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Lecture 5: Animal Worship

ST. CLEMENT of Alexandria thus describes the religion of his Egyptian neighbours (Pædag. iii. 2): “Among (the Egyptians) the temples are surrounded with groves and consecrated pastures; they are provided with propylæa, and their courts are encircled with an infinite number of columns; their walls glitter with foreign marbles and paintings of the highest art; the sanctuary is resplendent with gold and silver and electrum, and many-coloured stones from India and Ethiopia; the shrine within it is veiled by a curtain wrought with gold. But if you pass beyond into the remotest part of the enclosure in the expectation of beholding something yet more excellent, and look for the image which dwells in the temple, a pastophorus or some other minister, singing a pæan in the Egyptian language with a pompous air, draws aside a small portion of the curtain, as if about to show us the god; and makes us burst into a loud laugh. For no god is found therein, but a cat, or a crocodile, or a serpent sprung from the soil, or some such brute animal … and the Egyptian deity is revealed as a beast that rolls itself on a purple coverlet.”

St. Clement was a Christian philosopher and apologist, but the animal worship of the Egyptians was quite as much an object of ridicule to the pagan writers of Greece and Rome. “Who has not heard,” says Juvenal (Sat. xv.),—“who has not heard, where Egypt's realms are named—

“What monster gods her frantic sons have framed?

Here Ibis gorged with well-grown serpents, there

The crocodile commands religious fear; …

And should you leeks or onions eat, no time

Would expiate the sacrilegious crime;

Religious nations sure, and blest abodes,

Where every orchard is o'errun with gods!”

A Roman soldier who had accidentally killed a cat was torn to pieces by the mob before the eyes of Diodorus, although the Romans were at the time masters of the country, and the reigning Ptolemy did his utmost to save the offender.1 For the majority of the people the cat was an incarnate god.

This worship of animals was a grievous puzzle to the philosophers of the classical age. The venerable antiquity of Egypt, the high level of its moral code, and, above all, the spiritual and exalted character of so much of its religion, had deeply impressed the thinking world of the Roman Empire. That world had found, in a blending of Egyptian religious ideas with Greek metaphysics, a key to the mysteries of life and death; in the so-called Hermetic books the old beliefs and religious conceptions of Egypt were reduced to a system and interpreted from a Greek point of view, while the Neo-Platonic philosophy was an avowed attempt to combine the symbolism of Egypt with the subtleties of Greek thought. But the animal worship was hard to reconcile with philosophy; even symbolism failed to explain it away, or to satisfy the mind of the inquirer. Plutarch had boldly denied that the worship of an animal was in any way more absurd than that of an image; the deity, if so he chose, could manifest himself in either equally well. Porphyry had recourse to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. If the soul migrated after death into the body of some lower animal, he urged, it would communicate to the latter a portion of the divine essence. But after all this was no explanation of the worship paid to the animal; the soul had not been worshipped while it was still in the body of its original possessor, and there was therefore no reason why it should be worshipped when it was embodied in another form. Moreover, metempsychosis in the Greek sense was never an Egyptian doctrine. All the Egyptian held was that the soul, after it had been justified and admitted to a state of blessedness, could enter for a time whatever material form it chose; could fly to heaven, for instance, in the body of a swallow, or return to the mummified body in which it had once dwelt. But such embodiments were merely temporary, and matters of free choice; they were like a garment, which the soul could put on and take off at will.

Modern writers have found it as difficult to explain the animal worship of ancient Egypt as the philosophers and theologians of Greece and Rome. Creuzer declared that it was the result of a poverty of imagination, and that the beasts were worshipped because they embodied certain natural phenomena. Lenormant argued, on the other hand, that it was due to a high spiritual conception of religion, which prevented the Egyptians from adoring lifeless rocks and stones like the other nations of antiquity. Of late the tendency has been to see in it a sort of totemism which prevailed among the aboriginal population of the country, and was tolerated by the higher religion of the Pharaonic immigrants. In this case it would represent the religion of the prehistoric race or races, and its admittance into the official religion would be paralleled by the history of Braḥmanism, which has similarly tolerated the cults and superstitions of the aboriginal tribes of India. Indeed, it is possible to discover an analogous procedure in the history of Christianity itself. The lower beliefs and forms of worship can be explained away wherever needful with the help of symbolism and allegory, while the mass of the people are left in the undisturbed enjoyment of the religious ideas and rites of their forefathers.

Recent discoveries, however, have cast a new light on the matter. The early monuments of Egyptian history, found in the neolithic graves and among the remains of the first dynasties, have shown that the animal worship of Egypt was only part of a larger system. Slate plaques, on which are represented the actions of Pharaohs who preceded Menes or were his immediate successors, prove that the prevailing system of religion must have been one closely akin to African fetishism. The gods appear frequently, but they always appear under the form of what in later times were regarded as their symbols. Sometimes the symbol is an animal or bird, but sometimes also it is a lifeless object. The human forms, to which we are accustomed in later Egyptian art, are absent;2 there is nothing to tell us that the religion of the time was in any way distinguished from the fetishism of Dahomey or the Congo.

