Part 9 (1/2)

Wors.h.i.+p.--The Egyptian temple was constructed rather to afford the G.o.d a splendid residence among his people than to accommodate a large congregation at an act of wors.h.i.+p. The temple was the public place of the community, its point of meeting (for the Egyptian town has no market-place), and its fortress when attacked (for the town is not fortified). But while the courts of the temple were open to the people, there was a holy place which only the priests might enter, where the sacred ark, the symbol of the G.o.d, remained, and where sacrifices were offered. The images about the temple were not placed there to be wors.h.i.+pped, but were votive offerings meant to provide the G.o.d with a body which he might enter when he chose. The obelisk is such a symbol or incorporation of the sun. On certain days the sacred objects and animals were taken in procession through the temple grounds, or made voyages on the lake belonging to the temple, or were even taken through the nome among the fields and dwellings of their people; and on these occasions representations took place symbolising the events in the history of the G.o.d. It was thus that the private individual came to know the G.o.d; it was a great festival and an occasion of the utmost joy when the divine protectors and benefactors of the nome, who generally remained in their splendid retirement, came forth to mingle for a brief s.p.a.ce with the faithful community. The wors.h.i.+p of the G.o.ds was in Egypt, as in every nation of the ancient world, a matter of state, not of individual concern.

It is the chief branch of the public service; the state is under the direct rule of the G.o.ds; never was there a more absolute theocracy.

The king is a child of the G.o.d,--a conception often treated in the most material way,--and being thus of more than human race, becomes himself the object of wors.h.i.+p, and even offers sacrifice to himself.

It is one of the king's chief cares to provide a stately dwelling for the G.o.d; the king himself offers sacrifice on the most important occasions. The G.o.d in his sacred ark goes with his people when they are at war and fights along with them, so that every war is a holy war. The priests are public officials, and often exercise immense influence. The king inst.i.tutes them into their functions; they are exempt, as we may read in Genesis, from public burdens; every function involving learning or art is in their hands. Framed in such inst.i.tutions religion is not likely to have any free growth; the time is far distant here when men will form voluntary a.s.sociations of their own for spiritual ends. Yet, no doubt, the lay Egyptian had a private religion of his own as well as his share in the great public acts he witnessed. Though the G.o.ds of Egypt are nearly all good, the evil power Set was much wors.h.i.+pped, and would be approached in private as well as in the public acts depicted on the monuments, by all who had anything to fear from him--that is to say, by all. Every one had to treat with kindness and respect the animal species sacred in his nome, and other sacred animals. The belief in magic was strong; hidden powers had to be reckoned with on manifold occasions; sickness was imputed to the agency of evil spirits, and treated by exorcism, by persons duly trained and learned in such arts. Lucky and unlucky days, and days suitable or unsuitable for particular undertakings, filled the calendar; the belief in amulets and charms was universal. Such things we expect to find among the people, even where religious thought has risen highest.


Most of our knowledge about ancient Egypt is drawn from the tombs. No other nation ever bestowed so much care on the dead as the Egyptians did, nor thought of the other world so much. The living had to prepare for his further existence after death, and the dead claimed from his successors on earth elaborate offices of piety. It is in this part of the religion that there is most growth, and this part of it in its ultimate form is best known.

1. Treatment of the Dead.--The doctrine of the other world takes its rise with the Egyptians in the belief common to all early races, which was described above (chapter iii.). The spirit still lives when the body dies, and it comes back to the body, and is affected by the treatment the body receives. To care for the dead is the first duty of the living, and a man must marry in order to have offspring who will pay him the necessary attention after his death. Various things are buried with the corpse for the use of the spirit, and offerings are made to it from time to time afterwards. This is no more than the common primitive belief, but the Egyptians carried it out more fully in practice than any other people. They sought to make the body incorruptible, embalming it and restoring to it all its organs, so that the spirit should be able to discharge every function of life.

They placed the mummy if possible in such a situation that it should never be disturbed to the end of time; the grave they called an eternal dwelling. They even inst.i.tuted endowments to secure due offerings to the dead in all coming time.

