Legend of the Creation

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THE LEGEND OF THE GOD NEB-ER-TCHER, AND THE HISTORY OF CREATION.

The text of the remarkable Legend of the Creation which forms the first

section of this volume is preserved in a well-written papyrus in the

British Museum, where it bears the number 10,188.  This papyrus was

acquired by the late Mr. A. H. Rhind in 1861 or 1862, when he was

excavating some tombs on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes.  He did

not himself find it in a tomb, but he received it from the British

Consul at Luxor, Mustafa Agha, during an interchange of gifts when Mr.

Rhind was leaving the country.  Mustafa Agha obtained the papyrus from

the famous hiding-place of the Royal Mummies at Der-al-Bahari, with the

situation of which he was well acquainted for many years before it

became known to the Egyptian Service of Antiquities.  When Mr. Rhind

came to England, the results of his excavations were examined by Dr.

Birch, who, recognising the great value of the papyrus, arranged to

publish it in a companion volume to Facsimiles of Two Papyri, but the

death of Mr. Rhind in 1865 caused the project to fall through.  Mr.

Rhind’s collection passed into the hands of Mr. David Bremner, and the

papyrus, together with many other antiquities, was purchased by the

Trustees of the British Museum. In 1880 Dr. Birch suggested the

publication of the papyrus to Dr. Pleyte, the Director of the Egyptian

Museum at Leyden.  This savant transcribed and translated some passages

from the Festival Songs of Isis and Nephthys, which is the first text

in it, and these he published in Recueil de Travaux, Paris, tom. iii.,

pp. 57-64.  In 1886 by Dr. Birch’s kindness I was allowed to work at

the papyrus, and I published transcripts of some important passages and

the account of the Creation in the Proceedings of the Society of

Biblical Archaeology, 1886-7, pp. 11-26.  The Legend of the Creation

was considered by Dr. H. Brugsch to be of considerable value for the

study of the Egyptian Religion, and encouraged by him[FN#1] I made a

full transcript of the papyrus, which was published in Archaeologia,

(vol. lii., London, 1891), with transliterations and translations.  In

1910 I edited for the Trustees of the British Museum the complete

hieratic text with a revised translation.[FN#2]

The story of the Creation is supposed to be told by the god Neb-er-

tcher.  This name means the “Lord to the uttermost limit,” and the

character of the god suggests that the word “limit” refers to time and

space, and that he was, in fact, the Everlasting God of the Universe.

This god’s name occurs in Coptic texts, and then he appears as one who

possesses all the attributes which are associated by modern nations

with God Almighty.  Where and how Neb-er-tcher existed is not said, but

it seems as if he was believed to have been an almighty and invisible

power which filled all space.  It seems also that a desire arose in him

to create the world, and in order to do this he took upon himself the

form of the god Khepera, who from first to last was regarded as the

Creator, par excellence, among all the gods known to the Egyptians.

When this transformation of Neb-er-tcher into Khepera took place the

heavens and the earth had not been created, but there seems to have

existed a vast mass of water, or world-ocean, called Nu, and it must

have been in this that the transformation took place.  In this

celestial ocean were the germs of all the living things which

afterwards took form in heaven and on earth, but they existed in a

state of inertness and helplessness.  Out of this ocean Khepera raised

himself, and so passed from a state of passiveness and inertness into

one of activity.  When Khepera raised himself out of the ocean Nu, he

found himself in vast empty space, wherein was nothing on which he

could stand.  The second version of the legend says that Khepera gave

being to himself by uttering his own name, and the first version states

that he made use of words in providing himself with a place on which to

stand.  In other words, when Khepera was still a portion of the being

of Neb-er-tcher, he spake the word “Khepera,” and Khepera came into

being.  Similarly, when he needed a place whereon to stand, he uttered

the name of the thing, or place, on which he wanted to stand, and that

thing, or place, came into being.  This spell he seems to have

addressed to his heart, or as we should say, will, so that Khepera

willed this standing-place to appear, and it did so forthwith.  The

first version only mentions a heart, but the second also speaks of a

heart-soul as assisting Khepera in his first creative acts; and we may

assume that he thought out in his heart what manner of thing be wished

to create, and then by uttering its name caused his thought to take

concrete form.  This process of thinking out the existence of things is

expressed in Egyptian by words which mean “laying the foundation in the

heart.”

