THE MYTHOLOGY AND RELIGION OF EGYPT by Alexander Stuart Murray 1891
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EGYPTIAN myths undoubtedly originated and were developed similarly to the myths of all other nations with which we are acquainted. Yet an indication of the various stages of that development, and an understanding of the system as a whole, and as it is now known to us, are far more difficult in the case of Egyptian than of Greek, Norse, Germanic, or Hindoo mythology. The reason of this is very evident. The Egyptian religion seems to have reached its abstract or metaphysical stage long before any of the religions to which we have referred; and as its records belong wholly to that stage, there are no means of enabling the student to bridge over the gap between its earliest and its latest formations.
Indeed, it would appear as if precisely the same kind of difference existed between the Egyptian and the Greek genius as between the Greek genius and that of the Hindoos. The temperament of the Greek was open, joyous, sensuous; that of the other two races was self-repressive, brooding, and mystical. The bias or mental bent of these was not so much towards what was artistically or logically preventible, as towards the elusive, mysterious spirit of which they imagined all things visible and tangible to be merely the veil. The Greek was artistically sensuous; the Hindoo was mystically religious. Or, the difference between them may be said to resemble that between form and colour. The contrast in intellectual bias between the Egyptians and their adversaries, the Greeks, is sufficiently indicated in what Herodotus says of the Egyptian contempt for the claims made by the Greeks of descent from the gods. The priests of Egypt could only laugh at the absurdity of the belief according to which a god was said to be the sixteenth ancestor of Hecataeos. Our gods, said they, never lived on earth.
However, it appears as if a comparison of it with other systems shows that the mythology of Egypt is, in great measure at least, explicable by the general doctrines implied in the title "Solar Myth." Even that very readiness with which the Greeks identified the Egyptian gods with their own affords, if not proof, at all events some countenance, to the supposition that both Pantheons were, so to speak, peopled after the same manner. Again, the functions and characters of the Egyptian gods interchange like those of the Greek and Norse gods. Their names have in both cases similar physical meanings. In both cases also the birth and genealogy of the gods appear to be but an expression of physical, visible sequences. We find in both cases the same confusion, or identity, between a god's mother and his sister; and what appears to be the same conflict between the light-giving and the light-stealing powers of nature. The old German religion is, perhaps, of a more spiritual character than that of Egypt. Yet there is no doubt that the idea of the contest between the purely spiritual powers Ormuzd and Ahriman was originally only the idea of the contest between the sunlight, Indra, and the clouds or darkness, Vritra. This seems a strong indirect
proof that Osiris and Typho are the same as Indra and Vritra. The idea of dynastic overthrow and succession common to the Aryan religions, and presented with such weird and pathetic grandeur in Norse mythology, is, if at all, but faintly defined in the religion of Egypt. Yet it seems to be implied in such phrases as "Osirian divinities," and "three orders of the gods." Lastly, it appears that many of the Egyptian deities are only personified attributes of one and the same thing or person.
The eight great gods of Egypt were, Neph, Amun, Pthah, Khem, Sati, Maut, and Bubastis.
NEPH is also named Num, Nu, Nef, Cnouphis, and Cenubis. Now Nef means spirit or breath, in which sense it is still retained in Arabic. He is "the spirit of God moving on the face of the waters." Therefore in this special, physical sense Neph corresponds to the Teutonic Woden, or Wuotan; as also Brahma and Zeus. Neph was worshipped in Ethiopia and the Thebais. He is represented as having a ram's head with curved horns. His wife, or in Hindoo phraseology sacti, was named Auka.
PTHAH is only Neph under a new name; or, to express it otherwise, he represents a special energy of that god. He is the creator, or the universal life in action. Jamblichus calls him the demiourgos, or artisan of the world; and the Greeks regarded him as the counterpart of their own artisan god, Hephaestos or Vulcan. As the creator he was thought of as the father and sovereign of the gods. He was worshipped chiefly in Memphis. He appears as a mummy-shaped male figure; also as the pigmy-god.
KHEM, like the former god, is only a special energy or activity of the universal life. He is a personified attribute, or epithet. He is the god of generation and reproduction, and was identified as Pan by the Greeks, who called his chief city—Chemmis, in the Thebais—by the name of Panopolis. But Khem not only merges into the god Num or Neph, he also usurps the functions of, or is the same as, the garden-god Ranno. It was but natural that the god of reproduction should also be a garden-god. This garden-god, Ranno, was represented under the form of an asp, whose figure is found on wine-presses and garden and agricultural implements. It should here be observed that Priapus, the classical counterpart of the procreative Khem, was the tutelary deity of gardens.
AMUN was the chief god of Upper Egypt. From the signification of the name—"hidden"—it would appear that Amun was a deity of a highly spiritual character. As in the preceding instances, he is identified or connected with various other gods, e.g., he is named as Amun-ra (Ra being the sun-god), and Amun-num (Num, the living breath or spirit). His companion goddess was Mut or Maut; and the two deities, with their son Khuns, formed the Trinity of Upper Egypt.
