The Book of the Heavenly Cow

ca.1323 BCE

the Heavenly Cow
after the outermost shrine of Tutankhamun

The Destruction of Mankind - the New World Order and the Magic of Re

by Wim van den Dungen

1 The factsheet : discovery, research, temporal layers, literary features.
2 The Golden Age, human wickedness and divine slaughter.
3 The divine holding off and Re's withdrawal on the back of Nut.
4 To ascend and descend within the sky.
5 The Fall, the Flood & the evil world ?
6 Text & notes.

1. The factsheet.


"Then it came to pass, that the Majesty of Re, who came into being by himself ..."
Book of the Heavenly Cow, line 1.

The first passages from the Book of the Heavenly Cow are attested on the interior left and back panels of the outermost of the four gilded shrines discovered in 1923 by Carter in KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun (ca. 1333 - 1323 BCE), and published by Piankoff in 1955.

Completer versions exist in the tombs of his successors Seti I (ca. 1290 - 1279 BCE), Ramesses II (ca. 1279 - 1213 BCE) and Ramesses III (ca. 1186 - 1155 BCE). In these tombs, the book is exclusively depicted in a subsidiary room of the sarcophagus chamber, especially reserved for it. We also find brief excerpts in the small left niche of the third corridor in the tomb of Ramesses VI (ca. 1143 - 1135 BCE), and another, even shorter version, on a papyrus from the Ramesside Period, now in Turin (Pleyte & Rossi, 1869 - 1876, catalogue n°1982). It was not used after the New Kingdom (ca. 1539 - 1075 BCE), though integrated in the Book of the Faiyum from the Roman Period (Beinlich, 1991, cols.110-112).


In 1876, Edouard Naville published the version found in the tomb of Seti I (SI - KV17), situated on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes. This longest, deepest and most completely finished tomb in the Valley of the Kings, was discovered in October 1817 by the Italian antiquarian Giovanni Battista Belzoni (the tomb is marginally known as "Belzoni's Tomb"). Naville rendered the hieroglyphs into French and English. Later, in 1885, he also published the mutilated version found in the tomb of Ramesses III (RIII - KV11), known since Antiquity. It was partially explored by James Bruce in 1768. In 1881, Heinrich Brugsch published the first translation into German. Five years later, Lefébure (plates 15-18) made the first complete description of SI.

In 1941, Charles Maystre published a text which took into account, and this for the first time, the version discovered in the tomb of Ramesses II (RII - KV7). This tomb also had, at least partially, stood open since Antiquity. But he omitted the material from Tutankhamun ! As late as 1982, Erik Hornung, integrating all extant versions of the book and securing the one in RIII, almost disappeared after Maystre, published the first critical text.

The present condition of the text in SI can be seen in Burton & Hornung (1991) and Hornung (1995). The studies by Sternberg-el-Hotabi (1995) and Spalinger (2000) are to be noted. Recently, a complete translation into English was done by Simpson (2003).

King Seti's  version, found on the four walls of the small annex entered from the hypostile hall of the funerary chamber of SI, is the best preserved copy, but also incomplete. The opening verses are missing and column 95 is the last visible.

All versions are incomplete. Their number of columns varies. In SI, there are 95 columns. RII has 101 columns. In the tomb of RVI, the text is "very broken and faulty" (Piankoff, 1954, p.225.). A fair restoration is possible using RII and RIII, finalizing the text with king Tutankhamun's legacy, at the end of which the text breaks off ...

Fortunately, it happens that in king Tutankhamun's tomb, the text of column 29 and 30 corresponds with column 95, the last line visible in SI. On Shrine I, columns 31 to 28 give the last part of the book, but without offering an end. Monfort produced the hieroglyphs of this synoptic version of The Book of the Cow of Heaven. The present translation is based on the critical text of Hornung (1982).

temporal layers

The following temporal layers may be discerned :

  • extant inscriptions : the first, incomplete inscription is on the outermost (largest) of the four gilded shrines of Tutankhamun (Shrine I), and was buried ca.1323 BCE ;

  • the actual literary composition : for Hornung (1999), the language and orthography display Late Egyptian influences, and so the original cannot have been written long before its first recording under Tutankhamun. For Lichtheim (1976), the use of Middle Egyptian, given that New Kingdom tales were written in the vernacular of those days (Late Egyptian), makes it probable for it to have been copied (and possibly reworked) in the New Kingdom from a Middle Kingdom (ca. 1938 - 1759 BCE) original (on papyrus ?). Indeed, in The Royal Instruction of Khety to Merikare, a text from the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2198 - 1938 BCE), the central motif of the destruction of rebellious mankind is alluded to in the Hymn to Re (cf. italics), suggestive of a common mythological frame. If Lichtheim is correct, the Book of the Heavenly Cow was a classic of Egyptian literature.

"Well tended is humanity - the cattle of the god :
he made sky and earth for their sake,
he subdued the water monster,
he made breath for their noses to live.
They are his images, who came from his body.
He shines in the sky for their sake.
He made for them plants and cattle,
fowl and fish to feed them.
He slew his foes, reduced his children,
when they thought of making rebellion.

He makes daylight for their sake,
he sails by to see them.
He has built his shrine around them,
when they weep he hears.
He made for them rulers in the egg,
leaders to raise the back of the weak.
He made for them magic as weapons,
to ward off the blow of events,
watching over them by day and by night.
He has slain the traitors among them,
as a man beats his son for the sake of his brother.
For the god knows every name."

Instruction of Khety to Merikare, Hymn to Re, 284 - 305.

