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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.