Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, September 20


The myths and legends of ancient Egypt still reach out to us across nearly six thousand years with timeless and universal expressions of human hopes and fears that are sometimes quite familiar, sometimes quite strange. Without myth, the writing of history and our knowledge of the past would be impossible; without the writing of history, myth would be pointless. This informative and important book, first published by Lewis Spence in 1915, is a useful introduction to the study of Egypt.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760770399
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/16/2005
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 260,150
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)


The myths and legends of ancient Egypt reach out to us across nearly six thousand years with timeless and universal expressions of human hopes and fears that are sometimes quite familiar, sometimes quite strange. This informative and historically important book, first published by Lewis Spence in 1915, is a useful introduction to the subject, but at the same time is a problematic and controversial presentation of ancient Egyptian myth. Although myth is often misunderstood to be in opposition to the writing of history, myth is not false and history is not true in any simplistic and naïve sense. Instead, both myth and history are closely intertwined and in fact are co-dependent. Without myth, the writing of history and our knowledge of the past would be impossible; without the writing of history, myth would be pointless. Both myth and the writing of history are valid, impressionistic, and creative interpretations of human experience. As many scholars have suggested, myth cannot be suppressed, it naturally arises out of human culture.

Lewis Spence (1874-1955) was an extremely prolific scholar but was not a trained Egyptologist. He was born in Scotland and was first known as an academic editor in Scotland and England who published over forty works on the occult and diverse Old World and New World religious traditions. He is perhaps best known for his comprehensive Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920) that was the first work of its kind and, like this book, is still useful today. Spence served as Vice-President of the Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, telling of hisacademic stature among scholars in his own day. However, Spence is also known as the leading speculative theorist on the popular myth of the lost rectangular continent of Atlantis, which he understood as a real place that once existed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lewis Spence, like each of us, was subject to the knowledge and attitudes of his day. In the past century since Spence, there have been great advances in cultural anthropology and the academic study of religion. In Spence's day, most scholars interpreted religious data according to the hypotheses of E. B. Tylor-known for Religion in Primitive Culture (two volumes, 1871) -and Sir James Frazer-known for Totemism and Exogamy (four volumes, 1910). Although their ideas provided crucially important stepping-stones in the development of the current academic understanding of religion, those ideas-especially totemism, fetishism, and animism-are now part of the so-called dustbin of historical research. Also to be taken into consideration is the fact that today much more data on ancient Egypt and Egyptian religion are available, including both archaeological discoveries and the translation of Egyptian texts that were not available to Spence. Due to these advances in Egyptology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, and the academic study of religion, current Egyptologists view ancient Egyptian myth in more accurate analytical categories based on scientific method. Thus, Lewis Spence's book on Egyptian myth and legend must be used with caution and should be understood to represent only one step along the way toward the modern discipline of Egyptology.

Myth is comprised of individual myths-traditional stories also called legends-that have their origins in oral stories that were only later written down by an elite class of educated priestly scribes. These scribes continued to elaborate the stories as the cultural and political climate of Egypt evolved over time. Ritual words and actions performed by priests in temples throughout Egypt were integrally related to myths and often were reenactments of them. Although modern scholars have long been divided over the question of whether myth grew out of ritual or ritual grew out of myth, myth has always functioned in human culture to provide answers-however useful or not-to the meaning of human existence, especially in the pre-scientific civilizations at the very root of our modern technological civilization.

Myth is closely related to language, ritual, and symbol. The ancient Egyptians believed that their language and system of hieroglyphic writing were given to them by their Gods, primarily Thoth, who was depicted as an Ibis-headed man with pen in hand. Thus, reading, writing, and speaking the Egyptian language were understood to be sacred activities, and in some cases were actually understood to be rituals. The symbolic nature of the scribes' hieroglyphs-born out of symbols and pictographs-was seen as the ideal medium for the transmission of the sacred stories. In fact, myth was so powerful that many of the hieroglyphs were invented by scribes to symbolize well-known mythological concepts. This means that the very act of speaking or writing, including symbolic religious art, would guarantee that the mythological concepts expressed in those modes of communication were guaranteed to occur-such as the spiritual resurrection of the Pharaoh in the blissful afterlife, or the destruction of one's spiritual enemies like the underworld serpent Apophis.

In the last several decades since Spence's book was published, scholars have categorized Egyptian myths into four basic types: creation myths, sun myths, moon myths, and political myths associated with the underworld savior god Osiris. To make matters a little more complex, each of these types had variants that developed over time and in various locales throughout Egypt as cultural and political needs changed. Such ideological and geographical variants are typical features in the development and growth of any religion as it strives to survive over time and across large geographical areas like Egypt. This also indicates something of the Egyptian tolerance for variation, impressionism, and an absence of dogmatic consistency in religious thought. The Egyptians had no desire for an equivalent to the later theories of direct inspired revelation as found in the Bibles of Judaism and Christianity, or the Koran of Islam. What was important for the Egyptians was not a consistent single revealed truth with a coherent ideological system, but rather stories, beliefs, and ritual instructions scattered through many writings that met the needs and answered the diverse questions posed by a variety of individuals and groups participating in the religion. Despite all of the variety, each of the types and their variants are, at least, consistently and typically Egyptian, but with noticeable conceptual similarities to the stories in surrounding cultures like Israel and Babylon.

