(Tem, Temu) The great creator God of Ôn, the city known to the Greeks as Heliopolis, Atum is generally depicted anthropomorphically, wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, sometimes leaning on a staff to indicate advanced age. Atum’s name provides the key to his nature; it carries the sense of totality, of finishing, and of negation. Atum is the totality which evolves or develops as a work upon itself and through the interaction and articulation of its elements. Thus Atum begins the process of the emergence of the Gods into the cosmos by an act of masturbation by which he brings forth Shu and Tefnut, who then carry forward the process themselves. Atum is also, however, as the origin of the cosmos, the one who more than any other distinguishes himself from all there is, the one who by his very being negates all things, and thus expresses his freedom and autonomy. His name has also the connotation of finishing, because the totality is at any moment all that it can be; it is always at its ultimate state. Atum is not in the first place a solar deity, but is so closely associated with his fellow Heliopolitan God Re, who is the solar deity par excellence, that Atum comes to be regarded as the sun in a particular aspect, either as source and origin of all life, or as the sun in its singularity. In this latter aspect he is embodied in the sun at its setting, at the moment when it begins its journey into the netherworld. Atum, who was alone at the beginning of the cosmos, is manifest in the sun’s aloneness at the threshold of transformation. In the Pyramid Texts (utterance 213) each part of the king’s body is identified with Atum except for his face, which is identified with Anubis—all of the parts of the body which can be seen by oneself without a mirror, therefore, are Atum’s.
Atum’s myth is well developed already in the Pyramid Texts. In the midst of the watery abyss of indeterminacy, personified as Nun, Atum creates for himself a point of determinacy, a mound that rises from the waters at the site of Heliopolis, a moment which is also functionally identical to that in which Atum grasps his phallus in his hand. The determinacy of place which comes with the emergence of solid ground in the Nun is one with the determinacy achieved by a part of the body (the phallus) which expresses Atum’s self-awareness. The place of the primordial hillock, which embodies the beginning of everything and was represented at Heliopolis by the presence of a benben stone, or pyramidion, is also a place which is everywhere. This moment of the emergence of the primeval mound is also hardly to be distinguished from the first sunrise, which is in turn each day’s sunrise. From here begins the close identification of Atum and Re. The compound name Re-Atum is very common, either with separate determiners indicating that the two are kept distinct even in fusion (e.g. in CT spell 673) or with Re subordinated to Atum, as in CT spell 266, where the operator says “I am Atum in his name of Re.” Where one is to be subordinated to the other, it is Re who is subordinated to Atum, for the sun can be regarded as merely one element in the self-developing totality. Alternately, the sun itself, Re in the broadest sense, can be the focus, relativizing Re in the narrow sense and Atum alike, as in BD spell 15A: “Hail to thee, Re at his rising, Atum at thy setting.”
Having created Shu and Tefnut through his masturbatory act—his hand as partner in this act is personified as the Goddess Iusâas—Atum embraces them, his embracing arms forming the hieroglyph for the ka, the spirit or double belonging to each living being. In this act, Atum passes on to them his essence, that is, the monadic essence of being an individual (PT utterance 600). To be each at once the totality and also a part of the totality—this is what Atum passes on to his children and to their children, who fill the ranks of the ‘ennead’, or pantheon of nine Gods, of Heliopolis, consisting of Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, but ‘ennead’ is also a general term in Egyptian thought for a collection of Gods of whatever number. It is the nature of a God as such in Egyptian thought to possess the capacity of self-creation which is the essence of Atum; it is the nature of a God to be the totality. In PT utterance 600, a prayer of protection for the king and his pyramid, it is said “O you children of Atum, extend his goodwill (lit. ‘heart’) to his child … Let his back be turned from you toward Atum, that he may protect this King…”. Here, the protective gesture of having the deity at one’s back is transferred from Atum’s children to Atum, symbolizing the withdrawal from the world to the inwardness of the very wellspring of individuality. The king, in turn, assists Atum, as we read in utterance 362: “O my father Atum in darkness! Fetch me to your side, so that I may kindle a light for you and that I may protect you.” For the king to redeem his own selfhood is in itself to kindle a light for Atum, to protect Atum; the two acts are not separate. Atum passes on, not only to his children the Gods, but to humans as well, the birthright of selfhood, but humans must activate this gift of Atum’s.
