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Lecture 2: Egyptian Religion

IT is through its temples and tombs that ancient Egypt is mainly known to us. It is true that the warm and rainless climate of Upper Egypt has preserved many of the objects of daily life accidentally buried in the ruins of its cities, and that even fragments of fragile papyrus have come from the mounds that mark the sites of its villages and towns; but these do not constitute even a tithe of the monuments upon which our present knowledge of ancient Egyptian life and history has been built. It is from the tombs and temples that we have learned almost all we now know about the Egypt of the past. The tombs were filled with offerings to the dead and illustrations of the daily life of the living, while their walls were adorned with representations of the scenes at which their possessor had been present, with the history of his life, or with invocations to the gods. The temples were storehouses of religious lore, which was sculptured or painted on their walls and ceilings. In fact, we owe most of our knowledge of ancient Egypt to the gods and to the dead; and it is natural, therefore, that the larger part of it should be concerned with religion and the life to come.

We are thus in an exceptionally good position for ascertaining, at all events in outline, the religious ideas of the old Egyptians, and even for tracing their history through long periods of time. The civilisation of Egypt goes back to a remote past, and recent discoveries have carried us almost to its beginnings. The veil which so long covered the origin of Egyptian culture is at last being drawn aside, and some of the most puzzling inconsistencies in the religion, which formed so integral a part of that culture, are being explained. We have learnt that the religion of the Egypt which is best known to us was highly composite, the product of different races and different streams of culture and thought; and the task of uniting them all into a homogeneous whole was never fully completed. To the last, Egyptian religion remained a combination of ill-assorted survivals rather than a system, a confederation of separate cults rather than a definite theology. Like the State, whatever unity it possessed was given to it by the Pharaoh, who was not only a son and representative of the sun-god, but the visible manifestation of the sun-god himself. Its unity was thus a purely personal one: without the Pharaoh the Egyptian State and Egyptian religion would alike have been dissolved into their original atoms.

The Pharaonic Egyptians—the Egyptians, that is to say, who embanked the Nile, who transformed the marsh and the desert into cultivated fields, who built the temples and tombs, and left behind them the monuments we associate with Egyptian culture—seem to have come from Asia; and it is probable that their first home was in Babylonia. The race (or races) they found in the valley of the Nile were already possessed of a certain measure of civilisation. They were in an advanced stage of neolithic culture; their flint tools are among the finest that have ever been made; and they were skilled in the manufacture of vases of the hardest stone. But they were pastoral rather than agricultural, and they lived in the desert rather than on the river-bank. They proved no match for the newcomers, with their weapons of copper; and, little by little, the invading race succeeded in making itself master of the valley of the Nile, though tradition remembered the fierce battles which were needed before the “smiths” who followed Horus could subjugate the older population in their progress from south to north.

How far the invaders themselves formed a single race is still uncertain. Some scholars believe that, besides the Asiatics who entered Egypt from the south, crossing the Red Sea and so marching through the eastern desert to the Nile, there were other Asiatics who came overland from Mesopotamia, and made their way into the Delta across the isthmus of Suez. Of this overland invasion, however, I can myself see no evidence; so far as our materials at present allow us to go, the Egyptians of history were composed, at most, of three elements, the Asiatic invaders from the south, and two older races, which we may term aboriginal. One of them Professor Petrie is probably right in maintaining to be Libyan.1

We thus have at least three different types of religious belief and practice at the basis of Egyptian religion, corresponding with the three races which together made up the Egyptian people. Two of the types would be African; the third would be Asiatic, perhaps Babylonian. From the very outset, therefore, we must be prepared to find divergences of religious conception as well as divergences in rites and ceremonies. And such divergences can be actually pointed out.2

The practice of embalming, for instance, is one which we have been accustomed to think peculiarly characteristic of ancient Egypt. It is referred to in the Book of Genesis, and described by classical writers. There are many people whose acquaintance with the old Egyptians is confined to the fact that when they died their bodies were made into mummies. It is from the wrappings of the mummy that most of the small amulets and scarabs have come which fill so large a space in collections of Egyptian antiquities, as well as many of the papyri which have given us an insight into the literature of the past. We have been taught to believe that from times immemorial the Egyptians mummified their dead, and that the practice was connected with an equally immemorial faith in the resurrection of the dead; and yet recent excavations have made it clear that such a belief is erroneous. Mummification was never universal in Egypt, and there was a time when it was not practised at all. It was unknown to the prehistoric populations whom the Pharaonic Egyptians found on their arrival in the country; and among the Pharaonic Egyptians themselves it seems to have spread only slowly. Few traces of it have been met with before the age of the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, if, indeed, any have been met with at all.

