The God Shu is generally depicted anthropomorphically, wearing a single plume on his head, but is also frequently depicted as a lion. Shu is conventionally referred to as the God of the air, but Shu is air, not in an abstract elemental sense, but as life principle and as void, in the sense that void provides the possibility of determinacy. His name can be interpreted as meaning ’emptiness’, not only in a privative sense, but in the sense of being free from some quality or condition (in this respect see utterance 452 of the Pyramid Texts, “your purity is the purity of Shu”), or as ‘dryness’, because he expresses the clearing of a space in the watery abyss of Nun. A different interpretation of his name, however, would read it as ‘who rises up’ or ‘lifts himself up’. The latter refers to the role of Shu as separating the earth, Geb, from the sky, Nut.

Shu comes into being along with his sister/lover Tefnut from the masturbatory act of Atum, the God who is alone at the beginning of the cosmos in the abyss of Nun. Alternately, Shu is exhaled by Atum or spat forth (perhaps as an involuntary reaction to inhaling the waters of Nun?). In any case, Shu embodies the coming to consciousness of Atum in the indeterminacy of Nun, the fluid abyss. Shu embodies the preconditions of consciousness inasmuch as air is the medium of sound and light, hence of hearing and vision. The link between Shu and sunlight is especially close, to the extent that it has been posited that the Egyptians did not really distinguish between ‘air’ in the sense represented by Shu and light itself, considered as a substance separate from that which emits it. The rays of the sun are “the Shu-forms of Re” (e.g. at Coffin Texts spell 1013), the powerful arms of Shu which support the sky. The rays of sunlight, although perfectly insubstantial, hold apart the heavens and the earth, a function which is itself inseparable from the act of seeing and of conscious perceiving, which are, in turn, inseparable for Egyptian thought from the power to breathe, itself an expression of a living essence in air. The rays of sunlight are thus mere light no more than the breath of life is air in the abstract, elemental sense. The deceased affirms in CT spell 1013 that “I will lift up the Shu-forms of Re; my wailing women [i.e. mourners] are silent.” Here doing the work of Shu in separating sky from earth from underworld is synonymous with resurrection, which silences the mourners for they no longer have any reason to grieve.

In one of a series of spells pertaining to Shu in the Coffin Texts (spell 80) Atum says of Shu, “He knows how to nourish him who is in the egg in the womb for me, namely the human beings who came forth from my eye which I sent out while I was alone with Nun in lassitude.” The sending forth by Atum of his eye is at once the emergence into the world of the light of awareness, as well as the coming to life from out of the waters of the womb of the living, breathing being, which is the work of Shu as quickener of the womb, both as breath of life and as sperm, because Shu is the seed of Atum, the seed of Shu also being spoken of in such life-imparting contexts. Shu is the life having come into the waters of the primordial abyss, and thus he is water in a special sense, the waters of conception and of birth, as well as the pure waters of the netherworld: in PT utterance 338 the deceased king states, “I will not be thirsty by reason of Shu,” while the officiating priest in PT utterance 222 directs the king to “Be pure in the horizon and get rid of your impurity in the Lakes of Shu.” Reference is made numerous times in the temple inscriptions from Kom Ombo of the reunion of Shu and Geb, a symbol perhaps of the emergence of life on the earth as Shu’s incarnation and the earth’s spiritualization. In CT spell 80, for instance, Shu affirms that all the different kinds of animals live “in accordance with the command of Atum that I should govern them and nourish them with this mouth of mine. My life is what is in their nostrils.” Hence when reference is made to “the weary (or inert) Shu” in CT spell 76, who needs to be lifted up into the sky by others, we are to understand the deceased, who has lost the power of breath and must breathe—that is, live—through the activity of others.

