EGYPTIAN MYTH AND LEGEND
With Historical Narrative, Notes on Race Problems, Comparative Beliefs, etc.
Gresham Publishing Co., London
"CLEOPATRA'S NEEDLE", on the Thames Embankment, affords us an introduction to ancient Egypt, "the land of marvels" and of strange and numerous deities. This obelisk was shaped from a single block of red granite quarried at Assouan by order of one of the old Pharaohs; it is 68 feet 5½, inches high, and weighs 186 tons. Like one of our own megalithic monuments, it is an interesting relic of stone worship. Primitive man believed that stones were inhabited by spirits which had to be propitiated with sacrifices and offerings, and, long after higher conceptions obtained, their crude beliefs survived among their descendants. This particular monument was erected as a habitation for one of the spirits of the sun god; in ancient Egypt the gods were believed to have had many spirits.
The "Needle" was presented to the British Government in 1820, and in 1877-8 was transported hither by Sir Erasmus Wilson at a cost of £10,000. For about eighteen centuries it had been a familiar object at Alexandria. Its connection with the famous Queen Cleopatra is uncertain; she may have ordered it to be removed from its original site on account of its archæological interest, for it was already old in her day. It was first erected at Heliopolis thirty-two centuries ago. But even then Egypt was a land of ancient memories; the great Pyramids, near Cairo, were aged about 500 years, and the Calendar had been in existence for over fourteen centuries.
Heliopolis, "the city of the sun", is called On in the Bible. It was there that Moses was educated, and became "mighty in word and in deed". Joseph had previously married, at On, Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, a priest of the sun temple, the site of which, at modern Matarieh, is marked by an erect obelisk of greater antiquity even than the "Needle". Near by are a holy well and a holy tree, long invested with great sanctity by local tradition. Coptic Christians and native Mohammedans still relate that when Joseph and Mary fled with the infant Christ into Egypt, to escape the fierce King Herod, they rested under the tree, and that Mary washed in the well the swaddling clothes of the holy child.
When "Cleopatra's Needle" was erected at On, which is also called Beth-shemesh 1, "the house of the sun god", in the Hebrew Scriptures, the priests taught classes of students in the temple colleges. For about thirty centuries the city was the Oxford of Egypt. Eudoxus and Plato, in the course of their travels, visited the priestly professors and heard them lecture. As ancient tradition has credited Egypt with the origin of geometry, Euclid, the distinguished mathematician, who belonged to the brilliant Alexandria school, no doubt also paid a pilgrimage to the ancient seat of learning. When he was a student he must have been familiar with our "Needle"; perhaps he puzzled over it as much as some of us have puzzled over his problems.
At On the Egyptian students were instructed, among other things, to read and fashion those strange pictorial signs which appear on the four sides of the "Needle". These are called hieroglyphics, a term derived from the Greek words hieros, "sacred", and glypho, "I engrave", and first applied by the Greeks because they believed that picture writing was used only by Egyptian priests for religious purposes. Much of what we know regarding the myths, legends, and history of the land of the Pharaohs has been accumulated since modern linguists acquired the art of reading those pictorial inscriptions. The ancient system had passed out of human use and knowledge for many long centuries when the fortunate discovery was made of a slab of black basalt on which had been inscribed a decree in Greek and Egyptian. It is called the "Rosetta Stone", because it was dug up at Rosetta by a French officer of engineers In 1799, when Napoleon, who had invaded Egypt, ordered a fort to be rebuilt. It was afterwards seized by the British, along with other antiquities collected by the French, and was presented by George III to the British Museum in 1802.
Copies of the Rosetta Stone inscriptions were distributed by Napoleon, and subsequently by British scholars, to various centres of learning throughout Europe. It was found that the Greek section recorded a decree, issued by the native priests to celebrate the first anniversary of Pharaoh Ptolemy V in 195 B.C. The mysterious Egyptian section was rendered in hieroglyphics and also in Demotic, a late form of the cursive system of writing called Hieratic. In 1814 two distinguished linguists--Dr. Thomas Young in Britain, and Professor Champollion in France--engaged in studying the quaint pictorial signs. The credit of having first discovered the method of reading them is claimed for both these scholars, and a heated controversy waged for long years over the matter. Modern opinion inclines to the view that Young and Champollion solved the secret simultaneously and independently of each other. The translation of other Egyptian texts followed in course; and of late years so great has been the skill attained by scholars that they are able to detect blunders made by ancient scribes. Much uncertainty exists, however, and must ever exist) regarding the proper pronunciation of the language.
Another source of knowledge regarding the civilization of Egypt is the history of Manetho, a native priest, who lived at the beginning of the third century before Christ. His books perished when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, but epitomes survive in the writings of Julius Africanus, Eusebius, and George the Syncellus, while fragments are quoted by Josephus. Manetho divided the history of his country into thirty dynasties, and his system constitutes the framework upon which our knowledge of the great Egyptian past has accumulated.
Divergent views exist regarding the value of Manetho's history, and these are invariably expressed with point and vigour. Professor Breasted, the distinguished American Egyptologist, for instance, characterizes the chronology of the priestly historian as "a late, careless, and uncritical compilation", and he holds that it "can be proven wrong from the contemporary monuments in the vast majority of cases". "Manetho's dynastic totals", he says, "are so absurdly high throughout that they are not worthy of a moment's credence, being often nearly or quite double the maximum drawn from contemporary monuments. Their accuracy is now maintained only by a small and constantly decreasing number of modern scholars." Breasted goes even further than that by adding: "The compilation of puerile folk tales by Manetho is hardly worthy of the name history".
Professor Flinders Petrie, whose work as an excavator has been epochmaking, is inclined, on the other band, to attach much weight to the history of the native priest. "Unfortunately," he says, "much confusion has been caused by scholars not being content to accept Manetho as being substantially correct in the main, though with many small corruptions and errors. Nearly every historian has made large and arbitrary assumptions and changes, with a view to reducing the length of time stated. But recent discoveries seem to prove that we must accept the lists of kings as having been, correct, however they may have suffered in detail. . . . Every accurate test that we can apply shows the general trustworthiness of Manetho apart from minor corruptions."
