Ancient History & Civilisation

11. Religion

Sky gods—The sun god—Plant gods—Animal gods—Sex gods—Human gods—Osiris—Isis and Horus—Minor deities—The priests—Immortality—The “Book of the Dead”—The “Negative Confession”—Magic—Corruption

For beneath and above everything in Egypt was religion. We find it there in every stage and form from totemism to theology; we see its influence in literature, in government, in art, in everything except morality. And it is not only varied, it is tropically abundant; only in Rome and India shall we find so plentiful a pantheon. We cannot understand the Egyptian—or man—until we study his gods.

In the beginning, said the Egyptian, was the sky; and to the end this and the Nile remained his chief divinities. All these marvelous heavenly bodies were not mere bodies, they were the external forms of mighty spirits, gods whose wills—not always concordant—ordained their complex and varied movements.229 The sky itself was a vault, across whose vastness a great cow stood, who was the goddess Hathor; the earth lay beneath her feet, and her belly was clad in the beauty of ten thousand stars. Or (for the gods and myths differed from nome to nome) the sky was the god Sibu, lying tenderly upon the earth, which was the goddess Nuit; from their gigantic copulation all things had been born.230 Constellations and stars might be gods: for example, Sahu and Sopdit (Orion and Sirius) were tremendous deities; Sahu ate gods three times a day regularly. Occasionally some such monster ate the moon, but only for a moment; soon the prayers of men and the anger of the other gods forced the greedy sow to vomit it up again.231 In this manner the Egyptian populace explained an eclipse of the moon.

The moon was a god, perhaps the oldest of all that were worshiped in Egypt; but in the official theology the greatest of the gods was the sun. Sometimes it was worshiped as the supreme deity Ra or Re, the bright father who fertilized Mother Earth with rays of penetrating heat and light; sometimes it was a divine calf, born anew at every dawn, sailing the sky slowly in a celestial boat, and descending into the west, at evening, like an old man tottering to his grave. Or the sun was the god Horus, taking the graceful form of a falcon, flying majestically across the heavens day after day as if in supervision of his realm, and becoming one of the recurrent symbols of Egyptian religion and royalty. Always Ra, or the sun, was the Creator: at his first rising, seeing the earth desert and bare, he had flooded it with his energizing rays, and all living things—vegetable, animal and human—had sprung pell-mell from his eyes, and been scattered over the world. The earliest men and women, being direct children of Ra, had been perfect and happy; by degrees their descendants had taken to evil ways, and had forfeited this perfection and happiness; whereupon Ra, dissatisfied with his creatures, had destroyed a large part of the human race. Learned Egyptians questioned this popular belief, and asserted on the contrary (like certain Sumerian scholars), that the first men had been like brutes, without articulate speech or any of the arts of life.232 All in all it was an intelligent mythology, expressing piously man’s gratitude to earth and sun.

So exuberant was this piety that the Egyptians worshiped not merely the source, but almost every form, of life. Many plants were sacred to them: the palm-tree that shaded them amid the desert, the spring that gave them drink in the oasis, the grove where they could meet and rest, the sycamore flourishing miraculously in the sand; these were, with excellent reason, holy things, and to the end of his civilization the simple Egyptian brought them offerings of cucumbers, grapes and figs.233 Even the lowly vegetable found its devotees; and Taine amused himself by showing how the onion that so displeased Bossuet had been a divinity on the banks of the Nile.234

More popular were the animal gods; they were so numerous that they filled the Egyptian pantheon like a chattering menagerie. In one nome or another, in one period or another, Egyptians worshiped the bull, the crocodile, the hawk, the cow, the goose, the goat, the ram, the cat, the dog, the chicken, the swallow, the jackal, the serpent, and allowed some of these creatures to roam in the temples with the same freedom that is accorded to the sacred cow in India today.235 When the gods became human they still retained animal doubles and symbols: Amon was represented as a goose or a ram, Ra as a grasshopper or a bull, Osiris as a bull or a ram, Sebek as a crocodile, Horus as a hawk or falcon, Hathor as a cow, and Thoth, the god of wisdom, as a baboon.236 Sometimes women were offered to certain of these animals as sexual mates; the bull in particular, as the incarnation of Osiris, received this honor; and at Mendes, says Plutarch, the most beautiful women were offered in coitus to the divine goat.237 From beginning to end this totemism remained as an essential and native element in Egyptian religion; human gods came to Egypt much later, and probably as gifts from western Asia.238

