Remove ads - become a member


published on 02 September 2009
Nile Delta (Jacques Descloitres (NASA))

The world’s longest river, located in Egypt, the Nile flows 4,132 miles (6,650 kilometres) northward to the Mediterranean Sea (a very unusual direction for a river to take). The Nile flows from two separate sources: the White Nile from equatorial Africa and the Blue Nile from the Abyssinian highlands. The historian Waterson notes, "The Nile has played a vital part in the creation of Egypt, a process which started about five million years ago when the river began to flow northwards into Egypt" (7-8). Permanent settlements gradually rose along the banks of the river beginning c. 5200 BCE and this was the beginning of Egyptian civilization and culture which became the world's first recognizable nation state by 3100 BCE. As the Nile River was considered the source of all life, many of the most important myths of the Egyptians concern the Nile or make significant mention of it.

Among the most popular tales in ancient Egypt concerning the Nile is that of the god Osiris and his betrayal and murder by his brother-god Set. Set was jealous of Osiris' power and popularity and so tricked him into laying down inside an elaborate coffin (sarcophagus) pretending he would give it as a gift to the one who fit into it the best. Once Osiris was inside, Set slammed the lid down and threw Osiris into the Nile River. Osiris' wife, Isis, went searching for her husband's body in order to give it proper burial and, after looking in many places, came upon some children playing by the Nile who told her where she could find the coffin. From this story comes the ancient belief of the Egyptians that children possessed the gift of divination as they were able to tell the goddess something which she could not discover herself. Isis found the coffin encased in a tree at Byblos and brought her husband's corpse back to Egypt. Set, however, hearing that Isis was searching for Osiris, went looking for the body himself. He came upon it at a moment when Isis had left it alone, hacked the corpse into pieces, and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis again went in search of her husband's remains and, wherever she found a piece of him, she buried it according to the proper rituals and erected a shrine. This accounts for the many tombs of Osiris throughout ancient Egypt. She managed to find and bury every part of him except for his penis which Set had thrown into the Nile and which had been eaten by a crocodile (it is for this reason the crocodile came to be associated with the god of fertility, Sobek, and anyone eaten by a crocodile was considered fortunate in a happy death). Since he was incomplete, Osiris could not return to life but became Lord of the Afterlife and Judge of the Dead. The Nile, which had recieved Osiris' penis, was made fertile because of this and gave life to the people of the land. Osiris' son, Horus, avenged his father by defeating Set and casting him out of the land (in some versions of the tale, killing him) and so restored balance and order to the region.

The Nile was held up to the ancient people as the source of all life in Egypt and an integral part of the lives of the gods.

Through this myth and others like it the Nile was held up to the ancient people as the source of all life in Egypt and an integral part of the lives of the gods. The Milky Way was considered a celestial mirror of the Nile and it was believed the sun god Ra drove his ship across it. The gods were intimately involved in the lives of the ancient Egyptians and it was believed that they caused the river’s annual floods which deposited the fertile black soil along the arid banks. According to some myths, it was Isis who taught the people the skills of agriculture (in others, it is Osiris) and, in time, the people would develop canals, irrigation, and sophisticated systems to work the land. The Nile was also an important recreational resource for the Egyptians.

Ancient Egypt

Besides swimming, the people enjoyed water jousting in which two-man teams in canoes, a `fighter' and a `rower', would compete trying to knock each other's fighter out of the boat. Another popular river sport was boat racing and displays of skill such as were described by the Roman playwright Seneca the Younger (1st century CE) who owned land in Egypt:

The people embark [on the Nile] on small boats, two to a boat, and one rows while the other bails out water. Then they are violently tossed about in the raging rapids. At length they reach the narrower channels and, swept along by the whole force of the river, they control the rushing boat by hand and plunge head downward to the great terror of the onlookers. You would believe sorrowfully that by now they were drowned and overwhelmed by such a mass of water, when far from the place where they fell, they shoot out as from a catapult, still sailing, and the subsiding wave does not submerge them, but carries them on to smooth waters.

The river became known as the “Father of Life” and the “Mother of All Men” and was considered a manifestation of the god Hapi, who blessed the land with life, as well as with the goddess Ma’at, who embodied the concepts of truth, harmony, and balance. The Nile was also linked to the ancient goddesses Hathor and, later, as noted, with Isis and Osiris. The Nile river remains an integral part of Egyptian life, lore and commerce today and it is said by the Egyptians that, should a visitor once look upon the beauty of the Nile, the return of that visitor to Egypt is assured (a claim made, also, in antiquity). Seneca described the Nile as an amazing wonder and a "remarkable spectacle" and this is an opinion shared by many ancient writers who visited this “mother of all men” of Egypt; a view shared by many who experience it even today.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

Help us write more

We're a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Each article costs us about $50 in history books as source material, plus editing and server costs. You can help us create even more free articles for as little as $5 per month, and we'll give you an ad-free experience to thank you! Become a Member

Share This

Cite this work

Help us write more

For as little as $5 per month you can support our work and get an ad-free reading experience! Become a Member


Remove ads - become a member
Add Event


Visual Timeline
  • c. 5200 BCE
    Nile River Valley first inhabited.
  • 3150 BCE - 2686 BCE
    Early Dynastic period in Egypt. First Pharaos.
  • 2630 BCE
    First pyramid is built at Saqqara, Egypt.
  • 2575 BCE - 2134 BCE
    The Old Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 2550 BCE - 2528 BCE
    The Great Pyramid is constructed by Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops).
  • 2055 BCE - 1650 BCE
    The Middle Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1800 BCE
    Bronze working introduced to Egypt.
  • 1600 BCE
    Founding of the kingdom of Kush, Nubia.
  • 1550 BCE - 1069 BCE
    The New Kingdom of Egypt.
  • 1504 BCE - 1492 BCE
    Egyptian empire reaches greatest extent under Tuthmosis I.
  • 1500 BCE
    Egyptian empire extends to the Euphrates.
  • 1180 BCE
    The Sea Peoples begin increased incursions into Egypt.
  • 800 BCE
    Nubian capital of Meroƫ is founded.
  • 750 BCE
    Iron working is introduced to Egypt.
  • 712 BCE - 671 BCE
    Egypt is ruled by the Kushite dynasty.
  • 525 BCE - 404 BCE
  • 520 BCE
    Darius of Persia links the Nile and the Red Sea by a canal.

AHE Greeting Cards @Etsy


Remove ads - become a member

Nile Books



Remove ads - become a member


Our latest articles delivered to your inbox, once a week:


Remove ads - become a member