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Summary Article: Tefnut
from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Tefnut (Tfnt) was the first female deity in the Heliopolitan cosmogony. She was engendered, along with her brother Shu, by the creator god Atum. Shu and Tefnut (air) formed the first male–female union when they created their children Geb (earth) and Nut (sky), whose four children completed the Heliopolitan Ennead, or "nine." After the creation of the nine gods, Shu is said to have raised up his daughter Nut to separate her from Geb, thus creating the atmosphere between earth and the celestial realm of the sky.

Scholars have commonly pointed out a lack of information about Tefnut in the texts, and often dismissed her as an "incidental" figure, only meant "to supplement Shu as a couple in contrast to the single one, Atum" (Anthes 1959: 170). However, while it is true that Tefnut is attested less frequently than her brother Shu, passages from the Pyramid and Coffin Texts describe her independently from Shu as a guide, protector, and nourisher of the sun god (and by extension, the deceased, who imitate the sun god's daily journey).

The nature of Tefnut remains an open debate. Some argue she represents moist, corrosive air, in contrast to Shu as dry air, largely based on an interpretation of the etymology of her name, as relating to spitting. However, there is no consensus on the etymology of Tefnut's name, and texts do not describe her as relating to water or moisture. Another interpretation is that Tefnut is the atmosphere of the underworld, while Shu is that of the upper world, because of a reference to Tefnut holding the earth under the sky (Allen 1988: 9).

While Tefnut is associated with many goddesses (especially through her form as a lioness, where, particularly in Nubia, in her lioness form she is connected with Ptah) in later periods, her most striking association in the earlier texts is that with the goddess and concept of Maat, because Maat is never associated with any goddess other than Tefnut. While Tefnut was associated with Maat, or divine order, Shu was associated with ankh, or life. In addition, Tefnut was often named as Djet, or linear time, while her brother Shu was called Neheh, or cyclical time. They were also the western and eastern horizons, respectively, making Tefnut a suitable guide for anyone entering the netherworld after death, which was conceived of as being to the west, where the sun died each day.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Allen, J. P. (1988) Genesis in Egypt: the philosophy of ancient Egyptian creation accounts. New Haven.
  • Anthes, R. (1959) "Egyptian theology in the third millennium BC." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 28: 169-212.
  • Assmann, J. (1990) Ma'at. Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten. Munich.
  • Hornung, E. (1982) Der Ägyptische Mythos von der Himmelskuh. Freiburg.
  • Hornung, E. (1992) Idea into Image: Essays on Ancient Egyptian Thought, trans. Bredeck, E. . New York.
  • Quirke, S. (1992) Ancient Egyptian religion. London.
  • te Velde, H. (1984) Schu. In W. Helck; E. Otto, eds., Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. 5: 735-7. Wiesbaden.
  • Tobin, V. A. (2001) Tefnut. In Redford, D. B. , ed., Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, vol. 3: 362-3. Oxford.
  • Verhoeven, U. (1986) "Tefnut. In W. Helck; E. Otto, eds., Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. 6: 296-304. Wiesbaden.
  • M. G. Nelson-Hurst
    Wiley ©2012

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