𓆙 Kmēf (Kamēphis, Knēph)

Category: Frameworks > Egypt

1 Introduction

Egypt in the Roman imperial period was a pervasively bilingual and bicultural land, where Greek and Egyptian culture both suffused each other and developed many parallelisms:

  • The goddess Isis broke into mainstream Greek religion early on, and spread throughout the Ancient Mediterranean.
  • The appeal of Osiris was more limited among non-Egyptians, but the new Greco-Egyptian figure of Sarapis (who was regarded as being the same as him) became immensely popular among Greek-speakers.
  • The iconography and worship of Dionysus, albeit sometimes identified with Osiris, became successively more popular in its Greek form independently of any preexisting local cult.
  • Greek Hermes and Egyptian Thōouth were widely recognized as a single god.
  • Imhotep was understood as an Asclepius, but not necessarily the same as the Greek.

So, where does our god, Kmēf, fit into this complicated landscape? Let us begin to answer the question by exploring the permutations of his name.

2 The name Kmēf

𓆎 (Gardiner I6, crocodile hide with spines) = km = ‘to complete’. (Also km, ‘black’; Horapollon, Hieroglyphica 1.70: “When they want to express darkness, they depict the tail of a crocodile”.)
𓄁 (F3, hippopotamus head) = ꜣt = ‘time’
𓏏 (X1, loaf of bread) = t = reinforcing the second consonant of ꜣt
𓇳 (N5, sun disk) = determinative for time (ꜣt)
𓆑 (I9, horned viper) = f = third person masculine suffic
𓆙 (I14, snake) = determinative for serpents (Kmēf being a serpent god)

The god’s name is composed of the verb km, ‘to complete’, the noun ꜣt, ‘time’, and the third person masculine suffix –f; taken together, km-ꜣt=f means ‘he who has completed his time’. How this may have been vocalized, I do not know (the Egyptological vocalization ‘Kematef’ is purely conventional, and is not meant to represent the ancient pronunciation), but it is clear that the consonants and t were eventually dropped in pronunciation.

Thus, in Coptic (the last stage of the Egyptian language), its pronunciation was evidently Kmēf, which can easily be written in ordinary Greek letters (Κμηφ Kmēph), but is phonologically impermissible in Greek for two reasons. Firstly, only a few consonants are allowed at the end of a word, preferably in the form of a declinable ending, and –f or –ph is not among them; but this rule can be broken for loanwords. Secondly, km– violates the phonotactic rules of Greek much in the way that pt– does those of English. In other words, monolingual Greek-speakers would have found Kmēph very nearly unpronounceable, and would have tended to simply the initial consonant cluster, as English-speakers drop the p– in Ptolemy or approximate pt– by saying something like “Puh-Tolemy“.

Unlike with the name Ptolemy, however, which has only a single English pronunciation recognized as correct, it is clear that no standardized Greek form of the name Kmēf emerged. Instead, different authors use varying approximations of the Coptic, while the Egyptian language remained the primary frame of reference.

The following Greek forms are known to me:

  • Κμήφ (Kmḗph) is found largely in magical texts, which are uniquely permissive of phonologically unusual words, and which were often used by ritual experts bilingual in Coptic and Greek.
  • Κμηφις (Kmēphis, accentuation unknown) is the same form with the addition of a Greek ending; it is found in the same kind of contexts.
  • Κνήφ (Knḗph) changes the impermissible Km– to permissible Kn-. Used by Plutarch and Porphyry, who are keenly interested in non-Greek lore but also good Greek style.
  • Κνηφις (Knēphis, accentuation unknown) is used in the Greek version of the Oracle of the Potter, originally composed in Demotic Egyptian.
  • Μηφις (Kmēphis, accentuation unknown) is a variant used in copies of the Oracle of the Potter, perhaps a mistake, but motivated by the same phonological restrictions as other variations
  • Καμῆφις (Kamêphis) or Καμηφίς (Kamēphís) solves the problem in another way, by inserting an epenthetic vowel into the cluster Km-.
  • Ημηφ (Ēmḗph) is found in Iamblichus’ Response to Porphyry. it is clearly a mistake for Κμηφ (Kmḗph), probably made by some copyist, but it is motivated by the same restrictions as the deliberate variants.

