In ancient Egypt, Atum (alternatively spelled Tem, Temu, Tum, and Atem) was one of the early gods of Egyptian mythology, associated with creation and the Ennead (nine deities) of Heliopolis. With a name whose etymology denotes "completion" or "ultimacy," Atum was thought to represent both the self-engendering origin of the cosmos as well as the setting sun. Mythologically, he was most renowned as the "father and mother of the gods" of the Ennead (Shu, Tefnut, Geb, and Nut), who he created through an act of self-gratification.
As an Egyptian deity, Atum belonged to a religious, mythological and cosmological belief system that developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to around 525 B.C.E. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. The cults were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Yet, the Egyptian gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “If we compare two of [the Egyptian gods] … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanent—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. Thus, those Egyptian gods who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Furthermore, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e. the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely defined by the geographical and calendrical realities of its believers' lives. The Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.
In the archaic Egyptian pantheon, Atum was the chief god in the Ennead (nine deities) of Heliopolis (the capital of the Lower Kingdom). This place of primacy in early religious thought is attested to in the Pyramid Texts, where he receives more attention than many other gods combined. In spite of his early prominence, the various roles originally filled by Atum were eventually assumed by other gods, including Horus (who eventually came to be seen as the preeminent god of kings), and Ra/Amun (both of whom inherited his solar and creative aspects). Despite the waning of his influence, Atum remained a vibrant part of Egyptian myth and religious observance throughout the dynastic history and into the Common Era.
In an early version of the Enneadic cosmogony, Atum was seen as the solitary, primordial living being, having arisen by his own force from the chaotic waters of Nun. Once he emerged onto the primordial mound (benben), he took it upon himself to create the cosmos (personalized as Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), and their children Geb (earth) and Nut (sky)). To accomplish this feat, the monadic deity proceeded to loose his vital fluids (either spittle, mucus, or semen) upon the waiting earth, from which sprang up the second generation of divinities. This "physiological" creation process continues for later generations of beings, as humans are understood to have been formed of Atum's tears.
Two early versions of this creation account are found in the Pyramid Texts. In the first, the phenomenon of genesis occurs through masturbation; in the second, it happens through expectoration.
An innovative religious theme, addressed for the first time in the Egyptian context by this passage, is the idea that the actual substance of the creator (in this case, his soul or ka) is passed onto and possessed by His creation. Such a monistic/panentheistic notion, which achieved fruition under Akhenaten, was already implied by the etymological connection between the Atum's name and the notion of "completion" (described above).
Given the god's relationship with continuity and completion, it is perhaps unsurprising that he was single-handedly able to achieve generate the cosmos, as he was understood to transcend the specificities of gender and sexuality. Despite this, the hand of Atum, with which he performed his creative act, came to be seen as an embodiment of the female component of the creative principle, and thus came to be aligned with Iusas (a minor goddess) or Hathor (the Egyptian fertility goddess par excellence).
However, the god's interaction with the created world did not finish with his initial act of genesis:
Originally associated with the earth, Atum gradually came to be identified with the sun (especially in its mystical role as a creative force). In later, more nuanced understandings, the god was seen to represent the nexus between earth and sun, by personifying the solar disc in the process of rising and setting. The separateness of these two instances led to a commensurate division of Atum, with the rising sun coming to be seen as a youthful version of the god (named either Nefertum (literally meaning young Atum or Khepri), and the setting sun becoming an elderly version of the god.
In later years, the Enneadic pantheon came to include Ra, an explicitly solar deity, who was merged with Atum into a composite form (Atum-Ra). However, the specificity of Atum's characterization (as the setting sun), when contrasted with the powerful vision of Ra as the powerful midday orb, meant that Atum was eventually subsumed by his vigorous counterpart. However, the sun continued to be described as both the Eye of Ra and the Eye of Atum, with the former referring to its fierce, dangerous aspect and the latter to its balmy, life-engendering form.
As suggested above, Atum was also associated with the earth and the underworld—likely due to his role in the creation of the cosmos. In this guise, he was often depicted as a primordial serpent or eel.
As a primordial god, Atum also played an important role in the legitimation of the Egyptian monarchy, most notably through the subsequent characterization of his creation. In the Book of the Dead, it is said that "in his first appearance ... he began to rule that which he had made," which implies that "the whole universe was a monarchy, and [that] the king of the world had been the first king of Egypt." In this way, the pharaohs were seen to be continuing a cosmic paradigm first authored in the primal creation event. In more general terms, Pinch notes that "as the 'father and mother' of the gods, Atum was the ultimate divine and royal ancestor."
In a like manner, the Pyramid Texts also explicitly place Atum in a legitimizing role with regards to temporal leadership, due to both his role in creation and his place of honor in the afterlife. In the passage quoted below, it must be noted that N. refers to the name of the deceased king, in whose honor the text was first inscribed:
In religious artwork, Atum was most often depicted as an enthroned king, wearing the dual crown that represented rulership of Upper and Lower Egypt. When characterized as the setting sun, he was often depicted in a similar manner, except as an aged man. When envisioned as an animal, Atum took the form of a serpent or eel (thought to be primordial entities), a cat or mongoose (who prey upon serpents (here understood as forces of chaos)) or a scarab (an animal understood to possess the god's ability to self-generate).
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