Breasted, supported by other leading Egyptologists, accepts what is known as the "Berlin system of Egyptian chronology". The following tables illustrate how greatly he differs from Petrie:
The Hyksos invasion took place, according to Manetho, at the beginning of the Fifteenth Dynasty, and he calculated that the Asiatic rulers were in Egypt for 511 years. Breasted's minimum is 100 years. King and Hall, like Newberry and Garstang, allow the Hyksos a little more than 200 years, while Hawes, the Cretan explorer, whose dating comes very close to that of Dr. Evans, says that "there is a growing conviction that Cretan evidence, especially in the eastern part of the island, favours the minimum (Berlin) system of Egyptian chronology". Breasted, it will be seen, allows 420 years for the period between the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties, while Petrie gives 1820--a difference of 1400 years.
From 1580 B.C., onward, the authorities are in practical agreement; prior to that date the chronology is uncertain.
This confusion has been partly caused by the Egyptians having ignored the leap year addition of one day. Their calendar Of 365 days lost about a quarter of a day each twelvemonth and about a whole day every four years. New Year's Day began with the rising of the star Sirius (Sothos) on 17 June, and it coincided with the beginning of the Nile inundation. But in a cycle of 1461 years Sirius rose in every alternate month of the Egyptian year. When, therefore, we find in the Egyptian records a reference, at a particular period, to their first month (the month of Thoth), we are left to discover whether it was our April or October; and in dating back we must allow for the "wanderings of Sirius". Much controversial literature has accumulated regarding what is known as the Egyptian "Sothic Cycle".
Throughout this volume the dates are given in accordance with the minimum system, on account of the important evidence afforded by the Cretan discoveries. But we may agree to differ from Professor Petrie on chronological matters and yet continue to admire his genius and acknowledge the incalculable debt we owe him as one who has reconstructed some of the most obscure periods of Egyptian history. The light he has thrown upon early Dynastic and pre-Dynastic times, especially, has assured him an undying reputation, and he has set an example to all who have followed by the thoroughness and painstaking character of his work of research.
It is chiefly by modern-day excavators in Egypt, and in those countries which traded with the Nilotic kingdom in ancient times, that the past has been conjured up before us;. We know more about ancient Egypt now chan did the Greeks or the Romans, and more about pre-Dynastic times and the early Dynasties than even those Egyptian scholars who took degrees in the Heliopolitan colleges when "Cleopatra's Needle" was first erected. But our knowledge is withal fragmentary. We can but trace the outlines of Egyptian history; we cannot command that unfailing supply of documentary material which is available, for instance, in dealing with the history of a European nation. Fragments of pottery, a few weapons, strings of beads, some rude drawings, and tomb remains are all we have at our disposal in dealing with some periods; others are made articulate by inscriptions, but even after civilization had attained a high level we occasionally find it impossible to deal with those great movements which were shaping the destinies of the ancient people. Obscure periods recur all through Egyptian history, and some, indeed, are almost quite blank.
When "Cleopatra's Needle" was erected by Thothmes III, the Conqueror, and the forerunner of Alexander the Great and Napoleon, Egyptian civilization had attained its highest level. Although occasionally interrupted by internal revolt or invasions from north and south, it had gradually increased in splendour until Thothmes III extended the empire to the borders of Asia Minor. The Mediterranean Sea then became an "Egyptian lake". Peace offerings were sent to Thothmes from Crete and Cyprus, the Phoenicians owed him allegiance, and his favours were courted by the Babylonians and Assyrians: the "Needle" records the gifts which were made by the humbled King of the Hittites.
After the passing of Thothmes, who flourished in the Eighteenth Dynasty, decline set in, and, although lost ground was recovered after a time, the power of Egypt gradually grew less and less. "Cleopatra's Needle" may be regarded as marking the "halfway house" of Egyptian civilization. It was erected at the beginning of the Age of Empire. The chief periods before that are known as the Pre-Dynastic, the Archaic Age, the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the Hyksos Age; after the fall of empire, in the Twentieth Dynasty, we have the periods of Libyan, Ethiopian, and Assyrian supremacy. Then came "The Restoration", or Saite period, which ended with the Persian Conquest. Subsequently the Greeks possessed the kingdom, which was afterwards seized by the Romans. Arabs and Turks followed, and to-day we witness a second Restoration under British rule. But not since the day when Ezekiel declared, in the Saite period: "There shall be no more a prince of the land of Egypt" (Ezek., xxx, 13) has a ruler of the old Egyptian race sat upon the throne of the Pharaohs.
The mythology of Egypt was formulated prior to the erection of the "Needle". Indeed, in tracing its beginnings we must go back to the pre-Dynastic times, when the beliefs of the various peoples who mingled in the ancient land were fused and developed under Egyptian influences.
We are confronted by a vast multitude of gods and goddesses. Attempts to enumerate them result, as a rule, in compilations resembling census returns. One of the Pharaohs, who lived about 4000 years ago, undertook the formidable task of accommodating them all under one roof, and caused to be erected for that purpose a great building which Greek writers called "The Labyrinth"; he had separate apartments dedicated to the various deities, and of these it was found necessary to construct no fewer than 3000, The ancient Egyptians lived in a world which swarmed with spirits, "numerous as gnats upon the evening beam". They symbolized everything; they gave concrete form to every abstract idea; they had deities which represented every phase and function of life, every act and incident of import, and every hour and every month; they had nature gods, animal gods and human gods, and gods of the living and gods of the dead. And, as if they had not a sufficient number of their own, they imported gods and goddesses from other countries.
In the midst of this mythological multitude, which a witty French Egyptologist calls "the rabble of deities", a few, comparatively speaking, loom vast and great. But some of these are but differentiated forms of a single god or goddess, whose various attributes were symbolized, so that deities budded from deities; others underwent separate development in different localities and assumed various names. If we gather those linking deities together in groups) the task of grappling with Egyptian mythology will be greatly simplified.
