In Egyptian mythology, Apep (also spelled Apepi, and Aapep, or Apophis in Greek) was a serpent demon who represented the forces of chaos, death, and disorder. As such, he was the mortal enemy (and polar opposite) of order, personified as the goddess Ma’at, and light, as incarnated in the form of Ra. This adversarial construal of the demon is evidenced in various surviving texts from the Middle Kingdom period onwards (ca. 2000-1650 B.C.E.), including the Book of the Dead and the Book of Gates—both of which are concerned with the geography and mythology of the underworld.
Although Apep was depicted in a serpentine form, this should not be extrapolated as signifying a general demonization of snakes within Egyptian culture. As counter-examples, one should note that the creator god Atum was occasionally represented as a serpent in religious iconography, and that many apotropaic talismans were fashioned in the form of reptiles.
As an Egyptian deity, Apep belonged to a religious, mythological and cosmological belief system that developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to around 525 B.C.E. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. The cults were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Yet, the Egyptian gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “If we compare two of [the Egyptian gods] … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanent—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. Thus, those Egyptian gods who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Furthermore, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e. the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely defined by the geographical and calendrical realities of its believers’ lives. The Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.
The Development of Apep
From earliest Egyptian prehistory, snakes (and other reptiles) were regarded with a mixture of awe, fear and respect. Their alien appearance, coupled with the dangers inherent in their venom-laced attacks and their ability to “return to life” following a period of hibernation, guaranteed reverence from the Egyptians (likely due to their naturalistic cosmology and theology (described above)). As a result of these generalized (and historically ancient) attitudes towards serpents, it is understandable that they would suggested themselves to the mythic imagination as suitable aggressors against the forces of order and light: “Apep, the serpent-devil of mist, darkness, storm, and night, … and his fiends, the ‘children of rebellion,’ were not the result of the imagination of the Egyptians in historic times, but their existence dates from the period when Egypt was overrun by mighty beasts, huge serpents, and noxious reptiles of all kinds.
More specifically, Apep (when characterized as a single, discrete antagonist to the gods) emerged during the twenty-first century B.C.E., as the Egyptian pantheon was coalescing into a henotheism ruled by a sun god. This deity, alternately identified as Ra, Atum-Ra, Amun-Ra, or Ra-Horekhty, was seen as the creator of the universe and the upholder of Ma’at (order). As a result, the demonic serpent, already associated with darkness and disorder, came to be seen as the greatest enemy of Ra. Given the cyclical understanding of time that dominated the Egyptian worldview (as described above), the contention between the solar deity and the serpent of darkness was understood to be enacted every day, from the disappearance of the sun at dusk to its triumphant return at dawn. This notion led to the development of an involved mythology of conflict between these forces, as will be explored below.
In a later creation account, the problem of theodicy is explicitly addressed by claiming that Apep (and the forces of chaos and confusion that he represents) are an inherent part of the created order. Specifically, he was thought to have sprung into existence from the spittle of Neith (the personification of the primordial waters), which meant that Apep was a part of the creation from the very beginning. As Zivie-Coche notes, “in this particular vision of the world, which I think has no parallel, evil was created in its symbolic form of Apopis. The faults worked in the cosmos by the presence of evil were not contrary to the creative will of the creator god, and this point of view was a way of mythically ratifying the reality of this world and its deficiencies.”
Though Apep was generally understood to be the ultimate force of evil in the Egyptian theology, other deities occasionally came to occupy a similarly reviled place. One of the most notable was Set, former patron of the deserts and guardian of the Lower Kingdom, who was adopted as a chief deity by the Hyksos after their conquest of Egypt (ca. 1650 B.C.E.). Since these foreign overlords were hated by nationalistic groups, Set was gradually demonized, to the extent that he came to be characterized as an evil god. As a result, he eventually took on many of the characteristics of Apep. Despite this development, Set never entirely displaced Apep, likely because he was still identified as one of the most potent defenders of the Sun God on his nightly voyage.
Battles with Ra
The tales of the sun’s nightly battles against the forces of darkness (represented by Apep) were extensively elaborated upon during the New Kingdom period (1550-1070 B.C.E.). In this cosmological understanding, the serpent demon was thought to reside below the horizon, in the heart of the duat (underworld). In some versions, Apep waited for Ra (ensconced in the solar barque) in a western mountain called Bakhu, where the sun set, and in others Apep lurked just before dawn, in the Tenth region of the Night. The wide range of possible locations for this dreadful battle earned Apep the title World Encircler.
In these battles, Apep attempted to transfix the assembled gods using his hypnotic gaze, after which point he sought to devour them (whilst simultaneously choking the river on which they traveled). In his efforts, Apep was thought to be aided by a coterie of lesser demons, all of whom had to be slain or driven away by the defenders of the god. Fortunately for Ra, he also had the assistance of various powerful deities, including Set (a being renowned for his might), Mehen (a serpent god), Serket (a scorpion goddess), Maahes (a lion god), Bast (a cat goddess), and Shu (the primordial personification of air). These myths are best explored through the surviving textual corpus, accounts from which are quoted at length below.
