Khnum is depicted as a man with the head of a ram with horizontal undulating horns, Ovis longipes palaeoaegypticus. This is thought to be the original Egyptian species, apparently supplanted over time by Ovis platyura aegyptiaca, the type of ram associated with Amun. Some Greek writers, ignorant of the older species, mistake the ram associated with Khnum, Banebdjedet and Arsaphes as a goat. In later depictions Khnum is sometimes shown with both kinds of horns together. Khnum is seen most characteristically sitting at a potter’s wheel upon which he moulds the form of a child. Upon this wheel Khnum shapes the forms of all living beings, the word for ram, ba, being a homophone of the word ba meaning soul or manifestation. Among the several words with which Khnum’s name is linked is khnm, ‘to unite’, later taking on the meaning ‘to form, create’. Khnum’s formative role with respect to living beings has special reference to his control over the Nile’s annual flood. It is Khnum who releases the vivifying floodwaters from the subterranean caverns in which they were symbolically stored; a connection is thus sometimes postulated between his name and the word khnmt, meaning a spring or well. Several times in the Coffin Texts (spells 51 and 53-6) one encounters the phrase, “Khnum is glad,” referring to the resurrection, but also punning on the name Khnum and khnm, meaning ‘to be glad’.
A hymn to Hapy, the divine personification of the Nile’s inundation, states that Khnum fashions Hapy anew each year (p. 206 in Lichtheim, vol. 1). Khnum’s role of fashioner of the bodily form was not completed once and for all before birth, but continued throughout life. Hence, in the famous ‘Famine Stela’ from Sehel Island, Khnum appears to King Djoser in a dream and states, “I am Khnum, your maker! My arms are around you, to steady your body, to safeguard your limbs,” (p. 98 in Lichtheim, vol. 3). Khnum goes on to promise Djoser that he will prosper the land of Egypt on his behalf: “I shall make Hapy gush for you, no year of lack and want anywhere, plants will grow weighed down by their fruit.” In BD spell 30B, an appeal by the deceased to his/her heart, the heart is called “the Khnum who prospers my limbs.” The heart was for Egyptians an entity as much moral as corporeal. Hence the Instruction of Amenemope (chap. 9) says of the heated or quarrelsome personality, “If only Khnum came to him, the Potter to the heated man, so as to knead the faulty heart,” (p. 154 in Lichtheim, vol. 2). Similarly, in the statue inscription of Djedkhonsefankh, Djedkhonsefankh praises Khnum for having “fashioned me as one effective, an adviser of excellent counsel. He made my character superior to others, he steered my tongue to excellence,” (p. 15 in Lichtheim, vol. 3). Nevertheless, Khnum was also responsible for simple physical beauty; in the Tale of Two Brothers, for instance, Re-Harakhty asks Khnum to fashion for the man Bata a wife, of whom it is said “Khnum made a companion for him who was more beautiful in body than any woman in the whole land, for every God was in her,” (p. 207 in Lichtheim, vol. 2) such being the power of Khnum. Khnum is hymned as the cosmic creator, due in part to the identification of the Nile’s annual inundation with the Nun, the primordial watery abyss which pre-exists the cosmos.
In PT utterance 300 Khnum is said to have been the maker of a netherworld ferry-boat, strongly implying that these boats are at least in certain cases to be understood as equivalent to the bodily ‘vehicle’. In utterance 522, the bringing of the boat is juxtaposed with the healing of the Eye of Horus. The deceased appeals to the ferrymen Mahaf and Herefhaf, saying “behold, I have come and have brought to you this re-knit Eye of Horus which was in the Field of Strife; bring me this boat which Khnum built.” In the later Coffin Texts the ferry-boat spells are much elaborated. In CT spell 397 we read that the boat which Khnum put together “has been taken to pieces and placed in the dockyard,” and directions are given for its reassembly (see also BD spell 99). Khnum’s role in the afterlife literature seems aptly expressed by the appeal in utterance 324, “Hail to you, Khnum … May you refashion me.” In one case, however, his role is ambivalent. CT spell 214 seeks to “repel Khnum who brings feces in order to make what is in the two districts.” Here, the raw material of which bodies are made is conceived as dung, just as Khepri fashions new form from dung; the spell ends with another appeal to the ferryman Herefhaf.
In the ‘Great Hymn to Khnum’ from Khnum’s temple at Esna (pp. 111-115 in Lichtheim, vol. 3), Khnum’s work fashioning all the parts of the body in accord with their functions is carefully evoked. Here it is a matter of the formation, not of some individual or other, but of all the species of creatures. Next, the hymn proceeds to explain how Khnum has fashioned all the different peoples, each with their own language, as well as precious commodities for each region that they may trade. He is responsible, thus, for mineral abundance as well: “He opened seams in the bellies of mountains, he made the quarries spew out their stones,” (p. 114). Through his control over the produce which forms their offerings as well as the materials out of which their cult statues are fashioned, Khnum can be praised as having “engendered the Gods,” (ibid.). In a magical spell (no. 128 in Borghouts), Khnum is referred to as “image of an infinity of infinities [heh n hehu] … only son, the one who was conceived yesterday and who was born today … who has 77 eyes and 77 ears.” Reference is made sometimes to seven Khnums created by Khnum: “It is Khnum who made the seven Khnums, Builder of Builders who created what exists,” (Esna III, no. 378, 18); “Khnum who made the seven Khnums, who created the craftsmen, Builder of Builders,” (Esna V, no. 367, 14-15).
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
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]
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sauneron, Serge. 1959-75. Esna. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.