Atum (alternatively spelled Tem, Temu, Tum, and Atem) is an important deity in Egyptian mythology, whose cult centred on the city of Heliopolis. His name is thought to be derived from the word ‘tem’ which means to complete or finish. Thus he has been interpreted as being the ‘complete one’ and also the finisher of the world, which he returns to watery chaos at the end of the creative cycle. As creator he was seen as the underlying substance of the world, the deities and all things being made of his flesh or alternatively being his ka.
Atum is one of the most important and frequently mentioned deities from earliest times, as evidenced by his prominence in the Pyramid Texts, where he is portrayed as both a creator and father to the king. He is usually depicted as a man wearing either the royal head-cloth or the dual white and red crown of Upper Egypt, and Lower Egypt, reinforcing his connection with kingship. Sometimes he also is shown as a serpent, the form which he returns to at the end of the creative cycle and also occasionally as a mongoose, lion, bull, lizard, or ape.
In the Heliopolitan creation myth established in the sixth dynasty, he was considered to be the first god, having created himself, sitting on a mound (benben) (or identified with the mound itself), from the primordial waters (Nu). Early myths state that Atum created the god Shu and goddess Tefnut from spitting or from his semen by masturbation in the city of Annu (the Egyptian name for Heliopolis), a belief strongly associated with Atum’s nature as a hermaphrodite (hence his name meaning completeness).