You are here

Lecture 6: The Gods of Egypt

IN the language of ancient Egypt the word neter signified “a god.” Sir P. le Page Renouf endeavoured to show that the word originally meant “strong,” and that the first Egyptians accordingly pictured their gods as embodiments of strength.1 But it has been pointed out2 that where neter is used in the sense of “strong,” it is rather the lustiness of youth that is meant, and that a better rendering would be “fresh and vigorous.” The verb neter signifies “to flourish” and “grow up.” Moreover, it is a question whether between this verb and the word for “god” there is any connection at all. It is difficult to understand how the gods could be described as “growths” unless they were conceived of as plants; and of this there is no evidence in ancient Egypt. We must be content with the fact that as far back as we can trace the history of the word neter, it meant “god” and “god” only.

But we must also beware of supposing that the Egyptians attached the same ideas to it that we do, or that it had the same connotation at all periods of their history or among all classes of the people. The pantheistic deity of Khu-n-Aten was a very different being from the sun-god of whom the Pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty had called themselves the sons, and between the divinity which the multitude saw in the bull Apis and the formless and ever-living Creator of the priesthood there was a gulf which could hardly be bridged. But even the conception of the Creator formed by the priesthood is difficult for us to realise. Eighteen centuries of Christianity have left their impress upon us, and we start from a different background of ideas from that of the Egyptian, to whatever class he may have belonged. It is impossible that we can enter exactly into what the Egyptian meant by such expressions as “living for ever” or “having no form”; even the words “life” and “form” would not have had the same connotation for him that they have for us. All that we can do is to approximate to the meaning that he gave to them, remembering that our translation of them into the language of to-day can be approximative only.

The hieroglyphic writing which preserved memories of a time that the Egyptians themselves had forgotten, represents the idea of a “god” by the picture of an axe. The axe seems originally to have consisted of a sharpened flint or blade of metal hafted in a wooden handle, which was occasionally wrapped in strips of red, white, and black cloth.3 It takes us back to an age of fetishism, when inanimate objects were looked upon as divine, and perhaps reflects the impression made upon the natives of the country by the Pharaonic Egyptians with their weapons of metal. Horus of Edfu, it will be remembered, was served by smiths, and the shrines he founded to commemorate his conquest of Egypt were known as “the smithies.” The double-headed axe was a divine symbol in Asia Minor,4 and both in the old world and in the new the fetish was wrapped in cloths. Even at Delphi a sacred stone was enveloped in wool on days of festival.

In the sacred axe, therefore, which denoted a god, we may see a parallel to the standards on the prow of the prehistoric boat or to the symbols of the nomes. It would have represented the gods of those invaders of the valley of the Nile who brought with them weapons of copper, and have been the symbol of the conquering race and the deities it worshipped. As the Pharaonic Egyptians appropriated the fetishes of the older population in their sculptures and their picture-writing, so too would they have appropriated what had become to the neolithic people the sign and emblem of superior power.

We have already dealt with an important class of gods, those which had a solar origin. There were other gods of an elemental character, whose worship does not seem to have been originally confined to one particular locality. Such were Seb, the earth, Nut, the sky, and Nu, the primeval deep. But they played only a small part in the religion of the country. Seb was known in later days chiefly as the father of Osiris; at an earlier epoch he had been the rpâ, or “hereditary prince, of the gods,” a title which takes us back to the feudal period of Egypt, when as yet there was no Pharaoh who ruled over the whole of the land. The animal sacred to him was the goose, perhaps on account of some similarity in its name; but he was never identified with it, and continued to the last to be depicted in human form. His symbol, however, gave rise to a cosmological myth. The goose became the mother of the egg out of which the universe was born.

Nut was the wife of Seb, wedded to him as the sky is wedded to the earth. It seems reasonable to see in her the feminine form of Nu, the primeval chaos of waters; and so the Egyptians of the historical period believed, since they identified her with the wife of the Nile, and represented her as sitting in the sycamore and pouring the water of life on the hands of a soul at the foot of the tree. It has been suggested, however, that Nu was of later origin than Nut, who became a Nile goddess with the head of a snake only when Nu himself had been changed into the Nile.5 But the idea of a watery chaos is not one which would have grown up on Egyptian soil. There it was rather the desert which represented the unformed beginning of things; the Nile spread itself over the already existing land at regular intervals, and was no dreary waste of waters, out of which the earth emerged for the first time. The geographical home of the idea was in Babylonia, on the shores of the ever-retreating Persian Gulf. And from Babylonia we find that the belief in a primeval deep spread itself over Western Asia. The Egyptian Nu is the counterpart of the Babylonian Mummu, the mother of gods, as Nu was their father. Professor Hommel may even be right in identifying the name with the Babylonian Nun or Nunu, the lord of the deep.

But Nu survived only in the theological schools, more especially in that of Hermopolis, the modern Eshmunên. The god of Hermopolis was Thoth, the Egyptian Dehuti. Thoth seems to have been at the outset the moon, which was thus, as in Babylonia, of the male sex. A legend, repeated by Plutarch,6 relates how he gained the fire intercalatory days of the Egyptian year by playing at dice with the moon; and he was at times identified with the moon-gods Aah and Khonsu. The first month of the year was his, and he was the measurer of time, who had invented arithmetic and geometry, music and astronomy, architecture and letters. He knew the magic formulæ which could bind the gods themselves, and as minister of the Pharaoh Thamos had introduced writing and literature into Egypt. Henceforward he remained the patron of books and education, on which the culture of Egypt so largely rested. He was, in fact, the culture-god of the Egyptians to whom the elements of civilisation were due.

