The Book of the Heavenly Cow

Andrew Fulton investigates the ancient Egyptian myth that tells how humanity was saved by red-coloured beer.


Inscribed on the walls of several key tombs in the Valley of the Kings is the so-called Book of the Heavenly Cow, sometimes known as The Destruction of Mankind. The most famous inscription (but not the complete version) is on the outer golden shrine of Tutankhamun in KV62, more specifically on the interior left and back panels. The book is also inscribed on the walls of a room next to the sarcophagus chamber in the tombs of Sety I, his son Ramesses II, and Ramesses III, but these are more complete versions compared with that in KV62, and fill all four walls of the chambers. Ramesses VI’s tomb has a reduced version in a niche on the third corridor. There is a papyrus extract in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, which originates from Deir el-Medina, and part of a wall relief (probably from Sety I’s tomb) in the Musée Lapidaire in Avignon.

The Book of the Heavenly Cow scene from KV17, the Tomb of Sety I. Image: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikicommons

The book itself can be divided into two main parts. The first relates to the destruction of mankind by Hathor, and Ra’s role in deceiving her, and thus avoiding the complete annihilation of humanity. The second half moves on from that episode to reveal the reordering of the cosmos by Ra as a result of human iniquity. The more complete version in Sety’s tomb also contains various ritual instructions and three vignettes.

The Book of the Heavenly Cow scene inside a replica of Tutankhamun’s outer shrine, from the exhibition Tutankhamun: His Tomb and Treasures. Image: Sarah Griffiths (SG)

The destruction of mankind

‘The Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ra’

In detail, the myth begins with a prelude in which the self-generated Ra is described as being king of both humanity and the gods. Interestingly, he is addressed in a cartouche at one point as the ‘king of Upper and Lower Egypt’ (nswt-bity). This is unusual if not unique.

But mankind plotted against Ra at a time when he had grown old, and ‘his bones were like electrum, his flesh was like gold, and his hair was like lapis lazuli’. He calls together his council of gods (the Eye, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, and in particular Nun, the goddess of the primordial waters at creation). He tells them that humanity is plotting against him, but does not want to slay the people until he has heard their views. They respond by asking Ra to send down his Eye as Hathor (the alter ego of Sekhmet) to kill them.

Hathor comes back later to say she had slaughtered the people in the hills. The goddess describes herself as wading in their blood. This seems to frighten Ra, who wants her to stop. He calls for red ochre from Yebu (Elephantine) to be ground up by the high priest in Heliopolis, and for barley for beer to be crushed by maidservants, to concoct a mixture that resembles the blood of men. The end result was 7,000 jars of beer. Next morning, the goddess travels south to continue the slaughter and finds the fields covered in red beer. Hathor drinks the beer, believing it to be human blood. She returns drunk, and is clearly now unable to complete the total destruction of mankind. She is welcomed back in peace by Ra.

The heavens are created

Tutankhamun’s necklace with a faience Wadjet eye representing the Eye of Ra. The Eye in the form of Hathor was sent sent down to earth to destroy humanity, according to the Book of the Heavenly Cow. Image: SG

Ra now decides to leave the Earth, presumably despairing of humanity. He is placed on the back of Nut, the Heavenly Cow, and ascends to his palace in the stars. A reordering of the world is now necessary, which enables him to distance himself from the previous slaughter. Nut becomes the sky, and is provided with the stars. Two ‘fields’ are created – the ‘Field of Offerings’ and the ‘Field of Reeds’, which are for the blessed dead.

Nut is nervous and trembles about how high up she is, so Ra arranges for the eight Heh gods to support her. At this point a vignette is shown of the Heavenly Cow, Nut. The eight gods are depicted holding her legs, with the larger-scale god Shu (god of the air) supporting her belly. There are two solar barques travelling across under her belly: one shows the sun god Ra standing on board; the other is positioned under her udders, with Ra being seated in a cabin. The Heh gods are the ‘Infinite Ones’ – the hieroglyph itself means ‘millions of years’.