SATI the Greeks imagined to be the same as Hera. As such she would be the queen of heaven; but a distinction was made between her and
NEITH, who was said to be the goddess of the upper heaven (or ether), whereas Sati was the goddess of the lower heaven (or air). If Neith be a sky-deity, and if she be also the mother of the sun-god, the facts are another instance from Egyptian mythology of that same process through which the Greeks peopled their Olympos and the Norsemen their Asgard. But further, the functions attributed to Neith seem to show that the idea of this goddess was developed much in the same way as that of the Greek Athene. As Athene in Greek, and Ahana in Sanscrit, meant originally the light of the dawn, and finally, moral and intellectual light, so we find that Neith also came to be a deity of wisdom. This goddess was worshipped especially at Sais in the Nile delta.
MAUT, to whom we have already referred as the second person of the Theban Trinity, meant the Mother,—Mother Nature,— and thus corresponded to the Greek Demeter.
BUBASTIS was chiefly worshipped in the town of Bubastus in Lower Egypt. She was said to be the daughter of the great goddess Isis. She was represented with the head of a cat, the animal specially sacred to her.
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RA comes first in the second class of deities. The Greeks identified him with their own sun-god, Helios, and called the city in which he was principally worshipped Heliopolis. He is represented with a hawk's head, over which is a solar disc. His purely physical origin seems to be proved by the myths that Neith, or the upper air, was his mother; and that he married Mut (Demeter): this merely signifying the interaction of earth and sunlight in producing vegetation. But again, Ra was said to have for children Athor, Mu, and Mat. Athor was identified with Aphrodite, who was originally the goddess of light; while Mu means physical light, and Mat moral light. Precisely the same transition in meaning happens in the story of Neith, and in that of Athene, Ahana, Ushas, and Eos. The wide prevalence of this god's worship shows in what importance he was held, an importance naturally attaching to the sun-god among all nations given to elemental worship. From Ra, with the prefixed syllable Pi, was derived the name Phrah, or, in Old Testament spelling, Pharaoh. Every Pharaoh was thus entitled son of the sun. All this suggests that Sabaeism, or fire-worship, was originally practised in Egypt. Ra is also identical with Baal, a name implying "lord," and applied to the sun. Baalbek means "city of the sun," and was so named by the Greeks—Heliopolis.
SEB is said to be the son of Ra. He is a sort of Egyptian Kronos, being represented in the hieroglyphics to be the father of the gods. Here again we have an interchange of functions; for it has been seen that Neph, Pthah, etc., have been similarly described. Also, like other gods in and out of Greek mythology, Seb marries his own sister, Nutpe. These two were at the head of the "Osirian divinities"—Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys. Nutpe or Nepte has been identified with Rhea. She is supposed to coincide with Lucina, and to preside over births and nursing. As being the mother of Isis and Osiris, she was called the mother of the gods.
OSIRIS, he great deity of the Egyptians, has been by some identified with the sun, or sunlight, or the vivifying powers in nature. According to this view the sleep or death of Osiris means the sleep of the spring-maiden Brynhild, or the imprisonment of Persephone in the dark realm of Hades. His contest with Seb (by the Greeks called Typho) would certainly seem to be another instance of the plausibility, at least, of this view. At any rate, Osiris, being restored to life, became the judge of the under-world. There he listens to Thoth's tale of the character of the disembodied souls, who are introduced to the judge by Horus (the son of Osiris), after their good and bad deeds have been weighed by Anubis in the scale of truth.
These trials in the under-world were attended by forty officers, called Assessors of the Dead, who are thus described by Sir Gardner Wilkinson: "These assessors were similar to the bench of judges who attended at the ordinary tribunals of the Egyptians, and whose president, or arch-judge, corresponded to Osiris. The assessors were represented in a human form with different heads. The first had the head of a hawk, the second of a man, the third of a hare, the fourth of a hippopotamus, the fifth of a man, the sixth of a hawk, the seventh of a fox, the eighth of a man, the ninth of a ram, the tenth of a snake, and the others according to their peculiar character . . . They are supposed to represent the forty-two crimes from which a virtuous man was expected to be free when judged in a future state; or rather the accusing spirits, each of whom examined if the deceased was guilty of the peculiar evil which it was his province to avenge."
The worship of Osiris was universal throughout Egypt, where he was gratefully regarded as the great example of self-sacrifice, as the manifester of good, as the opener of truth, and as being full of goodness and truth. As Osiris was the personification of physical and moral good, so his brother Seb (Typho) was the personification of all evil. Of the analogy between these two on the one hand, and the old Persian deities of good and evil, we have already spoken.
Another explanation of the Osirian myth has thus been given: Osiris was the Nile god. The river, in its periodical inundations, was said to have married the earth (Isis, Rhea), and in its retreat to have been killed by the giant of Sterility (Seb, or Typhon), who was jealous, perhaps, of the wondrous fruitfulness of the marriage between the soil and the great river.
