Apep was the god of dissolution, destruction, and nonbeing. Nothing could escape the attention of Apep when he wanted to advance an adversary position. Indeed, in ancient Egypt, Apep was the main adversary to Ra, seeking to destroy Ra, to bring him into nonbeing, and to create havoc in the society. He swallowed his enemies and caused them complete nonexistence; because no one wanted to be nonexistent, Apep was especially feared. The ancient Egyptians believed that Apep was without natural characteristics; indeed, he was outside of the natural world and therefore could not be looked on like the deities or humans. As a being who needed nothing from the natural world, neither sustenance nor companionship, Apep was totally devoid of any respect for humans.
Apep was depicted as a huge snake that existed at the beginning of time in the primieval chaos prior to creation, and he was thought to be impervious to all assaults, attacks, and attempts to defeat him because he was pure evil whose life was that of a malevolent force for all eternity. Often referred to in the tomb texts as an evil lizard, an enemy to the world, and serpent responsible for rebirth, Apep was also called “he who spits” and was connected to the saliva of the goddess Neith.
There is no evidence of Apep prior to the Middle Kingdom; when he is written about, it is as if he existed before the beginning. This situation has caused some scholars to suggest that the interpretations of Apep are based on the chaotic times just after the Pyramid Age. The mythology that speaks about him comes from the funerary texts that speak of the attacks on the great barque of Ra as the sun god made his nightly voyage through the underworld. But each morning as the solar barque was entering into daylight, Apep would attack it again with a terrifying roar that was intended to frighten Ra as it echoed through the darkness. Hindering the barque, keeping it from reaching its destination, was the aim of this malevolent force.
The serpent's coils were really sandbanks in the river or stones or stumps of trees used to prevent the solar barque from having clear sailing. The activities of Apep were so mischievous that he was sometimes equated with Seth, the god of chaos. But the character of Apep, unlike that of Seth, was always consistently that of threats and malevolence. Seth could at times show mercy and be beneficent and protective. Actually, he was enlisted by Ra in a battle against Apep, so Seth seemed to have had some redeeming values, whereas Apep did not. Seth was able in fighting against Apep to resist his deadly stare and keep him at bay with his special spear.
Apep sought to undermine the nature of the universe, to disrupt human society, and to dissolve all relationships between the deities and humans. If Apep could, he would cancel the plan of order, harmony, and balance on the Earth. There was nothing to his work but chaos. He had to be fought; there was no other way to remain free and in peace. Thus, it is written in the Book of Gates that Auset with Neith and Serket and a few other deities managed to capture the monster and have the sons of Heru restrain him. Although it was thought that each night Apep was revived to fight once more, the society had to hold chaos at bay.
Apep was said, in one text, to have eaten Ra and later disgorged him as a metaphor of renewal. In the funerary texts, Apep is usually shown with tightly compressed coils to show how large he really was when he uncoiled himself. It is said that the first part of his body was made of flint. In the text, Apep is shown with 12 heads of victims he has swallowed. When Ra has passed by the serpent, the victims are destined to return to the body of Apep until freedom is secured.
There were no cult priests for Apep. There were no temples built in his honor, but he was often on the minds of celebrants for other deities, and sometimes the people would make wax models of Apep and then burn them with fire. Some rituals involved drawing a picture of a monster, putting it in a box, and after spitting on it four times, burning the box. There could be no priests or priestesses used in the ritual to Apep.
Even the Dead had to be protected from Apep. There is a reference to 77 papyri rolls being used to affect a ritual that would allow the people to cut Apep into many pieces. The people protected themselves from this lurking monster by remembering the sacred ceremonies and rituals that protected them.
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- Vernus, P. (1998). Gods of Ancient Egypt. New York: George Braziller.