Jobs for the gods

A statue of Hathor, one of the goddesses associated with the Eye of Ra. She was tricked into believing that red-coloured beer was human blood, and became too drunk to continue her destruction of humanity. Image: Robert B Partridge (RBP)

Now that the skies have been established, the earth god Geb is summoned and told to ask Nun to watch over land and water snakes. He is told to guard against magicians, too. Thoth is summoned to act as a scribe and calm down those he created and those who rebelled. Thoth has to repulse the followers of the ‘This’ god (presumably meaning Set), while Ra produces the light of sunshine in the Duat (Underworld). Thoth is also to encompass the two heavens as the moon (while Ra is absent at night), with ‘his brightness and perfection’. Finally he is to act as Ra’s vizier (in the form of a baboon). So it is a busy time for Thoth in his various guises – ibis, baboon, and moon.

The final section of the book concerns the power of magic and the various animals that are the souls (bas) of other deities. For instance, crocodiles are the souls of Sobek, and Khnum is the soul of Shu. Ra himself is the soul of Nun, from whom he came into being.

The book concludes with four spells. The first is to ensure the protection of humanity through the magic of Ra. The second concerns identification with the magic of Ra. The third is a hymn to Nut, which involves a magician who makes a female figure surrounded by a snake standing up on its own tail, who is invoked by Ra to save him from the two gods who live in the east of the sky and who guard heaven and earth. The fourth concerns the words to be recited on the 1st and 15th days of the month for both the living and the dead.

Interspersed within the text are two other vignettes. One shows the two gods of eternity supporting the sky: Neheh (‘Time’, who is male) and Djet (‘Eternity’, who is female). The other vignette depicts the pharaoh supporting the sky, and in one scene holding the hieroglyph representing the sceptre of power.

The conclusion of the book is lost, and the last part is known only from KV62.

The Book of the Heavenly Cow myth on a fragment of papyrus from the Turin Museum. Image: Museo Egizio, Turin

What does it mean?

The pectoral of the Middle Kingdom princess Sithathoryunet. At the centre, below the cartouche of Senusret II, is the hieroglyph heh, representing ‘millions of years’. Image: Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0, via Wikicommons

It is interesting to see that the sun god could grow old and be vulnerable to a human rebellion. Indeed, the book could have been written originally at a time of rebellion, perhaps during the early part of the Middle Kingdom or Second Intermediate Period, to show that the gods wished to destroy mankind because of the unrest. It explains that evil comes not from the gods, but from humans. It hints, too, that the rebels are led by Set (even though Sety is named after him). The reordering of the world is therefore necessary in order to separate Ra from the world of humans, and enable his restoration, travelling through the night sky.

A sketch by Alexandre Piankoff of the scene inside Tutankhamun’s outer golden shrine, depicting Nut the sky goddess as the Heavenly Cow, supported by Shu and the eight Heh gods, with Ra in his solar boat alongside her forelegs. Image: Les Chapelles de Tout-ankh-amon (1952), fig.6

The story of the beer mash is mysterious, but thought by some to represent the five epagomenal days at the end of the Egyptian year, just prior to the start of the Nile flood, with the red-coloured beer being the silt that comes downstream with the waters. This may be the origin of the Festival of Drunkeness, which took place on the first day of the inundation season to commemorate Hathor’s return from her killing spree, and humanity’s salvation through beer.

A scene from the ceiling at the Temple of Dendera with representations of the eight Heh gods (the Ogdoad) on the left-hand side. Image: Paul Robinson

The allusion to the eight Heh gods suggests a derivation of the myth from Hermopolis (the Ogdoad version of the creation myth) and, in particular, the role of Thoth in illuminating the night sky. The gods are described as manifesting themselves (their souls or bas) through the various physical aspects of the universe, such as the air and the stars and the night sky, but that (mysteriously) the soul of all gods and goddesses is in the snakes. The soul of Ra is described as being in magic throughout the whole world that gives protection to humans.