Although attested for the first time on Shrine I of Tutankhamun, central elements of the legend of the Heavenly Cow appear in older texts. The motifs of the cow and ascension of Re appear in the Pyramid Texts. The legend of the Golden Age, in which Re ruled Egypt and, being weary of human wickedness, took off to his palace, probably predates the redaction of our New Kingdom sources.

The image of mankind as "a tear" says it all : Sethian mankind brings slaughter into the world and triggers the end of the Golden Age, as well as the advent of a new world order. In the latter, the divine mind prevails (as vizier of Re). A truly Hermopolitan image ...

"To say : 'I, king Unas, have inundated the land which came forth from the lake, I have torn out the papyrus-plant, I have satisfied the Two Lands, I have united the Two Lands, I have joined my mother the Great Wild Cow.'"
Pyramid Texts, § 388.

"It is my mother the Great Wild Cow, long of plumes, bright of head-cloth, pendulous of breasts, who has lifted me up to the sky, not having left me on Earth, among the gods who have power."

Pyramid Texts, § 1566.

Beside these allusions, the Coffin Texts bring in the theme of Re being alighted on the cow Great Flood (spell 79), whereas in spell 76, the eight Heh gods are mentioned. The latter belong to the local myth of Hermopolis (the city of Thoth). In this tale, the primordial chaos is personified by four gods with their female counterparts (forming together the Ogdoad). The importance of Thoth in the book is also suggestive of a Hermopolitan origin.

literary features

Scholars like Lalouette (1984) and Lichtheim (1975) made partial translations. This habit of separating the mythological narrative about the destruction of mankind from the more eschatological and magical sections, is misleading. Initiated in the XIXth century, it caused the whole book to be identified with its introductory part and assisted a confused interpretation (Budge, 1912/1994).

The different sections do form a whole, albeit a complex one. The overall theme is not the destruction of man, but the fallen nature of the latter and, as a consequence, the establishment of a new world order after Re withdraws to his stellar abode on the back of Nut transformed into the Heavenly Cow. It ends with four magical "spells" enabling the living and the dead to participate in Re's process of renewal.

Rejuvenation is the overall intention of the Ars Obscura of the books of the netherworld, especially the Amduat and the Book of Gates. In the 6th Hour of the night, the midnight mystery occurs, and the Oroboros-serpent "Many Faces" effectuates the renewal of Re. Enclosed by it, Re's corpse returns to the First Time. The corpse of Re (and the image of Osiris) is encircled by the protective womb of a mysterium coniunctionis between the physical cycle of Re and the spiritual power of Atum. Hence forward, the light of Re is rekindled. The body of Khepri encircled by Many Faces is also Re's encounter with himself, which makes him project outside creation and unite with the First Time and with Atum-Kheprer.

The magical spells mentioned in the book are intended for the living and the deceased. Both need to rekindle their energies by participating in the daily renewal of Re for ever and ever.

It is interesting to note that, apart from the use of Middle Egyptian, the directions for its use by non-royals were mindlessly inscribed in New Kingdom royal tombs, and this despite the fact the netherworld books were solely intended for royal tombs. Perhaps the sacerdotal study of the netherworld started earlier ? The Book of the Two Ways, part of the Coffin Texts (spells 1029 to 1185), also suggests this.

  • the literary form : in the critical edition, the text is marked by a metrical structuring of 330 verses. The present reading underlines five parts : (a) the partial destruction of mankind, (b) the inevitable withdrawal of Re and the new world order, (c) the description of the magical representation of Nut as a Heavenly Cow, (d) the completion & rule of the new world order and (e) the section on magic ;

  • the literary aim : the underlying theme of this complex and mysterious text is the withdrawal of Re on the back of Nut as the Heavenly Cow and the subsequent new world order. The destruction of mankind, a classical theme in the Mesopotamian and Biblical narratives of the Flood, invokes the cause of Re's withdrawal, namely human wickedness. The followers of Seth end the Golden Age and make man slaughter man ;

  • the workings of magic : preparing for magic as well as a series of interesting spells and statements about Re's magic persist ;

  • etiological statements : most of the time, the causation of a variety of mythological facts (like the existence of certain deities) is explained by using plays on words (puns) contained in divine quotations preceding each statement. These clever etiologies are part of the development of the narrative and are integral to the myth.

Besides the representation of the Heavenly Cow, the book has two other figures interlaced in the text, acting as supporters of the sky :

supporters of the sky :
Neheh & Djet (left) and Pharaoh
after Maystre, 1941.

These figures represent the ontological and anthropological (political & religious) accommodations of the new world order, to wit : on the one hand, continuous ("djedet") and discontinuous ("neheh") eternity and on the other hand, the rule of Pharaoh, who offers two Sekhem or "power" staves (upper register) and upholds the sky. Note the Was-sceptres carried by the two aspects of eternal time.

supporters of the sky :
Neheh & Djet

shrine I of Tutankhamun
Interior Left Panel - Piankoff, 1955.

Traditionally, the Heh-gods are the avatars of Shu, joining him in the effort to uphold (and guard) the sky (cf. the Heh-gods in the representation of the Heavenly Cow and in Hermopolitan myth). The Egyptian word "HH" was associated with "million" and with the verbs "to search" and "to look for". The god Heh had as consort Hauhet, who was identified with "djet" or "djedet", eternal sameness. The eight Heh-gods refer to the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, identifying Heh with infinity.