[Note that these forms, despite superficial similarities, are all unrelated to Kamutef (eg. kꜣ-mw.t=f), Khnum (ẖnmw, gr. Knoûphis), or Knemet (knmt, gr. Khnoúbios, Khnoumís, and similar forms).]

Since (as we will see momentarily), Kmēf is often another name for Amoun, who was widely familiar to the Greeks and worshipped as Zeus Ammōn in mainland Greece already in the classical period, the choice of some authors to use this markedly non-Greek name may be seen as a conscious sign of marked Egyptianness and a choice against Hellenization.

On the other hand, it may simply be a case of change within Egyptian-speaking communities, such that Kmēf in Coptic was increasingly seen as a proper name, and Egyptians carrying this over into Greek-language conversation as a matter of course. In that case, we would simply be observing the simultaneous presence of an older and a more recent layer of Egyptian culture both borrowed into Greek, with the older already well-digested and acculturated (as Zeus Ammōn), the newer not so much.

We must also note the translation of his name as Agathos Daemon, which is formally good Greek, but conceptually relates more to a specifically Greco-Egyptian articulation of him as a serpent god (like Kmēf) than it does to the Agathos Daemon traditions of mainland Greece. See his page and below, section 5.

3 Greek sources about Amoun-Kmēf

According to Plutarch, “all other (regions of Egypt) contribute to the burials of the venerated animals, and only those who inhabit the Thebaid give nothing, because they do not believe in any mortal god, but the one whom they call Knēph, who is unoriginated and immortal” (On Isis and Osiris 395d).

This would seem to refer to the god Amoun, highly venerated in Thebes; that impression is confirmed by the iconography described by Porphyry, which belongs to Amoun:

“The demiurge, whom the Egyptians call Knēph, is anthropomorphic, having dark blue color, holding life¹ and a scepter, and wearing a royal wing on his head.

“(This signifies) that reason² is hard to find, hidden away and not visible,³ that it is vivific (‘life-producing’),⁴ that it is king,⁵ and that it is moved intellectively; for that (last) reason, the nature (phýsis) of the wing is placed on the head.

“They say that this god issues forth an egg from his mouth, from which (another) god was born, whom they call Phtha, but the Greeks Hephaestus.⁷ And they explain the egg as the cosmos” (quoted in Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.45).

File:Amun post Amarna.svg
Iconography of Amoun, by Jeff Dahl (Wikimedia Commons)

Notes on Porphyry:

  1. The transmitted text is zṓnē, ‘girdle’, but a more accurate description would be zōḗ, ‘life’, i.e., the symbol ☥, called ankh or ‘life’ in Egyptian.
  2. Lógos, represented by the human shape (cf. Pseudo-Plutarch, On Homer and elsewhere); here it means not so much human rationality as the demiurgic intellect and the rational pattern of creation by which the cosmos is ordered.
  3. All this is indicated by the dark color; perhaps also by the name Amoun, ‘the hidden’?
  4. Represented by the ankh.
  5. Indicated by the scepter.
  6. The head represents intellect or mind (noûs) and motion by a wing, so the demiurge’s mental motion is depicted as a wing upon the head.
  7. On Phtha, see the quotation from Iamblichus just following. Porphyry accentuates Φθᾶ, Iamblichus Φθά.

Porphyry’s student Iamblichus has a different schema, where Kmēf and Amoun feature independently, derived from a lost work of Hermes, and interpreted in line with his own interpretation of Platonic philosophy: “By another order, (Hermes) places Kmēph ahead as leader of the celestial (or ‘supercelestial’[?], epouránioi) gods; he says he is an Intellect (noûn) thinking itself (autòn heautòn nooûnta) and reverting his intellections (noḗseis) upon himself.

