Amunet: The Fascinating Goddess ‘Mother Who Is Father’

From the Egyptian creation myth to arguably being altogether replaced by another goddess, the limited information known about Amunet, the “Mother Who is Father”, is fascinating.

Jul 12, 2021By Alexandria Frye
egyptian goddess amunet mother father
Colossus of Amunet at the Karnak Temple in Luxor, via Wikimedia Commons; with Rameses II being led by Monthu and Atum into the presence of Amunet, in a scene at Hypostyle Hall, via The University of Memphis

 

True to her alias as “the hidden one,” well-sourced research on Amunet is hard to come by online. Although she is integral in some versions of Egyptian creation myths, this primeval goddess returned to relative obscurity throughout dynastic changes over several centuries. Additionally, due to the ancient Egyptians tendency to simply merge competing deities and regional variation, Amunet’s name may be spelled many different ways and she is associated with a few other goddesses. Some of these associations are supported by Egyptologists, while others appear to be mistakes popularized by the age of the internet.

 

Understandably, this complex history has led to a lot of disagreements between scholars trying to piece together her history and representation through limited texts, monoliths, and depictions on temple walls. What Egyptologists do know is that Amunet was one of eight primeval Egyptian deities in the Hermopolitan model of the ancient Egyptian creation myth. Representing the unseen nature of the chaos-void that existed before the Earth, Amunet and her primordial partner, Amun were the only two primeval gods who rose to their own prominence throughout several dynastic periods.

 

Amunet’s Role In The Egyptian Creation Myth

amunet karnak luxor colossus egyptian deity
Colossus of Amunet at Karnak Temple in Luxor, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Egyptian creation myth varies greatly between regions as well as dynasties, with the act of creation associated with many different gods. The basic premise, however, is similar. In the beginning, a primeval ocean existed personified by the deity Nun. This primeval ocean was characterized by chaos and nothingness. It was also formless and infinite.

 

This is where the stories diverge. Popular media, including the film series “The Mummy” generally follow the Heliopolitan concept of creation, which centered on the birth of the sun god, Ra, whose creative aspect was called Atum. From Atum, the other more familiar gods were born. This included the likes of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. The Hermopolitan model is the origin story of Amunet and was more closely associated with the god Thoth, whose voice summoned eight additional primeval gods from the aquatic body of chaos. The eight appeared on an island emerging from Nun.

 

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Literally meaning “a group of eight,” this accompaniment of gods was referred to as the Ogdoad. They existed in pairs representing the nature of the infinite nothingness from which they were born. The Ogdoad was typically represented as semi-aquatic creatures- frogs and snakes because they arose from the primordial waters to create the earth itself. In addition to being called “the eight,” they were also referred to as the Hehu, which is often translated as “infinites” or “Chaos-Gods.”

 

egyptian deities hermopolitan ogdoad dendera egypt
Relief depiction of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad, at Dendera, via Aime Jean-Claude

 

For the ancient Egyptians, this meant Heh and Hehut represented infinity. Nun and Nunet the waters from which the primeval god Atum created the Earth. Kek and Keket represented primordial darkness, and Amun and Amunet who represented the obscurity and invisible power inherent in the nothingness that predated creation.

 

Amun and Amunet were often referred to as “the hidden” and became the Egyptian deities associated with the unseen natural elements- wind and air. Together, the Hermopolitan ogdoad created and hatched a cosmic egg with the assistance of Atum. One variation of this particular story takes place before the creation of the sun, so some Egyptologists interpret this to mean the Hermopolitan concept existed before the cult of Ra became widespread in the Fourth Dynasty.

 

Texts discovered in Khmunu (also known as Hermopolis or Khemmenu) detail that Amunet was the sole attendant of the great cosmic egg from which Ra was born. This is intriguing since many other texts refer to Ra as the Goddess’s son whose body was the actual heavens. While this is generally taken to mean Nut or Net, the syncretism inherent in Egyptian mythology throughout dynastic changes may imply this role was granted to Amunet at some point- at least in the city of Khmunu at the time the text was written.

 

Other scholars, citing different texts from Thebes (modern-day Luxor), claim that the cosmic egg was instead laid by Amun, who was depicted as a goose rather than a gander in this case. Additionally, the hieroglyph representing the cosmic egg was the same symbol used to represent an embryo in a woman’s womb. This has historically led to more confusion and further associations of Amunet being the “Mother Who is Father”.

