A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter 6: The Literature and Religion of Ancient Egypt." by Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (1831-1892)
Publication: Pharaohs Fellahs and Explorers. by Amelia Edwards. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891. (First edition.) pp. 193-233.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 193]



THAT the first people who possessed letters in the literal sense should also be the first people to possess letters in the literary sense, is no more than we should expect. Not, indeed, that the possession of an alphabet necessarily implies literary activity on the part of those who possess it. The Romans engraved their codes on tablets of stone and brass, and sculptured inscriptions on their public buildings, for centuries before they wrote histories and dramas, odes and satires. The Oscans, the Etruscans, and other early nations of Italy, never, so far as we know, got beyond mere inscriptions. Even the Greeks of the Ægean, as we are now just beginning to find out, were in possession of the Cadmæan alphabet some five or six centuries before the time of Homer; and yet we have no evidence that the Iliad was committed to writing earlier than some four hundred years after the death of the poet. Literature is, in fact, the fruit of leisure. Nations which are going through the struggle for existence call for soldiers, not scribes. The bard, the rhapsodist, the extemporaneous singer of war-chants and dirges, is the only representative of literature at that early stage in the history of a people; and it is not till the arts of peace have taken their place side by side with the arts of war, that poems are written, not sung–that histories are recorded with the pen, not carved out by the sword. [Page 194] 

But when we are dealing with the origin and evolution of national literatures, there is yet another factor to be taken into the account; namely, the possession of a cheap and convenient material upon which to write. This is a very commonplace and vulgar necessity; yet it is one of paramount importance. So long as stone and metal are the only available substances, so long will they be used for inscriptions and state documents only. It is not till papyrus, and parchment, and finally paper, become current articles of commerce, that writing as a career or a recreation is even possible. Without papyrus or parchment, we should never have had a literature of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Without paper, we could never have had the magnificent literary efflorescence of the Renaissance. Fancy Anacreon and Sappho, Martial and Horace, laboriously scratching their poems on tablets of limestone, or plates of bronze ! How the perfume of the roses and the sting of the epigrams and the aroma of the Sabine wine would have evaporated under such a process!

So far as we know, the people of ancient Egypt had to make no struggle for existence at the outset of their career. Hemmed in between two vast and pathless deserts, their fertile valley was so strongly fortified by nature herself that they had little cause to fear danger from without. It is not, in fact, till thirteen royal dynasties, comprising about two hundred kings, have passed in shadowy succession across the stage of Egyptian history, that we hear of the Hyksôs invasion.

The Egyptians of the first twelve dynasties, and, indeed, the bulk of the nation at all times, were a pastoral and peaceful people, well content with their lot in this life, and much occupied with preparations for the next. They were naturally averse to soldiering, and the armies of the great military Pharaohs of the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties were largely composed of foreign auxiliaries. What the native-born Egyptian most dearly loved was to cultivate his paternal acres, to meditate on morals and religion, and to prepare a splendid tomb for his mummy when the inevitable summons should come. [Page 195] 

And he not only loved meditation, but he loved to record his meditations in writing, for the benefit of posterity.

How early the Egyptians began to cut and press the stalks of the papyrus plant in order to make a material for the use of the scribe, it is impossible to say. But we know that material to have been already employed for literary purposes in the time of the Third Dynasty; that is to say, some three thousand eight hundred years before the Christian era. There is at this present time, in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, a papyrus written by a scribe of the Eleventh Dynasty, which contains copies of two much more ancient documents, one dating from the Third, and one from the Sixth Dynasty. This most precious document (known as the Prisse Papyrus) is the only Eleventh Dynasty papyrus yet discovered. It has been well styled "the oldest book in the world;" (49) and it is, at all events, the oldest papyrus known.

When I say that it is the oldest papyrus known, it is not to be inferred that the Prisse Papyrus is the oldest specimen of Egyptian writing yet discovered. If we turn to inscriptions cut in stone–as, for instance, to the Fourth Dynasty tombs of Ghizeh, which are contemporary with the Great Pyramid or to the famous Second Dynasty tablet of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford–we can point to inscriptions dating from 4000 B.C. and 4200 B.C. But stone cut inscriptions, even when they run to a considerable length, are not what we naturally classify under the head of literature. When we speak of the literature of a nation, we are not thinking of inscriptions graven on obelisks and triumphal arches. We mean such literature as may be stored in a library and possessed by individuals. In a word, we mean books –books, whether in the form of clay cylinders, of papyrus rolls, or any other portable material.

The Egyptians were the first people of the ancient world who had a literature of this kind: who wrote books, and read books; who possessed books, and loved them. And their literature, which grew, and flourished, and decayed with [Page 196]  the language in which it was written, was of the most varied character, scientific, secular, and religious. It comprised moral and educational treatises; state-papers; works on geometry, medicine, astronomy, and magic; travels, tales, fables, heroic poems, love-songs, and essays in the form of letters; hymns, dirges, rituals; and last, not least, that extraordinary collection of prayers, invocations, and religious formulæ known as The Book of the Dead. Some of these writings are older than the pyramids; some are as recent as the time when Egypt had fallen from her high estate and become a Roman province. Between these two extremes lie more than five thousand years. Of this immense body of literature we possess only the scattered wrecks–mere "flotsam and jetsam," left stranded on the shores of Time. Even these disjecta membra, though they represent so small a proportion of the whole, far exceed in mere bulk all that remains to us of the literature of the Greeks. Every year, moreover, adds to our wealth. No less than a dozen papyri of the remote Twelfth Dynasty period were found by Mr. Petrie in the season of 1888-1889 among the ruins of an obscure little town in the Fayûm. How precious these documents are may be judged from the fact that only three or four papyri of that period were previously known; and that Abraham's visit to Egypt is believed to have taken place during the reign of a Pharaoh of this line. In the course of the same season, and of the previous season, Mr. Petrie discovered at least as many papyri of later dynasties, besides hundreds of fragments of Greek papyri of Ptolemaic and Roman times. These consist chiefly of accounts, deeds, royal edicts, and the like, not forgetting a magnificent fragment containing nearly the whole of the Second Book of the Iliad. Nor is this the first time that Homer has been found in Egypt. The three oldest Homeric texts previously known come from the land of the Pharaohs. To those three Mr. Petrie has now added a fourth. (50) Other papyri found within the present century contain fragments of Sappho, Anacreon, Thespis, Pindar, Alcæus, and Timotheus; and all, without exception, [Page 197]  come from graves. The great Homer Papyrus of 1889 was rolled up as a pillow for the head of its former owner; and its former owner was a young and apparently a beautiful woman, with little ivory teeth, and long, silky black hair. The inscription on her coffin was illegible, and we are alike ignorant of her name, her nationality, and her history. She may have been an Egyptian, but she was more probably a Greek. We only know that she was young and fair, and she so loved her Homer that those who laid her in her last resting-place buried her precious papyrus in her grave. That papyrus is now among the treasures of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and all that is preserved of its possessor–her skull and her lovely hair–are now in the South Kensington Museum, London.

But we are not now concerned with the transcripts of foreign classics which have been found on Egyptian soil. Our subject is the native literature of that ancient and wonderful people whose immemorial home was the Valley of the Nile.

