In the beginning
Water features strongly in the creation myths of many civilizations. The Ancient Egyptians were no exceptions. At Heliopolis, for example, people believed that in the beginning there was only the surging, chaotic water, Nu or Nun. And from that chaos rose a mound of earth, and on that mound Atum, the creator, came into being.
Atum is associated with Ra, the sun, and also with the fertile earth left over after the flooding of the Nile. Atum, not having anyone to make baby gods with, created Shu and Tefnut from his own semen. A little sad, but what can you do when you are the only being in existence? Shu and Tefnut then procreated and produced Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. These two gave birth to Seth (male sexuality), Isis (motherhood), Osiris (fertility and regeneration) and Nephthys (female sexuality).
In Hermopolis, things were a bit different, but water played an even greater role in creation. The primeval waters were represented by the Ogdoad, a group of eight gods (see below): Nu and Naunet were associated generally with the primeval waters, Huh and Hauhet with the infinite extent of those waters, Kuk and Kauket with the darkness within the waters, and Amun and Amaunet with the hidden-nature of the waters. The Ogdoad created and, paradoxically, were created by, the primeval waters. The gods were represented by frogs, the goddesses by snakes. The gods and goddesses came together to create an earth mound, and from it, rose the sun into the sky. The pyramid is thought to have originated from this archetypal creation mound.
Don’t worry, be Hapi
Although there were a number of creator-gods, there were many more gods specific to a particular animal or function. A specific ‘river’ god that personified the Nile and its flooding was Hapi. Hapi, one of the sons of Horus, was usually shown as an androgynous figure, with a large belly and pendulous breasts, and with either papyrus or lotus plants on his head, depending on whether the artist was from Upper or Lower Egypt. The image below, is from the side of the throne of the statues of Ramesses II, at Abu Simbel. The description, which I quote in full, because it so nicely describes the symbolism in the image, comes from University of Memphis’ Institute for Egyptian Art and Archaeology and is well worth a look if you have an interest in this area:
At Abu Simbel, below the seat of one of the colossal statues of Ramesses II (c.1279-1213 B.C.E.), is this sunk relief of the god Hapi, the personification of the Nile flood. The figure of Hapi appears twice, tying stems of plants around the hieroglyph for “unite.” The extended foot of each Hapi figure rests on the hieroglyph which is a lung from which a windpipe projects straight up from the center, and forming a “T” at the top. On the left Hapi holds stems of the lotus (symbol of Upper Egypt); on the right he holds stems of the papyrus (Lower Egypt). Hapi’s crowns also display these plants. Hapi is androgynous (having both male and female characteristics), suggesting the fertility of the land which results from the Nile flood. This androgyny explains his pendant breasts and swollen belly. The centralized image of the lung and windpipe flanked by the two figures of Hapi illustrate the Egyptian concern for balance and order. The cartouche of Ramesses II sits directly above the lung and windpipe.
Art and order from chaos
Why spend so much space talking about gods and goddesses, when the subject is rivers and art? It is because, whereas rivers were rarely painted, gods, goddesses and other immortals commonly were. Ancient Egyptians undoubtedly appreciated the aesthetics of paintings, sculpture, pottery and jewelry, but their art was largely functional. Art literally and metaphorically created order from chaos. It served to tell stories, make associations, confirm relationships and, importantly, linked mortals (or demi-gods in the case of kings) with gods, for the pragmatic purpose of ensuring a smooth transition to the afterlife. The main role of the king was indeed to mediate between gods and humans – to convince the gods to keep the Nile flooding, the floodplains fertile, to ensure success against barbarian invaders and keep the people fed and prosperous. It is not hard to see the link between contrasting concepts of order and chaos, and contrasting conditions of flooded, fertile land and the nearby dry, barren desert. Ancient Egyptian art rarely featured the river itself, but instead depicted its god-like personifications in all its chaotic and its creative forms.
Marsh ado about a lot
Unlike the river itself, marshes – periodically or permanently flooded areas adjacent to the River Nile – were commonly featured in Ancient Egyptian art. Marshes symbolized life and rebirth after death, because of the link between water and creation, as we have seen before. A marsh was also the site where Isis hid Osiris’ coffin, during preparation for the afterlife. Marsh plants were also symbols of life. The lotus flower, for example, closes at night and sinks into the water, to re-emerge next day: a powerful symbol of creation and re-birth. For more discussion of the symbolic nature of marshes in Ancient Egyptian art, see the excellent piece by Alberti’s Window.
Painting river scenes…with a grain or two of salt added
The marsh and other similar scenes are typically full of images of the animals and plants associated with rivers, as well as important people hunting them. But, perspective, scale and realism were not something that Ancient Egyptians practiced in their art. Not because of lack of ability, but again for utilitarian reasons. For millennia, for example, the human form was drawn partly in profile and partly from the front (see the image of Nebamun above). This best showed the body and its main anatomical features, but is totally unnatural. Just try standing like that yourself sometime! And Nebamun’s wife and daughter were not dwarfs, but were drawn relative to their status in Egyptian society. And although cats don’t commonly rest on the stems of reeds, holding birds in their mouths, and front and hind claws, the species of water birds, plants and fishes shown in their art are readily identifiable to those in the know.
Another example of utility over realism can be seen in the depiction of Khnoumhotep II hunting birds in marshes with a throwing-stick on the right below.
The waters of the marsh are rising vertically on the right of the picture, in which can just be seen, some fish and aquatic plants. Again, it makes sense to paint water defying the laws of gravity, if the main aim is to show the animals and plants which inhabit that water.
While hieroglyphics – the pictographic form of writing of the Ancient Egyptians – is not art, per se, it is a visual representation of a word and object, and so I mention it briefly in the context of rivers and art in Ancient Egypt.
I can find no hieroglyph that, of itself, represents river. The closest I can find are the hieroglyphs for water waves or water ripple – which are painted as a jagged horizontal line, (e.g., top left and top centre in the figure below); or canal, which is painted as two parallel horizontal lines, with the space between them partly filled in or with the parallel lines connected, (e.g., between the flautist and dancers in the figure below). Interestingly, this hieroglyph also means to love and River Nile.
What does it say, that the hieroglyph for canal – a man-made channel carrying water from a natural source to fields – is the same as for, perhaps, the most important emotional and landscape features in Ancient Egyptian life!? Curious.
References: Thanks to Patricia Podzorski from the University of Memphis. Gombrich, E. H. 1968. The Story of Art. Phaidon, New York. Maclagan D. 1977. Creation myths: man’s introduction to the world. Thames and Hudson. Robins G. 2008. The art of ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press. Smith S.W. and Smith W.S. 1992. Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt: The Yale University Press.