The earliest philosophical treatment of air is found in ancient Egypt in the form of Shu. According to the ancient texts, Shu was one of the ENNEAD that dwelled at the temple in On (Heliopolis) and represented one of the fundamental elements. The tradition says that the Ra, the Supreme Deity, created Shu and his sisters, Tefnut, Geb, and Nut, as the four basic elements of the Universe. Shu represented air, Tefnut represented moisture, Geb represented Earth, and Nut represented the sky.
Shu's function, like that of the other elements, was critical to the sustaining of the cosmic order put in place by Ra. Shu, as air, was responsible for lifting Nut above Geb, that is, separating the sky from the Earth. In this function, Shu assumes a crucial responsibility in maintaining balance. Should Shu disappear then the sky would collapse onto the Earth and humans would be unable to survive. Should Shu lift the sky too far away from the Earth then humans would also die because of the lack of protection from Nut. Thus, the role of air was one of sustaining life, maintaining balance, and protecting humans.
Ra's creation of Shu and the other elements set in motion the fundamental pattern of Africa's response to the environment. Shu's role, as understood by the ancient Egyptians, may be seen as that of protecting the sanctity of the environment. One can create chaos in the universe by disturbing the air. In this regard, the nature of air as something to be protected because of its relationship to the environment is one of the world's first environmental responses.
Humans have received the air as a gift of Ra, the Supreme Deity by any name, and should protect its cleanliness, purity, and energy with good aromas, elimination of bad odors, and ritual cleansing of the atmosphere.
Shu, in the ancient Egyptian formulation, had a duty to perform. In other African societies, Yoruba, Akan, Zulu, Kikuyu, Bakuba, and so forth, the air is a sustainer of life and also the container of numerous powers and energies. The discovery of air as an animating and energizing phenomenon is essential to the contemporary African appreciation of the environment as a spiritual context. What Shu becomes by virtue of this pervasive emphasis on the fullness of the air with spiritual energies is something more than a physical energy; it is because of its capacity to contain the energies of the ancestors and the spirit world that the one environmental element created by the Supreme Deity to separate Earth and sky takes on the characteristics of mediating balance in the universe. Thus, air is the element that allows us to mediate conditions of maat on Earth and in the sky.



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Further Reading

  • Goff, B. (1979). Symbols of Ancient: Egypt in the Late Period: The Twenty-First Dynasty. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouten.
  • Karenga, M. (2005). Maat: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.