By J. Hill, 2010
Apep (Apophis) was the ancient Egyptian spirit of evil, darkness and destruction who threatened to destroy the sun god Ra as he travelled though the underworld (or sky) at night.
Originally Set and Mehen (the serpent headed man) were given the job of defending Ra and his solar barge. They would cut a hole in the belly of the snake to allow Ra to escape his clutches. If they failed, the world would be plunged into darkness. However, in later periods Apep was sometimes equated with Set who was after all a god of chaos. In this case a variety of major and minor gods and goddesses (including [Auset] (Isis), Neith, Serket (Selket), Geb, Aker and the followers of [Heru] (Horus) protected Ra from this all consuming evil. The dead themselves (in the form of the god Shu) could also fight Apep to help maintain ma’at (order).
Like Set, Apep was also associated with various frightening natural events such as unexplained darkness such as solar eclipse, storms and earthquakes. They were both linked to the northern sky (a place that the Egyptians considered to be cold, dark and dangerous) and they were both at times associated with Taweret, the demon-goddess. However, unlike Set he was always a force for evil and could not be reasoned with.
Apep is not mentioned by name until the Middle Kingdom, but depictions of large serpents on Predynastic pottery may relate to him or to any of the variety of serpent gods or demons who appear in early texts (such as the Pyramid Texts) as representatives of evil or chaos. However, the mythology surrounding him largely developed during the New Kingdom in funerary texts such as the Duat (or Amduat). During the Roman Period, he was called “he who was spat out” and considered to have been born of the saliva of the goddess Neith.
He was depicted as a huge serpent often with tightly compressed coils to emphasis his huge size. In funerary texts he is usually shown in the process of being dismembered in various ways. In a detailed depiction in the tomb of Ramesses VI twelve heads are painted above the head of the snake representing the souls he has swallowed who are briefly freed when his is destroyed, only to be imprisoned again the following night. In an alternative depiction inscribed in a number of tombs of private individuals Hathor or Ra is transformed into a cat who slices the huge serpent with a knife. The serpent was also represented by a circular ball, the “evil eye” of Apep, in numerous temple scenes.
Apep was known by many epithets, such as “the evil lizard”, “the encircler of the world”, “the enemy” and “the serpent of rebirth”. He was not worshipped, he was feared, but was possibly the only god (other than The Aten during the Amarna period) who was considered to be all powerful. He did not require any nourishment and could never be completely destroyed, only temporarily defeated.
Apep led an army of demons that preyed on the living and the dead. To defeat this malevolent force a ritual known as “Banishing Apep” was conducted annually by the priests of Ra. An effigy of Apep was taken into the temple and imbued with all of the evil of the land. The effigy was then beaten, crushed smeared with mud and burned. Other rituals involved the creation of a wax model of the serpent which was ritually dismembered and the burning of a papyrus bearing an image of the snake. The “Book of Apophis” is a collection of magical spells from the New Kingdom which were supposed to repel or contain the evil of the serpent.
Apep was hated and feared by the Egyptians, but two of the Hyksos rulers chose his name as their coronation names (although they used a slightly different spelling).