It is curious that we do not know his true name, for Dehuti means merely the god “who is attached to the ibis.” Was it really Nu? and is Thoth really a compound of a moon-god and a sun-god? At all events the culture-god of Babylonia who corresponded to Thoth was Ea, the deep, and one of the earliest names of Ea was “the god Nun.” Moreover, the son of Ea was Asari, the Osiris of Egypt; and just as Asari instructed mankind in the wisdom and laws of Ea, so Thoth acted as the minister of Osiris and adjudged his cause against Seb. Like Ea, too, Thoth wrote the first books from which men derived their laws.7

However this may be, Thoth was the creator of the world through the word of his month. In the cosmogony of Hermopolis the universe and the gods that direct it are the creation of his word, which later ages refined into the sound of his voice. From Hermopolis the doctrine passed to other parts of Egypt, and under the Theban dynasties tended to displace or absorb the older Heliopolitan doctrine of creation by generation. But the doctrine was known also in Babylonia, where the god whose word is creative was Asari, the Merodach of the Semites. In the Babylonian Epic of the Creation the “word” of Merodach creates and destroys, like the “word” of Yahweh in the Old Testament. I must leave to another lecture the consideration as to how far the Logos of Alexandrine philosophy has boon influenced by the theology of Hermopolis.

Whether Thoth were originally Nu or not, Nu at all events forms the second member of the Hermopolitan Ennead. Professor Maspero has shown that it was modelled on the Ennead of Heliopolis.8 But in accordance with the more abstract character of the cosmogony of which it was a part, the divinities of which it is composed are abstractions that look strangely out of place in the Egyptian Pantheon.

Nu is provided with the feminine Nut, who is not to be confounded with the old goddess of the sky, and from them are derived the successive pairs Ḥeḥui and Ḥeḥet, Kek and Keket, Nini and Ninit, “eternity,” “darkness,” and “inertia.”9 The whole scheme is Asiatic rather than Egyptian, but the gods composing it are already mentioned in the Pyramid texts.

The four pairs of abstract deities constituted “the eight” gods after whom Hermopolis received one of its names (Khmunu, now Ashmunên), and who were often addressed as “the god eight,” like “the god seven” in Babylonia. Professor Maspero sees in them a philosophical development of the four cynocephalous apes who accompanied Thoth and saluted the first streak of dawn. But the development is difficult to follow, and the apes who are the companions of the god probably had another origin. They certainly must have come from the Sudân; no apes were indigenous in Egypt in historical times. Moreover, it was only the Thoth of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt in whose train they were found; the Thoth of Hermopolis Parva in the Delta, properly speaking, knew them not. But from an early epoch “the five gods”—Thoth and his four ape-followers, whose likeness he sometimes adopted—had been worshipped at Eshmunên. Its temple was called “the Abode of the Five,” and its high priest “the great one of the House of the Five.”10

How the half-human apes of Central Africa came to be associated with Thoth we do not know. Between the baboons who sing hymns to the rising and setting sun and the moon, or the culture-god, there is little or no connection. But a curious biography found in a tomb at Assuan throws light upon it. Herkhuf, the subject of the biography, was sent by Hor-em-saf of the Sixth Dynasty on an exploring expedition into the Libyan desert south of the First Cataract, and he brought back with him a Danga dwarf “who danced the dances of the god,” like another Danga dwarf brought from Punt in the neighbourhood of Suâkim or Massawa in the time of the Fifth Dynasty. The dwarf was evidently regarded by Herkhuf as a species of baboon, if we may judge from the account he gives of the way in which he was treated; even to-day the ape in the zoological gardens of Giza is called by the lower classes at Cairo “the savage man.” Travellers have described the dancing and screaming of troops of apes at daybreak when the sun first lights up the earth, and it was natural for primitive man to suppose that the dancing was in honour of the return of the god of day. Dances in honour of the gods have been common all over the world; indeed, among barbarous and savage peoples the dance is essentially of a religious character. Even David danced before the ark, and boys still dance before the high altar in the cathedral of Seville. That dances are represented on the prehistoric pottery of Egypt, has been pointed out by M. de Morgan;11 and since the Danga dwarf came from the half-mythical country in the south which was known to the Egyptians as “the land of the gods,” and where, too, the apes of Thoth had their home, it was reasonable to believe that he know the dance that would be pleasing to the gods.12

I believe, therefore, that the apes of Thoth were at the outset the dwarf-like apes or ape-like dwarfs who danced in his honour in the temple of Hermopolis. Gradually they were taken hold of by that symbolism which was inseparable from a religion so intimately bound up with a pictorial system of writing; from dancers they became the followers of the god, who sang to the rising and setting sun the hymns which Thoth had composed. But this would have been when the worship of the sun-god of Heliopolis had already spread to Hermopolis, and the cult of Thoth was mingling with that of Ra. The mutual influence of the theories of creation taught by the priests of the two cities shows at what a comparatively early date this would have happened.

