Legends of the Gods
The Egyptian Texts, edited with Translations
by E. A. Wallis Budge
London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner & Co. Ltd.
A LEGEND OF KHNEMU AND OF A SEVEN YEARS' FAMINE
THE text of this most interesting legend is found in hieroglyphics on one side of a large rounded block of granite some eight or nine feet high, which stands on the south-east portion of Sahal, a little island lying in the First Cataract, two or three miles to the south of Elephantine Island and the modern town of Aswan.
The inscription is not cut into the rock in the ordinary way, but was "stunned" on it with a blunted chisel, and is, in some lights, quite invisible to anyone standing near the rock, unless he is aware of its existence. It is in full view of the river-path which leads from Mahallah to Philae, and yet it escaped the notice of scores of travellers who have searched the rocks and islands in the Cataract for graffiti and inscriptions.
The inscription, which covers a space six feet by five feet, was discovered accidentally on February 6th, 1889, by the late Mr. C. E. Wilbour, a distinguished American gentleman who spent many years in research in Egypt. He first copied the text, discovering in the course of his work the remarkable nature of its contents and then his friend Mr. Maudslay photographed it. The following year he sent prints from Mr. Maudslay's negatives to Dr. Brugsch, who in the course of 1891 published a transcript of the text with a German translation and notes in a work entitled Die biblischen sieben Jahre der Hungersnoth, Leipzig, 8vo.
The legend contained in this remarkable text describes a terrible famine which took place in the reign of Tcheser, a king of the IIIrd Dynasty, and lasted for seven years. Insufficient Nile-floods were, of course, the physical cause of the famine, but the legend shows that the "low Niles" were brought about by the neglect of the Egyptians in respect of the worship of the god of the First Cataract, the great god Khnemu.
When, according to the legend, king Tcheser had been made to believe that the famine took place because men had ceased to worship Khnemu in a manner appropriate to his greatness, and when he had taken steps to remove the ground of complaint, the Nile rose to its accustomed height, the crops became abundant once more, and all misery caused by scarcity of provisions ceased. In other words, when Tcheser restored the offerings of Khnemu, and re-endowed his sanctuary and his priesthood, the god allowed Hapi to pour forth his streams from the caverns in the Cataract, and to flood the land with abundance.
The general character of the legend, as we have it here, makes it quite certain that it belongs to a late period, and the forms of the hieroglyphics and the spellings of the words indicate that the text was "stunned" on the rock in the reign of one of the Ptolemies, probably at a time when it was to the interest of some men to restore the worship of Khnemu, god of the First Cataract.
These interested people could only have been the priests of Khnemu, and the probability that this was so becomes almost a certainty when we read in the latter part of the text the list of the tolls and taxes which they were empowered to levy on the merchants, farmers, miners, etc., whose goods passed down the Cataract into Egypt. Why, if this be the case, they should have chosen to connect the famine with the reign of Tcheser is not clear.
They may have wished to prove the great antiquity of the worship of Khnemu, but it would have been quite easy to select the name of some king of the Ist Dynasty, and had they done this, they would have made the authority of Khnemu over the Nile coaeval with Dynastic civilization. It is impossible to assume that no great famine took place in Egypt between the reign of Tcheser and the period when the inscription was made, and when we consider this fact the choice by the editor of the legend of a famine which took place under the IIIrd Dynasty to illustrate the power of Khnemu seems inexplicable.
Of the famines which must have taken place in the Dynastic period the inscriptions tell us nothing, but the story of the seven years' famine mentioned in the Book of Genesis shows that there is nothing improbable in a famine lasting so long in Egypt. Arab historians also mention several famines which lasted for seven years.
That which took place in the years 1066-1072 nearly ruined the whole country. A cake of bread was sold for 15 dinanir, (the dinar = 10s.), a horse was sold for 20, a dog for 5, a cat for 3, and an egg for 1 dinar. When all the animals were eaten men began to eat each other, and human flesh was sold in public. "Passengers were caught in the streets by hooks let down from the windows, drawn up, killed, and cooked." 1
During the famine which began in 1201 people ate human flesh habitually. Parents killed and cooked their own children, and a, wife was found eating her husband raw. Baby fricassee and haggis of children's heads were ordinary articles of diet. The graves even were ransacked for food. An ox sold for 70 dinanir. 2
The legend begins with the statement that in the 18th year of the reign of King Tcheser, when Matar, the Erpa Prince and Hâ, was the Governor of the temple properties of the South and North, and was also the Director of the Khenti men at Elephantine (Aswan), a royal despatch was delivered to him, in which the king said: "I am in misery on my throne.
My heart is very sore because of the calamity which hath happened, for the Nile hath not come forth 3 for seven years. There is no grain, there are no vegetables, there is no food, and every man is robbing his neighbour. Men wish to walk, but they are unable to move; the young man drags along his limbs, the hearts of the aged are crushed with despair, their legs fail them, they sink to the ground, and they clutch their bodies with their hands in pain.
