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Lecture 9: The Popular Religion of Egypt

THUS far I have dealt with the official religion of ancient Egypt, with the religion of the priests and princes, the scribes and educated classes. This is naturally the religion of which we know most. The monuments that have come down to us are for the most part literary and architectural, and enshrine the ideas and beliefs of the cultivated part of the community. The papyri were written for those who could read and write, the temples were erected at the expense of the State, and the texts and figures with which they were adorned were engraved or painted on their walls under priestly direction. The sculptured and decorated tomb, the painted mummy-case, the costly sarcophagus, the roll of papyrus that was buried with the dead, were all alike the privilege of the wealthy and the educated. The grave that contained the body of the poor contained little else than the coarse cere-cloths in which it was wrapped. Our knowledge, therefore, of the religion of the people, of the popular religion as distinguished from the religion of official orthodoxy, is, and must be, imperfect. We have to gather it from the traces it has left in the religion of the State, from stray references to it in literature, from a few rare monuments which have come down to us, from its survivals in the modern folk-lore and superstitions of Egypt, or from its influence on the decaying faith of the classical age.

There was, however, a popular religion by the side of the official religion, just as there is in all countries which possess an organised faith. And if it is difficult to understand fully the religion of the uneducated classes in Western Europe to-day, or to realise their point of view, it must be much more difficult to do so in the case of ancient Egypt. Here our materials are scanty, find the very fact that we know as much as we do about the religion, of the upper class makes it additionally harder to estimate them aright.

A considerable portion of the fellahin were descended from the earlier neolithic population of Egypt, whom the Pharaonic Egyptians found already settled in the country. In a former lecture I have endeavoured to show that they were fetish-worshippers, and that among their fetishes animals were especially prominent. They had no priests, for fetishism is incompatible with a priesthood in the proper sense of the term. Neither did they embalm their dead; all those beliefs and ideas, therefore, which were connected with a priesthood and the practice of embalming must have come to them from without; the gods and sacerdotal colleges of the State religion, the Osirian creed, and the belief in the resurrection, must have been for them of foreign origin. And of foreign origin they doubtless remained to the bulk of the nation down to the last days of paganism.

Amon and Ra and Osiris were indeed familiar names, the temple festivals were duly observed, and the processions in honour of the State gods duly attended; and after the age of the Eighteenth Dynasty, when the fusion between the different elements in the population was completed, the practice of mummification became general; but the names of the State gods were names only, to which the peasant attached a very different meaning from that which official orthodoxy demanded. He still worshipped the tree whose shady branches arose on the edge of the desert or at the corner of his field, or brought his offerings to some animal, in which he saw not a symbol or an incarnation of Horus and Sekhet, but an actual hawk and cat.

How deeply rooted this belief in the divinity of animals was in the minds of the people, is shown by the fact that the State religion had to recognise it just as Mohammed had perforce to recognise the sanctity of the “Black Stone” of the Kaaba. As we have seen, the second king of the Second Thinite Dynasty is said to have legalised the worship of the bull Apis of Memphis, Mnevis of Heliopolis, and the ram of Mendes; and though the official explanation was that these animals were but incarnations of Ptaḥ and Ra to whom the worship was really addressed, it was an explanation about which the people neither knew nor cared. The divine honours they paid to the bulls and ram were paid to the animals themselves, and not to the gods of the priestly cult.

Here and there a few evidences have been preserved to us that such was the fact. In the tomb of Ra-zeser-ka-seneb, for instance, at Thebes, the artist has introduced a picture of a peasant making his morning prayer to a sycamore which stands at the end of a corn-field, while offerings of fruit and bread and water are placed on the ground beside it.1 The official religion endeavoured to legalise this old tree worship much in the same way as Christianity endeavoured to legalise the old worship of springs, by attaching the tree to the service of a god, and seeing in it one of the forms in which the deity manifested himself. Thus “the sycamore of the south” became the body of Hathor, whose head was depicted appearing from its branches, while opposite Siût it was Hor-pes who took the goddess's place.2 Like other beliefs and practices which go back to the neolithic population of Egypt, the ancient tree worship is not yet extinct. On either side of the Nile sacred trees are to be found, under which the offering of bread and water is still set, though the god of the official cult of Pharaonic Egypt, to whom the worship was nominally paid, has been succeeded by a Mohammedan saint. By the side of the tree often rises the white dome of the tomb of a “shêkh,” to whom the place is dedicated, reminding us of a picture copied by Wilkinson in a sepulchre at Hû, in which a small chapel, representing the tomb of Osiris, stands by the side of a tree on whose branches is perched the bennu or phœnix.3 The most famous of these trees, however, that of Matarîya, is an object of veneration to the Christian rather than to the Mohammedan. The Holy Family, it is said, once rested under its branches during their flight into Egypt; in reality it represents a sycamore in which the soul of Ra of Heliopolis must have been, believed to dwell.