But, as we shall see hereafter, the practice of mummification was closely hound up with a belief in the resurrection of the dead. The absence of it accordingly implies that this belief was either non-existent, or, at all events, did not as yet occupy a prominent place in the Egyptian creed. Like embalming, it must have been introduced by the Pharaonic Egyptians; it was not until the older races of the country had been absorbed by their conquerors that mummification became general, along with the religious ideas that were connected with it. Before the age of the Eighteenth Dynasty it seems to have been practically confined to the court and the official priesthood.

On the other hand, one at least of the prehistoric races appears to have practised secondary burial. The skeletons discovered in its graves have been mutilated in an extraordinary manner. The skull, the legs, the arms, the feet, and the hands have been found dissevered from the trunk; even the backbone itself is sometimes broken into separate portions; and there are cases in which the whole skeleton is a mere heap of dismembered bones. But, in spite of this dismemberment, the greatest care has been taken to preserve the separate fragments, which are often placed side by side. An explanation of the dismemberment has been sought in cannibalism, but cannibals do not take the trouble to collect the bones of their victims and bury them with all the marks of respect; moreover, the bones have not been gnawed except in one or two examples, where wild beasts rather than man must have been at work. It seems evident, therefore, that the race whose dismembered remains have thus been found in so many of the prehistoric cemeteries of Egypt, allowed the bodies of the dead to remain unburied until the flesh had been stripped from their bones by the birds and beasts of prey, and that it was only when this had been done that the sun-bleached bones were consigned to the tomb. Similar practices still prevail in certain parts of the world; apart from the Parsi “towers of silence,” it is still the custom in New Guinea to leave the corpse among the branches of a tree until the flesh is entirely destroyed.3

Between mummification and secondary burial no reconciliation is possible. The conceptions upon which the two practices rest are contradictory one to the other. In the one case every effort is made to keep the body intact and to preserve the flesh from decay; in the other case the body is cast forth to the beasts of the desert and the fowls of the air, and its very skeleton allowed to be broken up. A people who practised secondary burial can hardly have believed in a future existence of the body itself. Their belief must rather have been in the existence of that shadowy, vapour-like form, comparable to the human breath, in which so many races of mankind have pictured to themselves the imperishable part of man. It was the misty ghost, seen in dreams or detected at night amid the shadows of the forest, that survived the death of the body; the body itself returned to the earth from whence it had sprung

This prehistoric belief left its traces in the official religion of later Egypt. The Ba or “Soul,” with the figure of a bird and the head of a man, is its direct descendant. As we shall see, the conception of the Ba fits but ill with that of the mummy, and the harmonistic efforts of a later date were unable altogether to hide the inner contradiction that existed between them. The soul, which fled on the wings of a bird to the world beyond the sky, was not easily to be reconciled with the mummified body which was eventually to lead a life in the other world that should be a repetition and reflection of its life in this. How the Ba and the mummy were to be united, the official cult never endeavoured to explain; the task was probably beyond its powers. It was content to leave the two conceptions side by side, bidding the individual believer reconcile them as best he could.

The fact illustrates another which must always be kept in mind in dealing with Egyptian religion. Up to the last it remained without a philosophic system. There were, it is true, certain sides of it which were reduced to systems, certain parts of the official creed which became philosophies. But as a whole it was a loosely-connected agglomeration of beliefs and practices which had come down from the past, and one after the other had found a place in the religion of the State. No attempt was ever made to form them into a coherent and homogeneous whole, or to find a philosophic basis upon which they all might rest. Such an idea, indeed, never occurred to the Egyptian. He was quite content to take his religion as it had been handed down to him, or as it was prescribed by the State; he had none of that inner retrospection which distinguishes the Hindu, none of that desire to know the causes of things which characterised the Greek. The contradictions which we find in the articles of his creed never troubled him; he never perceived them, or if he did they were ignored. He has left to us the task of finding a philosophic basis for his faith, and of fixing the central ideas round which it revolved; the task is a hard one, and it is rendered the harder by the imperfection of our materials.

The Egyptian was no philosopher, but he had an immense veneration for the past. The past, indeed, was ever before him; he could not escape from it. Objects and monuments which would have perished in other countries were preserved almost in their pristine freshness by the climate under which he lived. As to-day, so too in the age of the Pharaohs, the earliest and the latest of things jostled one another, and it was often difficult to say which of the two looked the older. The past was preserved in a way that it could not be elsewhere; nothing perished except by the hand of man. And man, brought up in such an atmosphere of continuity, became intensely conservative. Nature itself only increased the tendency. The Nile rose and fell with monotonous regularity; year after year the seasons succeeded each other without change; and the agriculturist was not dependent on the variable alternations of rain and sunshine, or even of extreme heat and cold. In Egypt, accordingly, the new grew up and was adopted without displacing the old. It was a land to which the rule did not apply that “the old order changeth, giving place to new.” The old order might, indeed, change, through foreign invasion or the inventions of human genius, but all the same it did not give place to the new. The new simply took a place by the side of the old.

