Part 8 (1/2)

and how are we to account for it? The Egyptians themselves, and the ancient writers who turned their attention to Egypt, accounted for it by a variety of theories; and various theories are still held on the subject. We can only enumerate the ones. (1) The beasts were wors.h.i.+pped for their qualities, as is said to have been the case in Peru before the Incas (chapter vi.); each was reverenced for that divine excellence or virtue which appeared to be manifestly resident in it. Thus the dog was wors.h.i.+pped for his watchfulness and faithfulness; the hawk for its darting flight through the upper air, like the flas.h.i.+ng of the sunlight or of the sun-G.o.d himself; the cow as a great kind mother; the beetle for that wonderful procedure in the reproduction of his kind, in which he so strikingly brings life out of decay. (2) The beasts are not wors.h.i.+pped themselves; they are only the emblems of the deities with whom they are connected, and it is the deity who is wors.h.i.+pped, not the animal. This may be quite true of later practice, but is by no means a satisfactory explanation of its origin; for how was it arranged, and who was it that ordained at first, that the jackal should be the emblem of Anubis, the cat of Bast, the crocodile of Sebak, and so on? (3) Various mythological and quasi-historical accounts of the origin of the practice are given, such as that men long ago chose different animals for their standards in war, or that some early king, wis.h.i.+ng to keep his subjects disunited, ordered that each nome should serve a different animal. It is also told as a story of early times that the G.o.ds when they walked on earth a.s.sumed the forms of various animals; thus the G.o.ds are still in the animals. The G.o.ds hid in the beasts in order to be near men and see how they did. But men found them out and wors.h.i.+pped them in the disguise they had a.s.sumed. (4) The G.o.ds cannot be present in the world and cannot be satisfactorily wors.h.i.+pped unless they have bodies to dwell in--that is involved in Egyptian psychology; and as the G.o.ds would be too much alike if they all occupied human bodies, they chose the bodies of different animals.

These theories of animal wors.h.i.+p are evidently later inventions, to account for a state of matters the real origin of which was not known. Philosophical priests could not accommodate themselves to the animal wors.h.i.+p of the temples without a doctrine to justify it to their minds. But those who resorted to such theories about animal wors.h.i.+p could have nothing to do with calling the system into existence. We may be sure that a refined and cultivated people did not take up animal wors.h.i.+p and cling to it, in spite of its repulsive features, with such tenacity as the Egyptians did, because of a speculative idea of the likeness of certain beasts to certain G.o.ds, or to express pantheistic views of the emanations of deity in animal forms. The system, in fact, cannot have sprung up after the Egyptians became civilised, and could not continue to exist among a civilised people, if it was not hallowed by an immemorial antiquity. Only as a mystery, a thing of which the origin was not known, could such a wors.h.i.+p continue among such a people.

A new explanation of Egyptian animal wors.h.i.+p has been put forward in recent times by the Anthropological school of students of religion,[3] and is rapidly gaining ground. The religious circ.u.mstances of Egypt as narrated by Juvenal and Diodorus have the strongest resemblance to the totemistic state of society described above (chapter iv.). Here, as in Peru before the Incas, or among the North American Indians of to-day, we have a number of communities each with its special sacred animal, which it does not eat, but reverences and defends. Other traces of totemistic arrangements may be suspected here and there in Egyptian observances, but even did the a.n.a.logy extend no further than to the facts just mentioned, there would be a case for considering whether the nomes were not first peopled by a set of totemistic clans, who, even after they were united in one people, preserved their early separate traditions. The sacred animals of the nomes would then be ”the totems of the clans which first settled in these localities.” Later developments of religion never displaced these venerable emblems, if this be so, of tribal life.[4]

[Footnote 3: See A. Lang, _Myth, Ritual, and Religion_, Second Edition. Frazer's _Totemism_. Most of the modern Egyptologists incline to the theory that animal wors.h.i.+p, though not the only, was one of the chief sources of Egyptian religion. Pietschmann first took up this ground.]

