Mother Goddess Tefnut and a Morality Tale: The Lion in Search of Man

Goddess Tefnut was one of the original Ennead and in the various versions of creation she was the first Mother. Even though she was not as popular as her daughter Nut, or her granddaughter Aset (Isis), the Egyptians knew that without her Egypt would descend into chaos. In fact, they equated her with Ma’at.

Tefnut was thought to have been the upset goddess (in addition to Sekhmet) who ran off into Nubia, taking all of her water and moisture with her. Egypt soon dried, and the land was in chaos. Meanwhile, in Nubia Tefnut turned herself into a lioness and went on a killing spree in her anger at her father (Re), from whom she had fled.

Tefnut was both the Left (moon) and the Right (sun) Eyes of Re, representing both heavenly sources of light that the ancient Egyptians saw, and thus she was a goddess of both the sun and dryness, and the moon and moisture.

There is a story in the Leiden Papyrus known as The Myth of the Eye of the Sun which tells how Tefnut quarreled with her father, left Egypt and settled in Nubia. Re asked Thoth, the counselor and mediator among the gods, to appease the angry goddess and bring her back.

Tefnut at first resisted Thoth’s gentle persuasion which then led to lengthy discussions during which Thoth told her several animal fables, allegories, each designed to give moral lessons. Eventually, the goddess relented and on the journey back to Egypt, Thoth continued to entertain her with fables.

Animal fables may have been popular in Egypt since the New Kingdom, since there are illustrated papyri dated to the New Kingdom which depict animals acting in human situations, such as festivities, labors, and combats.

The fable of The Lion in Search of Man is especially remarkable, because here the Egyptian stepped outside of themselves, looked at man, and found them to be evil. The final part of this fable predates a shorter and similar version in the Fables of Aesop.

There was a lion on the mountain who was mighty in strength and was good at hunting. The small game of the mountains knew fear and terror of him. One day it happened that he met a panther whose fur was stripped, whose skin was torn, who was half dead and half alive because of his wounds. The lion said: “How did you get in this condition? Who scraped your fur and stripped your skin?” The panther said: “It was man.” The lion said to him: “Man, what is that?” The panther said to him: “There is no one more cunning than man. May you not fall into the hands of man!”  The lion be came enraged against man. He ran away from the panther in order to search for man.

The lion then encountered a team yoked so that one bit was in the mouth of a horse, the other bit was in the mouth of a donkey.
The lion said to them: “Who is he who has done this to YOU?”  They said: ” It is man, our master.” He said to them: “Is man stronger than you?” They said: “Our lord, there is no one more cunning than man. May you not fall into the hand of man!”
The lion became enraged against man and he ran away from them.

The same happened to him with an ox and a cow whose horns were clipped, whose noses were pierced, and whose heads were roped. He questioned them; they told him the same.

And so the same happened with a bear whose claws had been removed and whose teeth had been pulled. He asked the bear: “Is man stronger than you?” He said: “That is the truth. I had a man servant who prepared my food. He said to me: ‘Truly, your claws stick out from your flesh, you cannot pick up food with them. Your teeth protrude and do not let the food reach your mouth . Release me, and I will cause you to pick up twice as much food!’ When I released him, he removed my claws and my teeth. I have no food and no strength without them! He threw sand in my eyes and ran away from me.”
The lion became further enraged against man. He ran away from the bear in order to search for man.

He then met a lion who was tied to a tree of the desert, the trunk being closed over his paw, and he was very distressed because he could not run away. The lion said to him: “How did you get into this evil condition? Who is he who did this to you?” The lion said to him: “It is man! Beware, do not trust him! Man is bad. Do not fall in to the hand of man! I had said to man: ‘What work do you do?’ He said to me: ‘My work is giving old age. I can make for you an amulet, so that you will never die. Come, I will cut a tree for you and place it on your body as an amulet, so that you will never die.’ I went with him. He came to this tree of the mountain, sawed it, and said to me: ‘Stretch out your paw.’ I put my paw between tree trunk and he closed it upon my paw. When he had ascertained of me that my paw was fastened so that I could not run after him, he threw sand into my eyes and ran away from me.”
Then the lion laughed and said: “Man, if you should fall into my hand, I shall give you the pain that you inflicted on my companions on the mountain!”

As the lion was walking in search of man, there strayed into his paw a little mouse, small in size, tiny in shape. When he was about to crush him, the mouse said to him: “Do not crush me, my lord the lion! If you eat me you will not be sated. If you release me you will not hunger for me either. If you give me my breath as a gift, I shall give you your own breath of life as a gift. If you spare me from your destruction, I shall make you escape from your misfortune.” The lion laughed at the mouse and said: “What is it that you could do in fact? Is there anyone on earth who would attack me?” But the mouse swore an oath before him, saying: “I shall make you escape from your misfortune on your bad day!”

Now although the lion considered the words of the mouse as a joke, he reflected, “If I eat him I shall indeed not be sated,” and he released the mouse.
And it happened that there was a huntsman with a net who set traps and had dug a pit before the lion. The lion fell into the pit and fell into the hand of man. He was placed in the net, he was bound with dry leather straps and he was tied with raw straps. Now as he lay suffering on the mountain, in the seventh hour of the night, Fate (Shai) wished to make his joke come true, because of the boastful words that the lion had spoken, and made the little mouse stand before the lion. The mouse said to him: “Do you recognize me? I am the little mouse to whom you gave his breath of life as a gift. 1 have come in order to repay you for it today, and to rescue you from your misfortune since you are suffering. It is beautiful to do good to him who does it in turn.”
Then the mouse set his mouth to the fetters of the lion. He cut the dry straps; he gnawed through all the raw straps with which he had been bound, and released the lion from his fetters.

Thereafter the mouse hid himself in the lion’s mane, and they went off together to the mountain.


Pages 17/9- 18/34 of the Leiden papyrus
Lichtheim, Miriam, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III: The Late Period. Vol. 3. Univ of California Press, 2006. p. 156-159