Tefnut is an Egyptian deity from the Ancient Egyptian religion of moist air, moisture, dew drops and rain. She was one of the most prominent goddesses from the ancient faith and associated with several other important deities. According to ancient texts, goddess Tefnut was the sister and consort of the air god Shu. Moreover, she is the mother of Geb (father of snakes) and Nut (goddess of the sky).
Modern people have easy access to water, but we cannot say the same for ancient Egyptians. Surrounded by harsh dessert in the gruelling heat, water played a vital role in keeping cosmic harmony to ensure that the Nile River thrives. The ancient lores claim that goddess Tefnut played an essential role in doing so.
The Associations of Goddess Tefnut
Tefnut is one of the oldest goddesses from the ancient Egyptian religion. Since she is the goddess of water, she has been present since the creation of Earth. Egyptian mythology states that Ra-Atum’s cosmic creator spat and gave birth to Tefnut and her twin brother, god Shu of dry air.
Tefnut and her brother Shu complement each other as they wield opposite forces. Later she also became the consort of Shu and gave birth to Geb and Nut. Their grandchildren included powerful gods such as Osiris, Nephtys, Isis and Set. In some versions, she is also the grandmother of Horus the Elder and Horus the Younger.
Along with her brother, father, children and grandchildren, Tefnut forms the Ennead of Heliopolis, a group of nine deities worshipped at Heliopolis. As is the case with other pantheon gods, the story of Tefnuts origin varies according to different regions.
However, the myth of the creation of Tefnut always shows her as the product of parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). All these tales follow a common theme for the creation of Tefnut. These tales mention that she came from some form of body fluids.
In the Heliopolitian myth, Ra-Atum sneezed and created Tefnut with Shu. The famous Pyramid Text 527 states, “Atum was creative in that he proceeded to sneeze while in Heliopolis. And brother and sister were born – that is Shu and Tefnut”.
Other versions claim that Atum’s saliva created Tefnut. The tef sound from the word Tefnut also constitutes the word that means “to spit”. The Coffin Texts contain references to the myths and claim that Atum sneezed out and Tefnut took birth from his saliva. Other religious texts claim that Atum sneezed out his saliva to form the twins.
Iconography and Symbolism
The ancient texts and symbols cast Tefnut as a leonine deity that takes up the form of a human with a lioness head. This depiction comes from the time she was a part of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis. Symbols often depict her as a lioness or in a fully human form.
Tefnut is not the sole goddess depicted in the form of a lioness. However, symbols represent her as a lioness with pointed ears. In contrast, goddess Sekhmet is a lioness with rounded ears.
The symbolism of Tefnut as the lion indicates her power and role as the protector. Later, several myths portrayed her as the ultimate protector and guardian of Ra.
Many symbols depict her as a fully or semi anthropomorphic form. These forms show her wearing a wig crowned with a uraeus serpent or a uraeus and solar disk. This symbolism reinforced Tefnut’s role as the protector as the symbol was the divine sign of protection.
The 18th and 19th Dynasties portrayed Tefnut in a human form with a low flat headdress crowned with sprouting plants. Along with that, she sometimes appears as a lion-headed serpent. Several collar counter pieces depict her face in a double-headed form with her brother Shu.
People used this depiction, particularly during the Amarna period. One could often see her hands holding a staff as the symbol of power. She also had a shape that looked like a cross with a circle at the top.
This symbol is called the Ankh and was one of ancient Egyptian mythology’s most important and influential symbols. The Ankh represented life, and it is no surprise that the goddess of water held the symbol of life in her hands.
Moreover, some symbols represent Akhenaten’s mother, Tiye, wearing the same headdress and identifying with Hathor-Tefnut.
Archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley thought that the iconic blue crown of Nefertiti derived from Tiye’s headdress. It might indicate that she also identified with Tefnut.
Religion and Cult of Tefnut
Ancient Egyptians took the rituals related to Tefnut very seriously. In particular, Heliopolis and Leontopolis showed up as the primary cult centres of Tefnut. Noteworthy that Heliopolites worshipped Tefnut as one of the members of the city’s great Ennead. In addition, they revered this goddess throughout the land of Egypt.
The citizens assigned to her with the purification of priests as a part of the temple rite. The city also had a sanctuary called the Lower Menset dedicated to this goddess.
Karnak temple saw Tefnut as a part of Ennead and invoked her in prayers for the health and wellbeing of the king. Moreover, people in Shu worshipped Shu as a pair of lions in Leontopolis in the Nile Delta.
Mythology of Tefnut
Legends claim that the goddess displayed a wrathful aspect. Caught up in rage and jealousy from the higher worship shown towards her grandchildren, she escaped to Nubia.
She only returned when god Thoth gave her the title of “honourable”. The earlier pyramid texts claim that the goddess produced pure water from her vagina.
Other legends claim that Shu separated from his sister-wife and son. Later, Geb challenged his father, which made him withdraw from the world. Hence, Geb took his mother Tefnut as his chief queen-consort since he was in love with her.
Tenfnut was a famous ancient Egyptian god who people revered for her protective and life-bearing capabilities. Her later connections with other powerful gods cemented her place in the ancient mythologies and tales. To date, it is common to come across her name as the creator of water that gave life and brought abundance to the land of Egypt.