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Egyptian Myth and Legend Chapter 5, Racial Myths in Egypt and Europe


With Historical Narrative, Notes on Race Problems, Comparative Beliefs, etc.

Donald Mackenzie

Gresham Publishing Co., London



Racial Myths in Egypt and Europe

Worship of Animals--Possessed by Spirits of Good and Evil--Reptiles as Destroyers and Protectors----Pigs of Set and Osiris--The Moon Eater--Horus Solar and Storm Myth--The Devil Pig in Egypt and Scotland--Contrast with Gaulish, Irish, and Norse Beliefs--Animal Conflicts for Mastery of Herd--Love God a Pig--Why Eels were not eaten--The Sacred Bull--Irish and Egyptian Myths--Corn Spirits--The Goose Festival in Europe--The Chaos Egg--Giant's Soul Myth--Nilotic and other Versions--Wild Ass as Symbol of Good and Evil.

ONE of the most interesting phases of Nilotic religion was the worship of animals. Juvenal ridiculed the Egyptians for this particular practice in one of his satires, and the early fathers of the Church regarded it as proof of the folly of pagan religious ideas. Some modern-day apologists, on the other hand, have leapt to the other extreme by suggesting that the ancient philosophers were imbued with a religious respect for life in every form, and professed a pantheistic creed. Our task here, however, is to investigate rather than to justify or condemn ancient Egyptian beliefs. We desire to get, if possible, at the Egyptian point of view. That being so, we must recognize at the outset that we are dealing with a confused mass of religious practices and conceptions of Egyptian and non-Egyptian origin, which accumulated during a vast period of time and were perpetuated as much by custom as by conviction. The average Egyptian of the later Dynasties might have been as little able to account for his superstitious regard for the crocodile or the serpent as is the society lady of to-day to explain her dread of being one of a dinner party of thirteen, or of spilling salt at table; he worshipped animals because they had always been worshipped, and, although originally only certain representatives of a species were held to be sacred, he was not unwilling to show reverence for the species as a whole.

We obtain a clue which helps to explain the origin of animal worship in Egypt in an interesting Nineteenth-Dynasty papyrus preserved in the British Museum. This document contains a calendar in which lucky and unlucky days are detailed in accordance with the ideas of ancient seers. Good luck, we gather, comes from the beneficent deities, and bad luck is caused by the operations of evil spirits. On a particular date demons are let loose, and the peasant is warned not to lead an ox with a rope at any time during the day, lest one of them should enter the animal and cause it to gore him. An animal, therefore, was not feared or worshipped for its own sake, but because it was liable to be possessed by a good or evil spirit.

The difference between good and evil spirits was that the former could be propitiated or bargained with, so that benefits might be obtained, while the latter ever remained insatiable and unwilling to be reconciled. This primitive conception is clearly set forth by Isocrates, the Greek orator, who said: "Those of the gods who are the sources to us of good things have the title of Olympians; those whose department is that of calamities and punishments have harsher titles. To the first class both private persons and states erect altars and temples; the second is not worshipped either with prayers or burnt sacrifices, but in their case we perform ceremonies of riddance".

"Ceremonies" of riddance are, of course, magical ceremonies. It was by magic that the Egyptians warded off the attacks of evil spirits. Ra's journey in the sun bark through the perilous hour-divisions of night was accomplished by the aid of spells which thwarted the demons of evil and darkness in animal or reptile form.

In Egypt both gods and demons might possess the same species of animals or reptiles. The ox might be an incarnation of the friendly Isis, or of the demon which gored the peasant. Serpents and crocodiles were at once the protectors and the enemies of mankind. The dreaded Apep serpent symbolized everything that was evil and antagonistic to human welfare; but the beneficent mother goddess Uazit of Buto, who shielded Horus, was also a serpent, and serpents were worshipped as defenders of households; images of them were hung up for "luck" or protection, as horseshoes are in our own country even at the present day; the serpent amulet was likewise a protective agency., like the serpent stone of the Gauls and the familiar "lucky pig" which is still worn as a charm.

In certain parts of Egypt the crocodile was also worshipped, and was immune from attack; 1 in others it was ruthlessly hunted down. As late as Roman times the people of one nome waged war against those of another because their sacred animals were being slain by the rival religious organization.

Here we touch upon the tribal aspect of animal worship. Certain animals or reptiles were regarded as the protectors of certain districts. A particular animal might be looked upon by one tribe as an incarnation of their deity, and by another as the incarnation of their Satan. The black pig, for instance, was associated by the Egyptians with Set, who was the god of a people who conquered and oppressed them in pre-Dynastic times. Horus is depicted standing on the back of the pig and piercing its head with a lance; its legs and jaws are fettered with chains. But the pig was also a form of Osiris, "the good god".

