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Ancient Egyptian God Tefnut: Mythology, Symbol & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Egyptians took their deities very seriously, but few were as directly relevant as Tefnut. In this lesson, we'll get to know this goddess and see what role she played in Egyptian lives.

Water in the Desert

Water is important, but some of us take it for granted. It seems to be everywhere, so what's the big deal? While modern people tend to have easy access to fresh water, this was certainly not true of ancient civilizations. A loss of a water source could spell the end of that society, and few people appreciated this as well as the Egyptians. Surrounded by harsh desert on nearly all side, the entire Egyptian cosmology was built around maintaining cosmic harmony to ensure the survival of the Nile River.

A central figure in this was the goddess Tefnut. Tefnut was a goddess of rain, water, and moisture. She was also at times a lunar deity, associated with the cycles and power of the moon. As a water goddess in a desert civilization, Tefnut was more directly responsible for maintaining life than nearly any other deity. In fact, she was an integral member of the Ennead the nine most important deities in Egyptian religion (sort of like the 12 Olympians of Greece). If there was one figure the Egyptians didn't want to upset, it was Tefnut, the water in the desert.

Tefnut, the lioness-headed rain goddess
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Tefnut in Mythology

There can be no life without water, so it's unsurprising to learn that Tefnut was seen as one of the oldest deities in the pantheon. According to Egyptian mythology, she was created from the spit of the cosmic creator Atum-Ra, along with her twin brother Shu, god of dry air. Tefnut and Shu are there for binaries, opposite forces that compliment each other. Shu was also Tefnut's consort, and together they had the children Geb (god of the earth) and Nut (goddess of the sky). Their grandchildren included Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, and Set, so Tefnut was genealogically connected to a number of important figures.

Appearance of Tefnut

Tefnut appears frequently in Egyptian art, and is pretty easily identifiable by a distinguishing feature: the head of a lioness. Tefnut's actually not the only goddess to be shown in this way, but she is generally depicted as a lioness with pointed ears, while the goddess Sekhmet is a lioness with rounded ears. The choice to give Tefnut a lioness' head was likely a symbol of her power, as well as her role as a protector. In many myths, she becomes the ultimate guardian and protector of Ra.

Apart from her notable feline features, Tefnut is also identifiable by a few other attributes. For one, she generally wears a solar disk on her head (a symbol of Atum-Ra) with a cobra on each side. The solar disk usually contains the Uraeus, the rearing cobra over the forehead as well. This was a divine symbol of protection, again enforcing that idea of a Tefnut as a protective deity. In fact, she was occasionally depicted as a rearing cobra, identifying her with the Uraeus worn by pharaohs for protection.

In her hands, Tefnut often held a staff as a symbol of power, as well as a shape that looks like a cross with a circle at the top. That's called the Ankh, and it's one of the most important and powerful symbols in Egyptian mythology. It represents life. Considering that Tefnut was a goddess of fresh water, her connection to this symbol is not hard to understand.

Tefnut was often associated with the symbol of the Ankh
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Tefnut in Egypt

Tefnut was revered throughout Egypt, and people took the rituals associated with her very seriously. After all, mythology gave them a clue as to what would happen should she be angered. In one story, Tefnut became furious with her father and stormed off (literally) into the Nubian Desert. When she did, she took all the rain and moisture with her, and Egypt dried up. Some scholars today think this story may refer to an actual drought that may have led to the decline of the Old Kingdom.

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