Professor Maspero has drawn attention to certain stelæ in the museum of Turin, which show how, even in the lower middle class, it was the animal itself and not the official god incarnated in it that was the object of worship. On one of them, which belongs to the age of the Eighteenth Dynasty, huge figures of a swallow and a cat are painted, with a table of offerings standing before them, as well as two kneeling scribes, while the accompanying inscriptions tell us that it was to “the good” swallow and the “good” cat, and not to any of the State gods who may have hidden themselves under these animal forms, that flowers were being offered and prayers made. On another stela we find two pet cats, who are sitting on a shrine and facing one another, and whom their mistresses—two of the women who wailed at funerals—adore in precisely the same language as that which was used of Osiris or Amon.4 In the quarries north of Qurna is a similar representation of a cow and a cobra, which stand face to face with a table of offerings between them, while a worshipper kneels at the side, and a half-obliterated inscription contains the usual formulæ of adoration.5 Still more curious is a stela, now in the museum of Cairo, on which an ox is represented inside a shrine, while underneath it is a Greek inscription declaring that the “Kretan” who had dedicated the monument could interpret dreams, thanks to the commandment of “the god.” The god, it will be noticed, is not Apis, but an ordinary ox.

But of all the animals who thus continued to be the real gods of the people in spite of priestly teaching and State endowments, none were so numerous or were so universally feared and venerated as the snakes. The serpent was adored where Amon was but a name, and where Ra was looked upon as belonging, like fine horses and clothes, to the rich and the mighty. The prominence of the serpent in Egyptian mythology and symbolism indicates how plentiful and dangerous it must have been in the early days of Egypt, and what a lasting impression it made upon the native mind. When the banks of the Nile were an uninhabitable morass, and the neolithic tribes built their huts in the desert, the snake must indeed have been a formidable danger. The most deadly still frequent the desert; it is only in the cultivated land that they are comparatively rare. In Egypt, as elsewhere, the cultivation of the soil and the habits of civilised life have diminished their number, and driven them into the solitudes of the wilderness. But when the Pharaonic Egyptians first arrived in the valley of the Nile, when the swamps were being drained, the jungle cleared away, and the land sown with the wheat of Babylonia, the serpent was still one of the perils of daily life. A folk-tale which has been appropriated and spoilt by the priestly compilers of the legend of Ra, tells how the sun-god was bitten by a venomous snake which lay in his path, and how the poison ran through his veins like fire. The symbol of royalty adopted by the earliest Pharaohs was the cobra; it symbolised the irresistible might and deadly power of the conquering chieftain which, like the dreaded cobra of the desert, overcame the inhabitants of the country, and compelled them to regard him with the same awe and terror as the serpent itself.

Down to the last the embalmers and gravediggers and others who had to attend to the funeral arrangements of the dead, and consequently lived in the neighbourhood of the necropolis, were more exposed to the chances of snake-bite than the inhabitants of the cultivated land. The necropolis was invariably in the desert, and the nature of their occupation obliged them to excavate the sand or visit the dark chambers of the dead where the snake glided unseen. It is not surprising, therefore, that the veneration of the snake was especially strong among the population of the cemeteries. Those who inhabited the necropolis of Thebes have left us prayers and dedications to the goddess Mert-seger, who is represented as a cobra or some equally deadly serpent, though at times she is decently veiled under the name of an official deity. Once her place is taken by two snakes, at another time by a dozen of them. She was, in fact, the tutelary goddess of the necropolis, and hence received the title of “the Western Crest”—that is to say, the crest of the western hills, where the earliest tombs of Thebes were situated. Professor Maspero has translated an interesting inscription made in her honour by one of the workmen employed in the cemetery. “Adoration to the Western Crest,” it begins, “prostrations before her double! I make my adoration, listen! Ever since I walked on the earth and was an attendant in the Place of Truth (the cemetery), a man, ignorant and foolish, who knew not good from evil, I committed many sins against the goddess of the Crest, and she punished me. I was under her hand night and day; while I cowered on the bed like a woman with child, I cried for breath, and no breath came to me, for I was pursued by the Western Crest, the mightiest of all the gods, the goddess of the place; and behold I will declare to all, great and small, among the workmen of the necropolis: Beware of the Crest, for there is a lion in her, and she strikes like a lion that bewitches, and she is on the track of all who sin against her! So I cried to my mistress, and she came to me as a soft breeze, she united herself with me, causing me to feel her hand; she returned to me in peace, and made me forget my troubles by giving me breath. For the Western Crest is appeased when the cry is made to her;—so says Nefer-ab, the justified. He says: Behold, hear, all ears who live on earth, beware of the Western Crest!”6

It is clear that Nefer-ab suffered from asthma, that he believed it had been inflicted upon him by the local goddess for some sin he had committed against her, and that he further believed his penitence and cry for help to have induced her to come to him and cure him. And this goddess was a snake. Here, in the necropolis of Thebes, therefore, the snake played the same part as a healer that it did in the worship of Asklêpios. It will be remembered that the first temple raised to Æsculapius at Rome was built after a plague, from which the city was supposed to have been delivered by a serpent hidden in the marshes of the Tiber. The serpent that destroys also heals; by the side of Kakodæmon there is also the good snake Agathodæmon.

