Atum and snake Apep
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Apep (// or //) or Apophis (//; Ancient Greek: Άποφις; also spelled Apepi or Aapep) was an evil god in ancient Egyptian religion depicted as a snake/serpent and a dragon, the deification of darkness and chaos (ı͗zft in Egyptian), and thus opponent of light and Ma'at (order/truth), whose existence was believed from the 8th Dynasty (mentioned at Moalla) onwards. His name is reconstructed by Egyptologists as *ʻAʼpāpī, as it was written ꜥꜣpp(y) and survived in later Coptic as Ⲁⲫⲱⲫ Aphōph.
As the personification of all that was evil, Apep was seen as a giant snake/serpent, or occasionally as a dragon in later years, leading to such titles as Serpent from the Nile and Evil Lizard. Some elaborations even said that he stretched 16 yards in length and had a head made of flint. It is to be noted that already on a Naqada I (ca. 4000 BC) C-ware bowl (now in Cairo) a snake was painted on the inside rim combined with other desert and aquatic animals as a possible enemy of a deity, possibly a solar deity, who is invisibly hunting in a big rowing vessel.
Also, comparable hostile snakes as enemies of the sun god existed under other names (in the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts) already before the name Apep occurred. The etymology of his name (ꜥꜣpp) is perhaps to be sought in some west-semitic language where a word root ꜣpp meaning 'to slither' existed. A verb root ꜥꜣpp does at any rate not exist elsewhere in Ancient Egyptian. (It is not to be confused with the verb ꜥpı͗/ꜥpp: 'to fly across the sky, to travel') Apep's name much later came to be falsely connected etymologically in Egyptian with a different root meaning (he who was) spat out; the Romans referred to Apep by this translation of his name. Apophis was a large golden snake known to be miles long. He was so large that he attempted to swallow the sun every day.
Battles with Ra
Tales of Apep's battles against Ra were elaborated during the New Kingdom. Since nearly everyone can see that the sun is not attacked by a giant snake during the day, every day, storytellers said that Apep must lie just below the horizon. This appropriately made him a part of the underworld. In some stories Apep waited for Ra in a western mountain called Bakhu, where the sun set, and in others Apep lurked just before dawn, in the Tenth region of the Night. The wide range of Apep's possible location gained him the title World Encircler. It was thought that his terrifying roar would cause the underworld to rumble. Myths sometimes say that Apep was trapped there, because he had been the previous chief god and suffered a coup d'etat by Ra, or because he was evil and had been imprisoned.
In his battles, Apep was thought to use a magical gaze to hypnotize Ra and his entourage, attempting to devour them whilst choking the river on which they traveled through the underworld with his coils. Sometimes Apep had assistance from other demons, named Sek and Mot. Ra was assisted by a number of defenders who travelled with him, the most powerful being Set, who sat at the helm.
In a bid to explain certain natural phenomena it was said that occasionally Apep got the upper hand. The damage to order caused thunderstorms and earthquakes. Indeed: it was even thought that sometimes Apep actually managed to swallow Ra during the day, causing a solar eclipse, but since Ra's defenders quickly cut him free of Apep, the eclipse always ended within a few minutes. On the occasions when Apep was said to have been killed, he was able to return each night (since he lived in the world of the dead already). In Atenism it is Aten who kills the monster since Aten is the only god in the belief system.
However, in other myths, it was the cat goddess Bastet, daughter of Ra, who slew Apep in her cat form one night, hunting him down with her all seeing eye.
Ra was so very much worshipped, and Apep worshipped against. His victory each night was thought to be ensured by the prayers of the Egyptian priests and worshipers at temples. The Egyptians practiced a number of rituals and superstitions that were thought to ward off Apep, and aid Ra to continue his journey across the sky.
In an annual rite, called the Banishing of Chaos, priests would build an effigy of Apep that was thought to contain all of the evil and darkness in Egypt, and burn it to protect everyone from Apep's evil for another year, in a similar manner to modern rituals such as Zozobra.
The Egyptian priests even had a detailed guide to fighting Apep, referred to as The Books of Overthrowing Apep (or the Book of Apophis, in Greek). The chapters described a gradual process of dismemberment and disposal, and include:
Spitting Upon Apep Defiling Apep with the Left Foot Taking a Lance to Smite Apep Fettering Apep Taking a Knife to Smite Apep Putting Fire Upon Apep
In addition to stories about Ra's winnings, this guide had instructions for making wax models, or small drawings, of the serpent, which would be spat on, mutilated and burnt, whilst reciting spells that would kill Apep. Fearing that even the image of Apep could give power to the demon any rendering would always include another deity to subdue the monster.
As Apep was thought to live in the underworld, he was sometimes thought of as an Eater of Souls. Thus the dead also needed protection, so they were sometimes buried with spells that could destroy Apep. The Book of the Dead does not frequently describe occasions when Ra defeated the chaos snake explicitly called Apep. Only BD Spells 7 and 39 can be explained as such.
- Snakes in mythology
- Serpent (symbolism)
- 99942 Apophis
- Egyptian influence in popular culture
- Apepi (pharaoh)
- Erman, Adolf, and Hermann Grapow, eds. 1926–1953. Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache im Auftrage der deutschen Akademien. 6 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs'schen Buchhandlungen. (Reprinted Berlin: Akademie-Verlag GmbH, 1971).
- Hieroglyph as per Budge Gods of the Ancient Egyptians (1969), Vol. I, 180.
- C.Wolterman, in Jaarbericht van Ex Oriente Lux, Leiden Nr.37 (2002).
- H. Te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion (Leiden, 1977), 105-7.
- tomb of Inherkha, Deir el-Medina
- J. Assmann, Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom, transl. by A. Alcock (London, 1995), 49-57.
- P.Kousoulis, Magic and Religion as Performative Theological Unity: the Apotropaic Ritual of Overthrowing Apophis, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Liverpool (Liverpool, 1999), chapters 3-5.
- J.F.Borghouts, Book of the Dead : From Shouting to Structure (Studien zum Altaegyptischen Totenbuch 10, Wiesbaden, 2007).
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