Moving along the portrait gallery in the boardroom corridor of the gods, we come next to a family group. Here they are:
Atum, the creator of the world, founder of the family firm known as the Nine Gods or Ennead, and his twin offspring, his son Shu and his daughter Tefnut. That’s Atum at the front, but you know that because you can read his name in hieroglyphs in front of him. The scribe who wrote this papyrus has stuck an extra hieroglyph in at the end – the quail chick which, as we know from Osiris’ titulary was pronounced w, making him (A)tmu, but that won’t have fooled you. Nor will the rather stick-figure version of the seated god determinative. You can still see his beard sticking out and his knees sticking up. That’s Atum, all right, and in any case he’s wearing the double crown of the Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.
That’s Shu sitting right behind him. We’ll take a look at his name later. Let me tell you a bit about him, first. We already know that he is the motherless product of self-assisted conception. There is another story about his origins, though. Some priests and scribes put it about that Atum sneezed him into existence – more of an atchoo! than a Shu. Indeed, the name Shu is closely related to the Egyptian word for a sneeze. So, basically, according to some people at the time, Shu grew out of a bit of snot. But hasn’t he done well? Some people prefer to translate the name as “he who rises up”.
Shu was both Atum’s heir and his air. Having made the earth rise up and separate from the water, Atum decided he needed to let some air into the place. He created Shu to be the god of air. It’s difficult to draw air, so the ancient Egyptians represented it by drawing a feather, and a glamorous ostrich plume (or two or three or four) was Shu’s favourite headdress. He’s wearing it in this picture. Snot with feathers on. If that reminds you of any of your non-executive directors, who am I to argue? You be the judge.
You may think that an air god must have been a pretty insubstantial character, but Shu’s very flimsiness was at the same time his greatest asset. He represented the space between earth and sky (we’ll come back to this later) which let the sun shine in. One of the reasons that Atum created Shu was so that he could see all the other things he’d created.
Because he had this important role in channeling the sun, Shu was a close associate of the sun god in his various forms. One of his responsibilities was to bring the sun to life every morning, and, like his Dad Atum, he did his bit to protect the sun from attack by the serpent Apophis. As the air god, it was Shu who enabled the solar barque to rise up and sail across the sky.
Shu was certainly the light of Atum’s life. Atum was very proud of his son. To him, Shu was life itself, and it was only after Shu was born that Atum truly found his voice and began to speak and have a dialogue with the universe. Shu was therefore a very powerful driver of Atum’s creative enterprise, his reason to carry on.
Atum even took the lad into the firm and, in due course, when the staff complement had grown a bit, sent him on errands, sorting out problems with the other gods. Shu was an obvious choice for this kind of work; as the air god, he was everywhere at once and knew where everyone else was, so didn’t actually have to go anywhere. However, some of these tasks were pretty stretching, and Shu did not always manage to carry them out. His Dad tended to send him to find goddesses who’d run away or got lost, and talk them into coming back. When it was a particularly aggressive goddess who’d gone on the rampage, got drunk and run away, for example, he wasn’t quite up to the job.
Nevertheless, Shu rose steadily up the ranks of the administration of his father’s new enterprise, and was credited with instituting the capital cities of the administration. In due course, the old man decided he was going to retire, and handed over his throne to Shu. Atum did not leave the company; he stayed around and kept an eye on it, but Shu was now running the show.
Shu’s term in the Managing Director’s chair started in peace, as Atum’s whole term of office had been. At some point, though – and this episode of company history is pretty obscure – hostile forces from the edge of creation tried to lead a revolution. Shu’s divine palace on earth was sacked by the enemy, as though a whole lot of enraged graphic designers had trashed the top floor corner office. Shu had to bring them to heel and kick them out.
This episode shows that Shu was not all sweetness and light. In fact, there are scenes of the netherworld which show him as the gangmaster of a band of torturers threatening the deceased person in a fiery region of hell from which there is no escape. But then, if you’re toiling away in the boiler room in the company basement, that may well be how you regard one or more of your board members.
Finally, Shu seems to have had a reputation for being able to relieve himself with ease. For the Egyptians, being able to defecate like Shu was a highly desirable quality. Excrement and the air god; the original stuff that hit the fan.