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“Delta Myths and Legends” Penny Wilson (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the beginning of November Penny Wilson visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about myths & legends of the Delta region of Egypt. Wilson is involved in archaeological work in the Delta, and is currently writing a book about the region as there isn’t one already. One of her areas of interest is whether there is a distinct Delta culture during the Ancient Egyptian period.

She began her talk by giving us some geographical context for the region. The first & most obvious difference between the Delta and the Nile Valley is the scale – in most of Egypt there’s only a narrow strip of land that it’s possible to live on, but the Delta is very broad. There is also more variety of environments in the Delta – the marshy interior is different to the desert edges & both are different to the Mediterranean coastline. The Delta was also different in ancient times to the way it is now – the natural flooding of the Nile deposited a lot of sediment so the coastline was further out, and the soil was even more fertile.

The Delta marshes are very rich in natural resources – which makes agriculture less appealing here than in the Nile Valley and so the population remained hunter/gatherers for longer. The land is also better for farming – it is very fertile and there’s more space. There are more trees, which provide building materials for things such as boats. And the less marshy areas along the desert edges are good for cattle rearing. But the Delta also spends a lot of time flooded and it’s hard to find places to put permanent settlements. This is even more the case than in Nile Valley, as at least there you can retreat to the desert edge, but if you’re in the middle of the Delta then there are river channels on all sides. There are some options though, including large sand banks that rise high above the flood plain. Over the millennia these have been mined for their sand, so only one still survives & Wilson showed us a photo of this pretty large body of sand standing 20 foot higher than the surrounding land.

So Wilson is interested in how this diverse & rich environment which is distinct from the Nile Valley environment has affected the belief systems of the people who lived there. But first she needs to figure out what the belief systems of the Delta region actually are, which is not as straightforward as one might expect. The bulk of Wilson’s talk was a chronological look at what we know about Delta myths & legends, and how we know it (or how we don’t!).

She started with a look at the Narmer Palette as one of the most well known pieces of iconography to do with the unification of Egypt. The traditional explanation for the scenes are that they show the defeat of Lower Egypt (the Delta) at the hands of the King (Narmer) of Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley). But more recently there have been suggestions that it may not be that straightforward. For instance, is the Red Crown really the crown of Lower Egypt? If you go with the traditional interpretation of the Narmer Palette then it must be, but the first archaeological evidence for that shape/symbol is found on pottery from Upper Egypt. And if we can’t be sure which parts of the palette definitely refer to the Delta it’s not a very good starting place for looking at their beliefs.

Another piece of iconography relating to the unification of Egypt is a scene that is carved on the side of many seated statues’ thrones – Horus & Seth tying together two plants symbolising the joining of Lower & Upper Egypt respectively. Which only serves to confuse even further our knowledge of Delta iconography, as the two gods were assigned the other way round in earlier artifacts (like the Narmer Palette). And this illustrates one of the big problems with working out what’s Delta specific & what’s not – the beliefs and associations of myths change over time, as well as being explicitly re-written to suit the propaganda needs of the Pharaoh of whichever time period the evidence comes from.

Wilson next discussed the Osiris & Isis myth and what that tells us about Delta mythology. She first noted that the best account of the myth that still exists today is in the writings of Plutarch (a Roman historian from the 1st Century CE). So that’s significantly after its initial appearance, and the myth as he records it is likely to be different from earlier incarnations of the tale. It’s one of the Heliopolitan myths, that is it was associated with the city later known as Heliopolis on the eastern edge of the Delta (under a modern suburb of Cairo). This myth cycle is one of the creation stories of the Egyptians and includes gods such as Atum, Nun, Geb as well as the Osiris & Isis stories. The myth is another piece of kingly propaganda which legitimises the king’s lineage by equating the ruler with Horus the son of Osiris.

Is Osiris originally a northern or southern god? Much of the evidence points towards a northern origin. His iconography is all about fertility which suggests the Delta. Also his main title is “Lord of Djedu” – which is a city in the north of Egypt later known as Busiris. However the remains of Djedu are under a modern town so there’s been no archaeology done there, and it’s hard to know what connection Osiris had to the town early in its existence. Complicating matters is that again his iconography changes from place to place & over time. Wilson said that he was probably thought of differently in different places (i.e. not just a change of representation but a change of concept). He also gets merged with other gods. For instance Abydos was originally not associated with Osiris, but by the 12th Dynasty he’s replaced Khentiamentu as the primary deity there and uses Khentiamentu’s name as a title. This fluid nature of the myths is part of what Wilson finds so interesting about Egyptian religion (as do I – it feels such an odd mindset to get one’s modern post-Enlightenment brain around).

Like Osiris there are different ideas about Horus in different places & at different times. For instance there is Horus the Elder (who is one of the gods that the temple at Kom Ombo is dedicated to), and there is Horus the Child who is depicted on stelae called cippi (which were protective against snake bites & other such things). Horus is associated with falcon imagery which is important throughout time in the Delta, so one can place Horus in the Delta in later periods but the archaeological evidence is more complex.

There are few early sites in the north of Egypt, one of them is Tell el Farkha which shows evidence of habitation during the state formation period. Artifacts found here include curly pins that look a lot like the one shown as part of the Red Crown. Another find is a statue of a man, made of gold covered wood. He is depicted as naked except for a penis sheath and the art style is like that of the more southern Naqada culture – so Wilson suggested it may be evidence of an external elite installed in the Delta to run the trade routes (which again raises questions about where the Red Crown comes from originally). Other finds include vessels and ivory objects. These include iconography that isn’t seen later in Egyptian history, but also child figurines that had similarities to later depictions of Horus the Child. But once again this is not a smoking gun – the figurines are also found in the south around this same period so it’s not clear where they originated.