Set was identified with the Apep serpent of night and storm, and in certain myths the pig takes the place of the serpent. It was the Set pig, for instance, that fed upon the waning moon, which was the left eye of Horus. How his right eye, the sun, was once blinded is related in a Heliopolitan myth. Horus sought, it appears, to equal Ra, and desired to see all things that had been created. Ra delivered him a salutory lesson by saying: "Behold the black pig". Horus looked, and immediately one of his eyes (the sun) was destroyed by a whirlwind of fire. Ra said to the other gods: "The pig will be abominable to Horus". For that reason pigs were never sacrificed to him. 2 Ra restored the injured eye, and created for Horus two horizon brethren who would guard him against thunderstorms and rain.

The Egyptians regarded the pig as an unclean animal. Herodotus relates that if they touched it casually, they at once plunged into water to purify themselves. 3 Swineherds lost caste, and were not admitted to the temples. Pork was never included among the meat offerings to the dead. In Syria the pig was also "taboo". In the Highlands, even in our own day, there survives a strong prejudice against pork, and the black pig is identified with the devil.

On the other hand, the Gauls, who regarded the pig as sacred, did not abstain from pork. Like their kinsmen, the Achns, too, they regarded swineherds as important personages; these could even become kings. The Scandinavian heroes in Valhal feast upon swine's flesh, and the boar was identified with Frey, the corn god. In the Celtic (Irish) Elysium presided over by Dagda, the corn god, as the Egyptian Paradise was presided over by Osiris, there was always "one pig alive and another ready roasted". 4 Dagda's son, Angus, the love god, the Celtic Khonsu, had a herd of swine, and their chief was the inevitable black pig.

In The Golden Bough, Professor Frazer shows that the pig was tabooed because it was at one time a sacred animal identified with Osiris. Once a year, according to Herodotus, pigs were sacrificed in Egypt to the moon and to Osiris. The moon pig was eaten, but the pigs offered to Osiris were slain in front of house doors and given back to the swineherds from whom they were purchased.

Like the serpent and the crocodile, the pig might be either the friend or the enemy of the corn god. At sowing time it rendered service by clearing the soil of obnoxious roots and weeds which retard the growth of crops. When, however, the agriculturists found the--

Snouted wild boar routing tender corn,

they apparently identified it with the enemy of Osiris--it slew the corn god. The boar hunt then ensued as a matter of course. We can understand, therefore, why the Egyptians sacrificed swine to Osiris because, as Plutarch says, "not that which is dear to the gods but that which is contrary is fit to be sacrificed". The solution of the problem may be that at sowing time the spirit of Osiris entered the boar, and that at harvest the animal was possessed by the spirit of Set.

This conclusion leads us back to the primitive conception of the Great Mother Deity. In the archaic Scottish folk tale, which is summarized in our Introduction, she is the enemy of mankind. 5 But her son, the lover of the spirit of summer--he is evidently the prototype of the later love god--is a beneficent giant; he fights against his mother, who separated him from his bride and sought to destroy all life. Ra similarly desired to slay "his enemies", because he created evil as well as good. Seb, the Egyptian earth god, was the father of Osiris, "the good god", and of Set, the devil; they were "brothers". Osiris was a boar, and Set was a boar. The original "battle of the gods" may, therefore, have been the conflict between the two boars for the mastery of the herd--a conflict which also symbolized the warfare between evil and good, winter and summer. Were not the rival forces of Nature created together at the beginning? The progeny of the Great Father, or the Great Mother, included evil demons as well as good gods.

The Greek Adonis was slain by a boar; Osiris was slain by Set, the black boar; the Celtic Diarmid was slain by a boar which was protected by a Hag who appears to be identical with the vengeful and stormy Scottish Earth Mother. The boar was "taboo" to the worshippers of Adonis and Osiris; in Celtic folklore "bonds" are put upon Diarmid not to hunt the boar. Evidently Adonis, Osiris, and Diarmid represented the "good" boars.

These three deities were love gods; the love god was identified with the moon, and the primitive moon spirit was the son of the Great Mother; the Theban Khonsu was the son of Mut; the Nubian Thoth was the son of Tefnut. Now Set, the black boar of evil, devoured the waning moon, and in doing so he devoured his brother Osiris. When the Egyptians, therefore, sacrificed a pig to the moon, and feasted upon it like Set, they ate the god. They did not eat the pig sacrificed to Osiris, because apparently it represented the enemy of the god; they simply slew it, and thus slew Set.