It is possible that there was actually a connection between the four baboons and the four elemental gods of Hermopolitan theology. But it was not in the way of development. It was rather that as the gods were four in number, the dancers in their temple were four also. To each god, as it were, an ape was assigned.

The influence of Hermopolis belongs to the pre-Menic age of Egypt; we can hardly any longer call it prehistoric. So, too, does the influence of Nekhen, once the capital of the kingdom of Upper Egypt. In a former lecture I have already spoken of its vulture-headed goddess Nekheb, the consort of the hawk Horus, whose temple at El-Kab guarded the outlet of the road from the Red Sea, and who was known as Mut, “the mother,” at Thebes. She was, in fact, the goddess of all Upper Egypt, whose worship had spread over it in the days when Nekhen was its ruling city. The gods of the Pharaoh followed the extension of his power.

In the early inscriptions of the First Cataract the vulture-headed goddess sitting on her basket is identified with the local divinity Sati (more correctly Suti), “the Asiatic.” From her the island of Sehêl received its name, and there her sanctuary stood before Isis of Philæ ousted her from her supremacy. She was symbolised by the arrow, the name of which was the same as that of the goddess, and which was, moreover, a fitting emblem of the hostile tribes of the desert. It already appears on the prehistoric pottery as a sacred fetish on the “flagstaff” or standard at the prow of the boat.

The name of Sati, or rather Suti, is remarkable. It was not only the name of the goddess of the First Cataract, it was also the name given by the Egyptians to the nomadic tribes of Asia. But it was not the Egyptians only who used it in this sense. From time immemorial the name Sutê had precisely the same meaning among the Babylonians. The fact cannot be accidental; and as Sutê is of Babylonian origin, we have in it a fresh proof of the relations of the Pharaonic Egyptians with primeval Babylonia.

But the goddess Sati does not stand alone. There was also a god Set (or Sut), the twin-brother and enemy of Osiris, and, like Esau in Hebrew history, a representative of the desert; while at the Cataract another goddess, Ânuqet by name, is her companion. Now Ânuqet is the feminine of Ânuq, the Ânaq of the Old Testament. The foreign nature of Ânuqet has long been recognised, for she wears on her head the non-Egyptian head-dress of a cap fringed with feathers. It is the same head-dress as that worn by the god Bes, whom the Egyptians derived from the land of Punt on the shores of the Red Sea. A similar cap is worn by the Zakkal on the coast of Palestine, in the near neighbourhood of “the sons of Ânaq,” as well as by the Babylonian king Merodach-nadin-akhi, on a monument now in the British Museum.13 Everything, therefore, points to its having been an Asiatic characteristic; perhaps it was made of the ostrich feathers which are still collected in Arabia and even on the eastern side of the Jordan.

The Greeks identified Ânuqet with Hestia, and Sati with Hêra. This was probably because Sati was the wife of Khnum (or Kneph), the god of the Cataract. As such Sati was also known as Heket, “the frog,” which was supposed to be born from the mud left by the inundation of the Nile. It thus became a symbol of the resurrection, and was consequently adopted by the Christians of Egypt. Hence the frequency with which it is represented on lamps of the late Roman period.

Khnum, like the god of Thebes, was a ram, and is accordingly usually depicted with a ram's head. But be could not originally have been so. Once more the old fetish of the district, the sacred animal of the nome, must have been fused with the god whom the Pharaonic invaders brought with them. For Khnum was a potter, as his name signifies, and at Philæ it is said of him that he was “the moulder (khnum) of men, the modeller of the gods.”14 Hence he is called “the creator of all this, the fashioner of that which exists, the father of fathers, the mother of mothers,” “the creator of the heaven and the earth, the lower world, the water and the mountains,” “who has formed the male and female of fowl and fish, wild beasts, cattle, and creeping things.”

In Babylonia, Ea, the culture-god and creator, was also termed the “potter,” and it was thus that he moulded the gods as well as men.15 At the same time, like Khnum, he was a god of the waters. While the Cataract of the Nile was the home of Khnum, the Persian Gulf was the dwelling-place of Ea. The connection between the water and the modeller in clay is obvious. It is only where the water inundates the soil and leaves the moist clay behind it that the art of the potter can flourish.16

But was there also a connection between the Babylonian god who was worshipped in the ancient seaport of Chaldæa and the god of the Egyptian Cataract? We have seen that the wife of Khnum was entitled “the Asiatic,” the very form of the name being Babylonian. We have further seen that her companion Ânuqet was also from Asia, and that her traditional head-dress preserved a memory of the fact. There is a road from the Red Sea to Assuan as well as to El-Kab; it may be that it goes back to those prehistoric times when the Pharaonic Egyptians made their way across the desert into the valley of the Nile, as their Semitic kinsfolk did in later days into the tablelands of Abyssinia.