Ancient Egyptian Concepts of Time

Phenomenal time of mankind on Earth
moment, instant, small portion of time, the time of the culmination unit of phenomenal time
period, space of time, lifetime, man's age collection of time-units
Eternal time : repetition and duration of the Golden Age
timelessness - First Time, unending repetitions, eternal recurrence - discontinuous Atum-Re, deities & the blessed dead :
Solar, dynamical & cyclic
djet or djedet
no-time, to be permanent, stable, enduring, everlasting, eternal sameness - continuous Nun and the realm of Osiris : static, linear and Lunar

These aspects of eternal or spiritual time join the two-tiered spiritual economy characterizing Ancient Egyptian religion :

  1. IN MEDIO LUNA : the (lower) sky of Osiris : the ultimate state of human blessedness is to live the life of an "Osiris NN" in the vast, silent darkness of the Duat. Eternal sameness, "djet" or "djedet", represented by a goddess, is associated with the Lunar Osiris, because (a) his nocturnal jurisdiction is separated from the diurnal cycle of Re, (b) in the depths of the Duat, the everlasting waters of Nun flow and (c) Osiris exists in continuous darkness (he never leaves the netherworld) ;

  2. IN TERMINIS SOLIS : the (upper) sky of Re : the sky of Osiris and the sky of Re are proximate, and after the highest spirituality of human servitude has been fulfilled in the kingdom of Osiris, the human "Ba" of the deceased is transformed, in the horizon, into a divine "Akh" of Re, sailing, among the other pure beings of light, on the Bark of Re, illuminating day and night. This path of Re is eternal, cyclical and discontinuous, for light and darkness are recurrent. This cycle of birth (in the East), death (in the West) and rebirth at midnight (cf. the Ars Obscura) is represented by the god Neheh.

The new world order is the actual world of history. It had to come into being after Re withdrew to his own place. Elevated by Nut, Re is far removed from the original unity prevailing between him, the deities and mankind. Plotting mankind ended the Golden Age on Earth. Pharaoh, heir of the throne of Geb, and son of Re, subsequently became king of the Two Lands.

In this new order, Re's powers are not diminished and his will still and always prevails. For creation is a work of light and Atum-Re is the originator of all possible light or consciousness. The latter is discontinuous and moves from birth to death to rebirth. At dawn, Re is Khepri, while at dusk, his soul enters the Duat. At midnight, Re is rejuvenated and at dawn, in the Eastern horizon, he is reborn.

In this myth, Nut is the body of the stellar or galactic perspective of "all possibilities". Instead of viewing the night sky as cold and remote, the Egyptians projected envoys to the stars (cf. the shafts in Khufu's pyramid in the context of Old Kingdom funerary beliefs). They regarded themselves as children of Sirius. And they were right, for does the vastness of the universe not reflect the nearly limitless chance of possible expansion ? The sheer possibility of nearly infinite timespace ?

If Nut is the set of all possibilities, then Re "within her" is each and every sparkle of consciousness scintillating in her body, and "elevated" by it. All possibility as witnessed by a singular, unique and original center of consciousness.

2 The Golden Age, human wickedness and divine slaughter.

Egyptian thought exhalts the Golden Age. This is the time of beauty & goodness ("nefer") before iniquity ("isefet") came into being (by the murder of Osiris), before the great battle between Horus and Seth.

In an ontological sense, this excellent sublimity is the precreational, pre-existent First Time ("zep tepi") of Atum and his Ennead. In this timeless and eternal moment at the beginning of time itself, a two-stepped logical order unfolds : (a) Atum self-creates and (b) simultaneously splits into Shu and Tefnut, who engender Geb & Nut, the parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. This Ennead represents the natural equilibrium or symmetry between the forces animating creation, except for Seth, who delivers the symmetry-break by murdering his brother Osiris.

Anthropologically, it involves heavenly existence in the company of the supreme creator-god Atum-Re, achieved by a transformation of "soul" (Ba) into "spirit" (Akh). This luminous, effective state of being anchors Egyptian spirituality as a whole. Projected on the physical plane, Re is the king of a prosperous, united and peaceful Egypt. The gods live on Earth and nowhere has evil yet crushed down its foot.

But as in Eden, mankind rebelled ...

With Seth, murder enters the Ennead. With the human followers of Seth, slaughter became part of history. In the Golden Age, Re, the self-created, was king of men and gods together. But being old, mankind plotted against him ! Apparently, the continuous presence of light, goodness and beauty triggers deception and disruption.

The Biblical motivs of the Fall and the Flood suggest a rupture, a necessary loss of "eternity", forcing mankind to return to the original state of perfection through history. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this cleavage between man and God ensued when the former ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (between good and evil). So history starts when, stripped naked, man, in blood, sweat & tears, has to work for his living. But this is not enough. Divine wrath floods humanity, leaving only a small percentage alife (cf. Noah). The literary parallels are obvious (cf. infra).

Because of its rebellious and plotting intentions, Re, the king of the Golden Age, is upset with mankind. In Egypt, history was symbolized by the battle between Horus and Seth. For the loss of the pristine conditions of the Golden Age was initiated by the murderous deeds of the criminal and the rebel : Seth. This entry of calamity & turbulence is represented by (a) divine might (Seth) and (b) the blind, destructive force of inertia (Apophis). It sets up an abyss between the eternally good past and the uncertain, possibly evil future.