The Egyptian system of writing is a striking illustration of the fact. All the various stages through which writing must pass, in its development out of pictures into alphabetic letters, exist in it side by side. The hieroglyphs can be used at once ideographically, syllabically, and alphabetically. And what is true of Egyptian writing is true also of Egyptian religion. The various elements out of which it arose are all still traceable in it; none of them has been discarded, however little it might harmonise with the elements with which it has been combined. Religious ideas which belong to the lowest and to the highest forms of the religious consciousness, to races of different origin and different age, exist in it side by side.

It is true that even in organised religions we find similar combinations of heterogeneous elements. Survivals from a distant past are linked in them with the conceptions of a later age, and beliefs of divergent origin have been incorporated by them into the same creed. But it is a definite and coherent creed into which they have been embodied; the attempt has been made to fuse them into a harmonious whole, and to explain away their apparent divergencies and contradictions. Either the assertion is made that the creed of the present has come down unchanged from the past, or else it is maintained that the doctrines and rites of the past have developed normally and gradually into those of the present.

But the Egyptian made no such endeavour. He never realised that there was any necessity for making it. It was sufficient that a thing should have descended to him from his ancestors for it to be true, and he never troubled himself about its consistency with other parts of his belief. He accepted it as he accepted the inconsistencies and inequalities of life, without any effort to work them into a harmonious theory or form them into a philosophic system. His religion was like his temples, in which the art and architecture of all the past centuries of his history existed side by side. All that the past had bequeathed to him must be preserved, if possible; it might be added to, but not modified or destroyed.

It is curious that the same spirit has prevailed in modern Egypt. The native never restores. If a building or the furniture within it goes to decay, no attempt is made to mend or repair it; it is left to moulder on in the spot where it stands, while a new building or a new-piece of furniture is set up beside it. That the new and the old should not agree together—should, in fact, be in glaring contrast—is a matter of no moment. This veneration for the past, which preserves without repairing or modifying or even adapting to the surroundings of the present, is a characteristic which is deeply engrained in the mind of the Egyptian. It had its prior origin in the physical and climatic conditions of the country in which he was born, and has long since become a leading characteristic of his race.

Along with the inability to take a general view of the beliefs he held, and to reduce them to a philosophic system, went an inability to form abstract ideas. This inability, again, may be traced to natural causes. Thanks to the perpetual sunshine of the valley of the Nile, the Egyptian leads an open-air life. Except for the purpose of sleep, his house is of little use to him, and in the summer months even his sleep is usually taken on the roof. He thus lives constantly in the light and warmth of a southern sun, in a land where the air is so dry and clear that the outlines of the most distant objects are sharp and distinct, and there is no melting of shadow into light, such as characterises our northern climes. Everything is clear; nothing is left to the imagination; and the sense of sight is that which is most frequently brought into play. It is what the Egyptian sees rather than what he hears or handles that impresses itself upon his memory, and it is through his eyes that he recognises and remembers.

At the same time this open-air life is by no means one of leisure. The peculiar conditions of the valley of the Nile demand incessant labour on the part of its population. Fruitful as the soil is when once it is watered, without water it remains a barren desert or an unwholesome marsh. And the only source of water is the river Nile. The Nile has to be kept within its banks, to be diverted into canals, or distributed over the fields by irrigating machines, before a single blade of wheat can grow or a single crop be gathered in. Day after day must the Egyptian labour, repairing the dykes and canals, ploughing the ground, planting the seed, and incessantly watering it; the Nile is ready to take advantage of any relaxation of vigilance and toil, to submerge or sweep away the cultivated land, or to deny to it the water that it needs. Of all people the Egyptian is the most industrious; the conditions under which he has to till the soil oblige him to be so, and to spend his existence in constant agricultural work.

But, as I have already pointed out, this work is monotonously regular. There are no unexpected breaks in it; no moments when a sudden demand is made for exceptional labour. The farmer's year is all mapped out for him beforehand: what his forefathers have done for unnumbered centuries before him, he too has to do almost to a day. It is steady toil, day after day, from dawn to night, during the larger portion of the year.

