The Destruction of Humanity

We are fortunate to have many surviving pieces of Egyptian literature and religious writings, allowing us to translate, read, and share stories that were originally composed in the ancient past. We have previously looked at the story of Osiris and Isis, one of the most famous tales from ancient Egypt. Today, we’re going to be looking at a very different tale, however – one known amongst Egyptologists by the rather unusual name, “the Myth of the Heavenly Cow”.

The Myth of the Heavenly Cow, telling the tale of the near-destruction of humanity, was first discovered in the outermost of the four gilded shrines of Tutankhamun, but in incomplete form. Three completed versions of the text were found, however, in the tombs of Seti I, Ramesses I, and Ramesses II. The text forms part of a corpus of royal funerary compositions dating to the New Kingdom, but was written in Middle Egyptian (the seminal form of the classical Egyptian language), and the ideas within it may date back as far as the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom.

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E.507(2) – A section of the amduat of the 21st Dynasty songstress of Amun, Tja-ty. The amduat is another royal funerary composition; unlike the Myth of the Heavenly Cow, the amduat is concerned with the topography and inhabitants of the Egyptian underworld.

The Rebellion of Man

The story begins in the mythical past, at the dawn of Egyptian history when the land was ruled by the sun god, Re, ‘the god who created himself’. The sun god had reached old age, and his mortal subjects had conspired against him, rebelling against his rule. Re summoned his council in secret – the gods Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nun, and the primordial ‘mothers and fathers’ who were with him before the world was created. He also summoned his ‘Eye’, a fiery manifestation of his divine power, and retreated with his council to discuss what should be done about the rebellious hearts of men.

The council of gods suggested that Horus should ‘let [his] Eye go’, sending her down in the form of the goddess Hathor, to wreak vengeance on the disobedient humans below. With her power, she could smite the evildoers, preventing them from rebelling against the rule of the sun god.

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E.9186 – A wadjet-eye amulet. Eyes could symbolise many things in ancient Egypt; while the wadjet is a symbol of magical protection, the powerful Eye of Re instead symbolised divine vengeance.

The Descent of the Eye

The story continues with Hathor returning triumphant; not only did she overpower mankind, but it pleased her! As Re celebrated his unopposed rule, Hathor took the form of the vengeful lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, to wade in the blood of the humans she had massacred throughout Egypt.

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E.9011 – an amulet depicting the mighty goddess, Sekhmet.

At this point, Re realised that his retribution was perhaps a little disproportionate. With Sakhmet spilling the blood of people across Egypt, he sent for swift messengers – messengers who could ‘rush like the shadow of a body’ – and concocted a plan to calm the raging Eye.

The Drunken Goddess

Re sent his messengers to Elephantine, to bring him red ochre in vast quantities. When the messengers returned, he sent word that the ochre should be ground up to make red pigment, while servants were to grind barley and make beer. The pigment was mixed with the beer, creating a mix that looked like human blood; in total, 7 000 jars were made for Sekhmet.

Vowing to protect mankind against the vengeful goddess, Re had the beer brought to the fields that Sekhmet would target next, and during the night, the beer was poured over the fields, flooding them. When the goddess arrived that morning, she found the fields already full of ‘blood’, and stopped to sate her thirst on it. With the Eye drunk – 7 000  jars drunk! – she decided to leave mankind alone, returning to the other gods.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the tale, Re leaves the earthly world behind forever, ascending to the heavens. The sky was created in the form of the Heavenly Cow, a manifestation of the goddess Nut, and the other gods joined him, separating themselves from the world of mortals. In future generations, the pharaoh would be a human – one who acted as an intermediary between the mortal world and the realm of the gods.

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E.66 – cult statue of Hathor in her bovine form.

The Ancient Egyptian World and the Concept of Evil

The Myth of the Heavenly Cow elucidates the role of the pharaoh – a semi-divine emissary who ruled the world on behalf of the gods, maintaining ma’at (balance) and stopping isfet (chaos), and ensuring the gods were properly worshipped. At the end of the tenure of the pharaoh, they would take their place in the gods’ realm, ascending to the heavens and integrating themselves in the divine cosmos.

The tale also raises issues of evil in the world – even in the mythical, perfect times, humanity was imperfect and chose to rebel against the rule of the sun god. The existence of evil is not due to the actions of the creator god, but instead arises from the selfish interests of humanity; Re must slaughter the very people he created in order to stop this evil.

When the gods choose to leave, separating themselves from humanity, it creates three realms – the divine realm, the duat (the underworld), and the mortal world. It is this mortal world where evil can be found; it is the mortal world that is forever caught in the perilous struggle against the ensuing forces of chaos, and where the pharaoh must work to bring about order and divine perfection.

By Christopher Bebbington.

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The A-Group at Koshtamna

The site of Koshtamna, in the Aswan region, was excavated by John Garstang in 1906. The site is approximately 7 km northeast of Dakka, and contains material remains dating from various periods of Pharaonic history. The majority of Garstang’s finds, however, dated to prehistory; material remains of the Sudanese ‘A-Group’. John Garstang’s excavation at Koshtamna was never published, but the Garstang Museum is working to bring these artefacts, and the story of this site, into the public eye for the first time.

The A-Group

The Sudanese ‘A-Group’ were named by American archaeologist George Andrew Reisner. His ‘Archaeological Survey of Nubia’, conducted between 1907-1909, explored the origins of Nubian civilisation. The A-Group did not have writing, and so this relatively dry classification was imposed upon their remains; we still do not know what these people called themselves. There are numerous issues with Reisner’s classification, and it has been challenged by numerous scholars, but this relatively simplistic naming convention persists in Egyptology and Nubiology today.

