03. September 2021

A splashing elephant as Nile origin A splashing elephant as Nile origin

Ludwig D. Morenz of the University of Bonn describes how the island of Elephantine got its name

The Greek historian Herodotus described the fertile land in Egypt as a "gift of the Nile". The Nile made life in the desert possible in the first place, and people have also dealt with it culturally for thousands of years. The island Elephantine is located at the mythological place of origin of the river Nile. Why was it associated in ancient Egypt with the image of an elephant splashing water? In his new book, Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz, an Egyptologist at the University of Bonn, combines the answer to this question with other findings from the region near Aswan.

Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz
Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz - in the Egyptian Museum of the University of Bonn. To his right is the hieroglyph for the Nile island Elephantine: above an elephant and below symbolically a mountain range. © Photo: Volker Lannert/University of Bonn
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Although the people of ancient Egypt knew from practical experience that the Nile came to them from further afield, they maintained the notion that its actual origin lay in Egypt itself - and in the very south, in the cataract region near Aswan, where there are shallow stretches and rapids as well as rocky islands, among them Elephantine. "This Nile island was conceived in Pharaonic cultural thinking as the significant place of origin of the Nile," says Egyptologist Prof. Dr. Ludwig Morenz of the University of Bonn. "The water, which at first almost disappears in the cataract between the rocks and then reappears further north at Elephantine, probably exerted a special fascination."

Like an elephant in the water

The name Elephantine is the Greek translation of the Egyptian word for elephant. There are several approaches to the naming. Morenz seems to have found the first conclusive explanation. It consists in the core of two elements, one aims at the appearance of an elephant, the other at its behavior. According to Morenz, when looking at Elephantine from a certain angle, one can think of an elephant standing in water, of which especially the head is visible. The elephant scene is completed by the idea that an elephant is at work in the disappearing and reappearing water: it sucks in the water with its trunk in the south and sprays it out again over its head to the back, i.e. north. Morenz: "The island probably got its name via these pictorial ideas that people developed at that time."

To be able to associate rock formations and water movements with elephants, one must have seen the animals in action before. That continued in southern Egypt until the middle of the fourth millennium. After that they disappeared from the region in the course of the climate change at that time. This also helps to narrow down the time when the island got its name.

While the natural phenomenon was initially described with a pictorial metaphor, from the third millennium onwards the local inhabitants interpreted the whirling and gushing and also the Nile flooding, which was so beneficial for agriculture, as the work of deities - namely Chnum, Satet and Anuket. "We see that the natural phenomenon was gradually sacralized," says Morenz, who is also a member of the Cluster of Excellence Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies (BCDSS) at the University of Bonn. Wondering about the origins of the river Nile became the region's culturally meaningful myth-making machine for centuries, he says.

It took two thousand years until this order of interpretation began to falter. The radiance of Chnum, for his followers fertility god and personified Nile flood, seemed to diminish. In the region near Aswan, too, more and more believers gave preference to the god Osiris. To supposedly prove the existence and power of Chnum, his followers invented a historical incident. It is written down on a stone tablet, which stands on a neighboring island of Elephantine.

An invented proof of God

Here it is described how Chnum, at the request of a king, let the Nile overflow its banks so that the fields could be irrigated and a famine could come to an end. The text pretends to have been written in stone at the time of this event - but this is not true. This happened only centuries later. There is agreement among experts about this ancient forgery. The Egyptologist of the University of Bonn now adds further observations. One example: a horizontal crack runs through the rock slab, which is probably meant to look as if it was added long after it was completed. In fact, the crack was already there. "The inscription pretends to be old. The hieroglyphics above and below the crack look like they have slipped, but they are very legible. So clever scribes of the Ptolemaic period wrote around the crack to make their new inscription appear to be an ancient one from a distant past."

According to Morenz, the landscape in ancient Egypt was more important for the general shaping of culture and also for specific developments in the symbolic and sacred system than has been assumed in research to date. The landscape at Elephantine could be considered a crown witness for this, he said. "At the same time, it is clear from this mythological place of origin of the Nile that the river has a double, interwoven meaning: As a natural river that is a lifeline for the entire region, and as a cultural river that has inspired people to interpret and attribute meaning since time immemorial."

Publication: Ludwig D. Morenz: Nil-Fragen im Blick auf die Flussinseln Elephantine und Sehel. Von altenmytho-poetischen Sinnzuschreibungen an die Assuaner Kataraktlandschaft bis hin zu einer erfundenen Tradition, EB-Verlag Dr. Brandt, Berlin 2021, 107 S., 22,80 Euro

Media contact:

Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz
University of Bonn
Department of Egyptology
Tel. 0228/735733
E-mail: lmorenz@uni-bonn.de

Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz
Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz - reflecting in a showcase of the Egyptian Museum of the University of Bonn. To his right is the hieroglyph for the Nile island of Elephantine: an elephant at the top and symbolically a mountain range at the bottom. © Photo: Volker Lannert/University of Bonn
Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz
Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz - in the Egyptian Museum of the University of Bonn. © Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn
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