This steady toil in the open air gives no opportunity for philosophic meditation or introspective theorising. On the contrary, life for the Egyptian fellah is a very real and practical thing: he knows beforehand what he has to do in order to gain his bread, and he has no time in which to theorise about it. It is, moreover, his sense of sight which is constantly being exercised. The things which he knows and remembers are the things which he sees, and he sees them clearly in the clear sunshine of his fields.

We need not wonder, therefore, that the ancient Egyptian should have shown on the one hand an incapacity for abstract thought, and on the other hand a love of visible symbols. The two, in fact, were but the reverse sides of the same mental tendency. Symbolism, indeed, is always necessary before we can apprehend the abstract: it is only through the sensuous symbol that we can express the abstract thought. But the Egyptian did not care to penetrate beyond the expression. He was satisfied with the symbol which he could see and remember, and the result was that his religious ideas were material rather than spiritual. The material husk, as it were, sufficed for him, and he did not trouble to inquire too closely about the kernel within. The soul was for him a human-headed bird, which ascended on its wings to the heavens above; and the future world itself was but a duplicate of the Egypt which his eyes gazed upon below.

The hieroglyphic writing was at once an illustration and an encouragement of this characteristic of his mind. All abstract ideas were expressed in it by symbols which he could see and understand. The act of eating was denoted by the picture of a man with his hand to his mouth, the idea of wickedness by the picture of a sparrow. And these symbolic pictures were usually attached to the words they represented, even when the latter had come to be syllabically and alphabetically spelt. Even in reading and writing, therefore, the Egyptian was not required to concern himself overmuch with abstract thought. The concrete symbols were ever before his eyes, and it was their mental pictures which took the place for him of abstract ideas.

It must, of course, be remembered that the foregoing generalisations apply to the Egyptian people as a whole. There were individual exceptions; there was even a class the lives of whose members were not devoted to agricultural or other labour, and whose religious conceptions were often spiritual and sublime. This was the class of priests, whose power and influence increased with the lapse of time, and who eventually moulded the official theology of Egypt. Priestly colleges arose in the great sanctuaries of the country, and gradually absorbed a considerable part of its land and revenues. At first the priests do not seem to have been a numerous body, and up to the last the higher members of the hierarchy were comparatively few. But in their hands the religious beliefs of the people underwent modification, and even a rudimentary systematisation; the different independent cults of the kingdom were organised and combined together, and with this organisation came philosophic speculation and theorising. If Professor Maspero is right, the two chief schools of religious thought and systematising in early Egypt were at Heliopolis, near the apex of the Delta, and Hermopolis, the modern Eshmunên, in Central Egypt. In Hermopolis the conception of creation, not by voice merely, but even by the mere sound of the voice, was first formed and worked out while Heliopolis was the source of that arrangement of the deities into groups of nine which led to the identification of the gods one with another, and so prepared the way for monotheism.4 If Heliopolis were indeed, as seems probable, the first home of this religious theory, its influence upon the rest of Egypt was profound. Already in the early part of the historical period, in the age of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, when the religious texts of the Pyramids were compiled, the scheme which placed the Ennead or group of nine at the head of the Pantheon had been accepted throughout the country. It was the beginning of an inevitable process of thought, which ended by resolving the deities of the official cult into forms or manifestations one of the other, and by landing its adherents in pantheism.

To a certain extent, therefore, the general incapacity for abstract thought which distinguished the Egyptians did not hold good of the priestly colleges. But even among the priests the abstract was never entirely dissociated from the symbol. Symbolism still dominates the profoundest thoughts and expressions of the later inscriptions; the writer cannot free himself from the sensuous image, except perhaps in a few individual cases. At the most, Egyptian thought cannot rise further than the conception of “the god who has no form”—a confession in itself of inability to conceive of what is formless. It is true that after the rise of the Eighteenth Dynasty the deity is addressed as Kheper zes-ef, “that which is self-grown,” “the self-existent”; but when we find the same epithet applied also to plants like the balsam and minerals like saltpetre, it is clear that it does not possess the abstract significance we should read into it to-day. It simply expresses the conviction that the god to whom the prayer is offered is a god who was never born in human fashion, but who grew up of himself, like the mineral which effloresces from the ground, or the plant which is not grown from seed. Similarly, when it is said of him that he is “existent from the beginning,”—kheper em ḥat,—or, as it is otherwise expressed, that he is “the father of the beginning,” the phrase is less abstract than it seems at first sight to be. The very word kheper or “existent” denotes the visible universe, while ḥat or “beginning” is the hinder extremity. The phrase can be pressed just as little as the epithet “lord of eternity,” applied to deities whose birth and death are nevertheless asserted in the same breath. Perhaps the most abstract conception of the divine to which the Egyptian attained was that of “the nameless one,” since the name was regarded as something very real and concrete, as, in fact, the essence of that to which it belonged. To say, therefore, that a thing was nameless, was equivalent to either denying its existence or to lifting it out of the world of the concrete altogether.