The creator who was worshipped at Memphis, at the other end of the Nile valley, was a potter also.17 This was Ptaḥ, whose name is derived from a root which means to “open.” According to Porphyry, he had sprung from an egg which had come from the mouth of Kneph. But the reference in the name is probably to the ceremony of “opening the month” of a mummy, or the statue of the dead man with a chisel, a finger, or some red pebbles, in order to confer upon it the capability of receiving the breath of life, and of harbouring the double or the soul.18 Ptaḥ was represented as a mummy; he was, in fact, one of the gods of the underworld, who, like Osiris or the mummified Horus of Nekhen, had their tombs as well as their temples. He must have been the creative potter, however, before he became a mummy. Perhaps his transformation dates from the period of his fusion with Sokaris, who seems to have been the god of the cemetery of Memphis.19 At any rate, Ptaḥ and Khnum are alike forms of the same primitive deity, and the names they bear are epithets merely. At Philæ, Ptaḥ is pictured as about to model man out of a lump of clay, and the Khnumu, or “creators” who helped him to fashion the world, were his children.20

The Khnumu are the Patæki of Herodotos (iii. 37), whose figures, the Greek writer tells us, were carved by the Phœnicians on the prows of their vessels, probably to ward off the evil eye. They were dwarfs, like the Danga dwarf of Herkhuf or the god Bes, with thick heads, bowed legs, long arms, and bushy beards; and their terra-cotta figures hare often been met with in the tombs. From the name Patæki we might infer that they had been borrowed by the Phœnicians from Egypt. But it is also possible that both Egypt and Phœnicia derived them from the same source. Dr. Scheil has pointed out that a similar figure occurs on early Babylonian seal-cylinders, where its Sumerian name is given as “the god Nugidda” or “the Dwarf,” and it is sometimes represented as dancing before the goddess Istar.21 Thus far, however, no text has been discovered which associates the god Nugidda with the creator of the world.

When Memphis became the capital of Egypt and the seat of the Pharaoh, its god also became supreme in the Egyptian pantheon. But he was no longer Ptaḥ the creator simply. He was already amalgamated with Sokaris, and probably with Osiris as well. It was not difficult to identify two mummified gods whose domain was among the dead. With the spread of the sun-worship of Heliopolis and the spirit of pantheistic syncretism which accompanied it, the individuality of the old god of Memphis became still further lost. He was merged into Tanen or Tatunen, a local god of the earth, as well as into Ra. He had already been made into the chief of an Ennead, and now the Ennead was resolved into a trinity. Nofer-Tum, “beautified by Tum,” was brought from Heliopolis, and was made into a son of Ptaḥ, afterwards to be superseded, however, by another abstraction, Im-hotep, “he who comes in peace.”22 Im-hotep was reputed the first kher-heb or hierophant; he it was who recited and interpreted the liturgy of the dead and the magic formulæ which restored health to the sick and raised the dead to life. The Greeks consequently identified him with Asklêpios.23 Both Im-hotep and Nofer-Tum were the sons of Sekhet, the lion-headed goddess of Letopolis, from whence she must have been borrowed by the Memphite priests when the ancient potter god had become a generator, and a wife was needed for him.

With the decline of the Memphite dynasties and the fall of the Old Empire, the commanding part played by Ptaḥ in the Egyptian pantheon was at an end. The god of the imperial city had been identified with the gods of the provincial nomes; his temple at Memphis had taken precedence of all others, and the local priesthoods were content that their deities should have found a shelter in it as forms of Ptaḥ. He was even identified with Hâpi, the Nile, though perhaps the similarity in sound between the sacred name of the river and that of the bull Apis (Ḥapi) may have assisted in the identification.24

That the Nile should have been worshipped throughout the land of Egypt is natural. The very land itself was his gift, the crops that grew upon it and the population it supported all depended upon his bounty. When the Nile failed, the people starved; when the Nile was full, Egypt was a land of contentment and plenty. It is only wonderful that the cult of the Nile should not have been more prominent than it was. The temples built in its honour were neither numerous nor important, nor were its priests endowed as the priests of other gods. But the cause of this is explained by history. The neolithic population of the country lived in the desert; the Nile was for them little more than the creator of pestilential swamps and dangerous jungles, where wild beasts and venomous serpents lurked for the intruder. The Pharaonic Egyptians brought their own gods with them, and these naturally became the divinities of the nomes. When the river had been embanked and its waters been made a blessing instead of a curse, the sacred animals and the gods of the nomes were too firmly established to be displaced.25

But the backwardness of the State religion was made up for by the piety of individuals. Hymns to the Nile, like those which were engraved on the rocks of Silsilis by Meneptah and Ramses III., breathe a spirit of gratitude and devotion which can hardly be exceeded—

“Hail to thee, O Nile!

who manifestest thyself over this land,

and comest to give life to Egypt!

Mysterious is thy issuing forth from darkness,

on this day whereon it is celebrated!

Watering the orchards created by Ra

to cause all cattle to drink,

thou givest the earth to drink, inexhaustible one! …

Lord of the fish, during the inundation,

no bird alights on the crops.

Thou createst the wheat, thou bringest forth the barley,

assuring perpetuity to the temples.

If thou ceasest thy toil and thy work,

then all that exists is in anguish.

If the gods suffer in heaven,

then the faces of men waste away …

No dwelling (is there) which may contain thee!

None penetrates within thy heart!

Thy young men, thy children, applaud thee

and render unto thee royal homage.

Stable are thy decrees for Egypt

before thy servants of the north.