[Footnote 4: Compare the wors.h.i.+p of animals in Babylonia, chapter vii.]


A very different set of G.o.ds are those made known to us by the monuments and books. It is the problem of this religion to explain how, along with the sacred animal, the cat or ibis or crocodile, there was wors.h.i.+pped in the Egyptian temple the celestial being, the G.o.d of heaven or of the sun, whose nature is light, who is righteous and good, and who more and more fills the mind of the wors.h.i.+pper with n.o.ble adoration, and leads him towards the high truths of theism. These high G.o.ds of Egypt were represented, as we have seen, from the earliest times of which we have any knowledge, under animal forms. As far back as we can see, Hathor is a cow, and Horus a hawk, and Anubis a jackal. Did beast wors.h.i.+p spring by a process of degradation from the wors.h.i.+p of the high G.o.ds? We have seen how difficult it is to maintain such a view. Did the higher wors.h.i.+p then spring by a process of development out of the lower?

That also would be hard to prove, for the high G.o.ds of Egypt are not beasts, however magnified and spiritualised, but beings of a different order; they are the sky, the sun, the moon, the dawn. And as in our opening chapters we saw reason to believe that the wors.h.i.+p of the great powers of nature is an original thing with early man, and explains itself without being derived from lower forms of religion, so we must judge with regard to Egypt too. Even if some of the great G.o.ds came from Mesopotamia, that helps us but little to understand their history after they arrived in Egypt. In this field also we are driven to recognise two religions, different in nature and of independent origin, existing side by side, and seeking to come to terms with each other; and the combination of the two is a process in Egyptian religion which took place before the period of which we have knowledge. It is prehistoric.

It was formerly considered that the nature-G.o.ds of Egypt had very little mythology connected with them; only one considerable story of their doings was known; most of them had no history beyond the few phrases applied by primitive thought to the great natural phenomena to qualify them to be regarded as living and active beings. But as more inscriptions are read, more divine myths are coming to light, and further discoveries of the same kind may be still in store for us. These different myths, however, are formed after the same pattern. The great G.o.ds of Egypt are simple beings and easy to understand, and they were never formed into an organised system like the G.o.ds of Greece, but remain in separate dynasties or families, and are very like each other. Many of them are sun-G.o.ds, or G.o.ds of the morning and evening, and their stories cannot differ very widely from each other, but they belong to different districts of the country; that is what const.i.tutes their difference from each other, and keeps them separate.

The Great G.o.ds also are Local.--The nature-G.o.d as well as the animal-G.o.d was wors.h.i.+pped in his own nome, where he dwelt in the midst of his own community of wors.h.i.+ppers; he was not recognised in other nomes unless there were special reasons for it. But at the earliest period of our knowledge of Egypt this simple early arrangement has already undergone many modifications. Each nome has its own special deity. Set is the G.o.d of Oxyrhynchus, Neith of Sais, but more G.o.ds than one are wors.h.i.+pped in each nome. Generally there are three; in many places there is an ennead, a nine of G.o.ds, but the nine is a round number; there might be one or two less or more. The G.o.d of a nome which had risen to a commanding position extended his influence beyond his own nome, and came to share the temples of other G.o.ds, so that he was at home in a number of places. Ra is said to have fourteen persons--that is, fourteen views of his person have been developed in so many different districts. But if one G.o.d could thus be divided into several, the converse also took place; two or more G.o.ds were combined, by the simple addition of their names together, to form a new G.o.d. We have Ra-harmachis, Amon-ra, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, and some even more elaborately compounded deities.

Thus there was a constant tendency to the production of new deities; even the attempts to combine existing deities only add to the number.

No attempt in the direction of a system of G.o.ds had any success; local deities could not be suppressed; the nomes retained their separate deities and religious establishments to the end. There never was a religious organisation of Egypt generally; a priest could in some cases pa.s.s from the religion of one nome to that of another, but there was never a high priest of Egypt as a whole, however much a king might wish to organise all the wors.h.i.+ps of the country in one system. This local character of the Egyptian high G.o.ds was a source of weakness in these great beings, and never ceased to check their upward movement.

