(Apep, Apopis) A serpent God embodying the primeval forces of disorder inimical to life. Apophis is the eternal opponent of Re and attacks the solar boat, not only during its nocturnal journey, but even during its journey by day. He is conceived as massive in size (his name is sometimes interpreted with reference to Coptic oipe/ôipi/aipi as meaning huge or indeterminate in size, Wörterbuch 1: 67) and possessing a deafening roar and paralyzing gaze.

Many different deities are said to assist Re in fighting off Apophis, but pre-eminent among them is Seth, in his principal beneficent function. The vigor and vitality of Seth, disruptive on one level, is nevertheless apparently uniquely suited to combat the entropic assault of Apophis. The role of Seth in this drama underscores the distinction between the spheres in which the conflicts associated with Re and those associated with Osiris are situated. This is vividly illustrated in the depictions of the seventh hour of the night in the Amduat book, the book of “That Which is in the Duat,” or netherworld. The hour is depicted, as is the form in this book, in three registers. In the middle register, the boat of Re confronts Apophis, who has swallowed up the water which the boat needs to proceed. At the head of the boat stand Isis and Seth, whose exercise of magic (heka in Egyptian) wards off Apophis and permits the boat to proceed despite the lack of water. The  cooperation of Isis and Seth here stands in stark contrast to the conflict between them in the Osirian mythos. Meanwhile, Apophis is fettered by the Goddess Serket while others hack his body to pieces. In the upper register Osiris is enthroned. Like Re in his boat, Osiris is encircled by the protective serpent Mehen, for the first time in the book in this hour, as if the beneficent counterpart of Apophis. Before Osiris are a series of bound captives, his own enemies, depicted in human form, who are being decapitated by a demon with a cat’s head, evoking spell 17 of the Book of the Dead in which Re (or alternately Shu) in the form of a cat uses a knife to decapitate a serpent (identified with Apophis) who is coiled around the sacred sycamore or persea tree in Heliopolis. In the lower register, a peaceful procession of stars proceeds toward the eastern horizon, either untouched by the conflict in the two parallel domains or their status secured by the overcoming of Apophis. The magic which is performed in this hour is said in the text to be performed likewise on earth, and “who performs it, is present in the barque of Re, in heaven and in earth,” (p. 93 in Abt & Hornung). Humans thus while alive can and do participate in the drama of overcoming Apophis, and we have evidence of such rites directed against Apophis, especially from a collection known as The Book of Overthrowing Apophis, in which names and forms of Apophis written on papyrus or wax figures of Apophis are destroyed.

In the sixth hour of the Book of Gates, another New Kingdom depiction of Re’s nocturnal journey, the heads of those Apophis has swallowed are depicted rising up out of his body in the upper register, paralleling a series of mummified corpses in the lower register which lie atop a serpent-shaped bed, while the boat of Re passes through in the middle register. Those who have been consumed by Apophis are thus able to regain their forms through the grace of Re.

The same sort of scene depicted in the seventh hour of the Amduat book is narrated in spells 39 and 108 of the Book of the Dead. In 39 we note that Isis is said to dismember Apophis, evoking the dismemberment by Seth of Isis’ brother and consort Osiris. In 108 Seth hurls a spear of iron against Apophis, causing him to disgorge the water he has swallowed, which has brought the boat of Re to a halt, not in the middle of the night, as in the Amduat book, but just after midday. This victory, as ever only a temporary one, allows Re to set in safety. Apophis can never be wholly eliminated insofar as the forces of entropy are an implicit part of the cosmos. Thus just as Osiris is dismembered but reconstituted, expressing the salvation of the mortal being, so the very Goddess who reconstitutes Osiris, namely Isis, dismembers Apophis who nevertheless reconstitutes himself.

Only one known text, from the temple at Esna, speaks of the origin of Apophis. In recounting the birth of Re from Neith, the text states that Apophis comes into being either from the newborn Re’s umbilical cord or from his spittle, depending on the translation: “It became a serpent of 120 cubits. (Thus) one calls it Apophis. His heart created rebellion against Re together with his (Apophis’) associates who emerged from his (Re’s) eye,” (Esna 206, 11, p. 347 in Kemboly). Other texts, however, adduced by Ritner (p. 282f) make the identification with the umbilical cord more likely. The text goes on to recount how Thoth comes into being “from his (Re’s) heart when it was bitter,” (dḥr, ‘bitter’ is likely a pun on Thoth’s name, Ḏḥwty) and is sent against Apophis’ rebellion. This text features prominently in support of an extended argument Mpay Kemboly makes concerning the origin of evil in Egyptian theology, insofar as it establishes Apophis as arising relatively late in the cosmogony, and in direct conjunction with Re. Ritner, by contrast, arrives at the opposite conclusion, namely that “Apep is Neith’s creation, coterminous and consubstantial with Re,” (ibid., 283).

The evil Apophis embodies, therefore, can neither be simply identified with the precosmic state, nor with the actions of humans alone. It seems, rather, from this text, that in being ‘born’, i.e., operating in cosmic time, and through his cosmogonic work—note the pun on Re’s ‘eye’, irt, from which humans (rmṯ) emerge with his weeping (rmyt), and Re’s work, ir.t—Re unavoidably generates, as a corollary of his passivity in the conditions of his emergence, the entropic force against which he and the things in his cosmic order must forever vie, insofar as the very fact of being born in itself entails the struggle with the potential for nonexistence.

Abt, Theodor and Erik Hornung. 2003. Knowledge for the Afterlife: The Egyptian Duat—a Quest for Immortality. Zürich: Living Human Heritage.
Kemboly, Mpay. 2010. The Question of Evil in Ancient Egypt. London: Golden House Publications.
Ritner, Robert K. 2017. “The Origin of Evil in Egyptian Theological Speculation.” Pp. 281-290 in Robert K. Ritner, ed. Essays for the Library of Seshat: Studies Presented to Janet H. Johnson on the Occasion of Her 70th Birthday. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.

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