Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Khnum from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In Egyptian mythology, a ram-headed creator god with cult centres at Esna and Elephantine where he was guardian of the sources of the River Nile. He is depicted sitting at a potter's wheel with his newly created being on the wheel.


Summary Article: Khnum
from Encyclopedia of African Religion

Khnum, whose name means unite, join, or build, was the ancient Egyptian god of fertility. He was depicted in semi-anthropomorphic form as a ram-headed god wearing a short kilt and a long tripartite wig. He was depicted with the horizontal, undulating horns of Ovis Longipes, the first species of sheep to be raised in Egypt. However, as time passed, he was also depicted with the short curved horns of the Ovis Platyra ram (the Amen ram) and may thus have two sets of horns atop his head. He was also called “high of plumes” and may be seen wearing two tall feathers, the plumed atef crown, or the white crown of Upper Egypt on his head.

Khnum was considered the great potter who was responsible for creating children and their Ka. His most common form was his depiction in front of the potter's wheel when he was often depicted molding a child as a concrete representation of his creative work. This scene was usually depicted in the marnisi or birth houses of temples where Khnum was represented forming the child king. There were similar representations in the fully zoomorphic form of a walking ram (e.g., in many amulets and pectoral decorations), but without inscriptional evidence, these representations are often extremely difficult to distinguish from those of other ram deities such as Heryshef. The sun god was thus depicted as a ram-headed being in his netherworld representations, and Khnum is sometimes called Khnum Ra. In a similar manner, he was also held to be the ba of Ra, as well as the ba of the gods Geb and Ausar.

Khnum was mentioned in several ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. The ancient Egyptians also believed that he was the guardian of the source of the Nile and thus the helper of Hapi. Khnum's role changed from river god to the one who made sure that the right amount of silt was released into the water during the inundation. This gave him one of his titles: “Lord of the Cataract.” In a site in Upper Egypt “Esna” between Waset “modern Luxor” and Aswan, it was believed that he modeled the first egg from which the first sun was created. As a creator god, he held the titles of “Father of the Fathers of the Gods and Goddesses,” “Lord of Created Things From Himself,” “Maker of Heaven and Earth,” and “the Duat and Water and the Mountains.”

In addition to his role as a god of creation and fertility, Khnum was a god of the sun, a protector of the Dead, and a protector of Ra on the solar barque. He was a popular god from the early times through to the Greco-Roman period. Hatshepsut was one of the rulers of Egypt who encouraged the belief that Khnum created her and her ka through the story of the divine birth depicted on the walls of the second terrace of her mortuary temple at Deir Al Bahari (Western Waset).

Khnum's main cult center was on the island Elephantine at Aswan, where he had been worshiped since the Early Dynastic period. The island was the main city of the first nomes of Upper Egypt, and its ancient name was Abu (meaning “City of Elephants”). As easily seen from the hieroglyphic spelling, it was the gathering point of products from inner Africa, and the most important trade commodity was ivory, the tusk of elephants. From geological aspects, it is located at the most northern of six rapid streams area within the Nile at the southern border; often called the first cataract, it is really the last, where the first sign of annual water increase (the arrival of the new waters, beginning of the new year) can be observed.

In the New Kingdom, Khnum was worshiped there as head of a triad composed of his consort Satet (a fertility goddess of the Nile and purifier of the dead) and daughter Anuket (a hunter goddess of the first cataract near Aswan). There is a temple dating back to the Greco Roman period that was dedicated to him at Esna, where he was given two consorts, Menhit (a lion-headed war goddess, “She Who Slaughters”) and Nebtu (a local goddess of the oasis). Khnum was also associated with the war-like creator goddess Neith at Esna. In Antinoe (Middle Egypt), he was considered as the husband of Heqet, the frog goddess who gave the child his first breath before being placed in the mother's womb.

See also

Ra

Further Readings
  • Posener, G. (1962).. A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilisation. London: Methuen.
  • Watterson, B. (1999).. The Gods of Ancient Egypt (New ed.). London: Sutton.
  • Wilkinson, R. (2003).. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Cairo, Egypt: American University Press.
  • Ismail, Sbaza Gamal
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles


    Full text Article Khnum
    The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

    Khnum belongs to the earliest gods represented in ancient Egyptian sources and maintains his importance until the last days of Egyptian religion. Th

    Full text Article Khnum
    DK Eyewitness Books: Ancient Egypt

    The ram-headed god Khnum presided over the hazardous Nile cataracts (rapids). It was on his word that the god Hapy rose to cause the yearly...

    Full text Article Khnum
    Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth

    Khnum, in Egyptian myth, was one of the oldest of all creator-gods, worshipped at Esna on the island of Elephantine. He moulded gods and...

    See more from Credo