is one of the main creator and sun gods, with Re, Horakhty, and Khepri. His name, derived from the verb tem, has either a positive meaning, “the accomplished one”—or a negative one, “the one who did not come to being yet.” He is known from numerous textual and iconographic sources. Atum is considered to be the prime-val, self-made god of the Heliopolitan cosmogony; he then created, by masturbating, the first couplet of gods, Shu and Tefnut. This act associates Atum's hand with various goddesses responsible for sexual pleasure and fertility, such as Hathor and Nebet-Hetepet.

Memphite theology (as recorded on the stela of Shabaqa of the twenty-fifty dynasty) holds that the creation occurred differently: the gods came out of Atum's mouth, and humans from his eyes. In another cosmogony, the Hermopolitan theology, Atum appears to have been created by the Eight Gods (Ogdoad). The Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) presents Atum as the god who would continue to exist after the destruction of the world.

Atum's most frequent epithets are “Lord of Heliopolis” and “Lord of the Two Lands.” The first refers to the main center of his cult, and the second stresses the king's association with him. In the Pyramid Texts, the body of Atum is literally identified with that of the ruler, an association that Egyptian artists also made when they represented Atum, in two dimensions, as a male wearing the royal double crown of Lower and Upper Egypt. The only iconographic detail that distinguishes god from king is the shape of his beard. Representations of Atum in the round are far less numerous than those of any other god of similar importance, and we may speculate that statues showing a king as “Lord of the Two Lands” may also have been viewed as incarnations of Atum. The largest of the rare statues to show Atum himself is a group depicting King Horemheb of the eighteenth dynasty kneeling in front of the seated god; it was found in the “cache” of the Luxor temple in 1989.


Atum. Writing on leaves of an ished–tree is Alum, from the Ramesseum, Western Thebes. (Photo by Karol Myśliwiee)

Atum's solar associations are with the sunset and the nightly journey of the sun, when he appears with a ram's head or, sometimes, as a tired old man walking with a stick. His solar aspect also has royal associations as “Lord of Heliopolis.” From the New Kingdom onward, he is often depicted on temple walls as the god inscribing royal names on the leaves of the sacred tree (ished). In some reliefs, mostly of Lower Egyptian origin—for example, on the shrine of Ramesses II from Pithom—Atum is the god crowning the king. Another episode of the mythicized “coronation cycle” portrays Atum as a representative of Lower Egypt and a counterpart of an Upper Egyptian god, leading the king toward the main deity. The importance of Atum in the new year feast confirming the king's rule is described in the Brooklyn Papyrus, which dates from the Late period.

Atum has anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and composite forms. In the first, he most frequently wears the royal double crown; other attributes, either alone or in combination, include the solar disk and a long tripartite wig. Various animals are associated with Atum, and some of them also functioned as hieroglyphic signs used in the notation of his name. For example, the beetle (or scarab) appears in the god's name from the late New Kingdom until the Roman period, and the ape hieroglyph functions similarly in inscriptions of the Greco-Roman period. In these periods, particularly in the region of Heliopolis, Atum as a solar god was identified with an ape-bowman shooting at his enemies. The ichneumon, devourer of snakes, was associated with Atum in a similar way; benign snakes were, however, another holy animal of the solar god. Numerous small bronze coffins containing mummified eels, bearing a figure of the fish on the top of the box and an inscription incised on it, attest to yet another zoomorphic incarnation of Atum.

Although the cult of Atum existed throughout Egypt, its principal centers were in the Nile Delta. Atum was the god of Heliopolis, where he had a special sanctuary, and he was the main deity of Per-Tem (“house of Atum”), the biblical Pithom in the eastern Delta. He was associated with a number of other gods, especially other forms of the solar deity. Various syncretistic versions that combine the names, epithets, functions, and iconography of Re, Horakhty, Khepri, and Atum (and sometimes other solar and nonsolar gods) became popular after the Amarna period, particularly during the Third Intermediate Period.


  • Goyon, Jean-Claude. Confirmation du pouvoir royal au Nouvel an Brooklyn Museum Papyrus 47.218.50 I. Bibliothèque d'Étude, 52. Cairo, 1972. Excellent translation into French and a general study of an Egyptian text of the Late period, concerning a royal feast in which Atum played a particularly important role.
  • Myśliwiec, Karol. Die heiligen Tiere des Atum: vol. 1, Studien zum Gott Atum, Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge, 5. Hildesheim, 1978. First part of the monograph on god Atum. The author describes the zoomorphic representations of the god.
  • Myśliwiec, Karol. Name. Epitheta. Ikonographie: vol. 2, Studien zum Gott Atum, Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge, 8. Hildesheim, 1979. A juxtaposition of the various writings of the god's name, his epithets and iconographic forms.

Karol Myśliwiec