A group of eight Gods—four Gods and four Goddesses—who feature in a cosmogony originating from the city of Shmun (Khemennu), lit. ‘Eight City’, known to the Greeks as Hermopolis. They represent a stage of the cosmos prior to the appearance of the land and the light, and in addition to being referred to as ‘the Eight’, are also known as the Hehu, or ‘infinites’, often translated ‘Chaos-Gods’. They are: Nun and Naunet, ‘the Abyss’; Heh and Hauhet, ‘Infinity/Formlessness’; Kek and Kauket, ‘Darkness’; Amun and Amaunet, ‘Hiddenness’. Occasionally Tenem and Tenemuit are substituted for Amun and Amaunet, the latter being increasingly distinguished from the rest of the Ogdoad as Amun rose to prominence as a God of national significance. ‘Tenem’, coming from a root meaning to go astray or become lost, is sometimes translated ‘Gloom’, but is perhaps better understood, in accord with the generally privative character of the members of the Ogdoad, as ‘the Nowhere’ (J. P. Allen, 20). Other substitutions in the membership of the Hehu for Amun and Amaunet are Gereh and Gerhet, ‘Night/Cessation’, and Niau and Niaut, ‘Emptiness’. The four Gods in the Ogdoad are represented with frogs’ heads, the four Goddesses with snakes’ heads.
The original cosmogony involving the Ogdoad is unclear in its details, but as Siegfried Morenz has remarked it appears to represent a system “concerned with cosmic matter, not with organic life,” and he notes that “the stress laid on the physical qualities of the primeval substance” in the Hermopolitan cosmogony “testifies to the existence of a scientific spirit,” (175). Whether the qualities which the Hermopolitan cosmogony attributes to the primeval substance are ‘physical’ may be questioned; but clearly this cosmogony emphasized the nature of substance rather than other possible creative principles. The principal stages in the cosmogony involving the Ogdoad are typical of all Egyptian cosmogonies: the appearance of solidity amidst the watery abyss, in the form of a primeval mound of earth, followed by the coming forth of light. In the purest form of the Hermopolitan cosmogony, which may have existed at an early period or only developed later with the progress of speculative thought, the Gods and Goddesses of the Ogdoad are themselves the agents of cosmogenesis: “They step upon the primeval mound and create light,” as “fathers and mothers who made the light,” indeed, “as the radiance of their hearts,” (Sethe §96, 100); they are the “fathers and mothers who came into being in the beginning, who gave birth to the sun, who created Atum,” (Sethe, §100). Appropriations of the Hermopolitan cosmogony, however, generally treat the members of the Ogdoad as more akin to the material of cosmogenesis than its agents, in accord with their manifest attributes of indefiniteness and inertness. A catalyst of some kind is thus posited for whatever coagulation or reaction among the Ogdoad leads to the next stage in the creation, culminating in the advent of light at a mythical place known as the Isle of Flames, Iu-Neserser. Among the figures conceived as catalysts or first movers in relation to the Ogdoad are the serpents Kematef (‘he who has completed his time’) and Irta (‘earth-maker’), who are generally taken as forms of Amun, as well as a number of major deities, especially Amun (transcending his own membership in the Ogdoad), Ptah, Tatenen, Atum, and Re.
The role of the Ogdoad as transitional creators or ‘proto-demiurges’ is often expressed in the symbolism of a primordial egg or lotus which is their proximate creation, an intermediate creation or matrix of transformation, a vessel in which the subsequent stages of cosmogenesis can, as it were, incubate. The lotus or egg may be created by the Ogdoad, or merely fertilized by them, or it may simply embody the moment at which they come to be in a determinate place, this determinacy being in itself a stage in the cosmogenesis. A version of the cosmogony from Karnak emphasizing Amun, for instance, states that “The land was yet in the depths of the waves. Amun gained a foothold upon it and it dissipated all the torpor that possessed him, when he installed himself upon its surface,” (Sauneron and Yoyotte 1959, 71). The removal of Amun’s ‘torpor’ or inertness is synonymous with his activation, and the unleashing of the creative potencies which were, so to speak, adrift in the abyss. The difference between the lotus and the egg as symbols of this primordial creative matrix seems to be that the egg represents a substantial precondition for the existence of what comes from it in a way which renders the egg an ambivalent symbol; hence in CT spell 76, Shu affirms his own self-sufficiency by stating “I was not built up in the womb, I was not knit together in the egg.” By contrast, the pharaoh is frequently depicted offering to the Gods images of the lotus wrought of precious metals and gems, and many of the surviving references to the Ogdoad occur specifically in the context of such scenes. The Ogdoad do not necessarily represent in themselves a problematic predetermination of divine autonomy due to their negative character; at any rate, it is a commonplace of Egyptian theology that deities recapitulate the conditions of their own emergence. The lotus in some sense expresses this very capacity, as in one text depicting the offering of the lotus, which is said to have “sprung forth from the body” of the Ogdoad and to be “the sum of the ancestors,” (Sauneron and Yoyotte 1959, 59).