The goat and the bull were especially sacred to the Egyptians as representing sexual creative power; they were not merely symbols of Osiris, but incarnations of him.239 Often Osiris was depicted with large and prominent organs, as a mark of his supreme power; and models of him in this form, or with a triple phallus, were borne in religious processions by the Egyptians; on certain occasions the women carried such phallic images, and operated them mechanically with strings.240* Signs of sex worship appear not only in the many cases in which figures are depicted, on temple reliefs, with erect organs, but in the frequent appearance, in Egyptian symbolism, of the crux ansata—a cross with a handle, as a sign of sexual union and vigorous life.241

At last the gods became human—or rather, men became gods. Like the deities of Greece, the personal gods of Egypt were merely superior men and women, made in heroic mould, but composed of bone and muscle, flesh and blood; they hungered and ate, thirsted and drank, loved and mated, hated and killed, grew old and died.242 There was Osiris, for example, god of the beneficent Nile, whose death and resurrection were celebrated yearly as symbolizing the fall and rise of the river, and perhaps the decay and growth of the soil. Every Egyptian of the later dynasties could tell the story of how Set (or Sit), the wicked god of desiccation, who shriveled up harvests with his burning breath, was angered at Osiris (the Nile) for extending (with his overflow) the fertility of the earth, slew him, and reigned in dry majesty over Osiris’ kingdom (i.e., the river once failed to rise), until Horus, brave son of Isis, overcame Set and banished him; whereafter Osiris, brought back to life by the warmth of Isis’ love, ruled benevolently over Egypt, suppressed cannibalism, established civilization, and then ascended to heaven to reign there endlessly as a god.243 It was a profound myth; for history, like Oriental religion, is dualistic—a record of the conflict between creation and destruction, fertility and desiccation, rejuvenation and exhaustion, good and evil, life and death.

Profound, too, was the myth of Isis, the Great Mother. She was not only the loyal sister and wife of Osiris; in a sense she was greater than he, for—like woman in general—she had conquered death through love. Nor was she merely the black soil of the Delta, fertilized by the touch of Osiris-Nile, and making all Egypt rich with her fecundity. She was, above all, the symbol of that mysterious creative power which had produced the earth and every living thing, and of that maternal tenderness whereby, at whatever cost to the mother, the young new life is nurtured to maturity. She represented in Egypt—as Kali, Ishtar and Cybele represented in Asia, Demeter in Greece, and Ceres in Rome—the original priority and independence of the female principle in creation and in inheritance, and the originative leadership of woman in tilling the earth; for it was Isis (said the myth) who had discovered wheat and barley growing wild in Egypt, and had revealed them to Osiris (man).244 The Egyptians worshiped her with especial fondness and piety, and raised up jeweled images to her as the Mother of God; her tonsured priests praised her in sonorous matins and vespers; and in midwinter of each year, coincident with the annual rebirth of the sun towards the end of our December, the temples of her divine child, Horus (god of the sun), showed her, in holy effigy, nursing in a stable the babe that she had miraculously conceived. These poetic-philosophic legends and symbols profoundly affected Christian ritual and theology. Early Christians sometimes worshiped before the statues of Isis suckling the infant Horus, seeing in them another form of the ancient and noble myth by which woman (i.e., the female principle), creating all things, becomes at last the Mother of God.245