In Pharaoh, being beyond justification, and this for all times (in life as in death), these two royal divine forces are in balance. Hence, he is the sole Lord of the Two Lands, preserving the political peace between Upper and Lower Egypt, and assuring the continuous spiritual communication between the Eastern land of the living (and Re) and the Western land of death & silence (and Osiris). As the only divine spirit on Earth, he invites the deities to send their Bas and Kas (souls & doubles). By this celestial economy, Egypt, as a metaphor of the cosmos, is blessed with a "good Nile", so that life, health & prosperity are guaranteed for everybody (too much or too little flooding spelled disaster). Without Pharaoh, this vital (ka) and operational (ba) balance is lost and the universe, by natural inclination, slowly returns to the undifferentiated darkness of Nun.

Born out of a divine tear falling from the Eye of Re, mankind is to be destroyed by the latter. To say of Re he is a very old god with bones of silver, flesh of gold and hair of lapis lazuli, is perhaps a polite blasphemy. For this is hardly worshipful. Re is fed up and wants to destroy mankind. After consulting with the primeval deities, especially Nun, Hathor is dispatched to inflict severe punishments. Humanity is nearly completely decimated. Moreover, their iniquities make Re too weary to stay with them anyway. This certain departure or the supreme god invites a new world order.

3 The divine holding off, Re's withdrawal & a New World Order.

Strangely enough, after a thorough initial slaughter, Re decides to hold off the carnage ! This ultimate compassion for mankind is striking. Alas, the Eye of Re, alias the goddess Hathor-Sekhmet, carrying out the original command, is not likely to stop ! To overpower them was a balm to the heart of this Powerful One and so, drunk of their blood, she wants to finish the job. To stop his Eye and daughter from completely destroying mankind, Re tricks her into drinking large quantities of red beer. Sekhmet is so drunk that she stops recognizing mankind. He then announces to the deities his decision to no longer remain with gods and men, but to withdraw to the sky where he can live for himself. The sky-goddess Nut transforms herself into a cow, and placing himself on its back, Re proceeded to his palace. The land lay in utter darkness.

Although the surviving humans set out with bows and clubs to punish the remaining evildoers, Re, who's power is in no way diminished by his retreat, rejects them as well as their actions. Utterly disappointed with mankind, he ascends to his palace on the back of the Heavenly Cow. But, as he is no longer there to support the world, the latter has to be reordered ! The first thing done is the creation of the heavens. Planets & stars come into being, and for the benefit of the blessed dead, two fields are prepared : the Field of Offerings, and within it, the fertile Field of Rushes (or Reeds). To further support Nut, who started trembling because of the height and already provided with the millions of stars of the Milky Way, the Infinite Ones or Heh-gods come into being. This organisation of the sky being suggestive of its infinite possibilities and eternal vocation.

the Heavenly Cow
gilded Shrine I of Tutankhamun - interior back panel
 Piankoff, 1955.

Interludium : before calling for Geb and Thoth to finish the reorganization of the world, the author of the book puts in a description of the representation of the Heavenly Cow joining the text. Note the salient points by realizing that two standard representations of Nut exist : (a) a women stretched over the Eastern (feet) & Western (head) horizons and (b) a Heavenly Cow, eating the stars each morning and giving birth to them at twilight. The two images intertwine, for the disappearance of the stars each morning is co-relative with the appearance of Re in the East at dawn (whereas his setting is synchronous with the stars becoming visible again). Indeed, at dusk, the Sun is "eaten" by Nut to be reborn at dawn "from her vulva". The explicit relationship between the Sun as a star of our galaxy and Nut as this Milky Way is pertinent.

"Several scholars have suggested that Egyptian myths were created to explain what early people saw in the sky, for example, that Nut was created to personify the Milky Way. This may be true, as tomb paintings of the Ramesside period (thirtheenth century BC) display stars not only on Nut's body but also alongside it, suggesting that she was sometimes regarded as representing only part of the sky, not the entire canopy." -
Lesko, 1999, p.25.

In the representation above, we see the head of the cow turned towards the West, whereas the Solar barque moves from right to left (from the Eastern horizon right to the Western horizon left). The first barque has Re standing as a worshipping figure. This is the Sektet boat, from noon to dusk, entering the Duat. The second barque shows Re as a seated god. This is the Matet (or Atet) boat, from dawn to noon, leaving the underworld replenished. Each morning, Nut eats the stars and simultaneously gives birth to Re. Each evening, Nut gives birth to the stars and simultaneously eats Re. She is in both heavens, i.e. day and night skies. In this fashion, Nut is the body of stars through which Re sails, realizing the eternity of his recurrent cycle of birth, culmination, depletion and rebirth. Note Shu underneath her belly, assisted by the eight Infinite Ones, two groups of four Heh gods, suggestive of millions of years.

The images of Re on the back of Nut or Re sailing the Milky Way, suggest the complementarity between the point of brilliance & consciousness (Re) and the endless possibilities (Nut) given to the constant & recurrent transformations of luminosity.

To finish his new order, Geb and Thoth are invoked. The first, as Earth god, represents stability, continuity and endurance (he is mostly depicted lying down). The second, a Moon-god, is the divine scribe, the vicar & vizier of Re. He is the divine mind ruling the affairs of the world, the heart of Re (the later "nous" of Hermetism).

The new world order implies a new sky and a new Earth. If the day sky is suggestive of the Earth, the night sky refers to the Duat. Geb is invoked to warn him against the snakes "which are in You". Indeed, these terrestrial and aquatic snakes feared Re when he was still around, and now Re tells Geb to inform Nun to watch over them. Moreover, Geb is to guard against magicians, for if they know their spells, the god Heka is himself therein. Likewise, Thoth is summoned. As Re is going to produce the light of sunshine in the Duat, namely as the Moon of Thoth, the latter is called to write there and calm down the followers of Seth. Thoth brings the peace of the gods. In fact, as vicar & vizier of Re, Thoth encompasses both heavens. He is the "divine mind" left by Re to govern sky, Earth & Duat, to be in Re's place while the latter is in and with his own.

