Tefnut: Egyptian Goddess of Moisture and Rain

Tefnut is an ancient Egyptian goddess associated with moisture, rain, and water. She is part of the Heliopolitan Ennead, a group of nine deities worshipped primarily in the ancient city of Heliopolis.

Tefnut is usually depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness. She is considered one of the primordial deities and is believed to represent the concept of moisture or the watery aspects of creation.

In Egyptian cosmology, it was believed that Tefnut and her twin brother Shu (the god of air) were created by the god Atum through a process of self-creation. Tefnut and Shu were also seen as the parents of Nut (the sky goddess) and Geb (the earth god). In this familial context, Tefnut’s moisture was associated with the rain that nourished the earth, and her separation from Shu was believed to be the act that created the space between the sky and the earth.

So, Tefnut played an essential role in the Egyptian cosmogony, representing a fundamental aspect of the natural world and the creation myth of ancient Egypt.

What is Tefnut the Goddess Of?

Though often remarked as a lunar goddess, Tefnut was most prominently an Egyptian cat goddess associated with moist air, humidity, rain, and dew.

This version of her represented peace, fertility, and sprouting plants during a good harvest. Such things were, obviously, vital for the Earth’s growth and daily life.

On the other hand, thanks to her leonine form, Tefnut was also associated with the wrathful aspect of life, including grudges and anger. In most cases, her absence amplified these traits and gave rise to hazards such as droughts, heat waves, and bad harvests.

Besides sprouting plants and boiling water, Tefnut was also associated with maintaining cosmic harmony, as her ancient and divine genealogy placed her above other deities.

READ MORE: Who Invented Water? History of the Water Molecule

As a result, this ancient Egyptian goddess was tasked with regulating the waters of ancient Egypt and ensuring the planet returned its bounty to the people and maintained peace throughout the country.

What are Tefnut’s Powers?

As a lioness goddess often manifesting herself in human form, the ancient Egyptians probably marveled at her divine power of controlling the Earth and its waters.

Tefnut could’ve qualified as a sky goddess, but since that position was occupied by none other than Horus and Nut, she chose to be the goddess of the rain. As a result, her most significant power is rainfall.

Since most of it was wrapped by a ring of fire (thanks to the country’s searing hot deserts), the rain was a revered natural gift. Tefnut brought down the rains upon Egypt whenever she wanted. This led to temporarily cooler temperatures which you would’ve undoubtedly enjoyed after sweating yourself to death during a sweltering Egyptian day.

Most importantly, Tefnut’s rainfalls contributed to the growth of the Nile Delta. The Nile River was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians knew their civilization would stand the test of time as long as the Nile kept flowing.

As a result, Tefnut was in charge of the life of ancient Egypt itself.

Are Tefnut and Sekhmet the Same?

One question that is often asked is if Tefnut and Sekhmet are the same deities.

Both of these goddesses were generally depicted as lionesses in the arts of ancient Egypt. Sekhmet was the Egyptian goddess of war and the defender of Ra. As a result, she was often called the daughter of Ra or even the ‘Eye of Ra.’

The confusion is understandable as Tefnut was also associated with being the Eye due to her being the apple of his Eye.

Sekhmet wields the Uraeus (the upright form of a cobra) as her authoritative sigil. In contrast, Tefnut primarily bears the Ankh, which aligns her with her natural powers.

However, the fun part is that both had a distinguished look in Egyptian iconography. Sekhmet was portrayed as a lioness goddess with rounded ears. At the same time, Tefnut was a lioness with pointed ears sprouting from her low flat headdress.

Tefnut’s Appearance

Tefnut being depicted as a full human is rare, but she is portrayed in a semi-anthropomorphic form.

Tefnut appears in her lion form, standing upright and wearing a low flat headdress. A solar disk is attached to the top of her head, flanked by two cobras staring in opposite directions. The solar disk is colored orange or bright red.

Tefnut also wields a staff in her right hand and the Ankh in her left.

In some depictions, Tefnut appears as a lion-headed serpent in instances where her wrathful aspect as a goddess is underscored. In others, Tefnut is shown in a double-headed form where the other head is none other than Shu, the Egyptian god of dry wind.

In general, Tefnut was also considerably associated with lionesses found on the borders of the desert. Therefore, her leonine appearance has strong roots within wild felines hailing from the scorching sands.

