Literally translating as “That Water”, the name Tefnut has been linked to the verb ‘tfn’ meaning ‘to spit’ and versions of the creation myth say that Ra (or Atum) spat her out and her name was written as a mouth spitting in late texts.
Like most Egyptian deities, including her brother, Tefnut has no single ideograph or symbol. Her name in hieroglyphics consists of four single phonogram symbols t-f-n-t. Although the n phonogram is a representation of waves on the surface of water, it was never used as an ideogram or determinative for the word water (mw), or for anything associated with water.
Tefnut is a daughter of the solar deity Ra–Atum. Married to her twin brother Shu, she is mother of Nut, the sky and Geb, the earth. Tefnut’s grandchildren were Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and, in some versions, Horus the Elder. She was also the great-grandmother of Horus the Younger. Alongside her father, brother, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild, she is a member of the Ennead of Heliopolis.
In the Heliopolitan creation myth, Atum sneezed to produce Tefnut and Shu. Pyramid Text 527 says, “Atum was creative in that he proceeded to sneeze while in Heliopolis. And brother and sister were born – that is Shu and Tefnut.”
In some versions of this myth, Atum also spits out his saliva, which forms the act of procreation. This version contain a play on words, the tef sound which forms the first syllable of the name Tefnut also constitutes a word meaning “to spit” or “to expectorate”.
The Coffin Texts contain references to Shu being sneezed out by Atum from his nose, and Tefnut being spat out like saliva. The Bremner-Rind Papyrus and the Memphite Theology describe Atum as sneezing out saliva to form the twins.
Tefnut is a leonine deity, and appears as human with a lioness head when depicted as part of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis. The other frequent depiction is as a lioness, but Tefnut can also be depicted as fully human. In her fully or semi anthropomorphic form, she is depicted wearing a wig, topped either with a uraeus serpent, or a uraeus and solar disk, and she is sometimes depicted as a lion headed serpent. Her face is sometimes used in a double headed form with that of her brother Shu on collar counterpoises.
During the 18th and 19th Dynasties, particularly during the Amarna period, Tefnut was depicted in human form wearing a low flat headdress, topped with sprouting plants. Akhenaten‘s mother, Tiye was depicted wearing a similar headdress, and identifying with Hathor-Tefnut. The iconic blue crown of Nefertiti is thought by archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley to be derived from Tiye’s headdress, and may indicate that she was also identifying with Tefnut.
Heliopolis and Leontopolis (now ell el-Muqdam) were the primary cult centres. At Heliopolis, Tefnut was one of the members of that city’s great Ennead, and is referred to in relation to the purification of the wabet (priest) as part of the temple rite. Here she had a sanctuary called the Lower Menset.
I have ascended to you
with the Great One behind me
and [my] purity before me:
I have passed by Tefnut,
even while Tefnut was purifying me,
and indeed I am a priest, the son of a priest in this temple.”— Papyrus Berlin 3055
Tefnut was connected with other leonine goddesses as the Eye of Ra. As a lioness she could display a wrathful aspect and is said to have escaped to Nubia in a rage, from where she was brought back by Thoth. In the earlier Pyramid Texts she is said to produce pure waters from her vagina
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