An interesting example of the separating process is afforded by Thoth of Hermopolis. That god of quaint and arresting aspect is most usually depicted with a man's body and the head of an ibis, surmounted by a lunar disk and crescent. As the divine lawyer and recorder, he checked the balance in the Judgment Hall of the Dead when the human heart was weighed before Osiris; as a rate, he measured out at birth the span of human life on a rod with serrated edge; he was also a patron of architects) a god of religious literature who was invoked by scribes, and a god of medicine. Originally he was a lunar deity, and was therefore of great antiquity, for, as Mr. Payne has emphasized in his History of the New World, a connection is traced between the lunar phenomena and the food supply in an earlier stage of civilization than that in which a connection is traced between the food supply and the solar phenomena.
The worship of the moon preceded in Egypt, as in many other countries, the worship of the sun. It still survives in Central Africa, and among primitive peoples elsewhere throughout the world. Even in highly civilized Europe we can still trace lingering evidences of belief in the benevolence of the lunar spirit, the ancient guide and protector of mankind.
The moon was believed to exercise a direct influence upon Nature as a generative agency; agriculturists were of opinion that seeds sown during its period of increase had more prolific growth than those sown when it was on the wane. Pliny said that "the blood of men grows and diminishes with the light of the moon, while leaves and herbage also feel the same influence". Crops were supposed to receive greater benefit in moonlight than in sunshine. In one of the Egyptian temple chants, the corn god is entreated to "give fecundity in the nighttime". The "harvest moon" was "the ripening moon", and many poets have in all ages sung its praises. It was followed in Scotland, where archaic Mediterranean beliefs appear to have tardy survival, by "the badger's moon", which marked the period for laying in winter stores, and then by "the hunter's moon", an indication that lunar worship prevailed in the archæological "hunting period". Indeed the moon bulks as largely in European as in ancient Egyptian folklore: it is still believed in certain localities to cure diseases and to inspire love; until a comparatively recent date quaint ceremonies were performed in Scotland during its first phase by women who visited sculptured stones to pray for offspring.
Although the strictly lunar character of the Egyptian god Thoth is not apparent at first sight, it can be traced through his association with kindred deities. At Hermopolis and Edfu he was fused with Khonsu (or Khensu), who had developed from Ah, the lunar representative of the male principle, which was also "the fighting principle". Khonsu was depicted as a handsome youth, and he symbolized, in the Theban group of gods, certain specialized influences of the moon. He was the love god, the Egyptian Cupid, and the divine physician; he was also an explorer (the root khens signifies "to traverse") and the messenger and hunter of the gods. Special offerings were made to him at the Ploughing Festival, just before the seed was sown, and at the Harvest Festival, after the grain was reaped; and he was worshipped as the increaser of flocks and herds and human families. Like Thoth, he was a "measurer", and inspirer of architects, because the moon measures time. But in this direction Thoth had fuller development; he was a "lawyer" because the orderly changes of the moon suggested the observance of well-defined laws, and a "checker" and "scribe" because human transactions were checked and recorded in association with lunar movements. Time was first measured by the lunar month.
Moon gods were also corn gods, but Thoth had no pronounced association with agricultural rites. That phase of his character may have been suppressed as a result of the specializing process; it is also possible that he was differentiated in the pastoral and hunting period when the lunar spirit was especially credited with causing the growth of trees. In the Nineteenth Dynasty Thoth was shown recording the name of a Pharaoh on the sacred sycamore. He must have been, therefore, at one time a tree spirit, like Osiris. Tree spirits, as well as corn spirits, were manifestations of the moon god.
Thoth also links with Osiris, and this association is of special interest. Osiris was originally an ancient king of Egypt who taught the Egyptians how to rear crops and cultivate fruit trees. He was regarded as a human incarnation of the moon spirit. As a living ruler he displayed his lunar qualities by establishing laws for the regulation of human affairs and by promoting agriculture and gardening; when he died, like the moon, he similarly regulated the affairs of departed souls in the agricultural Paradise of the Egyptians; he was the great Judge of the Dead, and in the Hall of Judgment Thoth was his recorder.
Like Thoth, Osiris was identified with the tree spirit. His dead body was enclosed in a tree which grew round the coffin, and Isis voyaged alone over the sea to recover it. Isis was also the herald of the Nile inundation; she was, indeed, the flood. The myth, as will be seen, is reminiscent of archaic tree and well worship, which survives at Heliopolis, where the sacred well and tree are still venerated in association with the Christian legend. In Ireland the tree and corn god Dagda has similarly for wife a water goddess; she is called Boann, and personifies Boyne River.
Osiris had many manifestations, or, rather, he was the manifestation of many gods. But he never lost his early association with the moon. In one of the Isis temple chants, which details his various attributes and evolutionary phases, he is hailed as the god--
Who cometh to us as a babe each month.
He is thus the moon child, a manifestation of the ever-young, and ever-renewing moon god. The babe Osiris is cared for by Thoth--
He lays thy soul in the Maadit boat
By the magic of thy name of Ah (moon god).
Thoth utters the magic "password" to obtain for Osiris his seat in the boat, which will carry him over the heavens. This reference explains the line in the complex hymn to Osiris-Sokar:--
Hail, living soul of Osiris, crowning him with the moon. 2
We have now reached a point where Thoth, Osiris, Khonsu, and Ah are one; they are but various forms of the archaic moon spirit which was worshipped by primitive hunters and agriculturists as the begetter and guardian of life.