The two most important subjects in the literature of a nation are, undoubtedly, its history and its religion; and up to the present time nothing in the shape of an Egyptian history of Egypt has been found. We have historical tablets, historical poems, chronicles of campaigns, lists of conquered cities, and records of public works sculptured on stelæ, written on papyrus, and carved on the walls of temples and tombs. But these are the materials of history–the bricks and blocks and beams with which the historian builds up his structure. Brugsch, in his Geschichte Aegyptens Unter Den Pharaonen, has brought together all such documents as were known at the time when he wrote it; but no one can read that excellent work without perceiving that it is but a collection of inscriptions, and not a consecutive narrative. Whole reigns are sometimes represented by only a name or a date; whole dynasties are occasionally blank. This is no fault of the learned author. It simply means that no monuments of those times have been discovered. Yet we cannot doubt that histories of Egypt were written at various periods by qualified scholars. We know of one only–the work of Manetho, who was High [Page 198]  Priest of Ra, and Keeper of the Archives in the Great Temple of Heliopolis, in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus, some two hundred and fifty years before our era. Manetho, though a true-born Egyptian, wrote his history in Greek, which was the native tongue of the Ptolemies and the language of the court. He wrote it, moreover, by the royal command. Now, the Sacred College of Heliopolis was the most ancient home of learning in Egypt. Its foundation dated back to the ages before history; the oldest fragments embedded in The Book of the Dead being of Heliopolitan origin. Manetho had, therefore, the most venerable, and probably the largest, library in Egypt at his command; and whatever histories may have been written before his time, we may be very certain that his was the latest and the best. But of that precious work, not a single copy has come down to our time. A few invaluable fragments are preserved in the form of quotations by later writers–by Josephus, for instance, in his Antiquities of the Jews, by George the Syncellus, by Eusebius–and by various chronologers; but the work itself has perished with the libraries in which it was treasured and the scholars by whom it was studied.

Still, there is always room for hope in Egypt; and it may yet be reserved for some fortunate explorer to discover the grave of a long-forgotten scribe whose head shall be pillowed, not on a transcript of Homer, but upon a copy of the lost History of Manetho.

Of the numerous historic documents which remain to us, the three most interesting are perhaps the celebrated "Chant of Victory" of King Thothmes III., the "Epic of Pentaur," and the great international treaty between Rameses II. and the allied Princes of Syria.

The first of these is engraved on a large black granite tablet found in the Great Temple of Karnak, at Thebes. It records the conquests of Thothmes III.; and Thothmes III. was the Alexander of ancient Egypt. He was possessed by the same insatiable thirst for conquest, by the same storm-driven restlessness. Ever on the march and ever victorious, [Page 199]  he conquered the known world of his time. It was his magnificent boast that he planted the frontiers of Egypt where he pleased; and he did so. Southward as far, apparently, as the great equatorial lakes which have been rediscovered in our time; northward to the islands of the Ægean and the upper waters of the Euphrates; over Syria and Sinai, Mesopotamia and Arabia in the east; over Libya and the North African coast as far as Scherschell in Algeria on the west, he carried fire and sword, and the terror of the Egyptian name. He was by far the greatest warrior-king of Egyptian history, and his "Chant of Victory," though rhapsodical and Oriental in style, does not exaggerate the facts. This chant, written by the laureate of the day, is one of the finest example extant of the poetry of ancient Egypt. For the Egyptians, notwithstanding the poverty of their grammar and the cumbrous structure of their language, had poetry, and poetry of a very high order. It was not like our poetry. It had neither rhyme nor metre; but it had rhythm. Like the chants of the Troubadours and Trouvères, it was largely alliterative, cadenced, symmetrical. It abounded in imagery, in antithesis, in parallelisms. The same word, or the same phrase, was repeated at measured intervals. In short, it had style and music; and although the old Egyptian language is far more literally dead than the languages of Greece and Rome, that music is still faintly audible to the ears of such as care to listen to its distant echo.

A two-fold bas-relief group at the top of the tablet of Thothmes III. represents the King in adoration before Amen-Ra; and the context shows the poem to have been composed in commemoration of the opening of the Hall of Columns added by this Pharaoh to the Temple of Amen at Karnak. It is the god who speaks. He begins with a few lines of prose; thus:


"Come unto me! Tremble thou with joy, Oh my Son, [Page 200]  my avenger, Ra-men-Kheper, endowed with life everlasting! I am resplendent through thy love, and my heart is dilated on beholding thy joyous entrance into my Temple. My hands have endowed thy limbs with living strength; thy perfections are pleasant in my sight. I am established in my Abode. I give thee victory and power over all the nations. I have spread the fear of thee throughout all lands, and thy terror unto the limits of the four props of heaven. It is I who magnify the dread of thy name, and the echo of thy war-cry in the breasts of the outer barbarians. I stretch forth my arm, and I seize the people of Nubia in myriads, and the nations of the North in millions, and I bind them for thee in sheaves! I have cast thine enemies under thy sandals, and thou hast trampled their chiefs under thine heel. By my command, the world in its length and its breadth, from East to West is thy throne! Joyful of heart, thou dost traverse the lands of all the nations, none daring to oppose thee. Thou hast sailed the waters of the great sea,* and thou hast scoured Mesopotamia in victory and power. I have made the nations to hear thy war-cry in the depths of their caves, and I have cut off the breath of life from their nostrils. I made their hearts to turn back before thy victories. My glory was on thy brow, dazzling them, leading them captive, burning them to ashes in their settlements. Thou hast struck off the heads of the Asiatics, and their children cannot escape from thee. Every land illuminated by thy diadem is encircled by thy might; and in all the zone of the heavens there is not a rebel to rise up against thee. The enemy bring in their tribute on their backs, prostrating themselves before thee, their limbs trembling and their hearts burned up within them."
And now the god breaks suddenly into rhythmic verse:

" 1. I came ! I gave thee might to fell the princes of Taha. [Page 201]  I cast them beneath thy feet, marching across their territories. I made them to behold thy Majesty as a Lord of Light, shining in their faces, even in my own likeness!

" 2. I came! I gave thee might to fell the nations of Asia. Thou hast reduced to captivity the chiefs of the Rotennu.* I made them to behold thy Majesty in the splendor of thy panoply of war, wielding thy weapons and combating in thy war-chariot.

" 3. I came! I gave thee might to fell the people of the far East ! Thou hast traversed the provinces of the Land of the Gods. I made them to behold thee like unto the Star of Morning, shedding radiance and showering dew!

" 4. I came! I gave thee might to fell the nations of the West! Phoenicia and Cyprus have thee in terror. I made them to behold thy Majesty even as a young Bull, bold of heart, horned, and unconquerable!

" 5. I came! I gave thee might to fell the dwellers in the harbors of the coast-lands ! The shores of Maten tremble before thee. I made them to behold thy Majesty even as the Crocodile, the Lord of Terror of the water, whom none dare to encounter.

" 6. I came! I gave thee might to fell those who dwell in their islands! Those who live in the midst of the great deep hear thy war-cry and tremble. I made them to behold thy Majesty as an avenger who bestrides the back of his victim.

" 7. I came! I gave thee might to fell the people of Libya! The isles of the Danæans are under the power of thy will. I made them to behold thy Majesty as a furious Lion, crouching over their corpses and stalking through their valleys.

" 8. I came! I gave thee might to fell those beyond the limits of the sea! The circuit of the great waters lies within [Page 202]  thy grasp. I made them to behold thy Majesty as the Hawk which hovers on high, beholding all things at his pleasure.

" 9. I came! I gave thee might to fell the tribes of the marsh-lands,* and to bind in captivity the Herusha, lords of the desert sands. I made them to behold thy Majesty as the Jackal of the South, Lord of Swiftness, who scours the plains of the upper and lower country.