This potential for an intimate identification with Shu is underscored by the important series of spells in the Coffin Texts which are devoted to ‘manifesting’ or ‘becoming Shu’ (CT spells 75-83), which are some of the most striking works of Egyptian religious thought. These spells were obviously intended not only for use in a funerary context, but also by the living, as is clear from the notations on spell 81. An identification with Shu is already indicated by PT utterance 660, in which the king addresses Shu, affirming that he himself is the son of Atum (i.e. Shu). Shu confirms this, telling the king “You are the eldest son of Atum, his first-born; Atum has spat you out from his mouth in your name of Shu.” This common alternate version of Shu’s emergence evokes Atum’s intake of breath amidst the waters of Nun, causing him to spit them out in the form of Shu. Shu thus expresses Atum’s reaction to the abyss, his differentiation of himself from it by negating it forcefully. It also connotes speech, a concept which becomes more important in the Shu spells from the Coffin Texts. In the Pyramid Texts and thereafter, Shu plays a critical role in the resurrection because breath is the pre-eminent symbol of life itself. Hence a third party in utterance 660, presumably a priest, says to Shu “If you live, he [the king] will live,” since identification with Shu is identification with the principle of life itself. Shu is therefore a symbol of self-sufficiency, as at utterance 539: “I live on that whereon Shu lives.” In CT spell 80 Shu affirms that he knits together the body of Atum and that of Osiris, that he secures the head of Atum to his body, and likewise that of Isis, in reference to the general Egyptian notion that breath is the very coherence and integrity of the living body, and also through the specific association of the breath with the throat, which connects the heart, seat of thought for Egyptians, and the mouth, which utters the words that express the consciousness (note in this respect the reference to Isis, who is the paradigmatic speaker of magic). But the work which Shu does to guarantee the integrity of the living organism is not peculiar to humans; Shu explains in spell 80 that he “knits on the heads” of all animals “with this authority of mine which is on my lips,” i.e., with his authoritative speech.

The form of the Shu spells in the Coffin Texts is a monologue in the first person delivered by Shu, who gives an account of his origin as “the self-created God” who came into being “from the flesh of the self-created God,” i.e. Atum. It is not a matter of redundancy that Atum and Shu should both be regarded as ‘self-created’, for the self-creation of Atum involves essentially his coming to consciousness, and this very act is itself nothing other than the self-creation of Shu, who is autonomous inasmuch as consciousness is freed from its preconditions. Shu’s dual role of conveying sound and conveying understanding is evident in his affirmation that he “hears the words of the Chaos-Gods,” i.e., the Gods of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad who express the conditions of formlessness prior to the emergence of the cosmos. In spell 76 it is said that Atum made the names of the Chaos-Gods by speaking with the abyss (Nun) “in chaos, in darkness and in gloom.” Atum, in other words, speaks into the Abyss the characteristics of that abyss, and these attributes, because they come into expression and awareness, become the Gods of the Ogdoad whose names derive from these attributes, i.e. chaos or limitlessness (Heh/Hauhet), darkness (Kek/Kauket), and gloom or ‘the nowhere’ (Tenem/Tenemet). Therefore we read in spell 79, “O you eight Chaos-Gods who went forth from Shu, whose names the flesh of Atum created in accordance with the word of Nun in chaos, in the Abyss, in darkness and in gloom,” thus stating the names of the Chaos-Gods as attributes of Nun, the abyss, and identifying the very act of speaking these attributes with Shu, because he is the medium into which this speech comes forth. But the naming of the Chaos-Gods is also the creation of the space for consciousness and expression that is Shu, and therefore it can be said that the primordial Gods of the Ogdoad are created by Shu “from the efflux of his flesh,” his ‘flesh’ being at once medium and moment of signification and communication. Thus spell 80 says that “a cry for me [Shu] went forth from the mouth of Atum, the air opened up upon my ways.” Likewise, Shu says in spell 75 that he “despatches the word of the Self-created [Atum] to the multitudes.” Shu also affirms in these spells that he does not obey magic, “for I have already come into being,” after which some texts add “my clothing is the breath of life which issued after me from the mouth of Atum” (spell 75). Shu’s immunity from magical compulsion here is not merely due to his primordiality, but also  from the fact that the very breath with which magic (which is, in the Egyptian understanding, primarily something to be spoken) is performed must be borrowed, in effect, from Shu. Similarly, in the same spell Shu says “Your hearts have spoken to me, you Gods, without anything issuing from your mouths, because there has come into being through me the doing of everything.”

