THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE
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, recognizing 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, 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.
The papyrus is about 16 ft. 8 in. in length, and is 9 1/4 in. in width. It contains 21 columns of hieratic text which are written in short lines and are poetical in character, and 12 columns or pages of text written in long lines; the total number of lines is between 930 and 940. The text is written in a small, very black, but neat hand, and may be assigned to a time between the XXVI Dynasty and the Ptolemaic Period. The titles, catch-words, rubrics, names of Apep and his friends, and a few other words, are written in red ink. There are two colophons; in the one we have a date, namely, the “first day of the fourth month of the twelfth year of Pharaoh Alexander, the son of Alexander,” i.e., B.C. 311, and in the other the name of the priest who either had the papyrus written, or appropriated it, namely, Nes-Menu, or Nes-Amsu.
Legend of the Creation
The Legend of the Creation is found in the third work which is given in the papyrus, and which is called the “Book of overthrowing Apep, the Enemy of Ra, the Enemy of Un-Nefer” (i.e., Osiris). This work contained a series of spells which were recited during the performance of certain prescribed ceremonies, with the object of preventing storms, and dispersing rain-clouds, and removing any obstacle, animate or inanimate, which could prevent the rising of the sun in the morning, or obscure his light during the day. The Leader-in Chief of the hosts of darkness was a fiend called Apep who appeared in the sky in the form of a monster serpent, and, marshalling all the fiends of the Tuat, attempted to keep the Sun-god imprisoned in the kingdom of darkness.
Right in the midst of the spells which were directed against Apep we find inserted the legend of the Creation, which occurs in no other known Egyptian document (Col. XXVI., l. 21, to Col. XXVII., l. 6). Curiously enough a longer version of the legend is given a little farther on (Col. XXVIII., l. 20, to Col. XXIX., l. 6). Whether the scribe had two copies to work from, and simply inserted both, or whether he copied the short version and added to it as he went along, cannot be said. The legend is entitled: Book of knowing the evolutions of Ra [and of] overthrowing Apep.
This curious “Book” describes the origin not only of heaven, and earth, and all therein, but also of God Himself. In it the name of Apep is not even mentioned, and it is impossible to explain its appearance in the Apep Ritual unless we assume that the whole “Book” was regarded as a spell of the most potent character, the mere recital of which was fraught with deadly effect for Apep and his friends.
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 where on 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,[see note 1] for it was by Maat that he “laid the foundation.”
[Note 1] “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths I was brought forth . . . Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: when he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: when he gave to the sea his decree, . . .when he appointed the foundations of the earth: then I was by him, as one brought up with him. . . . . . .” Proverbs, viii. 22 ff.}
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 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.
Such is the Legend of Creation as it is found in the Papyrus of Nes-Menu. The text of both versions is full of difficult passages, and some readings are corrupt; unfortunately variant versions by which they might be corrected are lacking. The general meaning of the legend in both versions is quite clear, and it throws considerable light on the Egyptian religion. The Egyptians believed in the existence of God, the Creator and Maintainer of all things, but they thought that the concerns of this world were committed by Him to the superintendence of a series of subordinate spirits or beings called “gods,” over whom they believed magical spells and ceremonies to have the greatest influence. The Deity was a Being so remote, and of such an exalted nature, that it was idle to expect Him to interfere in the affairs of mortals, or to change any decree or command which He had once uttered. The spirits or “gods,” on the other hand, possessing natures not far removed from those of men, were thought to be amenable to supplications and flattery, and to wheedling and cajolery, especially when accompanied by gifts. It is of great interest to find a legend in which the power of God as the Creator of the world and the sun and moon is so clearly set forth, embedded in a book of magical spells devoted to the destruction of the mythological monster who existed solely to prevent the sun from rising and shining.
TITLE: Legends of the Gods (1912)
BY: E. A. Wallis Budge