It would appear that there were originally two moon pigs--the "lucky pig" of the waxing moon and the black pig of the waning moon. These were the animal forms of the moon god and of the demon who devoured the moon--the animal form of the love god and the thwarted rebel god; they also symbolized growth and decay--Osiris was growth, and Set symbolized the slaughter of growth: he killed the corn god.

The primitive lunar myth is symbolized in the legend which tells that Set hunted the boar in the Delta marshes. He set out at full moon, just when the conflict between the demon and the lunar deity might be expected to begin, and he found the body of Osiris, which he broke up into fourteen parts--a suggestion of the fourteen phases of lunar decline. We know that Set was the moon-eating pig. The black boar of night therefore hunts, slays, and devours the white boar of the moon. But the generative organ of Osiris is thrown into the river, and is swallowed by a fish: similarly Set flings the wrenched-out "eye" of Horus into the Nile.

Now the fish was sacred in Egypt 6 . It had a symbolic significance; it was a phallic symbol. The Great Mother of Mendes, another form of Isis, is depicted with a fish upon her head. Priests were not permitted to eat fish, and the food which was "taboo" to the priests was originally "taboo" to all the Egyptians. In fact, certain fish were not eaten during the Eighteenth Dynasty and later, and fish were embalmed. Those fish which were included among articles of dietary were brought to the table with fins and tails removed. The pig which was eaten sacrificially once a year had similarly its tall cut off. Once a year, on the ninth day of the month of Thoth, the Egyptians ate fried fish at their house doors: the priests offered up their share by burning them. Certain fish were not eaten by the ancient Britons. The eel is still abhorred in Scotland: it was sacred and tabooed in Egypt also.'

Osiris was worshipped at Memphis in the form of the bull Apis, Egyptian Hapi, which was known to the Greeks as "Serapis", their rendering of Asar-Hapi (Osiris-Apis). This sacred animal was reputed to be of miraculous birth, like the son of the Great Mother deity. "It was begotten", Plutarch was informed, "by a ray of generative light flowing from the moon." "Apis", said Herodotus, "was a young black bull whose mother can have no other offspring." It was known by its marks; it had "on its forehead a white triangular spot, on its back an eagle, a beetle lump under its tongue, while the hair of its tail was double". Plutarch said that "on account of the great resemblance which the Egyptians imagine between Osiris and the moon, its more bright and shining parts being shadowed and obscured by those that are of darker hue, they call the Apis the living image of Osiris". The bull, Herodotus says, was "a fair and beautiful image of the soul of Osiris". Diodorus similarly states that Osiris manifested himself to men through successive ages as Apis. "The soul of Osiris migrated into this animal", he explains.

That this bull represented the animal which obtained mastery of the herd is suggested by the popularity of bull fights at the ancient sports; there are several representations on the ancient tombs of Egyptian peasants, carrying staves, urging bulls to battle one against another. Worshippers appear to have perpetuated the observance of the conflict between the male animals in the mock fights at temples. Herodotus relates that when the votaries of the deity presented themselves at the temple entrance they were armed with staves. Men with staves endeavoured to prevent their admission, and a combat ensued between the two parties, "in which many heads were broken, and, I should suppose," adds Herodotus, "many lives lost, although this the Egyptians positively deny". Apparently Set was the thwarted male animal--that is, the demon with whom the Egyptianized Set (Sutekh) was identified.

The sacred Apis bull might either be allowed to die a natural death, or it was drowned when its age was twenty-eight years--a suggestion of the twenty-eight phases of the moon and the violent death of Osiris. The whole nation mourned for the sacred animal; its body was mummified and laid in a tomb with much ceremony. Mariette, the French archlogist, discovered the Eighteenth-Dynasty tombs of the Memphite bulls in 1851. The sarcophagi which enclosed the bodies weighed about 58 tons each. One tomb which he opened had been undisturbed since the time of the burial, and the footprints of the mourners were discoverable after a lapse of 3000 years. 7



top: left to right: Cat (Bast); Urs, with horns; Shrine with Sokar Hawk; Ape (Thoth); Ibis (Thoth).
bottom, left to right: Apis Bull; Fish (Lepidotus); Jackal (Anubis); Snake (form of Uazit); Cat with Kittens (Bast).