Thus on a slate plaque from Kom el-Ahmar (opposite El-Kab3) we see the Pharaoh entering the hall in which lie the bodies of his decapitated foes, while four standards are borne before him. On the first two are the hawks of Horus, on the third the jackal of Anubis, on the last an object which may be intended for a lock of hair.4 On the reverse of the plaque the god is bringing before him the prisoners of the north. But the god is a hawk, whose human hand grasps the rope by which the conquered enemy is dragged along. On a plaque of equally early date, found at Abydos, five standards are depicted, the foot of each of which is shaped like a hand holding a rope. Above the first two standards are the jackals of Anubis, on the next the ibis of Thoth, then the hawk of Horus, and, finally, the curious object which is the emblem of Min. On a still older plaque from the same locality the names of the cities ruled (or conquered) by the Pharaoh are inscribed, each within its battlemented wall, while above is the animal god by which it is said to be “beloved” or perhaps “destroyed.” The last of the cities is “the royal” capital, above which stand the two hawks of Horus, who are perched on the standards of the king; behind it are the names of the other towns under the protection of the scorpion of Selk, the lion of Sekhet, and the hawk of Horus.5

But we can trace the standards and the symbols upon them still farther back. M. de Morgan has pointed out that the rude and primitive boats painted on the pottery of the prehistoric graves have their prows ornamented with standards which are precisely the same in shape as the standards that were borne before the Pharaoh. On the top of one as perched a hippopotamus, on another a fish; on another is a flowering branch, on another the sail of a ship.6 We may conclude, therefore, that both standards and symbols were characteristic of the older population of the country whom the Pharaonic Egyptians found when they entered it. But the symbols had no connection with any kind of writing; we look in vain, either on the pottery or on any other object of prehistoric art, for hieroglyphic signs. The standard may have been adopted by the invading race from their conquered subjects, and so introduced into their system of writing; originally it was nothing but a primeval flagstaff at the prow of a boat. And, like the flagstaff, the symbol that served as a flag must have been of aboriginal invention.

Such, then, is the conclusion to which we are led by the newly-found monuments of early Egypt. On the Pharaonic monuments of that remote age the gods are not yet human; they are still represented by animals and other fetishes. And these fetishes have been borrowed from the older population of the valley of the Nile, along with the so-called standard on the top of which they were placed.

The standard with the emblem upon it denoted a nome in the historical days of Egypt. The emblem represented the god of the nome, or rather of the chief sanctuary in the nome. Where the god of the nome was Horus, the hawk appeared upon the standard; where two Horus-gods were worshipped, there were two hawks. As the prehistoric boat had been placed under the protection of the deity whose fetish or symbol was planted at its prow, so the nome was under the protection of the god whose emblem was erected on its standard. The standards borne before the Pharaoh on the plaque of Kom el-Aḥmar were the standards of the nomes over which he claimed rule.

It would seem, then, that the god of a nome was in most instances the god of the aboriginal tribe which originally inhabited it, and that the symbols by which these gods were known were primitively the gods themselves. On the plaque of Abydos it is not Selk or Sekhet who is the protecting deity of the city, but the scorpion and the lion. And by the side of animals and birds, as we have seen, we find also inanimate objects which are on exactly the same footing as the animals and birds. The primitive religion of Egypt must have been a form of fetishism.

But in passing from the older population to the Asiatic immigrants it underwent a change. The same slate plaques which portray Horus as a hawk and Anubis as a jackal, represent the king under the likeness of a bull. It is a literal pictorial rendering of the phrase so often met with in the inscriptions, in which the Pharaoh is described as a bull trampling on his enemies. The animal has ceased to represent the actual reality, and has become a symbol.

And this symbolism, it will be noticed, accompanies the introduction of symbolic writing. The figure of the bull which denotes the Pharaoh, is as much a symbol as the fish which forms part of his name. It is therefore fair to conclude that the hawk which brings the captured enemy to the king is also a symbol. The fetish has become symbolic; the hawk is no longer a god in and for itself, but because it is the embodiment of the divine Horus.

It was but a step further to unite the symbol with the human form. The process involved the disuse of inanimate objects; only the living could be fitly joined together. Horus could be depicted as a man with a hawk's head; it was less easy to combine the symbol of Min with a man's limbs. Such anthropomorphising followed necessarily from the deification of the Pharaoh. The race which turned its human leader into a god was bound to represent its gods under human form. In Egypt, however, the older element in the population, with its religious ideas, was too strong to be wholly disregarded by the ruling caste. The compromise, which had transformed the fetish into a symbol, ended by retaining the animal forms of the gods, but in subordination to the form of man. Henceforth, for the State religion, Horus wore merely the mask of a hawk.7

That the official figures of the gods were thus a compromise between two antagonistic currents of religious thought, appears very clearly when we compare Egypt with Babylonia. In Babylonia, also, there were symbols attached to the gods, some of them representing animals and birds, others inanimate objects. In Babylonia, moreover, the king was a god, both in his lifetime and after his death. But in Babylonia the figures of the gods of the State religion were all human; it was only the demons of the popular cult who were allowed to retain the bodies of beasts and birds. The gods themselves were all depicted in human form. The reason of this is simple: in Babylonia the Semitic conception of the deity was predominant; there was no fetishism to be conciliated, no animal worship to be reconciled with a higher faith. The emblems of the gods remained emblems, and the gods of heaven clothed themselves with the same form as the human god on earth.

