Apophis, also called Apep, Apepi, or Rerek, an ancient Egyptian demon of chaos, had the form of a serpent and, as the foe of the sun god, Re, represented all that was outside the ordered cosmos. Although many serpents symbolized divinity and royalty, Apophis threatened the underworld and symbolized evil. His name is reconstructed by Egyptologists as *ʻAʼpāp(ī), as it was written ꜥꜣpp(y) and survived in later Coptic as Ⲁⲫⲱⲫ Aphōph.
Apep was first mentioned in the Eighth Dynasty, and he was honoured in the names of the Fourteenth Dynasty king Apepi and the Greater Hyksos king Apophis. Each night Apopis encountered Re at a particular hour in the sun god’s ritual journey through the underworld in his divine barque. Seth, who rode as guardian in front of Re’s barque, attacked him with a spear and slew him, but the next night Apophis, who could not be permanently subdued, was there again to attack Re.
The Egyptians believed that the king could help maintain the world’s order and assist Re by performing rituals against Apophis. Apep was the ancient Egyptian deity who embodied chaos (ı͗zft in Egyptian) and was thus the opponent of light and Ma’at (order/truth). He appears in art as a giant serpent.
Apep was seen as a giant snake or serpent leading to such titles as Serpent from the Nile and Evil Dragon. Some elaborations said that he stretched 16 yards in length and had a head made of flint. Already on a Naqada I (c. 4000 BCE) C-ware bowl, now in Cairo, a snake was painted on the inside rim, combined with other desert and aquatic animals. It showed a possible enemy of a deity, possibly a solar god, invisibly hunting in a big rowing vessel.
While Apep is described as a giant snake in most texts, Egyptians sometimes depicted him as a crocodile. The few descriptions of Apep’s origin in myth usually demonstrate that it was born after Ra, usually from his umbilical cord. Combined with its absence from Egyptian creation myths, this has been interpreted as suggesting that Apep was not a primordial force in Egyptian theology but a consequence of Ra‘s birth. It means that evil in Egyptian theology is the consequence of an individual’s struggles against non-existence.
Battles with Ra
Tales of Apep’s battles against Ra were elaborated during the New Kingdom. Storytellers said Apep must lie below the horizon every day and not persist in the mortal kingdom. It appropriately made him a part of the underworld. In some stories, Apep waited for Ra in a western mountain called Bakhu, where the sunset, and in others, Apep lurked just before dawn in the Tenth Region of the night. The wide range of Apep’s possible locations gained him the title world encircler. It was thought that his terrifying roar would cause the underworld to rumble. Myths sometimes say that Apep was trapped there because he had been the previous chief god overthrown by Ra or because he was evil and imprisoned.
The Coffin Texts imply that Apep used a magical gaze to overwhelm Ra and his entourage. Ra was assisted by several defenders who travelled with him, including Set and possibly the Eye of Ra. Apep’s movements were thought to cause earthquakes, and his battles with Set may have been meant to explain the origin of thunderstorms. In one account, Ra himself defeats Apep in the form of a cat. Few accounts of Apep’s origin usually describe it as being born from Ra’s umbilical cord.
Worship of Apep
Ra’s victory each night was thought to be ensured by the prayers of the Egyptian priests and worshippers at temples. The Egyptians practised some rituals and superstitions that were supposed to ward off Apep and aid Ra in continuing his journey across the sky.
In an annual rite called the Banishing of Chaos, priests would build an effigy of Apep that was thought to contain all of the evil and darkness in Egypt and burn it to protect everyone from Apep’s evil for another year.
The Egyptian priests had a detailed guide to fighting Apep, referred to as The Books of Overthrowing Apep (or the Book of Apophis, in Greek). The chapters described a gradual process of dismemberment and disposal and included:
- Spitting Upon Apep
- Defiling Apep with the Left Foot
- Taking a Lance to Smite Apep
- Fettering Apep
- Taking a Knife to Smite Apep
- Putting Fire Upon Apep
In addition to stories about Ra‘s victories, this guide had instructions for making wax models, or small drawings, of the serpent, which would be spat on, mutilated and burnt, whilst reciting spells that would kill Apep. Fearing that even the image of Apep could give power to the demon, any rendering would always include another deity to subdue the monster.
The Book of the Dead did not frequently describe occasions when Ra defeated the chaos snake called Apep. As Apep was thought to live in the underworld, he was sometimes thought of as an Eater of Souls. Thus the dead also needed protection, so they were sometimes buried with spells to destroy Apep. Only Book of the Dead Spells 7 and 39 can be explained as such.