According to Dr. Budge, whose works on Egyptian mythology are as full of carefully compiled facts as were Joseph's great storehouses of grain, the ancient Egyptians, despite their crowded labyrinth, "believed in the existence of one great God, self-produced, self-existent, almighty, and eternal, who created the 'gods', the heavens, and the sun, moon and stars in them, and the earth and everything on it, including man and beast, bird, fish) and reptile. . . . Of this god", Dr. Budge believes, "they never attempted to make any figure, form, likeness, or similitude, for they thought that no man could depict or describe Him, and that all His attributes were quite beyond man's comprehension. On the rare occasions in which He is mentioned in their writings, He is always called 'Neter', i.e. God, and besides this He has no name. The exact meaning of the word 'Neter' is unknown." 3
Dr. Budge explains the multiplication of Nilotic deities by saying that the behests of "God Almighty . . . were performed by a number of gods, or, as we might say, emanations or angels", which were "of African rather than Asiatic origin". He prefers to elucidate Egyptian mythology by studying surviving African beliefs "in the great forests and on the Nile, Congo, Niger, and other great rivers", and shows that in these districts the moon god is still regarded as the creator.
A distinction is drawn by Dr. Budge between the Libyan deities and those of Upper Egypt, and his theory of one God has forcible application when confined to the archaic lunar deity. He refers to the period prior to the minglings of peoples and the introduction of Asiatic beliefs. But in dealing with historic Egyptian mythology we must distinguish between the African moon spirit, which is still identified by savage peoples with the creator god, and the representative Egyptian lunar deity, which symbolized the male principle, and was not the "first cause", but the son of a self-produced creating goddess. The difference between the two conceptions is of fundamental character.
It is apparent that some of the great Egyptian deities, and especially those of Delta origin, or Delta characterization, evolved from primitive groups of Nature spirits. At Heliopolis, where archaic Nilotic and other beliefs were preserved like flies in amber, because the Asiatic sun worshippers sought to include all existing forms of tribal religion in their own, a creation myth makes reference to the one God of the primordial deep. But associated with him, it is significant to note, were "the Fathers and the Mothers".
The "Mothers" appear to be represented by the seven Egyptian Fates who presided at birth. These were called "the seven Hathors", but their association with the Asiatic Hathor, who was Ishtar, was evidently arbitrary. The Mediterranean people, who formed the basis of the Egyptian race, were evidently worshippers of the "Mothers". In southern and western Europe, which they peopled n early times, various groups of "Mothers" were venerated. These included "Proximæ (the kinswomen), Dervonnæ (the oak spirits), Niskai (the water spirits), Mairæ, Matronæ, Matres or Matræ (the mothers), Quadriviæ (the goddesses of crossroads). The Matres, Matræ, and Matronæ are often qualified by some local name. Deities of this type appear to have been popular in Britain, in the neighbourhood of Cologne, and in Provence. "In some cases it is uncertain", comments Professor Anwyl, from whose Celtic Religion in Pre-Christian Times we quote, "whether some of these grouped goddesses are Celtic or Teutonic." They were probably pre-Celtic and pre-Teutonic. "It is an interesting parallel", he adds, "to the existence of these grouped goddesses, when we find that in some parts of Wales 'Y Mamau.' (the mothers) is the name for the fairies. These grouped goddesses take us back to one of the most interesting stages in the early Celtic religion, when the earth spirits or the corn spirits had not yet been completely individualized." 4
Representatives of the groups of Egyptian spirits called "the Fathers" are found at Memphis, where Ptah, assisted by eight earth gnomes called Khnumu, was believed to have made the universe with his hammer by beating out the copper sky and shaping the hills and valleys. This group of dwarfs resemble closely the European elves, or male earth spirits, who dwelt inside mountains as the Khnumu dwelt underground.
In the process of time the various groups of male and female spirits were individualized. Some disappeared, leaving the chief spirit alone and supreme. When Ptah became a great god, the other earth gnomes vanished from the Memphis creation myth. Other members of groups remained and were developed separately. This evolutionary process can be traced, we think, in the suggestive association of the two sister goddesses Isis and Nepthys. In one of the temple chants both are declared to be the mothers of Osiris, who is called--
The bull, begotten of the two cows, Isis and Nepthys . . .
He, the progeny of the two cows, Isis and Nepthys,
The child surpassingly beautiful! 5
At the same time he is son of "his mother Nut". Osiris has thus three mothers. The conception may be difficult to grasp, but we must remember that we are dealing with vague beliefs regarding ancient mythological beings. Heimdal, the Norse god, had nine mothers, "the daughters of sea-dwelling Ran". 6 The Norse god, Tyr's grandmother, 7 was a giantess with nine hundred heads. If we reduce that number to nine, it might be suggested that she represented nine primitive earth spirits, which were multiplied and individualized by the tellers of wonder tales of mythological origin. The Egyptian Great Mother deities had sons, and practically all of these were identified with Osiris. It is not improbable, therefore, that the Mediterranean moon spirit, whom Osiris represented, had originally as many mothers as he had attributes. The "mothers" afterwards became "sisters" of the young god. Nepthys sings to Osiris:
All thy sister goddesses are at thy side
And behind thy couch.
The Heliopolitan reference to "the Fathers" and the "Mothers" indicates that fundamental beliefs of divergent origin were fused by the unscientific but diplomatic priestly theorists of the sun cult. It is evident that the people who believed in "Father spirits" were not identical with the people who believed in "Mother spirits".
We may divide into two classes the primitive symbolists who attempted to solve the riddle of the universe:
1. Those who conceived that life and natural phenomena had a female origin;
2. Those who conceived that life and natural phenomena had a male origin.
Both "schools of thought" were represented in Egypt from the earliest times of which we have any definite knowledge; but it may be inferred that the two rival conceptions were influenced by primitive tribal customs and habits of life.
It is possible that the theory of the female origin of life evolved in settled communities among large tribal units. These communities could not have come into existence, or continued to grow, without laws. As much may be taken for granted. Now, the earliest laws were evidently those which removed the prime cause of rivalries and outbreaks in tribal communities by affording protection to women. As primitive laws and primitive religions were inseparable, women must have been honoured on religious grounds. In such communities the growth of religious ideas would tend in the direction of exalting goddesses or mother spirits, rather than gods or father spirits. The men of the tribe would be regarded as the sons of an ancestress, and the gods as the sons of a goddess. The Irish tribe known as "Tuatha de Danann", for instance, were "the children of Danu", the mother of the Danann gods.