There was a moment in the history of Egypt when an attempt was made to put a real signification into the apparently abstract terms and phrases addressed to the gods. The Pharaoh Khu-n-Aten, towards the close of the Eighteenth Dynasty, appears suddenly on the scene as a royal reformer, determined to give life and meaning to the language which had described the supreme deity as “the sole and only god,” the absolute ruler of the universe, who was from all eternity, and whose form was hidden from men, But the impulse to the reform came from Asia. Khu-n-Aten's mother was a foreigner, and his attempt to engraft Asiatic ideas upon Egyptian religion, or rather to substitute an Asiatic form of faith for that of his fathers, proved a failure. The worship of the one supreme deity, whose visible symbol was the solar disc, though enforced by persecution and by all the power of the Pharaoh himself, hardly survived his death. Amon of Thebes and his priesthood came victorious out of the struggle, and the pantheistic monotheism of Khu-n-Aten was never revived. Symbolism remained, while the abstract thought, to which that symbolism should have been a stepping-stone, failed to penetrate into Egyptian religion. The Egyptian continued to be content with the symbol, as his father had been before him. But in the priestly colleges and among the higher circles of culture it became less materialistic; while the mass of the people still saw nothing but the symbol itself, the priests and scribes looked as it were beyond it, and saw in the symbol the picture of some divine truth, the outward garment in which the deity had clothed himself. What constituted, however, the peculiarity of the Egyptian point of view was, that this outward garment was never separated from that which it covered; it was regarded as an integral part of the divine essence, which could no more be dissociated from it than the surface of a statue can be dissociated from the stone of which it is made. The educated Egyptian came to see in the multitudinous gods of the public worship merely varying manifestations or forms of one divine substance; but still they were manifestations or forms visible to the senses, and apart from such forms the divine substance had no existence. It is characteristic that the old belief was never disavowed, that images were actually animated by the gods or human personalities whose likeness they bore, and whom they were expressively said to have “devoured”; indeed, the king still received the Sa or principle of immortality from contact with the statue of the god he served; and wonder-working images, which inclined the head towards those who asked them questions, continued to be consulted in the temples.5 At Dendera the soul of the goddess Hathor was believed to descend from heaven in the form of a hawk of lapislazuli in order to vivify her statue;6 and the belief is a significant commentary on the mental attitude of her worshippers.

One result of the Egyptian's inability or disinclination for abstract thought was the necessity not only of representing the gods under special and definite forms, but even of always so thinking of them. The system of writing, with its pictorial characters, favoured the habit; and we can well understand how difficult the most educated scribe must have found it to conceive of Thoth otherwise than as an ibis, or of Hathor otherwise than as a cow. Whatever may have been the origin of the Egyptian worship of animals, or—which is something very different—of the identification of certain individual animals with the principal gods, its continuance was materially assisted by the sacred writing of the scribes and the pictures that adorned the walls of the temples. To the ordinary Egyptian, Thoth was indeed an ibis, and the folk-lore of the great sanctuaries accordingly described him as such.7 But to the cultured Egyptian, also, the ibis was his symbol; and in Egypt, as we have seen, the symbol and what is symbolised were apt to be confounded together.

The beast-worship of Egypt excited the astonishment and ridicule of the Greeks and Romans, and the unmeasured scorn of the Christian apologists. I shall have to deal with it in a later lecture. For the present it is sufficient to point out how largely it owed its continued existence to the need for symbolism which characterised Egyptian thought, in spite of the fact that there was another and contradictory conception which held sway within Egyptian religion. This was the conception of the divinity of man, which found its supreme expression in the doctrine that the Pharaoh was the incarnation of the sun-god. It was not in the brute beast, but in man himself, that the deity revealed himself on earth.

The origin of the conception must be sought in the early history of the country. Egypt was not at first the united monarchy it afterwards became. It was divided into a number of small principalities, each independent of the other and often hostile. It is probable that in some cases the inhabitants of these principalities did not belong to the same race; that while in one the older population predominated, in another the Pharaonic Egyptians held absolute sway. At all events the manners and customs of their inhabitants were not uniform, any more than the religious beliefs they held and the rites they practised. The god who was honoured in one place was abhorred in another, and a rival deity set over against him.

