- Pronunciation: ah-po-fiss
- Other names: Apep, Aapep, Apepi
- Parents: Khnum and Neith
- Powers: Darkness and destruction
Every story needs a good villain, and they say that the devil is in the detail. The details of Apophis’ story make for thrilling reading, since this ancient god is probably one of the first true devils of a major religion.
Who Is Apophis?
Apophis has quite the reputation. He’s known as the god of evil, chaos, darkness and destruction.
In some retellings of his legend, Apophis was actually a former sun god, who was pushed aside when Ra came onto the stage. Ra and Apophis are therefore constantly fighting, since Apophis does not want him to succeed in his task of bringing the dawn every day.
Apophis is literally a giant snake, which is why he had nicknames such as “evil lizard” or “serpent from the Nile”. There have been some stories about the details of his appearance. For example, there are legends that say his body is 50 feet (nearly 15 meters) long. Other stories say that his head is made of flint, a type of hard and sharp stone. Apophis’ other name, Apep, probably derives from another Egyptian word that means “to slither”. It can also refer to the word for being spat out, which would be appropriate given that Apophis is known for being shunned and pushed aside.
Some stories, probably later Roman retellings, describe Apophis as an enormous golden snakes that was miles long, and who tried to swallow the sun every night as Ra traversed the underworld.
Apophis is certainly one of the few Egyptian gods to always be shown with a monstrous form.
Apophis is the child of Neith, who was goddess of the hunt as well as of war. Apophis was also brother to a number of important gods: Ra, Hathor, Sobek, Thoth and Serqet.
The most well-known stories of Apophis are surely those that tell of his battles with the sun god Ra. Every day, Ra would travel across the sky in his solar barge (some legends call it a chariot) until disappearing beneath the Earth. While in the underworld, the giant snake would try to stop Ra from bringing the dawn again.
On Ra’s barge were a number of defenders, who would slit the snake’s belly every day so that Ra could pass.
Of the gods who traveled on the barge with Ra to protect him from Apophis, the most surprising is probably Set. He is also a god of evil, darkness and chaos. It doesn’t seem as though Ra and Set were always associated with each other, however, and later stories swap Set for another god such as Hathor.
While many stories of these battles tell of other gods fighting and defeating Apophis, there is also a story of Ra himself transforming into a cat to defeat the snake.
Apophis isn’t really mentioned in the early era of Egyptian history. Egypt was about five pharaohs into its run before his name even comes up. However, almost from the very beginning of recorded Egyptian history there have been images of enormous snakes. These may have been Apophis or a precursor demon that would eventually inspire his legend.
It should be pretty clear that a lot of this mythology was informed by what Egyptians knew from their environment.
Associating snakes with death and evil is certainly not an idea the Egyptians came up with, and cats were venerated in ancient Egypt. Cats and snakes are also natural enemies, so the story of Ra as a cat makes sense symbolically.
No one worshipped Apophis, and in fact, there is an entire ancient book dedicated to a sort of anti-worship, featuring a collection of rituals meant to keep him at bay. After all, the stakes are quite high. If he ever succeeds in stopping Ra, the sun will fail to rise and the world will be destroyed.
Nonetheless, he was respected as one of the most powerful gods of ancient Egypt. He could never be defeated, only temporarily slowed down.
Apophis is blamed for many natural phenomena that are seen as bad or unwanted. For example, earthquakes are said to be the result of his body writhing in the underworld.
The anti-worship of Apep would go quite far. Egyptians would make figures or effigies of the snake and then burn it, curse it, step on it or even spit on it. This was their way of helping Ra and the other gods, while ensuring that the sun would rise again the next day.