(Tefenet; transliterated in Greek as Thphênis) A complex Goddess, Tefnut is the daughter of Atum, the twin sister and consort of Shu, and the mother of Geb and Nut. She is usually depicted either as a lioness-headed woman or in fully leonine form, in the latter case often back-to-back with Shu in similarly leonine form; when depicted like this Shu and Tefnut are known as Ruty, ‘the Two Lions’. Tefnut is created together with her brother through Atum’s act of masturbation at the beginning of the cosmos. The name of Tefnut is thus sometimes linked to a verb tefen, meaning to spit or eject something from the body, although it is sometimes also linked to a noun tefen, meaning ‘orphan’, as in PT utterance 260, where the deceased king affirms, “I the orphan [tefen] have had judgment with the orphaness [tefenet, i.e. Tefnut].” This idea may be linked to the notion that Tefnut created herself, and is therefore parentless, inasmuch as it is said in PT utterance 301 that Atum and Ruty, that is, Atum, Shu and Tefnut, “yourselves created your godheads and your persons.” Similarly, the cosmogonic account in the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind (xxvii) states that the children of Geb and Nut, who are Shu and Tefnut’s grandchildren, are the first “brought forth from the body,” that is, in contrast to the more mysterious manner in which the prior Gods came forth. This is in accord with a statement earlier in the text in which Atum states “Many were the beings which came forth from my mouth before heaven came into being, before earth came into being … I put together some of them in Nun as inert ones, before I could find a place in which I might stand,” (xxvi). This existence of Shu and Tefnut together with Atum in a state of latency or ‘inertness’, manifests in a certain fusion of persons in the triangular relationship among these Gods. Hence PT utterance 685 says of the reborn king that “his feet are kissed by the pure waters which exist through Atum, which the phallus of Shu makes and which the vagina of Tefnut creates,” identifying the original creative emission from Atum, in which Shu and Tefnut were present, with the sexual union of Shu and Tefnut. In the fully differentiated relationship, Shu seems to embody the more heavenly or transcendent aspect and Tefnut the more earthly or immanent aspect of Atum’s emission or utterance.
This triangular relationship is further developed in the sequel to the Atum cosmogony, the saga of the ‘Eye’. This myth, which is only imperfectly understood, concerns the relationship between Atum—who, however, yields his place to Re in the most developed formulations of the myth (a substitution which is explained in CT spell 76: “The phoenix of Re was that whereby Atum came into being in chaos, in the Abyss, in darkness and in gloom”)—and his ‘Eye’, irt, which projects itself into the world, a play on words since ir.t means ‘doing’ or agency. The myth, which takes on many varied forms expressing different but analogous sets of ideas, concerns in its simplest terms the return of the ‘Eye’ to Atum or Re. This ‘Eye’ is the effective will of solar deities such as Re in the world, its ‘return’ therefore expressing the circling back of this energy to its source. The symbolism of the return of the Eye has different qualities on the different levels of the cosmos upon which the symbol operates. Sometimes it has the sense of the God’s coming to consciousness through the experience of separation and reunion. Hence in the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus (xxvii), Atum states that his ‘Eye’ “followed after” Shu and Tefnut, who, after having been ejected from his body, were “brought up by” and “rejoiced in” Nun, the precosmic abyss, and were hence “distant” from him. In returning to him, Atum says that Shu and Tefnut “brought to me my Eye with them.” This leads to a new stage in the creation, for Atum states that “After I had joined together my members”—Shu and Tefnut being like parts of his body—”I wept over them. That is how humans came into being from the tears which came forth from my Eye,” a play on the words remi, ‘tears’, and romi, ‘humans’. From another perspective, Shu states in CT spell 76 that “Atum once sent his Sole Eye [lit. ‘his Sole One’] seeking me and my sister Tefnut. I made light of the darkness for it and it found me as an immortal.” The ‘Eye’ which seeks out Shu and Tefnut is sometimes identified with Hathor, as in CT spell 331.
