Episode 13: Dragons of Egypt

Hello, Mythsters, and welcome to the first episode of the second half of this season. We’re only two weeks away from celebrating our six month anniversary of whispering in your ears every fortnight. This week, we visited the dragons of sunny Egypt. 

As promised, we have, of course, some links for you:

  • Come and visit us in our Discord Community, for sneak previews of each episode’s art, as well as the chance to add your two cents for our celebratory bonus episode.
  • And for our side quest, some more information about the mysterious Hatshepsut: The Exploress podcast, a femcentric history podcast and a regular on Jaz’s podcatcher, did a two part episode on women who ruled Egypt. The resources list is also fairly extensive and absolutely worth a browse.

But without further ado, we’ll let you get on with the podcast and meet today’s dragons! But first, get your MythsterMap ready.

Later Mythsters!


Dragons of Egypt transcript

Anike: Hello, hello, mythsters, and welcome to episode 13 of Mythstherhood of the Travelling Tales, AAAND welcome to the second half of our first season!

Jaz: Awww, so soon? 

Anike: Riiiight? Ugh.

Jaz: OK. Let’s think happy thoughts. How have you been and how’s Redrum?

Anike: I’ve been, I’ve been okay. I’ve been good. Going. Redrum is… she looks like she is getting better. She has, unfortunately developed two cysts on her but it’s looking like that’s just a healing injury and she’ll outgrow it in the next few molts so she’s good.

Jaz: Awesome, awesome. That’s great to hear.

Anike: And how are you doing?

Jaz: Doing better, slowly. So, Mythsters, I hadn’t discussed this on the podcast yet, but my significant other is in the military, and as you’re listening to this, he is on his way to the Middle East, or he is already there. He left on the 23rd of November, to go into quarantaine before deployment, and it’s always a bit hard to like find this new solo rhythm when he leaves. But yeah, I’m getting there, and I’m learning to keep the quiet at bay with loads of music, podcasts, audiobooks, TV, and the Mythsterhood, of course. So, all good. I’m glad I’ve got the dogs to keep me company though. But enough about me. Aren’t we supposed to be in Egypt today?

Anike: Well, absolutely, yes! But eehhhh. Do you want the good news first? Or the bad news?

Jaz: Oh shit. Uhm. OK. Good news first please.

Anike: Well, frankly, Egyptian mythology is awesome!

Jaz: OK? I already guessed as much. Aaand the bad news?

Anike: There is so much of it, I am more than a little bit intimidated. Did you know that, in terms of timeline, Cleopatra is closer to us than she is to when the pyramids of Giza were built?

Jaz: You’re joking, aren’t you?

Anike: Noooooo, not really. First, though, with so much history behind these dragons, we can’t possibly do them all justice in one episode, so we opted to discuss two of them in more detail, rather than saying tiny tidbits about all of them. But not to worry: those we haven’t got to yet will be discussed in next week’s blog post!

Jaz: Right! Better get cracking then! But, before we begin, A quick reminder to everyone who didn’t catch our little newsbulletin this weekend. To commemorate the halfway mark in our first season, we will be having a special episode, Koji, Anike, and I, to talk about this amazing journey we’ve gone on, and about the stuff we’ve learned, and we’d love to answer any questions you have as well, so head on over to our Discord–

Anike: The link is in the show notes, of course–

Jaz: And hit us with your best shot! Sorry, I could not resist that. Anyway, do come and hit us up and ask us anything because we want to get to know you guys better. So, come on over for a visit.

Anike: Indeed, yes. And let’s also not forget that, as usual, we have our linguistic disclaimers to get through.

Jaz: Yeah. You just know name mutilations will ensue. We’ll try to not leave too many scars.

Anike: But, no promises though.

Jaz: Anyway. Let’s talk dragons.

Anike: Right. So, like so many other cultures we’ve explored, serpents and dragons are integral to mythology that lies at the heart of spiritual life in Egypt.

Jaz: Serpents were believed to watch over the dead. The Iaculi, winged serpents, are often depicted on the tombs of the dead.

Anike: Well, I would hope they didn’t mummify and/or entomb the living back then.

