Atum is an important Egyptian god, often considered to be the creator god responsible for bringing the world into existence. He is considered to be the primeval deity who emerged from the chaos of the primordial waters of Nun. It was believed that Atum created himself and then created the world through his divine will.
Atum is closely associated with the sun and is sometimes considered a solar deity as well. He is usually depicted as a man wearing either a crown or a double crown, signifying his dominion over Upper and Lower Egypt. He is a symbol of cosmic order and he played a significant role in the Egyptian mythology.
Table of Contents
The Sun God Atum
Atum is considered to be among the most important Egyptian gods and goddesses. In relation to other gods, he is often referred to as the ‘Father of the Gods’.
That doesn’t make it any easier to pin down what exactly Atum represented to the people of ancient Egypt.
Atum belonged to a cosmological belief system that developed in the Nile River basin. Worshiping Atum began in the early prehistory and lasted until the late period of the Egyptian empire, somewhere around 525 BC.
The Name Atum
The name Atum comes from the Itm or just ‘ Tm ‘. Itm is believed to be the inspiration behind the name and is translated from Egyptian texts to ‘complete’ or ‘to finish’.
Atum was seen as the solitary, primordial living being, having arisen by his own force from the chaotic waters of Nun. By separating himself from the water, Atum is believed to have created the foundation of the world. He made the conditions for creation out of something that was considered non-existent by Egyptians.
This, in turn, can be related back to the ‘complete’ aspect of what his name stands for. That is, Atum created the ‘existing’, which together with the ‘non-existence’ of the waters created a world to be in.
Because Atum was such an important figure in Egyptian mythology, he was widely worshiped by ancient Egyptian people.
The majority of his worship was centered around the city of Heliopolis. The place where the Heliopolitan priests practiced their religious beliefs towards Atum can still be visited today, on the outskirts of Egypt’s capital Cairo. The site is nowadays known as Ayn Shams, where the Al-Masalla Obelisk tombs for Atum can still be found.
His place for worship was erected by Senusret I, the second of many Pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty in Egypt. It is no wonder that it still stands in its original position since it is basically a 68-foot (21-meter) high red granite obelisk that weighs about 120 tons.
To make these measurements universal, that’s about the weight of 20 African elephants. Even the forces of nature in ancient Egypt have trouble bringing that down.
Atum and the Water
Although there are different versions of the story of Atum, one of the most prominent readings in relation to Atum is the one of the priests at Heliopolis. The priests were convinced that their interpretation was the original and truly right one, which would mean that Atum is at the head of the Ennead – the collective of nine major Egyptian gods and goddesses that are regarded of the highest importance in ancient Egyptian mythology. Atum was at the very roots of the Ennead, and he created eight descendants who would remain steadily on his side. The nine gods and goddesses can be considered all the cornerstones of what is nowadays seen as Egyptian religion.
So, the Ennead contains potentially the most important set of gods and goddesses that were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians. Yet, Atum gave birth to all of them. Actually, the process of creating all the other gods in the Ennead was essential to making existence out of non-existence.
In the interpretation of the priests of the Al-Masalla Obelisk temple, Atum was a god who distinguished himself from the water that once covered the earth. Until then, he would reside in the water all by himself, in a world that was considered to be non-existent according to pyramid texts.
As soon as he was able to distinguish himself from the water, he would literally create an existing world because he would give birth to the first members of the Ennead. Atum got lonely, so he decided to start the creative cycle to provide himself with some company.
How Atum Birthed the Most Important Gods of Ancient Egyptian Religion?
From the very start of the creation process, he was accompanied by some of his first descendants. That is to say, the very process of separation resulted in the creation of his twin offspring. They go by the names of Shu and Tefnut. Respectively, these are described as dry air and moisture.
The Creation of Shu and Tefnut
Many mythological stories are quite notorious for how some of the gods were created. This is no different for the first gods of the Ennead. Shu and Tefnut are believed to have seen their first rays of light after one of either two stories, which can be traced back to the first texts as discovered in the Egypt pyramids.
The first story tells about a masturbation session of their beloved father:
“Atum created by his masturbation in Heliopolis.
He put his phallus in his fist,
to excite desire thereby.
