Apep (Apepi, Aapep, Apophis, Apopis) was a demon of the underworld, in the form of a giant water snake. It was believed that he was created when Nit spat into the primeval waters of Nun. An alternate belief from Iunyt (Esna) was that the umbilical cord of Nit’s son (eg. Ra), who she bore in the waters of chaos, turned into Apep after it was cut. He was the enemy of the sun god, trying to stop him as he travelled on his barque through the underworld each night. He was so powerful that little could defeat him, and even then, he was back again the following evening to threaten Ra. He was a demon outside of ma’at, the opposite of order, a demon of darkness and chaos.
Apep was first attested to during the Middle Kingdom, but the New Kingdom texts provide the myths and legends of this demon. During Roman times, Apep’s name was thought to mean ‘He who was Spat Out’. He was believed to have been created when Nit spat into the waters of Nun, her spittle turning into the giant water snake. This was thought to happen at the start of time, and that he lived in the primeval waters. His name may mean ‘Great Snake’ (from aah – in words such as ‘be great’, ‘the great’, ‘greatly’), but the reading is uncertain. (The sound aah was also the word for donkey, animals that were believed to be followers of both Set and Apep. This may be part of an ancient Egyptian pun.)
He was depicted as a giant water snake, almost always shown being pierced by knives or other weapons or under the control of a deity, so his image would not give the demon power. He was thought by the ancient Egyptians to be over 16m long, with skin as hard as flint. His roar was so loud that it shook the underworld. He was called ‘Evil Lizard’, ‘Opponent of Ra’, ‘Enemy of Ra’, ‘World Encircler’ and ‘Serpent of Rebirth’.
It was believed that Apep waited at Bakhu – the mountain of the horizon – to swallow the barque of Ra, or during in the seventh hour of the night. He also could swallow the waters of the celestial river in the underworld, or use his coils as sandbanks, to strand Ra’s barque. Serqet also used her magic to protect the barque from Apep, as she had power over snakes, reptiles and poisonous animals. She was also thought to be able to hold Apep’s tail. Maahes also protected Ra on the barque, as he protected the pharaoh while in battle. Shu was a defender of the barque, who used spells and magic to protect Ra from the demonic water snake and his followers. He was also thought to be caught or cut by other deities, including Isis, Nit, Sekhmet, Geb and the Sons of Horus.
The Egyptians believed that Shu was the second divine pharaoh, ruling after Ra. Apep’s followers, though, plotted against him and attacked the god at his palace in At Nub. Despite defeating them, Shu became diseased due to their corruption, and soon even Shu’s own followers revolted against him. Shu then abdicated the throne, allowing his son Geb to rule, and Shu himself returned to the skies.
Neither Shu, Maahes nor Serqet were strong enough to kill Apep. Only a few could kill him – Set boasts that “I slay the enemy of Ra daily, bring in front of the Barque-of-Millions of Years, and no other god is able to do it.” He was the only deity who was strong enough to withstand the power of Apep, and to kill the water serpent. Set demands that Apep back away from the light of Ra, and threatens him with punishment should he speak – that his heart will be taken by the lynx (Mafdet), and that he would be bound by the scorpion (Hededet). Apep responds to Set’s threat:
(Apep cries out that he will conform to the divine will):
‘”I will perform your will, O Ra (bis), I will act properly! (bis) I will act peacefully, O Ra!”‘
(Set speaks again):
‘”Bring your ropes, O Ra! that Apep may fall to your snaring or be trapped by the gods of north, south, east and west in their traps …
All is now well, O Ra! Proceed in peace!
And you, Apep! Down! Away, Apep, O Enemy of Ra!”‘
(During the fight with Horus, Set loses his testicles … Apep now taunts Set with this):
‘”But what you felt is worse than the sting of the scorpion. What she (Ma’at) did to you was so dire that you will suffer from its effect forever! You will never go a-courting, you will never make love!”‘
(Stung by this retort, Set determines to destroy Apep rather than just keep him in bondage … )
‘”Apep, O Enemy of Ra! Turn your face away! Ra hates the very sight of you.” The head is then cut off, hacked in pieces and thrown away on either side of the roads.’