READ MORE: Cat Gods: 7 Feline Deities from Ancient Cultures

Symbols of Tefnut

Tefnut’s signs and symbols are also the ones integrated into her appearance.

Lionesses were one of her symbols, as they were considered apex predators. Her wrathful personality and raging mannerisms were associated with the desert heat, where lions and their pride were found in plenty around its borders.

This symbolism explores the anger-ridden side of her that came to life when the goddess of moisture stripped the people of their right to experience rainfall.

In contrast, the Ankh, as her symbol, represents life’s vitality. This aligns with the Nile since her powers symbolize the bounties brought about by the evergreen river.

The solar disk on the top of her head symbolized command and power as she was also the Eye of Ra, dispatched to protect him against his enemies. The cobras flanking the solar disk were the Uraeus, the celestial signs of protection and defense.

Since Tefnut was the goddess of moisture, bodies of fresh water and oases also symbolized her giving nature amid desert extremes.

READ MORE: Water Gods and Sea Gods From Around the World

Tefnut’s Family

The goddess of rain has a family riddled with stars. Her father is Ra-Atum, a being formed by the sunshine from Ra and the grace of Atum. However, in some myths, her father takes on a more individual form where it is either Ra or Atum.

Though the identity of her father is disputed, one thing that remains certain is that she was born out of parthenogenesis; the process of a human egg developing without fertilization. As a result, Tefnut doesn’t have a mother.

What she does have, though, are tons of siblings that boost her bloodline. For instance, one of her brothers is also her twin, Shu, the Egyptian god of dry wind. Besides her husband-brother Shu, she had one other brother, Anhur, the ancient Egyptian war god.

Tefnut’s sisters also included a list of other goddesses who were pretty snazzy. Hathor, the goddess of music and love, was one of them. Satet, the goddess of hunting, was one. Bastet and Mafdet were her sisters, too, and shared many of her appearance characteristics.

Finally, Sekhmet (a huge deal in the pantheon of ancient Egypt, by the way) was her sister.

Tefnut’s offsprings were Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the goddess of the night sky. Through an epic incest stunt pulled off by Geb, Tefnut and her own son ended up becoming consorts. The more meaningful connection, however, was between Shu and Tefnut, the two siblings.

Shu and Tefnut’s grandchildren comprised a robust list of gods and goddesses. This included Nephthys, Osiris, Isis, and the villainous Set. Hence, mommy Tefnut was also the great-grandmother of Horus, a paramount god in Egyptian mythology.

Where Did Tefnut Come From?

Since Tefnut is the product of parthenogenesis, her origins might be more complex than you might think.

Tefnut didn’t have a mother, and she seemingly burst into life due to natural events around her. As a result, her origins are highlighted differently in every myth it is mentioned in.

The Sneeze

Mentioned in the Heliopolitan creation myth, the ancient Egyptian goddess of rain was born out of a sneeze.

It is stated in ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts that Ra-Atum once sneezed during the creation of the planet. The particles from his nose flew into the desert, where Tefnut and her twin husband-brother Shu were born.

In other myths, it was not Atum’s sneeze that caused his own children to be born. In fact, it is mentioned that Atum actually spat into the desert from his heavenly throne. It was from that stinky puddle of saliva that Tefnut and her brother Shu were born.

The Seeds in the Sand

Another myth highlighting Tefnut’s origins that was popular among ancient Egyptians includes pleasuring oneself.

It is thought that Atum was feeling it one day, so he flew down to Earth and started traversing the hot deserts of Egypt because he was cool that way. When the god was tired, he sat down to rest by the city of Iunu.

It was here that he decided to pull out his manhood and spill his seeds in the sand.

Once he was done masturbating, Tefnut and Shu rose from the accumulation of Atum’s population pudding.

Geb and Tefnut

The Egyptian god of earthquakes, Geb, literally lived up to his name when he made the Earth shake after challenging Shu, his own father, after a fit of jealousy.

Angered by Geb’s advances, Shu took to the skies and stood between the Earth and the heavens so Geb couldn’t ascend above. Geb, however, wouldn’t give up. Since he was alone on Earth with Shu’s consort (and his own mother), Tefnut, he hatched a great plan to swindle the goddess of moist air from him.

Tefnut was eventually taken as her twin brother Shu’s chief queen consort as Geb continued to strike against the air god of the ancient Egyptian religion.

