It feels strange, to me, that Tefnut fits into the category of forgotten gods. I thought every Kemetic knew her but it turns out that direct information isn’t easy to find. As far as I can tell, Tefnut is mainly known for two things:
- Being “born” of Atum, along with her twin brother Shu
- Joining with her brother-husband Shu in the first physical act of sexual intercourse, and then giving birth to Geb and Nut.
Now, I don’t worship Tefnut but perhaps I should. Not only is there the connection with Nut whom I do worship, but there’s overlap with Sekhmet as both the Distant Goddess and the Destroyer of Mankind, and potentially some overlap with Ma’at as Order. These links speak to me, as part of my religious work is the strengthening of connections, and for Tefnut to have so many tempts me to add her to my personal pantheon.
(One of these days, I’m going to worship too many gods. I can feel it coming.)
So, what do I know about Tefnut? Well, as mentioned above, she and her twin brother-husband Shu were born of Atum (sometimes in syncretized form as Atum-Khepri). As Utterance 527 from the Pyramid Texts says:
…Atum created by his masturbation in Heliopolis.
He put his phallus in his fist,
to excite desire thereby.
The twins were born, Shu and Tefnut… (Mercer, 204)
Another version of the birth of Shu and Tefnut from The Book of Overthrowing Ap-p:
…After I had made excitation with my fist, my desire came into mine hand, and seed fell from my mouth; I spat out Shu and expectorated Tefenet. When I had come into being as sole god, there were three gods in addition to myself, and two gods came into being in this land; Shu and Tefenet rejoiced in the Nun, in which they were…(Faulkner, 41)
Tefnut, herself, is most often portrayed as either a lion-headed woman or in full lion form; the latter is often paired with Shu in the form of a second lion and, when portrayed this way, the two are called Ruty (“The Two Lions”). Atum and Ruty, or Atum, Shu, and Tefnut, exist as a creator of and within themselves, and this is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts in Utterance 685:
…The two mountains divide, N. comes into being, N. has power over his body.
Behold N., his feet shall be kissed by the pure waters,
which come into being through Atum, which the phallus of Shu makes, which the vulva of Tefnut brings into being.
They have come to thee, they have brought to thee the pure waters which issue from their father;
they purify thee, they fumigate thee, N., with incense…(Mercer, 304)
She is also seen in full human form complete with wig and in this form, and in her lion-headed form, she has either the uraeus or uraeus with solar disk on the top of her head. In her lion-headed form, Tefnut is distinguishable from Sekhmet (and other lion-headed goddesses) by ear shape.
Shu and Tefnut are sometimes viewed as Atum’s male and female aspects, and although they initially dwell in the Nun with Atum, they must separate from him in order for creation to continue. This separation, and subsequent return to Atum, is seen when Atum sends out his Eye to search for them. It is unclear how long the separation lasts, and how long it takes for the Eye to find them, but it appears that the Eye returns with Shu and Tefnut as adults, and it is after this (insofar as we can determine a timeline in this mythos!) that Shu and Tefnut join and she gives birth to Geb and Nut.
(Also as part of this tale: Atum-Ra is created as/with the first sunrise, but that’s a topic for another post.)
In addition to her role as creator, Tefnut is also one of the Eye goddesses, and is found in both the story of the Destruction of Mankind (as the Destroyer who is soothed by beer) and in the tale of the Distant Goddess (where she is sought out and convinced to return by Shu). You likely know both of those stories with another goddess (or three!) in each role, so I won’t reprise them here.
(Incidentally – I find it fascinating that she is both the Eye itself and one for whom the Eye searches (as seen above), and it’s a perfect example of the constant overlap of roles (and timelines!) that make Kemetic myth so…jumbled up. The best way I’ve found to wrap my head around it is to throw up my hands and say, “All of it is true. ALL OF IT.” I also tend to practice the kind of polytheism where I treat the netjeru as distinct and separate except when I am told otherwise. Yes, my life is interesting.)
As the goddess of moisture, dew, and (potentially) rain, Tefnut’s main cult centers were in Junu (Heliopolis), where she had a dedicated sanctuary and was part of the Ennead and Taremu (Leontopolis), where she and Shu were worshiped as a pair of lions. An interesting fact I came across – while the Greek name Leontopolis means “City of Lions”, Taremu means “Land of Fish”. Perhaps the Greek name had to do with all those temples to lion-headed goddesses?
Were I to worship Tefnut today, I’d approach her with the same reverence and honor that I do Nut and give her the same offerings I give to Sekhmet – cool water, bread, and beer (red beer, when I can get it). I’d also go outside while dew is on the grass (which is when I leave for work in the morning) to say the waking prayers.
Faulkner, R.O. “The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus: IV.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 24.1 (1938): 41-53. Print.
Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
The Pyramid Texts. Trans. Samuel A.B. Mercer. Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., Inc., 1952. Print.