Thoth in his ibis-headed human form at the Temple of Ramesses II at Abydos. Thoth was closely allied to Ra, with ‘his brightness and perfection’ lighting the sky while Ra was absent at night. Image: RBP
A facsimile of one of the wall scenes in KV62, showing the deceased Tutankhamun with his ba and ka. To the right of the cartouche are the names of the two gods of eternity, Djet (above) and Neheh (below). This is from the exhibition Tutankhamun: His Tomb and Treasures. Image: SG
The Epic of Atrahasis,inscribed in cuneiform, from the British Museum. The Babylonian myth has similarities with the Egyptian Book of the Heavenly Cow narrative. Image: Jack (1956), public domain via Wikicommons

Similar texts

We can see the similarities with other ancient tales and myths regarding the Fall of Man, such as in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis (Chapter 3). Adam and Eve eat from the one forbidden tree, having been beguiled by the serpent, who assured them that they would become like the gods, knowing good and evil. Chapters 6 to 8 cover the story of Noah, in which God saw the ‘wickedness of men’, that the ‘earth was filled with violence’, and sought to destroy them all. But he saved Noah and his family because he was just and ‘walked with God’.

Similarly the Epic of Atrahasis, a Babylonian myth, tells of how the gods decide to kill off mortals because there are too many, and they are too noisy. So the gods send droughts leading to famine and pestilence. Ultimately, they send a massive flood, but Atrahasis and his ark are saved. The Egyptian myth is thought to have been composed before these two other myths, so may have inspired them.

There are similarities with other texts, such as the Hymn to Ra in the Instruction of Khety to Merykara from the First Intermediate Period. It refers to Ra shining in the sky for the sake of humanity, and slaying his foes when they think of making rebellion. The myth of the Heavenly Cow is also alluded to in the Pyramid Texts, where paragraph 1566 (Utterance 582) states ‘the Great Wild Cow… has lifted me up to the sky, not having left me on earth, among the gods who have power’.

A lithograph illustration of the Bible story of Noah’s Ark by Currier and Ives. The Bible story may have been influenced by the far older Egyptian Book of the Heavenly Cow. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain via Wikicommons

A ritual myth

The book is clearly part of a royal funerary ritual, as it is only seen in royal tombs of the New Kingdom. The reordering of the cosmos brings about the daily cycle of the sun and moon (day and night), with the sun god moving westwards in his boat towards the Duat. The implication is that Nut gives birth each morning to Ra. Other funerary texts, such as the Amduat, describe how Ra travels through the 12 hours of darkness, defeating Apep (Apophis) to emerge at dawn in the eastern sky.

The sixth hour of the Amduat, from the Papyrus of Naskhem at the Queen’s Gallery in London. The text describes how Ra travels through the 12 hours of darkness to be born from Nut each morning. Image: SG.

Therefore it is necessary to emphasise the ritual nature of the Heavenly Cow myth, related mainly to royal funerary rites and the divine aspects of the deceased king. It reminds us perhaps of the Opet Festival rituals, whereby the creator god Amun-Ra of Karnak is regenerated at Luxor in secret ceremonies, and the cosmos restored. The Egyptians no doubt related such need for renewal with the agricultural cycle, and the importance of the Nile flood in restoring the land. We can ourselves make comparisons with modern concerns related to the vagaries of the weather/climate and the current extremes being experienced in many countries.

Andrew Fulton studied Theology at the University of Cambridge and holds the University of Manchester’s Certificate in Egyptology. He is a regular contributor to AE magazine, including articles covering the early Roman Period (AE 128-129), the Opet Festival (AE 112), and Biblical pharaohs (AE 90).

Further reading:

  • E Hornung (1999) The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, trans. D Lorton (New York: Cornell University Press).