The temple of a nome had, as a rule, three G.o.ds, and these formed a family, the chief G.o.d having his consort and the third being their son. Of these triads we may mention some:--

Amen-Mut-Chonsu are the triad of Thebes.

Ptah-Sechet-Imhotep ” Memphis.

Osiris-Isis-Horus ” Abydos (Philae).

Sebak-Hathor-Chonsu ” Ombos.

Har-hat-Hathor-Har-sem-ta ” Edfu.

The son is the successor of his father, and it is his destiny in turn to marry his mother and so to reproduce himself, that is his own successor; and so though constantly dying he is ever renewed. The mother, not being a sun-G.o.d, does not die. If we remember that the G.o.ds have to do with the sun these things need not shock us, nor need we wonder at the statement which is very frequently met with, that a G.o.d is self-begotten, or that he produces his own members.

Mythology.--A few words may be said about Egyptian mythology in general before we speak of some of the G.o.ds. The usual stories of the beginning of things are not wanting, as when the G.o.d is said to have been born from a primeval egg, or a whole family of G.o.ds to be the children of Seb and Nut; Seb, the earth, being in Egypt the male, and Nut, heaven, the female, of these earliest parents of all things. More than one G.o.d, moreover, is held to have been an earthly king, and to be the founder of the royal house which now pays him homage. ”The days of Ra,” for example, are spoken of as a golden age in which perfect justice and happiness prevailed. Many stories too may be found which profess to furnish an explanation of some feature of nature or some inst.i.tution of society, to account for the names of places or of animals, or for the presence of the five days which were added to the twelve lunar months in Egypt to produce a satisfactory solar year. Many old stories of the G.o.ds have magical efficacy when told in certain situations; one is good against poison, but must be told in a certain way to produce the effect. After these stories of the G.o.ds' early reign of peace, come those relating to less happy periods, when the old G.o.d grew weak and began to have enemies, when G.o.ds and men became disobedient to him, when a war broke out among the G.o.ds, which is not yet brought to an end but breaks out ever afresh; or when the old G.o.d succ.u.mbed to his enemies, and his successor had to set out to avenge him. In some of these stories very primitive and savage traits appear, which show that they originated in a rude state of society. But they are about men, not about beasts, as we might have expected of Egyptian mythology, and the men are undoubtedly solar heroes; it is the fortunes of the daily (not the yearly) sun, his splendid and beneficent reign, his decline, his conflict with the powers of darkness, his decease and his resurrection, or the vengeance exacted on his behalf by his successor, that are spoken of, in connection now with one G.o.d and now with another.

Dynasties of G.o.ds.--In the history of Egyptian religion one set of such G.o.ds succeeds another as the prevailing dynasty, according as the seat of empire in the country s.h.i.+fts to a new nome. These religious changes could take place without great convulsions. It was only the attempt to extinguish old established wors.h.i.+ps that was fiercely resisted, not the addition of a new G.o.d, even as superior to those already seated in the temple. In the earliest times known to us Ra of Heliopolis is the chief G.o.d of Egypt; Osiris of Thinis (Abydos) is also a great G.o.d, but the most characteristic development of Osiris-wors.h.i.+p belongs to a later period. Ptah of Memphis comes to the front in the earliest dynasties. Much later is the rise of Amon to the first place, which he held when the Greeks and Romans had to do with Egypt. A very short account only can be given of the sets of G.o.ds of which these are the heads.