" 10. I came ! I gave thee might to fell the nations of Nubia, even to the barbarians of Pat! I made them to behold thy Majesty like unto thy two brothers, Horus and Set, whose arms I have united to give thee power and strength."

The poem concludes with a few lines of peroration in measured prose, in which the god approves the additions which Thothmes had made to his temple. "Longer is it and wider," he says, "than it has ever been till now. Great is its gateway. I bade thee make it, and thou hast made it. I am content."

Mariette wrote of this ancient Hymn of Praise as being "redolent with the perfume of Oriental poetry;" while Brugsch ranks it with the heroic poem of Pentaur and a few other similar compositions, as destined for ever to remain one of the representative specimens of ancient Egyptian literature at its finest period.

The poem of Pentaur, which is sometimes called the Egyptian Iliad, is in a quite different style. It is much longer than the chant of Thothmes. It is full of incident and dialogue, and it recites, not a mere catalogue of victories, but the events of a single campaign and the deeds of a single hero. That hero is Rameses II., and the campaign thus celebrated was undertaken in the fifth year of his reign, against the allied forces of Syria and Asia Minor. The coalition thus formed included the vassal princes of Karkhemish, Kadesh, [Page 203]  Aradus, and Kati, all tributaries of Egypt, headed by the Prince of the Kheta, or Hittites, with a large Hittite army, and an immense following of the predatory and warlike Græco-Asiatic tribes of Mysia, Lydia, Pedasos, and the Troad.

From the Great Tableau in the Temple of Abû-Simbel.
The rectangular space enclosed on three sides by a row of shields represents the royal camp. The oblong structure to the right of the centre is the pavilion of Rameses; five attendants kneel before the entrance to an inner apartment, surmounted by a royal oval watched over by winged genii. This represents the sleeping-place of the King. The pavilion appears to be a movable structure raised on arches; it was probably of wood, and was constructed in such wise as to be easily taken to pieces and put together again. To the left, the horses of the charioteers are feeding in mangers and attended by grooms. Bales of fodder lie on the ground. A blacksmith with his brazier prepares to shoe a horse near the middle of the camp. Elsewhere we see charioteers dragging away empty chariots, a soldier mending a hoe, a man carrying a pair of water-buckets suspended at each end of a pole across his shoulders; infantry and charioteers arriving in camp; soldiers squatting round a bowl at their supper; officers chastising lazy or recalcitrant subordinates, and the like. Close above and behind the royal pavilion there is a brawl among the king's officers, one of whom is in the act of being stabbed. Just below this group a horse prepares to lie down, bending its fore-legs with a remarkably natural action; while in the foreground to the right, we see the two Syrian spies being soundly bastinadoed, in order to force the truth from them. All the busy life of a great camp is depicted in this wonderful section of the largest battle-subject in the history of art.

Rameses took the field in person with the flower of the Egyptian army, traversing the Land of Canaan, which still remained loyal, and establishing his Syrian headquarters at Shabtûn, a fortified town in a small valley a short distance to the south-west of Kadesh. Here he remained stationary for a few days, reconnoitring the surrounding country, and [Page 204]  endeavoring, but without success, to learn the whereabouts of the enemy. The latter, meanwhile, had their spies out in all directions, and knew every movement of the Egyptian host. Two of these spies, being previously instructed, allowed themselves to be taken by the King's scouts. Introduced into the royal presence, they prostrated themselves before Pharaoh, declaring that they were messengers from certain of the Syrian chiefs, their brothers, who desired to break their pact with the Kheta, and to serve the great King of Egypt. They further added that the Khetan host, dreading the approach of the Egyptian army, had retreated to beyond Aleppo, forty leagues to the northward. Rameses, believing their story, then pushed confidently onward, escorted only by his body-guard. The bulk of his forces, consisting of the brigade of Amen, the brigade of Ptah, and the brigade of Ra, followed at some little distance; the brigade of Sutekh, which apparently formed the reserve, lingering far behind on the Amorite frontier.

From the Great Tableau in the Temple of Abû-Simbel.

Meanwhile two more spies were seized, and the suspicions of the Egyptian officers were aroused. Being well bastinadoed, the Syrians confessed to the near neighborhood of the allied armies, and Rameses, summoning a hasty council of war, despatched a messenger to hurry up the brigade of Amen. At this critical juncture the enemy emerged from his ambush, and by a well-executed flank movement interposed between Pharaoh and his army. Thus surrounded, [Page 205]  Rameses, with right royal and desperate valor, charged the Hittite war-chariots. Six times, with only his household troops at his back, he broke their lines, spreading disorder and terror and driving many into the river. Then, just at the right moment, one of his tardy brigades came hurrying up, and forced the enemy to retreat. A pitched battle was fought the next day, which the Egyptians claimed for a great victory.

Such would appear to be the plain, unvarnished facts. The poet, however, takes some liberties with the facts, as poets are apt to do even now. He abolishes the household troops, and leaves Rameses to fight the whole field single-handed. Nor is the Deus ex machina wanting–that stock device which the Greek dramatists borrowed from Egyptian models. Amen himself comes to the aid of Pharaoh, just as the gods of Olympus do battle for their favorite heroes on the field of Troy.

This poem is certainly the most celebrated masterpiece of Egyptian literature; I therefore make no apology for quoting at some length from the original. We will take up the narrative at that critical point where the Hittites are about to execute their flank movement, and so isolate Rameses from his army.

" Now had the vile Prince of Kheta, and the many nations which were leagued with him, hidden themselves at the north-west of the city of Kadesh. His Majesty was alone; none else was beside him. The brigade of Amen was advancing behind. The brigade of Ra followed the watercourse which lies to the west of the town of Shabtûn. The brigade of Ptah marched in the centre, and the brigade of Sutekh took the way bordering on the land of the Amorites. *

" Then the vile Prince of Kheta sent forth his bowmen and his horsemen and his chariots, and they were as many as the [Page 206]  grains of sand on the sea-shore. Three men were they on each chariot; and with them were all the bravest of the fighting-men of the Kheta, well armed with all weapons for the combat.

" They marched out on the side of the south of Kadesh, and they charged the brigade of Ra; and foot and horse of King Rameses gave way before them.

" Then came messengers to his Majesty with tidings of defeat. And the King arose, and grasped his weapons and donned his armor, like unto Baal, the war-god, in his hour of wrath. And the great horses of his Majesty came forth from their stables, and he put them to their speed, and he rushed upon the ranks of the Kheta.

Four of the King's spearsmen and two of his Sardinian body-guard await his approach. From the Great Temple of Abû-Simbel.

" Alone he went–none other was beside him. And lo! he was surrounded by two thousand five hundred chariots; his retreat cut off by all the fighting-men of Aradus, of Mysia, of Aleppo, of Caria, of Kadesh, and of Lycia. They were three on each chariot, and massed in one solid phalanx."

Here the form changes, and Rameses breaks forth into an impassioned appeal to Amen.

" None of my princes are with me," he cries. " Not one of my generals–not one of my captains of bowmen or chariots. My soldiers have abandoned me–my horsemen have [Page 207]  fled–there are none to combat beside me! Where art thou, oh Amen, my father? Hath the father forgotten his son ? Behold! have I done aught without thee ? Have I not walked in thy ways, and waited on thy words? Have I not built thee temples of enduring stone ? Have I not dedicated to thee sacrifices of tens of thousands of oxen, and of every rare and sweet-scented wood ? Have I not given thee the whole world in tribute ? I call upon thee, oh Amen, my father! I invoke thee! Behold, I am alone, and all the nations of the earth are leagued against me! My foot-soldiers and my chariot-men have abandoned me! I call, and none hear my voice! But Amen is more than millions of archers –more than hundreds of thousands of cavalry! The might of men is as nothing–Amen is greater than all!"