The theory of the male origin of life, on the other hand, may have grown up among smaller tribal units of wandering or mountain peoples, whose existence depended more on the prowess and activities of the males than on the influence exercised by their females, whom they usually captured or lured away. Such nomads, with their family groups over which the fathers exercised supreme authority, would naturally exalt the male and worship tribal ancestors and regard gods as greater than goddesses.
In Egypt the "mother-worshipping" peoples and the "father-worshipping" peoples were mingled, as we have indicated, long before the dawn of history. Nomadic peoples from desert lands and mountainous districts entered the Delta region of the Mediterranean race many centuries ere yet the Dynastic Egyptians made appearance in Upper Egypt. The illuminating researches of Professor Flinders Petrie prove conclusively that three or four distinct racial types were fused in pre-Dynastic times in Lower Egypt.
The evidence obtained from the comparative study of European mythologies tends to suggest that the "mother" spirits and the Great Mother deities were worshipped by the Mediterranean peoples, who multiplied rapidly in their North African area of characterization, and spread into Asia Minor and Europe and up the Nile valley as far as Nubia, where Thoth, the lunar god, was the son of Tefnut, one of the Great Mothers. But that matriarchal conception did not extend, as we have seen, into Central Africa. The evidence accumulated by explorers shows that the nomadic natives believe, as they have believed from time immemorial, in a Creator (god) rather than a Creatrix (goddess). Mungo Park found that the "one god" was worshipped only "at the appearance of the new moon". 8 In Arabia, the "mothers" were also prominent, and certain ethnologists have detected the Mediterranean type in that country. But, of course, all peoples who worshipped "mother spirits" were not of Mediterranean origin. In this respect, however, the Mediterraneans, like other races which multiplied into large settled communities, attained early a comparatively high degree of civilization on account of their reverence for motherhood and all it entailed.
The Great Mother deity was believed to be self-created and self-sustaining. In the Isis chants addressed to Osiris we read--
Thy mother Nut cometh to thee in peace;
She hath built up life from her own body.
There cometh unto thee Isis, lady of the horizon,
Who hath begotten herself alone. 9
According to the Greeks, the Great Mother Neith declared to her worshippers--
I am what has been,
And what shall be.
A hymn to Neith, of which Dr. Budge gives a scholarly and literal translation, contains the following lines:--
Hail! Great Mother, not hath been uncovered thy birth;
Hail! Great Goddess, within the underworld doubly hidden;
Thou unknown one--
Hail! thou divine one,
Not hath been unloosed thy garment.
The typical Great Mother was a virgin goddess who represented the female principle, and she had a fatherless son who represented the male principle. Like the Celtic Danu, she was the mother of the gods, from whom mankind were descended. But the characteristics of the several mother deities varied in different localities, as a result of the separating and specializing process which we have illustrated in dealing with some of the lunar gods. One Great Mother was an earth spirit, another was a water spirit, and a third was an atmosphere or sky spirit.
The popular Isis ultimately combined the attributes of all the Great Mothers, who were regarded as different manifestations of her, but it is evident that each underwent, for prolonged periods, separate development, and that their particular attributes were emphasized by local and tribal beliefs. An agricultural people, for instance, could not fail, in Egypt, to associate their Great Mother with the Nile food; a pastoral people, like the Libyans, on the other hand, might be expected to depict her as an earth spirit who caused the growth of grass.
As a goddess of maternity the Great Mother was given different forms. Isis was a woman, the Egyptianized Hathor was a cow, Apet of Thebes was a hippopotamus, Bast was a cat, Tefnut was a lioness, Uazit was a serpent, Hekt was a frog, and so on. All the sacred animals and reptiles were in time associated with Isis.
In Asia Minor the Great Mother was associated with the lioness, in Cyprus she was "My Lady of Trees and Doves", in Crete she was the serpent goddess; in Rome, Bona Dea was an earth goddess, and the Norse Freyja was, like the Egyptian Bast, a feline goddess--her car was drawn by cats.
One of the least known, but not the least important, of Great Mothers of Europe is found in the Highlands of Scotland, where, according to the ethnologists, the Mediterranean element bulks considerably among the racial types. She is called Cailleach Bheur, and is evidently a representative survival of great antiquity. In Ireland she degenerated, as did other old gigantic deities, into a historical personage. An interesting Highland folk tale states that she existed "from the long eternity of the world". She is described as "a great big old wife". Her face was "blue black". 10 and she had a single watery eye on her forehead, but "the sight of it" was "as swift as the mackerel of the ocean".
Like the Egyptian Ptah, this Scottish hag engaged herself in making the world. She carried upon her back a great creel filled with rocks and earth.. In various parts of northern Scotland small hills are said to have been formed by the spillings of her creel. She let loose the rivers and formed lochs. At night she rested on a mountain top beside a spring of fresh water. Like the Libyan Neith she was evidently the deity of a pastoral and hunting people, for she had herds of deer, goats, and sheep, over which she kept watch.
In the springtime the Cailleach, or hag, was associated with the tempests. When she sneezed, she was heard for many miles. But her stormy wrath, during the period in spring called in Gaelic "Cailleach", was especially roused because her son fled away on a white horse with a beautiful bride. The hag pursued him on a steed which leapt ravines as nimbly as the giant Arthur's' horse leapt over the Bristol Channel. But the son would not give up the bride, who had, it seems, great dread of the terrible old woman. The hag, however, managed to keep the couple apart by raising storm after storm. Her desire was to prevent the coming of summer. She carried in her hand a magic wand, or, as some stories have it, a hammer, which she waved over the earth to prevent the grass growing. But she could not baffle Nature. She, however, made a final attempt to keep apart her son and the young bride, who was evidently the spirit of summer, by raising her last great storm, which brought snow and floods, and was intended to destroy all life. Then her son fought against her and put her to flight. So "the old winter went past", as a Gaelic tale has it.
