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The god Shu, from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer

Shu, Holder of the Sky, God of the Air, Wind, Sunlight and Protection

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: February 21, 2013

 

shwwgod determinative   (  shshww )

Shu (Su) was the god of dry air, wind and the atmosphere. He was also related to the sun, possibly as an aspect of sunlight. He was the son of the creator god, father of the twin sky and the earth deities and the one who held the sky off of the earth. He was one of the gods who protected Ra on his journey through the underworld, using magic spells to ward off Ra's enemy, the water snake-demon Apep. Tefnut and Shu from Ani's the Book of the Dead

As with other protector gods, he had a darker side - he was also a god of punishment in the land of the dead, leading executioners and torturers to kill off the corrupt souls. His name might be derived from the word for dryness - shw shu, the root of words such as 'dry', 'parched', 'withered', 'sunlight' and 'empty'. His name could also mean 'He who Rises Up'.

He was generally depicted as a man wearing an ostrich feather headdress, holding a sceptre and the ankh sign of life. Sometimes he was shown wearing the sun disk on his head, linking him to the sun. Occasionally, when shown with his sister-wife Tefnut, he is shown in lion form and the two were known as the "twin lion gods". As twin felines, the Coffin Texts connect Tefnut the cat goddess Bast, and Shu with a cat god called Basti. At other times, he was shown with the hind part of a lion as his headdress, linking him to his leonine form. Mostly, he was shown with his arms raised, holding up the goddess Nut as the sky, standing on the body of Geb. Tefnut, Amen and Shu from Musawarat Al Safrra

Image © Brian J. McMorrow

Another indication of their strong presence in Dendera is that one of the many surnames of the Dendera temple was h3t m3-hs3wy or h3t m3wy, which means 'the palace of the lion pair'. Shu and Tefnut are envisaged in the Pyramid and Coffin Texts and in the Book of the Dead as a double lion or as a lion pair. The double lion symbolizes 'Yesterday' and 'Tomorrow', in other words, the dead sun god and the resurrected sun god. The lion pair symbolizes either eternity and life or justice and the order of the cosmos. One of their functions, particularly in the Late Period, was to help the deceased in the other world.

-- Aly Abdalla, A Graeco-Roman Group Statue of Unusual Character from Dendera, p. 190

One story says that Shu and Tefnut went to explore the waters of Nun. After some time, Ra believed that they were lost, and sent the his Eye out into the chaos to find them. When his children were returned to him, Ra wept, and his tears were believed to have turned into the first humans.

Shu wearing his feather, and Tefnut as a green lion-headed goddess wearing the sun disk Shu was created by masturbation or by spitting, the first born of the sun god. He seems to be more of a personification of the atmosphere rather than an actual god.

And Atum said:
'That is my daughter, the living female one, Tefnut,
who shall be with her brother Shu.
Life is his name, Order is her name.
[At first] I lived with my two children, my little ones,
the one before me, the other behind me.
Life reposed with my daughter Order,
the one within me, the other without me.
I rose over them, but their arms were around me.'

-- Clark, R.T.R. 1960, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p. 45

As a god of the wind, the people invoked him to give good wind to the sails of the boats. It was he who was the personification of the cold northern winds; he was the breath of life - the vital principle of all living things. His bones were thought to be clouds. He was also called to 'lift up' the spirits of the dead so that they might rise up to the heavens, known as the 'light land', reached by means of a giant 'ladder' that Shu was thought to hold up. Shu, seated in a boat with Ma'at, separate Nut and Geb

...Shu, the 'space', the light cavity in the midst of the primordial darkness. Shu is both light and air, and as the offspring of god he is manifest life. As light he separates the earth from the sky and as air he upholds the sky vault.

-- Clark, R.T.R. 1960, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p. 45

Despite being a god of sunlight, Shu was not considered to be a solar deity. He was, though, connected to the sun god as one who was thought to bring Ra (and the pharaoh) to life each morning, raising the sun into the sky. During his travels through the underworld, he protected Ra from the water snake-demon Apep, with spells to counteract the serpent and his followers. He participated in the judgement of the deceased in the Halls of Ma'ati as the leader of aggressive, punishing beings who were to eliminate the ones not worthy of the afterlife. Ramses III being welcomed by Shu

Image © John Bek

THE CHAPTER OF NOT PERISHING AND OF BEING ALIVE IN THE UNDERWORLD. Osiris Ani saith:-
"Hail, ye children of the god Shu! The Duat (underworld) hath gained the mastery over his diadem. Like the Hammemet begins may I arise, even as Osiris doth arise and fare forth."

...