This cosmogonic myth in turn expresses itself through a rather different myth also involving Tefnut, which is generally known as the myth of the ‘Distant’ or ‘Returning’ Goddess. In this myth, Tefnut, the ‘Distant Goddess’, is induced by Shu to return with him to Egypt from a vaguely-determined foreign land called Bougem or Keneset, regarded as lying to the south and east of Egypt (e.g., Somalia), but essentially a mythical place. (On at least one occasion, Sekhmet as the Returning Goddess comes from Asia; see pBrooklyn 47.218.50, 2, 8-9 in Goyon, Confirmation du pouvoir royal.) The return of the fiery and wrathful ‘Distant Goddess’ involves her appeasement or purification through ecstatic rites and by immersion in a sacred lake identified symbolically with the Nun. This process of appeasement/purification of the Returning Goddess takes place paradigmatically at Abaton on the island of Bigêh, the site of the ‘tomb’ of Osiris. Although only imperfectly understood, it is clear that the myth of the ‘Distant Goddess’ unites cosmogonic and Osirian themes. The myth of the ‘Distant Goddess’ is told with an ever-shifting cast of deities, and Shu and Tefnut may not have been the original hero and heroine (who were, perhaps, Onuris and Mehyt). It is alluded to in many temple inscriptions but not preserved in any early narrative form. Attempts have been made to reconstruct it with the help of a demotic narrative (part of which also survives in Greek translation) which seems to tell a folktale version of it. In this text (translated in de Cenival 1988), Thoth, in the form of a monkey, convinces Tefnut, at first in the form of a “Kushite cat”, later taking the forms of a lioness, a vulture and a gazelle before returning to “her beautiful form of Tefnut,” (22, 2) to return with him by a series of arguments, fables, and hymns. Thoth’s role in this demotic narrative echoes his classical function of pacifying wrathful Goddesses. Scholars have also suggested diverse natural cycles as the myth’s referent: the lunar cycle, the sun’s annual north-south motion, and the disappearance and heliacal rising of Sirius (for the latter, see Quack 2002). It seems most reasonable to conclude that the myth is applicable to all of these, as well as other phenomena, and that this flexibility is part of its appeal.
Attempts to reconstruct the myth of the ‘Distant Goddess’ have sometimes been overly ambitious in their synthesis (see the critique in Inconnu-Bocquillon 2001). The arrival of the ‘Distant Goddess’ is seemingly conceived in two ways: first, as Re’s daughter (the ‘Distant Goddess’ is identified, not as the daughter of Atum, but of Re) coming to his defense against his enemies and the enemies of the cosmic order he represents; and second as the theogamy (or divine marriage) of Shu and Tefnut, this being understood, not as that which produced Geb and Nut at the beginning of the world, but rather as a reunion of Shu and Tefnut and an indwelling of each in the other which also, in its most theologically complex form, entails the reunion of Geb and Nut with Shu and Tefnut (see especially the texts from Kom Ombo edited and translated by Gutbub). This reunion thus confirms the creation, so to speak, closing a cosmic circle in which the conflict characterizing the later generations of the Gods gives way to reconciliation and the spiritualization of the cosmos: “Shu, the son of Re, rejoices with his son Geb as Tefnut with her daughter Nut, they are in joy here [Kom Ombo] eternally, having put an end to rebellion, having expelled calamity,” (Gutbub 2f). An ancient commentary on BD spell 17 identifies the soul of Re and the soul of Osiris, who come together in the resurrection, as indwelling in Shu and Tefnut. Tefnut embodies, in relation to Shu, the whole latter development of the cosmos, for it is she “who bore the Ennead,” (a generic term for the pantheon) (CT spell 78). Hence Tefnut is closely associated with Ma’et (e.g., in CT spell 80) as the principle of order and harmony in the cosmos which has as its prerequisite, however, the development of complexity, for there cannot be order without complexity. Tefnut bridges the gap between the primeval stages of the cosmos and its evolved, complex state.
A further mythic cycle involving Tefnut which seems to overlap in complicated ways with the Distant/Returning Goddess cycle concerns her rape and imprisonment at the hands of her son Geb, followed by his punishment, which in turn has links to the Osirian cycle as precondition either for Osiris’ resurrection or for the conception of Horus. This cycle, which seems to emphasize a suffering dimension of the Goddess, is often attributed to Horit. As attributed to Tefnut, this cycle takes its place as in effect the furthest symbolic extension of the original cosmogonic moment in which Tefnut embodies the self-conscious difference within the primordial triad. Tefnut’s experience as the autonomous activity, or ir.t, of the demiurge thus posits itself on every plane of formation, taking up into itself even the tumultuous events pertaining to the generation of the children of Nut and finding in them expressions of itself. The Distant/Returning Goddess cycle needs to be grasped as a cultic framework in which the cults of many Goddesses and Gods participate to varying degrees (Tefnut being perhaps at the maximal degree of this continuum), at the core of which is ecstatic worship that through intoxication, music, feasting, and sexual license makes present a Goddess who comes ‘from afar’ just by virtue of the fact that she is brought here, now.