One of the many versions of the Scottish Hag story makes her the chief of eight "big old women" or witches. This group of nine suggests Ptah and his eight earth gnomes, the nine mothers of Heimdal the Norse god, and the Ennead of Heliopolis.
An Egyptian Great Mother, who was as much dreaded as the Scottish Hag, was Sekhet, the lioness-headed deity, who was the wife of Ptah. In a Twelfth-Dynasty story she is referred to as the terrible goddess of plagues. All the feline goddesses "represented", says Wiedemann, "the variable power of the sun, from genial warmth to scorching heat. Thus a Philæ text states in reference to Isis-Hathor, who there personified all goddesses in one: 'Kindly is she as Bast, terrible is she as Sekhet'. As the conqueror of the enemies of the Egyptian gods, Sekhet carried a knife in her hand, for she it was who, under the name of the 'Eye of Ra', entered upon the task of destroying mankind. Other texts represent her as ancestress of part of the human race." 11
The oldest deities were evidently those of most savage character. 12 Sekhet must, therefore, have been a primitive conception of the Great Mother who rejoiced in slaughter and had to be propitiated. The kindly Bast and the lovable Isis, on the other hand, seem to be representative of a people who, having grown more humane, invested their deities with their own qualities. But the worship of mother goddesses was ever attended by rites which to us are revolting. Herodotus indicates the obscene character of those which prevailed in the Delta region. Female worshippers were unmoral (rather than immoral). In Asia Minor the festivals of the Great Mother and her son, who symbolized the generative agency in nature, were the scenes of terrible practices. Men mutilated their bodies and women became the "sacred wives" of the god. There are also indications that children were sacrificed. In Palestine large numbers of infants' skeletons have been found among prehistoric remains, and although doubt has been thrown on the belief that babies were sacrificed, we cannot overlook in this connection the evidence of Isaiah, who was an eyewitness of many terrible rites of Semitic and pre-Semitic origin.
"Against whom", cried the Hebrew prophet, "do ye sport yourselves? against whom make ye a wide mouth and draw out the tongue? are ye not children of transgression, a seed of falsehood, enflaming yourselves with idols under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys under the clifts of the rocks" (Isaiah, lvii, 4 and 5).
In Ireland similar rites obtained "before the coming of Patrick of Macha", when the corn god, the son of the Great Mother, was dreaded and propitiated. He was called Cromm Cruaich, and was probably the archaic Dagda, son of Danu.
To him without glory
They would kill their piteous, wretched offspring
With much wailing and peril,
To pour their blood around Cromm Cruaich.
Milk and corn
They would ask from him speedily
In return for one-third of their healthy issue
Great was the horror and the scare of him.
--Celtic Myth and Legend.
Neith, the Libyan Great Mother, was an earth goddess. Nut, on the other hand, was a sky goddess, and associated with her was an earth god called Seb. Sometimes she is depicted with Seb alone, and sometimes a third deity, the atmosphere god, Shu, is added. Shu separates the heavens from the earth, and is shown as "the uplifter", supporting Nut, as Atlas supports the world. Nut is also pictured with another goddess drawn inside her entire form; within the second goddess a god is similarly depicted. This triad suggests Osiris and his two mothers. A mummy drawing of Nut, with symbols figured upon her body, indicates that she was the Great Mother of the sun disk and lunar disk and crescent. In one of the myths of the sun cult, Ra, the solar god, is said to be "born of Nut" each morning.
The most representative Egyptian Great Father was Ptah in his giant form and in his union with Tanen, the earth god. He was self-created; "no father begot thee", sang a priestly poet, "and no mother gave thee birth"; he built up his own body and shaped his limbs. Then he found "his seat" like a typical mountain giant; his head supported the sky and his feet rested upon the earth. Osiris, who also developed into a Great Father deity, was fused with Ptah at Memphis, and, according to the Pyramid texts, his name signifies "the seat maker". The sun and the moon were the eyes of the Great Father, the air issued from his nostrils and the Nile from his mouth. Other deities who link with Ptah include Khnumu, Hershef, and the great god of Mendes. These are dealt with in detail in Chapter XIV.
It is possible that Ptah was imported into Egypt by an invading tribe in pre-Dynastic times. He was an artisan god and his seat of worship was at Memphis, the home of the architects and the builders of the Pyramids and limestone mastabas. According to tradition, Egypt's first temple was erected to Ptah by King Mena.
The skilled working of limestone, with which Memphis was closely associated, made such spontaneous appearance in Egypt as to suggest that the art was developed elsewhere. It is of interest to find, therefore, that in Palestine a tall, pre-Semitic blonde race constructed wonderful artificial caves. These were "hewn out of the soft limestone", says Professor Macalister, "with great care and exactness. . . . They vary greatly in size and complexity; one cave was found by the writer that contained no less than sixty chambers. This was quite exceptional; but caves with five, ten, or even twenty chambers large and small are not uncommon. The passages sometimes are so narrow as to make their exploration difficult; and the chambers are sometimes so large that it requires a bright light such as that of magnesium wire to illuminate them sufficiently for examination. One chamber, now fallen in, was found to have been 400 feet long and 80 feet high. To have excavated these gigantic catacombs required the steady work of a long-settled population." They are "immense engineering works". The hewers of the artificial caves "possessed the use of metal tools, as the pick marks testify".
These caves, with their chambers and narrow passages, suggest the interiors of the Pyramids. A people who had attained such great skill in limestone working were equal to the task of erecting mountains of masonry in the Nile valley if, as seems possible, they effected settlement there in very early times. As they were of mountain characterization, these ancient artisans may have been Ptah worshippers.
The Pyramids evolved from mastabas. 13 Now in Palestine there are. to the north of Jerusalem, "remarkable prehistoric monuments". These, Professor Macalister says, "consist of long, broad walls in one of which a chamber and shaft have been made, happily compared by Père Vincent to an Egyptian mastaba". 14
Legends regarding this tall people make reference to giants, and it is possible that with other mountain folk their hilltop deities, with whom they would be identified, were reputed to be of gigantic stature and bulk. They are also referred to in the Bible. When certain of the spies returned to Moses from southern Canaan "they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched". They said: "It is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants" (Numbers, xiii, 32-33). In other words, they were "sons of their gods".