Noteworthy in PT utterance 215 is the opposition between Re-Atum and Osiris: “Re-Atum will not give you to Osiris, and he [Osiris] shall not claim your heart nor have power over your heart,” the affirmation being repeated with respect to Horus. It is not a matter of the latter deities being actually a danger to the deceased, for even if Osiris is, as lord of the underworld, conceivably an ambivalent figure, nevertheless this cannot be the case with Horus. Rather, it is a question of Atum’s prior claim upon the individual. In the same utterance, Shu and Tefnut tell the deceased to “come into being, an Atum to every God.” Atum being that which grounds individuality as such, it is natural that the maintenance of the integrity of one identity should have ramifications for the totality; hence in utterance 465 the king demands of the “Gods of the horizon who are in the limit of the sky,” that “if you wish that Atum should live … take my hand and place me in the Field of Offerings.” Similarly, Atum, as the totality, has the ability to bring together the Gods in assembly: “Ho all you Gods! Come all together, come assembled, just as you came together and assembled for Atum in On,” (utterance 599). In BD spell 3, Atum is portrayed as speaking on the deceased’s behalf: “O Atum … speak thou to the Ancestors: N. [the deceased] comes as one who is in their midst.” The aspect of negation in Atum is evident in PT utterance 606, which identifies the king with Re, but also distinguishes the Atum-aspect of Re: “you will draw near to them [the Gods] like Re in this his name of Re; you will turn aside from their faces like Re in this his name of Atum.”
As the origin of form itself, Atum is naturally one of the Gods immediately confronting Apophis, the giant serpent representing entropy; and BD spell 7 allows the deceased to identify with Atum so as to escape the clutches of Apophis. In this spell, the deceased says “I am the one-faced one,” for Atum represents the integrity of identity which remains constant across transformations. Atum also confronts Apophis directly in netherworld books like the Book of Gates. The Book of the Dead includes a spell (79) for “becoming the greatest in the Council,” which is directed toward Atum. Here again we see Atum, as the totality, associated with a collective entity, the Council of the Gods. The deceased identifies himself here in striking fashion as “this God who eats men and lives on Gods.” This claim evokes the famous utterances 273-4 of the Pyramid Texts in which the king is said to be “a God who lives on his fathers and feeds on his mothers,” to have been begotten by Atum but to be mightier than him, and to devour the Gods. These surprising images serve to secure a place in the cosmic order for a human as a unique and autonomous individual against all the forces, even beneficent ones, which would tend to overwhelm and absorb him/her, and Atum is the God most intimately linked to this critical moment.
Another important appearance of Atum in the Book of the Dead is in spell 175, a spell “for not dying again,” in which Atum speaks to Thoth about the turmoil generated by the “Children of Nut,” i.e. Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, and engages in a dialogue with the deceased, who questions Atum about the netherworld, “the silent land, which has no water and no air and is very deep and very dark and all is lacking,” including food, drink and sexual pleasures, to which Atum replies that blessedness and quietness of heart have been granted by him in place of these things, and that at any rate “thy face sees, and I will not suffer thee to choke”; the deceased is then granted a vision of Atum face-to-face. The exchange is interesting in that all of the necessities and amenities of life which are, throughout the afterlife literature, magically procured for the deceased, are here dispensed with, not in contradiction to other parts of the Book of the Dead, but in accord with the peculiarly primordial bond between the deceased and Atum, as is signaled at the beginning of the spell by Atum’s private remarks to Thoth about the Children of Nut, three of whom at any rate (Osiris, Isis and Nephthys) are representative throughout the rest of the Book of the Dead of all that is hoped for on behalf of the deceased in the other world; and indeed, throughout the dialogue the deceased is, as in the rest of the Book of the Dead, designated as ‘Osiris’. In the continuation of the dialogue, Atum explains that he shall someday return everything into the abyss as it existed before the emergence of the cosmos, after which “I [Atum] shall survive together with Osiris, after I have assumed my forms of other snakes which men know not and Gods see not.” This is not, perhaps, so much an apocalyptic prophecy as another demonstration of the ability of Atum (and therefore the operator who successfully identifies with him) to set himself apart from all that is and to subsist unsupported, as it were, in and through the abyss, the destruction of the cosmos which is spoken of by Atum being, not one which is to occur in the distant future so much as that which is immediate for the deceased and has, for him or her, already in fact taken place.
Allen, J. P. 1988. Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]