Since the cosmogony involving the Ogdoad originated in Hermopolis, a prominent role was probably accorded to Thoth in early versions of the cosmogony. A text from Edfu (I, 289) seems to preserve elements of such a version. It states that the Ogdoad, “the august ones who came into being before the Gods … were engendered in the Nun, and born in the flood.” A second stage of the creation involves the emergence of the radiant lotus and the activity of Shu, from whose thought Thoth is begotten in the form of an ibis. It is said of Thoth that “his work is to create life,” and the notion of a transition to a new level of cosmic organization perhaps underlies what follows, in which it is said that “the God completed his first creative plan, and did not let it be known. He buried the Ancestors [the Ogdoad] after the completion of their span of life. He ferried over with them to the western district of Djême, the netherworld of Kematef. And Shu crosses over to them bearing offerings every day.” Inasmuch as the members of the Ogdoad preexist the first real event in the cosmos, namely the advent of light, they could be regarded from a viewpoint within the constituted cosmos as being, in a peculiar sense, deceased, and they did indeed possess a necropolis cult at Djême (Medinet Habu) along with Kematef. The notion that the members of the Ogdoad were in some sense ‘deceased’ expresses their incorporation into the framework of the evolved cosmos as passive or inert elements: thus another text from Edfu (II, 51) states of the Ogdoad that “[t]heir time on earth was completed [kem, as in ‘Kematef’], and their Ba [soul or manifestation] flew heavenwards … His majesty [Re] gave command that their bodies should be interred in the place where they were.” Shu, however, “crosses over” to the Ogdoad, maintaining a link to the primordial stages of the formation of the cosmos.
PT utterance 301 refers to two of the pairs, Nun and Naunet and Amun and Amaunet, as “protectors of the Gods, who protect the Gods with their shadow,” i.e. rendering the Gods ineffable through their formlessness. In CT spells 76 and 78-80 the Ogdoad is said to have been created by Shu. This could be justified, among other ways, with recourse to the sense of Shu’s name, ‘Void’. In these spells the Gods of the Ogdoad seem to have been produced from the state of formlessness in which Atum, Shu and Tefnut existed at the beginning of the cosmos by giving names, and thus order, to the attributes of this state. The first stage in cosmogenesis, therefore, according to this version, is the acquisition of personality and intention by the primeval matter. The Ogdoad is sometimes seen playing an active role in cosmic maintenance, helping Shu to support the heavens, visualized as a great cow each of whose legs—the ‘pillars of heaven’ or cardinal points—has two of the Hehu supporting it. Sometimes, inasmuch as they represent a phase of the cosmos prior to the existence of form, they embody hostile forces of dissolution. Thus in the Book of Gates, some would interpret as the Ogdoad the “children of weakness” who are the allies of Apophis, in accord with an unambiguous reference to the “Hermopolitans” under this name in a commentary on CT spell 335/BD spell 17 (J. P. Allen, 70 n. 118). In CT spells 493 and 494, spells to permit a person’s soul to go out from or come into the netherworld as they wish, reference is made to “trappers who take away souls and constrain shades, who [i.e., the trapped souls] are put in the slaughterhouse of the Hehu.” In CT 494, it is said that Sia, the God personifying perception, “goes up into the shrine, for he has heard the sound of my soul saving itself from the trappers,” indicating that the achievement of perception is conterminous with avoiding the slaughterhouse of the ‘infinites’, that is, the abyss of formlessness. In CT spell 107, “Recitation for going out into the day,” the Hehu and Nun (God of the precosmic abyss) are together asked to make for the operator a way to “go forth and see men, and that the plebs may worship me.” The Hehu and Nun are invoked here specifically as powers of formlessness, as can be seen from the spell’s opening formula, which identifies the operator with natural symbols of vigor but also turmoil: “The crocodile and the pig have slept, the pig has passed by. Do they perish? Then I perish.” The operator’s rhetorical question—these forces will not perish, for one thing because they disrupt other things and cause them to perish—signals his/her appropriation of the durability of chaotic forces ordinarily thought of as hostile, an example of the tactical inversions typical of Egyptian magical practice. Sometimes the Ogdoad are conceived as having presided over the cosmos during a ‘Golden Age’ in which order (Ma’et) “came from the heavens and was united with those who were on the earth” and there was no evil, scarcity, or suffering (Sauneron and Yoyotte 1959, 54). This could, however, express an anticosmic sentiment sometimes found in Egyptian thought, as for instance in BD spell 175, in which Atum complains to Thoth of the “turmoil” and “carnage” committed by ‘the children of Nut’—that is, Gods such as Osiris, Isis and Seth who are associated with the most complex aspects of the cosmos, a complexity which, because it entails a mixture of good and evil, can appear from a certain perspective simply as evil.
A spell (no. 53 in Borghouts) to treat two unidentified maladies (for one of which epilepsy has been suggested as an identification, see Borghouts p. 104, n. 127) calls upon the members of the Ogdoad as “you eight Gods there who came forth from Nun and who have no clothes, who have no hair—as for their true name, it is a fact that it is not known,” followed by certain untranslatable hieroglyphs perhaps expressing the inscrutable name. The Ogdoad’s lack of clothes and hair here symbolize their formlessness. Another spell (no. 126 in Borghouts) called a “water song” invokes the Ogdoad to repel hazards (e.g., crocodiles) from a boat. A clay egg is fashioned, to be thrown upon the water from the boat’s prow if anything surfaces, the egg having been charged as “the egg-shells of the Ogdoad Gods.” The mechanism in the spell is thus a correspondence between the watery abyss of Nun and the earthly waters; since that which emerged from the mysterious waters of Nun was beneficent, the egg ensures that what emerges from the river will be harmless. Another spell against “lions on the desert-plateau, crocodiles in the river and all snakes that bite in their holes” (no. 125 in Borghouts) is to be recited “over an image of Amun with four faces on one neck, drawn on the ground, a crocodile below its feet and the Ogdoad at his right and his left side, adoring him.”
Allen, James P. 1988. Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts. New Haven, CT: Yale Egyptological Seminar.
Borghouts, J. F. 1978. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
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]
Morenz, Siegfried. 1973. Egyptian Religion. Tr. by Ann E. Keep. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sauneron, Serge and Jean Yoyotte. 1959. “La Naissance du Monde selon l’Égypte Ancienne.” Pp. 17-91 in La Naissance du Monde. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Sethe, Kurt. 1929. Amun und die acht Urgötter von Hermopolis. Berlin: W. de Gruyter.