Khnum – Ancient Egypt’s Lord of the Land of Life
Who was Khnum? The oldest and most important deities in the Egyptian pantheon are often the most mysterious and lacking in scholarly information. They are old – so old - that they’re veiled in a mist of ancient mysteries that accompanies such great age. From the earliest developments of the Egyptian civilization in the Nile’s valleys – going back several thousand years – these chief deities shaped the emerging culture of Egypt. One such god is Khnum – the great potter and creator of people and the chief deity of the source of the Nile.
As such, Khnum became one of the most important and revered gods of ancient Egyptians. His worship was directly related to the fertility and abundance that the flooding of the Nile brought. Join us today as we try to uncover the deeper character of Khnum – The Divine Potter – and attempt to get deeper into the mysteries that follow this enigmatic deity.
The Age and Importance of Khnum
Khnum has the distinction of being one of the earliest known Egyptian deities. His name and invocations mentioning him were discovered in some of the earliest ancient Egyptian monuments and writings. His role was equally important – he was considered the god of the source of the Nile, and as we all know, the Nile was the pulsating heart of the entire ancient Egyptian civilization. To be connected with it, Khnum truly had to have been immensely revered and have ascended to the very top of the pantheon.
The annual flooding of the Nile was the biggest life bringing event for the ancient Egyptians. The flooding brought fertility to the Nile valleys, leaving silt and clay in its wake, and a flourishing of crops and vegetation. As the Egyptians always connected these natural occurrences with life and abundance and fertility, so did they ascribe these events to Khnum.
Furthermore, Khnum was envisioned as having the role of a “divine potter”. The role given to this god was one of creation – he is said to form humans in their child form, on a potter’s wheel, from the rich clay of the Nile’s flooding. He place the formed beings in the wombs of mothers and life would spring forth thanks to his work.
Khnum forming humans on his potter’s wheel. (Canadian Museum of History)
The name Khnum – in Ancient Egyptian “ ẖnmw” – comes from the root word meaning “to join”; “to unite”, and another root word that has the meaning “to build”. This makes Khnum’s name fairly obvious and consistent with his role as a builder and creator. He was not only the creator of human life in the form of children, but also the creator of the universe, the gods, and mankind, in various different interpretations through the history of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
Khnum was believed to have created the “first egg of the world”, and to have made the bodies of the first gods and men on his potter’s wheel from clay. Several historic inscriptions name Khnum as the creator of both aspects of human life in Egyptian belief. These were the body ( khat) and the life force ( ka), which Khnum combined and created on his potter’s wheel. Thus he created life.
Seven forms of Khnum are mentioned, combined with his role as the creator of the universe. These are:
Khnum Neb – “the Lord”
Khnum Khenti per-ankh – “Governor of the House of Life”
Khnum Khenti-Taui – “Governor of the Two Lands”
Khnum Nehep – “The Creator”
Khnum Sekhet ashsep-f – “Weaver of His Light”
Khnum Khenti netchemtchem ankhet – “Governor of the House of Sweet Life”
Khnum Neb-ta-ankhtet – “Lord of the Land of Life”
Khnum is the central figure on this sacred boat. (Alicia McDermott)
As a predominantly life-bringing god and a water deity, Khnum was most often portrayed as a ram headed man, as the ancient Egyptians believed that rams symbolized fertility. Most art portrayals show him seated behind a potter’s wheel, or standing with a jar from which he pours water – symbolizing the flooding of the Nile.
There are also several examples of Khnum portrayed with four ram’s heads, as a sort of hybrid amalgamation of the elements of earth, fire, air, water, and also the four life forces ( ka’s) of Osiris, Ra, Shu, and Geb. Shu and Geb were also important, primordial Egyptian deities, and this amalgamation clearly shows how important Khnum was as a creator deity. This four-headed representation is known as Sheft-Hat, the Great Primeval Force.
God with four ram heads facing in four directions, probably Khnum. (CC0)
The Flooding of the Nile and Salvation from Khnum
Khnum is a god that controlled the so-called “doors” of the Nile, and as such controlled the annual flood at his own wish. But what happens when nature steps in and messes things up for the believers? So it happened that during a period in the Egypt’s 3rd Dynasty the Nile didn’t flood for seven consecutive years, causing extensive droughts and famine. This happened during the rule of the famed pharaoh Djoser.
This famine – an actual historic event – was preserved in a myth and inscribed on an artifact known as the “Famine Stele”, located on Sehel Island in the Nile, near Aswan. It was carved during the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It tells how the Pharaoh Djoser, seeking to save the land from the seven years of famine, implores his high priest Imhotep to discover the birth place of Hapi, god of the Nile.
Imhotep then travels to the so-called House of Nets, at Hermopolis, and discovers that the flooding of the Nile is controlled by Khnum himself.
In the myth, it is described in detail how Khnum is the one controlling the great “doors” that allow the flooding of the Nile. It is stated that Khnum resides on Elephantine Island in the Nile, and that Djoser decides to travel there. Once there, in the temple of Khnum – the “Joy of Life” – Djoser is purified, and offers “all good things” to Khnum. He then falls asleep, and is greeted by a vision of Khnum, who says to him:
“I am Khnum, the Creator. My hands rest upon thee to protect thy person, and to make sound thy body. I gave thee thine heart…I am he who created himself. I am the primeval watery abyss, and I am the Nile who riseth at his will to give health for me to those who toil. I am the guide and director of all men, the Almighty, the father of the gods.”