4 To ascend and descend within the sky.

Four spells close the book. After preparing himself, the magic of Re is touched upon. It culminates in a this-life moving up and down the sky. Being Re, the magician sails to his own on the back of the sky as a Heavenly Cow.

The effectiveness of these spells is universal : they can be used by royals and non-royals and deal with life in its totality, i.e. life before and after physical death (the latter triggers the release of the "ka" and the "ba" from the "net" of the body).

In the first spell, the magician protects himself by identifying with Re. In the second, the power of magic is called the "ba" of Re, ruling throughout the whole world. Re is invoked as "Lord of Eternal Recurrence who created Eternal Sameness". The third spell invokes Nut, "to whom Shu extends his arms". In the fourth, the gods Eternal Recurrence and Eternal Sameness are made favorable to the ritualist. Its first part is for the living, while its conclusion is for those who, while heading towards the sky of Re, wish to stay alive in the necropolis and pass the dark realm of Osiris uninjured.

In the conclusion, we read how the scribe who knows the divine words, ascends and descends within the sky ...

5 The Fall, the Flood and the evil world ?

Although the differences between the two cultures are evident, and no direct influence is proposed, the thematic resemblance between some important motifs in Genesis, the first book of the Torah and Revelations, the last book of the New Testament, on the one hand, and the Book of the Heavenly Cow, on the other hand, is striking. Is it possible, as Assmann (1995 & 1999) evidenced in terms of the stories about Akhenaten, Josef and Moses, that the theme and/or subthemes of the book became part of a larger, more popular understream of literary themes & motifs indirectly influencing the mythology of the Judeo-Christian tradition ? We will never know for sure, but cannot exclude this either.

Let us briefly enumerate these few parallels :

  • the Fall of mankind : in Genesis, the Edenic situation of mankind is made clear : he enjoys peace and the presence of God. Likewise, in the Golden Age, man is ruled by Re and the world is not yet as we know it today. The good king lets mankind exist in harmony and the Two Lands are at peace. Moreover, there is no want of anything. Gods and men exist in a unity. Despite this extraordinary situation, rebellion is at hand. Although forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (of the difference between good and evil), Eve tempts Adam to taste its apple, calling upon them the wrath of the Lord. Explicit warnings are not enough ... man has to transgress and suffer. The results are known : God punishes Adam, his family and offspring. God is no longer seen and mankind experiences the barren pain caused by expulsion and rejection. He had to loose what had been given freely and then work hard to get it back. His stupidity is without second and his wisdom the fruit of tremendous suffering and woe, accepted & understood. Likewise, the Egyptians of the Golden Age lack nothing and live in the presence of the Supreme. His light, warmth and generosity surround them. And precisely then, they rebel and become disrespectful of their creator. Re destroys part of them and withdraws. A new order ensues, one in which death and reckoning play an important part ;

  • the Flood : the theme of the Flood adds to the tragedy of mankind. Already expulsed, he apparently forgets his Divine origins and identifies with the physical plane. There, he continues to cause trouble and distress. His iniquities are piled up and form a huge outcry against God's ways. Although witnessing all of this from above (and no longer from he subtle plane of Eden), God is again shocked, appalled, and dismayed. He decides to flood them all, except for a small number, and this to satisfy His compassion. In the Egyptian story, the destruction of mankind is also partial. Re stops the decimation caused by his Eye. He nevertheless remains upset and too weary to remain with mankind. He wants to exist in his palace, a very high place where these humans cannot come, for Re rejects their slaughter ;

  • the evil world : in the Egyptian story, Re had, after his withdrawal, to reorganize the world. In the Golden Age, he was present in the world, but decided to leave it definitively, although without diminishing his power over it. He shapes a world in which evil and death become a given, and sends his vizier, his own mind, to keep the peace. The forces of darkness act as a barrier to keep the wicked out of his realm. Just as Christ was fetched as a Second Adam restoring fallen humanity, Re installs Pharaoh, his son, on the throne of Egypt. The latter co-supports the new order and acts as the guardian of Maat, justice and truth. Without the divine king, wicked humanity would surely be lost.

Notwithstanding the differences, this and other texts (cf. Aten, Ptah and Amun), point to the fact that the quest of the name(s) of God was not limited to the Horeb (ca. 1250 BCE), but was already ongoing in Egyptian culture for thousands of years before, albeit in a henotheistic, ante-rational and naturalist mode. Particularly the Solarification of theology, begun in the IVth Dynasty and continuing its slow, all-encompassing movement, until the New Solar Theology and the short-lived monolith of Amarna, allows one to identify the name of the Great One (God) with Atum (Re), as Hornung (1986) evidenced. That Amarna monotheism and Mosaic theology dawned underneath an Egyptian Sun, should therefore not be viewed as a mere coincidence, although the aniconical and singularly remote stance of the Semitic God remains the outstanding difference.

In conclusion : the ambivalent mentality of God regarding humanity, reflected in The Book of the Heavenly Cow, probably predates it for a millennium, if not longer (cf. the end of the mythical Golden Age and the onset of history and phenomenological time). Hence, ex hypothesis, this divine comedy of God being constantly far-near, was already at play at the beginning of the Pharaonic Age (ca. 3000 BCE - cf. Frankfort, 1979 on divine kingship), if not earlier (beginning ca. 4000 BCE ?).