Mert-seger, the serpent of the necropolis, did not wholly escape the patronage of the State religion. Like the local cults of aboriginal India over which Brahmanism has thrown its mantle, the cult of Mert-seger was not left wholly unnoticed by the organised religion of the State. A chapel was erected to her in the orthodox form, and it is from this chapel that most of the stelæ have come which have revealed the existence of the old worship. In some of them Mert-seger is identified with Mut, or even with Isis; but such an identification was never accepted or understood by her illiterate worshippers. For them she continued to be what she had been to their forefathers, simply a serpent and nothing more. The old faith has survived centuries of Christianity and Mohammedanism in a modified form. Professor Maspero discovered that the local Mohammedan saint, whose tomb is not far from the ancient chapel of Mert-seger, is still believed to work miracles of healing. He has taken the place of the serpent goddess; that is all.7

The serpent, however, was not always venerated because it was feared. It lived underground, and was thus, in a special sense, the oldest inhabitant of the land, and the guardian of the soil. The Telmessians told Krœsus that it was “a child of the earth.”8 The harmless snakes that frequent the village houses of modern Egypt are still regarded as the “protectors” of the household. The bowl of milk is provided for them as regularly as it once was in Wales for the fairies, and many tales are told of the punishment a neglect of the household ḥarrâs or “guardian” will entail. For its poison continues to exist, though held in reserve, and is communicable by other means than the fangs. At Helwân near Cairo, for instance, I was told of one of these guardian snakes which once missed its female mate and supposed it had been killed. Thereupon it crept into the zîr or jar in which water is kept, and poisoned the water in it. But the female having soon afterwards made its appearance, it was observed to glide into a basin of milk, then to crawl along the ground so that the clotted dust might adhere to its body, and again to enter the zîr. As the dust fouled the water, the people of the house knew that the latter must have been poisoned, and accordingly poured it on the ground. In this case the snake provided the remedy for the mischief it had the power to cause.9

But the Agathodæmon or serpent guardian of the house not only still survives among the fellahin of Egypt, serpent worship still holds undiminished sway in the valley of the Nile. In a crater-like hollow of the mountain cliff of Shêkh Herîdî there are two domed tombs, dedicated not to a Christian or a Mohammedan saint, but to a snake and his female mate. Shêkh Herîdî, in fact, is a serpent, and the place he inhabits is holy ground. Pilgrimages are made annually to it, and the festival of the “Shêkh,” which takes place in the month that follows Ramadan, is attended by crowds of sailors and other devout believers, who encamp for days together in the neighbourhood of the shrine.

They have no doubt about the miraculous powers possessed by the snake. It is as thick as a man's thigh, and, if treated irreverently, breathes flames of fire into the face of the spectator, who immediately dies. If it is cut in pieces, the pieces reunite of their own accord, and the blood flowing from them marks a spot where gold is hidden in the ground.

Paul Lucas, in the early part of the eighteenth century, tells us that in his time it was called “the angel,” and that shortly before his visit to the Nile it had cured a woman of Ekhmîm of paralysis, from which she had suffered for eight years, by simply crawling up into her litter when she was brought to its dwelling-place. Paul Lucas himself was a witness of its supernatural gifts. It was brought to him by the keeper of the shrine when he was visiting a Bey on the opposite side of the river. Suddenly it disappeared, and was nowhere to be found; but a messenger, who was sent post haste to the shrine, returned with the information that “the angel was already there, and had advanced more than twenty steps to meet the dervish who takes care of it.”10

Norden, a few years later, has a similar tale to relate. He was told that the serpent-saint “never dies,” and that it “cures and grants favours to all those who implore its aid and offer sacrifices to it.” The cures were effected by the mere presence of the snake, which came in person to those who desired its help. The Christians, he adds, admit the miraculous powers of the Shêkh equally with the Mohammedans, only they explain them as due to a demon who clothes himself in a serpent's form.11

Saint or demon, however, Shêkh Herîdî is really the lineal descendant of a serpent which has been worshipped in its neighbourhood since the prehistoric days of Egypt. A bronze serpent with the head of Zeus Serapis has been found in the mounds of Benawit, on the western side of the Nile, which face the entrance to the shrine of the Shêkh; and the nome in which the shrine is situated was that of Du-Hefi, “the mountain of the snake.” The serpent of Shêkh Herîdî, with his miraculous powers of healing, must thus have been already famous in the days when the nomes of Upper Egypt first received their names. The old neolithic population of the desert must have already venerated the snake that dwelt in the cleft of the rock above which now rises the sacred “tomb” of Shêkh Herîdî.12

The faith of the people dies hard. The gods and goddesses, the theology and speculations of the official religion of Egypt, have passed away, but the old beliefs and superstitions which were already in possession of the land when the Pharaonic Egyptians first entered it, have survived both Christianity and Mohammedanism. The theological systems of Heliopolis or Thebes are like the sacred trees, which, according to Dr. Schweinfurth,13 were brought from Southern Arabia along with the deities with whose cult they were associated; when the deities themselves ceased to be worshipped, the trees also ceased to be cultivated, and so disappeared from a soil wherein they had been but exotics. But the religion of the great mass of the people remained rooted as it were in the soil, like the palm or the acacia. It flowed like a strong current under the surface of the theology of the State, contemptuously tolerated by the latter, and in its turn but little affected by it. The theology of the State might incorporate and adapt the beliefs of the multitude; to the multitude the State theology was a “tale of little meaning, though the words were strong.”