Shu’s role is often seen, especially in the Pyramid Texts, as that of reaching out to lift the deceased up into the sky, just as each morning he lifts the boat of Re into the sky at the eastern horizon; reference is often made to the ‘ladder of Shu’, which is said in CT spell 76 to be assembled by the eight ‘Chaos-Gods’. Shu is associated with a number of other atmospheric phenomena; the lightning is called “favorite son of Shu” in PT utterance 261, clouds or mist are “the bones of Shu” in utterance 222, the “bank of dusk” is the “supports of Shu” in CT spell 76, and some of the references to Shu’s powerful arms and strength in combat, in addition to their more theological dimensions, also surely refer to the power of the winds. The four winds are referred to as the four bau (that is, manifestations) of Shu, and Shu as well as related Gods such as Onuris sometimes wear a crown with four plumes to symbolize the four winds. CT spell 80 calls hail-storms and the dark storm clouds the “sweat” of Shu. Shu describes himself in his monologue from the Coffin Texts as the one who foretells the sun when it ascends from the horizon, and it is in this pre-dawn luminosity that the Egyptians saw perhaps the most distinct manifestation of Shu.

Shu and his sister Tefnut are frequently portrayed as two lions, and are referred to thus as  Ruty, literally ‘the Lions’. In PT utterance 301 Atum and Ruty are said to have “yourselves created your Godheads and your persons,” and Shu and Tefnut are those “who made the Gods, who begot the Gods and established the Gods.” Shu and Tefnut escort the boat of Re, Shu on its east side, Tefnut on its west side (utterance 606; see also utterance 496: “I [the deceased] have come from Dendara with Shu behind me, Tefnut before me, and Wepwawet at my right hand”). An ‘ascension’ text (utterance 684) speaks of Shu and Tefnut as the king’s grandfather and grandmother, and says that “they take the king to the sky, to the sky, on the smoke of the incense,” a reference again to the role of air as a conducting medium, in this case for incense, which makes a convenient symbol for the effectiveness of worship in general (see also utterance 689: “Oh Shu, supporter of Nut, raise the Eye of Horus [i.e., the offering] to the sky”). Just as the air is the medium for spoken prayer or magic, it is the medium for incense or for the burnt offering, and therefore governs virtually all interactions with the divine.

The most important myth concerning Shu and Tefnut is, however, that in which Tefnut, the ‘Eye of Re’, the fierce protector of Re and enforcer of his will in the cosmos, is pacified or ‘cooled’ by Shu, as is clearly alluded to in CT spell 75, where Shu says “I have extinguished the fire, I have calmed the soul of her who burns, I have quieted her who is in the midst of her rage.” Shu says “I am he whom the flame of fire burns, but its fiery blast is not against me,” which at once refers to air as the medium and sustenance of fire, but also has a deeper significance, for the deceased, empowered by his/her identification with Shu, says later in the same spell “there is no flame for my soul on account of its foulness,” that is, because there is no foulness in the soul, it needs no purification by fire (or that which is purified by fire is not identified with the soul itself). The pacification of the wrathful Tefnut by Shu seems to come about through their sexual union. A reference to this sexual conjunction of Shu and Tefnut is implied in PT utterance 685, in which the king is purified by the “waters of life … which the phallus of Shu makes and which the vagina of Tefnut creates.”

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]

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2 Responses to “Shu”

  1. […] Moomas cards people have sent, and contemplate Nut lifting me up, up, up, with the help of Shu and the Four Winds. Ninety-three million miles? Yeah, maybe that’ll […]

  2. farang said

    Shu is Shiva and his lingum, Tefnut is Parvati and her Yoni. Last paragraph, where only the diehard reader would find it.

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