Shu (Su) was the god of light and air and as such personified the wind and the earth’s atmosphere. As the god of light he represented illuminated the primordial darkness and marked the separation between day and night and between the world of the living and the world of the dead. As the god of air, he represented the space between the earth and the heavens, and gave the breath of life to all living creatures. As a god of the wind, sailors invoked him to provide the good wind to power their boats. The clouds were considered to be his bones, and he supported the ladder by which the deceased souls could reach the heavens.
Shu was one of the Ennead of Heliopolis, and the first to be created by the self created god Atum who created him from his own spittle. He was the husband and brother of Tefnut (moisture), and father of the Nut (sky) and Geb (earth). It was thought that his children were infatuated with each other, and remained locked in a perpetual embrace. Shu intervened and held Nut (the sky) above him separating her from his son Geb (the earth). Thus Shu created the atmosphere which allowed life to flourish. Four pillars located at the cardinal points of the world helped Shu maintain the separation of earth and sky, and were known as the “Pillars of Shu”.
Although he embodied light, and so had a solar aspect, he was not strictly a solar deity. However, he was closely connected to the sun god, Ra (or Atum). He protected the sun god from the snake-demon Apep as he travelled through the underworld or the night sky, and brought the sun to life every morning.
He was also thought to be the second divine pharaoh, ruling after Ra. However, Apep’s followers plotted his downfall and launched a vicious attack against the divine Pharaoh. Although Shu defeated Apep and his minions, he became gravely ill from the contact with the corrupt entities. In his weakened state even his own son Geb turned against him, and so Shu abdicated the throne leaving Geb to rule in his place. He returned to the skies to protect the sun and to wage his daily battle with Apep. However, (in common with many of the protective deities) he had a darker side. He attended the judgement of each dead soul in the Halls of Ma´at (order or justice) and lead the terrifying demons who punished the souls deemed to be corrupt.
His name is thought to be derived from the word for dryness “shu”, the root of words such as “dry”, “parched”, “withered”, “sunlight” and “empty”. However, it is also proposed that his name means “He who Rises Up”.
He was generally depicted as a man wearing a headdress composed of ostrich feathers carrying a Was sceptre (representing power) and an Ankh (representing the breath of life). Alternatively, he wore a headdress of a single ostrich feather (like that of Ma´at) which represented the breath of life. Occasionally, he wore a sun disk on his head due to his connection with the sun god. His skin was often painted black, possibly to represent his connection with Nubia or to emphasise his role in the rebirth of the sun god. He is commonly shown standing on the body of Geb with his arms raised to support Nut. When he is linked with his wife Tefnut, he often appears as a lion and the two were known as the “twin lion gods”. Less often he is given the hind parts of a lion and the body and head of a man.
In one myth, Shu and Tefnut went to explore the waters of Nun. Ra missed them dreadfully and believed that they were lost to him, so he sent his “Eye” to find them. When they returned, Ra wept, and created the first humans from his tears. Another myth states that the “Eye of Ra” (in this case Tefnut) left for Nubia following a dispute with Ra. Thoth and Shu were sent to persuade her to return so that she could protect her father. When he successfully persuaded her to return, Shu was married to Tefnut. Because of this he was closely associated with the hunter god Anuhur (meaning “he who brings back the distant one”) whose wife Menhet (who was also depicted as a lioness) also disappeared to Nubia and had to be brought home again.
Shu was also identified with a fairly obscure Meroitic god named “Ari-hes-nefer” (or Arensnuphis to the Greeks) who also took the form of a lion. The Egyptian and Nubian kings often had themselves depicted as Shu, as the first born of the sun god and a divine ruler.
There is no record of any temple specifically dedicated to Shu, but he was respected and revered all over Egypt. At Iunet (Dendera), though, there was a part of the city known as “The House of Shu” (shw-w-ntr) and at Djeba (Utes-Hor, Behde, Edfu) there was a place known as “The Seat of Shu” (shw-w) and he was worshiped in connection with the Ennead at Iunu. His main sanctuary was in Nay-ta-hut (now known as tell el-Yahudiya, or the mound of the Jews) where he and his wife Tefnut were worshipped in their leonine forms. The Greeks renamed the city Leontopolis because of their popularity in the area. A local creation myth stated that they first took form as a pair of lion cubs and grew into the two lions that guarded the eastern and western borders (linking Shu and Tefnut with Aker). In this form Shu and Tefnut often appeared on headrests to protect the owner as they slept (such as the ivory example from the tomb of Tutankhamun).
During the “Aten heresy” led by Akhenaten, Shu and Tefnut remained popular with the apparently monotheistic Pharaoh. The Pharaoh and his queen (Nefertiti) were depicted as the personification of Shu and Tefnut emphasising their divinity. As the Aten represented the sun disk, the solar aspect of Shu and his link with the Pharaoh apparently prevented Shu from being proscribed along with Amun and the other gods.
- Budge, E Wallis (1904) The Gods of the Egyptians
- Goodenough, Simon (1997) Egyptian Mythology
- Pinch, Geraldine (2002) Handbook Egyptian Mythology
- Redford Donald B (2002) Ancient Gods Speak
- Watterson, Barbara (1996) Gods of Ancient Egypt
- Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003) The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt
copyright J Hill 2016