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Apophis, also known as Apep, was the ancient Egyptian embodiment of chaos, dissolution, and darkness. He was one of the main nemeses of the sun god Ra, and also the opponent of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of order and truth. Ra was a prominent upholder of Ma’at and order in the world so Apophis was also given the moniker Enemy of Ra and the title Lord of Chaos.
Apophis was typically portrayed as a giant snake, waiting to cause chaos and problems. Although he was an antagonist, he’s also one of the most interesting and influential figures of Egyptian mythology.
Who is Apophis?
Apophis’ origins and birth are shrouded in mystery, unlike most Egyptian deities. This god is not attested in Egyptian texts before the Middle Kingdom, and it is quite probable that he appeared during the complicated and chaotic times that followed the pyramid age.
Given his connections with Ma’at and Ra, you’d expect to find Apophis in one of Egypt’s creation myths as a primordial force of chaos, but although some New Kingdom texts mention his existing from the beginning of time in the primeval waters of Nun, other accounts tell of a much more bizarre birth for the Lord of Chaos.
Born from Ra’s umbilical cord?
The only surviving origin stories of Apophis depict him as born after Ra from his discarded umbilical cord. This piece of flesh does look like a snake but it’s still one of the more unique origin myths of a deity out there. It ties in perfectly with one of the main motifs in Egyptian culture, however, which is that chaos in our lives is born from our own struggle against non-existence.
Apophis’ birth as a consequence of Ra’s birth still makes him one of the oldest deities in Egypt.
Apophis’ endless battles against Ra
Being born from someone else’s umbilical cord may feel humiliating but it doesn’t take away from Apophis’ significance as an opponent of Ra. On the contrary, it shows exactly why Apophis was always Ra’s major enemy.
The tales of the duo’s battles were popular during Egypt’s New Kingdom period. They existed in several popular stories.
As Ra was the Egyptian sun god and traveled through the sky on his sun barge every day, most of Apophis’ battles with Ra took place after sunset or before sunrise. The serpent god was said to often circle just around the western horizon at sundown, waiting for Ra’s sun barge to descend so he could ambush him.
In other stories, people said that Apophis actually dwelled in the east, trying to ambush Ra just before sunrise and thus prevent the sun from coming up in the morning. Because of such stories, people would often ascribe specific locations for Apophis – just behind these western mountains, just beyond the Nile’s eastern bank, and so on. This also earned him the title of World Encircler.
Was Apophis stronger than Ra?
With Ra being the main patron deity of Egypt through most of its history, it’s natural that Apophis never managed to defeat him. Most of their battles were said to end in stalemates, however, with Ra once besting Apophis by transforming himself into a cat.
Credit ought to be given to Apophis, for Ra almost never fought the Serpent god alone. Most myths portray Ra with a vast entourage of other deities on his sun barge – some there explicitly to protect the sun god, others just traveling with him but still springing to his defense.
Gods such as Set, Ma’at, Thoth, Hathor, and others were almost constant companions of Ra and helped foil Apophis’ attacks and ambushes. Ra also had the Eye of Ra sun disk with him at all times which was depicted both as a powerful weapon and as a female counterpart of Ra, usually as the goddess Sekhmet, Mut, Wadjet, Hathor, or Bastet.
Apophis often had to battle Ra’s allies instead of Ra so the stories leave it unclear whether the serpent or the sun god would have prevailed if Ra wasn’t constantly accompanied by other gods. Apophis’ battles with Set were especially common with the two often causing earthquakes and thunderstorms when clashing.
Given that Apophis had to face such uneven odds every time he tried to take down Ra, he was given some very impressive powers by Egypt’s storytellers. For example, in the Coffin Texts Apophis is said to have used his powerful magical gaze to overwhelm Ra’s entire entourage and then battle the sun god one on one.
Symbols and symbolism of Apophis
As a giant serpent and an embodiment of chaos, Apophis’ position as an antagonist in Egyptian mythology is clear. What’s unique about him compared to other cultures’ chaos deities, however, is his origin.
Most chaos gods around the world are depicted as primordial forces – beings who had existed long before the creation of the world and who are constantly trying to destroy it and return things to how they used to be. Such chaos gods are often portrayed as serpents or dragons too.
Apophis, however, is not such a cosmic being. He is powerful but he is born of Ra and together with him. Not really Ra’s offspring but not exactly his sibling either, Apophis is what’s discarded upon one’s birth – a part of the protagonist but an evil part, one born from the protagonist’s struggle to live.
Importance of Apophis in modern culture
Probably the most famous modern-day portrayal of Apophis was in the 90s-to-early 2000s TV series Stargate SG-1. There, Apophis was an alien serpent parasite called Goa’ulds who used to infect human beings and pose as their god, thus creating the Egyptian religion.
In fact, all Egyptian gods and other culture’s deities in the show were said to be Goa’ulds, ruling humanity through deception. What made Apophis special, however, was that he was the first and main antagonist of the series.
Funnily enough, the series was predated by the Roland Emmerich’s 1994 Stargate movie with Kurt Russell and James Spader. In it, the main antagonist was the god Ra – again, an alien posing as a human deity. However, nowhere in the movie was it said that Ra was a serpent parasite. It was only the Stargate SG-1 series that introduced Apophis as the Serpent God, making it clear that the gods were really just space snakes.
Whether intentionally or not, this essentially portrayed Apophis as Ra’s “little dark serpent secret” which nicely relates to their dynamic in the original Egyptian myths.
As the enemy of Ra, Apophis is an important figure in Egyptian mythology and makes appearances in many myths. His depiction as a serpent connects to many later myths of reptiles as chaotic and destructive creatures. He remains one of the most intriguing characters of Egyptian mythology.