(British Museum)

After the burial the priests set out to search for the successor of the old bull, and there was great rejoicing when one was found; its owner was compensated with generous gifts of gold. In the Anpu-Bata story, which is evidently a version of the Osiris myth, the elder brother is honoured and becomes rich after he delivers the Bata bull to the Pharaoh. It will be noted that the Osiris soul was believed to be in the animal's liver, which was eaten--here we have again the ceremony of eating the god. Before the bull was transferred to its temple it was isolated for forty days, and was seen during that period by women only.

At Heliopolis the soul of Osiris entered the Mnevis bull. This sacred animal was evidently a rival to Apis. Ammianus Marcellinus says that Apis was dedicated to the moon and Mnevis to the sun.

In Upper Egypt the sacred bull was Bakh (Bacis) a form of Mentu; it was ultimately identified with Ra.

The worship of Apis ultimately triumphed, and in Roman times became general all over Egypt.

Like the Osiris boar, the Osiris bull was identified with the corn spirit. But its significance in this regard is not emphasized in the Egyptian texts. That may have been because different tribes regarded different animals as harvest deities. The association of Apis with Ptah is therefore of interest. We have suggested that Ptah was originally worshipped by a people of mountain origin. In the great caves of southern Palestine there survive rude scratchings of cows and bulls, suggesting that this pastoral people venerated their domesticated animals. In Europe the corn spirit was identified with the bull and cow principally by the Hungarians, the Swiss, and the Prussians, and by some of the French, for the "corn bull" was slain at Bordeaux. On the other hand, it may be that in the Irish legend regarding the conflict between the Brown Bull of Ulster and the White-horned Bull of Connaught we have a version of a very ancient myth which was connected with Osiris in Egypt. Both Irish animals were of miraculous birth; their mothers were fairy cows.

Like the Egyptian Anpu-Bata story, the Irish legend is characterized by belief in the transmigration of souls. It relates that the rival bulls were originally swineherds. One served Bodb, the fairy king of Munster, who was a son of Dagda, the Danann corn god; the other served Ochall Ochne, the fairy king of Connaught, the province occupied by the enemies of the beneficent Danann deities. The two herds fought one against another. "Then, the better to carry on their quarrel, they changed themselves into two ravens and fought for a year; next they turned into water monsters, which tore one another for a year in the Suir and a year in the Shannon; then they became human again, and fought as champions; and ended by changing into eels. One of these eels went into the River Cruind in Cualgne in Ulster, where it was swallowed by a cow belonging to Daire of Cualgne; and the other into the spring of Uaran Garad, in Connaught, where it passed into the belly of a cow of Queen Medb's. Thus were born those two famous beasts, the Brown Bull of Ulster and the White-horned Bull of Connaught." 8 The brown bull was victorious in the final conflict; it afterwards went mad, burst its heart with bellowing, and fell dead. In this myth we have the conflict between rival males, suggested in the Osiris-Set boar legend and the mock fights at the Egyptian bull temple.

The sacred cow was identified with Isis, Nepthys, Hathor, and Nut. Isis was also fused with Taurt, the female hippopotamus, who was goddess of maternity and was reputed to be the mother of Osiris. Even the crocodile was associated with the worship of the corn god; in one of the myths this reptile recovers the body of Osiris from the Nile.

Bast, another Great Mother who was regarded as a form of Isis, was identified with the cat, an animal which was extremely popular as a household pet in Egypt. Herodotus relates that when a house went on fire the Egyptians appeared to be occupied with no thought but that of preserving their cats. These animals were prone to leap into the flames, and when a family lost a cat in such circumstances there was universal sorrow. A Roman soldier was once mobbed and slain because he killed a household cat. 9 The cat was identified in France with the corn spirit: the last portion of grain which was reaped was called "the cat's tail". 10

We have referred in the Introduction to the goose which laid the sun egg. Apparently this bird was at one time sacred. Although it was a popular article of diet in ancient Egypt, and was favoured especially by the priests, it was probably eaten chiefly in the winter season. The goose and the duck were sacred in Abyssinia, where the Mediterranean type has been identified in fusion with Semitic, Negroid, and other types. In the Highlands of Scotland the goose was eaten, until recently, on Christmas Day only. Throughout England it was associated with Michaelmas. "If you eat goose at Michaelmas", runs an old saying, "you will never want money all the year round." The bird was evidently identified with the corn spirit. In Shropshire the shearing of the last portion of grain was referred to as "cutting the gander's neck". When all the corn was gathered into a stackyard in Yorkshire an entertainment was given which was called "The Inning Goose". During the reign of Henry IV the French subjects of the English king called the harvest festival the "Harvest Gosling". The Danes had also a goose for supper after harvest.