He dries the tears from all eyes,

and guards the increase of his good things …

Establisher of justice, mankind desires thee,

supplicating thee to answer their prayers;

thou answerest them by the inundation!

Men offer thee the first-fruits of corn;

all the gods adore thee! …

A festal song is raised for thee on the harp,

with the accompaniment of the hand.

Thy young men and thy children acclaim thee,

and prepare their exercises.

Thou art the august ornament of the earth,

letting thy bark advance before men,

lifting up the heart of women in labour,

and loving the multitude of the flocks.

When thou shinest in the royal city,

the rich man is sated with good things,

even the poor man disdains the lotus;

all that is produced is of the choicest;

all plants exist for thy children.

If thou refusest nourishment,

the dwelling is silent, devoid of all that is good,

the country falls exhausted …

O Nile, come (and) prosper!

O thou that makest men to live through his flocks,

and his flocks through his orchards!”26

The supremacy of Memphis was replaced by that of Thebes, and under the Theban dynasties, accordingly, Amon, the god of Thebes, became paramount in the State religion of Egypt. But before we trace the history of his rise to supremacy, it is necessary to say a few words regarding the Egyptian goddesses. The woman occupied an important position in the Egyptian household; purity of blood was traced through her, and she even sat on the throne of the Pharaohs. The divine family naturally corresponded to the family on earth. The Egyptian goddess was not always a pale reflection of the god, like the Semitic consort of Baal; on the contrary, there were goddesses of nomes as well as gods of nomes, and the nome-goddess was on precisely the same footing as the nome-god. Nit of Sais or Hathor of Dendera differed in no way, so far as their divine powers were concerned, from Ptaḥ of Memphis or Khnum of the Cataract. Like the gods, too, they became the heads of Enneads, or were embodied in Trinities, when first the doctrine of the Ennead, and then that of the Trinity, made its way through the theological schools. They are each even called “the father of fathers” as well as “the mother of mothers,” and take the place of Tum as the creators of heaven and earth.27

Nit rose to eminence with the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. Her city of Sais had previously played no part in history, but both its goddess and its sanctuary were of old date.28 Of the nature of the goddess, however, we know little. She is represented as a woman with a shuttle as her emblem, and in her hands she carries a bow and arrow, like Istar of Assyria or Artemis of Greece. But the twin arrow was also a symbol of the nome, which was a border district, exposed to the attacks of the Libyan tribes. The Greeks identified her with their Athêna on account of a slight similarity in the names.

Sekhet, or Bast of Bubastis, is better known. Sometimes she has the head of a lion, sometimes of a cat. At Philæ it is said of her that “she is savage as Sekhet and mild as Bast.”29 But the lion must have preceded the cat. The earlier inhabitants of the valley of the Nile were acquainted with the lion; the cat seems to have been introduced from Nubia in the age of the Eleventh Dynasty. In the time of the Old Empire there was no cat-headed deity, for there were no cats. But the cat, when once introduced, was from the outset a sacred animal.30 The lion of Sekhet was transformed into a cat; and as the centuries passed, the petted and domesticated animal was the object of a worship that became fanatical. Herodotos maintains that when a house took fire the Egyptians of his time thought only of preserving the cats; and to this day the cat is honoured above all other animals on the banks of the Nile. The chief sanctuary of Bast was at Bubastis, where, however, the excavations of Dr. Naville have shown that she did not become the chief divinity before the rise of the Twenty-second Dynasty.31

The goddesses passed one into the other even more readily than the gods. Sekhet developed by turns into Uazit and Mut, Selk the scorpion, and Hathor of Dendera. Pepi I., even at Bubastis, still calls himself the son of Hathor.

Hathor played much the same part among the goddesses that Ra played among the gods. She gradually absorbed the other female divinities of Egypt. They were resolved into forms of her, as the gods were resolved into forms of Ra. The kings of the Sixth Dynasty called themselves her sons, just as they also called themselves sons of the sun-god. She presided over the underworld; she presided also over love and pleasure. The seven goddesses, who, like fairy godmothers, bestowed all good things on the newborn child, were called by her name, and she was even identified with Mut, the starry sky. Her chief sanctuary was at Dendera, founded in the first days of the Pharaonic conquest of Egypt. Here she was supreme; even Horus the elder and the younger,32 when compelled to form with her a trinity, remained lay figures and nothing more.

She was pictured sometimes as a cow, sometimes as a woman with the head of a cow bearing the solar disc between her horns: for from the earliest days she was associated with the sun. Sometimes she is addressed as the daughter of Ra;33 sometimes the sun-god is her son. At Dendera the solar orb is represented as rising from her lap, while its rays encircle her head, which rests upon Bâkhu, the mountain of the sun. In another chamber of the same temple we see her united with her son Horus as a hawk with a woman's head in the very middle of the solar disc, which slowly rises from the eastern hills. When Isis is figured as a cow, it is because she is regarded as a form of Hathor.34

The original character of Hathor has been a matter of dispute. Some scholars have made her originally the sky or space generally, others have called her the goddess of light, while she has even been identified with the moon. In the legend of the destruction of mankind by Ra, she appears as the eye of the sun-god who plies her work at night; and a text at Dendera speaks of her as “resting on her throne in the place for beholding the sun's disc, when the bright one unites with the bright one.” In any case she is closely connected with the rising sun, whose first rays surround her head.