Cultivated as this part of religion was in Egypt, it could not fail to a.s.sume a special character. For one thing, there is a variety of names for what survives of man after death; we hear of his heart, his soul, his shade, his luminosity; and in the later doctrine these are all combined and made parts of one theory; all the different parts of the man have to come together again after their dispersion at death before his person is complete. The term, however, is the ”ka,” image, or, as we say, genius, of the man, a non-substantial double of him which has journeys and adventures to make, and to which the offerings are addressed. The ”ka” needs food, and regular gifts are made to it of all it can require; it needs guidance and instruction, and these can be conveyed to it by pictures and writings on the walls of the tomb or in the mummy-case; even its amus.e.m.e.nt and its need of society and of ministration can be to some extent met in this way. It is not peculiar to Egypt that the advantages of wealth and rank are continued after death, and that the rich can do much more, or cause much more to be done for his eternal welfare, than the poor. The king's mummy lies in a pyramid, where it will never be moved; that of the n.o.ble in a rock-tomb or a stately edifice or ”mastaba”; the poor man has to be content with an inferior kind of embalming, and a tomb of tiles if he gets any at all; and no priest can be retained to pray for him.

2. The Spirit in the Under-world.--Before history opens, this common belief and practice in regard to the dead had come to be combined in Egypt with the wors.h.i.+p of a solar deity; a step of immense importance, which added immeasurably to the pathos and the moral power of this kind of religion.

Milton says in _Lycidas_--

So sinks the daystar in the ocean bed; And yet anon repairs his drooping head, And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore Flames in the forehead of the morning sky; So Lycidas sank low, but mounted high.

But what to Milton was a poetic imagination was to the early Egyptian a serious belief. If the sun was his G.o.d, he did not say like Wordsworth in his early period--

Our fate how different from thine, blest star, in this, That no to-morrow shall our beams restore,

but he was convinced that the history of his G.o.d, who sank under the Western horizon, and after a period of darkness came back again to light and triumph, was an undoubted indication of what he himself had to look for after death. The mummy was carried across the Nile and deposited in the west land, which is also the under-world, to share in the repose and in the further progress of the dead. As the jackal pervades that region, the dead is left to the care of Anubis, the jackal-headed deity, who opens paths to him for further travel, and leads him into the presence of the G.o.ds. The under-world is elaborately portioned out into various parts and scenes, and manifold are the shapes of evil and mischief with which it is peopled. On the other hand, it contains abundance of blessings, which the departed may secure if the proper means have been taken by himself and by his friends surviving him. The earthly life is there repeated with all its occupations and enjoyments, but free from fear and from decay.

The doctrine of the dead accompanying the sun-G.o.d to the under-world, and living under his protection, is very old in Egypt; we saw it in an early form in connection with the G.o.d Ra. It was in connection with Osiris, however, that it attained its widest diffusion; to the whole Egyptian people Osiris was the lord of the world below, with whom the departed were. The identification of the departed with Osiris was thorough and complete; he becomes Osiris, takes the name of the deity, and is known in the inscriptions as ”Osiris N. N.” Isis is his sister, Horus his defender, Anubis his herald and guide, and having shared the G.o.d's eclipse, he is also to share his triumph and revival.

3. The Book of the Dead, the most famous relic of Egyptian literature, is a collection of pieces many of which are very ancient, bearing on the pa.s.sage of the soul through the under-world. The book has also been called the _Funeral Ritual_; a better translation of the t.i.tle is, ”Book of Coming out from the Day.” The earthly life is the day from which the deceased comes forth into the larger existence of the world beyond. The book (or such parts of it as may be used in each case) is the soul's _vade mec.u.m_ for the under-world, and contains the forms the soul must have at command in order to ward off all the dangers of that region, and to secure an easy and happy pa.s.sage through it. How the person is to be reconstructed, the different parts coming back to be built up again in one, how he is to know the spirits he meets, how he is to get the gates opened for him,--such are the subjects of various chapters; and the soul's success in its pa.s.sage depends on its knowledge of these. The words they contain are not merely information, they have magic power to smooth away obstacles and to open doors. Hence it is important for a man to have learned them when alive, and, to a.s.sist his memory, a few chapters are written on papyrus or linen, and the rolls placed with the mummy in its case, or they are written on the walls of the tomb.