The sun god Ra, of Egypt, was supposed to have been hatched from the egg which rose from the primordial deep. This belief is reminiscent of the folk tale of the European giant who hid his soul in an egg, as Anpu hid his soul in the blossom of the acacia.

In one Scottish version of the ancient mythical story the giant's soul is in a stump of a tree, a hare, a salmon, a duck, and an egg; in another it is in a bull, a ram, a goose, and an egg. Ptah was credited with making the sun egg which concealed his own soul, or the soul of Ra. So was Khn These artisan gods appear to be of common origin (see Chapter XIV); they became giants in their fusion with the primitive earth god, who was symbolized as a gander, while they were also identified with the ram and the bull. Khnreceived offerings of fish, so that a sacred fish may be added. Anpu's soul passed from the blossom to a bull, and then to a tree. It may be that in these folk tales we have renderings of the primitive myth of a pastoral people which gave origin to the Egyptian belief in the egg associated with Ra, Ptah, and Khn In the Book of the Dead reference is made to the enemies of Ra, "who have cursed that which is in the egg". The pious were wont to declare: "I keep watch over the egg of the Great Cackler" (the chaos goose), or, according to another reading: "I am the egg which is in the Great Cackler" (Budge). Set, the earth deity, was believed to have flown through the air at the beginning in the form of the chaos goose. The Celtic deities likewise appeared to mankind as birds.

The hare was identified with a god of the underworld. Doves and pigeons were sacred; the ibis was an incarnation of Thoth, the hawk of Horus, and the swallow of Isis. The mythical phnix, with wings partly of gold and partly of crimson, was supposed to fly from Arabia to Heliopolis once every five hundred years. It was reputed to spring from the ashes of the parent bird, which thus renewed its youth.

The frog was sacred, and the frog goddess Hekt was a goddess of maternity. Among the gods identified with the ram were Amon and Min and the group of deities resembling Ptah. Anubis was the jackal. Mut, the Theban Great Mother, and the primitive goddess Nekhebat were represented by the vulture. The shrew mouse was sacred to Uazit, who escaped from Set in this form when she was the protector of Horus, son of Isis. The dog-faced ape was a form of Thoth; the lion was a form of Aker, an old, or imported, earth god.

There were two wild asses in Egyptian mythology, and they represented the good and evil principles. One was Set, and the other the sun ass, which was chased by the night serpent. Although the souls of the departed, according to the Book of the Dead, boasted that they drove back the "Eater of the Ass" (the serpent which devoured the sun); they also prayed that they would "smite the ass" (the devil ass) "and crush the serpent". When Set was driven out of Egypt he took flight on the back of the night ass, which was another form of the night serpent. Set was also the Apep serpent and the "roaring serpent", which symbolized the tempest.

Herodotus has recorded that although the number of beasts in ancient Egypt was comparatively small, both those which were wild and those which were tame were regarded as sacred. They were fed upon fish, and ministered to by hereditary lay priests and priestesses. "In the presence of the animals", the Greek historian wrote, "the inhabitants of the cities perform their vows. They address themselves as supplicants to the deity who is believed to be manifested by the animal in whose presence they are. . . . It is a capital offence to kill one of these animals."


1 Snake worshippers in India are careful not to injure or offend a serpent, and believe that "the faithful" are never stung.
2 Evidently because the sun cult was opposed to lunar rites which included the sacrifice of pigs.
3 Before the Greeks sacrificed a young pig, in connection with the mysteries of Demeter and Dionysos, they washed it and themselves in the sea. Plutarch: Vit. Phoc. xxviii.
4 Celtic Myth and Legend, p. 136. This is a tribal phase of pig worship, apparently, of different character to that which obtained in Egypt. It may be that the reverence for the good pig was greater than the hatred of the black and evil pig.
5 Ghosts also were enemies. A dead wife might cause her husband to be stricken with disease. Budge's Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, vol. ii, p. 211.
6 The Egyptian sacred fish were the Oxyrhinchus, Lepidotus, Latus, and Phagrus.
7 Apis worship was of great antiquity. Reference is made to the Apis priests in the Fourth Dynasty.
8 Celtic Myth and Legend, pp. 164-5.
9 Similarly British soldiers got into trouble recently for shooting sacred pigeons.
10 In Ireland the cat deity was the god Cairbre cinn cait, "of the cat's head". He was a god of the Fir Bolg, the enemies of the Gaulish Danann people.


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