Atum: The Egyptian Father the of Gods

Death is a phenomenon that is surrounded by different rituals and ceremonies in any given culture. Some see a dead person as the definite ending to that person, claiming that somebody ‘passes away’. 

On the other hand, some cultures don’t see somebody ‘pass away’ when they are considered dead, but somebody rather ‘passes on’. Either they reappear in a different form, or become relevant for a different reason.

The latter might be a belief that was held by the people of ancient Egypt. This idea is reflected in one of their most important deities. Atum represented both pre-existence and post-existence, and he is known to pass through these two phases at least every day while the sun is setting.

The Sun God Atum

There are a great number of Egyptian gods and goddesses in the religion of ancient Egypt. Yet, the Egyptian deity Atum might be the most important one out there. It’s not for nothing that 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. Egyptian mythology is interpreted and re-interpreted over and over again. 

Of course, they are not the only ones to do so, since this can be seen with many different gods and goddesses. Think, for example, about the different readings of the Bible or the Quran. Therefore, there is not just one story in relation to the Egyptian deity. 

What can be said for certain, however, is that Atum belonged to a cosmological belief system that developed in the Nile river basin. Worshiping Atum already began in the early prehistory and lasted until the late period of the Egyptian empire, somewhere around 525 BC. 

The Name Atum

Atum as the name for our god is rooted in the name 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’. Does that make sense in relation to Atum? It actually does. 

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 created the conditions for existing out of something that was considered non-existing 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. 

Indeed, what is existing without something that can be considered non-existing? They’re necessarily interdependent, because something can’t be identified as existing if it isn’t exactly clear what it means to be non-existing. In this sense, Atum represents all pre-existing, existing, and post-existing.

Worshiping Atum

Because Atum was such an important figure in Egyptian mythology, it goes without saying that 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 actually still be visited today, in the outskirts of Egypt’s capital Cairo. The site is nowadays known as Ayn Shams, where the Al-Masalla Obelisk tombs for Atum still resides.

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 feet (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 our god Atum is at the head of the Ennead. 

The Ennead? That’s basically, 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, we can say that 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 that 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-existing according to pyramid texts.

As soon as he was able to distinguish himself from the water, it would literally create an existing world because he would give birth to the first members of the Ennead. Atum got kinda 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. Not sure if that’s any more lively than water, but at least it started a process.

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 see 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 us something about a masturbation session of their beloved father, and goes like this: .

 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, while Nephtys was the goddess of the night. All 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 which links the god Atum a lot closer to the sun god Ra. 

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 which would become known as Ra. In this sense, Ra is an aspect of ancient Egypt 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 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 in 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 was ready to disappear and to 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 Atum in some depictions that are quite distant from the norm. What is for sure, is that a separation can be made in his human form 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 are derived from such texts.

Atum in His Human Form

In some depictions, Atum can be seen as a man wearing either the royal head-cloth 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 characterizing aspects. This is also believed to be one of the things that distinguishes him from any of the 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 that 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 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. 

A Continuing Story

There is still a lot more to be investigated about the mythology of Atum. His story provides us with some insights on the fundamentals of ancient Egyptian religion. It shows that there are always at least two sides of the coin, together creating the whole in which the world can be created and phenomena can be interpreted.

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