The councillors are dumb, and nothing but wind comes out of the granaries when they are opened. Everything is in a state of ruin." A more graphic picture of the misery caused by the famine could hardly be imagined. The king then goes on to ask Matar where the Nile is born? what god or goddess presides over it? and what is his [or her] form? He says he would like to go to the temple of Thoth to enquire of that god, to go to the College of the Magicians, and search through the sacred books in order to find out these things.
When Matar had read the despatch, he set out to go to the king, and explained to him the things which he wished to know. He told him that, the Nile rose near the city of Elephantine, that it flowed out of two caverns, which were the breasts of the Nile-god, that it rose to a height of twenty-eight cubits at Elephantine, and to the height of seven cubits at Sma-Behutet, or, Diospolis Parva in the Delta.
He who controlled the Nile was Khnemu, and when this god drew the bolt of the doors which shut in the stream, and smote the earth with his sandals, the river rushed forth. Matar also described to the king the form of Khnemu, which was that of Shu, and the work which he did, and the wooden house in which he lived, and its exact position, which was near the famous granite quarries.
The gods who dwelt with Khnemu were the goddess Sept (Sothis, or the Dog-star), the goddess Anqet, Hap (or Hep), the Nile-god, Shu, Keb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, and Horus. Thus we see that the priests of Khnemu made him to be the head of a Company of Gods. Finally Matar gave the king a list of all the stones, precious and otherwise, which were found in and about Elephantine.
When the king, who had, it seems, come to Elephantine, heard these things he rejoiced greatly, and he went into the temple of Khnemu. The priests drew back the curtains and sprinkled him with holy water, and then he passed into the shrine and offered up a great sacrifice of bread-cakes, beer, geese, oxen, and all kinds of good things, to the gods and goddesses who dwelt at Elephantine, in the place called "Couch of the heart in life and power," Suddenly he found himself standing face to face with the god Khnemu, whom he placated with a peace-offering and with prayer.
Then the god opened his eyes, and bent his body towards the king, and spake to him mighty words, saying, "I am Khnemu, who made thee. My hands knitted together thy body and made it sound, and I gave thee thy heart." Khnemu then went on to complain that, although the ground under the king's feet was filled with stones and metal, men were too inert to work them and to employ them in repairing or rebuilding of the shrines of the gods, or in doing what they ought to do for him, their Lord and Creator.
These words were, of course, meant as a rebuke for the king, who evidently, though it is not so stated in the text, was intended by Khnemu to undertake the rebuilding of his shrine without delay. The god then went on to proclaim his majesty and power, and declared himself to be Nu, the Celestial Ocean, and the Nile-god, "who came into being at the beginning, and riseth at his will to give health to him that laboureth for Khnemu." He described himself as the Father of the gods, the Governor of the earth and of men, and then he promised the king to make the Nile rise yearly, regularly, and unceasingly, to give abundant harvests, to give all people their heart's desire, to make misery to pass away, to fill the granaries, and to make the whole land of Egypt yellow with waving fields of full ripe grain.
When the king, who had been in a dream, heard the god mention crops, he woke up, and his courage returned to him, and having cast away despair from his heart he issued a decree by which he made ample provision for the maintenance of the worship of the god in a fitting state. In this decree, the first copy of which was cut upon wood, the king endowed Khnemu with 20 schoinoi of land on each side of the river, with gardens, etc.
It was further enacted that every man who drew water from the Nile for his land should contribute a portion of his crops to the god. Fishermen, fowlers, and hunters were to pay an octroi duty of one-tenth of the value of their catches when they brought them into the city, and a tithe of the cattle was to be set apart for the daily sacrifice.
The masters of caravans coming from the Sudan were to pay a tithe also, but they were not liable to any further tax in the country northwards. Every metal-worker, ore-crusher, miner, mason, and handicraftsman of every kind, was to pay to the temple of the god one-tenth of the value of the material produced or worked by his labour.
The decree provided also for the appointment of an inspector whose duty it would be to weigh the gold, silver and copper which came into the town of Elephantine, and to assess the value both of these metals and of the precious stones, etc., which were to be devoted to the service of Khnemu.
All materials employed in making the images of the gods, and all handicraftsmen employed in the work were exempted from tithing. In short, the worship of the god and his company was to be maintained according to ancient use and wont, and the people were to supply the temple with everything necessary in a generous spirit and with a liberal hand. He who failed in any way to comply with the enactments was to be beaten with the rope, and the name of Tcheser was to be perpetuated in the temple.
1 Lane Poole, Middle Ages, p. 146.
2 Ibid., p. 216.
3 I.e., there have been insufficient Nile-floods.