Ra.--Ra means ”sun”; his seat is Heliopolis or ”On,” where Joseph's master Potiphera, or ”Priest of Ra,” lived. Heliopolis is the ”house of the obelisk,” the obelisk being a representation of the sun. First a kindly old king, he is later a warrior; he has to contend with the serpent Apep, the dragon of darkness who appears pierced by the shafts of Ra. But as Ra sinks in the conflict he is comforted by Hathor, the G.o.ddess of the western sky, and avenged by Horus, the ever young and ever victorious winged sun.[5] But Ra is a G.o.d of the under as well as the upper world. King Pi'anchi, of the twenty-second dynasty, entered into the great temple of Ra at Heliopolis and penetrated to the inmost chamber of it, afterwards sealing it up again. We are told what he saw there.[6] He looked upon ”his father Ra,” and saw the two boats intended for the daily journey of the G.o.d.

Ra travels in his boat through the sky, but also at night through the under-world, of which also he is lord. The progress of the G.o.d of light through the world of darkness is a theme which was worked out later in much detail in connection with Osiris; but it forms part of the earliest known religious conceptions of the Egyptians, and Ra's voyage through the ”Am Duat” or under-world, is described in considerable detail. Many figures accompany him in this voyage, and many are the obstacles to be overcome during the successive hours of night before he reaches again the gates of day. The souls of men who have died are also led by him through those nether s.p.a.ces; by a hidden knowledge, if they have been at pains to possess themselves of it, they are able to keep close to Ra on the perilous journey. He gives them fields to cultivate in the plains beneath, and they are made glad by his appearance at the appointed hour in the nights that follow.

[Footnote 5: There are in Egyptian religion several G.o.ds called Horus; this, the oldest one, is fused with Ra, the first sun-G.o.d, in the double name Ra-Harmachis, a being to whom the highest attributes are given. The symbol of this G.o.d is a rec.u.mbent lion with a man's head, the figure in which also the kings of Egypt are represented.]

[Footnote 6: See the inscription in _Records of the Past_, ii. 98.]

Osiris, the sun-G.o.d of Abydos, is also reported to have been a human being who was exalted to divine honours. (The G.o.d of the under-world and judge of the dead, who bears the same name, is a different figure; of him we shall speak afterwards.) He is the most interesting and the best known of the G.o.ds of Egypt; his myth is found at length in Plutarch, with the mystical interpretations proposed for it in ancient times; he is also the G.o.d in whom the affinity of Egyptian with Babylonian religion appears most clearly: cf. chapter vii. Born, according to the myth we mentioned above, at one birth with four other G.o.ds, of the venerable parents Seb and Nut (see above), he from the first has Isis for his wife and sister, and his brother Set is also born along with him, with whom he lives in perpetual hostility.

Neither can quite overcome the other, and many are the incidents of their warfare. As a rule the G.o.ds of Egypt are serene and good beings; here only dualism shows itself. Osiris is the good power both morally and in the sphere of outward nature, while Set is the embodiment of all that the Egyptian regards as evil,--darkness, the desert, the hot south wind, sickness, and red hair. It is not the case that Set was an imported G.o.d and belonged to Semitic invaders, but these invaders found him more suited to their notions of deity than any other G.o.d of Egypt, and sought to make him supreme, in which, however, they could not succeed. The story of the dismemberment of Osiris and of the search of Isis for his loved remains, which she buried in fourteen different places where she found them, is one which is found connected with other names in other lands. Horus is the avenger of his father. Here we have this deity in three stages--Horus the child in his mother's arms, Horus the avenger, and Horus the successor of his father, the complete sun-G.o.d.

This family of G.o.ds is more human and living to us than that of Ra or than any other set of Egyptian deities. It was also more taken up in other lands, when the G.o.ds of older peoples began to find acceptance in the West. We see with special clearness in this case the operation of the principle according to which the contrast of light and darkness when represented in the G.o.ds into that of moral good and evil, so that the G.o.d of light becomes the great upholder of righteousness and dispenser of beneficence. The good G.o.d of Egyptian religion, moreover, is accompanied by a G.o.ddess who is somewhat more than the pale reflection of the male G.o.d, as most Egyptian G.o.ddesses are. The incidents of the legend also lend to the divine characters a tragic depth in which the prosperous and happy G.o.ds of Egypt do not generally share.