Who is Apophis (Apep) in Egyptian Mythology?
Apophis (also called Apep, Apopis, Apepi, or Rerek) was the eternal enemy of Ra, the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon. A terrifying serpent, Apophis symbolised chaos and destruction. Each day, as the sun god, Ra, crossed the sky in his boat, Apophis would viciously attack the vessel and occasionally, during the total eclipse, he was believed to have swallowed it whole.
Despite his ferocity, Apophis never gained total victory over his enemy. However, at the same time, he was never believed to have been finally and completely conquered. The reddening of the sky at dusk was said to demonstrate that the serpent had been overcome by the sun’s strength.
In every good mythological story, there is always a villain, an entity that threatens chaos and destruction, ‘the knoweth will end of everything we know.’
When we take a look at Egyptian mythology, that evil takes the form of Apophis, or Apep, the god of chaos, darkness and destruction. He was known by several names including Apep, Apopis, Apepi, Rerek and the Greek translation of Apophis.
Apophis Dethroned by Ra
In some of the earliest stories, Apophis was once the god of the Sun. He was later pushed aside by Ra, the God that we will come to associate with the Sun today.
Having been somewhat dethroned by Ra, Apophis harboured a great deal of resentment towards the god, and he vowed to make it as difficult as possible for Ra to succeed in his task of bringing the dawn every day.
Depictions of Apophis (Apep)
In some depictions, Apophis was born from darkness and chaos, making him the mortal enemy of light, and fuelling his desire to overthrow the balance of all things.
Apophis takes a form of an enormous serpent of 50 feet long, which is why he earned the nicknames ‘Evil Lizard’ and ‘Serpent from the Nile.’ The word Apep is derived from the Egyptian word meaning slither and could also be used as a term for being spat out, which would refer to the way Apophis was shunned and removed from his position as god of the Sun.
There are even some depictions of Apophis being described as a crocodile that swims in the dark waters of the underworld. In later Greek and Roman stories, he was described as an enormous golden snake, several miles long with the head of stone.
The Story of Apophis and Ra
Apophis was just one of the many gods to have been born from the goddess Neith, making him brother to many of the predominant gods in Egypt including Ra, Saket, and Sobek.
Every day when Ra would travel across the sky in his solar boat bringing the dawn, Apophis would await to attack the Sun god in an attempt to plunge the world into darkness. As a result, with the help of numerous defenders that will make their journey with him, when Apophis would show up to block the way, they would slit the belly of the serpent open allowing Ra to pass.
There is a story regarding the two, where one morning Ra was performing his duties when Apophis swallowed the barge whole. Ra transformed himself into a cat and with the help of Set, they were able to cut themselves free from inside Apophis and continue their journey.
With cats and snakes being seen as natural enemies, the story of Ra transforming into a cat to defeat his nemesis does make sense from a symbolic standpoint.
In other stories, Apophis would hypnotize Ra and all of his followers—only the god Set would be able to resist the serpent, and he would repel him of his great spear.
Despite being defeated every day, Apophis continued to swallow the Sun god and his followers, knowing that if they were unable to escape just once, he would succeed and plunge the world into darkness.
Hate towards Apophis
Despite being considered a god, Apophis was rarely worshipped by anyone. There was even a book solely dedicated to stopping the serpent god, which included a collection of rituals meant to keep him at bay.
The people of Egypt believed that Apophis would lead an army of demons that would prey upon the living and the dead each year. To stop this, the priests of Ra’s temple would conduct an annual ritual known as the ‘Banishing of Apep.’
An image of the serpent god was taken into the temple and imbued with all the evil of the land. The image was then beaten cursed and burnt to keep Apophis away and help the gods ensure that the Sun would rise again the next day.
The book containing his rituals and magic spells devoted to stopping him was known as the ‘Book of Apophis.’
Artwork Sources: Lemog Leo, Olivier Ehret, Jeszika Le Vye.