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Apep beheaded by the Sun god Ra in his form as Mau, or as his daughter, the cat-goddess Bastet, in defense of the Tree of Life; detail from a papyrus by Hunefer, a 19th Dynasty Egyptian scribe and steward to Pharaoh Seti I, circa 1275 BCE, now in the British Museum

Apep, also known as Apepi, Aapep, or Apophis, is an Egyptian reptile deity associated with chaos, disorder, darkness, earthquakes, thunder, storms, and death and is the enemy of light and truth. He is known by many epithets -- “the evil lizard,” “the encircler of the world,” “the serpent of rebirth,” and simply “the enemy.” He is not worshipped; rather he is hated and feared for his efforts to return the world to the unity of the primordial darkness that existed prior to creation. He does not require nourishment to sustain him, and he can never be destroyed, only temporarily defeated. Although he has always existed, the first known mentions of Apep are found during the Eighth Dynasty of Egypt in the early 22nd century BCE. Many religious practices and ceremonies have been developed to counter his evil influence on the world, performed by priests nightly for protection and for the victory of light over darkness as it spread across the land. Another rite, performed annually presumably on the shortest day of the year, involved the priests of Ra building an effigy of Apep and imbuing it with all the evil and darkness extant in Egypt. Having constructed it, they beat it, crushed it, poured mud over it, and burned it to protect the world from Apep’s power for another year.

Apep’s nature places him in direct opposition to the goddess of order, Maat, and he is the greatest enemy of the Sun god Ra. Surviving texts, including the Book of the Dead, from the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history -- approximately 2000-1650 BCE – describe his adversarial position towards his enemies and the battles that ensued. One of the most popular stories shares the never-ending battle between Apep and Ra, stating that Apep lays in waiting just below the horizon in a western mountain for Ra to begin his nightly descent to the underworld. At the pivotal moment when the Sun sets and the light meets the dark, Apep attacks Ra, his frightening roar causing the underworld to rumble. With the assistance of his travel companion, the god Set, Ra defeats Apep and returns to the skies every morning. Another famous tale comes from Spell 17 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, telling the story of how the great cat Mau attacks Apophis with a knife, dismembering him. Mau is a personification of Ra, but in some tales, it is Ra's daughter, the brave and fertile cat-goddess Bastet, who is tasked with guarding the Tree of Life that holds the secrets of immortality and divine knowledge and it is she who slays the snake god.

Apep is understood to be the ultimate force of evil in Egyptian theology. He is depicted in a serpentine form of immense size, most frequently as a snake measuring sixteen meters long, with tightly compressed coils and a head made of hard rock or flint. He is generally painted black and white, but also may appear as yellow and black. Some less-common depictions show him as an immense lizard or large crocodile. He may also be seen in the act of attempting to harm Ra, or being beheaded by the knife-wielding cat Mau or Bastet.


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