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Ancient Egyptian God Shu: Myth, Symbol & Facts

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson travels to ancient Egypt to study the air god, Shu. We'll look at creation myths to see how he was born and his role in creating the earth and sky. We'll also explore his role in the afterlife, his symbol, and the lineage of the Pharaohs.

Shu

People have shown a particular fascination for Ancient Egypt throughout the ages, particularly its mythology. While you may know of Ra, the sun god, or Osiris, the god of death and rebirth, how much do you know about Shu? He was a powerful god of the air, a god-pharaoh, the sun's protector, and helped determine the fates of souls after death. Does that pique your interest? Let's see how it all started.

Shu
Shu

Creation of Shu and Tefnut

In the beginning, there was primordial darkness and chaos. From that emptiness, the Egyptian god Atum, also called Ra and Re, came into being. He was the first god, creator of himself. Seeing the nothingness around him, he determined to create a world. He had intercourse with his hand and ejaculated into his mouth, using it as a womb. When he spat out the substance, he created the twin god and goddess named Shu and Tefnut, siblings and lovers who shared a single soul.

How the Sun and the Moon Were Formed

There was still no light in the primordial darkness and Atum could not find his children. He created an eye that illuminated the darkness and sent it to look for Shu and Tefnut. While the eye was traveling in the darkness, Atum decided he needed another eye to see what was near him. When the first eye returned with the young gods, it became jealous of the new eye. Atum decided the first eye deserved a reward for its great service and made it shine brighter than anything else in existence. The second eye still shone, but with much less light. Thus, Atum created the sun and the moon.

Tefnut Gives Birth to the Sky and the Earth

Shu and Tefnut soon conceived twins, one male and one female, born in a perpetual embrace of love and longing, but this was not good. Their daughter, Nut, was the sky above while their son, Geb, was the earth. While the twins embraced one another, there was no room for a world to form. Shu forced his children apart, standing on Geb's earthly body and holding Nut high above. This is how Shu came to represent the air and all the space between the earth and the sky. His sister and wife, Tefnut, became the goddess of moisture and mist, tempering the dry air while filling the space so they may be together.

Shu stands between Nut and Geb.
Shu between children

Shu's Symbol and Judgement of the Dead

Shu's main symbol is the ostrich feather, representing air. Interestingly, the goddess Ma'at is also represented by the ostrich feather for a very different reason. The ancient Egyptians believe that when a person died, they went before Osiris, the god of the death and rebirth, to receive their judgment.

Ostrich feathers symbol
Feather

First, the 42 judges would take turns speaking about the person's life, of which Shu was one of the judges. Then, their heart was weighed on a scale against an ostrich feather representing the goddess Ma'at who could see into their deepest secrets. If their heart was lighter, they would climb the ladder to heaven, held by Shu. If the heart weighed more than the feather, the soul was eaten by the monstrous god Ammut.

Shu helps judge the dead.
Judgment

Shu, Ancestor of Pharaohs

The Egyptian pharaohs claimed to be descended from the god Ra, also known as Atum from the first story in the lesson. When Ra left the throne to travel the sky as the sun, Shu inherited the throne and became the second pharaoh.

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