This entire situation is a poetic perspective of the Egyptians’ world. Shu was the explanation for the atmosphere, and he was the division between the sky (Nut) and Earth (Geb), bringing this entire thing full circle.

Tefnut and Nut 

Though Tefnut and Geb’s relationship was unorthodox, the same can’t be said for her and her daughter.

Tefnut and Nut worked together to ensure a good harvest was always gifted to the people of Egypt. This dynamic mother-and-daughter duo brought down the rains upon the ancient cities and ensured the Nile kept flowing no matter what.

In some ways, Nut is an extension of Tefnut. Even though she wasn’t depicted as a leonine deity with anger issues, she was portrayed in her human form with stars covering her entire body.

Nut was more inclined towards being a lunar goddess dealing with the twinkling night sky. In contrast, the goddess Tefnut was more of a solar goddess.

One thing was for certain though; both of these goddesses were integral to the weather and atmosphere of ancient Egypt and their names were commonly invoked.

The Eye of Ra

Among the tongues of Egyptian gods, there is perhaps no title more venerated than the ‘Eye of Ra.’ In the Egyptian religion, the ‘Eye of Ra’ was the female counterpart of the sun god himself and the carrier of his divine will.

This meant that the title was deserved only by deities who were well qualified to be Ra’s bodyguards. This was fair because the sun god had to be constantly wary of enemies trying to take advantage of loose ends. The Eye could easily tackle issues like this and save Ra from public humiliation.

The title was associated with many – including Tefnut – in the Egyptian religion. Other deities with the label include Sekhmet, Bastet, Isis, and Mut. One of the requirements was that the gods had to have a sort of polarity to them.

For example, all of the goddesses mentioned represent the two eyes of Ra in some form through their duties. Sekhmet might’ve kept watch over treating diseases, but she could also be responsible for inflicting them. Tefnut was in charge of moisture, but she could strip the lands of it.

Tefnut was also both a lunar and a solar goddess since moisture had to be prevalent at all times. This added to her value as the Eye of Ra because her father was a manifestation of the sun god, making her his perfectly legal daughter.

Tefnut and the Creation of Humans

Tefnut has a far more profound connection with human beings than you think. It comes through one specific creation myth where one event revolving around her actually leads to the formation of all human beings.

It takes place way back when Tefnut wasn’t actually appointed to be the Eye of Ra, and the creator god resided in the drowning abyss (Nu) preceding time. Ra-Atum (Tefnut’s father) was simply chilling in the great void when he suddenly heard that Shu and Tefnut ran for the hills from the abyss right after their birth.

Ra-Atum (let’s shorten that to Ra) started sweating from his forehead, dreading his children’s absence. So he dispatched his Eye out into the abyss to search for the children and bring them back. Being extremely efficient at her job, the Eye wasted no time sightseeing and found Tefnut and Shu a few kilometers away beyond the void.

Back home, Ra was crying his eyes out (pun intended), waiting for his children to arrive. Once the goddess of moisture and the air god arrived, Ra’s tears turned to ones of happiness, and he hugged his children super hard.

To ensure Tefnut’s constant presence within his confines, Ra appointed her as the new Eye and Shu as the god of wind on Earth so both his children could live consecrated lives.

And the happy tears he shed when he was delighted to see his children return turned into actual human beings when they fell and became the lovely people of ancient Egypt.

Tefnut, as the Goddess of Heat

Tefnut has been associated with moisture, rain, and dew for the better part of her internet existence. But there is a side to goddess Tefnut that many fail to notice as it differs significantly from what she is in charge of.

Tefnut is also the goddess of scorching heat and droughts, as she can take away the moisture within the air whenever she wants.

Her vitalizing absence brought out the negative side of the sun, as her heat waves could destroy crops and wreak havoc upon the farmers of Egypt. The intense heat could also affect the smaller bodies of water as they would dry out more quickly.

Without her moisture and water, Egypt would scorch ceaselessly under the sun. With this, her duality becomes apparent. She was a goddess in charge of the sun, the drought, the moon, and the moisture.

Her rageful personality and the consequences of her actions are highlighted in a myth that involves Tefnut going all out.