‘”Your head is crushed, O Groundling! Your bones are broken up and your flesh cut in pieces. He (Ra) has consigned you to the Earth Dragon, O Apep! Enemy of Ra!”‘
— Clark, R.T.R. 1960, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, pp. 210-211
After the defeat of Apep, from Chapter 39 of The Book of the Dead, Set became insulting towards Ra. Set threatened that if he wasn’t treated well, that he would bring storms and thunder against the sun god. In retaliation, Ra and his retinue drove him away from the Barque for his insolence, and proceeded on course without him.In another version of the myth, Apep swallowed the barque of the sun, and it was Set and a snake god, Mehen, who cut a hole in Apep so the barque could get free. According to Alfred Wiedemann (2004) in Religion Of The Ancient Egyptians, Mehen (‘Enfolder’) coiled around Ra’s cabin on the solar barque during the seventh hour of the night. Mehen was thus also a protector of Ra. Shu took the title, “one who is inside his Mehen-snake”, and thus also claimed the protection of Mehen.
It was the god Atem, a form of the sun god at sunset, who was believed to condemn Apep to destruction. He was shown as standing before the water snake demon, the demon awaiting it’s destruction. The deceased were also given spells to help them get passed Apep – “Apep has fallen into the flame, a knife is stuck into his head, his name no longer exists anywhere on the earth … I sever his vertebrae from his neck, cutting into his flesh with a knife and stabbing through his skin.” – the magic spells could bring the demon to this place of destruction, where Apep would be chained, cut, burned and crushed. Apep is also shown as being decapitated by Ra in the form of the ‘The Great Cat of Iunu (On, Heliopolis)’, at the foot of the sacred ished or the sacred sycamore tree of the horizon.
…the Book of Overthrowing Apep … gives spells and other instructions for the checkmating of the monster, which were recited daily in the temple of Amen-Ra at Waset (Thebes). In these Apep is referred to as a crocodile and a serpent, and it is described how by the aid of sympathetic magic he is to be speared, cut with knives, decapitated, roasted, and finally consumed by fire, and his evil followers also. These magical acts were duly carried out at Waset day by day, and it was supposed that they greatly assisted the journey of the sun-god.
— Lewis Spence (2008), Egypt, Myths and Legends, p. 131
According to R. O. Faulkner (1937) in The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus: III, the ‘Book of Overthrowing Apep’ had the following descriptive chapters:
- The book of the felling of Apep the foe of Ra
- The first book of felling Apep the foe of Ra
- The book of felling the foe of Ra daily
- The book of the repelling of Apep the great enemy which is done at morning-tide
- The book of knowing the creations (hprw) of Ra and of felling Apep
- The stanza of conjuring their names
- The book of felling Apep
- Another book of felling Apep
Within the book were a variety of ways to defeat Apep, including ‘the spell of spitting on Apep’, ‘the spell of trampling on Apep with the left foot’, ‘the spell of taking the spear to smite Apep’, ‘the spell of binding Apep’, ‘the spell of taking the knife to smite Apep’, and ‘the spell of setting fire to Apep’.
According to these, Apep will first be speared, then sliced with red-hot knives so that every bone of his body has been separated, his head, legs and tail are cut off. His remains are then scorched, singed, and roasted, finally to be consumed by fire. The same fate awaits Apep’s confederates and everything which formed parts of him, them, and all their offspring (their shadows, souls, doubles, and spirits).
— April McDevitt, Apep
Throughout the text, the name of Apep and his followers are written in red, whilst the name of Ra is always written in black. Faulkner believes this to be because red was a malignant and unlucky colour. Interestingly, the name of Set also appears in red, despite the fact that he appears in the text as a protector of Ra. Apep was never worshipped, but the ancient Egyptians protected themselves against him – he was a threat not only against people and the gods, but against ma’at and creation itself. As a demon of the unknown and related to frightening events such as unexplained darkness (solar eclipses were interpreted as a victory of Apep over Ra as he swallowed the solar barque), rituals were followed to ensure he could do no harm. In this, he was linked to Set, who also had eclipses, thunderstorms and earthquakes attributed to him. Despite this two Hyksos rulers of the 15th Dynasty – Apepi I and Apepi II – may have named themselves after Apep (though the spelling is different – these rulers used). During the Late Period, a wax model of the water serpent was cut into pieces and burned. A picture of Apep on papyrus, drawn in green, was sealed in a box, spat on, and burned. Rituals such as these were thought to give protection against Apep.