“Before him, he places the undivided One and what he calls the first birth (maíeuma), which he denominates Īktōn¹ (Eiktṓn); and in him is the first thinking (nooûn) and the first intelligible (noētón), which is worshipped only by silence.

“After these,² other rulers have been set over the demiurgy of manifest beings. For the demiurgic intellect, who presides over truth and wisdom, is called Amoun in the Egyptian language insofar as he comes toward origination (génesis) and brings the unmanifest power of the hidden patterns into light;³ insofar as he perfects all things truly and artfully, he is truthfully Phtha – while the Greeks, who have changed Phtha into Hephaestus, assign him only to the arts;⁴ but insofar as he is productive of good things, he is called Osiris, and he has other bynames on account of other powers and activities.”⁵

Notes on Iamblichus:

  1. Or Hīktōn (Heiktṓn), if he is to be equated with Hik (copt. ϩⲓⲕ, earlier ḥkꜣ, conventionally called Heka). But I do not know how the –t– is to be accounted for if he is. It has also been proposed that he is the primeval god Irita, but k for r is again hard to explain.
  2. After the One, the first Intelligible Hīktōn, and the self-thinking Intellect Kmēph.
  3. ‘Unmanifest’ and ‘hidden’ are translations for the name Amoun.
  4. Phthá is the Greek adaptation of Ptah (copt. ⲡⲧⲁϩ, earlier ptḥ), a god who is consistently identified as Hephaestus in Greek. Iamblichus is exaggerating in saying that the Greeks make Hephaestus only an overseer of arts/craft; he had been interpreted as the demiurge for a long time before him.
  5. Compare this to the Hibis Invocation Hymn which “addresses AmunRe by way of his ten secret names or manifestations (bꜣ.w)” (David Klotz, Adoration of the Ram. Five Hymns to Amun-Re from Hibis Temple, p. 14). These manifestations or Ba’s include the “Ba of Osiris” (p. 29). Or compare these passages from the Hibis Hymn to the Ba’s of Amun: “You are Amun, / you are Atum, / you are Khepri, / you are Re. / Sole one who made himself into millions, / Tatenen who came about in the beginning” (p. 54); “You are Amun, / you are Atum, you are Osiris” (p. 57).

4 Hermes and Damascius on ‘Kamēphis’

The form Kamēphis (with different accentuations, see section 2) occurs in two texts, one being the Korē Kosmou, a work ascribed to Hermes, the other a Neoplatonic work of metaphysics, in a passage summarizing the theology of two Egyptian philosophers, the brothers Heraïscus and Asclepiades (see Damascius on the Barbarian Theogonies). While the Korē Kosmou cannot be securely dated, the two philosophers worked in the 5th entury, after the end of hieroglyphic literacy; nevertheless, they were firmly rooted in Egyptian tradition, and seem to have introduced their own innovations within it.

In the Korē Kosmou, we do not hear very much about Kamēphis, except that he is “forefather” and “eldest of all”, and that he was taught about the origins of the cosmos by Hermes and himself taught Isis, who in turn is teaching the contents of the work to her son Horus. As such, he is not the oldest of all things in an absolute sense, and plays no role in the cosmogony, but is the eldest of the genealogy of those gods among whom Hermes, Isis and Horus are classed.

In Heraïscus and Asclepiades, he plays a more fundamental metaphysical role, as (a) the fourth entity after the One (which they call the unknowable Darkness) and after Water and Sand, and (b) as being himself threefold, a grandfather, father and son Kamēphis, the last of whom is the Sun. These three constitute the Intelligible, reaching back higher in the metaphysical order than even in Iamblichus. Unfortunately, we do not know how they continued their theology after Kamēphis-Hēlios, but we might be able to connect him to Amoun (see Notes on Iamblichus above).

5 Kmēf as serpentine Agathos Daemon

[prophecy of the potter: Knêphis or Mêphis
Philo in Eusebius
Kmêph and Knêph in PGM, magical inscriptions, etc

6 A dream of Kmēf


7 Egyptian sources

[km-A.t=f in AAEW.BBAW; link]