When most people think of the Nile, they automatically think of Egypt. And that is easy to understand if you look at the grand significance of the river Nile in ancient and modern-day Egypt. As such, after traveling through Egypt, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said that Egypt is the gift of the Nile. This saying truly emphasizes the importance of the Nile for Egyptians.
Ancient Egyptians considered the Nile to be a gift of the gods and they equated the Nile with life itself. Daily life was regulated by the rising and falling of the water level of the Nile and it determined the Egyptian calendar, with its three seasons: the season of flooding, the season of sowing and the season of harvesting. The season of flooding started when the brightest star Sirius appeared in the night sky and marked the Egyptian New Year. As said, the Nile was equated with life: when the Nile flooded, it brought prosperity and fertility to the life surrounding it, but if the water level didn’t rise enough there would be famine or if the water level rose too much, people would lose their clay houses due to the flood. It was therefore important that the gods controlled the river.
The two major gods involved in this process were Khnum and Hapi. Khnum, the ram-headed god of the Nile, was considered to be the lord of the water and the one who brought life and fertility to the river banks where plants and animals thrived. And since the water would bring forth clay after flooding, Khnum was also thought to be creator of humans. Khnum was worshiped on Elephantine Island and his temple can be admired in Esna, located 60 km south of Luxor. The god Hapi was the one controlling the flooding of the Nile. Usually Hapi appears as an androgynous figure, in which the female and male sexes are combined. He has a masculine face and a feminine torso. This is to show him being both the father and the mother of the Nile and thus being able to bring fertility. Fascinatingly, the word hapi actually meant ‘happy’ in the ancient Egyptian language, due to the fertility and prosperity Hapi brought to the river banks. In multiple scenes in different temples, such as Karnak and Luxor Temples, Hapi can be seen performing a ceremony bundling lotus and papyrus together. This signified the union of Upper and Lower Egypt in prosperity, with lotus representing the former and papyrus representing the latter.
There is another god worth mentioning here: the god Osiris who played a role in one of the Nile’s famous myths. According to the myth of Osiris, he was killed by his brother Set due to jealousy, and his body was chopped to forty pieces and thrown in the Nile. The current of the Nile carried him to the Mediterranean Sea, where his wife Isis achieved finding and gathering his body parts. As the goddess of magic, Isis managed to revive Osiris and get pregnant. She gave birth to the god Horus and raised him in a papyrus field in the Delta, away from his spiteful uncle Set. Later in life, Horus avenged his father Osiris by killing his uncle. Due to Osiris’ death and resurrection, he became associated with the flooding and receding of the Nile. Scenes of this myth can be seen in the Temple of Horus in Edfu.
Also several Nile animals had a significant role in ancient mythology. Crocodiles and hippos were feared and therefore the Egyptians worshiped them so they would be protected from animal attacks and evil in general. The crocodile-god Sobek was worshiped in Fayoum and most importantly, in Kom Ombo where Sobek’s temple nowadays is visited by many travelers. Certain fish and birds of the Nile were seen as a sign of abundance, sustenance and rebirth in the afterlife.
The historical places mentioned here are visited by millions of tourists every year to explore the mythology of the Nile and enjoy its atmosphere.
We recommend to embark on a Nile cruise to see these myths and ancient stories come back to life.