The earliest part of the night, when the sun has first disappeared beyond the horizon, is described in the Book of Gates:
When AFU-Ra has passed through, and the Gate is closed, the gods outside set up a wail, for they must abide in darkness until he re-appears. So soon as the god has entered the DIVISION four gods of the Tuat appear and take hold of the tow-line, but they cannot advance until a path is cleared for them. The obstacles in their way take the forms of the huge serpent APEP, and a great crocodile, the tail of which is in the form of a serpent’s head and neck; the name of the latter monster is given both as SESHSESH and SESSI. These have taken up their positions at the end of the DIVISION, in that portion of the Tuat which is not very far from the place of sunrise, and a company of beings appear on behalf of AFU-RA, and proceed to remove the monsters by means of words of power and magical ceremonies.
Having taken up their positions for attacking Apep the men with the harpoons work the rope which is attached to AM, the goddesses and the apes shake out their rope nets over their heads, and recite their spells, and the men who know the proper words of power shake out their nets and recite the formulae which shall have the effect of throwing APEP and SESSI into the state of stupefaction wherein it will be easy to slay them. The spells and words of power have their proper effect, the monsters are fascinated and slain, and the path of AFU-RA is clear.
Despite the grim profile of Apep on the horizon, the solar barque—propelled by the magical utterances of the divine host—sails inexorably forward:
The Majesty of this great god taketh up his abode in the Hall of Osiris, and the Majesty of this god addresseth words to the Hall of the gods who dwell therein. This god performeth all the rites proper [for entering] this Hall, and he advanceth on his way against Apep by means of the words of power of Isis, and by means of the words of power of the Sovereign God.
When the assembled gods finally descend upon the venomous serpent, they fall upon him in a furious array:
Those who are in this scene [with] their weapons in their hand take their knives and hack [with them] at Apep; they make gashes in him and slaughter him, and they drive stakes whereby to fetter him in the regions which are in the upper height. The fetters of the REBEL are in the hands of the Children of Horus, who stand threateningly by this god with their chains between their fingers. This god reckoneth up his members after he whose arms are hidden hath opened [the door] to make a way for Ra.
With this, the serpent god is repelled, his odious influence mitigated until the recommencement of hostilities the following night.
In addition to their role in the mythic cosmology, some of these tales also had an etiological function. Specifically, various natural occurrences were explained by suggesting that they were instances where Apep had briefly gained the upper hand in the titanic struggle. For example, the rumbling of thunder and the chthonic trembling of earthquakes were both attributed to the thrashings of the giant reptile. Further, it was even thought that Apep could occasionally manage to swallow Ra during the day, which would cause a solar eclipse. Fortunately, Ra’s defenders were present to cut the god free, meaning that eclipses always ended within a few minutes.
As Apep represented a demonic impediment to the daily resurrection of the sun, many religious practices were embarked upon for the specific purpose of transcending his noxious influence. These rituals, which were enacted nightly by the priests and laity, were thought to help ensure the victory of Ra in his life-and-death struggle with darkness. A more involved version of this rite, entitled the Banishing of Apep, was carried out annually. In it, priests would build an effigy of Apep that was thought to contain all of the evil and darkness in Egypt, and burn it to protect everyone from Apep’s influence for another year.
Various other religious procedures for defending the world from the influence of the demon serpent were recorded in an encyclopedic tome called the The Book of Overthrowing Apep. It was divided into various chapters describing the gradual process of dishonoring, dismembering and disposing of the beast, including the following:
- The Chapter of Spitting Upon Apep
- The Chapter of Defiling Apep with the Left Foot
- The Chapter of Taking a Lance to Smite Apep
- The Chapter of Fettering Apep
- The Chapter of Taking a Knife to Smite Apep
- The Chapter of Putting Fire Upon Apep
In addition to stories about Apep’s defeats, this guide had instructions for constructing wax models (or small drawings) of the serpent, which would be spat on, mutilated and burnt, whilst the ritual participants were reciting spells that would aid Ra.
Though the battle between Ra and Apep was usually set on the cosmic scale, the serpent was also seen as a potential impediment to the successful posthumous journey of individual souls. Thus, the priestly class created various spells and talismans to defend the spirits of the dead against his venomous depredations. For example, “the Snake’s Head talisman was worn to protect its wearer from the attacks of Rerek, or Apep, the servant of Set, who was typified as a terrible serpent, which when killed had the power of rising in new forms and who obstructed the passage to the heaven world.” Further, the Book of the Dead also suggests that the individual soul will take part in the titanic struggle with the forces of evil on its way to the land of the dead:
O mayest thou be at peace with me; may I behold thy beauties; may I advance upon the earth; may I smite the Ass; may I crush the evil one; may I destroy Apep in his hour… may my soul come forth and walk hither and thither and whithersoever it pleaseth…. [M]ay there be prepared for me a seat in the boat of the Sun on the day of the going forth of the god; and may I be received into the presence of Osiris in the land of triumph!