Concerning the Egyptian creation myths, the stories reflect the typical Ancient Near East understanding of the physical structure of the universe (cosmos) and its origins (cosmogony)-also found in similar fashion in ancient Israel in Genesis 1-4, and in Babylon in The Enuma Elish (also called the Epic of Creation and the Babylonian Genesis). According to the cosmogony of ancient Egypt, the first thing that existed was an infinite expanse of chaotic muddy water called Nun. Nun was what could be called an "olden God" who was the primeval world ocean that contained the potential of all things that would be created (see also Genesis 1:2). The ancients did not ask modern questions like "How did Nun come into existence?" or "Was there a time when Nun did not exist?" They simply accepted the idea that Nun always existed "in the beginning." The reader should note that myth is not interested in answering our modern post-Enlightenment scientific questions. Myth demands that we listen to the inspiring story and that we not miss the point.

Somewhere in primeval time-if time can even be said to have existed-Nun began to express and generate its potential with the emergence of the creator God (see Genesis 1:2-3) called Amun, often understood to be in the form of a pyramid. This reflects the Egyptian experience with its environment, when the annual flooding of the Nile River receded and high points of land were the first to emerge from the receding fertile waters. This creator Amun generated from Nun everything else that would ever exist. As in human procreation, Amun began by expelling bodily fluids (saliva or semen) and a long series of lower goddesses and gods came into existence. Such divine beings represent extensions or expressions of Amun, rather than divine beings in their own right with their own existence. The first two divine beings that Amun expressed were the male Shu (atmosphere) and the female Tefnut (moisture). This differentiation between male and female-much like Adam and Eve (see Genesis 2:4b-4:26)-ensured that creation by generation would continue. From the union of Shu and Tefnut were generated the male Geb (land, earth) and the female Nut (domed-sky, heaven) (see also Genesis 1:1). Shu and Tefnut then generated Osiris-the mummified savior god of the underworld, representing order-with his consort Isis, and then Seth-the murderer brother of Osiris, representing chaos-with his consort Nephthys (see also the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:1-16). Osiris and Isis then gave birth to Horus, represented by the pharaoh of Egypt who was understood to be the son of god and the father of human beings (see the story of Seth in Genesis 5:1-32).

Sun myths had a different focus and purpose than creation myths. As the creation myths answered questions concerning the origin and structure of the universe, sun myths focused on the sun. The sun was one of the greatest life forces known to the Egyptians-along with the fertile Nile River itself. In contrast, some of Israel's sacred writings-like Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 4:19-outlawed symbolic representations and worship of the celestial lights, while other writings-like Genesis 1:14-indicated that they should only be used for time-keeping and divination (signs). But Egyptian and Babylonian religions had a strong religious and symbolic focus on the sun. The sun god of Babylon was Shamash, but in Egypt he was Re (spelled Ra in the older literature like this book by Spence) and at times he was called Khepri, Atum, and as a symbol, the Aten. In relation to creation myths, the sun was also understood to represent the creator god, so that concepts of the sun, creation, and the sustaining daily life force were closely intertwined.

But the sun was also mythologically connected to the underworld (the "Duat") especially in myths related to the journey of the sun through the netherworld every night. As the sun set in the west as Atum, it was believed to travel eastward under the flat earth, where the souls of recently deceased Egyptians, striving for resurrection at dawn, would follow it through its perilous journey. When it arose in the east at dawn, it arose victoriously as Re, and with it the souls of the deceased who would be resurrected with Re to the bright sunlight of eternal life. This grand mythological celebration of life over death was enacted every day and night, and the rituals of the priests in temples throughout Egypt ensured that it would be successful.

Although the moon and the myths associated with it were very important in Egyptian religion, the moon myths were never able to outshine the importance of the sun myths. As Israel's Book of Genesis referred to the moon as the "lesser light" in relation to the sun as the "greater light" (see Genesis 1:16-18), so also in Babylonian and Egyptian religions the moon played a diminished role in relation to that of the sun. Nevertheless, the sun and the moon-and myths associated with them-were closely related. It would be naive to argue that the moon myths were simply the opposites of the sun myths, yet something of this oppositional ideology was actually present in Egyptian thinking. As the sun does during the day, so the moon does in a complementary fashion during the night for the benefit of humankind.

Although for the Egyptians the relations between the nocturnal moon, stars, and planets were more important than the relation of the sun and the moon, these two greater and lesser lights were nevertheless integrally related. Since the moon cycle began with the small thin crescent of the new moon-and its climax was the night of the large full moon-so the moon cycle was seen as a representation of fertile rejuvenation in nature. The well-known associations between the moon-in such cases depicted as a bull-and the female menstruation process, further verified this sympathetic relation between the moon, nature, and fertility.

