Ancient Egyptian God Atum: Creation Myth, Appearance & Facts

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Creation stories are essential to religious traditions, which is why Atum, the creator god, is so important to Egyptian religious. Read more about Atum and how he created the world in this lesson.

Creation of the World

Where did the world come from? Who created the gods? Why were they created? Questions like this pervade religious thought, and ancient Egyptian religion was no different. The ancient Egyptians believed all of the gods were created by Atum, whose name comes from ''tem,'' which means ''to complete.'' According to this cosmogony, or story about the origin of the world, nothing existed before Atum; not even Atum himself existed at the beginning of the world. Out of this nothingness, or ''nun,'' there was an earthen mound that rose up, and Atum created himself on it.

Imagine that you were the only being in existence. You would probably be lonely, which is how Atum felt, so he created two other deities who were embodiments of the elements. By spitting, he created Shu, who was the air, and Tefnut, who was moisture. These two created the earth, Geb, and the sky, Nut. Shu, the air, decided to separate the earth and sky, which created the world we live in today. Geb and Nut went on to create other deities, most notably, Osiris and Isis. This large collection of gods that are the direct result of Atum's creation are collectively called the Ennead, or ''the nine'', who act as the creators of the world.

The deities of the Ennead
The deities of the Ennead

Role and Appearance of Atum

The creator is obviously an important deity to a religious tradition. Because of this, Atum was the first god to be worshiped in the city of Heliopolis, a city and religious center near modern-day Cairo in Lower Egypt, during Old Kingdom Egypt. He was considered to be not only the father of the gods, but also the father of the pharaohs. On the New Year's festival each year, which saw the pharaoh being reaffirmed as the ruler, Atum played an important role. In the New Kingdom, Atum was even depicted crowning the pharaoh.

Atum is usually depicted as a man with a beard, typically looking like a pharaoh. He wears a pschent, a double crown that combines both the white crown used in Upper Egypt and the red crown used in Lower Egypt. This symbolically combined all of Egypt into one nation ruled by Atum. Atum is commonly depicted as an elderly man with a ram head as well. He usually carries a staff, in this case, indicative of his old age as the creator god. Less frequently, though occasionally, he is depicted as an ape and carries a bow. He was also associated with a scarab beetle, signifying renewal. There is a scarab statue dedicated to him at the Temple of Karnak, near Thebes, that was built to honor the gods.

Drawing of a pschent, like what Atum is depicted wearing
Drawing of a pschent

Atum and Creation

While the cosmogony with the Ennead is common, there is also an alternate creation story where Atum has a consort. This consort, Iusaaset, acted as the hand of Atum and, according to the tradition, the two gave birth to Shu and Tefnut. Iusaaset, then, was considered the mother of the deities while Atum was the father. Her name literally meant ''the great one who comes forth,'' she supposedly owned the tree of life.

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