In the retention of the primitive animal worship, therefore, we must see an evidence not only of the strength of that portion of the population to whom it originally belonged, but also of the conservative spirit which characterised the Egyptians. In this case, however, the conservative spirit was the result of the influence of the conquered race; art continued to represent Horus with the head of a hawk, just because those who believed him to be a bird continued to form an important part of the population. The popular cult and the popular superstitions were too widely spread to be disregarded.

Egyptian orthodoxy found a ready way in which to explain the animal forms of its gods. The soul, once freed from its earthly body, could assume whatever shape it chose, or rather, could inhabit as long as it would whatever body it chose to enter. And what was true of the human soul was equally true of the gods. They too were like men, differing indeed from men only in so far as they were already in the other world, and thus freed from the trammels and limitations of our present existence. The soul of Ra, which was practically Ra himself, could appear under the form of a bird, if so he willed. Transmigration from one body to another, indeed, never presented any difficulty to the Egyptian mind. It could be effected by the magician by means of his spells; and there were stories, like the folk-tales of modern Europe, which told how the life and individuality of a man could pass into the bodies of animals, and even into seeds and trees. The belief is common to most primitive peoples, and is doubtless due to the dreams in which the sleeper imagines himself possessed of some bodily form that is not his own.

We must then regard the animal worship of Egypt as the survival of an early fetishism. But it is a survival which has had to accommodate itself to the antagonistic conceptions of an anthropomorphic faith. By the side of the deified king the deified animal was allowed to remain, and man and beast were mixed together in religious art. It was parallel to the juxtaposition of pictorial ideographs and phonetically-spelt words in the writing of a later day. And just as it was only the cultivated classes to whom the written characters were symbols with a meaning other than that which they bore to the eye, so too it was only these same cultivated classes to whom the sacred animals were symbols and embodiments of the deity, rather than the deity itself. The masses continued to be fetish-worshippers like the earlier inhabitants of the country from whom most of them drew their descent.

To this fact we must ascribe the extraordinary hold which the worship of animals had upon the Egyptian people as a whole up to the period of their conversion to Christianity. While the walls of the temple were covered with pictures in which the gods were represented in human or semi-human form, the inner shrine which they served to surround and protect contained merely the beast or bird in which the deity was believed to be incarnated for the time. When the god revealed himself to his worshipper, it was as a hawk or a crocodile. The fact would be inexplicable if the priests alone were privileged to see him, as has often been maintained. Such, however, was not the case. Every Egyptian, whatever might be his rank and station, could follow the processions in the temple, could enter its inner chambers, and gaze upon the incarnated deity, provided only that he had conformed to the preliminary requirements of the ritual and were not unclean. The temple was not the exclusive property of a privileged caste; it was only the foreigner and the unbeliever who was forbidden to tread its courts. It was open to the Egyptian populace, and to the populace the sacred animals were the gods themselves.

We do not know whether the hawk which represented Horus, and in which the soul of the god tabernacled for a time, was distinguished from other hawks by special marks. We know, however, that this was the case with some of the sacred animals. According to Herodotus (iii. 28), the bull Apis of Memphis was required to be black, with a white triangle on his forehead, an eagle on his back, double hairs in his tail, and a beetle on his tongue; and though the extant figures of the god do not support the precise description given by the Greek writer, they show that certain characteristic marks were really required. In this way the incarnation of the god was separated from other animals of the same species, upon whom, however, some part of his divinity was reflected. Since any bull might have become the habitation of the deity, it was necessary to treat the whole species with respect.

The bull Apis was an incarnation of Ptaḥ, “the new life of Ptaḥ,” as he is often called on the votive tablets. We must see in him accordingly the local fetish of the pre-dynastic Egyptians who lived in the district where Memphis afterwards arose. In fact the bull was sacred throughout the whole of this region. In the neighbouring city of Heliopolis the place of Apis was taken by another bull, Ur-mer, or Mnevis, as the Greeks miscalled him. Mnevis was the incarnation of the sun-god, and, like Apis, it was needful that he should be black. Nor was the worship of the bull confined to the north. At Erment also, near Thebes, Mentu, the god of the nome, was incarnated in the bull Bakis.8 The sanctity of the bull is not difficult to understand among an agricultural people in an early stage of development. In India the bull is still sacred; and Sir Samuel Baker tells us that the tribes of the Upper Nile still abstain from eating the flesh of the ox. In Phrygia the slaughter of an ox was punishable with death;9 the first king of the country was supposed to have been a peasant, and his ox-drawn cart was preserved in the temple of Kybelê. Among the Egyptians themselves, as we have seen, the Pharaoh was symbolised under the form of a bull at the very beginning of history.