The Importance of the A-Group Remains in Museums

Between 1960 and 1970, Egypt constructed the Aswan High Dam across the Nile at Aswan, a region at the southern edge of Egypt. The dam was constructed to control Nile flooding, increase water storage for agricultural irrigation, and generate hydroelectric power. Building the dam, however, came with a serious cost to the archaeological remains in the region.

The construction of the Aswan High Dam resulted in the flooding of Lake Nasser, submerging Nubian remains from Aswan to the Dal Cataract under roughly 50 metres of water. In 1959, the Egyptian government requested the assistance of UNESCO in preserving important archaeological material in this region. In 1960, the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia began; a series of ‘rescue excavations’ intended to preserve and record as much information about the submerged region as possible. As well as excavating hundreds of sites and preserving thousands of artefacts, the UNESCO campaign also deconstructed and relocated vast pieces of monumental architecture, moving them to safer ground – most famously, the temple of Philae (now located on Agilkia Island).

Due to the haste with which this material was excavated, a great deal of it has not yet been fully studied or published. Furthermore, due to the submerging of the region, one of the only ways to study the A-Group – a cultural group about which we know very little – is to study the material remains now stored in museums around the world. John Garstang’s excavations at Koshtamna, long predating the UNESCO rescue operation, have provided the Garstang Museum with a wealth of A-Group material to study, which may illuminate more about this ‘lost’ civilization.

Koshtamna: The Material Culture

The material found at Koshtamna illustrates the similarities between Predynastic Egyptian and prehistoric Nubian settlements. Much of the material from Koshtamna has parallels across both Sudanese and Egyptian prehistory; for example, numerous objects of personal adornment can be found in the Koshtamna material at the Garstang Museum. Typically, these include ‘necklaces’ made by stringing together shells, bones, or beads made of semiprecious stones; there are also numerous bracelets made of shell or bone. Though the strings tying the ‘necklaces’ together are a (relatively) modern construction, likely done on site at the Garstang excavation, the bored holes in the shells, bones, and semiprecious stones indicate that they were likely originally worn this way (though the precise arrangements are a reconstruction).

Another very common type of object found in the Koshtamna collection is the cosmetic palette – already extensively discussed in a previous blog. Nubian palettes appear similar in size, shape, and material to their Egyptian counterparts; some of these palettes may have been imported from Egypt, or may have been ‘copies’ or interpretations of the Egyptian style. They would likely have been used for a similar purpose, and reflect the natural world in the same way Predynastic Egyptian palettes do, depicting birds, fish, and other Nile Valley fauna. The majority of the palettes from Koshtamna are fragmentary, though this is no surprise – indeed, the majority of cosmetic palettes found in Egypt are also fragmentary (usually, it is only the best and most well-preserved examples that are put on display in museums!).

Pottery, of course, is another regular find at Koshtamna, whether whole vessels or fragmentary sherds. The ceramic vessels in the Koshtamna collection include numerous Egyptian ‘imports’ or ‘imitations’ – classically Egyptian-style morphologies, such as W-Ware (wavy-handled ware) that indicate trade and exchange between the A-Group and the Naqada culture to the north; whether this is direct material trade or simply the exchange of ideas is harder to know for sure. There are also, of course, numerous wares that are more typically ‘Nubian’, including the recognisable ‘black-topped red ware’ that characterises Nubian pottery.

E.4723, E.4605, E.6118

 

One of the most interesting finds (so far!) has been the ceramic vessel pictured below – E.6163. This black-topped vessel is marked with two holes around a break in the ceramic; evidence of an ancient repair! Holes like these would be used to bind the two broken parts of the vessel together, using string and (possibly) some form of glue to mend the break. Some 4-5 000 years ago, an individual decided this object was important enough to them that they would rather repair it, once broken, than throw it away and acquire a replacement.

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Burial Practice and Mortuary Culture

What does this collection of material tell us about the A-Group? How was this material used? What was its significance?

It is difficult to reconstruct social behaviour – peoples’ thoughts and feelings – from prehistory, where there is no written evidence to guide our interpretations. However, one of the ways this material was used is obvious – it was included in burials. The majority of the material in the Garstang Museum excavated at Koshtamna comes from individual burials; the ‘K’ numbers you may have noticed on the objects refer to areas of the site and particular burials from where these objects were excavated. Though we know very little about the funerary beliefs of the A-Group, we do know about their burial practices – and once again, a remarkable similarity can be found between the A-Group in Sudan and their Egyptian neighbours to the north.

The image on the left above is from John Garstang’s photographic archive, and shows a typical burial at Koshtamna; the burial is a simple pit, covered with sand. The body is contracted, with the arms raised to the chest and the legs bent, and burial goods – typically pottery, bracelets, palettes, and other material discussed above – are laid around it. The image on the right, also from Garstang’s photographic archive, shows a typical burial at Hierakonpolis in Egypt; the similarities are very notable. Whether these ideas originated in Nubia or Egypt and made their way northward or southward (respectively), or whether (and this is perhaps more likely) there were a number of factors influencing a cultural cross-pollination that resulted in similar burial practices, it is clear that similar ideas were being shared across both cultures. Whilst it would be too simplistic to argue that the individuals interred with these possessions were hoping to ‘bring them to the next life’, this is one of numerous possibilities for why they would be buried in this way.

Illuminating the A-Group

The Sudanese A-Group is an understudied culture group, one often ignored in favour of the later Kerma culture, or the comings and goings of its Egyptian neighbours. However, these material remains provide a vital window into the prehistory of Sudan, and the origins and developments of ideas that would perpetuate and evolve in later Sudanese history, from Nubia to Egypt and beyond.

By Christopher Bebbington.

(Edited by Sarah McBride).