If we would know what the bulk of the people thought of those deities whom the higher classes regarded as manifestations of a single ineffable and omnipotent divine power, we must turn to the folk-tales which were taken up and disfigured by the rationalising priests of a later period, when they combined together in a connected story all that bad been said about the gods of the local sanctuaries. Each sanctuary came to possess its euhemerising legend of the chief divinity to whom it was consecrated; the divinity was transformed into an earthly king, and his history was concocted partly out of popular tales, associated for the most part with particular relics and charms, partly from forced etymologies of proper names. At how early a date these artificial legends first came into existence we do not know, but we already meet with examples of them in the time of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. They belong, however, to the age when the rationalistic process of resolving the gods into human princes had already begun,—the counter side of the process that had turned the Pharaoh into a god,—and their artificial character is betrayed by the attempt to extract history from learned but unscientific explanations of the origin of local and other names.

Here, for instance, is one which was compiled for the temple of the sun-god at Heliopolis, and is contained in a Turin papyrus of the age of the Twentieth Dynasty: “Account of the god who created himself, the creator of heaven, of earth, of the gods, of men, of wild beasts, of cattle, of reptiles, of fowls, and of fish; the king of men and gods, to whom centuries are but as years; who possesses numberless names which no man knoweth, no, not even the gods.

“Isis was a woman, more knowing in her malice than millions of men, clever among millions of the gods, equal to millions of spirits, to whom as unto Ra nothing was unknown either in heaven or upon earth.

“The god Ra came each day to sit upon his throne; he had grown old, his mouth trembled, his slaver trickled down to the earth, and his saliva dropped upon the ground. Isis kneaded it with her hand along with the dust that had adhered to it; she moulded therefrom a sacred serpent, to which she gave the form of a spear-shaft. She wound it not about her face, but flung it on the road along which the great god walked, as often as he wished, in his twofold kingdom.

“The venerable god went forth, the (other) gods accompanied him, he walked along as on other days. Then the sacred serpent bit him. The divine god opened his mouth, and his cry rang to heaven. His Ennead of gods called: ‘What is it?’ and the gods cried, ‘Look there!’ He could make no answer, his jaws chattered, his limbs shook, the venom took hold of his flesh as the Nile covers its banks (with water).

“When the heart of the great god was quieted, he called to his followers: ‘Come to me, ye children of my limbs, ye gods who have emanated from me! Something painful hath hurt me; my heart perceiveth it, yet my eyes see it not; my hand hath not wrought it, nothing that I have made knoweth what it is, yet have I never tasted suffering like unto it, and there is no pain which is worse. … I went forth to see what I had created, I was walking in the two lands which I have made, when something stung me which I knew not. Was it fire, was it water? My heart is in flames, my limbs tremble, all my members shiver. Let there be brought unto me the children of the gods of beneficent words, who have understanding mouths, and whose power reaches unto heaven.’

“The children of the gods came, full of woe; Isis came with her magic; with her mouth full of the breath of life, whose recipes destroy pain, whose word gives life to the dead. She said: ‘What is it, what is it, O father of the gods? A serpent hath wrought this suffering in thee, one of thy creatures hath lifted up his head against thee. Surely he shall be overthrown by beneficent incantations; I will make him retreat at the sight of thy rays.’

“The holy god opened his mouth: ‘I walked along the road, travelling through the two lands of the earth, after the desire of my heart, that I might see what I had created; then was I bitten by a serpent that I saw not. Is it fire, is it water? I am colder than water, I am hotter than fire, all my limbs sweat, I tremble, my eye is unsteady, I see not the sky, drops roll from my face as in the season of summer.’

“Isis replied to Ra: ‘O tell me thy name, father of the gods, then shall he live who is released (from pain) by thy name.’ But Ra answers: ‘I have created heaven and earth, I have set the hills in order, and made all beings that are thereon. I am he who created the water, and caused the primeval ocean to issue forth. I created the spouse of his (divine) mother. I created the heavens and the secrets of the two horizons, and have ordered the souls of the gods. I am he who illuminates all things at the opening of his eyes; if he closes his eyes, all is dark. The water of the Nile rises when he bids it; the gods know not his name. I make the hours and create the days, I send the year and create the inundation, I make the fire that lives, I purify the house. I am Khepera in the morning, Ra at noon, and Tum at evening.’

“The venom departed not, it advanced further, the great god became no better. Then Isis said to Ra: ‘Thy name was not pronounced in the words thou hast repeated. Tell it to me and the poison will depart; then shall he live whose name is (thus) named.’

