‘competing’ ones seem to have coexisted quite well. Ptah created everything. The goddess Mut did as well. So did Atum. There’s a nice little comic by Temwa on that subject.
It’s wonderful, because right from the start it short-circuits any attempt to be literal and fundamentalist in your thinking. You don’t have to insist that everything was created in exactly 8,640 minutes, and you don’t need to come up with increasingly desperate explanations about why evolution is impossible. Instead, we end up with a number of different stories teaching us truths about the universe, the gods, and creativity, and the stories need not be literal. Myths in the best sense of the word.
Atum and creation:
Atum appears in the Heliopolitan creation story:
In the beginning there was the Nuun (or Nun). An infinite primal ocean of featureless potential. Time did not exist, space did not exist, every part of the Nuun was exactly like everything else. Eventually, Atum precipitated out of the Nuun. Atum was “one thing before there were two things.”
“I was alone in the waters,
in a state of inertness,
before I found anywhere to stand or sit,
before Heliopolis had been founded”
Atum makes a place to stand, echoed by the Benben stone emerging from the yearly Nile flood.
“I am the one who came into being as Atum.
It was in Heliopolis that my phallus became erect.
I grasped hold of it, and came to orgasm.
Thus it was that the siblings, Shu and Tefnut were born.”
Atum is sometimes depicted as both male and female in appearance (see the sculpture above), and was called “the Great He-She” in one of the coffin texts. Sex differentiation had not been invented yet!
Shu and Tefnut are the first male god and female goddess. Shu means “emptiness” and is associated with air and calm. Tefnut is the goddess of ‘moisture,’ and is depicted as a wrathful lioness. Atum embraces them, giving them each a Ka, making them individuals. A Ka is passed along to all the gods, and to all the people in turn.
Shu and Tefnut’s children are the earth god Geb, and the sky goddess Nut. I’ve talked about them before. They are locked in an embrace and Shu has to separate them before the universe as we know it can begin to exist.
I’m struck by the how well this story maps out to the early history of the universe! I was reminded of this when I watched Nova’s series “The Fabric of the Cosmos.” The image of universes popping into existence as bubbles in an ocean of Nuun-like potential, the Big Bang as Atum’s orgasm (pun very much intended). The idea that everything was created by ecstatic pleasure is also powerful.
Shu as Emptiness, and Tefnut as Moisture are surprisingly apt as early gods. In the first moments of the early universe, things were solid with protoparticles- nothing like normal matter. (Normal matter is mostly ’empty space.’ If you were to coalesce all the material in the Empire State Building into a solid subatomic chunk, you’d end up with something the size of a grain of rice!) In this context, Tefnut as Moisture means matter, and Emptiness is the moderating, calming space between particles.
Geb and Nut are born when the universe expanded enough for galaxies, stars, and planets to condense. Geb being the planets, suns, etc, and Nut being Space.
Atum as totality and individuality:
Since everything comes from Atum, (s)he is also identified with completion and totality. The phrase “complete as Atum” appears in the pyramid texts. The act of differentiation from the Nuun is a declaration of “I am me!” And by providing a Ka, (the spiritual operating system), to Shu and Tefnut (s)he passes the gift of individuality, while being part of the whole, to us.
Atum is also associated with preserving individuality, even after death:
“Sun-Atum will not give you to Osiris; he will not claim your mind, he will not have control of your heart. Osiris, you cannot control him; your son cannot control him. Horus, you cannot control him, your father cannot control him.”
Even after the end of the universe:
“What is the lifetime of life?” asks Osiris.
Atum replies: “Thou art destined for millions of millions of years, a lifetime of millions of years. I have caused that he (thy successor) send out the elders. And I will destroy all that I have made. I shall survive together with Osiris, after I have assumed my forms of other snakes which men know not and gods know not.” – Book of the Dead, spell 175 “Spell for Not Dying Again”
The dead are referred to as ‘Osiris’ in the funerary literature, so it’s thought that this spell means that humans spirit can continue after the end of the universe.
Atum doesn’t get much attention these days, as far as worship goes. That seems to be common today for the ‘misfit’ gods who some might call weird or unattractive. I doubt that you can buy a statue of him/her. Still, being a deity that encompasses the entire universe, in addition to giving the gift of individuality, I think it would definitely be worthwhile to do the occasional offering and devotional!
If you’d like to read more about Atum, the article from Henadology has many additional quotes and covers more aspects. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes are taken from the Coffin Texts, some via Jeremy Naydler’s Temple of the Cosmos, some from Allen’s translation of the Pyramid Texts.
This year I’m participating in the Pagan Blog Project 2012. The object is to write a post every week for it, two for each letter of the alphabet.