It is evident that this tall, cave-hewing people had attained a high degree of civilization, with a well-organized system of government, ere they undertook engineering works on such a vast scale. Although they had established themselves in such close proximity to the Delta region, no reference is made to them in any surviving Egyptian records, so that they must have flourished at a remote period. They preceded the Semites in southern Palestine, and the Semites appeared in Egypt in pre-Dynastic times. Professor Macalister considers that they may be "roughly assigned to 3000 B.C.". A long period must be allowed for the growth of their art of skilled stone working.15
When the mysterious cave-dwellers were at the height of their power, they must have multiplied rapidly, and it is not improbable that some of their surplus stock poured into the Delta region. Their mode of life must have peculiarly fitted them for residence in towns, and it may be that the distinctive character of the mythology of Memphis was due to their presence in no inconsiderable numbers in that cosmopolitan city.
There is no indication that the Dynastic Egyptians, who first made their appearance in the upper part of the Nile valley, utilized the quarries prior to their conquest of Lower Egypt. They were a brick-making people, and their early tombs at Abydos were constructed of brick and wood. But after King Mena had united the two kingdoms by force of arms, stone working was introduced into Upper Egypt. A granite floor was laid in the tomb of King Usephais of the First Dynasty. This sudden transition from brick making to granite working is very remarkable. It Is interesting to note, however, that the father of Usephais is recorded to have erected a stone temple at Hierakonpolis. Probably it was constructed of limestone. As much is suggested by the finish displayed in the limestone chamber of the brick tomb of King Khasekhemui of the Second Dynasty. Brick, however, continued in use until King Zoser of the Third Dynasty, which began about 2930 B.C., had constructed of stone, for his tomb, the earliest Egyptian pyramid near Memphis.
It is highly probable that it was the experienced limestone workers of the north, and not the brickmakers of Upper Egypt, who first utilized granite. The Pharaohs of the First Dynasty may have drafted southward large numbers of the skilled workers who were settled at Memphis, or in its vicinity. We seem to trace the presence of a northern colony in Upper Egypt by the mythological beliefs which obtained in the vicinity of the granite quarries at Assouan. The chief god of the First Cataract was Khnumu, who bears a close resemblance to Ptah, the artisan god of Memphis. (See Chapter XIV.)
We have now dealt with two distinct kinds of supreme deities-the Great Father, and the Great Mother with her son. It is apparent that they were conceived of and developed by peoples of divergent origin and different habits of life, who mingled in Egypt under the influence of a centralized government. The ultimate result was a fusion of religious beliefs and the formulation of a highly complex mythology which was never thoroughly systematized at any period. The Great Father then became the husband of the Great Mother, or the son god was exalted as "husband of his mother". Thus Ptah was given for wife Sekhet, the fierce lioness-headed mother, who resembles Tefnut and other feline goddesses. Osiris, the son of Isis and Nepthys, on the other hand, became "husband of his mother", or mothers; he was recognized as the father of Horus, son of Isis, and of Anubis, son of Nepthys. Another myth makes him displace the old earth god Seb, son of Nut. Osiris was also a son of Nut, an earlier form of Isis. So was Seb, who became "husband of his mother". That Seb and Osiris were fused is evident in one of the temple chants, in which Isis, addressing Osiris, says: "Thy soul possesseth the earth".
In Asia Minor, where the broad-headed patriarchal Alpine hill people blended with the long-headed matriarchal Mediterranean people, the Pappas 16 god (Attis, Adon) became likewise the husband of the Ma goddess (Nana). A mythological scene sculptured upon a cliff at Ibreez in Cappadocia is supposed to represent the marriage of the two Great Father and Mother deities, and. it is significant to find that the son accompanies the self-created bride. As in Egypt, the father and the son were fused and at times are indistinguishable in the legends.
It now remains with us to deal with the worship of the solar disk. This religion was unknown to the early Mediterranean people who spread through Europe and reached the British Isles and Ireland. Nor did it rise into prominence in the land of the Pharaohs until after the erection of the Great Pyramids near Cairo. The kings did not become "sons of the sun" until the Fifth Dynasty.
There is general agreement among Egyptologists, that sun worship was imported from Asia and probably from Babylonia. It achieved fullest development on Egyptian lines at Heliopolis, "the city of the sun". There Ra, the solar deity, was first exalted as the Great Father who created the universe and all the gods and goddesses, from whom men and animals and fish and reptiles were descended. But the religion of the sun cult never achieved the popularity of the older faiths. It was embraced chiefly by the Pharaohs, the upper classes, and the foreign sections of the trading communities. The great masses of the people continued to worship the gods of the moon, earth, atmosphere, and water until Egyptian civilization perished of old age. Osiris was ever the deity of the agriculturists, and associated with him, of course, were Isis and Nepthys. Set, the red-haired god of prehistoric invaders, who slew Osiris, became the Egyptian Satan, and he was depicted as a black serpent, a black pig, a red mythical monster, or simply as a red-haired man; he was also given half-animal and half-human form.
As we have indicated, the policy adopted by the priests of the sun was to absorb every existing religious cult in Egypt. They permitted the worship of any deity, or group of deities, so long as Ra was regarded as the Great Father. No belief was too contradictory in tendency, and no myth was of too trivial a character, to be embraced in their complex theological system. As a result we find embedded, like fossils, in the religious literature of Heliopolis, many old myths which would have perished but for the acquisitiveness, of the diplomatic priests of the sun.
The oldest sun god was Tum, and he absorbed a primitive myth about Khepera, the beetle god. After Ra was introduced into Egypt the solar deity was called Ra-Tum. A triad was also formed by making Ra the noonday sun, Tum the evening sun, and Khepera the sun at dawn.