In this vision Khnum promises Djoser that the Nile will flood once more, and continue to do so, as long as Djoser rebuilds the ruined temple of Khnum on Elephantine Island. Once Djoser rebuilt the temple, the drought ceased, and annual flooding occurred once more, ending the famine. This important inscription clearly shows us that the ancient Egyptians connected Khnum with the flooding of the Nile, and clearly sought salvation through him.
This event also shows a large rise in wealth and influence of both Djoser and the Temple of Khnum, to which the pharaoh dedicated a swath of land between Aswan and Tachompso, and all of its wealth and income, as well as a share of imports from Nubia. It remains a matter of debate whether this was an occurrence during Djoser’s reign, or simply a later myth that served to solidify the influence of the Priests of Khnum over Elephantine Island. Historically, there is a mention of a seven year drought and famine, but during the late 2nd Dynasty and the rule of Pharaoh Neferkasokar.
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Worshipping the Weaver of His Light
Later on, Khnum’s role as a divine creator, and more precisely a builder, became used more and more in pharaonic inscriptions. Some stories tell us how Khnum visited Egypt in disguise and helped with the birth of three children, destined to become great kings. His role in the birth was to give the children their health and ka – as a bringer of life.
Later inscriptions bring him into connection with the divine origin of pharaohs, most likely utilized to emphasize the ruler’s power and influence. Examples include Khnum crafting the royal body of a pharaoh and his ka on the potter’s wheel. These scenes are always taking place in a celestial realm, signifying the divine origin of a pharaoh.
Undoubtedly the main place of worship for Khnum was located exactly on Elephantine Island. The great temple there was dedicated chiefly to Khnum, his consort Satis, and their daughter Anuket. These three deities were known as the Elephantine Triad. Satis was essentially a female counterpart of Khnum. She was a goddess of fertility and the flooding of the Nile as well and the protective deity of Egypt’s south borders.
On the right of this image you see King Amenhotep I making an offering of ointment jars to Amen-Re‘ (here depicted as having a ram's head), Khnum, Satet and Anuket who are all enthroned behind a similar altar. (Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0)
Anuket, their daughter, was the goddess of lower Nubia, and of the Cataracts of the Nile. These were shallow, whitewater rapids and the shallowest parts of the Nile.
The temple of Khnum on Elephantine Island was the largest and occupied the entire southern tip. Along with the smaller temple of Satet, it is documented as far back as 3,000 years.
Another crucial temple of Khnum is located at modern Esna, or ancient Latopolis – a majestic building with great preservation. It is located 55 kilometers (34.18 miles) south of Luxor. Latopolis was named in honor of a fish – the Nile Perch, which was held sacred by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of another creator deity – the goddess Neith. Numerous Nile perch mummies were discovered in cemeteries west of the town. Khnum’s temple here is among the best preserved today, and without a doubt one of the prettiest - perfectly capturing the craftsmanship and attention to detail of the ancient Egyptian craftsmen.
The temple of Khnum, Esna - wall carving shows Khnum and Menhit. (CC BY SA 3.0)
The Breath of Life for Pharaohs
Returning to the role of Khnum as the bringer of life and creator of pharaohs, we can see his importance in the myth of Hatshepsut’s birth. Hatshepsut was the fifth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, and the second historical female pharaoh. The myth of her birth says that she was a daughter of Amen-Ra, a form of god Amon.
Amen-Ra, disguised as pharaoh Thutmose I (Hatshepsut’s father), visits her mother, touches her nose with his ankh symbol, and conceives Hatshepsut. Amen-Ra then calls for Khnum, and tells him to “fashion for him the body of his daughter and her ka”. He goes on to say that he shall make his daughter “a great queen, and honor and power shall be worthy of her dignity and glory”. Khnum then
“fashioned the body of Amen-Ra's daughter and the body of her ka, the two forms exactly alike and more beautiful than the daughters of men. He fashioned them of clay with the air of his potter's wheel and Heqet, goddess of birth, knelt by his side holding the sign of life towards the clay that the bodies of Hatshepsut and her ka might be filled with the breath of life.”
This important legend is preserved in Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, and once again places Khnum in an important role as a creator of divine life.
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As a water deity, Khnum was also mentioned several times as a protector of the Waters of the Underworld, and through this as the protector of the dead. In several paintings he is depicted as a falcon with the head of a ram, in one of his amalgamations with Ra, when he was known as Khnum-Ra and symbolized the night – which is the Soul of Ra passing through the underworld. In this way, the ancient Egyptians doubled the power of Ra, which was often done by combining the sun disk of Ra with other chief deities, giving them new roles.
Note the Khnum figure with the solar disk on it’s head at the front of the sacred boat. Chapel of Amun-Ra, Temple of Seti I, Abydos. (kairoinfo4u/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
In Unison With Nature
Khnum presents us with a very important glimpse into the complexity and richness of the ancient Egyptian pantheon and the beliefs surrounding it. With such a vital connection to the nature around them, the Egyptians managed to create a rich world of beliefs, myths, hundreds upon hundreds of deities, and a religious system that surpassed any other during the era.
The stories of Khnum also show us just how dependent they were on the land around them, on the Nile and the floods it brought, and that all of their deities are in a way a facet of the natural lives of men.
Top Image: Detail of Khnum, the ram-headed ancient Egyptian god. Source: PTimm/Deviantart
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