Jaz: Hah, good point. Yeah, tombs do usually belong to the dead. I mean, I do hope that would be the case. I mean, it wasn’t exactly true in The Mummy, but really, let’s not put too much faith in Hollywood’s ability or willingness to do decent fact checking. At any rate, it seems these Iaculi were connected to Nehebkau, the serpent god of the underworld.

Anike: Cool! And then you had Wadjet. Many people who know a thing or two about Egyptian symbolism will recognise this name. It is often used to refer to a symbol called the eye of Ra.

Jaz: But there was more to the story.

Anike: Uhu. She was also one of the oldest Egyptian goddesses. Her worship was already established in the Predynastic Period, but it did evolve over time. She began as the local goddess of Per-Wadjet but she grew to become the patron goddess of all of Lower Egypt.

Jaz: By the time the Predynastic Period came to an end, she had become the personification of Lower Egypt, rather than a distinct goddess. She was often depicted alongside Nekhbet, her sister and the personification of Upper Egypt. Together, they were referred to as the nebty. The earliest known example of this name dates back to the reign of Anedjib of the First Dynasty. The nebty was a part of his title, as an indication that he ruled over both parts of Egypt.

Anike: And in the Pyramid Texts, it’s suggested that she created the first papyrus plant and primordial swamp.

Jaz: According to another myth, she was the daughter of Atum, who later became Ra. She was sent to him to serve as his eye and find Tefnut (moisture) and Shu (air) when they were lost in the waters of Nun. Which I presume is another sort of primordial water? 

Anike: Maybe a primordial sea.

Jaz: Yeah, something like that. I mean, that would be my first guess. So, upon their return, Ra was so happy that he cried and created the first humans from his tears.

Anike: Oh wow, so she created the primordial swamp, which links her to the chaos before creation. But she also rescues Moisture and Air from a sort of primordial chaos in the waters of Nun, and through her actions, contributes to creation. Interesting. And get this: As a reward, Ra placed her on his head in the form as a cobra so she’d always be close to him and act as his protector.

Jaz: What? I love you, daughter, and to show my affection and gratitude I will turn you into a hat? Ra needed to work on his parenting skills, if you ask me.

Anike: Well, yes, yes, but also, another cobra? Which isn’t surprising, really, considering how wide-spread cobras are around the world.

Jaz: Yeah, that’s true. Anyway, so I guess that when she became his hat, she became his protector, and through him, the protector of the kings of Egypt.

Anike: Uhu. The ancient Egyptians also credited her as acting as a nurse to the god Horus in his infancy. Together with his mother Isis, she protected the child from his uncle, Set. They took refuge in the swamps of the Nile Delta.

Jaz: Wow, she was a serpent of many talents, it seems. But it makes sense that she’d return to the swamps when seeking safety, since her early incarnations already had a connection to that primordial swamp. Through her role as a guardian and nurse to Horus, she was worshipped as a patroness for women in childbirth as well.

Anike: How awesome is that?

Jaz: OK, her depictions appear in many different forms. The first one, I believe, inspired your artwork for this episode?

Anike: It did indeed. Here, she’s shown as Ra’s protector or, well, hat, as you so eloquently put it. But it’s not just on Ra that she’s found. Wadjet’s symbol occurs on the headdresses of pharaohs and multiple gods associated with Ra. In this depiction, she’s curled over the sun, carrying the ankh, the symbol for life. But the ankh could also symbolise air and water. Hint, hint.

Jaz: Yeah. So, the symbol itself is so, it’s got layers upon layers. Imean, it’s got more layers than onions and ogres together. 

Anike: It’s pretty interesting because it’s almost, uhm, a lot of things that are primordial have those layers upon layers of symbolism.

Jaz: Yeah. Definitely, definitely. I also have to say I can’t believe how amazing that drawing is. Seriously. I absolutely love it. So, this motif was found, among other places, on the Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, at Luxor. Hatsheput, by the way, is one of the few women who actually managed to rule Ancient Egypt. She was a badass and I will include a few links to like materials I found about her in the show notes as well. 

