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Egyptian Coffin with Coiled Snake (Atum) on the Top - History
Atum (also known as Tem or Temu) was the first and most important Ancient Egyptian god to be worshiped in Iunu (Heliopolis, Lower Egypt), although in later times Ra rose in importance in the city, and eclipsed him to some extent. He was the main deity of Per-Tem (“house of Atum”) in Pithom in the eastern Delta.
Although he was at his most popular in the Old Kingdom in Lower Egypt, he is often closely associated with the Pharaoh all over Egypt. During the New Kingdom, Atum and the Theban god Montu (Montju) are depicted with the king in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. In the Late Period, amulets of lizards were worn as a token of the god.
Atum was the creator god in the Heliopolitan Ennead. The earliest record of Atum is the Pyramid Texts (inscribed in some of the Pyramids of the Pharaohs of dynasty five and six) and the Coffin Texts (created soon after for the tombs of nobles).
Atum with Amenemhat IV
In the beginning there was nothing (Nun). A mound of earth rose from Nun and upon it Atum created himself. He spat Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture) from his mouth. Atum’s two offspring became separated from him and lost in the dark nothingness, so Atum sent his “Eye” to look for them (a precursor to the “Eye of Ra”, an epithet given to many deities at different times). When they were found, he named Shu as “life” and Tefnut as “order” and entwined them together.
Atum became tired and wanted a place to rest, so he kissed his daughter Tefnut, and created the first mound (Iunu) to rise from the waters of Nun. Shu and Tefnut gave birth to the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut) who in turn give birth to Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys and Horus the elder. In later versions of the myth, Atum produces Shu and Tefnut by masturbation and splits up Geb and Nut because he is jealous of their constant copulation.
Horemheb in front of Atum
His creative nature has two sides. In the Book of the Dead, Atum tells Osiris that he will eventually destroy the world, submerging everything back into the primal waters (Nun), which were all that existed at the beginning of time. In this nonexistence, Atum and Osiris would survive in the form of serpents.
Atum, Ra, Horakhty and Khepri made up the different aspects of the sun. Atum was the setting sun which travelled through the underworld every night. He was also linked with solar theology, as the self-developing scarab who represented the newly created sun. As a result, he is combined with Ra (the rising sun) in both the Pyramid and Coffin Texts as Re-Atum he who “emerges from the eastern horizon” and “rests in the western horizon”. In other words, as Re-Atum he died every night at dusk before resurrecting himself at dawn. In this form, Atum also symbolized the setting sun and its journey through the underworld to its rising in the east.
Atum was the father of the gods, creating the first divine couple, Shu and Tefnut, from whom all the other gods are descended. He was also considered to be the father of the Pharaohs. Many Pharaohs used the title “Son of Atum” long after the power base moved from Iunu. Atum’s close relationship to the king is seen in many cultic rituals, and in the coronation rites. A papyrus dating to the Late period shows that the god was of central importance to the New Year’s festival in which the king’s role was reconfirmed. From the New Kingdom on, he often made an appearance inscribing royal names on the leaves of the sacred ished tree, and in some Lower Egyptian inscriptions Atum is shown crowning the Pharaoh (for example the shrine of Ramesses II in Pithom).
Texts in the New Kingdom tombs of the Valley of the Kings near Thebes depict Atum as an aged, ram-headed man who supervises the punishment of evildoers and the enemies of the sun god. He also repels some of the evil forces in the netherworld such as the serpents Nehebu-Kau and Apep (Apophis). He also provided protection to all good people, ensuring their safe passage past the Lake of Fire where there lurks a deadly dog-headed god who lives by swallowing souls and snatching hearts.
Atum is usually depicted in anthropomorphic form and is typically shown wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. One of the only details that distinguishes him from a Pharaoh is the shape of his beard. He is also depicted with a solar disk and a long tripartite wig.
In his netherworld role, as well as his solar aspect, he is also often presented with the head of a ram. He may be seated on a throne but may also be shown standing erect, or even leaning on a staff when his old age is stressed. Atum was also represented by the image of the primeval hill. During the First Intermediate period “Atum and his Hand” even appear as a divine couple on some coffins. He was represented by the black bull Mnewer, who bore the sun disk and uraeus between its horns. The snake, bull, lion, lizard and ichneumon (Egyptian mongoose) are his sacred animals. As an ape, he was sometimes armed with a bow with which to shoot his enemies. In his aspect as a solar deity, he was also depicted as a scarab and the giant scarab statue which now stands by the sacred lake at Karnak was dedicated to Atum. Also, numerous small bronze coffins containing mummified eels, bearing a figure of the fish on the top of the box and an inscription incised on it, attest to yet another zoomorphic incarnation of Atum.