“The poison glowed like fire; it was hotter than the flame of fire. The majesty of Ra said: ‘I grant thee leave that thou shouldest search within me, O mother Isis! and that my name pass from my bosom into thine.’

“So the god hid himself from the (other) gods; his everlasting bark was empty. When the moment arrived for extracting the heart (whereon the name was written), Isis said to her son Horus: ‘He must yield up unto thee his two eyes (the sun and moon).’

“So the name of the great god was taken from him, and Isis, the great enchantress, said: ‘Depart, O poison, leave Ra: let the eye of Horus go forth from the god and shine out of his mouth. I, I have done it; I throw on the earth the victorious poison, for the name of the great god is extracted from him. Let Ra live and the poison die!’ So spake Isis, the great one, the regent of the gods, who knows Ra and his true name.”

The writer of the papyrus adds that the recital of this legend is an excellent charm against the poison of a snake, especially if it is written and dissolved in water, which is then drunk by the patient; or if it is inscribed on a piece of linen, and hung around his neck.14

The contrast is striking between the introduction to the legend and the euhemeristic spirit that elsewhere prevails in it, and can be explained, even in the case of such disregarders of consistency as the Egyptians, only on the supposition that the Ra of folk-lore and the Ra of theology were held to be the same merely in name. Not even a pretence is made of regarding Isis as a goddess; she is simply a common witch, who resorts to magic in order to force Ra to hand over his name and therewith his powers to her son Horus. The virtue of the name, and the power conferred by a knowledge of it, are features common to the folk-lore of most countries. They take us back to that primitive phase of thought which not only identifies the name with the person or thing it represents, but makes it a separate entity with an existence of its own.

The legend of the sun-god of Edfu is equally instructive, though in its present form it is not earlier than the Ptolemaic age. This begins as follows: “In the three hundred and sixty-third year of the reign of Ra-Harmakhis, the ever-living, Ra was in Nubia with his soldiers. Enemies, however, conspired (uu) against him; hence the country has ever since borne the name of the land of Conspirators (Uaua). Then the god Ra went his way in his bark along with his followers, and landed in the nome of Edfu. Here the god Hor-Beḥudet (the winged disc) entered the bark of Ra and said to his father: ‘O Harmakhis, I see how the enemy have conspired against their lord.’ Then said the Majesty of Ra-Harmakhis to the person of Hor-Beḥudet: ‘O son of Ra, exalted one, who hast emanated from me, smite the enemy before thee forthwith.’ Hor-Beḥudet flew up to the sun in the form of a great winged disc; on that account he is ever since called the great god, the lord of heaven. He espied the enemy from the sky, he followed them in the form of a great winged disc. Through the attack which he made upon them in front, their eyes saw no longer, their ears heard no longer, each slew his neighbour forthwith, there remained not one alive. Then Hor-Beḥudet came in a many-coloured form as a great winged disc into the bark of Ra-Harmakhis. And Thoth said to Ra: ‘Lord of the gods, the god of Beḥudet (Edfu) has come in the form of a great winged disc: from this day forth he shall be called Hor-Beḥudet (Horus of Edfu).’ And he said (again): ‘From this day forth the city of Edfu shall be called the city of Hor-Beḥudet.’ Then Ra embraced the form of Hor, and said to Hor-Beḥudet: ‘Thou makest the water of Edfu (red with blood like) grapes, and thy heart is rejoiced thereat.’ Hence this water of Edfu is called (the water of grapes).

“And Hor-Beḥudet said: ‘March on, O Ra, and behold thine enemies under thy feet in this land.’ When the Majesty of Ra had turned back, and the goddess Astartê with him, he saw the enemy lying on the ground, each extended like a prisoner. Then said Ra to Hor-Beḥudet: ‘That is a suitable life.’ Hence the seat of Hor-Beḥudet has ever since been called the place of the Suitable Life. And Thoth said: ‘It was a piercing (deb) of my enemies.’ So the nome of Edfu (Deb) has been called ever since by that name. And Thoth said to Hor-Beḥudet: ‘Thou art a great protection’ (mâk âa). Great in Protection (âa mâk) accordingly has the sacred bark of Horus been ever since called.

“Then Ra spake to the gods who were with him: ‘Let us voyage (khen) in our bark on the Nile; we are rejoiced, for our enemies lie on the ground.’ The (canal) in which the great god was has ever since been called the Water of Voyaging (Pe-khen).

“Then the enemies of Ra entered the water: they changed themselves into crocodiles and hippopotamuses. But Harmakhis voyaged on the water in his bark. When the crocodiles and hippopotamuses came up to him, they opened their jaws in order to destroy the Majesty of Harmakhis. Then came Hor-Beḥudet with his followers the blacksmiths (mesniu); each held an iron lance and chain in his hand, wherewith he smote the crocodiles and the hippopotamuses. Then three hundred and eighty-one of the enemy were brought to the spot, who had been killed in sight of the city of Edfu.

