Go to site main page, student resources page,
Secondary Windows: Bibliography, Glossary.

Content created: 080726
File last modified: 150604
Chapter 12 Chapter 14
Contents

Egyptian Origins (13 Abridged)
Go to unabridged version.

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.

The Ptah Mythic Complex. 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. 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.

Previous Section Next Section
Contents Top of Page