Life After Love: Amunet’s Displacement By Mut

amunet egyptian deity colossus karnak hypostyle hall
Colossus of Amunet at the Karnak Temple in Luxor, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Arguably, the greatest change in Amunet’s importance happened when Mut displaced Amunet as Amun’s primary partner when he rose to prominence in Thebes by the 18th dynasty. The ancient Egyptians rarely discarded old gods in favor of the new. Instead they often combined deities to resolve overlaps or competition between belief systems. This action is called syncretism and heavily influenced Amunet’s history and roles from her inception throughout the dynasties.

 

Ancient Egypt was divided into regional provinces referred to as nomes. These areas had what amounted to capital cities which also served as the major place of worship for the patron gods of the nome. Each city revered the major god of the region, in addition to two supporting gods who were often the counterpart of the major Egyptian deity and their son. The son generally approached the father’s importance as he was meant to inherit the powers and rank of the father.

 

On the other hand, the feminine counterpart was typically of little to no importance. From what little is known of Amunet in popular literature, this seems to be largely the case for her. No child is mentioned from the union of Amun and Amunet, but Amun did later have a son named Khonsu born of his union with Mut.

 

mut hypostyle hall karnak temple complex thebes luxor
Mut in her human form wearing the double crown, depiction at Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple, via University of Memphis

 

In addition to Amunet and Mut having different animal representations, they also wear different headdresses in ancient Egyptian art. While Mut wears the double crown representing Upper and Lower Egypt united, Amunet is depicted as wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, also called the Deshret. Both female deities are sometimes pictured together with their husband, Amun and can be differentiated by their crowns.

 

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Mut, Amunet, and Amun (depicted left to right), during the 18th Dynasty, Karnak Temple, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Associations With Other Egyptian Deities & More

 

Over time, Amun and Amunet often became substituted in text and depictions with Tenem and Tenement, Gereh and Gerhet, or Niou and Niout. These substitutions respectively stood for the primordial world aspects of “gloom,” “night/cessation,” and “emptiness.” Egyptologists theorize the substitutions are a response to Amun’s rise to national prominence from the Middle Kingdom onward.

 

These substitutions featured temple scenes primarily but were sometimes also on tombs and sarcophagi. For example, Amun and Amunet were replaced by Gerh and Gerhet in the temple of Hibis around the 27th Dynasty, and with Niou and Niout in the temple of Dendera in the period of Ptolemy VI.

 

Amunet took on additional associations with fellow Egyptian deities from one dynasty to the next, and more responsibilities. Above all others, though, her powers were related to silence, stillness, mystery, and obscurity as tangential aspects of what is invisible to the eye.

 

Some scholars suggest that Amunet was merely the title given to Amun’s more well-known consort, Mut. Depictions of both Amunet and Mut side-by-side with Amun would seem to indicate otherwise. Still, Amunet was somewhat left behind as Mut usurped her as Amun’s primary counterpart. However, she remained prominent in her own right within the city of Thebes, where her shadow was a protector of pharaohs.

 

karnak temple
Karnak Temple Complex, via Unsplash

 

When Amun rose from popularity in Hermopolis to further prominence in Thebes, this event’s depictions illustrate him arriving to the new city with Amunet. Amun and Amunet became prominent in Thebes early on following the decline of the Herakleopolitan regime. However, when it came to forming the Theban triad, Amun served as the primary god with Mut as his consort, and Khonsu as their son. By the time of Thutmose III, Amun had a large temple complex of his own in Thebes. Amunet and Mut both shared prominence there.

 

karnak temple amun amunet colossus thebes
Colossuses of Amun-Ra (left) and Amunet (right), Amun’s temple in Karnak, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In her capacity at Thebes, Amunet was often identified with Satis, goddess of the island of Elephantine. Satis’ name means to “sow seeds” or “to copulate” and is thought to reference the fertilizing power of the Nile river waters. This may have contributed to Amunet’s associations with fertility and being the “Mother Who is Father.”

 

While Mut and Amunet share a husband in Amun, they remain distinct deities from one another. However, Amunet is sometimes fused with Neith as “Neith-Amunet” and they both wear the Red Crown of Lower Egypt.

 

king ahmose red crown lower egypt deshret (1)
Relief with head of King Ahmose wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, c. 1520-1525, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Additional lore details the primordial males of the Ogdoad transforming into a single bull, and the females into a single cow. The resulting bull and cow are known as Amun and Amunet, and her representation in this form also has substantial crossover with the goddess Hathor.