APIS was the great beast-god of Egypt. This sacred bull was known as Apis at Memphis, and as Mnevis, or Onuphis, at Heliopolis. His worship was so prevalent and popular, because he was regarded as an avatar, or incarnation, of the favourite deity Osiris, whose soul had transmigrated into the body of a bull. The sacred bull was allowed to live for no more than twenty-five years, at the end of which it was taken to the Nile, and drowned in one of the sacred wells. His death was followed by national mournings, which, however, gave place to national thanksgivings, as soon as a new Avatar, or sacred bull discovered himself by the following marks: a black coat, a white triangular spot on the forehead, a spot like a half-moon on its right side, and under its tongue a knot like a beetle. The following quotations from ^Elian, as given in Wilkinson, narrate the ceremonies consequent on the re-discovery of Osiris:—
"As soon as a report is circulated that the Egyptian god has manifested himself, certain of the sacred scribes, well versed in the mythical marks, known to them by tradition, approach the spot where the divine cow has deposited her calf, and there, following the ancient ordinance of Hermes, feed it with milk during four months, in a house facing the rising sun. When this period has passed the sacred scribes and prophets resort to the dwelling of Apis, at the time of the new moon, and placing him in a boat prepared for the purpose, convey him to Memphis, where he has a convenient and agreeable abode, with pleasure grounds and ample space for wholesome exercise. Female companions of his own species are provided for him, the most beautiful that can be found, kept in apartments to which he has access when he wishes. He drinks out of a well, or fountain of clear water: for it is not thought right to give him the water of the Nile, which is considered too fattening . . The man from whose herd the divine beast has sprung is the happiest of mortals, and is looked upon with admiration by all people." Cambyses, it is said, found a set of villagers rejoicing over a new sacred bull, and fancying they were making merry over his recent defeat in Ethiopia, the king of kings at once ran the bull through the body, and had the priests flogged. It was considered a good omen if the bull ate food offered to it. Men also listened at the ears of Apis, then put their hands to their own ears to prevent the escape of the secret, which they interpreted according to the nature of the first words they chanced to hear uttered.
SERAPIS as another name of Osiris, although the Greeks said that his worship was not known in Egypt until the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus, when it was introduced from Sinope, under the name of Serapis. Serapis was known as the judge of the under-world.
ISIS was the wife of Osiris, also a counterpart of him; for, as he was judge of the dead, so she is described as the giver of death. She is identified with Ceres and Persephone, and, in this view, the grief of Isis for her husband may be regarded as an Egyptian version of the myth representing Demeter as mourning for the loss of her daughter. Apuleius makes her declare: "I am nature, the parent of all the gods, mistress of all the elements, the beginning of all the ages, sovereign of the gods, queen of the manes, and the first of the heavenly beings." But as the mother of all she is convertible with Mat and Nutpe. And then Apuleius proceeds: "My divinity, uniform in itself, is honoured under numerous forms, various rites, and different names. . . . but the sun-illumed Ethiopians, and the Egyptians renowned for ancient lore, worship me with due ceremonies, and call me by my real name, 'Queen Isis.'" Plutarch considers Isis to be the earth, the feminine part of nature, while Diodorus says that the Egyptians, considering the earth to be the parent of all things born, called her Mother, just as the Greeks called earth Demeter.
ANUBIS, with Hor, or Horus, and Har-pi-chruti, or Harpocrates, were the children of Osiris and Isis. The first was a jackal-headed god; and, according to another myth, was the son of Osiris and Nephthys, a sister of Isis, who, fearing the jealousy of Isis, concealed the child by the sea-shore. The office of Anubis was to superintend the passage of souls to their abode in the unseen world. As such he corresponded to the Greek Hermes Psychopompos. Anubis presided over tombs; and he is frequently introduced in sculpture as standing over a bier on which a corpse is deposited. Horus was a hawk-headed god. As the avenger of his father Osiris, who was slain by Typhon, he was identified by the Greeks as Apollo. He also corresponded in some degree to the sun-god Ra, and was worshipped by the Egyptians as representing the vivifying power of the sun. Harpocrates seems to be merely another version of Horus—he is a personification of the sun. He is represented as a child sitting on a lotus flower, with his finger on his lips. Under this figure he was thought of as the god of silence. Perhaps in placing a representation of him in front of each of their temples, the wise Egyptians meant to symbolize the fact that worship ought to be conducted with silence.
THOTH was the god of letters, the clerk of the under-world, and the keeper of the records for the great judge Osiris. He is represented with the head of an ibis, and bearing a tablet, pen, and palm-branch. So great was the respect in which the sacred ibis was held—on account, no doubt, of its usefulness in destroying venomous reptiles—that any one guilty of killing it was himself punished with death.
ANOUKE was the third member of the trinity of Northern Ethiopia, the other two members being Sati and Neph.
THE SPHINX, unlike her Greek representative—who was a cruel monster born of the evil powers Typhon and Echidna—was a beneficent being who personified the fruit-bearing earth, and, like the sun and sky powers we have named above, was a deity of wisdom and knowledge. Her figure—lion-bodied, with the head and breast of a woman—was placed before every temple. The Egyptian Cerberus, or hell watch-dog, must have been a more forbidding and strange-looking animal than his Greek brother. He had the trunk and legs of a hippopotamus, with the head of a crocodile.
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