Then, suddenly, Rameses becomes aware that Amen has heard his cry–is near him–is leading him to victory.


[Page 208] 

"Lo! my voice hath resounded as far as Hermonthis! Amen comes to my call. He gives me his hand–I shout aloud for joy, hearing his voice behind me!"

And now the god speaks.

" Oh, Rameses, I am here ! It is I, thy father! My hand is with thee, and I am more to thee than hundreds of thousands. I am the Lord of Might, who loves valor. I know thy dauntless heart, and I am content with thee. Now, be my will accomplished."

Then Rameses, inspired with the strength of a god, bends his terrible bow and rushes upon the enemy. His appeal for divine aid is changed to a shout of triumph.

" Like Menthu, I let fly my arrows to right and left, and mine enemies go down! I am as Baal in his wrath! The two thousand five hundred chariots which encompass me are dashed to pieces under the hoofs of my horses. Not one of their warriors has raised his hand to smite me. Their hearts die in their breasts–their limbs fail–they can neither hurl the javelin, nor wield the spear. Headlong I drive them to the water's edge ! Headlong they plunge, as plunges the crocodile! They fall upon their faces, one above the other, and I slay them in the mass ! No time have they to turn back–no time to look behind them! He who falls, falls never to rise again !"

Then the Kheta, and the Kadeshites, and the warriors of Karkhemish and Aleppo, and the princes of Mysia, and Ilion, and Lycia, and Dardania turned and fled, crying aloud:

" It is no man who is in the midst of us! It is Sutekh the glorious ! It is Baal in the flesh! Alone–alone, he slays hundreds of thousands ! Let us fly for our lives !"

" And they fled; and the King pursued them, as he were a flame of fire!"

The rest of the poem is necessarily somewhat of an anteclimax. It tells how the Egyptian brigades come up towards evening, and are filled with wonder as they wade through the blood of the slain, and behold the field strewn with dead [Page 209] 

From the Great Temple of Abû-Simbel.
This sculptured tableau is divided horizontally by the river Orontes, represented by the zigzag lines. The fortified city of Kadesh occupies a projecting tongue of land, almost surrounded by the great bend of the river. To the right, where there is apparently a ford, some Egyptian chariots are dashing across in pursuit of a Khetan chariot, in which are seen three warriors. The Egyptian chariots are distinguished from those of the Kheta by containing only two. In the top register, to right, an aide-de-camp on horseback gallops off with orders for the tardy rear-guard, and we see a horse running away with an empty saddle. To the left Rameses (depicted of colossal size) pursues the flying foe to the water's edge. Some lie trampled under his chariot-wheels, and some are drowning in the river. A drowning chief is dragged to shore by a soldier of the garrison. Forming a frieze round the end of the tableau to left is a squadron of Egyptian chariots in single file.

[Page 210]  and dying.- They exalt the prowess of the King, who overwhelms them with reproaches.

"What will the whole world say," he asks, " when it is known that you left your King alone, with none to second him ?–that not a prince, not a charioteer, not a bowman was there to join his hand with mine ? I fought alone ! Alone, I overthrew millions! It was only my good horses who obeyed my hand, when I found myself alone in the midst of the foe. Verily, they shall henceforth eat their corn before me daily in my royal palace, for they alone were with me in the hour of danger."

From the great Abû-Simbel Tableau.

The next day at sunrise Rameses assembles his forces, and, according to the chronicler, achieves a signal victory, fol- [Page 211]  lowed by the submission of the Prince of Kheta and the conclusion of a treaty of peace. This treaty was shortly confirmed by the marriage of Rameses with a Khetan princess; and the friendship thus cemented continued unbroken throughout the rest of his long reign.

The foregoing passages are much abridged, but they fairly represent the fervent diction and the dramatic action of this celebrated poem. The style is singularly capricious, narrative and dialogue succeeding each other according to the exigencies of the situation. These changes are unmarked by any of those devices whereby the modern writer assists his reader; they must therefore have been emphasized by the reciter.

From the great Abû-Simbel Tableau.

To use a very modern word in connection with a very ancient composition, one might say that Rameses "published" this poem in a most costly manner, with magnificent illustrations. And he did so upon a scale which puts our modern publishing houses to shame. His imperial edition was issued on sculptured stone, and illustrated with bas-relief subjects gorgeously colored by hand. Four more or less perfect copies of this edition have survived the wreck of ages, and we know not how many have perished. These four are carved on the pylon walls of the Great Temples of Luxor and the Ramesseum at Thebes, on a wall of the Great Temple of Abydos, and in the main hall of the great rock-cut Temple of Abû-Simbel in Nubia. One of the tableaux in this hall is fifty feet in length by about forty feet in height, and it contains many thousands of figures. A fifth copy is also graven [Page 212]  without illustrations on a side-wall of the Great Temple of Karnak; and some remains of a great battle-scene with defaced inscriptions appear to belong to another copy, on one of the walls of the Temple of Derr, in Nubia. In these temple-copies, the poem is sculptured in hieroglyphs.

But there were also popular editions of this immortal poem–copies written on papyrus by professional scribes; and one of these copies is in the British Museum, a fragment of the beginning of the same copy being in the Museum of the Louvre. The British Museum document contains one hundred and twelve lines of very fine hieratic writing, and the last page ends with a formal statement that it was "written in the year VII., the month Payni, in the reign of King Rameses Mer-Amen, Giver of Life eternal like unto Ra, his father. For the chief librarian of the royal archives . . . by the Royal Scribe, Pentaur."

From the original hieratic papyrus in the British Museum.

Whether this Pentaur was, as it is generally supposed, the [Page 213]  author of the poem, or but a copyist in the employment of the King's principal librarian, is perhaps an open question. As, however, the colophon is unmistakably clear as to date, and as that date is but two years subsequent to the events narrated in the poem, we may at least assume that the papyrus is a contemporary document. (51)

From the great Abû-Simbel Tableau.

It is from the huge battle-piece sculptured on the north wall of the great hall at Abû-Simbel that we derive many minor details not recorded by the poet. In this elaborate composition the events of the first and second engagements are combined in a single subject. In one place we see Rameses, single-handed, rushing upon the foe in his chariot, and driving them head-long into the river; in another we behold the pitched battle of the following morning. Every circumstance of that momentous fight is shown with the most painstaking fidelity. The chariots start first, an officer of bowmen leading the way on foot.

From the great Abû-Simbel Tableau.

[Page 214] 

Next follow the infantry, marching in a solid square, and protected, van, flank, and rear, by a force of chariots. The infantry are armed with only spear and shield. This is a very interesting section of the great tableau, as it shows us the Egyptian order of battle.

Next comes the encounter with the enemy–the shock of chariots–the overthrow of the Hittite warriors. Part of this fight is arbitrarily introduced into that section of the subject where Rameses is performing his great feat of arms on the preceding day; but merely to fill the spaces with figures. In some of these minor episodes we see the Egyptian warriors descending from their chariots and attacking the enemy on foot. The Hittite chariots are clumsily built, the wheels being cut from a solid block of wood, like millstones, and working on a central pivot. The Khetan soldiers wear a scalp-lock, and are three in a chariot.