The bull, then, must have been worshipped in the neighbourhood of Memphis and Heliopolis before it became the incarnation of Ptaḥ or Ra. It follows, moreover, that as yet it was no one particular bull to whom divine honours were paid; there was no one particular bull into whom the soul of one of the gods of the Pharaonic Egyptians had as yet entered, thus setting it apart from all others. The bull was still a fetish pure and simple; it was the whole species that was sacred, and not a single member of it.

That this was indeed the case, is proved by a custom which lasted down to the latest times. Not only was the sacred bull or the sacred hawk mummified after death, but other bulls and hawks also. There were cemeteries of mummified animals, just as there were cemeteries of mummified men. Vast cemeteries of cats have been found at Bubastis, at Beni-Hassan, and other places; so too there were cemeteries of hawks and crocodiles, of jackals and bulls. We are still ignorant of the exact conditions under which these creatures were embalmed and buried. It is impossible to suppose that a solemn burial was provided for all the individual members of a species which was accounted sacred in a particular nome, much less for all its individual members throughout Egypt, as seems to have been imagined by Herodotus (ii. 41); there must have been certain limitations within which such a burial was permitted or ordained. And sometimes there was no burial at all; the mummy of the sacred animal of Set, for instance, has never been found.

Still the fact remains that not only were the bodies of the Apis or the Mnevis mummified and consigned to a special burying-place, but the bodies of other bulls as well. Doubtless the Egyptian of the Pharaonic period had an excellent reason to give for the practice. Just as the servants of the prince were buried around their master, or as the ushebti-figures were placed in the tomb of the dead, so the ordinary bull was interred like the divine incarnations of Ptaḥ and Ra, in the hope that its double might accompany the spirit of the god in the other world. The scenes of country life painted on the walls of the tombs contain pictures of sheep and cattle whose kas were, in some way or other, believed to exist in the Egyptian paradise, and a mummified bull had as much right to the hope of a future existence as a mummified man. The very act of embalming implied the possibility of its union with Osiris.

Egyptian logic soon converted the possibility into a fact. With the growth of the Osirian cult the dead Apis became, like the pious Egyptian, one with Osiris, the lord of the other world. His identity with Ptaḥ paled and disappeared before his newer identity with Osiris. At first he was Osiris-Apis, “the Osirified bull-god,” as guardian only of the necropolis of Memphis; then as god also of both Memphis and Egypt in life as well as in death. Under the Ptolemies, Greek ideas gathered round the person of a deity who thus united in himself the earlier and later forms of Egyptian belief, and out of the combination rose the Serapis of the classical age, whose worship exercised so great an influence on the Roman world. In the features of the human Serapis, with his majestic face and Sowing beard, it is difficult to recognise the bull-god of primitive Egypt.

The history of Serapis is on a large scale what that of the other sacred animals of Egypt is on a smaller scale. Mnevis was a lesser Apis; as Heliopolis waned before Memphis, so did its divine bull before the rival deity of the capital. They had both started on an equal footing, and had followed the fortunes of the cities where they were adored. At Mendes it was not a bull, but a ram, that was the object of worship, and in which the priests beheld an incarnation of Ra,10 though the accidental fact that the word ba meant alike “ram” and “soul” caused later generations to identify it with the “soul” of Osiris. In the Fayyûm it was the crocodile which naturally became the god Sebek or Sukhos, and at a later time Pete-sukhos, “the gift of Sukhos.” In the latter name we read the signs of a growing disinclination to see in the animal the god himself or even his soul or double; the Sukhos becomes “the gift of Sukhos,” separate from the god, and bestowed by him upon man.

There were other nomes besides the Fayyûm in which the crocodile was worshipped. It was the sacred animal of Onuphis in the Delta, and of Ombos in the far south of Egypt. But we must not expect to find a Sebek and a sacred crocodile always accompanying one another. There could be cases in which the crocodile was identified with other gods than Sebek,—with Set, for example, as at Nubti, near Dendera. The sacred animal existed before the god whose incarnation he afterwards became. The neolithic races were in the valley of the Nile before the Pharaonic Egyptians, and the deities they adored were consequently also there before the gods of the intruding race. Ptaḥ, with his human figure, would not have been transformed into the bull Apis if the bull had not been already in possession.

The name of the god Thoth is itself a proof of this. Thoth was the god of Hermopolis, the modern Eshmunên, and his patronage of writing and books shows that he must have been the deity of the Pharaonic race. The god to whom the invention of the hieroglyphs was ascribed, could not have been the god of an illiterate population.

Now the Egyptian form of the name Thoth is Deḥuti (or Zeḥuti), “he who belongs to the ibis.”11 Thoth, therefore, was not originally the ibis, and, in spite of his bird's head, the human body which he retained was a traditional evidence of the fact. He was merely “attached to the ibis,”—attached, that is to say, to the place where the ibis was the fetish of the aborigines.

According to Manetho, it was not until the reign of the second king of the Second Dynasty that Apis, Mnevis, and Mendes “were adjudged to be gods.” This must mean that it was then that the State religion admitted for the first time that the official gods of Memphis, Heliopolis, and Mendes were incarnated in the sacred animals of the local cults. That the statement is historically correct, may be gathered from the fact that the temples of Memphis and Heliopolis were dedicated to Ptaḥ and Tum, and not to Apis and Mnevis. When they were built the divinity of the bull had not yet been officially recognised. The gods in whose honour they were founded were gods of human form, and gods of human form they continued to be. Down to the last days of Egyptian paganism the sun-god of Heliopolis was not a bull, but a man; and though the mummified Apis watched over the cemeteries of Memphis, the god of its great temple remained a mummified man and not a mummified bull.