No other Egyptian work, in consequence, has been preserved in so many copies, but one roll or set of inscriptions contains one set of chapters and another another set.

Does the fate of the individual after death depend then entirely on magic; is it a question of how many of these formulae he is able to remember, or how many his relatives have got written out for him? Do no doubts intrude on his mind lest, even if he has all the requisite knowledge at command, he himself should be found unworthy to live with the immortals? For the most part the _Book of the Dead_ stands on the earlier position at which man never thinks of doubting the favour of his G.o.d, and trusts to overcome what is hostile by having his magic ready, not by having his heart pure. But in several chapters a deeper tone is heard. There is a form for having the stain rubbed away from the heart of the Osiris, and if there are abundant directions for outward purification, there are also directions for having his sins forgiven. In the great 125th chapter the deceased enters the Hall of the two Truths, and is separated from his sins after he has seen the faces of the G.o.ds. Here he stands before forty-two judges (compare the number of the nomes of Egypt) styled Lords of Truth, each of whom is there to judge of a particular sin, and to each he has to profess that he did not when on earth commit that sin. I have not stolen, he has to say; I have not played the hypocrite, I have not stolen the things of the G.o.ds, I have not made conspiracies, I have not blasphemed, I have not clipped the skins of the sacred beasts, I have not injured the G.o.ds, I have not calumniated the slave to his master; and so on. The line is not yet clearly drawn between moral and ritual or conventional offences; and moral duty is expressed in a negative form, and appears as a shackle, not as an inspiration. Yet the very great advance has been made here, that divine law watches not only over specially religious matters but over social life, and even over the thoughts of the individual heart.

The G.o.ds enjoin on a man not only to offer sacrifice and to respect the sacred beasts, but also to do his duty as a citizen and as a neighbour, and to keep his own lips unpolluted and his own heart pure. It is to the same effect when we find that a man's justification depends on the state of his heart at death. His heart is weighed against the truth, and if it is found defective, he cannot live again; if it turns out well, then he is justified and goes to the fields of Aalu, the place of the blessed of Osiris.


This doctrine of the life to come, like the theistic doctrine the Egyptians at one time attained, might have seemed destined to lead to a pure spiritual faith, from which superst.i.tion should have disappeared. But in neither case is that result attained. The later history of Egyptian religion is that of the increase of magic, and of the rise of a priestly cla.s.s absorbing to itself, as the older priests who were closely connected with the civil life of the nation had never done, all the functions of religion. Doctrine grows more pantheistic and more recondite, mysteries and symbols are multiplied, all to the increase of the influence of the priesthood, and to the infinite exercise of ingenuity in coming times. Popular religion, on the other hand, comes to be more taken up with such matters as charms and amulets and horoscopes; and while morals did not decline from the high level they had gained from the reign of the G.o.ds of light, the spirit of the nation lost vigour under the growth of religiosity at the expense of patriotism, and healthy reform grew more and more impossible. What of the religion of Egypt lived on in other lands which felt her influence, it is hard to say. The religious art of Egypt, and with it no doubt some tincture of the ideas it embodied, undoubtedly went northwards to Phenicia; and Greece owed to Phenicia, as we shall see, many a suggestion in religious matters. Long before Isis and Serapis were introduced in Rome in their own persons, the legend of Osiris had flourished in Greece under new names, and the Greek doctrine of the life to come, taught in the mysteries, has suggested to some scholars an Egyptian origin. To the Greeks and Romans this religion afforded an infinity of puzzles and mysteries; to the modern world it affords the greatest example of a religion the early promise of which was not fulfilled, the splendid moral aspirations of which were stifled amid the superst.i.tions they were too weak to conquer.


For general information Wilkinson's _Egyptians_.

E. A. W. Budge, _History of Egypt_, vols. i.-viii., 1902-03.