True to its conservative principles, Egypt never forgot the existence of these early principalities. They continued to survive in a somewhat changed form. They became the nomes of Pharaonic Egypt, separate districts resembling to a certain degree the States of the American Republic; and preserving to the last their independent life and organisation. Each nome had its own capital, its own central sanctuary, and its own prince; above all, it had its own special god or goddess, with their attendant deities, their college of priests, their ceremonies and their festivals. Up to the age of the Hyksos conquest the hereditary princes of the nomes were feudal lords, owning a qualified obedience to the Pharaoh, and furnishing him with tribute and soldiers when called upon to do so. It was not till after the rise of the Eighteenth Dynasty that the old feudal nobility was replaced by court officials and a bureaucracy which owed its position to the king; and even then the descendants of the ancient princes were ever on the watch to take advantage of the weakness of the central authority and recover the power they had lost. Up to the last, too, the gods of the several nomes preserved a semblance of their independent character. It was only with the rise of the new kingdom and the accession of the Eighteenth Dynasty that that process of fusion set in to any real purpose which identified the various deities one with another, and transformed them into kaleidoscopic forms of Amon or Ra. The loss of their separate and independent character went along with the suppression of the feudal families with whom their worship had been associated for unnumbered generations. The feudal god and the feudal prince disappeared together: the one became absorbed into the supreme god of the Pharaoh and his priests, the other into a functionary of the court. It was only in the hearts and minds of the people that Thoth remained what he had always been, the lord and master of Hermopolis, and of Hermopolis alone.

The principalities of primitive Egypt gradually became unified into two or three kingdoms, and eventually into two kingdoms only, those of Upper and Lower Egypt. Recent discoveries have thrown unexpected light on this early period of history. At one time the capital of the southern kingdom was Nekhen, called Hierakonpolis in the Greek period, the site of which is now represented by the ruins of Kom el-Ahmar, opposite El-Kab. Here, among the foundations of the ancient temple, Mr. Quibell has found remains which probably go back to an age before that of Menes and the rise of the united Egyptian monarchy. Among them are huge vases of alabaster and granite, which were dedicated by a certain king Besh in the year when he conquered the people of Northern Egypt. On the other hand, on a stela now at Palermo a list is given of kings who seem to have reigned over Northern Egypt while the Pharaohs of Nekhen were reigning in the south.8

For how many centuries the two kingdoms existed side by side, sometimes in peaceful intercourse, sometimes in hostile collision, it is impossible to say. The fact that Egypt had once been divided into two kingdoms was never forgotten; down to the last days of the Egyptian monarchs the Pharaoh bore the title of “lord of the two lands,” and on his head was placed the twofold crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Nekhen was under the protection not only of Horus, the god of the Pharaonic Egyptians, but also of Nekheb, the tutelary goddess of the whole of the southern land. From the Cataract northward her dominion extended, but it was at El-Kab opposite Nekhen, where the road from the Red Sea and the mines of the desert reached the Nile, that her special sanctuary stood. Besh calls himself on his vases “the son of Nekheb”; and even as late as the time of the Sixth Dynasty the eldest son of the king was entitled “the royal son of Nekheb.”9

Nekheb, the vulture, was the goddess of the south, in contradistinction to Uazit, the serpent, the goddess of the north. But in both the south and the north the same dominant race held rule, the same customs prevailed, and the same language was spoken. The Pharaonic Egyptians, in their northern advance, had carried with them a common legacy of ideas and manners. Their religious conceptions had been the same, and consequently the general form assumed by the religious cult was similar. In spite of local differences and the self-centred character of the numerous independent principalities, there was, nevertheless, a family likeness between them all. Ideas and customs, therefore, which grew up in one place passed readily to another, and the influence of a particular local sanctuary was easily carried beyond the limits of the district in which it stood.

One of the most fundamental of the beliefs which the Pharaonic Egyptians brought with them was that in the divine origin of certain individuals. The prince who led them was not only the son of a god or goddess, he was an incarnation of the god himself. The belief is one of the many facts which link the Pharaonic civilisation with the culture of primitive Babylonia. In Babylonia also the king was divine. One of the early kings of Ur calls himself the son of a goddess, just as Besh does at Nekhen; and the great conquerors of primeval Asia, Sargon of Akkad and his son Naram-Sin, give themselves the title of “god” in their inscriptions; while Naram-Sin is even invoked during his lifetime as “the god of the city of Agadê” or Akkad. For many generations the Babylonian kings continued to receive divine honours while they were still alive; and it was not until after the conquest of Babylonia by a tribe of half-civilised foreigners from the mountains of Elam that the old tradition was broken, and the reigning king ceased to be a god. Like the doctrine of the divine right of kings in England, which could not survive the fall of the Stuarts, the doctrine of the divine nature of the monarch did not survive in Babylonia the fall of the native dynasties.