One of the legends elaborately concocted in the temples out of old folk-tales and etymological puns explained the animal forms of the gods as the result of the murder of Osiris by Typhon or Set. The fear of sharing his fate made them hide themselves, it was related, in the bodies of the beasts.12 But the explanation must belong to an age when the introduction of foreign ideas had thrown discredit on the old worship of animals. In earlier times no explanation was needed. The belief in the power possessed by the soul of migrating from one body into another, and the symbolism of which the hieroglyphic writing was at once the expression and the cause, formed an easy bridge by which the fetishism of neolithic Egypt and the anthropomorphism of historical Egypt could be joined together. Horus is a hawk and the Pharaoh is a bull on the earliest monuments we possess, and such visible symbols necessarily reacted on a people, one half at least of whom already acknowledged the hawk and the bull as their gods. The official recognition of Apis and Mnevis and Mendes was the last step in the process of incorporating the aboriginal superstitions and practices into the State religion, and giving them official sanction. The parallelism with Brahmanism in India is complete.

But we have still to ask why it was that the bull was worshipped in one district of prehistoric Egypt, the hawk in another? Why was it that a particular fetish was the protecting deity of a particular sanctuary or nome? To this there can be but one answer. A modified form of totemism must once have been known in the valley of the Nile. The sacred animal must have been the last representative of the totem of the tribe or clan. The emblems borne on the flagstaffs of the prehistoric boats, like the emblems on the standards of the several nomes, must have been the animals or objects in which the clans saw the divine powers which held them together, and from which, it may be, they were derived. The subsequent history of animal worship in Egypt is a continuous drifting away from this primitive totemism. The inanimate objects first fall into the background; then, under the influence of a higher form of religion, the animals become symbols, and assume semi-human shapes, and finally one only out of a species is selected to become the incarnation of a god. But the god of whom he is the incarnation is a very different god from the divinity that was believed to reside in the original fetish. It is a god in the Asiatic and not in the African sense, a god whose nature is spiritual and free from the limitations of our earthly existence, so that he can enter at any moment into whatsoever form he desires. The old fetishes survived, indeed, but it was as amulets and charms; and to these the multitude transferred its faith as the State religion became more and more unintelligible to it. The magic lock of hair and image of a serpent preserved at Saft el-Henna, and said by the priests to have belonged to the sun-god, had doubtless come down from the days of fetishism.

It has often been asserted that besides the bull or the ram or the crocodile, there were other creatures of a composite or fabulous character which were also accounted sacred by the Egyptians. It is true that the sacred animal and symbol of Set seems to be of this nature. His forked tail and ass-like ears make it difficult to believe that any existing beast ever served for his portrait. But the sphinx, in whom the men of the Eighteenth Dynasty saw the image of Harmakhis, the rising sun, or the phœnix in whom the sun-god of Heliopolis was incarnated, belongs to a different category. They are not sacred animals in the sense in which Apis and Mnevis were so.

The sphinx, like the symbol of Set, is one of those composite creatures which meet us from time to time in Egyptian art. It has been said that such composite creatures were as real to the Egyptian as the cattle and sheep he tended in the fields; that he was quite as much prepared to meet with them in the desert, as the ancient Greek would have been to meet with a satyr in the woods or a Highlander with a kelpie by the waterside. Very possibly that was the case; it will not, however, explain their origin, or the forms that were assigned to them. Why, for instance, should the sphinx of Giza be in the form of a lion with a human head?

Once more we must look to Asia for an explanation. The sphinx of Giza was the guardian of the tombs of the dead; it protected them from the spiritual foes whose home was in the desert. “I protect thy sepulchral chapel,” it is made to say in an inscription, “I watch over thy sepulchral chamber, I keep away the stranger who would enter, I overthrow the foe with their weapons, I drive the wicked from thy tomb, I annihilate thy opponents … so that they return no more.”13 The sphinx, in fact, performed precisely the same office as the winged bulls that guarded the entrance to an Assyrian palace, or the cherubim who stood at the gates of the garden of Eden.

The winged bulls and the cherubim were composite creatures, and came originally from Babylonia. Babylonia was the primal home, indeed, of all such animal combinations. They were painted on the walls of the temple of Bel at Babylon, and their existence formed an essential part of the Babylonian cosmogony. That cosmogony rested on the doctrine of a contest between the powers of light and darkness, of order and chaos, and on the final victory of the gods of light. There was a world of chaos as well as a world of order; and before the present creation could be evolved with its settled laws and definite boundaries, there had been of necessity another creation in which all things were confused and chaotic. The brood of Tiamat, the dragon of chaos, corresponded with the creatures of the actual world which the gods of light had called into existence; they were abortive attempts at creation, composed of limbs which matched not together, “men with the body of birds, or the faces of ravens.”