Egyptian tradition maintained that she had come from the land of Punt, from those shores of Arabia and the opposite African coast from which the Pharaonic immigrants had made their way to the valley of the Nile. She was, moreover, the goddess of the Semitic nomads of the Sinaitic Peninsula; in other words, she was here identified with the Ashtoreth or Istar of the Semitic world.35 Now the name of Hathor does not seem to be Egyptian. It is written with the help of a sort of rebus, so common in ideographic forms of writing. The pronunciation of the name is given by means of ideographs, the significations of which have nothing in common with it, though the sounds of the words they express approximate to its pronunciation. The name of Hathor, accordingly, is denoted by writing the hawk of Horus inside the picture of a “house,” the name of which was Hât. A similar method of representing names is frequent in the ideographic script of ancient Babylonia; thus the name of Asari, the Egyptian Osiris, is expressed by placing the picture of an eye (shi) inside that of a place (eri).

The name of Hathor, therefore, had primitively nothing to do with either Horus or the house of Horus, whatever may have been the speculations which the priests of a later day founded upon the written form of the name. It was only an attempt, similar to those common in the early script of Babylonia, to represent the pronunciation of a name which had no meaning in the Egyptian language. But it is a name which we meet with in the ancient inscriptions of Southern Arabia. There it appears as the name of the god Atthar. But Atthar itself was borrowed from Babylonia. It is the name of the Babylonian goddess Istar, originally the morning and evening stars, who, an astronomical text tells us, was at once male and female. As a male god she was adored in South Arabia and Moab; as the goddess of love and war she was the chief goddess of Babylonia, the patron of the Assyrian kings, and the Ashtoreth of Canaan. When, with the progress of astronomical knowledge, the morning and evening stars were distinguished from one another, in one part of Western Asia she remained identified with the one, in another part with the other.

Hathor is then, I believe, the Istar of the Babylonians. She agrees with Istar both in name and in attributes The form of the name can be traced back to that of Istar through the Atthar of South Arabia, that very land of Punt from which Hathor was said to have come. In Egypt as in Babylonia she was the goddess of love and joy, and her relation to the sun can be explained naturally if she were at the outset the morning star.36 Even her animal form connects her with Chaldæa. Dr. Scheil has published a Babylonian seal of the age of Abraham, on which the cow, giving milk to a calf, appears as the symbol of Istar, and a hymn of the time of Assur-bani-pal identifies the goddess with a cow.37

I have left myself but little time in which to speak of the gods who interpenetrated and transfigured Egyptian theology in the period of which we know most. These are the gods of Thebes. For centuries Thebes was the dominant centre of a powerful and united Egypt, and its chief god Amon followed the fortunes of his city.

As the word amon meant “to conceal,” the priests discovered in the god an embodiment of a mysterious and hidden force which pervades and controls the universe, and of which the sun is as it were the material organ. But such discoveries were the product of a later day, when the true meaning of the name had been long since forgotten, and Theban theology had become pantheistic. What Amon really signified the priests did not know, nor are we any wiser.

Amon was, however, the local god of Thebes, or rather of Karnak, and he seems from the first to have been a sun-god. But he had a rival in the warrior deity Mentu of Hermonthis, who also probably represented the sun. At any rate, Mentu had the head of a hawk, and therefore must have been a local form of Horus—of that Horus, namely, of whom the Pharaonic Egyptians were the followers.38 Like Horus, too, he was a fighting god, and was accordingly identified in the texts of the Nineteenth Dynasty with the Canaanitish Baal, “the Lord of hosts.” But he was also incarnated in the sacred bull which was, worshipped at Erment, and of which I have spoken in an earlier lecture. He thus differed from Amon, who was identified with the ram, the sacred animal of the aboriginal population, not at Karnak only, but in the whole of the surrounding district.39

But Amon was usually of human form, with two lofty feathers rising above his crown. Under the Theban dynasties he became the supreme god, first of Egypt, then of the Egyptian empire. All other gods had to give way before him, and to lose their individuality in his. His supremacy began with the rise of the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties; it was checked for a moment by the Hyksos conquest of Egypt, but in the end the check proved only a fresh impulse. It was the princes of Thebes, the servants of Amon, who raised the standard of revolt against the Asiatic intruder, and finally drove him back to Asia. Amon had been their helper in the war of independence, and it was he who afterwards gained their victories for them in Syria and Ethiopia. The glory and wealth of Egypt were all due to him, and upon his temple and city accordingly the spoils of Asia were lavished, and trains of captives worked under the lash. The Hyksos invasion, moreover, and the long war of independence which followed, destroyed the power of the old feudal princes, while it strengthened and developed that of the Pharaoh. The influence of the provincial gods passed away with the feudal princes whose patrons they had been; the supremacy of the Pharaoh implied also the supremacy of the Pharaoh's god. There was none left in Egypt to dispute the proud boast of the Theban, that Amon was “the one god.”

But he became the one god not by destroying, but by absorbing the other gods of the country. The doctrines of the Ennead and the Trinity had prepared the way. They had taught how easily the gods of the State religion could be merged one into the other; that their attributes were convertible, and yet, at the same time, were all that gave them a distinct personality. The attributes were to the Egyptian little more than the concrete symbols by which they were expressed in the picture writing; the personality was little more than a name. And both symbols and name could be changed or interchanged at will.