From the great Abû-Simbel Tableau. In this section of the great tableau the Egyptian artist depicts the incidents of the battle-field after the victory is won. We see the charioteers and infantry returning in order, and the enemy's cattle being driven to the camp. Long files of prisoners are brought along, some tied together by the neck, others with their arms bound behind their backs. In the lowest register a captain of archers brings in a string of eight captives, and is greeted by his comrades with acclamations. In the second register, to the right, Rameses sits in his chariot with his back to the horses and witnesses the counting of the hands of the slain, while three scribes enter the numbers on their tablets.

[Page 215] 

Finally, the field is fought–the battle is won, and the King, seated in his chariot with his back to the horses, witnesses the bringing in of the prisoners and the counting of the hands of the slain. Three officers cast the severed hands in a heap before the feet of the conqueror, while the captives, strung together by the neck, are brought into his presence with their arms fast bound behind their backs.

In the last scene of all, Rameses, depicted of colossal size, sits enthroned, and receives the congratulations of his great officers of state. His fan-bearer and his bow-bearer stand behind his chair, and his chariot and horses are taken back with honor to the royal stables.

From the great Abû-Simbel Tableau.

It is evident that the artists who designed the sculptured illustrations at Abû- [Page 216]  Simbel and Thebes were not dependent on only the text of the poem for the subject-matter of their battle-scenes. They were familiar with incidents of which the poet takes no note, and of which we could know nothing had they not been recorded by the chisel of the sculptor and the brush of the painter. In that spirited scene where Rameses, Phoebus-like, stands erect in his chariot, bending his great bow and chasing the enemy into the water (page 209), we see, for instance, a half-drowned chieftain being dragged to land by one of the Hittite garrison, and we learn that he was no less a personage than the Prince of Aleppo. A hieroglyphic inscription engraved over the head of the rescued man in the Abû-Simbel tableau runs thus: "The Great of Aleppo. His warriors lift him up after the King has flung him into the water." Now, it is certain that this is no merely fanciful

From the Pylon of the Ramesseum, Thebes. Photographed by Mr. W. M. F. Petrie.

[Page 217]  episode designed by the artist in order to heighten the effect of his tableau, for the same incident is depicted in the version sculptured on the great pylon of the Ramesseum at Thebes. The artist of the Ramesseum, however, chooses a later phase of the catastrophe, when the unlucky prince has been dragged ashore, and is held up head downwards, in order to let the water run out of his mouth–a method by no means to be recommended under the circumstances. The color is yet preserved on this part of the subject, and it shows the Prince of Aleppo to have been of the race of fair Syrians, his eyes being painted blue, and his hair and beard light red. We also learn from one of these battle-subjects that "the writer of books of the vile Hittite" (that is to say, the official scribe of the Hittite leader) accompanied the Syrian host. Rameses, without doubt, had also his following of royal scribes, and one of them was in all probability the author of this poem. How highly it gratified the vanity of Rameses may be gathered from the frequency with which he caused it to be reproduced upon the walls of temples and pylons during his long reign. (52)

The scientific literature of the Egyptians is extremely interesting, inasmuch as it illustrates that eager spirit of inquiry which is the mainspring of intellectual effort, and without which there can be no intellectual progress. But its value to us is, of course, purely archæological. We have nothing to learn from these earliest pioneers of astronomy, of mathematics, of medicine. We smile at their childlike and fanciful speculations; but we are sometimes amazed to find how near they were to grasping many truths which we have been wont to regard as the hard-won prizes of modern research.

This is especially true of ancient Egyptian astronomy. Their observations were singularly exact. They understood perfectly well the difference between the fixed stars and the planets; the first being "the genii which never move," and the last "the genii which never rest." They even knew that our own earth forms part of the planetary system, and is subject to the same law of motion. In a hieratic inscription of [Page 218]  the Pyramid Period, for instance, it is said that "the earth navigates the celestial ocean in like manner with the sun and the stars." (53) Again, in a remarkable passage of the Great Harris Papyrus, we read how Ptah, the primordial god, "moulded man, created the gods, made the sky, and formed the earth revolving in space." Unhappily, no papyrus treating of astronomy has yet been discovered; but zodiacs, calendars, and astronomical tables, showing the divisions of the year, the phases of the moon and the dates and hours of the rising and setting of certain planets, abound on the walls of temples and tombs.

Two mathematical papyri have been found. One was discovered by Mr. Petrie in the ruins of a buried house in Tanis. This papyrus is the property of the Egypt Exploration Fund, and Prof. Eugène Revillout, of the Egyptian Department of the Louvre, has undertaken to translate it. The other mathematical papyrus was found by Mr. Rhind at Thebes. It belongs to the British Museum, and has been translated by Dr. August Eisenlohr, of Heidelberg. This curious document treats of plane trigonometry and the measurement of solids; and it contains not only a system of reckoning by decimals, but a series of problems for solution by the student. Of the practical geometry of the Egyptians, we have a magnificent example in the Pyramids, which could never have been erected by builders who were not thoroughly conversant with the art of measuring surfaces and calculating the bulk and weight of materials.

Works on medicine abounded in Egypt from the remotest times, and the great medical library of Memphis, which was of immemorial antiquity, was yet in existence in the second century before our era, when Galen visited the Valley of the Nile. The Egyptians seem, indeed, to have especially prided themselves on their skill as physicians, and the art of healing was held in such high esteem that even kings made it their study. Ateta, third king of the First Dynasty, is the reputed author of a treatise on anatomy. He also covered himself with glory by the invention of an infallible hair-wash, [Page 219]  which, like a dutiful son, he is said to have prepared especially for the benefit of his mother.

No less than five medical papyri have come down to our time, the finest being the celebrated Ebers papyrus, bought at Thebes by Dr. Ebers in 1874. This papyrus contains one hundred and ten pages, each page consisting of about twenty-two lines of bold hieratic writing. It may be described as an Encyclopædia of Medicine as known and practiced by the Egyptians of the Eighteenth Dynasty; and it contains prescriptions for all kinds of diseases–some borrowed from Syrian medical lore, and some of such great antiquity that they are ascribed to the mythologic ages, when the gods yet reigned personally upon earth. Among others, we are given the recipe for an application whereby Osiris cured Ra of the headache.

The Egyptians attached great importance to these ancient medical works, which were regarded as final. The physician who faithfully followed their rules of treatment might kill or cure with impunity; but if he ventured to treat the patient according to his own notions, and if that patient died, he paid for the experiment with his life. Seeing, however, what the canonical remedies were, the marvel is that anybody ever recovered from anything. Raw meat; horrible mixtures of nitre, beer, milk, and blood, boiled up and swallowed hot; the bile of certain fishes; and the bones, fat, and skins of all kinds of unsavory creatures, such as vultures, bats, lizards, and crocodiles, were among their choicest remedies. What we suffer at the hands of the faculty in this nineteenth century is bad enough; but we may rejoice that we have escaped the learned practitioners of Memphis and Thebes.

The moral philosophy of the ancient Egyptians is peculiarly interesting to us of a later age. It is not a profound philosophy. On the contrary, it is simple, practical, and very much to the point. We have several papyri containing collections of moral precepts, and most of them are written in the form of aphorisms on the conduct of life, [Page 220]  addressed by a father to his son. Such are the Maxims of the Scribe Ani, the Maxims of Ptah-hotep, and others. The Maxims of Ptah-hotep are contained in the famous Prisse Papyrus, which has been styled "The Oldest Book in the World." This papyrus dates from the Twelfth Dynasty, and is copied from a yet more ancient document of the Fifth Dynasty, written some three thousand eight hundred years before our era. It is one of the treasures of the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris.

