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Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity - The Religion of Lower Egypt


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The Religion of Lower Egypt

Fig. 76


After the fall of Thebes, after the conquest of Egypt by the Ethiopians, and after the disorders which followed thereupon, we find in about the year B.C. 700, a race of kings, who made Sais in the Delta their capital, sovereigns of all Egypt. After their rise, we note a considerable change in the Egyptian religion as it appears upon the more modern monuments. This may have arisen from any or all of three causes. First, during the late troublous centuries, while fewer monuments . were made, the religion of the nation may have been slowly undergoing a change, which now at length shows itself on the monuments. Or, secondly, as frailer records, such as wooden mummy cases and the papyri inclosed therein, have been saved to us in greater numbers, from these more modern times, while the older Theban records are mostly sculptures on the stone walls, it is very possible that a different class of sentiments may be thereby shown to us. Or, thirdly, the people of Lower Egypt, having always been somewhat of a different race from those of Upper Egypt, may have always had in many points a different religious opinion.

The western half of the Delta had received a considerable colony of Greek traders, and hence arose a mixed population, half Egyptian and half Greek; and in the eastern half of the Delta there was a yet larger number of Jewish and Phenician (sic) settlers, from the latter of whom sprung a population half Egyptian and half Phenician. Naucratis in the west was wholly a Greek city, and Sais, the western capital, was very much under Greek influence. On the other side, Isaiah tells us that there were as many as five cities on the Pelusiac, or eastern branch of the Nile, where Hebrew was the language spoken in the streets. Pelusium was wholly peopled by Phenician sailors, and so numerous were they in Memphis, that one part of the city was called the Tyrian quarter. Though the Greeks introduced many new arts into Egypt, they probably brought about no change in the religion; in religious matters they were always happy to learn from the Egyptians. Far otherwise was the case with the Phenicians; and many of the gods worshipped at Memphis were considered by Heroditus (sic) to be Phenician deities. Hence it is probable that the religion of Lower Egypt was largely covered with Phenician opinions. At any rate, from whichever of the above causes it arose, we now find more frequent and stronger proofs that the gods were worshipped in fear rather than in love; that the sacrifices were made less than they used to be in thankfulness for blessings received, and more often than formerly, as an atonement to turn aside punishment that is dreaded. Pthah, the great god of Memphis, is now an ugly dwarf, with an enlarged head (see Fig. 77), and he sometimes holds a club over his head, as if in the act of threatening his worshippers with vengeance (see Fig. 78). He is the father of a brood of children as ugly and malicious as himself. These are the Cabeiri, whose office it was to torture the wicked who may be found guilt by Osiris at the great trial on the day of judgment. Their name is derived from the Egyptian word KBA, punishment, and IRI, to do, Osiris, the judge, from OSH, a decree, and IRI, to do. As we have before mentioned, Typhon, the hippopotamus, the accuser in the trial-scene, page 51, was one of them. For the purpose of torturing their victims, they are armed with swords, snakes, and lizards, as in Fig. 79, where they accompany their father Pthah, with his enlarged head.

Fig. 77. Fig. 78.

Fig. 79.

One of them is represented in the form of a gibbet, armed with a sword, with a human head hanging from it. Near them is the bottomless pit and lake of fire, into which their victims are to he thrown; it is guarded by an ape sitting at each corner. The pit and these gods seem to be both mentioned in Job xxxiii. 22.

Yea, his soul draweth nigh unto the pit,
And his life to those that cause death.

The painted papyri, which have been found in the mummy-cases, show us these disagreeable imps and their victims in endless variety; but at the same time they always tell us, that the fortunate man, who had been rich enough to have his body embalmed in a costly manner, and the ceremonies on his funeral drawn and painted on the papyrus, has escaped their clutches. On the beautiful papyrus at Leyden, published by Dr. Leemans, we see that the deceased, or else the gods who befriend him, have succeeded in overcoming the eleven Cabeiri, and imprisoning them in as many cells. In the yet larger papyrus at Turin, published by Dr. Lepsius, these cells, or prisons, are shewn to be caverns, some underground, with trees on the top of them, and some under the valley of the river, with the Nile-gods seated on the top. In this papyrus, the Cabeiri are twenty-one or twenty-two in number, and Kneph, with the ram's head, would seem to be the god who helped the deceased to imprison them. On the monuments of the city of Sais the kings are not, like those of Thebes, presenting their offerings to Ammon Ra, but to these threatening Cabeiri. Fig. 80 represents Pharaoh Hophra on his knees, presenting two cones of baked clay, typical of his gifts, to one of these monsters, with a double bull's head, as an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the nation, to turn aside the threatened punishment. This fear of future punishment sometimes made the priests set the hated Typhon, the hippopotamus, who was one of the Cabeiri, at the head of a funereal tablet, as a divinity who was to be appeased with gifts. Herodotus tells us that these Cabeiri were more particularly the gods of the Phenician settlements in the Delta; but from the papyri we learn that their worship was common to all the natives of Lower Egypt. The Cynocephalus, or dog-faced monkey, plays an important part in the world below, and among the spirits of the dead. Four of these usually guard the bottomless pit of hell fire, sitting one at each corner of it, as in Fig. 79. On the papyri they join the souls of the departed in worshipping the sun, when on its journey under ground, after sinking into the arms of the ocean; and when they accompany the boa' of Ra, as on the tablet (Egypt Inscript., pl. 46), we must suppose that the god is then on its midnight passage through the valley of the shadow of death.