This brood of chaos were the demons who were the enemies of Bel-Merodach and his followers. In order to oppose them successfully, it was needful that there should be similarly composite creatures, who, instead of being on the side of evil, were under the orders of the gods. By the side of the evil demon, therefore, there was the “good cherub,” who protected the pious Babylonian, and barred the way to the spirits of wickedness. The winged bull with his human head defended the approach to a temple or house; men with the bodies of scorpions guarded the gateways of the sun.

This curious similarity in the functions assigned to the images of composite animals both in Egypt and Babylonia, raises the presumption that the composite forms themselves were ultimately derived from a Babylonian source. That such was the case we now have proof.

On the slate plaques and mace-heads of Nekhen and Abydos we find composite forms similar to those of Babylonia. What afterwards became the Hathor-headed column appears as a human face with a cow's ears and horns. Below are two monsters with a dog's body and a lion's head, whose intertwined necks are snakes. What makes the latter representation the more interesting is, that M. Heuzey has pointed out exactly the same figures on an early Babylonian seal now in the Louvre.14 Like the seal-cylinder, therefore, which distinguishes the early period of Egyptian history, the composite monsters of which the sphinx and the symbol of Set were surviving examples indicate direct communication with Chaldæa.

And, it must be remembered, it is only in Chaldæa that they find their explanation. Here they originated in the religious and cosmological ideas associated with the physical features of the country. The sphinx of Giza still guards the desert of Giza, because ages ago the flooding waves of the Persian Gulf made the Babylonians believe that the world had arisen out of a watery chaos peopled by unformed creatures of monstrous shape.

The case of the phœnix or bennu is somewhat different. Here we have to do not with a fabulous monster, but with an existing bird of which a fabulous story was told. The bird was not an eagle, as Herodotos supposed, but a heron, which at an early date seems to have been confounded with the crested ibis, the symbol of the khu or luminous soul. It was, in fact, the spirit of the sun-god, and later legends declared that it stood and sang on the top of a tree at Heliopolis, while a flame burst forth beside it, and the sun rose from the morning sky. With sunset it became an Osiris, whose mummy was interred at Heliopolis, to awake again to life with the first rays of the rising sun. It was thus for Christian writers an emblem of the resurrection, and as such its story is told by St. Clement of Rome:15 “There is a certain bird which is called the phœnix. This is the only one of its kind, and it lives five hundred years. When the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up the nest in which are the bones of its parent, and, bearing these, it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, flying in open day in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and, having done this, it hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the chronological registers, and find that it has returned exactly when the five hundredth year is completed.”16

The legend of the phœnix has grown up round the belief that the disembodied soul could enter at will into the body of a bird. The phœnix was allied to the hawk of Horus, and probably was originally identical with that primitive symbol of the soul (khu), the name of which means literally “the luminous.” It will be remembered that the Pyramid texts speak of the “four khu” or “luminous souls of Horus” “who live in Heliopolis,” and the sun-god of that city was usually invoked by his bau or “souls,” figured as three birds which appear as three ostriches on objects found in the tomb of Menes.17 On an early seal-cylinder of Babylonian type the bennu or Khu is termed “the double of Horus.”18

The story of the phœnix illustrates the influence exercised by the pictorial character of Egyptian writing upon the course of religious thought. The soul was first symbolised by a bird. It passed out of the corpse and into the air like a bird; it was free to enter whatever body it chose, and the body of a bird was that which it would naturally choose. Even to-day the belief is not extinct in Europe that the spirits of the dead pass into the forms of swallows or doves. But at first it was immaterial what bird was selected to express pictorially the idea of a soul. It was the ostrich when the latter still existed in Southern Egypt; then it became the plover, in consequence, probably, of a similarity in sound between the name of the plover and that of the soul. At other times the favourite symbol was the crested ibis, whose name was identical with a word that signified “light.” Around the conception of the soul there accordingly gathered associations with the light, and more especially with the light of the sun. The sun-god, too, had a double and a soul; what could be more fitting, therefore, than that they should be represented by the crested ibis? It was but a step farther to see in the bird an incarnation of the sun-god himself.

The subsequent development of the myth was due to the fact that the god of Heliopolis continued to be depicted as a man. His human form was too stereotyped in religious art to be changed, and the phœnix consequently was never actually identified with him. It was his soul, but it was not Ra himself. The combination of the man and the beast could be tolerated only when both were co-ordinate survivals from a distant past. The inner contradiction between the human and the bestial god was then obscured or ignored.

With the human god was closely connected the ancestor worship, which was quite as much a characteristic of Egypt as the worship of animals. It was due in the first instance, perhaps, to the belief that the Ka, of the dead man needed food and nourishment, and that if he did not receive them the hungry double would revenge himself on the living. To this day the Egyptian fellahin, both Moslem and Copt, visit the tombs of their forefathers at certain times in the year, and, after eating and drinking beside them, place a few grains of wheat or some similar offering on a shelf in front of a window-like opening into the tomb. But the belief in the material needs of the Ka would not of itself have sufficed to support the long lines of priests who were attached to the cult of the dead, or the prayers that were addressed to them. It was the deification of the Pharaoh which caused “prophets” of Khufu and Khafra to be still consecrated in the days of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty,19 and prevented the forms of the sacred animals from being pictured on the temple walls. As long as there was a human god on earth, there could also he a human god in heaven; and in the Pyramid texts of the Sixth Dynasty the dead Pepi or Teta is as much a god as any deity in the pantheon.