Certain texts, such as PT utterance 562, where it is said that “The earth is raised on high under the sky by your arms, O Tefnut, and you have taken the hands of Re,” have been interpreted as indicating that Tefnut is to be understood as a ‘lower sky’, an atmosphere or ocean beneath the earth which supports it, but it may be that Tefnut is here rather that force which spiritualizes the earth, raising it up to sky in her reunion with Shu. There is slightly more explicit support in Egyptian texts for Shu and Tefnut being considered as solar and lunar principles. In CT spell 607, the two eyes of Horus, “which issued from Atum, are Shu and Tefnut,” the Horus referred to here being Horus-the-Elder or Haroeris, the aspect of Horus which is the sky itself, his two eyes the sun and moon, which are here Shu and Tefnut. As for which is solar and which lunar, Tefnut is perhaps the more convincing candidate for lunar principle only inasmuch as the myth of the ‘Distant Goddess’ is at times applied to the lunar cycle and the ‘Eye of Re’ which returns to him is identified with the Eye of Horus (the wedjat) which is wounded and healed or stolen and restored, a myth referring to the moon among other things. Tefnut’s principal associations, however, are strongly solar. BD spell 130 seems to identify Tefnut in some fashion with the exhalation of Re: “He inhales Shu, he creates Tefnut.” Tefnut here may be the sun’s radiance, kindled by the inhalation of air. In BD spell 136B, “for sailing in the great bark of Re to pass by the ring of fire,” Osiris says of the operator, identified with Horus, “I have cut off harm from him, and in its place I have brought to him Tefnut, that he may live on her.” From the surrounding context, it appears that Tefnut here embodies the fiery or radiant solar power. BD spell 152 wishes that the deceased may “drink the water of Tefnut,” which is perhaps the morning dew. In BD spell 169, it seems that Tefnut provides a sort of ambrosia: “Tefnut the daughter of Re feeds thee with what her father Re gave her.” In CT spell 660 the ‘waters’ of Tefnut seem to be a symbol for the cosmos itself: “Tefnut is she who allots what is to be allotted by eternity; you shall adore her upon the waters which are in her, you who follow after the Eye of Horus, and I [the operator] will adore her waters.”
In a magical text used to charge certain items in the defense of Osiris from Seth, we read among a list of Seth’s crimes that he has “taken away the penis [mṯꜣ] of Tefnut on the day of saying that Sia is pure” (Papyrus New-York 35.9.21, col. 31, 16-32,1). Goyon (392 and n. 5) would emend the text here to read “the heritage [mṯꜣt] of Tefnut”; however, van Dijk (41) would keep the original reading, seeing here a reference to a primordial phallic power of Tefnut’s required for the rebirth of Re, which Seth attempts to frustrate.
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
de Cenival, Françoise. 1988. Le Mythe de l’Oeil du Soleil. Sommerhausen: G. Zauzich Verlag.
van Dijk, J. “Anat, Seth and the See of Prēꜥ.” Pp. 31-51 in Scripta Signa Vocis, eds. Vanstiphout et al. Groningen: Egbert Forsten.
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]
Goyon, J-C. 1975. “Textes mythologiques II: Les révélations du mystère des Quatre Boules.” BIFAO 75: 349-399.
Inconnu-Bocquillon, Danielle. 2001. Le mythe de la Déesse Lointaine à Philae. Cairo: Institut Français d’archéologie orientale.
Quack, J. F. 2002. “A Goddess Rising 10,000 Cubits into the Air… Or Only One Cubit, One Finger?” Pp. 283-294 in Under One Sky: Astronomy and Mathematics in the Ancient Near East, eds. J. Steele, A. Imhausen. Münster: Ugarit Verlag.