" Be not proud because of thy learning," saith Ptah-hotep. "Converse with the ignorant as freely as with the scholar, for the gates of knowledge should never be closed. "

" If thou art exalted after having been low, if thou art rich after having been needy, harden not thy heart because of thy elevation. Thou hast but become a steward of the good things belonging to the gods."

" If thou wouldst be of good conduct and dwell apart from evil, beware of bad temper; for it contains the germs of all wickedness. When a man takes Justice for his guide and walks in her ways, there is no room in his soul for bad temper."

" If thou art a leader doing those things which are according to thy will, do for the best, which shall be remembered in time to come, so that the word which flatters, or feeds pride, or makes for vainglory, shall not weigh with thee."

" Treat well thy people, as it behooves thee; this is the duty of those whom the gods favor."

" Do not disturb a great man; do not distract the attention of the busy man. His care is to accomplish his task. Love for the work they have to do brings men nearer to the gods."

" Do not repeat the violent words [of others]. Do not listen to them. They have escaped a heated soul. If they are repeated in thy hearing, look on the ground and be silent."

" Take care of those who are faithful to thee, even when thine own estate is in evil case. So shall thy merit be greater than the honors which are done to thee." (54)

These, taken at random, are some of the wise words writ- [Page 221]  ten by Ptah-hotep when, as he himself tells us, he had reached the patriarchal age of one hundred and ten years.

The Scribe Ani, who lived about one thousand years later, preaches the same just and gentle gospel. He says:

" Beware of giving pain by the words of thy mouth, and make not thyself to be feared."

" He who speaks evil, reaps evil."

" Work for thyself. Do not count upon the wealth of others; it will not enter thy dwelling-place."

" Do not eat bread in the presence of one who stands and waits, without putting forth thine hand towards the loaf for him."

" Enter not into a crowd if thou art there in the beginnings of a quarrel."

Good manners are the minor morality of life, and Ani was not only a sage but a man of the world. He has something to say on the subject of etiquette:

" Be not discourteous to the stranger who is in thy house. He is thy guest."

" Do not remain sitting when thy elder or thy superior, is standing."

" If a deaf man is present, do not multiply words; it is better thou keep silent "

A demotic papyrus (55) of comparatively recent date (in the Louvre collection) contains a series of maxims of much the same character as those propounded by Ptah-hotep in the time of the Ancient Empire, and by the Scribe Ani under the New Empire; thus proving that the moral code of the Egyptians remained in all essential points the same, from the earliest to the latest chapter of their national history.

" Associate not thyself with the evil-doer," says this last moralist. " Ill-treat not thine inferior; respect the aged."

" Ill-treat not thy wife, whose strength is less than thine. Be thou her protector."

" Save not thine own life at the expense of the life of another." [Page 222] 

It is such brief and simple sayings as these which bring us nearest to the hearts of the old Egyptian people. We see them "as in a glass," and we see them at their best: a gentle, kindly, law-abiding race, anxious to cultivate peace and good-will, and to inculcate those rules of good conduct whereby their own lives had been guided. Their philosophy was not profound. They were not tormented by "the burden and the mystery of all this unintelligible world." They made no attempt to formulate or to solve those deeper problems which have perplexed the students of humanity since their time. To live happily, to live long, to deserve the favor of their superiors, to train their children in sane thinking and right-doing, to be respected in life and honorably remembered by posterity, represented the sum of their desires. It is a philosophy of utility and good-will, in which the ideal has no part.

The ancient Egyptians would have been unlike all other Orientals if they had not loved stories and songs; yet it was not till the first ancient Egyptian romance was discovered that any one dreamed of a popular literature of the days of the Pharaohs. We had, I suppose, been so accustomed to think of the ancient Egyptians as mummies that we scarcely remembered they were men. Those mummies, it is true, had once been alive in a solemn, leathery, unsympathetic way, as became a people who were destined to be spiced, bandaged, and ultimately consigned to glass-cases in modern museums. But as for an ancient Egyptian in love, chanting a sonnet to his mistress's eyebrow and accompanying himself on the lute–we should have blushed to think of him in connection with so trivial an occupation!

And yet, within the last five-and-thirty years, no less than fifteen or sixteen romantic stories, and almost as many love-songs, have been brought to light. (56) Some had been lying undeciphered in the learned dust of various museums. Others were found in graves–buried, strange to say, with the mummies of their former owners. Some are as old as the Twelfth Dynasty; others are as recent as the time of Alex- [Page 223]  ander and the Ptolemies. In some we recognize stories familiar to us from childhood as old nursery tales, and as stories first read in the Arabian Nights Entertainments; in others we discover the originals of legends which Herodotus, with a credulity peculiar to the learned, accepted for history. Even some of the fables attributed to Æsop are drawn from Egyptian sources older by eight hundred years than the famous dwarf who is supposed to have invented them. The fable of "The Lion and the Mouse" was discovered by Dr. Brugsch in an Egyptian papyrus a few years ago. "The Dispute of the Stomach and the Members" has yet more recently been identified by Professor Maspero with an ancient Egyptian original. (57) When we remember, however, that tradition associates the name of Æsop with that of Rhodopis, who lived at Naukratis in the time of Amasis, we seem to be within touch of the actual connection between Æsop and Egypt.

Of this same Rhodopis it is said, in an ancient Egyptian story repeated by Herodotus, that an eagle flew away with her sandal while she was bathing, and dropped it at the feet of the Egyptian King, at Memphis. Struck by its beauty, he sent out his messengers in all directions to find the owner of this little sandal; and when they had found her, he made her his queen. In another Egyptian story, called "The Tale of the Two Brothers," a lock of hair from the head of a beautiful damsel is carried to Egypt by the river, and its perfume is so ravishing that the King despatches his scouts throughout the length and breadth of the land, that they may bring to him the owner of this lock of hair. She is found, of course, and she becomes his bride. In these tales we have apparently the germ of Cinderella.

In another story, called "The Taking of Joppa," we meet with what is unquestionably the original source of the leading incident in the familiar story of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves." One Tahuti, a general of Thothmes III., who is sent to lay siege to the city of Joppa, conceals two hundred of his soldiers in two hundred big jars, fills three hun- [Page 224]  dred other jars with cords and fetters, loads five hundred other soldiers with these five hundred jars, and sends them into the city in the character of captives. Once inside the gates, the bearers liberate and arm their comrades, take the place, and make all the inhabitants prisoners. Now, although the King and the General are both historical personages, and although Joppa figures in the lists of cities conquered by Thothmes III., the story itself is evidently pure romance. As for the big jars with their human cargoes, they are clearly the forefathers of the jars which housed the "Forty Thieves."

We turn to another story, called "The Doomed Prince," and we are at once reminded of the story of "Prince Agib and the Lodestone Mountain." After years of hope deferred, a king and queen are blessed with a beautiful son. The seven Hathors, who play the part of fairy godmothers in these old Egyptian stories, predict that the prince will die from the bite of a crocodile, a serpent, or a dog. The King accordingly builds a castle on the top of a lofty mountain, and there makes a state-prisoner of his son. His precautions are, of course, in vain. The young man escapes from durance vile, and becomes the husband of a lovely princess and the master of a faithful dog. The princess kills the serpent; the dog kills the crocodile; and, although the end of the story is unfortunately lost, it is evident that the dog, by some fatal accident, will fulfill his master's doom, just as the doom of Agib is fulfilled by his friend.