Representations of Atum are surprisingly rare, but some of the depictions of the Pharaoh as “Lord of the Two Lands” may have also been viewed as incarnations of Atum. The largest of the rare statues of Atum is a group depicting Horemheb of the 18th Dynasty kneeling in front of Atum (above).
Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum | Bush-Reisinger Museum | Arthur M. Sackler Museum
Technical Observations: The patina is green in color with spots of red. The sarcophagus has a wall thickness of about 1 mm. The surface is well preserved.
The snake was modeled directly in wax and attached to the hollow model of the sarcophagus. The loops at the top were cast integrally with the rest of the object. The scales of the snake were cold worked in the bronze with an elongated punch. There are intact iron core pins at the center of the front and both sides of the sarcophagus. The opening at the back appears to have been made in the wax model and shows no signs of ever having had a patch to close it. Some core material has survived at the interior.
Provenance Miss Elizabeth Gaskell Norton, Boston, MA and Miss Margaret Norton, Cambridge, MA (by 1920), gift to the Fogg Art Museum, 1920.
Note: The Misses Norton were daughters of Charles Elliot Norton (1827-1908). Acquisition and Rights Credit Line Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of the Misses Norton Accession Year 1920 Object Number 1920.44.287 Division Asian and Mediterranean Art Contact [email protected] The Harvard Art Museums encourage the use of images found on this website for personal, noncommercial use, including educational and scholarly purposes. To request a higher resolution file of this image, please submit an online request. Descriptions
Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
Snake figurines were often cast on top of small rectangular containers that are reminiscent of coffins for sacred snakes (1). They are, however, too small for an entire animal to be held, and no remains have been discovered in them. It is possible that only the head would have been enshrined. The snake figurine most commonly takes a figure-eight pose with its head resting opposite from its tail, as in 1920.44.287 (2). The head and body markings are rendered by incised lines. This example also has two opposing loops for suspension on the corners of the container. An inscription engraved in two registers on front of the container reads, “Atum give life to X-Osiris, son of Psamtik” (3). The name Psamtik occurs in Dynasty 26, placing this work among the earliest of the Egyptian bronzes in the collection. The god Atum, the creator god of Heliopolis, is associated with serpents (4), and the small bronze may have served an amuletic or votive (5). The protective function of these snake figurines is highlighted in the second Harvard piece, 1920.44.305, where the flared hood of the rearing snake figure signals its venomous nature. A diagonal strut supports the raised head. One suspension loop is preserved on the front right corner.
1. G. Roeder, Ägyptische Bronzefiguren, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Mitteilungen aus der Ägyptischen Sammlung 6 (Berlin, 1956) 385-86. Compare an example published in J. F. Aubert and L. Aubert, eds., Bronzes et or Egyptiens (Paris, 2001) 390, pl. 48 bottom, dated to the Ptolemaic to Roman periods. See J. Thum, Creatures Compartmentalised: Establishing a Typology for the Ancient Egyptian Bronze ‘Reliquaries’ in the British Museum, London (MPhil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2012) for a recent overview of this type of artifact, its context, and its uses.
2. See Thum 2012 (supra 1) 37-38.
3. Inscription translated by J. Baines.
4. K. Myśliwiec, Studien zum Gott Atum 1: Die heiligen Tiere des Atum, Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge 5 (Hildesheim, 1978).
Creature Feature: Animals from Ancient Egypt
Ichneumon or Shrewmouse on a Coffin
Rearing Snake on a Coffin
This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at [email protected]
Egyptian Coffin with Coiled Snake (Atum) on the Top - History
A guide to snakes in the Carlos Museum's Egyptian collection
Imagine you are walking along, and a snake suddenly slithers across your path. How do you think you would feel? The ancient Egyptians both feared and revered the snakes they encountered in their daily lives. Snakes were dangerous a bite could be deadly.
But they were also helpful, ridding the storehouses of mice and rats that fed on precious grain. Use this guide to learn more about the snakes found in Egypt and the ways the ancient Egyptians thought about them.
In the Egyptian galleries of the Carlos Museum, you will find this rectangular coffin decorated with green hieroglyphs, the coffin of Nebetit. Look for a snake in the center of the top row of hieroglyphs. This is an image of the horned-viper. The scaly body of this desert-dwelling snake is the same color as the stony sand in which it lives, providing excellent camouflage. Sometimes it buries itself in the sand, leaving only its head exposed.