Anike: It’s rather surprising that she isn’t so well-know as, for instance, Cleopatra, or uhm Tutankhamun’s mother. Ugh, I keep forgetting her name now. But yeah, I mean, she’s not really well-known at all, at least not in popular culture. But this is now a side-quest.

Jaz: Yeah, actually, the Exploras podcast has a few episodes on, like, women rulers in Egypt and Hatshepsut got an episode dedicated to her. And, apparently, she was, like, erased by, I think it was her son. I think Hatshepsut was not a pharaoh in her own right but she ruled as regent. Don’t shoot me if this is wrong. But when her son then succeeded her, or when he took over the rule, her images were destroyed and he name was removed from certain monuments so there apparently was active effort to erase her from Egypt’s history. So yeah, we will link you to that badass Ancient Egyptian lady. So, let’s get back to Wadjet here.

So in this depiction found on the Mortuary Temple, she appears twice in the same panel, once in the incarnation you drew of her for the episode, Anike, and also once as just a serpent or a cobra, preceding a Horus hawk. And this, I presume, would symbolise her guardianship of Horus. But the hawk wears a pschent, the double crown worn by the pharaohs. And this then becomes a symbol to her role as a guardian to the kings of Egypt. And the cobra, as she appears here, and in the hat Ra turned her into–I’ve still not forgiven him for that–is another common incarnation for her.

Anike: But she also took the form of either a snake-headed woman, or a snake with a woman’s head. Now where have we seen that particular image before?

Jaz: Uhm, just about everywhere? In later times, she was also depicted as a woman wearing the uraeus. And one of her early depictions was that of an Egyptian cobra, twined around a papyrus stem, taking us back to her connection with papyrus.

Anike: This motif is believed by many to be the first snake-entwined-around-staff symbol, which would later return in the Mediterranean myths and cultures as the caduceus.

Jaz: So, not only was our serpent lady a most versatile deity, patroness of both rulers and those giving birth, creator of the primordial chaos and a slew of other titles, including hat of Ra, but she was also one of the earliest trendsetters we’ve encountered so far. You go girl.

Anike: Hear hear. But, as cool as Wadjet is, do you think we should maybe move onto another serpent?

Jaz: Heh. Good point. How about going from Ra’s protector, to one of his nemeses?

Anike: Ooooh. Apep?

Jaz: Hell yeah. Apep, also known as Apepi. His name survived in later Coptic script as Aphoph, which then–or so I presume–became Apophis to the ancient Greeks. Apep embodied chaos and as such, functioned as the direct antagonist to light and Ma’at, meaning order or truth.

Anike: The first mention of Apep appears in the Eighth Dynasty, a short-lived and rather obscure line of pharaohs who ruled in the early 22nd century BC, at the very end of what we know as the Old Kingdom. Two kings, Apepi of the Fourteenth Dynasty, and Apophis of the Fifteenth Dynasty, were even named after him.

Jaz: Jeez. One would hope they didn’t live up to their name. Apep was considered the greatest enemy of Ra. He was depicted as a giant snake or serpent, leading to titles as Serpent from the Nile and Evil Dragon. Ra have mercy on the nannies expected to look after these two children.

Anike: Haha. Tell me something I don’t know in real life. Buta ayway, he was reported to stretch 16 yards in length, and he had a head made of flint.

Jaz: Apparently. That would come in very handy when you go camping. But we digress. 

Anike: As usual.

Jaz: Digressing? We never do that. So, as early as 4000 BC, a snake was painted along the inner rim of a bowl, alongside other desert and aquatic animals, and there’s a strong reason to believe the serpent was the enemy or a deity, possibly even a solar deity, who is invisibly hunting in a big rowing vessel.

Anike: Cooool. Now, while in most cases, Apep is described as a giant serpent, he is sometimes also portrayed as a crocodile. We didn’t find much in terms of Apep’s origin, Wikipedia claims that the serpent was born after Ra, maybe even from Ra’s umbilical cord.

Jaz: This tidbit, along with the fact that Apep is nowhere to be found in Egyptian creation myths led to the commonly accepted interpretation by Egyptologists, that Apep was actually not a primordial force in Egyptian mythology but a consequence of Ra’s birth.