 

As trade and exchange with the Greco-Romans increased over time, Amunet’s role as the primordial cow- also called Mehet-Weret- became depicted in the Greek Magical Papyri. In one papyrus she is referred to as “Amauni,” and in another as the Hellenic nymph, Io- the lover of Zeus who was transformed into a cow and traveled to Egypt.

 

Amunet in Iconography And The Age Of The Internet

ramses ii monthu atum amunet hypostyle hall karnak
Rameses II being led by Monthu and Atum into the presence of Amunet, in a scene at Hypostyle Hall, via University of Memphis

 

Although Amunet was somewhat left behind when Amun rose to national prominence, took a new consort in Mut- and merged with Ra to become Amun-Ra- Amunet continued to make her own mark in Thebes. Statues and relief depictions of her on temple walls, most notably in Karnak, reflect most of what is known of Amunet outside of the Pyramid Texts. The most notable of these are at Hypostyle Hall within Amun’s temple at Karnak.

 

The worship of the ancient Egyptian deities changed in form largely due to increased regional and national wealth. Creating monoliths is expensive and this interpretation tracks well with both historical literature of Egypt and anthropological understandings of monuments as reflections of material wealth.

 

Several online articles cite Amunet as having been the lesbian consort of the moon’s representation- Iah. However, this representation of the moon in Egyptian mythology is depicted as male. While intriguing as a hypothesis, it is more likely that authors of these sites have confused the Egyptian deity with the Amunet, who was a real priestess of Hathor at Thebes in the mid 11th Dynasty. The mummified remains of this Amunet were found in the Theban necropolis, Deir el-Bahri by French Egyptologist Eugène Grébaut in 1891, and her tattoos increased the prevalence of this name in popular culture.

 

amunet mummy hathor priestess egyptian tattoos
Drawing illustrating tattoos on the mummy of the Egyptian priestess Amunet from Fouquet, via UCL Museums & Collections

 

A real Egyptian queen, Iah was also a priestess of Hathor during this same dynasty (c. 2134-1991 B.C.). Named after the moon, this queen lived in the Upper Egyptian city of Thebes as Egypt was not unified during this time. Due to the very limited archaeological evidence regarding ancient Egyptian beliefs on homosexuality and the fact that the god Iah was male, it is much more likely that these websites refer to real individuals who were both priestesses of Hathor at Thebes during the same period.

 

Another case of mistaken identification and association appears to have arisen from confusion surrounding Amunet’s name. Although Amunet can be spelled several ways (Amaunet, Amonet, Imnt), some non-academic sites have confused her with Imentet (also spelled Ament, Amentent, or Imentit).

 

Imentet was a separate goddess referred to as “She of the West” and was the consort of Aqen, the ferryman of the underworld. While their names are spelled very similarly and ancient Egyptian deities were often merged, these two particular goddesses remain distinct from one another. While much of her mythological history has been lost to time and more has been incorrectly assigned to her through mistaken identities, Amunet remains an interesting figure of female strength in ancient Egyptian mythology.

 

Her lost history and mysterious titles of “the Hidden One” and “the Mother who is Father” continues to inspire popular media with visions of who she might have been. Time buries much amongst the sand, but Egypt’s continued excavations may yet turn up further information about this ancient Egyptian deity.

 

References

 

Alameen, A. V. (2013). Women’s Access to Political Power in Ancient Egypt and Igboland: A Critical Study (dissertation). Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. (1904). The gods of the Egyptians or studies in Egyptian mythology (Vol.1). Methuen & Co.

El Weshahy, M., El Elimi, F. H., Hafez, S. M., & Mosleh, S. M. (2013). Study of the Ogdoad scenes in the Late Period. The Conference Book of the General Union of Arab Archeologists, 16(16), 133–150.https://doi.org/10.21608/cguaa.2013.32558

Klotz, David. (2012). Caesar in the City of Amun: Egyptian Temple Construction and Theology in Roman Thebes. Turnhout: Brepols.

Mercer, S. A. B. (1949). The religion of ancient Egypt. Luzac & Co. Ltd.

Remler, P. (2010). Egyptian mythology, A to Z (3rd ed.). Chelsea House.

Stone, M. (1991). Ancient mirrors of womanhood: A treasury of goddess and heroine lore from around the world (2nd ed.). Beacon Press.

Thomas, A. P. (1986). Egyptian gods and myths. Shire Publ.

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By Alexandria FryeAlex is a writer and podcast host who explores absurdities- and other truths- at the intersections of science, history, and law. She holds an MA in anthropology from Texas State University with a focus in Biological anthropology. In her spare time, Alex studies the stoics and their influence on leadership in media.