Horned vipers move swiftly across the desert by sidewinding—throwing their bodies forward in repeated s-curve movements. The movement of the snake across the sand makes a sound like a repeating letter f. Try to mimic the sound yourself. The Egyptians, close observers of the natural world, wrote the hieroglyph for the f sound in the form of the horned-viper, perhaps because they heard this same sound. Watch this video of a horned viper side-winding its way across the desert.
Try drawing the hieroglyph of the horned-viper. As you draw the image, notice that the head and the body are not connected. The ancient Egyptians, acknowledging the potential danger of this powerful image, severed the head from the body so it cannot harm Nebetit.
Also in the galleries is this carved image of the head of a king wearing a cobra on his brow. This crown is called a uraeus, from the ancient Egyptian word yaret, which means “the one that rears up.” Actual cobras can be up to eight feet long and when they sit upright and flare their neck ribs into a hood, they present a dramatic and threatening image appropriate for a king. A cobra’s bite can kill, but the snake’s fangs are not its only weapon. Cobras can also shoot streams of venom from glands behind their fangs up to six and a half feet with astonishing accuracy. For ancient Egyptians, the image of the rearing cobra both protected the king and projected his power. Watch this video of a cobra spitting venom at a lion.
Like all royal crowns, the uraeus was a gift to the pharaoh from the sun god Ra, and the rearing cobra often appears with a golden sun-disk atop its head. Can you find the uraeus with a sun-disk on its head on this mummy? How many do you see? What part of the mummy’s body do they represent? The Egyptians would have loved this playful representation of the mummy’s toes, but they would have seen a serious meaning as well, a reference to the rising sun, whose reappearance each dawn symbolized the promise of rebirth.
Egyptian art is full of the snakes that inhabited the natural world, but the Egyptians also imagined fantastical snakes in the Underworld. This twisting, turning image of a giant serpent, which looks almost like a maze, is on the of a coffin in the Egyptian galleries. This is Apophis, enemy of the sun god Ra. Apophis exists outside of the created world and to the Egyptians represented chaos. If Apophis can defeat the sun god as he journeys through the Underworld each night and prevent the sun from rising, all of creation will collapse into nothingness. But the image of the rising sun in the form of the scarab just above the snake attests to Ra’s victory. Look closely at the image of the snake. Can you tell what weapons were used to defeat him? Ra and his defenders attacked Apophis with sharp knives.
One coffin in the collection, the coffin of Tanakhtnettahat or Tahat for short, is decorated with 198 different images of snakes. This detail from the side of the coffin depicts the sun god Ra in his solar boat. Look for an upright image of a snake right in front of him. This is Mehen, who protects the sun god as he travels nightly through the Underworld. Since the ancient Egyptians understood that snakes could be dangerous and helpful at the same time, it makes sense that they used them to represent both Apophis, his enemy, and Mehen, his ally.
On another coffin, that of Pashedkhonsu, a long, elaborately twisting image of Mehen completely encircles Ra.
The name Mehen means “the coiled one.” During the Old Kingdom, Egyptians played a game called Mehen on a gameboard in the form of a coiled snake. The goal was to be the first to move around the image of the serpent, starting at the tail and moving to the head at the center of the board.
Snakes were a constant danger in ancient Egypt, especially to children. This small, clay object called a cippus was used both to protect against and cure snakebites and scorpion stings. On the cippus, Horus-the-child stands atop two crocodiles and grasps snakes and scorpions in his hands.
According to one myth, young Horus was stung by a scorpion and cured by the god Thoth. The images and spells carved on the cippus impart the same divine healing power to others. The Egyptians believed strongly in the power of images and words. If a child was bitten or stung, family members would recite the spells incised on the cippus and give the child water that had been poured over its surface to heal the wound.
3 Toxic Goddess
The menacing cobra was also considered to be the expression of the goddess Wadjet. Wadjet represents Lower Egypt and wears a red crown. She is particularly concerned with the protection of the king or pharaoh. Although real Egyptian cobras do not spit venom, Wadjet spits venom at anyone who threatens a pharaoh or a royal tomb. The wearer of a cobra crown believed that Wadjet defended him and validated his claim to rule Egypt. Wadjet was a mother-figure to kings their royal status was, like life, a direct gift from her. A vulture goddess, Wadjet’s counterpart named Nekhbet, wears a white crown and represents Upper Egypt. The jeweled funerary pectorals buried with the boy-king Tutankhamun depict both Wadjet and Nekhbet, wearing their colored crowns and guarding the king, who has transfigured into the god Osiris.
