In ancient Egyptian religion, Atum was one of the manifestations of the sun and creator god, perhaps originally a local deity of Heliopolis. Atum, sometimes rendered as Atem or Tem, is an important deity in Egyptian mythology. Atum is the god of pre-existence and post-existence. In the binary solar cycle, the serpentine Atum is distinguished from the scarab-headed god Khepri—the young sun god, whose name comes from the Egyptian ḫpr “to come into existence”.
Atum’s myth merged with the great sun god Re, giving Re-Atum’s deity. When distinguished from Re, Atum was the creator’s original form, living inside Nun, the primordial waters of chaos. At creation, he emerged to engender himself and the gods. Ancient Egyptians identified this god with the setting sun. Meanwhile, Atum shows up as a senior figure who regenerated during the night to appear as Khepri at dawn and Ra at the sun’s zenith.
Atum’s name originates from tm, which means ‘to complete or finish’. As a creator, he was the underlying substance of the world, the deities and universe being made of his flesh or ka. Thus, he has been interpreted as being the “complete one” and the finisher of the world, which he returns to watery chaos at the creative cycle’s end.
Origins of God Atum in Ancient Egypt
Atum is one of the most important and frequently mentioned deities from the earliest times. His prominence is evidenced in the Pyramid Texts, where he is portrayed as both a creator and father to the king. Several writings contradict how Atum was brought into existence. Some state Atum was created by himself by saying his name, while others argue he came out from a blue lotus flower or an egg.
Role of God Atum
In the Heliopolitan creation myth, Atum was the first god, having created himself, sitting on a mound (benben) (or identified with the mound itself), from the primordial waters (Nu). Early myths state that Atum created Shu and goddess Tefnut by spitting them out of his mouth. One text debates that Atum did not make Shu and Tefnut by spitting them out of his mouth using saliva and semen, but rather by Atum’s lips. Another writing describes Shu and Tefnut being birthed by Atum’s hand. That same writing states that Atum’s hand is the title of the god’s wife based on her Heliopolitan beginning. Other myths say that Atum was created by masturbation, with the hand representing the female principle inherent within him. However, different interpretations state that he has made a union with his shadow.
The Egyptians believed that Atum lifted the dead king’s soul from his pyramid to the starry heavens in the Old Kingdom. He was also a solar deity associated with the direct sun god Ra. Atum was explicitly linked with the evening sun, while Ra or the closely linked god Khepri were connected with the sun at morning and midday.
In the Book of the Dead, which was still current in the Graeco-Roman period, the sun god Atum has ascended from chaotic waters with the appearance of a snake, the animal renewing itself every morning.
Atum is the god of pre-existence and post-existence. In the binary solar cycle, the serpentine Atum is contrasted with the scarab-headed god Khepri—the young sun god, whose name is derived from the Egyptian ḫpr “to come into existence”. Khepri-Atum encompassed sunrise and sunset, thus reflecting the entire cycle of morning and evening.
Relationship to other gods
Atum was a self-created deity who emerged from the darkness and endless watery abyss before creation. He produced from his sneeze, or in some accounts, semen, Shu, the god of air, and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. A product of the energy and matter in this chaos, he created his children—the first deities, out of loneliness. The brother and sister, curious about the primaeval waters that surrounded them, went to explore the waters and disappeared into the darkness. Unable to bear his loss, Atum sent a fiery messenger, the Eye of Ra, to find his children. The tears of joy he shed upon their return were the first human beings.
Ancient Egyptians usually depicted Atum as a man wearing either the royal head-cloth or upper and Lower Egypt’s dual white and red crown, reinforcing his connection with kingship. Sometimes, they also showed him as a serpent, the form he returns to at the end of the creative cycle, and occasionally as a mongoose, lion, bull, lizard, or ape.
On the other hand, Egyptians so often depicted Atum in anthropomorphic form, and he typically showed up wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. One of the only details that distinguish him from a Pharaoh is the shape of his beard. He also appeared up with a solar disk and a long tripartite wig.
He is also often presented with a ram’s head in his netherworld role and his solar aspect. He was that god who may sit on a throne but may also show up standing upright or even leaning on a staff when Egyptians stressed his old age. The image of the primaeval hill also represented Atum. During the First Intermediate period, “Atum and his Hand” even appear as a divine couple on some coffins. Egyptians represented him by the black bull Mnewer, who bore the sun disk and uraeus between its horns. The sacred animals are the snake, bull, lion, lizard, and ichneumon (Egyptian mongoose). He shows up sometimes armed with a bow to shoot his enemies like an ape. As a solar deity, ancient Egyptians also depicted him as a scarab. Noteworthy, ancient Egyptians dedicated the giant scarab statue that now stands by the sacred lake at Karnak to Atum. Also, numerous tiny bronze coffins containing mummified eels, bearing a fish figure on the top of the box and an inscription incised on it, attest to yet another zoomorphic incarnation of Atum.
Representations of Atum are surprisingly rare. The largest of the rare statues of Atum is a group depicting Horemheb of the 18th Dynasty kneeling in front of Atum. But, some of the pharaoh depictions as “Lord of the Two Lands” may have also been viewed as incarnations of Atum.
Worship in Ancient Egypt
Senusret I erected the Twelfth Dynasty, and it still stands in its original position. Atum’s worship centred on the city of Heliopolis (Egyptian: Annu or Iunu). The only surviving remnant of Heliopolis is the Temple of Re-Atum obelisk located in Al-Masalla of Al-Matariyyah, Cairo. The 68 ft (20.73 m) high red granite obelisk weighs 120 tons (240,000 lbs, 108,900 kg, 108.9 tonnes), the weight of about 20 African elephants.