Another tale of extreme antiquity, entitled "The Shipwrecked Mariner," tells of a seaman cast on the shores of a desolate island abounding in delicious fruits, and inhabited by a limited population of seventy-five amiable and intelligent serpents. The head of this charming family was thirty cubits long. His body was incrusted with gold and lapis lazuli, and nature had adorned him with a magnificent beard. He talks like a book; treats the seaman with distinguished hospitality; and when a ship comes that way, dismisses his guest with gifts of perfumes, incense, rare woods, elephant [Page 225]  tusks, baboons, and all kinds of precious things. Here is probably the starting-point of our dear old friend, "Sindbad the Sailor," who was also cast among a population of serpents.

In others of these ancient fictions, King Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid; Prince Kha-em-uas, the favorite son of Rameses the Great; King Amasis, who gave Naukratis to the Greeks; and even the great Alexander himself, figure among the dramatis personæ.

Of the popular poetry of those far-off times we will take but two specimens, the one a love-song, from a papyrus in the British Museum; the other a rustic ditty, supposed to be sung by the driver of a pair of oxen, while they tread out the corn on the threshing-floor.

The love-song is sung by a girl to her lover. Each strophe begins with an invocation to a flower, thus curiously resembling the stornelli of the Tuscan peasantry, of which every verse begins and ends with a similar invocation to some familiar blossom or tree:

" Oh, flower of henna!
My heart stands still in thy presence.
I have made mine eyes brilliant for thee with kohl.
When I behold thee, I fly to thee, oh my Beloved!
Oh, Lord of my heart, sweet is this hour. An hour passed with thee is worth an hour of eternity!

" Oh, flower of marjoram !
Fain would I be to thee as the garden in which I have planted flowers and sweet-smelling shrubs! the garden watered by pleasant runlets, and refreshed by the north breeze!
Here let us walk, oh my Beloved, hand in hand, our hearts filled with joy !
Better than food, better than drink, is it to behold thee.
To behold thee, and to behold thee again!"

This is literally "the old, old story;" and the story this time is yet older than the song. (58) [Page 226] 

Our threshing-song dates from about 1650 B.C. It is carved on the walls of the tomb of one Pahiri, at El Kab in Upper Egypt, and it belongs to the early years of the Eighteenth Dynasty. In the wall-painting which illustrates the text, we see the oxen at work, just as in the Egypt of today, treading in a measured circle, with the driver seated on his revolving stool in the middle.

It is a simple chant of but four lines many times repeated. (59) We know not the air to which it was sung; but no one who has listened to the monotonous songs of the Egyptian laborers as they ply the shadûf or the waterwheel, can fail to be struck by their evident antiquity. Doubtless, the cadenced chant intoned of old by Pahiri's laborers survives to this day among those so often heard by the modern traveller, as his boat glides along the broad waters of the sacred river. These are the words:

" Thresh the corn, oh ye oxen !
Thresh for yourselves, oh oxen!
The fodder for eating,
The grain for your master!"

It has been thus paraphrased by Mr. Gliddon:

" Hie along oxen,
Tread the corn faster !
The straw for yourselves;
The grain for your master!"

The Religion of ancient Egypt is still very imperfectly understood. Every year, almost every day, we find ourselves compelled to abandon some long-established theory which, up to that moment, we had believed to be as self-evident as the pyramids, and as well understood as the law of gravitation. The opening of a tomb, the discovery of a papyrus, may at any moment put us in possession of religious texts older than the oldest yet known, and subversive, perhaps, of our best-founded assumptions. [Page 227] 

This is precisely what happened when the pyramids of Unas, Teta, and other very early kings were excavated in 1881 and 1882. Because the Great Pyramids of Ghizeh are destitute of inscriptions, it had been rashly concluded that all pyramids must be blank. Great, therefore, was the stupefaction of those who pinned their faith upon that theory, when the sepulchral chambers and passages of this group were found to be lined with graven prayers and invocations, some of which are more ancient than any religious texts previously known. Again, it had been laid down as one of the fundamental facts of the Egyptian religion that certain gods, whose renown was great at a later period, were as yet unborn, so to speak, in the time of the Pyramid Kings. Thebes was not founded till the beginning of the Eleventh Dynasty, and Amen was the Great God of Thebes. Consequently, Amen had no existence when the pyramids of Unas, Teta, and Pepi, of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, were built. But when those pyramids were laid open, Amen was found there as a member of the cycle of great deities.

We cannot, in fact, exercise too much caution in formulating general rules, or in making use of elastic definitions. We speak, for instance, of "the Egyptian religion;" but there can hardly be a much more misleading phrase. Just as Professor Revillout has said of the Egyptian language that "it is not one language, but a whole family of languages," so I would say of the Egyptian religion, that it is not one religion, but a whole family of religions. This family springs, it is true, from one very ancient stock; but it branches out into innumerable varieties. It is not too much to say that there was in Egypt a Religion of the Pyramid Period, a Religion of the Theban Period, a Religion of Saïs, a Religion of the Ptolemaic age, a Popular Religion, a Sacerdotal Religion, a Religion of Polytheism, a Religion of Pantheism, a Religion of Monotheism, and a Religion of Platonic Philosophy. And these religions were not revolutionary. The new did not drive out the old, as the bud pushes off the dead leaf in autumn. On the contrary, the Egyptians, who were nothing [Page 228]  if not conservative, clung with the strictest fidelity to the old, even while ardently embracing the new. It did not matter in the least, if the dogmas of one school were diametrically opposed to the dogmas of half a dozen other schools; they continued to believe them all. (60)

The one great and crucial question–the question which we are most keenly concerned to resolve–is whether the ancient Egyptians believed in one God, or in many gods. In Ra, the supreme solar deity, are we to recognize the Egyptian synonym for "Almighty God, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all that in them is ?" Are the other deities of the Egyptian Pantheon mere personifications of his divine attributes ? Does Knum represent his creative power? Does Amen, the Hidden One, signify his unsearchable mystery ? Does Thoth, the ibis-headed god of letters, typify his wisdom, and the bull Apis his strength, and the jackal Anubis his swiftness ? Are these animal-headed and bird-headed and reptile-headed forms mere hieroglyphs, of which the secret meaning is the unity and omnipresence of God ?

This theory was elaborated in the first instance by M. Pierret, in his Essai sur la Mythologie Egyptienne; and it has been still further developed by Dr. Brugsch in his recent work on The Religion and Mythology of the Ancient Egyptians. As it is the most attractive exposition of the Egyptian Pantheon, so it is undoubtedly the most popular, and I therefore doubly regret that I am unable to follow M. Pierret and Dr. Brugsch in their proposed solution of this deeply interesting problem. This solution is founded on the assumption that the religion of the Egyptians was, from first to last, absolutely homogeneous; and that in all its complex developments it merely presented varying aspects of one simple, fundamental, and God-given truth. In this sense, all the gods of Egypt are one and the same, the name merely changing with the seat of worship. Animal worship becomes mere symbolism; and Knum, Sebek, Horus, Thoth, Anubis, and the rest, are but reflections of an omnipresent Deity. [Page 229] 

The Egyptians were, unquestionably, the most wonderful people of antiquity; but they would have been infinitely more wonderful had they started in life with notions so just, so philosophic, so exalted, as these. The earliest Egyptian monuments to which we can assign a date are the monuments of a people already highly civilized, and in the possession of an alphabetic system of writing, a grammar, a government, and a religion. It must have taken them long ages to arrive at this advanced stage of their national development; and of those ages a few vague traditions and the names of three dynasties of kings have alone survived. Yet there must have been a time when these people were mere unlettered barbarians, like the forefathers of other nations. They did not spring fully civilized from the mud of the inundation, like Athena from the head of Zeus. As a matter of fact, the barbarian origin of the Egyptians is more distinctly traceable than the barbarian origin of any other highly civilized nation of antiquity. It is traceable in their laws, in their customs, and even in their costumes. Above all, it is traceable in their religion.

