Atum was one of the earliest names for the divine in its capacity as creator-god in ancient Egypt. Equally important, the conceptualization of Atom represents the earliest example of humans developing an ontology or metaphysical philosophy to explain the nature of being and existence. The earliest reference to Atum in ancient Egyptian literature is in the Pyramid Texts and is dated to circa 2350 BC. An analysis of the Pyramid Texts demonstrates that the deity Atum served at least three primary functions in ancient Egyptian religious and philosophical thought: the progenitor of the Heliopolitan cosmogony, the author of divine kingship, and, as already indicated, the primary ontological category by which all matter, phenomena, and life materialized from a nonexistent primordial state.
The word Atum has been variously translated by Egyptologists as “The All,” “The Complete One,” and the “Undifferentiated One.” The word is also a variation of the Egyptian verb ttn, meaning “to not be,” communicating the ideas of preexistence and precreation. According to ancient Egyptian cosmogonical narratives, Atum emerges from the primieval waters of Nun to inaugurate the initial creative act of creation. Hence, Atum was often aligned with the Egyptian concept of sp tpy, meaning the “First Time,” the infinitesimal moment at which uncreated infinity becomes an ever-evolving existence of countless beings and life forms.
Atum was also central to one of the premier philosophical traditions in ancient Egypt, the Heliopolitan cosmology, based in the city of Iunu and called the city of the sun by the ancient Greeks because of its principal dedication to the deity Ra. Ra was frequently characterized as the active mode of creative energy, whereas Atum was described as its inert aspect, therefore rendering the early name of Atum-Ra as indicated in the Pyramid Texts.
The Heliopolitan cosmological school was centered on nine cosmic deities, including Atum who was their “father” and originator. The nine “gods,” often called the Ennead in ancient Greek and the Psedjet in ancient Egyptian, represented the totality of the plurality of all life. The Pyramid Texts refer to Atum as the creator of four pairs of dyadically gendered male and female gods functioning as complementary opposites: Shu and Tefnut, Geb and Nut, Ausar and Auset, and Neb-Het and Set. Together these deities formed the basic divine community of ancient Egyptian cosmology.
Atum as a supreme divinity of creation was also the authorizer of kingship. In ancient Egyptian political philosophy, the office of kingship functioned as a position emanating from the power of divine mandate. All kings were viewed as the offspring of the gods. In particular, kings were presented as the actual sons of the primary creator-gods such as Ra, Amen, and, of course, Atum. The Pyramid Texts reiterates this theme when it says, “O Atum, raise this King up to you, enclose him within your embrace, for he is your son of your body forever.” By the New Kingdom period of ancient Egyptian history, Atum's role as authorizer of kingship was eclipsed by Amen and Ra, yet the god always remained a primary deity for how ancient Egyptians explained their primordial beginnings.



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Further Reading

  • Assman, J. (1996). The Mind of Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Bilolo, M. (1994). Metaphysique Pharaonique. Munich-Kinshasa: Publications Universitaires Africaines.
  • Diop, C. A. (1991). Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books.
  • Hornung, E. (1996). Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Karenga, M. (2006). Maat: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
  • Quirke, S. (1992). Ancient Egyptian Religion. New York: Dover.