When the Osirian faith had spread throughout Egypt, and the pious Egyptian looked forward after death to becoming himself an “Osiris,” there was still greater reason for the divine honours that were paid to the ancestor. In paying them to him the worshipper was paying them to the god of the dead. And the god of the dead was himself one of the ancestors of the Egyptian people. He was a human god who had once ruled on earth, and he still governed as a Pharaoh in the world beyond the grave. As the Pharaoh was a theomorphic man, so Osiris was an anthropomorphic god. In him the cult of the ancestor reached its fullest development.

It was natural that Pharaonic Egypt should have been, so far as we know, the birthplace of euhemerism. Where the gods had human forms, and the men were gods, it was inevitable that it should arise. The deification of the Pharaoh prevented any line being drawn between the living man and the deity he worshipped. As the man could be a god, so too could the god be a man. The gods of Egypt were accordingly transformed into Pharaohs, who lived and conquered and died like the Pharaohs of history. They differed from the men of today only in having lived long ago, and on that account being possessed of powers which are now lost. That they should have died did not make them less divine and immortal. The Pharaoh also died like the ancestors who were worshipped at the tombs, but death meant nothing more than passing into another form of existence. It was merely a re-birth under new conditions. The Ka continued as before; there was no change in outward shape or in the moral and intellectual powers.

In fact, the death of the god was a necessary accompaniment of an anthropomorphic form of religion. In Babylonia the temples of the gods were also their tombs, and even among the Greeks the sepulchre of Zeus was pointed out in Krete. The same cult was paid to the dead Naram-Sin or the dead Gudea in Chaldæa that was paid to the dead Khufu in Egypt. We have no need to seek in any peculiarly Egyptian beliefs an explanation of the ancestor worship which, along with the deification of the king, it shared with Babylonia.

The euhemerism of the Egyptian priesthood sounded the knell of the old faith. As the centuries passed, purer and higher ideas of the Godhead had grown up, and between the “formless” and eternal Creator of the world and the man who had become a god, the distance was too great to be spanned. On the one side, the gods of the national creed had been resolved one into another, till no distinctive shape or character was left to any one of them; on the other side, they had been transformed into mere human kings who had ruled over Egypt long ago. The pantheistic Creator and the deified Egyptians of vulgar and prosaic history could not be harmonised together. The multitude might be content with its sacred animals and its amulets, but the thinking portion of the nation turned to Greek metaphysics or a despairing scepticism. Already, in the time of the Eleventh Dynasty, the poet who composed the dirge of king Autef gives pathetic expression to his doubts20

“What is fortune? say the wise.

Vanished are the hearths and homes,

What he does or thinks, who dies,

None to tell us comes.

Have thy heart's desire, be glad,

Use the ointment while you live;

Be in gold and linen clad,

Take what gods may give.

For the day shall come to each

When earth's voices sound no more;

Dead men hear no mourners’ speech,

Tears can not restore.

Eat and drink in peace to-day,

When you go, your goods remain;

He who fares the last long way

Comes not back again.”

Still more hopeless are the words put into the mouth of the wife of the high priest of Memphis at the close of the first century before our era—

“O my brother, my spouse, and my friend,

High priest of Memphis!

Cease not to drink and to eat,

To fill thyself with wine, and to make sweet love;

Enjoy each festive day and follow thy desire,

Let not care enter thy heart

All the years that on earth thou remainest.

The underworld is a land of thick darkness,

A sorrowful place for the dead.

They sleep, after their guise, never to awaken

And behold their comrades.

Their father and their mother they know not,

No yearning for their wives and their children do they feel.”21

  • 1.

    Diod. Sic. i. 83.

  • 2.

    Except in the case of Osiris at Abydos; Petrie, The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty, pt. i. pl. xv. 16; comp. also at Kom el-Aḥmar, Hierakonpolis, pt. i. pl. xxvi. B, though here it seems to be the Pharaoh who is represented.

  • 3.

    Quibell in the Zeitschrift für Aegyptische Sprache, xxxvi. pls. xii., xiii.; Hierakonpolis, pt. i. pl. xxix.

  • 4.

    On a stela in the Wadi Maghara, in the Sinaitic Peninsula, Sahu-Ra of the Fifth Dynasty, divided into two figures, one with the crown of Lower Egypt the other with that of Upper Egypt, is standing before a standard on which are the two emblems of Southern and Northern Egypt, Set and Horus. Set is represented by his usual animal, but Horus by an uræus serpent and the same symbol as that on the plaque (de Morgan, Recherches sur les Origines de l' Égypte, i. p. 233). As we learn from the legend of Seb recounted at At-Nebes (Saft el-Henna), the two relics preserved there were the uræus and lock of hair of Ra. The lock of hair has practically the same form as the symbol we are considering here, and long before the legend had been concocted, Ra and Horus had been identified together (see Griffith, Antiquities of Tell el-Yahudiyeh, Seventh Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Fund, pl. xxiii.).