Antiquity of the Snake God
Snake deities covered a wide area in the mythologies of ancient Egypt. The antiquity of Mehen can be traced to the period of Middle Kingdom. A number of Coffin Texts have been discovered, belong to this period provide the earliest reference of Mehen. The reference to ‘Mysteries of Mehen’ is made here, which may have been indicating the rituals related to the worship of this snake god.
According to Coffin Texts also, Mehen is given the epithet ‘Warden of criminals’. In this context, the word ‘criminal’ probably indicates the enemies of the Sun god Re. It was believed that the deceased to whom the spells were inscribed, had to assist Mehen in this noble work of protecting Sun god.
As the patron goddess, she was associated with the land and depicted as a snake-headed woman or a snake—usually an Egyptian cobra, a venomous snake common to the region sometimes she was depicted as a woman with two snake heads and, at other times, a snake with a woman's head. Her oracle was in the renowned temple in Per-Wadjet that was dedicated to her worship and gave the city its name. This oracle may have been the source for the oracular tradition that spread to Greece from Egypt. 
The Egyptian word wꜣḏ signifies blue and green. It is also the name for the well-known "Eye of the Moon".  Indeed, in later times, she was often depicted simply as a woman with a snake's head, or as a woman wearing the uraeus. The uraeus originally had been her body alone, which wrapped around or was coiled upon the head of the pharaoh or another deity.
Wadjet was depicted as a cobra. As patron and protector, later Wadjet often was shown coiled upon the head of Ra in order to act as his protection, this image of her became the uraeus symbol used on the royal crowns as well.
Another early depiction of Wadjet is as a cobra entwined around a papyrus stem, beginning in the Predynastic era (prior to 3100 B.C.) and it is thought to be the first image that shows a snake entwined around a staff symbol. This is a sacred image that appeared repeatedly in the later images and myths of cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, called the caduceus, which may have had separate origins.
Her image also rears up from the staff of the "flagpoles" that are used to indicate deities, as seen in the hieroglyph for "uraeus" and for "goddess" in other places.
The name Wadjet  is derived from the term for the symbol of her domain, Lower Egypt, the papyrus.  Its hieroglyphs differ from those of the Green Crown or Deshret of Lower Egypt only by the determinative, which in the case of the crown was a picture of the Green Crown  and, in the case of the goddess, a rearing cobra.
Eventually, Wadjet was claimed as the patron goddess and protector of the whole of Lower Egypt and became associated with Nekhbet, depicted as a white vulture, who held unified Egypt. After the unification the image of Nekhbet joined Wadjet on the crown, thereafter shown as part of the uraeus.
Wadjet was associated with the Nile Delta region and was more associated with the world of the living. She was closely linked to pharaohs as a protective deity. She was associated, along with other goddesses, as the "eye of Ra".  Wadjet was often depicted as an erect cobra with its hood extended as though she were ready to strike. At times she was depicted wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Wadjet was depicted many times in her cobra form alongside her Upper Egyptian counterpart Nekhbet, in her vulture form wearing the Red Crown on wall paintings or on the pharaoh's headdress. 
Wadjet, as the goddess of Lower Egypt, had a large temple at the ancient Imet (now Tell Nebesha) in the Nile Delta. She was worshipped in the area as the "Lady of Imet". Later she was joined by Min and Horus to form a triad of deities. 
The Nazit Mons, a mountain on Venus, is named for Nazit, an "Egyptian winged serpent goddess".  According to Elizabeth Goldsmith, the Greek name for Nazit was Buto. 
Mehen The Snake god protector of RA
Patron of: defender of the Sun Boat
Appearance: A serpent-headed man holding a spear, standing in the prow of the Sun Boat, or as a giant snake coiled around it.
Description: In the Old Kingdom and in predynastic literature, Mehen, along with Set in his original form, fights Apep daily as the sun travels across the sky. Mehen wraps his coils around Apep, while Set strikes at Apep with a spear. The earliest references to Mehen occur in the Coffin Texts.
Coffin Text 6, Spells 758-760 (full text)
A.) On the throne of the god: Myriads of years.
B.) On the right edge of the ovals: The paths of fire. These paths guard the larboard side of the bark of the Coiled One, who makes a circle in a myriad after a myriad (of years). The gates are confused, the bow of the bark of the Coiled One has swung round. This is the seat of the Shining s Sun which these gates guard it is a myriad of a myriad after a myriad (of years).