In Babylonia also, as in Egypt, the king continued to be invoked as a god after his death. Chapels and priests were consecrated to his memory, and stated sacrifices and offerings made to him. It was not necessary that the deified prince should be the supreme sovereign, it was sufficient if he were the head of a feudal principality. Thus, while Dungi, the supreme sovereign of Babylonia, receives in his inscriptions the title of “god,” his vassal Gudea, the high priest and hereditary prince of the city of Lagas, is likewise worshipped as a deity, whose cult lasted for many centuries. Gudea was non-Semitic in race, but most of the Babylonian kings who were thus deified were Semites. It is therefore possible that the deification of the ruler was of Semitic origin, and only adopted from them by the older Sumerian population, as in the case of Gudea; it is also possible that it was one of the consequences of that fusion of the two races, Sumerian and Semitic, which produced the later population and culture of Babylonia. However this may be, the apotheosis of the Babylonian king during his lifetime can be traced back as far as Sargon and Naram-Sin, 3800 B.C. Sargon incorporated Palestine, “the land of the Amorites,” as it was then called, into his empire, while Naram-Sin extended his conquests to Mâgan or the Sinaitic Peninsula, thus bringing the arms and civilisation of Babylonia to the very doors of Egypt. The precise nature of the connection which existed between the Babylonian and the Egyptian belief in the divinity of the ruler must be left to future research.

In the Egyptian mind, at all events, it was a belief that was deeply implanted. The Pharaoh was a god upon earth. Like the Incas of Peru, he belonged to the solar race, and the blood which flowed in his veins was the ichor of the gods. The existence of a similar belief in Peru shows how easy it was for such a belief to grow up in regard to the leader of a conquering people who brought with them a higher culture and the arts of life. But it presupposes religious conceptions which, though characteristic of Babylonia, are directly contrary to those which seem to underlie the religion of Egypt. Among the Babylonians the gods assumed human forms; man had been made in the likeness of the gods, and the gods therefore were of human shape. The converse, however, was the case in Egypt. Here the gods, with few exceptions, were conceived of as brute beasts. Horus was the hawk, Nekheb the vulture, Uazit of Buto the deadly uræus snake.

There is only one way of explaining the anomaly. The conception of the gods which made them men must have come from outside, and been imposed upon a people whose gods were the brute beasts. It must have been the Pharaonic invaders from Asia to whom the leader they followed was an incarnate god. Hence it was just this leader and no other who was clothed with divinity. Hence, too, it was that the older worship of animals was never really harmonised with the worship of the Pharaoh. The inner contradiction which existed between the new religious conceptions remained to the end, in spite of all the efforts of the priestly colleges to make them agree. Religious art might represent the god with the head of a beast or bird and the body of a man, the sacred books might teach that the deity is unconfined by form, and so could pass at will from the body of a man into that of a beast; but all such makeshifts could not hide the actual fact. Between the deity who is human and the deity who is bestial no true reconciliation is possible.

We must therefore trace the deification of the Pharaoh back to Asia, and the Asiatic element in the Egyptian population. The Pharaonic conquerors of the valley of the Nile were those “followers of Horus” who worshipped their leader as a god. It was a god in human form who had led them to victory, and Horus accordingly continued to be represented as a man, even though the symbolism of the hieroglyphs united with the creed of the prehistoric races of Egypt in giving him the head of a hawk.

At first the ruler of each of the small kingdoms into which prehistoric Egypt was divided, was honoured as a god, like Gudea in Babylonia. When the kingdoms became, first, vassal principalities under a paramount lord, and then nomes, the old tradition was still maintained. Divine titles were given to the nomarchs even in the later times of the united monarchy, and after their death worship continued to be paid to them.10 Christian writers tell us how at Anabê particular individuals were regarded as gods, to whom offerings were accordingly brought; and Ptah, the tutelary deity of Memphis, was pictured as a man in the wrappings of a mummy, while to Anhur of This the human figure was assigned.

With the coalescence of the smaller principalities into two kingdoms, the deification of the ruler was confined within narrower bounds. But for that very reason it became more absolute and intense. The supreme sovereign, the Pharaoh as we may henceforth call him, was a veritable god on earth. To his subjects he was the source, not only of material benefits, but of spiritual blessings as well. He was “the good god,” the beneficent dispenser of all good things.11 The power of life and death was in his hand, and rebellion against him was rebellion against the gods. The blood that flowed in his veins was the same as that which flowed in the veins of the gods; it was even communicated to him from time to time by his divine brethren; and the bas-reliefs of a later age, when the traditional belief had become little more than a symbolical allegory, still depict him with his back towards the statue of the god, who is transfusing the ichor of heaven through his veins.12