  • 5.

    De Morgan, Recherches sur les Origines de l' Égypte, ii. pls. ii. and iii.; Sayce in the Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology, Feb. 1898. It will be noticed that Thoth is represented by the ibis and not by the ape.

  • 6.

    De Morgan, Recherches sur les Origines de l' Égypte, p. 93.

  • 7.

    For late examples of the worship of animals like the cat, ram, swallow, or goose, as animals and not as incarnations of an official god, see Maspero, Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie égyptiennes, ii. p. 395 sqq. The rarity of them is due to their representing private and domestic cults not recognised by the religion of the State. “The worship of the swallow, cat, and goose, which had commenced as the pure and simple adoration of these creatures in themselves, always remained so for the multitude. We must not forget that Orientals regard beasts somewhat differently from ourselves. They ascribe to them a language, a knowledge of the future, an extreme acuteness of the senses which allows them to perceive objects and beings invisible to man. It was not, indeed, all Egypt that worshipped in the beast the beast itself; but a considerable part of it which belonged almost entirely to the same social condition, and represented pretty much the same moral and intellectual ideas.”

  • 8.

    Late inscriptions call Bakh or Bakis “the living soul of Ra,” but this was when Mentu and Ra had been identified together. Stelæ of the Roman period, however, from Erment represent the sacred bull without any solar emblem, while by the side of it stands a hawk-headed crocodile crowned with the orb of the sun. It is possible that the latter may be connected with the hawk-headed crocodile, with the orb of the sun on its head and an uræus serpent at the end of its tail, which in Greek graffiti at Philæ is called Ptiris.

  • 9.

    Nicolaus Damascen., Fr. 128, ed. Müller.

  • 10.

    De Rougé, Monnaies de nomes, p. 46.

  • 11.

    Griffith (Proc. of Society of Biblical Archæology, xxi. p. 278) has recently proposed to see in Deḥuti a derivative from the name of the nome Deḥut, like Anzti, the title of Osiris at Busiris, from the name of the nome Anzet. But this is “putting the cart before the horse.” It was not the nomes that were birds or men, but the deities worshipped in them. Anz (perhaps from the Semitic ᾽az, “the strong one”) meant “king,” and represented the human Osiris.

  • 12.

    Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, ed. Leemans, lxxii. p. 126.

  • 13.

    Zeitschrift für Aegyptische Sprache (1880) p. 50.

  • 14.

    Rev. Archéologique, xxxiv. p. 291. On the seal-cylinder they are accompanied by the lion-headed eagle of primitive Babylonian art. The Egyptian figures are given in the Zeitschrift für Aegyptische Sprache, xxxvi. pl. xii.

  • 15.

    Ep. ad Cor. 25.

  • 16.

    See also Herodotos, ii. 73; Pliny, N. H. x. 2; Tertullian, De Resurr. 13.

  • 17.

    De Morgan, Recherches sur les Origines de l' Égypte, ii. p. 165.

  • 18.

    Sayce, Proc. SBA., Feb. 1898, No. 8. On a monument discovered at Sân (Petrie, Tanis, pt. ii. pl. x. 170), we read of “Horus in the bennu as a black bull,” “Horus in the bennu as a horned bull.” The cemetery of Tanis was called “the city of the phœnix” (bennu). At Edfu it is said that the phœnix (bennu) “comes forth from the holy heart” of Osiris.

  • 19.

    On a stela in the Louvre a certain Psamtik, son of Uza-Hor, calls himself prophet of Khufu, Khaf-Ra, and Dadef-Ra, as well as of Tanen, Isis, and Harmakhis.

  • 20.

    The versification is Canon Rawnsley's, Notes for the Nile, pp. 188, 189. Professor Erman's literal translation is as follows (Life in Ancient Egypt, Eng. tr., pp. 386, 387)—

    “I heard the words of Imhotep and Har-dad-ef,

    Who both speak thus in their sayings:
    ‘Behold the dwellings of those men, their walls fall down,
    Their place is no more,
    They are as though they had never existed.’
    No one comes from thence to tell us what is become of them,
    Who tells us how it goes with them, who nerves our hearts,
    Until you yourselves approach the place whither they are gone.
    With joyful heart forget not to glorify thyself
    And follow thy heart's desire, so long as thou livest.
    Put myrrh on thy head, clothe thyself in fine linen,
    Anointing thyself with the marvellous things of God.
    Adorn thyself as beautifully as thou canst,
    And let not thy heart be discouraged.
    Follow thy heart's desire and thy pleasures
    As long as thou livest on earth.
    Follow thy heart's desire and thy pleasures
    Till there comes to thee the day of mourning.
    Yet he, whose heart is at rest, hears not their complaint,
    And he who lies in the tomb understands not their mourning.
    With beaming face keep holiday to-day,
    And rest not therein.
    For none carries his goods away with him,
    Yea, none returns again, who has journeyed thither.”

  • 21.

    Brugsch's translation (Die Aegyptologie, i. p. 163).