Tefnut Flees to Nubia

Tefnut had served Ra as his Eye for many years. You could only imagine her disappointment when the sun god replaced her as the Eye with her sister, Bastet. He did this to reward one of her recent heroic deeds, and this caused Tefnut to explode in utter rage and anger.

She cursed Ra, turned into her lion form, and fled to the land of Nubia just south of Egypt. Not only did she escape, but she also made sure to strip Egypt of moisture and damned them to countless years without rain.

This, as you might’ve imagined, caused severe problems in the lifestyle of the Egyptians. Crops started to dry out due to the Nile heating up abnormally, cattle began to die, and people began to starve. More importantly, Ra began to receive fewer prayers every passing day.

But sometimes, even the creator god can’t handle the mood swings of his teenage girl.

READ MORE: 9 Gods of Life and Creation from Ancient Cultures

Succumbing to the pressure, Ra decided that it was time to change things.

Tefnut’s Return

Ra dispatched Shu and the goddess Thoth to try and reconcile with Tefnut.

Even though Shu and Tefnut were close, the connection was no match for Tefnut’s raging ego. After all, she was stripped of her rightful position and was in no mood for negotiations with her twin brother.

What ensued was a series of discussions that eventually led to nothing. Until suddenly, Thoth decided to chime in. The god of writing persuaded Tefnut to return to Egypt by showing her the country’s state. He even went one step further and called her “honorable.”

Failing to retaliate against such a composed deity, Tefnut promised to return.

She made her grand entry back into Egypt. With it, the skies broke, and rain began to fall upon the farmlands and the Nile for the first time in many years. When Ra saw her again, he made sure to solidify Tefnut’s position as his Eye in front of all the gods and other goddesses.

Egypt and Rains

Ancient Egypt was extremely dry. Even now, the weather in Egypt is dominated by an onslaught of heat waves. It is interrupted only by the wind coming from the Mediterranean Sea, which brings enough moisture to hydrate Egypt’s atmosphere.

Rain is scarce in Egypt, and when it does fall, it doesn’t do enough to make the plants and crops benefit from it. Fortunately, though, Egypt has the river, Nile. Thanks to its revitalization, Egyptians have benefitted from it since ancient times. In fact, there would be no Egyptians without the Nile.

So you can only guess the reactions of ancient Egyptians when they saw actual rainfall. It was undoubtedly considered a divine trait, a gift from the gods. Perhaps it was from here that Tefnut began to take her form. Once rainfall was experienced for the first time by the Egyptians, it was the beginning of something new.

It was the start of an entire civilization appreciating rain for thousands of years.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: The Complete List from Aboriginals to Incans

Worship of Tefnut

Tefnut’s name was a common sight in the ancient city of Iunet, where there was an entire section named after her called the “Abode of Tefnut.” Tefnut was also a massive part of Heliopolis. The city’s great Ennead is formed by Tefnut and nine deities, including an enormous chunk of her family.

One of her other primary cult centers was at Leontopolis, where Shu and Tefnut were revered in their double-headed form. Tefnut was also generally depicted in her semi-anthropomorphic form in the Karnak temple complex, another of her primary cult centers.

As part of the daily temple rite, the Heliopolitan priests also made sure to cleanse themselves while invoking her name. The city of Heliopolis even had a sanctuary dedicated to her.

Tefnut’s Legacy

Though Tefnut hasn’t shown up much in popular culture, she is a goddess who lurks in the back end.

She has been overshadowed by the likes of other deities of rain and storms, such as Zeus in Greek mythology and Freyr in Norse mythology.

Regardless, she continues to be an essential ancient Egyptian deity. Much like Rhea in Greek myths, her job was to produce offspring that stood the test of time. She succeeded in that regard and returned to being the lioness that brought occasional rain to the ancient Egyptian lands.

Conclusion

Without rain and moisture, the Earth is a sphere of fire.

With Tefnut keeping watch over the planet, it’s a gift that simply can’t be underappreciated. Tefnut is a goddess who represents opposite forces, where one side always complements the other. Tefnut is both the unpredictability of weather and rainfall manifest.

With graceful whiskers and a tough hide geared to snap at any given moment, Tefnut reaps what you sow.

References

https://sk.sagepub.com/Reference/africanreligion/n410.xml

Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 183. ISBN 0-500-05120-8.

https://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub364/entry-6158.html

https://sk.sagepub.com/Reference/africanreligion/n410.xml

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