The Infinite Ogdoad: The Creation Pantheon of Ancient Egypt and Predecessor Gods of the Old Kingdom
The Ogdoad, also called the Hehu or Infinites, were the celestial rulers of a cosmic age. Considered to have come long before the Egyptian religious system currently recognized, the Ogdoad were concerned with the preservation and flourishing of the celestial world, and later—as well as indirectly—the formation of the human race.
Though their power among the Egyptian people was most widely recognized between 2686 – 2134 BCE—in the Old Kingdom settlement of Hermopolis (so named by the Greeks as they equated Thoth with messenger god Hermes)—traces of their pantheon permeated down to the next set of gods, correlating the formation of the human race with the hands of the Ogdoad.
As stated above, the Ogdoad predate the more commonly known Egyptian gods, such as Osiris, his sister wife Isis, and the emissary of the underworld, Anubis. Considered to have come into creation before the world did, the Ogdoad consist of four couples—eight individual deities—who balance one another and the nature of the cosmos. Each pair correlated with one of the primary elements of the universe in the Egyptian belief system, i.e., water, air, light, and time.
In the early Christian era, the idea of Ogdoad also appears in Gnostic belief. The planetary spheres were thought to be planes of existence in between the earth and the heavenly regions. (Public Domain)
In the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, it was believed Nu and Naunet were responsible for the development and continued renewal of the primordial waters of the universe. Amun and Amaunet were the care takers of air, while Kuk and Kauket were the harbingers of darkness. And finally, Huh and Hauhet, the last pair, were weighted with the responsibility of maintaining eternity and infinity. Each first name in these sets is the male avatar, while the second is the female, thereby creating an equal balance of genders as well.
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Detail, Relief in the temple of Hathor at Dendera showing the four couples of the Ogdoad of Hermopolis. (CC BY 3.0)
These celestial couples existed before the creation of man, and were considered by the ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom to have been directly responsible for the creation of the new world as well as its upkeep. However, because of the distance between the Old Kingdom and the present, the record of their time as creators of the universe is inconsistent and contradictory—as most ancient tales are.
There are at minimum three different views from the Egyptians that succeeded the time of the Ogdoad as to how the world as they knew it came into creation. The first was that the Ogdoad created an egg from which the world was born. It was considered to be invisible at the time, because before creation there was no sun, until the day that it hatched when from it exuded the brilliant golden light that they had been waiting for. This form of the sun was called Ra, one of the only Egyptian deities to have surpassed the laws of time to be accepted by both the followers of the Ogdoad and the later religion, and thus the world was born.
Artistic interpretation of the World Egg of the Ogdoad. (Pallina60Loon/CC BY 2.0)
Another belief is that the universe was created from a lotus flower that "rose from the Sea of the Two Knives". Within the petals was the same sun god as mentioned above, Ra, who then forged the cosmos.
And finally, the third opinion begins in the same way—a lotus flower rising from the sea—however, within the flower was not Ra but one of the sacred scarab beetles representing the sun. This beetle then transformed into a boy whose tears made humanity, and went by the name Nefertum ("young Amun").
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What these tales all have in common, besides the creation of the world through some sort of hatching, is the persistence of one god from the later Egyptian religion planting his roots in the Ogdoad. It makes perfect sense from a secular standpoint, as new religions often crop up through some deity linking the two together. However, all three versions mention the sun god Ra, as the scarab beetles were representative of the rising sun. The Ogdoad, then, were considered primarily responsible for creating the universe whether they birthed an egg or nursed the lotus flower, the "credit" of the future of the Egyptians handed off to their succeeding "son" Ra after the completion of their "Golden Age."
Ra is the sun-god of Heliopolis in ancient Egypt. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Though the Ogdoad eventually died out as the official pantheon in ancient Egypt, their names lived on in oral and written legends. It is believed that they failed to maintain the balance of the universe through their failure to maintain their own balance, thus Ra came into being to salvage what they forged. The Ogdoad, of Infinites, continued to be acknowledged as Osiris' and his pantheon's predecessors, and it was believed for a time that the Ogdoad themselves continued to thrive in the Underworld, keeping the rivers of the Nile flowing and the sun forever rising.
Featured image: Ogdoad - The Place of Truth. Relief at Deir el Medina. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Ryan Stone
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