Aker, the Egyptian Janus?

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Aker

Aker was an Ancient Egyptian earth and death deity. In several inscriptions, wall paintings and reliefs, Aker was connected to the horizon of the North and the West, forming a mythological bridge between the two horizons with his body.

Aker was first depicted as the torso of a recumbent lion with a widely opened mouth. Later, he was depicted as two recumbent lion torsos merged with each other and still looking away from each other.

From Middle Kingdom onwards Aker appears as a pair of twin lions, one named Duaj (meaning “yesterday”) and the other Sefer (meaning “tomorrow”). Aker was thus often titled “He who’s looking forward and behind”.

When depicted as a lion pair, a hieroglyphic sign for “horizon” (two merged mountains) and a sun disc was put between the lions; the lions were sitting back-on-back. In later times, Aker can also appear as two merged torsos of recumbent sphinxes with human heads.

Aker was first described as one of the earth gods guarding the “gate to the yonder site”. He protected the deceased king against the three demonic snakes Hemtet, Iqeru and Jagw. By “encircling” (i.e. interring) the deceased king, Aker sealed the deceased away from the poisonous breath of the snake demons.

Another earth deity, who joined and promoted Aker’s work, was Geb, the Egyptian god of the Earth. Thus, Aker was connected with Geb. Aker carries the nocturnal bark of Ra. During his journey, in which Aker is asked to hide the body of the dead Osiris beneath his womb, Aker is protected by the god Geb.

In the Heliopolitan Ennead (a group of nine gods created in the beginning by the one god Atum or Ra), Geb is the husband of Nut, the sky or visible daytime and nightly firmament, the son of the earlier primordial elements Tefnut (moisture) and Shu (’emptiness’), and the father to the four lesser gods of the system – Osiris, Seth, Isis and Nephthys.

In this context, Geb was believed to have originally been engaged with Nut and had to be separated from her by Shu, god of the air. Consequently, in mythological depictions, Geb was shown as a man reclining, sometimes with his phallus still pointed towards Nut. Geb and Nut together formed the permanent boundary between the primeval waters and the newly created world.

In other spells and prayers, Aker is connected with Seth, a god of chaos, the desert, storms, disorder, violence, and foreigners in ancient Egyptian religion, and even determined with the Seth animal. This is interesting, because Seth is described as a wind deity, not as an earth deity.

In the famous Coffin Texts of Middle Kingdom period, Aker replaces the god Kherty, becoming now the “ferryman of Ra in his nocturnal bark”. Aker protects the sun god during his nocturnal travelling through the underworld caverns.

In the famous Book of the Dead, Aker also “gives birth” to the god Khepri, the young, rising sun in shape of a scarab beetle who represents the rising or morning sun, and by extension, the creation and the renewal of life, after Aker has carried Khepri’s sarcophagus safely through the underworld caverns.

Khepri is derived from Egyptian language verb ḫpr, meaning “develop”, “come into being”, or “create”. The god was connected with the scarab beetle (ḫprr in Egyptian), because the scarab rolls balls of dung across the ground, an act that the Egyptians saw as a symbol of the forces that move the sun across the sky. Khepri was thus a solar deity.

Young dung beetles, having been laid as eggs within the dung ball, emerge from it fully formed. Therefore, Khepri also represented creation and rebirth, and he was specifically connected with the rising sun and the mythical creation of the world.

There was no cult devoted to Khepri, and he was largely subordinate to the greater sun god Ra. Often, Khepri and another solar deity, Atum, were seen as aspects of Ra: Khepri was the morning sun, Ra was the midday sun, and Atum was the sun in the evening.

Certain sarcophagus texts from the tombs of Ramesses IV, Djedkhonsuiusankh and Pediamenopet describe how the sun god Ra travels through the underworld “like Apophis going through the belly of Aker after Apophis was cut by Seth”. In this case, Aker seems to be some kind of representation of the underworld itself.

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