Anike: So instead of chaos lying at the root of creation, and needing to be subdued by the forces of order in order for life to be created, one could suppose that the fight between good and evil, as far as Egyptian theology goes, is a metaphor for each individual’s own fight for survival.

Jaz: So, correct me if I’m wrong, but for me personally, this is the first time I’ve seen this embodiment of an inner struggle that we all have with the dark aspects of our own personalities. Because, sort of, evil becomes a consequence of what a supposedly good person, or a good deity in the case of Ra, does. 

Anike: Yeah, it is the first example of it. That we’ve seen, at least when it comes to the mythologies.

Jaz: Yeah! At least this blatantly, anyway. All this actually makes sense when we look deeper into Apep’s battles against Ra as well. Storytellers from the New Kingdom, which dates from the 16th to the 11th century BC, tell us that every day, Apep must lie below the horizon. He can’t stay in the mortal kingdom, so, that establishes him as a creature of the underworld, which is where we all want to stay away from, after all.

Anike: Hmmm, that’s an interesting take on the whole myth. In some stories, Apep lies in wait for Ra in a mountain called Bakhu, where the sun sets. In other stories, however, Apep lurked in the Tenth region of the night, close to the dawn. 

Jaz: So basically, our boy Apep got around, is what you’re saying. This–and you’re not gonna believe this–added another title to his list: World Encircler.

Anike: WHAT!

Jaz: YES. I KNOW. So, the Egyptians believed that his roar would cause the underworld to rumble, and some stories talk about how Apep was actually trapped or imprisoned there, because he’d been the previous chieftain of the gods and gotten overthrown by Ra. However, this would contradict the myths of Apep’s birth from a piece of Ra’s umbilical cord. But another possible reason for his imprisonment, apparently, was just the fact that he was simply evil.

Anike: Well, yeah, I mean, people have gone to jail for much less, I suppose. Oh, and get this: The coffin texts imply that Apep used a magical gaze to overwhelm Ra and his entourage. Ra, however, got help from a number of defenders, including Set–who maybe had his good days as well, if this story was to be believed–and possibly also the Eye of Ra!

Jaz: You mean Wadjet!!!

Anike: I do, indeed. I’m pretty sure this is the first time we have two serpents facing off against each other!!!

Jaz: I do believe you’re right. But, let’s stay on track. Apep’s movements were thought to be the cause of earthquakes. Remember the rumbles in the underworld?

Anike: OOOH.

Jaz: And his fights with Set were possibly used as a way to explain thunderstorms. In one story, it’s Ra himself–in the body of a cat–who vanquishes Apep.

Anike: At any rate, on most nights, Ra came out on top, of course. Egyptian priests and worshippers would pray at Ra’s temples to ensure this victory. They practiced quite a few rituals and superstitious habits to assist Ra in his fight against the serpent and his journey across the sky. Each year, priests would burn an effigy of Apep that contained all the evil and darkness in the country. They believed it would protect everyone from Apep’s evil during the coming year.

Jaz: They actually had a detailed manual on how to fight Apep, referred to as The Books of Overthrowing Apep, or known in Greek as the Book of Apophis. These guides included a very thorough step-by-step dismemberment and disposal, up to and including such instructions as spitting upon Apep, defiling Apep with the Left foot, taking a Lance to Smite him, fettering him, taking a knife to smite him, and putting fire upon him.

Anike: Wow. So basically you didn’t want to piss off the priests if you lived in Ancient Egypt.

Jaz: No you did not. I’d also advise against any attempts at swallowing the daylight.

Anike: But, mythsters, you’ll notice I said Ra was the victor on MOST nights. On the rare occasions when nothing sufficed to send Apep back to his underworld prison, he swallowed Ra, and caused an eclipse.

Jaz: Like Bakunawa from the Philippines???

Anike: Totally like Bakunawa, except Apep caused solar eclipses instead of lunar ones. Buuut I hate to say it, Jaz…

Jaz: Then don’t say it, Anike. Pleeaaase?

Anike: I have to. We’ve run out of time.

Jaz: Oh, alright, alright. That’s all she wrote, mythsters. Do keep your eyes peeled for that promised blog post! And we’ll reconvene in Turkey in a fortnight!


Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com) Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License


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