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Chapter 12 Chapter 14
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Egyptian Origins (13)
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Myth and Politics: Heliopolis vs. Memphis

We now shift our discussion to consider the ways in which myth functioned to integrate the two halves of the kingdom. Egyptologist Jill Kamil argues that the tension of the time was enshrined in competing myths that began as local religious expressions and gradually took on broader regional form. Like the system of totems, these local mythologies also seem to have made use of similar elements, and were designed to provide symbolic contrasts between competing regions. With the emergence of a politically united kingdom, competition between regions was expressed in subtle manipulations of the myths.

The Atum-Ra Mythic Complex apparently originated at the town of Heliopolis (Egyptian: On), near Memphis, Hor-Aha's new capital. The myth involved the creation of the world atop a small hill near Heliopolis by the god Atum-Ra, associated with the sun. Here is one version of how it runs:

Atum-Ra created four immediate children: Shu and his consort Tefnut, gods of air and moisture, and Geb and his consort Nut, gods of earth and sky.

By day Atum-Ra crosses the sky in a boat and sheds light onto the earth. At night the moon god Thoth crosses, in a lesser boat, giving lesser light.

Geb and Nut had four children: Osiris and Isis, who were wed to each other, and Seth and Nepthys, who were also wed to each other. Osiris and Isis had a son, the famous Horus.

We recall that Seth had attempted to slay Osiris. One version has Horus conceived after Isis has reassembled Osiris from the scattered pieces and before he goes off to preside over the world of the dead. She hides until Horus is born and has grown big enough to take vengeance on Seth. Although losing an eye in the struggle, Horus finally prevails, and becomes the ancestor of all historical Pharaohs.

As we noted, Seth had originally been the patron god of Naqada. Naqada in early dynastic times was the center of a confederacy of towns some miles downstream from Nekhen and its subordinate allies. Horus was a totem of some of the nomes of Lower Egypt. By making Seth the envious, incompetent, evil brother, the myth implies that Naqada and by extension perhaps the rest of Upper Egypt (as well as all desert land) is evil, and dangerous to the virtuous marshy delta lands of Lower Egypt. Further, since Horus (or anyway a falcon easily assimilated to him) was also the totem of Nekhen, the incorporation of Horus as a "good guy" in the Lower Egyptian mythic system would presumably have attracted enthusiasm from Nekhenites way up the Nile, based on their ancient antagonisms towards Naqada. There are logical contradictions in this, but Egyptian myth seems to have been more sensitive to the nuances of politics than to the niceties of logic. [Note 17]

Kamil sees the Atum-Ra mythic complex as uniting a solar myth (Atum-Ra, earth sky, air, moisture) with an originally separate nature myth (Isis and Osiris, Seth and his wife Nepthys). This integration of separate myths argued, in effect, that all other gods were subordinate to Atum-Ra, who created the world more or less exactly in Heliopolis. Egypt was ruled by a royal house from Upper Egypt, but there was no question in the minds of the Heliopolis priesthood that the navel of the universe was in Lower Egypt.

The Ptah Mythic Complex. Memphis is about fifteen miles south of modern Cairo, Heliopolis about seven miles northeast. Neither town is technically on the Nile Delta, although both were clearly associated with Lower Egypt throughout Egyptian history. Heliopolis was considered to be more ancient and held itself to be more venerable, but Memphis was Hor-Aha's city of the White Wall, the capital of united Egypt. The competition may have been something like the play-off between New York and Washington in American history.

When Hor-Aha founded Memphis, he necessarily, if probably unintentionally, gave a great boost to the position of several local gods. One was Ptah, the god of the district itself, who became eventually the patron of artists, possibly because the high priest of Ptah promoted his cause among the artisans of the new capital. With the expansion of Memphis, Ptah effectively absorbed the cult of Sokkar, the god of the nearby tomb center at Saqqara, and Ptah came to be known as Ptah-Sokkar, usually portrayed as a bearded mummy. The goddess of a nearby district, Sekhmet, represented as a lioness, and Nefertum, represented as a lotus, came to be associated with Ptah, with Sekhmet as his consort and Nefertum his son. The Memphis group usually strikes modern mythology buffs as less appealing than the Heliopolis group, and perhaps it struck Egyptians that way too, for the Memphis priests sought ways to fix the problem.

Kamil writes (1984: 38-40):

In populous Memphis the priests staged a drama which reveals their ingenious plot to undermine the sun cult and Heliopolis for the greater glory of Ptah and Memphis. The drama was in mythological language, and has miraculously been preserved in a late copy on what is known as the Shabaka Stone.

Dressed as deities, the priests acted familiar tales of the creation of the physical world from the waters of chaos; of earth and resurrection and of the triumph and coronation of a Horus king; each item of the traditional doctrine was presented but subtly varied in the interests of Memphis. For Ptah, the priests claimed, was himself the eternal ocean Num that exited for all time and out of which both the primeval hill and Atum-Ra were created. Therefore their deity Ptah existed before Atum. They explained that the primeval hill rose from the eternal ocean, not in Heliopolis as in the earlier cosmogony, but in Memphis; that Memphis was the 'Great Throne', the site where Isis beheld the body of her beloved husband drowning in the water, and, moreover, the burial-place of Osiris.

The priests did not deny the older doctrine. They merely claimed that since Ptah was the eternal ocean, all other gods were no more than manifestations of him. …

So much, then, for Heliopolis being the center of the world. So much for Heliopolis claiming Horus as the son of Isis and Osiris while towns further south claimed him as the sun of Hathor. The center of the world was Memphis (according to Memphites), and there was to be no doubt about it.

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