The Destruction of Mankind is actually the initial portion of a longer composition known to modern scholars as the Book of the Heavenly Cow. The text of the Destruction of Mankind, which accompanies a depiction of the celestial cow, appears in the tombs of Sety I, Ramesses II, and Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings. On the outermost shrine that encompassed the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, there is an earlier representation of the heavenly cow, but the accompanying text omits the Destruction section. The Destruction story may be the oldest preserved narrative myth from ancient Egypt; there is an allusion to its existence in the Instructions for Merikare, composed toward the end of the First Intermediate Period. The role of the god Shu and the eight infinity deities in uplifting the sky also bears some relationship to the cosmogony of the Shu-spells in the Coffin Texts of the early Middle Kingdom.

The Destruction begins with the situation in which the sun god Re is reigning on earth over deities and people. During his old age, however, humans plot rebellion against him. Following the advice of the divine council, Re sends out his eye in the form of the goddess Hathor, who proceeds to decimate humanity. When Hathor returns, very pleased with her bloody mission, Re experiences a change of heart. In a ruse to deter the goddess from further slaughter, he orders red ocher to be added to beer, which is then poured out during the night in great abundance over the areas where Hathor would continue to slay people. Thinking the reddened beer is blood, Hathor becomes so drunk that she can no longer recognize mankind and desists from her mission.

Following that Destruction episode, Re, weary and fearful of another attack, withdraws from earth, placing himself on the back of the sky goddess Nut, in the form of a cow supported by the god Shu and eight infinity deities. The remainder of the text of the Book of the Heavenly Cow is complex; it provides numerous etiologies based on wordplay—which explain the origins of deities, places, and customs—and it contains instructions on how the celestial cow is to be drawn on the wall. The representation of the heavenly cow and the sun god voyaging along its belly may have given rise to the narrative myth explaining the way that earth and sky became related following mankind's rebellion. The rebellion itself may be a reflection of the political instability and social turmoil that existed during the First Intermediate Period, when the prestige of the institution of kingship suffered. The presence of the myth of the Destruction of Mankind in the context of the royal tomb can be related to the fact that at the king's death, his reign on earth ceased, as did Re's in the story; moreover, the pharaoh ascended to heaven to be amalgamated with the sun god, a concept commonly expressed in texts treating the king's passing.


  • Allen, James P. Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts. Yale Egyptological Studies, 2. New Haven, 1988. Relates the depiction of the celestial cow, uplifted by Shu and the eight infinity gods, to the Shu-spells in the Coffin Texts.
  • Assmann, Jan. “Die Verborgenheit des Mythos in Ägypten.” Göttinger Miszellen 25 (1977), 7–43. Regards the myth of the heavenly cow as an explanation of the depiction of the cow, rather than vice versa.
  • Hornung, Erik. Der ägyptische Mythos von der Himmelskuh: Eine Ätiologie der Unvollkommenen. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 46. Freiburg and Göttingen, 1982. The basic publication of the entire Book of the Heavenly Cow, with translation and commentary.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature, A Book of Readings. vol. 2. Berkeley, 1976. Includes a translation of the Destruction of Mankind.
  • Piankoff, Alexandre. The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon, edited by N. Rambova. New York, 1962. Provides a translation of the entire Book of the Heavenly Cow.

Edward F. Wente