10 Mar 2011

Did Ancient Egyptians believe in an "end-time"?

Elsewhere in webspace, a commenter sparked in me a neat idea. In Ancient Egyptian there was a phrase for the beginning of time, *θāpa tapī (normally transcribed as zp tpy). The word for 'time' is *θāpa and the adjective *tapī 'foremost, beginning, head' follows the noun as in French. The adjective is built on the word *tap (tp) meaning 'head' and so it can be translated as 'first' in the sense that it precedes everything else.

When directly pondering the phrase though, I started wondering about a hidden calendrical interpretation of the adjective since Babylonian calendar terminology describes the beginning of the year as the 'head' of the year. Is it possible that Egyptians too considered creation as merely the 'head' of a cosmic age? Here then may be implied the notion of cyclical creation and destruction. This tips me off to an implied destruction prophecy lurking about. Did the Egyptians believe in an end to time in order to balance the stories of its beginning?

Geraldine Pinch in Handbook of Egyptian mythology says 'yes' on page 89: "In Book of the Dead spell 175, Atum declares that after millions of years he will destroy everything that he has made 'and the land will return into the Deep, into the Flood, as it was before (creation).'" Note that 'million' in Egyptian was *ḥaḥ (ḥḥ) and could also refer to 'an uncountable number' or 'infinity'. Remember too that Atum is the god of the setting sun, harking back to a connection between grand cosmic cycles and the daily and yearly solar cycle. It implies that, though there would be an end, a new beginning was also inevitable to the faithful Egyptian.

This additionally helps me reconcile similar Etruscan beliefs in cosmic creation, destruction and rebirth encoded in their own concept of saecula (alluded to by Roman commentators and relayed in dumbfounded confusion by modern specialists) with what appear to be this Egyptian foundation of cosmology. Answering your own silly questions sure pays off!

1 comment:

  1. Plato's Timaeus famously recounts the story supposedly told to Solon by the Egyptian priests concerning the periodic destruction of life on Earth - either by flood or by fire.