C.) On the left edge of the ovals: The gates are confused the starboard side of the bark belongs to the right side of the Coiled One. The paths of fire go &lsquoround about the seat of the Shining Sun, who guards the paths for the great bark of the Coiled One, who makes a circle for myriad after myriad.
A.) As for this Coiled One, 2 he is the Coiled One of Re ® , and Re is this myriad (of years). He is this myriad (of years) . . , after a myriad.
B.) A million (cubits) are a half of the length of the bark starboard, bow, stern and larboard are four million (cubits) the crawler, who is he? All the Ennead are in this, on every side of it, and there is a division into these four parts every fiery path is between each million (of cubits) in this and its counter-part it means that the four paths are of fire and that they turn about in fire behind it. I know these firmaments over which the winds blow daily, and my father Re sees. Such am I, (even) I whom the winds blow. I will not make opposition on account of Re within his coils, for I am one who is in his body. Moreover, I know the dark paths by which Hu and Sia come in with the four dark snakes which are made bright for those who follow them and those who precede them, and I come in between them, being in possession of the secret path in which is the vertex of Re, and these four knots which belong to the celestial kine are hidden because of them. I also know those secret paths by means of which the she-cat comes in daily what is removed for it is upon the head, what is loosed for it is the backbone, when Re speaks about it. See, you are lifted up alive &hellip and she lives.
C.) Prepare paths for me, open for me the gates which are among the Coiled Ones, for I know the circuit of Re and of those who are with him, I know his foes who are in the gates, I know the paths [ &hellip ] . Prepare a path for me, for I am indeed alive, the heir of eternity, who passes everlasting, whom Re has placed over you. It is I who see [your] births, but you do not see [my] birth. I am one whose name is secret who is in the boundary of the gods, and your hands make acclamation to me. I am the Inert One who issued from the Eye, I am he who fashioned fire about the Coiled One who makes a circle I am the corded ferry-boat which the Coiled One encircles every day. I come to land because of the celestial kine the lords of the Coiled One are within the abode of the flood. I make Maret to flourish, and I am content that you should live in my time when I am angry, I will not give to you, (but) I will not oppose the living Lord of All.
A.) As for this Coiled One whom Isis brought to her son Horus, who is in the bow of the bark which her word brought into being on his account in the presence of the Sole Lord, because of her bringing him to Horus, she spoke of the Coiled One to Re , and it goes well with Horus son of Isis since he went in he has become lord of the bark and he has inherited the sky. He has become the double of the Lord of All since he entered into it, and it is this Horus son of Isis who rules all the skies and their gods who are in them. As for any spirit who knows the name of the Shining Sun, he knows his (own) name the gate [ &hellip ] in the twilight. Come.
B.) As for him who knows the names of those paths of his, it is he who will go in to the Coiled One. As for him who knows this spell, he will never perish. He will live on what Re lives (on) in the seat of the Shining Sun which guards these gates in myriad after myriad (of years).
Bronze coffin adorned with a figure of the creator god Atum in the form of a cobra and is believed to have once housed a mummified serpent. Egypt, Late or Ptolemaic Period. 664 to 30 B.C [1536x1041]
A cobra with a man’s head represented the creator god Atum. This deity swam in the primeval waters that existed before the earth came into being. He was therefore associated with the creation of the world, which in Egyptian thought reoccurred every day.
How cool - thanks for sharing!
I had no idea snakes were mummified, though it turns out it's not that unusual. Here are some other examples I found:
Western Australia, collected in 1897, created after 1000 BC.
Pennsylvania, USA. This is another example of multiple mummified snakes together in the same wrappings, just like the Liverpudlian example above.
Tfw Egyptians were the first furries
So cool! I love Egyptian Creation Myths (though I feel like we shouldn't call them "myths" unless we call all of our own Creation stories "myths" too.)
I actually found a mummified snake a few days ago. A beautiful little silvery Garter Snake w/ jewel Blue stripes. Poor guy got baled into some hay from last summer so is squished pretty flat but he's all in one piece, even the tiny head. Must have been a juvenile. I found him on the ground next to where my horses had eaten their dinner & was amazed he hadn't been stepped on.
This happens occasionally. After hay is cut it has to dry in field for 5 days, then baling machine picks it up, compressing tightly into 60lb bales tied w/ twine. I think it's a painless instant death. After my neighbor's 5 yr old finishes admiring Snakey with a magnifying glass we'll give it a respectful burial.
Think I'll save your photo to show the little boy. - Hey, maybe he can wrap the dehydrated snake in tissue so it looks like a real Egyptian Mummy!
I try to slip History lessons into everything :)