Apophis the enemy of the sun god in ancient Egypt


Apophis also known as Apep is the Great Serpent, the enemy of the sun god Ra, in ancient Egyptian religion. The sun was Ra’s great barge which sailed through the sky from dawn to dusk and then descended into the underworld. As it sailed through the darkness, it was attacked by Apophis who sought to kill Ra and prevent sunrise.

The powerful demon of Egypt

On board the great ship several different gods and goddesses are depicted in differing eras as well as the justified dead and all of these helped fend off the serpent. Ancient Egyptian priests and laypeople would engage in rituals to protect Ra and destroy Apophis and, through these observances, linked the living with the dead and the natural order as established by the gods.

He was not worshipped

Apophis never had a formal cult and was never worshiped, but he would feature in several tales dealing with his efforts to destroy the sun god and return the order to chaos. Apophis is associated with earthquakes, thunder, darkness, storms, and death, and is sometimes linked to the god Set, also associated with chaos, disorder, storms, and darkness. Set was originally a protector god, however, and appears several times as the strongest of the gods on board the sun god’s bark, defending the ship against Apophis.


Mythological origin

Although there were probably stories about a great enemy-serpent earlier in Egypt’s history, Apophis first appears by name in texts from the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) and is acknowledged as a dangerous force through the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (525-332 BCE), especially, and on into the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE) and Roman Egypt. Most of the texts which mention him come from the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BCE), including the one known as The Book of Overthrowing Apophis which contains the rituals and spells for defeating and destroying the serpent.


Apophis is sometimes depicted as a coiled serpent but, often, as dismembered, being cut into pieces, or under attack. A famous depiction along these lines comes from Spell 17 of The Egyptian Book of the Dead in which the great cat Mau kills Apophis with a knife. Mau was the divine cat, a personification of the sun god, who guarded the Tree of Life which held the secrets of eternal life and divine knowledge. Mau was present at the act of creation, embodying the protective aspect of Ra, and was considered among his greatest defenders during the New Kingdom of Egypt.

Why fight with sun god ?

In the story concerning Atum, Apophis has always existed and swam in the dark waters of undifferentiated chaos before the ben-ben (the primordial mound) rose from them. Once creation was begun, Apophis was angered because of the introduction of duality and order. Before creation, everything was a unified whole, but after, there were opposites such as water and land, light and dark, and male and female.

Apophis became the enemy of the sun god because the sun was the first sign of the created world and symbolized divine order, light, and life, and if he could swallow the sun god, he could return the world to a unity of darkness.

Each morning the sun rose again and moved across the sky and, watching it, the people would know they had played a part in the gods’ victory over the forces of darkness and chaos. The first act of the priests in the temples across Egypt was the ritual of Lighting the Fire which re-enacted the first sunrise. This was performed just before dawn in defiance of Apophis’ desire to snuff out the light of creation and return all to darkness.  

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