“And Harmakhis said to Hor-Beḥudet: ‘Let my image be in Southern Egypt, since there it is that the victory was gained’ (nekht âḥ). So the dwelling-place of Hor-Beḥudet (at Edfu) has ever since been called the Victorious (Nekht-âḥ). And Thoth said, when he had seen the enemy lying on the ground: ‘Glad are your hearts, O gods of heaven; glad are your hearts, O gods of earth! Horus the younger is come in peace; he has wrought wonders in his journey which he undertook in accordance with the Book of the Slaying of the Hippopotamus.’ Ever since was there (at Edfu) a forge (mesen) of Horus.15

“Hor-Beḥudet changed his form into that of a winged solar disc, which remained there above the prow of the bark of Ra. He took with him Nekheb, the goddess of the south, and Uazit, the goddess of the north, in the form of two serpents, in order to annihilate the enemy in their crocodile and hippopotamus bodies in every place to which he came, both in Southern and in Northern Egypt.

“Then the enemy fled before him, they turned their faces towards the south, their hearts sank within them from fear. But Hor-Beḥudet was behind them in the bark of Ra, with an iron lance and chain in his hand. With him were his followers, armed with weapons and chains. Then beheld be the enemy towards the southeast of Thebes in a plain two schœni in size.”

Here follows an account of the several battles which drove the enemies of Horus from place to place until eventually all Egypt passed under his sway. The first battle, that which took place south-east of Thebes, was at Aa-Zadmi, so called from the “wounds” inflicted on the foe, which henceforth bore the sacred name of Hât-Ra, “the House of Ra.” The second was at Neter-khadu, “the divine carnage,” to the north-east of Dendera; the third at Hebnu, near Minia, in the nome of the Gazelle; and others followed at Oxyrrhynchus or Beḥnesa, and Herakleopolis or Aḥnas, where a twofold Mesen or “Forge” was established. Then the foe were driven through the Delta and defeated at Zaru on its eastern frontier, whence they fled in ships down the Red Sea, but were finally overthrown at Shas-ḥer, near the later Berenikê, at the end of the road that led across the desert from the Nile.

Meanwhile, on the 7th of Tybi, their leader “Set had come forward and cried horribly, uttering curses upon the deed of Hor-Beḥudet in slaying the enemy. And Ra said to Thoth: ‘The horrible one cries loudly on account of what Hor-Beḥudet has done against him.’ Thoth replied to Ra: ‘Let the cries be called horrible from this day forward.’ Hor-Beḥudet fought long with Set; he flung his iron at him, he smote him to the ground in the city which henceforward was called Pa-Reḥeḥui (the House of the Twins).16 When Hor-Beḥudet returned, he brought Set with him; his spear stuck in his neck, his chain was on his hand; the mace ef Horus had smitten him, and closed his mouth. He brought him before his father Ra.

“Then Ra said to Thoth: ‘Let the companions of Set be given to Isis and Horus her son, that they may deal with them as they will.’ … So Horus the son of Isis cut off the head of Set and his confederates before his father Ra and all the great Enuead. He carried him under his feet through the land, with the axe on his head and in his back.”

Set, however, was not slain. He transformed himself into a serpent, and the battles succeeded which ended with the victory at Shas-ḥer in the land of Uaua. After this “Harmakhis came in his bark and landed at Thes-Hor (the Throne of Horus or Edfu). And Thoth said: ‘The dispenser of rays who cometh forth from Ra has conquered the enemy in his form (of a winged disc); let him be named henceforward the dispenser of rays who cometh forth from the horizon.’ And Ra said to Thoth: ‘Bring this sun (the winged disk) to every place where I am, to the seats of the gods in Southern Egypt, to the seats of the gods in Northern Egypt, (to the seats of the gods) in the other world, that it may drive all evil from its neighbourhood.’ Thoth brought it accordingly to all places, as many as exist where there are gods and goddesses. It is the winged solar disc which is placed over the sanctuaries of all gods and goddesses in Egypt, since these sanctuaries are also that of Hor-Beḥudet.”17