These—Ra (or, as he was called in the South, Amon), Osiris, Isis and Horus—were the greater gods of Egypt. In later days Ra, Amon and another god, Ptah, were combined as three embodiments or aspects of one supreme and triune deity.246 There were countless lesser divinities: Anubis the jackal, Shu, Tefnut, Nephthys, Ket, Nut; . . . but we must not make these pages a museum of dead gods. Even Pharaoh was a god, always the son of Amon-Ra, ruling not merely by divine right but by divine birth, as a deity transiently tolerating the earth as his home. On his head was the falcon, symbol of Horus and totem of the tribe; from his forehead rose the urœus or serpent, symbol of wisdom and life, and communicating magic virtues to the crown.247 The king was chief-priest of the faith, and led the great processions and ceremonies that celebrated the festivals of the gods. It was through this assumption of divine lineage and powers that he was able to rule so long with so little force.

Hence the priests of Egypt were the necessary props of the throne, and the secret police of the social order. Given a faith of such complexity, a class had to arise adept in magic and ritual, whose skill would make it indispensable in approaching the gods. In effect, though not in law, the office of priest passed down from father to son, and a class grew up which, through the piety of the people and the politic generosity of the kings, became in time richer and stronger than the feudal aristocracy or the royal family itself. The sacrifices offered to the gods supplied the priests with food and drink; the temple buildings gave them spacious homes; the revenues of temple lands and services furnished them with ample incomes; and their exemption from forced labor, military service, and ordinary taxation, left them in an enviable position of prestige and power. They deserved not a little of this power, for they accumulated and preserved the learning of Egypt, educated the youth, and disciplined themselves with rigor and zeal. Herodotus describes them almost with awe:

They are of all men the most excessively attentive to the worship of the gods, and observe the following ceremonies. . . . They wear linen garments, constantly fresh-washed. . . . They are circumcised for the sake of cleanliness, thinking it better to be clean than handsome. They shave their whole body every third day, that neither lice nor any other impurity may be found upon them. . . . They wash themselves in cold water twice every day and twice every night.248

What distinguished this religion above everything else was its emphasis on immortality. If Osiris, the Nile, and all vegetation, might rise again, so might man. The amazing preservation of the dead body in the dry soil of Egypt lent some encouragement to this belief, which was to dominate Egyptian faith for thousands of years, and to pass from it, by its own resurrection, into Christianity.249 The body, Egypt believed, was inhabited by a small replica of itself called the ka, and also by a soul that dwelt in the body like a bird flitting among trees. All of these—body, ka and soul—survived the appearance of death; they could escape mortality for a time in proportion as the flesh was preserved from decay; but if they came to Osiris clean of all sin they would be permitted to live forever in the “Happy Field of Food”—those heavenly gardens where there would always be abundance and security: judge the harassed penury that spoke in this consoling dream. These Elysian Fields, however, could be reached only through the services of a ferryman, an Egyptian prototype of Charon; and this old gentleman would receive into his boat only such men and women as had done no evil in their lives. Or Osiris would question the dead, weighing each candidate’s heart in the scale against a feather to test his truthfulness. Those who failed in this final examination would be condemned to lie forever in their tombs, hungering and thirsting, fed upon by hideous crocodiles, and never coming forth to see the sun.

According to the priests there were clever ways of passing these tests; and they offered to reveal these ways for a consideration. One was to fit up the tomb with food, drink and servants to nourish and help the dead. Another was to fill the tomb with talismans pleasing to the gods: fish, vultures, snakes, above all, the scarab—a beetle which, because it reproduced itself apparently with fertilization, typified the resurrected soul; if these were properly blessed by a priest they would frighten away every assailant, and annihilate every evil. A still better way was to buy the Book of the Dead,* scrolls for which the priests had written prayers, formulas and charms calculated to appease, even to deceive, Osiris. When, after a hundred vicissitudes and perils, the dead soul at last reached Osiris, it was to address the great Judge in some such manner as this:

O Thou who speedest Time’s advancing wing,

Thou dweller in all mysteries of life,

Thou guardian of every word I speak—

Behold, Thou art ashamed of me, thy son;

Thy heart is full of sorrow and of shame,

For that my sins were grievous in the world,

And proud my wickedness and my transgression.