The Book
of the
Cow of Heaven

ca.1323 BCE

(...) : additions in English
{...} : fragmentary, uncertain or corrupt but restored
(------) : long lacunae or section with a lot of lacunae
(---) : short lacunae or no restoration possible

This translation was inspired by Piankoff (1955), Lichtheim (1976), Hornung (1982) & Simpson (2003), and based on the hieroglyphs of all extant New Kingdom sources (available on the internet).

Etiological statements italicized. Added dialogal structures ("..." and '...'), interpunction and titles in bold.

For a plain version of the text, click here.


Then it came to pass, that the Majesty of Re, who came into being by himself, having been king of mankind and gods, (still) together as a unity, (that) mankind plotted against the person of Re while his Majesty, life, prosperity, health, had grown old, his bones being silver, his flesh gold, his hair of genuine lapis lazuli.

Part 1 : The Destruction of Mankind

the divine council

Now his Majesty had learned about the plot divised against him by mankind. Then his Majesty, life, prosperity, health, said to those who were in his retinue :

"Summon to me my Eye
(1), Shu, Tefnut, Geb, and Nut as well as the fathers and mothers who were with me when I was in Nun, and also the god Nun, bringing his courtiers along with him. (But) bring them secretly, lest mankind see and their hearts flee. Come with them to the Great Palace, so that they may give their council. (For) in the end, I may return to Nun, to the place where I came into being !"

So these gods were brought, and these gods were lined up on his two sides, bowing their heads toward the ground before his Majesty, in order that he might speak his words in front of the father of the eldest (gods), the maker of mankind and king of commoners.

They said to his Majesty :
"Speak to us, so that we may hear it !"

Then Re said to Nun :
"O eldest god in whom I came into being, and You ancestral gods ! Behold, mankind, who came into being from my Eye,
(3) is plotting against me. Tell me what You would do about this, since I am searching. I seek not to slay them before having heard what You might have to say."

The Majesty of Nun replied :
"O my son Re ! God greater than his maker, and more august than his creators, be seated on your throne ! Great is fear of You when your Eye is on those who conspire against You !"

The Majesty of Re said :
"See, they have fled into the desert, their hearts being afraid that I speak to them."

They said to his Majesty :
"Send out your Eye that it may smite them for You, those conspirers of evil ! No Eye is more fit to smite them for You. May it come down as Hathor !"

the divine slaughter held off

(And so) this goddess returned after slaying mankind in the desert, and the Majesty of this god said (to her) :

"Welcome in peace, Hathor, Eye who did what I came for !"

Said the goddess :
"As You live for me, I have overpowered mankind, and it was balm to my heart."

Then the Majesty of Re said :
"I shall have power over them as king !
Hold off diminishing their number !"

And so the Powerful One (Sekhmet) came into being.

divine drunkenness

The beer-mash of the night for she who would wade in their blood as far as Henes.

Re said :
"Summon to me speedy messengers who run like a body's shadow."

These messengers were brought immediately, and the Majesty of this god said :

"Run up to Yebu
(5) and fetch me red ocher in great quantity !"

So this red ocher was brought to him, and the Majesty of this great god ordered the Side-Lock Wearer in On
(6) to grind this red ocher, while maidservants crushed barley for beer. Then the red ocher was added to the beer-mash, and it looked like the blood of men ; seven thousand jars of beer were made. Then the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Re came together with the gods to see this beer.

And when the Earth was light for the killing of mankind by this goddess in her time of traveling South, the Majesty of Re said :

"It is good ! I shall save mankind from her (by it)."

Re said :
"Carry it to the place where she plans to slay mankind."

Re, the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, got up early when it was still night in order to have this sleeping draught poured out. Then the fields were flooded three palms high with the liquid by the might of the Majesty of this god. When the goddess set out in the morning, she found these (fields) inundated, and her face was delighted by it. She drank and it pleased her heart. She returned drunk and failed to recognize mankind.

The Majesty of Re said to this goddess :
"Welcome in peace ! O Beautiful One !"

Thus beautiful women came to be in Imu.

The Majesty of Re said to this goddess :
"Let sleeping draughts be prepared for her on the seasonal feasts of the year, and let this be entrusted to maidservants."

And since this first day, the (custom) came into being that people entrust the preparation of sleeping drinks to maidservants on the Feast of Hathor.

The Majesty of Re said to this goddess :
"Is there a burning pain of sickness ?"

And so respect is bound to come into being through pain.

Part 2 : The Withdrawal of Re

The Majesty of Re said :
"As true as I live, my heart is too weary to remain with them. I wanted to slay them, but did not do it. At present, their small number no longer interests me."

The gods in his retinue said :
"Do not withdraw in your weariness, for You have power over all what You desire."

The Majesty of this god then said to the Majesty of Nun :
"My limbs are feeble as in the First Time. I will not return until another (cycle) overtakes me."

Then the Majesty of Nun said :
"O (my) son Shu, {your} eye shall serve {your} father as protection. O (my) daughter Nut, place him {upon your back}."

Nut replied :
"But how, my father Nun ?"
Nut said : "Do not {be childish}, O Nun !"

{And so} Nut became {a cow}.

Then the Majesty of Re {placed} himself on her back !

the rejection of slaughter

Thereupon these men {came back from their place of flight}, and they saw him on the back of the cow, and they spoke to him :

"(---) we have {come} so that we might overthrow your enemies, who complotted against those who created them."