The legend is a curious combination of the traditions relative to the conquest of the neolithic population by the Pharaonic Egyptians, of the myth of Osiris, of etymological speculations about the meaning of certain proper names, and of an attempt to explain the origin of the winged solar disc. We may gather from it that the disc was first used as an ornament at Edfu, and that it was believed, like the winged bulls of Assyria, to have the power of preventing the demons of evil from passing the door over which it was placed. Whether, however, this was one of the superstitions of the older people, or whether it was brought by the conquerors from their Babylonian home, is doubtful; perhaps the fact that the disc was a symbolic and architectural ornament, and was confined, so far as we know, to the temples of the official gods, points in the latter direction. It is otherwise with the temple relies mentioned in a legend which has been preserved on a granite shrine of the Ptolemaic epoch, that long served as a water-trough by the side of the well at El-Arîsh. The temple from which it originally came was that of At-Nebes, the sacred name of the city of Qesem or Goshen, now Saft el-Henna. The legend begins by describing the reign of Shu, who fortified At-Nebes against “the children of Apophis,” the Semites of “the red desert,” who came from the East “at nightfall upon the road of At-Nebes” to invade Egypt. Here he dwelt in his palace, and from hence he “ascended into heaven,” when he had grown old and the time had come for him to die. He was succeeded by his son Seb, who “discussed the history of the city with the gods who attended him, (and they told him) all that happened when the Majesty of Ra was in At-Nebes, the conflicts of the king Tum in this locality, the valour of the Majesty of Shu in this city … (and the wonders that) the serpent-goddess Ankhet had done for Ra when he was with her; the victories of the Majesty of Shu, smiting the evil ones, when he placed her upon his brow. Then said the Majesty of Seb: ‘I also (will place) her upon my head, even as my father Shu did.’ Seb entered the temple of Aart (Lock of Hair) together with the gods that were with him; then he stretched forth his hand to take the casket in which (Ankhet) was; the serpent came forth and breathed its vapour on the Majesty of Seb, confounding him greatly; those who followed him fell dead, and his Majesty himself was burned in that day. When his Majesty had fled to the north of At-Nebes, with the fire of the cobra upon him, behold, when he came to the fields of henna, the pain of his burn was not yet assuaged, and the gods who followed him said unto him: ‘Come, let them take the lock (aart) of Ra which is there, when thy Majesty shall go to see it and its mystery, and his Majesty shall be healed (as soon as it is placed) upon thee.’ So the Majesty of Seb caused the magic lock of hair to be brought to Pa-Aart (the House of the Lock), for which was made that reliquary of hard stone which is hidden in the secret place of Pa-Aart, in the district of the divine lock of the god Ra; and behold the fire departed from the limbs of the Majesty of Seb. And many years afterwards, when this lock of hair was brought back to Pa-Aart in At-Nebes, and cast into the great lake of Pa-Aart, whose name is the Dwelling of Waves, in order that it might be purified, behold the lock became a crocodile; it flew to the water and became Sebek, the divine crocodile of At-Nebes.”18

Inside the shrine is a picture of the two relics, the cobra which adorned the head-dress of the Pharaoh, and the aart or lock of hair which was supposed to give its name to the temple. They were doubtless preserved at At-Nebes, and shown to the faithful as the veritable objects which had proved the bane and the antidote of the god Seb. They introduce us to a side of Egyptian religion which, though essentially characteristic of the popular faith, had also received the sanction of the official creed. The belief in amulets and charms was too deeply engrained in the popular mind to be ignored; they were consequently taken under the patronage of the gods, and a theory was invented to explain their efficacy. Already the later chapters of the Book of the Dead are concerned with the various amulets which were necessary to the preservation or resuscitation of the body; and even if the latter were regarded as symbolic, they were concrete symbols—symbols, that is to say, which actually possessed the virtues ascribed to them. Just as the name was a concrete entity, expressive of the very essence of the thing to which it was applied, so too the symbol was an entity with a concrete existence of its own. The materialistic tendency of Egyptian thought, added to the fetishism of the earlier stratum of native religion, produced this result. The doctrine of the Ka furnished a theory by which the educated classes could explain the efficacy of the amulet and the active virtues of the symbol. It was the Ka, the spiritual and yet materialised double, of the amulet that worked the charm—that made the scarab, for instance, a substitute for the living heart, or the dad—the symbol of stability—a passport to the other world.19

The amulets buried with the dead, the relics preserved in the temples, had originally been the fetishes of the earlier population of Egypt. They hardly changed their character when they became symbols endowed with mysterious properties, or relics of the State gods which still possessed miraculous powers. The peasant might be told in the ritual of Amon: in “the sanctuary of the god clamour is an abomination to him: pray for thyself with a loving heart, in which the words remain hidden; that he may supply thy need, hear thy words and accept thine offering”;20 but it was a teaching that was far above him. When he entered the sanctuary it was to see the processions of the priests and the relics preserved in it, and it was in these relics that he still put his trust. It was not only in Ethiopia that there were moving and speaking statues which elected the king by taking him by the hand; in Thebes itself, under the priestly kings of the Twentieth Dynasty, we find wonder-working statues whose reality was guaranteed by the priesthood. One of them, it was said, was sent to Asia, where it delivered a king's daughter from the demon that possessed her, and afterwards returned in a moment to Thebes of its own accord; while others answered the questions addressed to them by nodding the head, or even pronounced prophecies regarding the future.21 Indeed, as we have seen, the old theory of the ka implied that the statue of the dead man could be reanimated in a sense by his spirit; and a text at Dendera speaks of the soul of Hathor descending from heaven as a human-headed hawk of lapis-lazuli, and uniting itself with her image. The peasant, therefore, might be excused if he remained true to the superstitions and traditions of his ancestors, and left the official religion, with its one ineffable god, to those who were cultured enough to understand it. Like the peasant of modern Italy, he was content with a divinity that he could see and handle, and about whose wonder-working powers he had no doubt. Materialism is the basis of primitive religion; the horizon of primitive man is limited, and he has not yet learnt to separate thought from the senses through which alone his narrow world is known to him. The simple faith of a child often wears a very materialistic form.