The origins of and the original Delta myths are thus difficult to pin down, and Wilson moved on to later evidence of specifically Delta myths. During the 1st & 2nd Dynasties there is evidence that there were definitely cult centres in the Delta region. Labels discovered in Abydos dating to the 1st Dynasty name both Sais and Buto. During the same period there are carvings that name a Cattle Nome in the Delta, which doesn’t survive into later times. There is also a 1st Dynasty label that shows king Den fighting a hippo wearing a giraffe tail hair scarf that is associated with the Delta and this iconography survives into the Middle Kingdom.

An Old Kingdom shrine in Tell Ibrahim Awad includes iconography of hedgehogs that appears unique to the Delta and to this time period – boats in the shape of hedgehogs curled into a ball. Hedgehogs do actually float, and quite possibly enjoy it as this youtube video shows. Wilson speculated that the ancient Egyptians in the Delta would’ve seen hedgehogs floating down the river on their back curled up in a protective ball & seen this as a good protective symbol. After this time period hedgehogs are still depicted but not as boats any more.

Later in the Old Kingdom there is evidence for differently shaped shrines in Upper & Lower Egypt. The evidence comes from Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara where there are dummy shrines made out of stone in the courtyard with two different shapes for Upper & Lower Egypt. This is not likely to be the first time these shrine shapes were used – just that Saqqara is the first time they were built in stone. The originals would’ve been made from reeds, which wouldn’t survive well in the archaeological record. Wilson showed us some pictures of reed structures in the Euphrates region where the technology survived into the modern photographic era to show us how large & complex such structures can be.

White Chapel of Senusret I

The White Chapel of Senwosret is a Middle Kingdom structure that was discovered at Karnak and rebuilt (it’s now in the Open Air Museum at Karnak Temple, above). Around the walls it lists all of the Nomes of Egypt (the administrative districts) with their associated gods. Wilson pointed out that the names of the gods are not what we expect – the “standard” associations of gods actually come from later texts. For instance on the White Chapel the cattle god Hapy is associated with a region in the Western Delta, but in later periods he’s associated with Memphis. And given they change between the Middle Kingdom & later on they are also probably different in earlier periods – which leads to the sort of uncertainty that Wilson was explaining earlier in her talk when she discussed the associations of Horus & Osiris.

In the New Kingdom there is a Temple of Seth in Pi-Ramesses (Ramesses II’s capital in the Delta) which dates to the time of Ramesses II – which is again not quite the geographical association we expect from later texts where Horus is the one of the pair who is associated with the Delta. Ramesses II also provides examples of the King’s propaganda machine altering the stories to fit with local sensibilities. A stela from his reign in the Delta traces his lineage back to the Hyksos, and shows him offering to the Near Eastern god Baal – neither of those being things we would expect an Egyptian Pharaoh to do! In fact quite a lot of iconography from the Ramesside period doesn’t match our expectations from later texts – and is sometimes altered by later Egyptians, for instance statues of the king protected by Seth tend to be altered to be a more “suitable” god for later tastes when Seth was demonised.

From the later periods there are cult centres in the Delta which have distinctive flavours that are not the same as the more southern cult centres. One example is Bubastis, where Bastet is the main god & there is a cemetery of cat offerings to her. Another example is Mendes, which has a sacred ram cemetery of offerings to Ba-nebdjed, and where the fish goddess Ha-Mehyt is also worshipped. The shrines to Ba-nebdjed that have been discovered are enormous and were built in the Late Period. There is a big emphasis on fertility and on the rising of the flood waters. Inside the temples were shrines to Ra (fire), Shu (air), Geb (earth), Osiris (flood) and Ba-nebdjed (the totality of all of these).

Another example of a distinctive Delta cult centre is Sais, where the goddess Neith is worshipped. She is a very old goddess referenced well back into Egyptian history. In her mythology she is the female creator at the centre of the universe. She is also the mother of Sobek, the crocodile god, and is often depicted suckling baby crocodiles. Sais is also mentioned in Herodotus who references the “Festival of Lamps” that occurred there but doesn’t write down the story.

There are some texts from the 26th Dynasty which are about myths, and are largely the Delta Heliopolitan myths. They are difficult to fully understand – the myths are written in an often cryptic format more concerned with explaining why something must be done in a particular way during a ritual rather than providing a narrative. They are also more aide memoires for people who already should know what the meanings & stories are, rather than teaching tools for the uninformed. There’s also the difficulty that we don’t share a cultural context with the writers (unlike for the Greek myths) so some things are more cryptic than even the author of the text intended. Wilson read us a few examples to give a flavour for how hard they are to understand.

Wilson finished up her talk by saying that this is still very much research in progress – she has currently got a lot of questions, a lot of examples but only tentative conclusions. Ancient Egyptian mythology is complex and changes over time, so picking out the Delta specific threads is a complicated task. Egyptian mythology is also not particularly concerned with enforcing a global narrative structure on the myths – Wilson said they were in essence local solutions (myths/rituals) to local problems.

I found this talk fascinating, but difficult to write up as Wilson doesn’t yet have a handle on any coherent structure. A useful reminder that as Egyptian civilisation covered a reasonable geographical area and a long time period then it’s foolish to expect that there should be one “Egyptian mythology”.