Certainly the underworld mummified god Osiris was associated with the moon cycle. When the thin crescent of the moon first appeared at the very beginning of the monthly cycle, Osiris' conception was celebrated by Egyptian priests, and his birth was celebrated the following day. Thus, the cycles of the moon were associated with the perceived cycles of birth, life, death, and resurrection, as told in the mythic stories of Osiris' own birth, life, death, and resurrection.

Although the creation myths, sun myths, and moon myths dealt with issues related to the origins of all things and the function of the two most obvious celestial lights, the myths associated with the underworld god Osiris had a direct connection to Egyptian funerary and afterlife beliefs. They also provided a basis for a mythological rationale for the political structure associated with the pharaoh. Osiris was and remains the most famous of the Egyptian gods. He was the mummified god and was nearly always depicted covered in the wrappings of a mummy with legs and arms bound to the body, emphasizing his funerary and afterlife connections.

Although Osiris' association was first as an underworld fertility god, he was also associated with the sky-the realm of the sun god Re. Here Osiris was primarily related to the nocturnal moon, but also to the constellation Orion, the bright dog-star Sirius, and the circumpolar stars. As noted above, even the cycles of the moon were understood to represent the biographical life cycle of Osiris.

Osiris was born out of the early gods Geb (earth) -from whom he received earthly rule-and Nut (sky) -from whom he receive his celestial connection-who also gave birth to Osiris' wife Isis and his murderous brother Seth who drowned Osiris in the Nile-a necessary logical complement to Osiris' aspect as the god of resurrection-and finally to Seth's wife Nephthys. But Osiris was rejuvenated and impregnated Isis who gave birth to their divine son Horus-providing a divine prototype for mother and child (later borrowed by Egyptian Christian artists depicting Mary suckling the baby Jesus). In the mythology of Osiris, he soon became the gracious just ruler of the underworld. But his divine son Horus had to fight with the murderous Seth for the throne of Egypt, for the position of Pharaoh, the prize for which Seth killed his brother Osiris. The victory of Horus over Seth represented and guaranteed the victory of life over death, one of the most powerful and influential mythological concepts in classical Egypt.

Here the political connection to Osiris and the living pharaoh is clear. As Osiris was an image of the deceased pharaoh, so Horus was the image of the current and living pharaoh, with Isis as the image of his queenly mother-wife. This latter relation was not understood to be incestuous and was even continued by the later Greek-Macedonian pharaohs of Egypt beginning in the fourth-century BCE who used the title "Divine Siblings." The royal pharaonic connections with Osiris are clear in both texts and artistic representations of deceased pharaohs of Egypt, just as the connections with Horus are clear in representations of the living pharaoh.

Lewis Spence's book on the myths and legends of ancient Egypt is one of the cornerstones in historical research and led to the development of the modern discipline of Egyptology. Spence's writings still bear relevance today and continue to make the basic features of ancient Egyptian religion understandable to the general public. This popular book also inspired young scholars to follow in his footsteps as they further developed his ideas with a more objective understanding of the religion of ancient Egypt. There is no doubt that Spence's book aided in the construction of the four basic types of myths discussed above and will continue to attract the attention of young scholars who will move the field of Egyptology even further forward in the future.

Paul Mirecki (Harvard, 1986) is a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions and languages with a specialization in Egyptian manuscripts. He has studied and published manuscripts in museum collections in the United States, England, and Europe focusing on religious texts written in the ancient Greek, Middle Egyptian, and Coptic languages. He is currently Chair and Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Kansas.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found the book to be very informational for the beginner as an introduction to Egyptian mythology. However I was taken back by the words 'savage' to describe peoples who worship other deities other than the Judeo-Christian God and Jesus Christ. While the original author speaks of Native American, Aboriginal, Egyptian and other ancient and tribal religions with admiration, he always finds a way to discover fault in their belief system in a way that would heighten Christian thought. He is also careful to skirt the issue of challenging the truth of Christianity while taking aim at other religions, some of which are still thriving today. I'm dissapointed that this piece was printed as it was without a disclaimer about the original author's time period and how it was kept as it was not to ruin its integrity... if that's why the archaic or closed-minded ideology was left in the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quoting my second-grader, 'It inspired me to read more about Egypt.' After reading this book, she brought many books on pyramids, mummies and in general Egypt from her school library. My daughter wants to buy this book for her personal collection. I am all in support for it. It is a great book to read for bed-time stories. Wonderful book to give as a gift to any age group. Thanks for coming up with a great book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is definately one you need in your collection!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NO MYTHS?!?!! I feel like it's my first year of collage.I'M 11 YEARS OLD! C'MON PEOPLE!!! (BOREING) blah.blah.blah.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im talking about this in my class