In arranging his thoughts and their visible forms Khepera was assisted

by the goddess Maat, who is usually regarded as the goddess of law,

order, and truth, and in late times was held to be the female

counterpart of Thoth, “the heart of the god Ra.”  In this legend,

however, she seems to play the part of Wisdom, as described in the Book

of Proverbs,[FN#3] for it was by Maat that he “laid the foundation.”

Having described the coming into being of Khepera and the place on

which he stood, the legend goes on to tell of the means by which the

first Egyptian triad, or trinity, came into existence.  Khepera had, in

some form, union with his own shadow, and so begot offspring, who

proceeded from his body under the forms of the gods Shu and Tefnut.

According to a tradition preserved in the Pyramid Texts[FN#4] this

event took place at On (Heliopolis), and the old form of the legend

ascribes the production of Shu and Tefnut to an act of masturbation.

Originally these gods were the personifications of air and dryness, and

liquids respectively; thus with their creation the materials for the

construction of the atmosphere and sky came into being.  Shu and Tefnut

were united, and their offspring were Keb, the Earth-god, and Nut, the

Sky-goddess.  We have now five gods in existence; Khepera, the creative

principle, Shu, the atmosphere, Tefnut, the waters above the heavens,

Nut, the Sky-goddess, and Keb, the Earth-god.  Presumably about this

time the sun first rose out of the watery abyss of Nu, and shone upon

the world and produced day.  In early times the sun, or his light, was

regarded as a form of Shu.  The gods Keb and Nut were united in an

embrace, and the effect of the coming of light was to separate them. As

long as the sun shone, i.e., as long as it was day, Nut, the Sky-

goddess, remained in her place above the earth, being supported by Shu;

but as soon as the sun set she left the sky and gradually descended

until she rested on the body of the Earth-god, Keb.

The embraces of Keb caused Nut to bring forth five gods at a birth,

namely, Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.  Osiris and Isis

married before their birth, and Isis brought forth a son called Horus;

Set and Nephthys also married before their birth, and Nephthys brought

forth a son named Anpu (Anubis), though he is not mentioned in the

legend.  Of these gods Osiris is singled out for special mention in the

legend, in which Khepera, speaking as Neb-er-tcher, says that his name

is Ausares, who is the essence of the primeval matter of which he

himself is formed.  Thus Osiris was of the same substance as the Great

God who created the world according to the Egyptians, and was a

reincarnation of his great-grandfather.  This portion of the legend

helps to explain the views held about Osiris as the great ancestral

spirit, who when on earth was a benefactor of mankind, and who when in

heaven was the saviour of souls.

The legend speaks of the sun as the Eye of Khepera, or Neb-er-tcher,

and refers to some calamity which befell it and extinguished its light.

This calamity may have been simply the coming of night, or eclipses, or

storms; but in any case the god made a second Eye, i.e., the Moon, to

which he gave some of the splendour of the other Eye, i.e., the Sun,

and he gave it a place in his Face, and henceforth it ruled throughout

the earth, and had special powers in respect of the production of

trees, plants, vegetables, herbs, etc.  Thus from the earliest times

the moon was associated with the fertility of the earth, especially in

connection with the production of abundant crops and successful

harvests.

According to the legend, men and women sprang not from the earth, but

directly from the body of the god Khepera, or Neb-er-tcher, who placed

his members together and then wept tears upon them, and men and women,

came into being from the tears which had fallen from his eyes.  No

special mention is made of the creation of beasts in the legend, but

the god says that he created creeping things of all kinds, and among

these are probably included the larger quadrupeds.  The men and women,

and all the other living creatures which were made at that time,

reproduced their species, each in his own way, and so the earth became

filled with their descendants which we see at the present time.