Khepera is depicted in beetle form, holding the sun disk between his two fore legs. To the primitive Egyptians the winged beetle was a sacred insect. Its association with the resurrected sun is explained by Wiedemann as follows: "The female (Ateuchus sacer) lays her eggs in a cake of dung, rolls this in the dust and makes it smooth and round so that it will keep moist and serve as food for her young; and finally she deposits it in a hole which she has scooped out in the ground; and covers it with earth. This habit had not escaped the observation of the Egyptians, although they failed to understand it, for scientific knowledge of natural history was very slight among all peoples of antiquity. The Egyptians supposed the Scarabæus to be male, and that it was itself born anew from the egg which it alone had made, and thus lived an eternal life. . . ." 17
The Scarabæus became a symbol of the resurrection and the rising sun. The dawn god raised up the solar disk as the beetle raised up the ball containing its eggs ere it set it a-rolling. Similarly souls were raised from death to life eternal.
Another myth represented the new-born sun as the child Horus rising from a lotus bloom which expanded its leaves on the breast of the primordial deep. Less poetic, but more popular, apparently, was the comedy about the chaos goose which was called "Great Cackler", because at the beginning she cackled loudly to the chaos gander and laid an egg, which was the sun. Ra was identified with the historical egg', but at Heliopolis the priests claimed that it was shaped by Ptah on his potter's wheel; Khnûmû, the other artisan god, was similarly credited with the work. The gander was identified with Seb, the earth god, and in the end Amon-Ra, the combined deity of Thebes, was represented as the great chaos goose and gander in one. The "beautiful goose" was also sacred to Isis.
Of foreign origin, probably, was the myth that the sun was a wild ass, which was ever chased by the Night serpent, Haiu, as it ran round the slopes of the mountains supporting the sky. These are probably the world-encircling mountains, which, according to the modern Egyptians, are peopled by giants (genii). Belief in mountain giants survive among the hillmen of Arabia, Syria, Asia Minor, and Europe. The most popular old Egyptian idea was that the earth was surrounded by the ocean; the same opinion obtained in Greece. The wild ass, as we have seen, was also Set, the Nilotic Satan.
A similar myth represents the sun as a great cat, which was originally a female, but was identified with Ra as a male. It fought with the Night serpent, Apep, below the sacred tree at Heliopolis, and killed it at dawn. In this myth Set is identified with the serpent.
The cat and the wild ass enjoyed considerable popularity at Heliopolis. In the Book of the Dead it is declared: "I have heard the word of power (the magic word) which the ass spake to the cat in the house of Hapt-ra", but the "password" which was used by the souls of the dead is not given.
Another belief regarding the sun had its origin apparently among the moon worshippers. It can be traced in one of the Nut pictures. Shu, the atmosphere god, stands beneath the curving body of the Great Mother and receives in one of his hands a white pool of milk, which is the sun. In the mummy picture, already referred to, the sun disk is drawn between the breasts of the sky goddess.
Nut is sometimes called the "mother of Ra", but in a creation myth she is his wife, and her secret lover is Seb, the earth god.
It was emphasized at Heliopolis that Ra, as the Great Father, called Nut, Seb, and Shu into being. Those deities which he did not create were either his children or their descendants.
The creation story in which the priests of Heliopolis fused the old myths will be found in Chapter I. It familiarizes the reader with Egyptian beliefs in their earliest and latest aspects.
The second chapter is devoted to the Osiris and Isis legends, which shows that these deities have both a tribal and seasonal significance. In the chapters which follow, special attention is devoted to the periods in which the religious myths were formulated and the greater gods came into prominence 18, while light is thrown on the beliefs and customs of the ancient people of Egypt by popular renderings of representative folk tales and metrical versions of selected songs and poems.
1 The Babylonian form is "shamash".
2 The Burden of Isis, Dennis, p. 54.
3 Osiris-Sokar is also "the mysterious one, he who is unknown to mankind", and the "hidden god" (The Burden of Isis, Dennis, pp. 53, 54).
4 Herodotus says: "The Pelasgians did not distinguish the gods by name or surname. . . . They called them gods, which by its etymology means 'disposers'" (fates).
5 The Burden of Isis (Wisdom of the East), James Teackle Dennis.
6 See Teutonic Myth and Legend.
7 There is no trace in Egypt of a "grandmother" or of a "great grandmother" like "Edda" of Iceland. With "the mother", however, these may represent a triad of nature spirits. A basis of Mediterranean beliefs is traceable in Norse mythology.
8 The Accadians also believed that the moon had prior existence to the sun.
9 The Burden of Isis, Dennis.
10 The Egyptians would have said "true lapis lazuli". The face of the Libyan goddess Neith was green. Isis was "the green one whose greenness is like the greenness of earth" (Brugsch).
11 Arthur of "the round table" was originally a giant, and, like other giants, became associated with the fairies. "Arthur's Seat", Edinburgh, is reminiscent of his xxxviii giant form. If there was once a king named Arthur, who was a popular hero, his name may have been given to a giant god originally nameless. The Eildon Hills giant was called Wallace.
12 Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, A. Wiedemann. In old Arabia the sun deity was female, and there are traces of a sun goddess among the earlier Hittites (H. Winckler, Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft; Berlin, 1907).
13 Ra, in one of the Isis temple chants, "hath produced calamity after the desire of thy (Osiris's) heart," and Osiris-Sokar is "the lord of fear who causeth himself to come into being". Sokar, who fused with Ra and Osiris, is one of the oldest Egyptian deities.
14 Oblong platform tombs which were constructed of limestone. The body was concealed in a secret chamber. See chapter VIII.
15 A History of Civilization in Palestine, R. A. S. Macalister.
16 'The Phrygian name of the father deity, also called "Bagaios" (Slav, bogu god). The roots "pa", "ap", "da", "ad", "ta", and "at" signify "father", while "ma", "am", "na", and "an" signify "mother".
17 The "soul and egg" myth is dealt with in Chapter V.
18 Aten worship is dealt with fully in its relation to primitive Egyptian myths in Chapter XXVI.