The process of fusion was aided by the identification of Amon with Ra. The spread of the solar cult of Heliopolis had introduced the name and worship of Ra into all the temples of Egypt; the local gods had, as it were, been incorporated into him, and even the goddesses forced to become his wives or his daughters. The Pharaoh, even the Theban Pharaoh, was still “the son of the sun-god”; as Amon was also his “father,” it was a necessary conclusion that Amon and Ra were one and the same.

In the Theban period, accordingly, Amon is no longer a simple god. He is Amon-Ra, to whom all the attributes of Ra have been transferred. The solar element is predominant in his character; and, since the other gods of the country are but subordinate forms of Amon, in their characters also. Most of the religious literature of Egypt which we possess belongs to the Theban period or is derived from it; it is not astonishing, therefore, if Egyptologists have been inclined to see the sun-god everywhere in Egyptian theology.

The Theban trinity was modelled on the orthodox lines. Mut, “the mother,” a local epithet of the goddess of Southern Egypt, was made the wife of Amon, while Khonsu, a local moon-god, became his son. But in acquiring this relationship Khonsu lost his original nature.40 Since the divine son was one with his divine father, he too became a sun-god, with the solar disc and the hawk's head. As the designer of architectural plans, however, he still preserved a reminiscence of his primal character. But he was eventually superseded by Mentu, a result of the decadence of Thebes and the rise of Erment to the headship of the nome. It is needless to say that Mentu had long before become Mentu-Ra.

We can trace the evolution of Amon, thanks to the multiplicity of the texts which belong to the period when his city was supreme. We can watch him as he rises slowly from the position of an obscure provincial deity to that of the supreme god of all Egypt, and can follow the causes which brought it about. We can see him uniting himself with the sun-god, and then absorbing the rest of the Egyptian gods into himself. The theological thought, of which he was the subject and centre, gradually but inexorably passes from a narrow form of polytheism into a materialistic pantheism. There, however, it ends. It never advances further into a monotheism in which the creator is separate from his creation. With all its spirituality, the Egyptian conception of the divine remained concrete; the theologians of Egypt never escaped the influence of the symbol or recognised the god behind and apart from matter. It was through matter that they came to know God, and to the last it was by matter that their conception of the Godhead was bounded.

  • 1.

    Hibbert Lectures on the Religion of Ancient Egypt (1879), pp. 93–100.

  • 2.

    Brugsch, Die Aegyptologie, p. 167.

  • 3.

    See Beni-Hasan, pt. iii. (Archœological Survey of Egypt), pl. v. fig. 75.

  • 4.

    The double-headed axe is carved repeatedly on the walls of the “palace of Minos,” discovered by Dr. A. J. Evans at Knossos, and seems to have been the divine symbol which was believed to protect the building from injury. On the coins of Tarsus the sun-god Sandan carries an axe.

  • 5.

    See above, p. 83.

  • 6.

    De Isid. 12.

  • 7.

    As Thoth writes the name of the king upon the sacred sycamore in order to ensure him everlasting life, so the name of Ea is written upon the core of the sacred cedar-tree (WAI. iv. 15, Rev. 10–13); Sayce, Hibbert Lectures on the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, p. 240.

  • 8.

    Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie égyptiennes, ii. pp. 381–385.

  • 9.

    This is Brugsch's translation (Religion und Mythologie der alten Aegypter, p. 123 sqq.); but the meaning of the last name is doubtful, and the first is rather “time” than “eternity.”

  • 10.

    See Maspero, Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie, ii. pp. 257 sqq. and 375 sqq. In an inscription discovered by Professor Petrie in the tombs of the first two dynasties at Abydos, Thoth is represented as a seated ape (The Royal Tombs of Abydos, pt. i. pl. xvii. 26). On the other hand, on the broken Abydos slate figured in de Morgan, Recherches sur les Origines de l' Égypte, pl. ii., which is probably prehistoric, Thoth appears as an ibis.

  • 11.

    Recherches sur les Origines de l' Égypte, p. 65.

  • 12.

    Maspero, Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie, p. 429 sqq.

  • 13.

    The same cap is worn by the god who sits behind a scorpion-man on a stone containing a grant of land by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar I. (B.C. 1100). The stone was found at Abu-Habba, and is now in the British Museum (WAI. v. 57).

  • 14.

    Maspero (Dawn of Civilisation, p. 157) reproduces a picture in the temple of Luxor representing Khnum moulding Amon-hotep III. and his Ka on a potter's table.

  • 15.

    Sec Scheil, Recueil de Travaux, xx. p. 124 sqq.

  • 16.

    The khnum or “pot” is often used to express the name of Khnum in the hieroglyphics. It reminds us of the vase on early Babylonian seal-cylinders from the two sides of which flow the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and which is often held in the hands of the water-god Ea. The design is reproduced with modifications on early Syrian cylinders, and the name of the zodiacal sign Aquarius shows to what an antiquity it must reach back. The primitive Egyptians believed that the Nile issued from a grotto to which the qerti or “two gulfs” of the Cataract gave access (Maspero, Dawn of Civilisation, pp. 19, 38, 39), and Khnum was the god of the Cataract. Perhaps the classical representation of the Tiber and other rivers holding urns from which a stream of water flows is derived from Egypt.