We have but to turn our eyes to the far West of America in order to discover the living solution of some of our most puzzling Egyptian problems. Just as the northern half of that great continent was originally possessed by tribes of Indians, so the land of Egypt, in the ages before history, was divided into many small territories, each territory peopled by an independent clan. The red man had, and has, his "totems," or clan crests; these "totems" being sometimes animals, as the bear, the wolf, the beaver, the deer; and sometimes birds, as the snipe, the hawk, the heron. So, in like manner, the prehistoric tribes of ancient Egypt will have had their "totems," taken from the familiar beasts, birds, and reptiles of the Nile Valley–the jackal, the crocodile, the ibis, and so forth.

Now, a distinctive appellation is one of the first necessities of life, whether savage or civilized; and in an age when proper names, and the occupations from which proper names [Page 230]  are largely derived, are yet unknown, the tribal name is of extreme importance. For this tribal name, the savage naturally adopts that of some creature whose strength, subtlety, swiftness, or fearlessness may symbolize such qualities in himself. These facts are true of barbarian and semi-civilized races in all parts of the world. The Bechuanas of South Africa, the Kols of Khota Nagpar in Asia, the Yakats of Siberia in Northern Europe, the aborigines of Australia, are all divided into clans, each clan being affiliated to some beast, bird, fish, or reptile. They all regard the "totem" animal as sacred. They forbear to eat it; and if compelled in self-defence to kill it, they ask its pardon for the act.

Here, then, we have the origin of animal worship–animal worship being the direct outcome of totemism.

Now, what is true of these American, South African, Asiatic, European, and Australian tribes, must surely be true also of the prehistoric Egyptians. They began with totemism–the Bull-clan at Memphis, the Crocodile-clan in the Fayûm, the Ibis-clan at Hermopolis, and so forth. (61) As time went on and civilization progressed, they explained away the grosser features of this creed by representing the totem animal as the symbol, or incarnation, of an unseen deity; and there is no clearer proof of the extreme antiquity of their civilization than the fact that they had already reached this point in their spiritual career when Mena, the first king of the First Dynasty, laid the foundation-stone of the Temple of Ptah, at Memphis.

But, having started from totemism, animal worship, and polytheism, did they not rise at last to higher things–to monotheism, pure and simple ?

Yes; they did rise to monotheism; but not, I think, to monotheism pure and simple. Their monotheism was not exactly our monotheism: it was a monotheism based upon, and evolved from, the polytheism of earlier ages. Could we question a high-priest of Thebes of the time of the Nineteenth or Twentieth Dynasty on the subject of his faith, we should be startled by the breadth and grandeur of his views touch- [Page 231]  ing the Godhead. He would tell us that Ra was the Great All; that by his word alone he called all things into existence; that all things are therefore but reflections of himself and his will; that he is the creator of day and night, of the heavenly spheres, of infinite space; that he is the eternal essence, invisible, omnipresent, omniscient; in a word, that he is God Almighty.

If, after this, we could put the same questions to a high-priest of Memphis, we should receive a very similar answer, only we should now be told that this great divinity was Ptah. And if we could make the tour of Egypt, visiting every great city, and questioning the priests of every great temple in turn, we should find that each claimed these attributes of unity and universality for his own local god. All, nevertheless, would admit the identity of these various deities. They would admit that he whom they worshipped at Heliopolis as Ra was the same as he whom they worshipped at Memphis as Ptah, and at Thebes as Amen. We have proof of their catholicity in this respect. Ptah and Apis were, of course, one and the same; but Apis was also recognized as "The Soul of Osiris, and the Life of Tum." Again, Amen and Knum and Sebek were made one with Ra, and became Amen-Ra, Knum-Ra, and Sebek-Ra. This, however, was but a compromise, and they never got beyond it. That individual theologians rose to the height of pure monotheism cannot be doubted. Those who conceived and formulated the exalted pantheism of Ra-worship cannot have failed to go that one step further; but that one step further would be heresy, and heresy was not likely to leave records for future historians in a land where the governing classes were all members of the priesthood. In a word, it is certain–absolutely certain–that every great local deity was worshipped as the "one God " of his own city or province; and it is also certain that, to whatever extent these gods were identified one with another, the Egyptians never agreed to abolish their Pantheon in favor of one, and only one, supreme deity. (62) [Page 232] 

There is, however, one central fact which must never be overlooked in any discussion of the religion of the old Egyptian people. They were the first in the history of the world who recognized, and held fast by, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Look back as far as we will into the darkness of their past, question as closely as we may the earliest of their monuments, and we yet find them looking forward to an eternal future.

Their notions of Man, the microcosm, were more complex than ours. They conceived him to consist of a Body, a Soul, a Spirit, a Name, a Shadow, and a Ka–that Ka which I have ventured to interpret as the Life;* and they held that the perfect reunion of all these parts was a necessary condition of the life to come. Hence the care with which they embalmed the Body; hence the food and drink offerings with which they nourished the Ka; hence the funerary texts with which they lined the tomb, and the funerary papyri which they buried with the mummy for the instruction of the Soul. But none of these precautions availed, unless the man had lived a pure and holy life in this world, and came before the judgment-seat of Osiris with clean hands, a clean heart, and a clean conscience.

" Glory to thee, O thou Great God, thou Lord of truth and justice !" says the dead man, when brought into the presence of the eternal Judge. "Lo ! I have defrauded no man of his dues. I have not oppressed the widow. I have not borne false witness. I have not been slothful. I have broken faith with no man. I have starved no man. I have slain no man. I have not enriched myself by unlawful gains. I have not given short measure of corn. I have not tampered with the scales. I have not encroached upon my neighbor's field. I have not cut off the running water from its lawful channel. I have not turned away the food from the mouths of the fatherless. Lo ! I am pure ! I am pure !"

This is from the Negative Confession in the 125th chapter [Page 233]  of the most famous religious book of the ancient Egyptians–The Book of the Dead. It gives the measure of their standard of morality. The teachers who established that standard, and the people who endeavored faithfully to live up to it, may have had very childish and fantastic notions on many points; they may in one place have put gold rings in the ears of their sacred crocodiles; they may have shaved their eyebrows when their cats died; but as regards uprightness, charity, justice, and mercy, they would not, I think, have much to learn from us, if they were living to this day beside the pleasant waters of the Nile.


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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


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* Literally "the great circuit "–i.e., the Mediterranean basin.

Taha; i. e., Gaza, according to Birch; but, according to De Rougé, the coast-land of Syria between Lebanon and the sea.

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* Rotennu, a powerful nation of North Syria.

† The Land of the Gods (Tanuter ); a district identical, or conterminous, with Punt, on the east coast of Africa.

Maten,identified by Maspero with Cilicia, and by Lenormant with Midian.

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*By the marsh-lands is meant the swampy regions of the Eastern Delta, lying between the Phatnitic and Pelusiac mouths of the Nile.

† The Herusha; i. e., the desert tribes.

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* The translated extracts here given are in part from the French of De Rougé and Maspero, and in part from the English version of Professor Lushington.

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* See chap. iii.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom