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gods egyptian god mankind


According to Egyptian mythology, the gods were responsible for the creation and sustaining of the world and everything in it. One question that needed to be worked out, however, was the nature of the gods’ continuing relationships with their creations, particularly man. In the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 B.C.E. ) text known as the Teachings for Merykare , the king’s father explains the creator god’s actions on behalf of man. After establishing order by vanquishing chaos (described as the “water monster”), the god provides breath and light for his children. For food, he provides them with plants, cattle, fowl, and fish. The creator god continues to take an interest in his creation, and every day he watches them as he sails through the sky. When they are sad, he takes notice. In order to aid his children, the god provided them with rulers to protect the weak, and perhaps most importantly, with heka (“magic”) “to ward off the blow of events.”


But if the gods created the world, and outfitted it for the benefit of man, how is it that it contains elements which are inimical to man? Here scholars encounter the Egyptian view of theodicy, how to account for the presence of evil in a world created by the gods. In the Egyptian view, isfet (“evil”) was not the creation of the gods. Evil resulted from the actions of mankind. Egyptian texts contain several references to a rebellion by mankind. In the text from the time of Merykare it is said that the creator god “slew his foes, reduced his children when they thought of making rebellion.” In a passage from the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts Spell 1130, the creator god states that “I made every man like his fellow, but I did not command that they do evil. It is their hearts that disobey what I have said.”


More references to a rebellion of mankind find mythological expression in the New Kingdom composition known as the Book of the Heavenly Cow. This text appeared first in the tomb of Tutankhamun (1332–1322 B.C.E. ), and thereafter in several royal tombs of the New Kingdom. The text states that at one time Re ruled as king over gods and men. When Re grew old, mankind began to plot against him. Re summoned the other gods to a meeting to discuss his response to mankind’s actions. In the story, Nun advises Re to send his fiery eye (Hathor) to destroy those who plotted against him. Hathor undertakes her task with relish, and kills those conspirators who had fled into the desert. Before Hathor can complete the job of destroying mankind, Re has a change of heart. He concocts a plan to get Hathor drunk on what she thinks is human blood, and in her altered state she fails to continue in her destructive work. Re preserves mankind, but as a result of their rebellion he withdraws to the sky on the back of his daughter, Nut, the sky, who takes the form of a cow.


The ancient Egyptians believed that at birth, a person’s name, profession, length of life, and time and manner of death were assigned by a god or goddess. Some texts describe the manner of death of an individual as decreed by deities referred to as the Seven Hathors. In The Doomed Prince , the Seven Hathors attend the birth of a prince, and decree that he shall die by means of a crocodile, a snake, or dog. In The Story of Two Brothers , the Seven Hathors attend the creation of a wife for one of the brothers, Bata, and decree that she shall die through execution by means of a knife. In the Middle Kingdom Khufu and the Magicians , Re sends the goddess Meskhenet to attend the birth of his three children, and to decree that each will in turn assume the kingship of all Egypt. Other deities involved with determining a person’s fate include the goddess Shay, the personification of fate who was thought of as allotting a person’s length of life and manner of death, and Renenet, the goddess of harvest and fertility. Renenet could assume the form of a woman suckling a child or of a serpent, and was thought of as assigning those physical aspects of a person that seem to be beyond an individual’s control, such as height, weight, complexion, and even material goods and prosperity. Gods were also thought to control fate, and Amun, Khnum, and Horus were each said to assign an individual’s fate. In a text known as A Calendar of Lucky and Unlucky Days , a particular date is listed as being lucky or unlucky based on mythological events which were thought to have occurred on that date. Some dates contain a notation that assigns a particular fate to anyone born on that date. Anyone born on day three of the first month of Akhet would die by a crocodile, while anyone born on day six of the second month would die on account of drunkenness. Day five preserves a particularly interesting fate; one born on that date was fated to die “of copulation.” The extent to which one’s decreed fate was unalterable is uncertain. In The Doomed Prince mentioned above, the flow of the narrative seems to suggest that the prince will eventually escape his three ordained fates, but since the end of the papyrus is missing, this conclusion cannot be certain.


INTRODUCTION : The Teachings for Merykare primarily discusses the king’s obligations to his people. In one digression, however, the author describes both creation and the way that evil entered the world through mankind’s rebellion against the gods.

Well tended is mankind—god’s cattle,
He made sky and earth for their sake,
He subdued the water monster,
He made breath for their noses to live.
They are his images, who came from his body,
He shines in the sky for their sake;
He made for them plants and cattle,
Fowl and fish to feed them.
He slew his foes, reduced his children,
When they thought of making rebellion.
He makes daylight for their sake,
He sails by to see them.
He has built his shrine around them,
When they weep he hears.
He made for them rulers in the egg,
Leaders to raise the back of the weak.
He made for them magic as weapons
To ward off the blow of events.

SOURCE : “Instruction for Merykare,” in The Old and Middle Kingdoms . Vol. 1 of Ancient Egyptian Literature . Trans. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973): 106.


Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002).

Bob Brier, Ancient Egyptian Magic (New York: Quill, 1981).

Susan Tower Hollis, The Ancient Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers” (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).

Frank T. Miosi, “God, Fate and Free Will in Egyptian Wisdom Literature,” in Studies in Philology in Honour of Ronald James Williams . Eds. Gerald Kadish and Geoffrey Freeman (Toronto: SSEA Publications, 1982): 69–111.

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