The twins were born, Shu and Tefnut.“
Quite a controversial way indeed. The second story in which the creation of Shu and Tefnut is described is a bit less intimate but not necessarily less controversial. Shu and Tefnut are giving birth by being spat out by their father:
“O Atum-Khepri, when thou didst mount as a hill,
and didst shine as bnw of the ben (or, benben) in the temple of the “phoenix” in Heliopolis,
and didst spew out as Shu, and did spit out as Tefnut,
(then) thou didst put thine arms about them, as the arm(s) of a ka, that thy ka might be in them.“
Children of Shu and Tefnut
Shu and Tefnut formed the first male and female union and created some other children, which would become known as the Earth and the Sky. The god of the earth is known as Geb while the god responsible for the sky is known by the name Nut.
Geb and Nut together created four other children. Osiris represented fertility and death, Isis the healing of people, Set was the god of storms, and Nephtys was the goddess of the night. Together they formed the Ennead.
What is the Relationship Between Atum and Ra?
While the priests of the Al-Masalla Obelisk tombs were convinced of their creation story, there is also another reading that links the god Atum a lot closer to Ra, the sun god.
Their beginnings are close to the same. Before creation and existence, only darkness embraced the Primeval ocean. Life would sprout out of this ocean when the creator god Atum decided it was time to begin. Soon after, an island emerged from the water on which the entity formerly known as Atum could manifest itself in the world above the water.
Above the water, the creator took on a different form. A form that would become known as Ra. In this sense, Ra is an aspect of the ancient Egyptian god Atum. Therefore, sometimes Atum is referred to as Atum-Ra or Ra-Atum.
The Many Aspects of the Complete Gods
While in one story Atum itself is seen as the only complete god, the reading in relation to the sun god Ra indicates that there are several complete gods that contributed to the completion of existence. Especially in relation to the sun, these complete gods become one entity.
It seems, however, that Atum is described as a deity with a bit less importance in this story. Rather, Ra can be seen as the central figure.
Ra and His Different Evolutions
In this version, Ra appeared at dawn on the Eastern horizon in the form of a falcon and would be named Hor-akhty or Kheper. However, when the sun rises, Ra would mostly be referred to as Kheper.
Kheper is believed to be the Egyptian word for scarab, one of the animals that you would see as the first rays of light hit the deserts of ancient Egypt. The link to the rising sun is therefore rather easily made.
By midday, the sun would return to be referred to as Ra. Because the strongest sun is related to Ra, he is normally referred to as the only sun god. As soon as one could see a setting sun, Egyptians began to refer to it as Atum.
In the human form of this setting sun, Atum is depicted as an old man who has completed his life cycle and is ready to disappear and be generated for a new day. The etymology behind his name still holds since Atum represents the completion of another day, passing on into a new day. Yet, his power might be a bit less overarching in this interpretation.
What Did Atum Look Like?
Atum has been depicted differently in ancient Egypt. There seems to be some form of continuity in his depictions, although some sources also have identified depictions that are quite distant from the norm. What is for sure, is that a separation can be made between his human and his non-human form.
Representations of Atum are surprisingly rare. The largest of the rare statues of Atum is a group depicting Horemheb of the 18th Dynasty kneeling in front of Atum. But, some of the Pharaohs’ depictions as “Lord of the Two Lands” may have also been viewed as incarnations of Atum.
Yet, it is quite well possible that the staple of his representation can be led back to coffin and pyramid texts and depictions. That is to say, most of the information we have about Atum is derived from such texts.
Atum in His Human Form
In some depictions, Atum can be seen as a man wearing either the royal headcloth or a dual crown in red and white, which would represent Upper and Lower Egypt. The red part of the crown would represent Upper Egypt and the white part is a reference to Lower Egypt. This depiction mostly relates to Atum at the end of the day, during the end of his creative cycle.
In this form, his beard would be one of his most characteristic aspects. This is also believed to be one of the things that distinguishes him from Pharaohs. His beard is outward-curving at the end and decorated with alternating diagonal incised lines.
It is one of the many divine beards that play a role in Egyptian mythology. In the case of Atum, the beard ended with a curl. Yet, other male deities also wear beards which have a knot at the end. Strings that line the jaw hold his beard ‘in place’.
Atum in His Non-Human Form
While epitomized as an actual shining sun, Atum can be seen in the human form. But, as soon as the creative cycle ends, he is often depicted as a serpent, or occasionally a mongoose, lion, bull, lizard, or ape.
At that point, he is believed to be representing the thing where he originally resided: the non-existing world which is the chaos of the water. It represents a form of evolution, which is also seen when a snake ditches its old skin.
In this role, he is also sometimes depicted with a ram’s head, which is actually the form in which he most appears at the coffins of important people. It is believed that in this form he would represent both the existing and non-existing at the same time. So while an old man represents his sun form and a serpent his water form, his ram form might actually depict both.