Menes, the king of Upper Egypt, first united under one sceptre the two kingdoms of the Nile. The divinity which had hitherto been shared between the Pharaohs of Upper and Lower Egypt now passed in all it fulness to him. He became the visible god of Egypt, just as Sargon or Naram-Sin was the visible god of Akkad. All the attributes of divinity belonged to him, as they were conceived of by his subjects, and from him they passed to his successors. Legitimacy of birth was reckoned through the mother, and through the mother accordingly the divine nature of the Pharaoh was handed on. Only those who had been born of a princess of the royal family could be considered to possess it in all its purity; and where this title was wanting, it was necessary to assume the direct intervention of a god. The mother of Amon-hotep III. was of Asiatic origin; we read, therefore, on the walls of the temple of Luxor, that he was born of a virgin and the god of Thebes. Alexander, the conqueror of Egypt, was a Macedonian; it was needful, accordingly, that he should be acknowledged as a son by the god of the oasis of Ammon.13

But such consequences of the old Egyptian belief in the incarnation of the deity in man are leading us away into a field of investigation which will have to be traversed in a future lecture. For the present, it is sufficient to keep two facts steadily before the mind: on the one side, the old Egyptian belief in the divinity of the brute beast; on the other, the equally old belief in the divinity of man. The two beliefs are not really to be harmonised one with the other; they were, in fact, derived from different elements in the Egyptian population; but, with his usual conservative instinct and avoidance of abstract thought, the Egyptian of later days co-ordinated them together, and closed his eyes to their actual incompatibility.

  • 1.

    See Schweinfurth, “Ueber den Ursprung der Aegypter,” in the Verhandlungen der Berliner anthropologischen Gesellschaft, June 1897.

  • 2.

    See W. M. Flinders Petrie, Religion and Conscience in Ancient Egypt, 1898.

  • 3.

    “The custom of dismembering the body or stripping it of its flesh is widely spread: the neolithic tombs of Italy contain skulls and bones which have been painted red; Baron de Baye has found in the tombs of Champagne skeletons stripped of their flesh, and the Patagonians and Andamanners as well as the New Zealanders still practise the custom” (De Morgan, Recherches sur les Origines de l' Egypte, ii. p. 142). Secondary burial is met with in India among the Kullens, the Kâthkaris, and the Agariya, as well as in Motu, Melanesia, Sarawak, the Luchu Islands, Torres Straits, and Ashanti, while “in some of the English long barrows the bones appear to have been flung in pell-mell” (Crooke in Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xxix. pp. 284–286 (1899)).

  • 4.

    See Maspero, Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie égyptiennes, ii. p. 372 sqq.

  • 5.

    See Maspero, Études de Mythologie et l' Archéologie égyptiennes, i. p. 85 sqq.

  • 6.

    Mariette, Dendérah, Texte, p. 156.

  • 7.

    In the Pyramid texts the dead are described as being carried across the lake which separates this world from the fields of Alu, on the wings of Thoth.

  • 8.

    See Sethe in the Zeitschrift für Aegyptischer Sprache, 1897, 1.

  • 9.

    Similarly the “chief Kker-heb” of the Pharaoh, in the age of the Old Empire, bore the title of “Chief of the city of Nekheb” (Ebers, Life in Ancient Egypt, Eng. tr., p. 90). The Pyramid texts speak of the White Crown of Southern Egypt as well as of the royal uræus “in the city of Nekheb” (pepi 167); and the goddess of the city is described as “the cow Samet-urt” who was crowned with the two feathers (Teta, 359). Elsewhere mention is made of “the souls of On, Nekhen, and Pe” (Pepi 168, 182; see also Teta 272). By the “souls of On” Ra or rather Tum was meant; Pe and Dep constituted the twin-city of the Delta called Buto by the Greeks, over a part of which (Dep) Uazit the serpent-goddess of the north presided, while the other half (Pe) acknowledged Horus as its chief deity. In Teta 88 “the doubles in Pe” are said to be “the double of Horus.”

  • 10.

    Wiedemann, in the Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology, iv. p. 332.

  • 11.

    The title of “good god” went back to a very early date, and stands in contrast to that of nefer mât-kher, “good and true of voice,” applied to the ordinary individual on early seal-cylinders.

  • 12.

    See the illustration from the temple of Amon-hotep III. at Luxor, in Maspero, Dawn of Civilisation, p. 111.

  • 13.

    The Westcar Papyrus, which was written in the time of the Middle Empire, already describes the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty as born of Ruddadt (the wife of a priest of the sun-god) and the god Ra of Sakhab (Erman, “Die Märchen des Papyrus Westcar,” i. p. 55, in the Mittheilungen aus den orientalischen Sammlungen zu Berlin, 1890).