  • 17.

    Men-nofer (Memphis), “the good place,” is the equivalent of the name of the ancient seaport of Babylonia, Eridu, the Sumerian Eri-duga or “good city.” Ea, the culture-god and creator, was the god of Eridu. In the Deluge tablet (l. 9) Ea says that lie had not “opened (patû) the oracle of the great gods.” It is hardly worth while to mention that the antiquity of Memphis has been disputed by some philologists.

  • 18.

    Ptaḥ is stated in the Book of the Dead to have been the original author of the ceremony which he first performed on the dead gods.

  • 19.

    This is Maspero's view (Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie, ii. pp. 21, 22). Wiedemann (Religion der alten Aegypter, p. 75) makes Sokaris a sun-god; but his solar attributes belong to the time when he was identified with Ra of Heliopolis.

  • 20.

    It was only when the sun-god had absorbed the other deities that they became the children of Ra.

  • 21.

    Recueil de Travaux, xix. pp. 50, 54.

  • 22.

    To “come in peace” is still a common expression in Egyptian Arabic, and means “to return safely.” The name seems to be taken from the office of Im-hotep, which was to conduct the dead safely back to a second life.

  • 23.

    Nofer-Tum and Im-hotep had human forms like their father. The first is a man with a lotus flower on the head, the second a youth with a papyrus roll on the knee.

  • 24.

    There was a difference only in the vowel of the first syllable.

  • 25.

    The Nile-gods, representing the Nile and the canals, are depicted as stout men with large breasts, crowned with flowers, and wearing only the narrow girdle of prehistoric Egypt. The human form agrees well with the fact that the Nile was first engineered, and so made a source of life for Egypt, by the Pharaonic Egyptians. Babylonia was the country, it must be remembered, where river engineering and irrigation were originally developed.

  • 26.

    “Hymn to the Nile,” translated by P. Guieysse, Records of the Past, new series, iii. p. 46 sqq. The hymn was composed by Anna or Annana in the time of Meneptah II.

  • 27.

    Brugsch, Religion und Mythologie, pp. 3, 248, 348.

  • 28.

    Her name is already mentioned in the Pyramid texts, and in Pepi ii. 131 she is described as the eye of Horus and “the opener of the paths,” the ordinary title of Anubis as god of the dead.

  • 29.

    In the Speos Artemidos near Beni-Hassan, where a large cemetery of mummified cats has been found, she is called Pakht, an older form of Bast.

  • 30.

    On a slab discovered by Professor Petrie at Koptos, Usertesen I. of the Twelfth Dynasty already appears standing before a cat-headed goddess who is called “Bast, the lady of Shel.” Shel is perhaps Ashel at Karnak, where the temple of Mut stood, in which so many figures of Bast or Sekhet have been found (Petrie, Koptos, pl. x. 2). The name of Bast also occurs in the Pyramid texts (Pepi 290); but here it is an epithet of Uazit, the goddess of Dep or Buto, once the capital of the kingdom of Northern Egypt, who is contrasted with the goddess of Nekheb.

  • 31.

    Naville, Bubastis (Egypt Exploration Fund), i. pp. 44, 47, 48.

  • 32.

    Horus Ahi. The meaning of Ahi, the local title assigned to Horus the younger, is doubtful.

  • 33.

    Thus at Dendera we read: “Ancestral mother of the gods, thou unitest thyself with thy father Ra in thy festal chamber.”

  • 34.

    The so-called Hathor head with the horns of a cow is already found on the slate plaque of Kom el-Ahmar, which is either of the time of the First Dynasty or pre-Menic (Zeits. f. Aegypt. Spr. xxxvi. pl. xii.). A head of similar type is engraved under the name of Pepi II., discovered at Koptos (Petrie, Koptos, pl. v. 7).

  • 35.

    Horus and Hathor, that is to say, Baal and Ashtoreth, were, according to the Egyptians, the deities of Mafket, the Sinaitic Peninsula.

  • 36.

    It must be remembered that in Egypt the place occupied by the morning star in the astronomy and myths of other peoples was taken by Sirius on account of its importance for the rising of the Nile. And Sirius was identified with Isis.

  • 37.

    Recueil de Travaux, xx. p. 62. Dr. Scheil further points out that the sacred bark of Bau, with whom Istar is identified, was called “the ship of the holy cow.” At Dendera also, Isis, in her bark as goddess of the star Sirius, becomes Hathor under the form of a cow.

  • 38.

    Professor Wiedemann has suggested that the name of Men-tu or Mon-tu is connected with that of A-mon. It is, however, more reasonable to associate it with that of the Mentiu or Semitic nomads of the Sinaitic Peninsula.

  • 39.

    Hence the ram-headed sphinxes that lined the roads leading to the temple of Karnak. The flesh of the ram was tabooed at Thebes, an indication that the animal was originally a totem (cf. Herod. ii. 42).

  • 40.

    A stela of Antef IV., found by M. Legrain in 1900, shows that Khonsu was preceded by Ptaḥ as the third member of the trinity. See above, p. 90.