  • 1.

    Scheil, “Tombeaux thébains” in Mémoires de la Mission archélogique française du Caire, v. 4, pl. 4.

  • 2.

    So in the Pyramid texts (Unas 170) reference is made to “the baqt,” or “ben-nut tree which is in On.” The tree is the Moringa aptera Gærtner, from the fruit of which the myrobalanum oil was extracted (Joret, Les Plantes dans l' Antiquité et au Moyen Age, i. pp. 133, 134).

  • 3.

    Ancient Egyptians, iii. p. 349. The bennu is described as “the soul of Osiris.”

  • 4.

    Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie, ii, p. 395 sqq.

  • 5.

    The influence of the State religion is visible in the picture, as the cow has the solar disc between its horns, and the cobra is crowned not only with horns, but also with the solar disc. Behind the cobra is the leafy branch of a tree. There is no reason for supposing with Wiedemann (Muséon, 1884) that the monument is Ethiopian: what is decipherable in the inscription is purely Egyptian. Professor Wiedemann calls the animal on the left a ram, but my drawing made it a cow. At the feet of the cow, which has a garland round the neck, are two vases.

  • 6.

    See the very interesting study of Maspero on “La Déesse Miritskro et ses guérisons miraculeuses” in Études de Mythologie et d' Archéologie, ii. pp. 402–419; Recueil de Travaux, ii. p. 109 sqq.

  • 7.

    The Belmore collection of Egyptian antiquities contains several stelæ which commemorate the popular worship of the serpent; see Belmore Collection, pls. 7, 8, and 12. In one of them the uræus has the human head of the official deity; in another it stands on the top of a shrine; but on one (given in pl. 7) the worshipper is kneeling before a coluber of great length, which has none of the attributes of the State gods, and whose numerous coils remind us of Apophis.

  • 8.

    Herodotus, i. 78.

  • 9.

    Sayce, “Serpent Worship in Ancient and Modern Egypt,” in the Contemporary Review, Oct. 1893.

  • 10.

    Voyage du Sieur Paul Lucas, fait en mdccxiv etc., par Ordre de Louis XIV., ii. pp. 83–86.

  • 11.

    Voyage d' Égypte et de Nubie, nouv. édit. par L. Langlés, ii. pp. 64–69.

  • 12.

    See my article on “Serpent Worship in Ancient and Modern Egypt,” in the Contemporary Review, Oct. 1893. On a rock called Hagar el-Ghorâb, a few miles north of Assuan, I have found graffiti of the age of the Twelfth Dynasty, which show that a chapel of “the living serpent” stood on the spot; and a native informed me that the rock is still haunted by a monstrous serpent, “as long as an oar and as thick as a man,” which appears at night and destroys, with the fire that blazes from its eyes, whoever is unfortunate enough to fall in its way. See Recueil de Travaux, xvi. p. 174.

  • 13.

    In the Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 1889, No. 7.

  • 14.

    The legend was first published by Pleyte and Rossi, “Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin,” pls. 31, 77, 131–8. It was translated by Lefébure in the Zeitschrift für Aegyptische Sprache, 1883, pp. 27–33.

  • 15.

    The shrine of Horus, whom the legend here identifies with the son of Osiris, was called Mesen at Edfu. The winged solar disc, which seems to have originated there, is called sometimes “the lord of the city of Beḥudet,” sometimes “the lord of the city of Mesen.” Beḥudet was formerly read Hud, and it is possible that this was really the pronunciation of the name in later days. At all events it seems to be the origin of the modern Edfu, which, of course, has nothing to do with the verb deb, “to pierce.”

  • 16.

    “The City of the Twins” seems to be the same as Ha-Zaui, “the House of the Twins,” which Dümichen identities with the Greek Khnubis, close to Esna. An inscription at Esna says that it was also termed Pa-Saḥura, “the House of Sahura” (of the Fifth Dynasty), a name which Dümichen finds in that of the modern village of Sahera, south of Esna. On a prehistoric slate found at Abydos the name of the city appears to be indicated by the figures of two twins inside the cartouche of a town (de Morgan, Recherches sur les Origines de l' Égypte, i. pl. iii., first register).

  • 17.

    Naville, Mythe d' Horus, pls. 12–18; Brugsch, Abhandlungen der Götting. gelehrt. Akademie, xiv.

  • 18.

    Griffith, “Minor Explorations,” in the Seventh Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Fund (1890), pp. 71–73; Maspero, Dawn of Civilisation, pp. 169–171.

  • 19.

    Cf. the 155th chapter of the Book of the Dead: “These words must be spoken over a gilded dad, which is made from the heart of a sycamore and hung round the neck of the dead. Then shall he pass through the gates of the other world.” When this chapter was written, however, the real origin of the dad—a row of four columns—had been forgotten, and it was imagined to represent the backbone of Osiris. We are transported by it into the full bloom of religious symbolism.

  • 20.

    Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, Eng. tr., p. 273.

  • 21.

    See Maspero, Études de Mythologie et d Archéologie égyptiennes, i. pp. 82–89.