THE CHAPTER OF NOT ENTERING IN UNTO THE BLOCK OF THE GOD. Nebseni saith:-
"The four bones (or knots) of my neck and of my back are joined together for me by the Guardian heaven, who stablished the knot for him who lay helpless at the breasts [of his mother] on the day of cutting off the hair. The bones of my neck and of my back have been knit together by the god Set and by the company of the gods as strongly as they were in the time that is past; may nothing happen to break them apart. Make ye me strong! The goddess Nut bones of my neck and back, [and they are] even as they were in the time that is past, when I saw the true birth of the gods in visible forms take place in its am in the presence of the great god."

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 1960, The Book of the Dead, pp. 187-191

An ivory headrest from the tomb of Tutankhamen, Shu holding up the head support as if it was the sky and two lions representing mountains of the eastern and western horizons

Image © Mark T. Rigby
He also was believed to hold up Nut, the sky goddess and his daughter, above his son the earth god Geb. Without Shu holding the two apart, the Egyptians believed that there would be no area in which to create the life they saw all around them. The Egyptians believed that there were also pillars to help Shu lift up the sky - these pillars were on the four cardinal points, and were known as the 'Pillars of Shu'.

Shu hath raised thee up, O Beautiful Face, thou governor of eternity. Thou hast thine eye, O scribe Nebseni, lord of fealty, and it is beautiful. Thy right eye is like the Sektet Boat, thy left eye is like the Atet Boat. Thine eyebrows are fair to see in the presence of the Company of the Gods.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 1913, The Papyrus of Ani: A Reproduction in Facsimile, Volume 2, p. 630

Depiction of Shu at the temple of Kom Ombo

Image © Günther Eichhorn
The Egyptians believed that Shu was the second divine pharaoh, ruling after Ra. Apep's followers, though, plotted against him and attacked the god at his palace in At Nub. Despite defeating them, Shu became diseased due to their corruption, and soon even Shu's own followers revolted against him. Shu then abdicated the throne, allowing his son Geb to rule, and Shu himself returned to the skies. Another version of the myth states that Geb only ascended the throne of Egypt after he challenged Shu and won. The Greco-Roman period myth says that in retaliation for his father separating him from his sister-wife, the goddess Nut, Geb then his mother, Tefnut, as his chief wife and separated her from Shu.

THE CHAPTER OF GIVING AIR IN KHERT-NETER. Nu saith:- I am the jackal of jackals. I am Shu. I draw air from the presence of the Light-god, from the uttermost limits of heaven, from the uttermost limits of earth, from the uttermost limits of the pinion of Nebeh bird (ostrich?). May air be given unto this young divine Babe. [My mouth is open, I see with my eyes.]

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 2003, The Book of the Dead, p. 448

There are no known temples to Shu, but despite Akenaten's distaste for the gods of Egypt, he and Nefertiti used Tefnut and Shu for political purposes. They depicted themselves as the twin gods in an apparent attempt to elevate their status to that of being a living god and goddess, the son and daughter of the creator, on earth. Akenaten, not the monotheist that most believe him to be (as Assmann and Hornung point out), put out the belief that Shu lived in the sun disk. At Iunet (Dendera), though, there was a part of the city known as "The House of Shu" ( pr stroke determinativeshwwntr ) and at Djeba (Utes-Hor, Behde, Edfu) there was a place known as "The Seat of Shu" (throne determinativeshwwgod determinativetown determinative). He was worshipped in connection with the Ennead at Iunu, and in his lion form at Nay-ta-hut (Leontopolis). Grey-green faience amulet of Shu

Shu was the husband of his twin, the goddess Tefnut, son of the sun god Atem-Ra and father to the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. As such, he was one of the gods of the Ennead. Shu was identified with the Meroitic (of Nubia) god Arensnuphis, known as Shu-Arensnuphis. He was also identified with the war god Anhur, known as Anhur-Shu. His links with Anhur are probably because the two gods had wives who took the form of a lioness (Mehit was the wife of Anhur), and both gods were thought to have brought their consorts back from Nubia. In Shu's case, when Tefnut went off in anger to Nubia, Ra sent both him and Thoth to get her, and they found her in Begum. Thoth began at once to try and persuade her to return to Egypt. In the end Tefnut (with Shu and Thoth leading her) made a triumphant entry back into Egypt, accompanied by a host of Nubian musicians, dancers and baboons.

Egypt's second divine ruler, Shu was one of the great Ennead. A god of the wind, the atmosphere, the space between the sky and the earth, Shu was the division between day and night, the underworld and the living world. He was a god related to living, allowing life to flourish in Egypt with his breath of life. He was the bridge between life and death, both a protector and a punisher in the afterlife. To the Egyptians, if there was no Shu, there would be no life - Egypt existed thanks to Shu.


Further Information about Shu


Video of Shu

A video filled with images of Shu (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2002 - present

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