Oh, be at peace with me, oh, be at peace,

And break the barriers that loom between us!

Let all my sins be washed away and fall

Forgotten to the right and left of thee!

Yea, do away with all my wickedness,

And put away the shame that fills thy heart,

That Thou and I henceforth may be at peace.251

Or the soul was to declare its innocence of all major sins, in a “Negative Confession” that represents for us one of the earliest and noblest expressions of the moral sense in man:

Hail to Thee, Great God, Lord of Truth and Justice! I have come before Thee, my Master; I have been brought to see thy beauties. . . . I bring unto you Truth. . . . I have not committed iniquity against men. I have not oppressed the poor. . . . I have not laid labor upon any free man beyond that which he wrought for himself. . . . I have not defaulted, I have not committed that which is an abomination to the gods. I have not caused the slave to be ill-treated of his master. I have not starved any man, I have not made any to weep, I have not assassinated any man, . . . I have not committed treason against any. I have not in aught diminished the supplies of the temple; I have not spoiled the show-bread of the gods. . . . I have done no carnal act within the sacred enclosure of the temple. I have not blasphemed. . . . I have not falsified the balance. I have not taken away milk from the mouths of sucklings. I have . . . not taken with nets the birds of the gods . . . I am pure. I am pure. I am pure.252

For the most part, however, Egyptian religion had little to say about morality; the priests were busier selling charms, mumbling incantations, and performing magic rites than inculcating ethical precepts. Even the Book of the Dead teaches the faithful that charms blessed by the clergy will overcome all the obstacles that the deceased soul may encounter on its way to salvation; and the emphasis is rather on reciting the prayers than on living the good life. Says one roll: “If this can be known by the deceased he shall come forth by day”—i.e., rise to eternal life. Amulets and incantations were designed and sold to cover a multitude of sins and secure the entrance of the Devil himself into Paradise. At every step the pious Egyptian had to mutter strange formulas to avert evil and attract the good. Hear, for example, an anxious mother trying to drive out “demons” from her child:

Run out, thou who comest in darkness, who enterest in stealth. . . . Comest thou to kiss this child? I will not let thee kiss him. . . . Comest thou to take him away? I will not let thee take him away from me. I have made his protection against thee out of Efet-herb, which makes pain; out of onions, which harm thee; out of honey, which is sweet to the living and bitter to the dead; out of the evil parts of the Ebdu fish; out of the backbone of the perch.253

The gods themselves used magic and charms against one another. The literature of Egypt is full of magicians—of wizards who dry up lakes with a word, or cause severed limbs to jump back into place, or raise the dead.254 The king had magicians to help or guide him; and he himself was believed to have a magical power to make the rain fall, or the river rise.255 Life was full of talismans, spells, divinations; every door had to have a god to frighten away evil spirits or fortuitous strokes of bad luck. Children born on the twenty-third of the month of Thoth would surely die soon; those born on the twentieth of Choiakh would go blind.256 “Each day and month,” says Herodotus, “is assigned to some particular god; and according to the day on which each person is born, they determine what will befall him, how he will die, and what kind of person he will be.”257 In the end the connection between morality and religion tended to be forgotten; the road to eternal bliss led not through a good life, but through magic, ritual, and generosity to the priests. Let a great Egyptologist express the matter:

The dangers of the hereafter were now greatly multiplied, and for every critical situation the priest was able to furnish the dead with an effective charm which would infallibly cure him. Besides many charms which enabled the dead to reach the world of the hereafter, there were those which prevented him from losing his mouth, his head, his heart; others which enabled him to remember his name, to breathe, eat, drink, avoid eating his own foulness, to prevent his drinking-water from turning into flame, to turn darkness into light, to ward off all serpents and other hostile monsters, and many others. . . . Thus the earliest moral development which we can trace in the ancient East was suddenly arrested, or at least checked, by the detestable devices of a corrupt priesthood eager for gain.258

Such was the state of religion in Egypt when Ikhnaton, poet and heretic, came to the throne, and inaugurated the religious revolution that destroyed the Empire of Egypt.

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