(But) his Majesty proceeded to {his} palace {on the back} of this cow. He did {not} set off with them ! So the land lay in darkness. And when it dawned in the early morning, these men came out carrying bows and {clubs}, and they {found} a way of shooting at the enemies.

(But) the Majesty of this god said :
"Your baseness be behind You, slaughterers !
May your slaughtering be far removed {from me}."

And so slaughter {originated} among mankind.

Re's ascension and palace among the stars

This god then said to Nut :
"I placed myself on your back to be uplifted."

"What is this ?", asked Nut.

And so {she} came to be there in both the heavens.

The Majesty of this god said :
"Stay far away from them !
Lift me up !
Look at me !"

And so she became the sky.

Then the Majesty of {this} god was visible within her.

She said :
"If only You would provide me with a multitude !"

{And so the Milky Way}
(10) came into being.

His Majesty, life, prosperity, health, said :
"Peaceful is the field here."

And so the Field of Offerings (or Peace) came into being.

"Oh, I shall plant green herbs in it."

And so the Field of Rushes came into being.

"I shall provide them with everything."

And so ever scintilating stars (came into being).

Then Nut started trembling owing to the height.

So the Majesty of Re said :
"lf only I had the Heh gods supporting her !"

And so the Infinite Ones came into being.

The Majesty of Re said :
"O my son Shu, place yourself under my daughter Nut and guard for me the two groups of Infinite Ones who live in the twilight. Place her over your head and nurture her."

And so it came to pass, that a nurse is given to a son or a daughter, and that a father places a son on top of his head.

Part 3 : The Heavenly Cow

This spell is to be recited over the (picture of) a cow, with  "the Infinite Ones who are" (inscribed) on her chest, and over whose back is (inscribed) "the Infinite Ones who are". Whose four hoofs are filled out in paint and upon whose belly are nine stars, issuing from its hindquarters in front of its hind legs, while beneath its belly stands Shu, painted in yellow ocher, his arms support these stars, and inscribed with his name between them, which says "Shu is himself".

A barque, on which are a steering-oar and a shrine with a Solar disk over it and Re in it, is in front of Shu, close to his hand, while another version (of a barque) is behind him, close to his (other) hand. Her two udders are placed in the middle of her left leg, one half of them being drawn in paint in the middle of this hind leg with the following words outside in retrograde : "I am who I am. I will not let them take action." What is (written) beneath the barque that is in front is : "You shall not grow weary, my son." - in retrograde, and as follows : "Your condition is like that of one who lives forever." and as follows : "Your son is in me. Life, prosperity and health be for your nose !"

What is (written) behind Shu, close to his arm, is as follows : "Guard them !" What is behind him at his flank is (written) in retrograde as follows : "It is right that they should enter when I retire each day." What is (written) under the arm of the figure below the left hind leg and behind it is as follows : "Everything is sealed." What is (written) above his head, below the hindquarters of the cow and what is between its hind legs is as follows : "May he come out." What is (written) behind the two figures that are between its hind legs and above their heads : "The aged one is in the realm of the dead. Praise is given to him when he enters." What is (written) over the heads of the two figures that are between its forelegs : "He who procreates, he who adores, support of the sky."

Part 4 : The New World Order

the Earth and the Duat

Then the Majesty of this god said to Thoth :
"Summon to me the Majesty of Geb
(13) saying : 'Come quickly at once !'"

So the Majesty of Geb came.

The Majesty of this god said :
"Take heed of your snakes which are in You ! Behold, they feared me as long as I was there, but You know their magical power. Go then to the place where my father Nun is and tell him to keep watch over terrestrial and aquatic snakes. You are to write down each mound belonging to the snakes there, saying :  'Beware of spoiling anything !' They should know that I am here, for I am shining for them too.
(14) Now as for their habitation, it will exist in this land forever. Also guard against the magical spells which their mouths know, since (the god) Magic is himself therein, as indeed (the god) Knowledge is with You. It will not happen, that being as great as I am, I shall have to keep guard over them as formely. I hand them over to your son Osiris,(15) who will keep watch over the youngest of them and cause the hearts of the oldest of them to forget their magical power. They who are excellent in what pleases them against the whole world, using their magic which is in their bodies."

the divine mind as vicar of Re

The Majesty of this god said then :
"Summon then Thoth
(16) to me."

So he was brought at once, and the Majesty of this god said to Thoth :

"Behold, I am here in the sky in my abode. Since I am going to give light and brilliance in the Duat and on the Island of the Twin Bas,
(17) be a scribe there and calm down those who are there, those whom we created and those who (nevertheless) rebelled. It is You who shall repulse the followers of this (god) with unsatisfied heart.(18) You are to be in my place, my vicar, so it will be said of You : 'Thoth, the vicar of Re.' And I shall cause You to send out those who are greater than You."

And so the Ibis of Thoth came into being.

"And I shall cause You to stretch out your hand in front of the primeval gods, who are greater than You, and my affairs will be good if You do that."

And so the Ibis-bird of Thoth came into being.

"And I shall cause You to encompass the two heavens with your perfection and with your brightness."

And so the Moon of Thoth came into being.

"And I shall cause You to drive back the Hanebu."

And so the Baboon of Thoth came into being and became vizier.

"As long as You are my vicar, the eyes of all who look at You are opened through You, and everyone will praise god for You."

