I wanted to write a simple post explaining The Ogdoad of Hermopolis, with a larger plan of later writing one about The Ennead of Heliopolis, and then culminating in a compare-contrast post of the two. However, like so many thinks that seem simple from the outside, looking into what I thought was The Ogdoad turned into an exploration of ogdoads. As in plural. As in…this is a way more widespread concept than I thought, and it isn’t limited to Hermopolis.
(Spoiler alert – ennead isn’t any more cut-and-dried. Just sayin’.)
First, let me get this out of the way: Hermopolis is the Greek name for the city of Khmwnw (Khmunu – Eight City; City of Eight), just as Heliopolis is the Greek name for the city of Jwnw (Junu – House of Ra). In this post, I’ll be trying to stick to the Egyptian names, except when specifically talking about the Greek period and/or Greek thought.
An ogdoad (literally four, doubled) is a group of either four or eight deities that are worshiped together. They are often doubles of themselves (four deities, doubled) or male/female pairs (four male/four female). The Ogdoad that we know best, the one from Khmwnw, dates back to the Old Kingdom although names do not appear in writing until the Late Period. It also appears that, in the case of this particular grouping, the term Ogdoad ties back to the name of the city itself – City of Eight – and so it is postulated that although the concept existed throughout Ancient Egypt, the exact term didn’t come into common use for all such groups until Egyptologists started looking at the pattern.
Interestingly enough, when the pattern of deity grouping is examined there appear to be two trends that repeat over and over. The first is the fact that gods of place were a fact in Ancient Egypt. The second is that these gods of place were either tied to a feature of the local landscape (Meretseger, as an example) or grouped with other gods to form an ogdoad. Ogdoads were mainly formed of cosmic or primeval deities, however.
I find this fascinating and feel compelled to look into the concept of local groupings of deities that oversee the primeval – the source of creation, from which all things came. Judging by what I’ve read so far, though, finding materials may be tricky.
When it comes to Khmwnw and its ogdoad, we have more written data that we do for other local groupings. This ogdoad was formed of eight primeval deities – four male, and four female – that represented the aspects of darkness, moistness, and lack of boundaries or visible space. In the mythos, the eight come together to form either a particular space or particular object from which the sun god emerges. Depending on the source, the space is either called the Primeval Mound or the Island of Flame and the object either the Primeval Lotus or the Cosmic Egg. To make things even more interesting – sometimes the sun god emerging (hatching?) is Khepri, and sometimes the sun god is the one who created the ogdoad who then create the sun god…and we end up with the concept of deity being its own ancestor.
The Khmwnw ogdoad’s deities are named, to a certain extent, but the names change depending on the source material and the period of time. The primeval waters were represented by Nun and Naunet; Naunet is sometimes seen as another name for Nut, and the connection of Nut to Nun makes a great deal of sense. Amun and Amunet, representing invisible power and the breath of life are next, but later were replaced by Nia and Niat, representing the Void, once Amun became a creator god.
(An aside – Amun is interesting in that he is seen as being both sun and Nun, and two of his epithets include mention of Nun – “Nun, the Old One who evolved first” and “Nun the Old One who issued forth at the first time”. This connects Amun to being a primeval being rather than just a creator god, and it is interesting (to me, anyway) that later mentions of Amun, especially as Amun-Re, absorb the role of Nun.)
The third pair of deities, Kek and Keket (or Gereh and Gerehet), represented primeval darkness – the absolute dark of the first time, and the fourth pair, Heh and Hehet, were the currents in the primeval waters. Heh was also the name of another grouping of gods – the Heh gods – who were the twilight after dusk and before dawn and aspects of the time of pre-creation. In addition, all eight of the deities in the Khmwnw ogdoad were (are?) conflated with the Eastern souls, in baboon form, who helped the sun to rise.
(There’s a lot of “Pete and Repeat”* that goes on in the Ancient Egyptian mythos – duplicating of roles, syncretization, etc. I find it helps to think of everything as equally valid and able to exist simultaneously; it keeps my head from exploding most of the time.)
The Greeks liked the concepts that the Ogdoad represented, and saw the primeval era as a Golden Age since ma’at was a celestial force during that period of time. I, personally, still see ma’at as a celestial force as it transcends the tangible…but that’s really a discussion for another post. In the Greek line of thought, though, creation out of primeval matter resulted in the celestial (or cosmic) rather than the organic, and the fact that the Egyptians stressed physical qualities when personifying cosmic matter indicated the scientific advancement of Egyptian civilization, despite the fact that myth was used. I’m honestly not certain how I feel about this line of thought, though. The Ancient Egyptians were clearly scientifically advanced – one only has to look at their engineering and astronomy and medical treatments to see that. I’m not sure if I can, myself, prove scientific prowess through the application of philosophy. That too, most likely, is a post for another time.
So, a simple post this was not (as if that needed to be said), and I’m afraid I’ve come out of this experience with more questions than answers and many many thinky thoughts. That’s not all bad – I need more things to occupy my brain in the middle of the night. Hopefully, I’ve given you things to ponder without dooming you to the same sleepless nights.
To paraphrase a favorite podcast: Good night, dear readers. Good night.
Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Print.
Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Santa Barbara: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Morenz, Sigfried. Egyptian Religion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Print.
*Children’s verse – “Pete and Repeat went for a walk. Pete fell in a hole; who was left? Repeat! Pete and Repeat went for a walk. Pete fell in a hole; who was left? Repeat!”