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In Egyptian mythology, Shu was a god of air, wind, and the skies. The name Shu meant ‘emptiness‘ or ‘he who rises up‘. Shu was a primordial deity and one of the chief gods in the city of Heliopolis.
The Greeks associated Shu with the Greek Titan, Atlas, as both entities were assigned the duty of preventing the collapse of the world, the former by holding up the skies, and the latter by supporting the earth on his shoulders. Shu was predominantly associated with fog, clouds and the wind. Let’s take a closer look at Shu and his role in Egyptian mythology.
Origins of Shu
According to some accounts, Shu was the maker of the universe, and he created all living beings within it. In other texts, Shu was the son of Ra, and the ancestor of all Egyptian pharaohs.
In Heliopolitan cosmogony, Shu and his counter-part Tefnut, were born to creator-god Atum. Atum either created them by pleasuring himself or by spitting. Shu and Tefnut, then became the first deities of the Ennead or the chief gods of Heliopolis. In a local creation myth, Shu and Tefnut were born to a lioness, and they protected the eastern and western borders of Egypt.
Characteristics of Shu
In Egyptian art, Shu was depicted as wearing an ostrich feather on his head, and carrying an ankh or scepter. While the scepter was a symbol of power, while the ankh represented the breath of life. In more elaborated mythical depictions, he is seen holding up the sky (the goddess Nut) and separating her from the earth (the god Geb).
Shu also had dark-skin tones and a sun disk to represent his connection with the sun god, Ra. Shu and Tefnut took on the form of lions when they accompanied Ra on his journeys across the sky.
Shu and the Separation of Dualities
Shu played a significant role in the creation of light and dark, order and chaos. He separated Nut and Geb, to formulate boundaries between the sky and earth. Without this division, physical life and growth wouldn’t have been possible on planet earth.
Shu as the God of Light
Shu eliminated primordial darkness and brought light into the universe by separating Nut and Geb. Through this demarcation, a border was also established between the bright realm of the living, and the dark world of the dead. As an eliminator of darkness, and a god of light, Shu was closely associated with the sun god, Ra.
Shu as the Second Pharaoh
According to some Egyptian myths, Shu was the second pharaoh, and he supported the original king, Ra, in various tasks and duties. For instance, Shu aided Ra in his night journey across the sky and protected him from the serpent monster Apep. But this very act of kindness proved to be Shu’s folly.
Apep and his followers were enraged by Shu’s defensive strategies and led an attack against him. Although Shu was able to defeat the monsters, he lost most of his powers and energy. Shu asked his son, Geb, to replace him as the pharaoh.
Shu and the Eye of Ra
In one Egyptian myth, Shu’s counterpart, Tefnut, was made the Eye of Ra. After an argument with the sun god, Tefnut absconded to Nubia. Ra could not govern the earth without the aid of his Eye, and he sent Shu and Thoth to bring back Tefnut. Shu and Thoth were successful in pacifying Tefnut, and they brought back the Eye of Ra. As a reward for Shu’s services, Ra arranged a wedding ceremony between him and Tefnut.
Shu and the Creation of Humans
It is said that Shu and Tefnut indirectly aided the creation of mankind. In this tale, soulmates Shu and Tefnut went on a journey to visit the primordial waters. However, since both were important companions of Ra, their absence caused him much pain and longing.
After waiting for a while, Ra sent his Eye to find and bring them back. When the couple returned, Ra shed several tears to express his sorrow and grief. His tear droplets then transformed into the first humans on earth.
Shu and Tefnut
Shu and his counterpart, Tefnut, were the earliest known example of a divine couple. However, during the time of the Egyptian old kingdom, an argument ensued between the pair, and Tefnut left for Nubia. Their separation caused much pain and misery, resulting in terrible weather in the provinces.
Shu eventually realized his mistake and sent several messengers to retrieve Tefnut. But Tefnut refused to listen and destroyed them by turning into a lioness. At last, Shu sent Thoth, the god of equilibrium, who finally managed to convince her. With Tefnut’s return, the storms ceased, and everything went back to its original state.
Symbolic Meanings of Shu
- As a god of wind and air, Shu symbolized peace and tranquility. He had a cooling and calming presence that helped establish Ma’at, or equilibrium on earth.
- Shu existed in the atmosphere between the earth and heavens. He provided both oxygen and air to all living beings. Due to this fact, Shu was considered to be a symbol of life itself.
- Shu was a symbol of righteousness and justice. His primary role in the Underworld was to unleash demons on people who were unworthy.
Shu played an important role in Egyptian mythology, as the god of wind and skies. Shu was credited with separating the realms of heaven and earth and enabling life on the planet. He was one of the most well-known and important deities of the Ennead.