Part 5 : The Magic of Nut and Re

the preparations

(If) a man pronounces this spell over himself, he should be anointed with olive oil and salve, the censer in his hands with incense, natron behind his ears and natron pellets in his mouth, dressed in two fresh linen garments, (put on) after he has bathed himself in flowing water, shod with sandals of white leather. Maat should be painted on his tongue in the green colors of the scribe. If Thoth intends to recite this for Re, he should purify himself with a ninefold purification, three days long. Servants (of the god) and men should do the same. The one who recites this, should carry out this image which is in this book. Then he increases his lifetime doublefold (---) of excess. His eyes will be his, and all his limbs will be his. His steps will not go astray, so that the people say of him : "He is like Re on the day of his birth !" His things cannot be diminished, nor can his gateway crumble. This is a successful method, (proven) a million times !

return to the First Time

Nun was embraced by the Eldest (god)
(20) himself, who said to the gods who came out (with him) in the East of the sky :

"Give praise to the Eldest god,
(21) from whom I came into being ! It is I who made the sky and set {it} in place in order to let the souls of the gods reside in it. I am with them for the eternal recurrence (of time) born through the years. My soul is magic. It is (even) greater than this."

Khnum is the soul of Shu.
Kindness is the soul of eternal recurrence.
Night is the soul of darkness.
Re is the soul of Nun.
The Ram of Mendes is the soul of Osiris.
Crocodiles are the souls of Sobek.
The soul of every god and every goddess is in the snakes.
The soul of Apophis is in the Eastern Mountain, while the soul of Re is in magic thoughout the whole world.

first spell : protection through Re

(What) a man should say in order to make his protection through magic :

"I am this pure magic which is in the mouth and in the body of Re. O gods, You who are far from me. I am Re, the Luminous One !"

second spell : identification with the magic of Re

(What) You should say when You pass by in the evening at twilight :

"Upon your face !
You enemy of Re !
I am his soul, pure magic !"

(and say) :
"O Lord of Eternal Recurrence, who formed Everlastingness, who diminished the years of the gods. When Re comes down, these come out of him every day. Lord of his (own) godliness. Ruler who made his own maker. Beloved one of the fathers of the gods."

third spell : hymn to Nut

A magician, his head being purified, should make a female figure, standing to his South, and draw a goddess upon her, and in the middle of her, a snake standing erect upon its tail, with her hand upon its body and its tail upon the ground.

(He should say) :
"O You, to whom Thoth gives praise, while the dignity of heaven is upon You and toward whom Shu extends his arms, may You save me from those two great and mighty gods who dwell in the East of the sky,
(23) who guard heaven, who guard Earth, and who are with enduring mysteries."

Then they must say :
"How great he is when he goes forth to see Nun !"

fourth spell : ritual of Re

for the living

Words recited by a priest on the first and the fifteenth of the month, in accord with this ancient format. The one who recites this spell shall live in the necropolis, and respect for him shall be greater than (for) those who are upon Earth.

If they ask :
"What are your names ?"

(answer) :
"Eternal Recurrence and Everlastingness !".

Then they are bound to say :
"{Truly} a god !", and to say :
"He has reached us here by this way."

for the dead

(Say) :
"I know the name of that god whose face is that of Hersefu
(25) ! I am he to whom an amulet is attached in the evening. I am Re amid his Ennead, his court made of magic. I pass by uninjured. I belong to the flame, which is the soul of fire. I have no adversaries among men, gods, spirits, among the dead, or in anything in the whole of this land."

Words spoken by these gods who are gone alive. The gods are to be informed, they who have their faces in their hands, (that) he is allowed to pass by on the road.

And so the Flaming One came into being in the sky.

conclusion of the book ?

As for any able scribe who knows the divine words and the spells that are in his mouth, he can ascend and descend within the sky. Those of the West cannot hold him back, nor can the saliva of his mouth become hot. His head cannot be removed by decapitation, nor does he (need to) bend his arms before the tribunal. He shall enter at the head of the spirits together with those who know the spells of the magical formulary. No crime which he may have done upon Earth can be reckoned. He can not be short of donations, nor can the net be prepared for him. If You hand over (these spells) to any prince or to any magistrate, (those) who take care for the one who has no bread, (then) his headcloth need not be removed (before) the elders, (but) they will regard him as leaves (------) One shall not do anything harmful to him or (------)


(1) the "eye" of Re is metaphorically regarded as a being distinct from him ;
the god Nun ;
(3) the theme of mankind as a tear from Re's eye returns in other works of literature (cf. the History of Creation in the Rhind Papyrus) ;
(4) or Heracleopolis ;
(5) ot Elephantine ;
(6) the high priest of Re in Heliopolis ;
(7) a cult place of Hathor in the western Delta ;
(8) Hathor was goddess of the wine ;
(9) restoring "iHw" as "childish weakness" (cf. Simpson) ;
(10) text completely disappeared ;
(11) or "Ihih" stars ;
(12) two groups of four Heh gods (cf. representation of Heavenly Cow) ;
(13) the god of the Earth ;
(14) in Tutankhamun's version we find : "I seal for them ..." ;
(15) the god of the Duat ; 
(16) the divine mind or heart of Re ;
(17) situated in the Duat ;
(18) probably Seth ;
(19) the isles of the Aegean Sea  ;
(20) the god Re ;
(21) the god Nun as addressed by Re ;
(22) soul or Ba as "manifestation of" ;
(23) probably Neheh and Djedet ;
(24) only the version of Tutankhamun after this point ;
(25) the Ram-headed god of Heracleopolis, combining the souls of Re and Osiris.

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initiated : 15 I 2006 - last update : 03 XII 2010 - version n°7

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