Fig. 80.


Another Phenician deity is the foreign Venus, chiefly worshipped at Memphis, who, unlike the Egyptian goddesses, is wholly unclothed. She is Athor under a new form, having her long hair falling in two locks on her shoulders, and having a basket on her head (see Fig. 81). She shows us a front view, and stands upon a lion that walks side-ways. She stands between two gods, each on the top of a small temple with a door. One is the Egyptian Chem, who, with his right arm raised, holds the whip. The other is a foreign god, with an Asiatic beard: he holds a spear in his right hand, and the character for life in his left hand. In place of the sacred Asp, the usual ornament of a god's forehead, he has a dog's or stag's head with two long ears, like that on the top of an Anubis-staff. The name of the goddess is Koun, the queen of Heaven; the name of the foreign god is Ranpo, Lord of Heaven, and king of the other gods. To Chem, the goddess presents a bunch of flowers, emblems of life, and to the foreign god two serpents, emblems of death, thus declaring the Gnostic and Manichean doctrine of Antitheses or oppositions between life and death, or good and evil, a doctrine of which we see many more traces in Lower Egypt than in the Thebaid. The goddess Koun, or Chiun, is mentioned by the prophet Amos, in chap. v. 26, where the Greek translators in the Septuagint version have changed her name into Raephan, which in Acts vii. 43 is spelled Remphan; and thus by a strange change we have these two Phenician deities. both mentioned in the same sentence. This god Ranpo is sculptured on other Egyptian monuments, with spear and shield in one hand, and a battle-axe in the other, with which he is prepared to strike down his terrified worshippers.

Fig. 81.

The cherubs that guarded the entrance of the garden of Eden, with flaming swords which turned on every side (Genesis iii. 24.), were perhaps copied from these Cabeiri; but we must not class with these enemies of man the cherubs which ornamented the Holy of Holies in Solomon's temple (2 Chron. v. 8).

The goddess Anaita, who is mentioned by Strabo as a Persian goddess, was another divinity, whom the people of Memphis supplicated to withhold her punishments. She wears the crown of Osiris, and at the bottom of the tablet, Fig. 81, p. 64, she is threatening to destroy with her battleaxe the worshippers who have covered her altar with their various offerings. But the human mind, when it has created for itself so much to be feared, by a natural effort creates for itself also a protector. At Sais, this protector was the goddess Neith, to whom the worshipper turned in love and hope, when he had frightened himself with the belief that even the hated Typhon might take the place of his judge, and that Anaita and Ranpo were waiting to attack him, and the Cabeiri to torture him and thrust him into the pit of fire. Every king of Sais professed that he was beloved by Neith, as the kings of Thebes said they were beloved by Amun-Ra. The people of Lower Egypt lived under the shadow of her wings (see Fig. 76, page 59), as the people of Upper Egypt lived under the winged sun (see Fig. 1, page 1).

Thus we see that in Lower Egypt the priests taught far less worthy views of their gods than had been formerly held in Upper Egypt; and it is of the first importance to remark that the worse religion belonged to the less civilised people. Love for the gods had been held by the freer and nobler race of Thebans, while fear alone was felt by the more slavish race in the Delta. The greater ignorance which led them to see no cause for gratitude towards those beings which they fancied were the rulers of the world, and authors of their lives, may be traced even in the lessened excellence of the sculpture.

It is to the later times of Egyptian history--perhaps to the five centuries immediately before the Christian era--that the religious opinions contained in the funereal papyri chiefly belong. The roll of papyrus buried with the mummy often describes the funeral, and then goes on to, the return of the soul to the body, the resurrection, the various trials and difficulties which the deceased will meet and overcome in the next world, and the Garden of Paradise in which he awaits the day, of judgment, the trial on that day; and it then shows the punishment which would have awaited him if he had been found guilty. The papyrus is five, ten, twenty, or even sixty feet in length. It is divided into chapters of hieratic writing, each headed with a picture. First, we see the grief for his death. The men hold up their hands in prayer, the women throw dust upon their heads, and all beat their breasts. The mummy is placed in a boat and ferried across the sacred lake. The goddesses Isis and Nephthys, in the boat with it, hang over it in grief. The procession moves forward to the temple, in front of which stand two obelisks. The priests carry a variety of standards, each an image of a god on a pole, and lead with them an animal for the sacrifice. In front of the temple a bountiful offering is made of food, birds, beasts, fishes, fruits, bread, and wine.. There the mummy is received with the honours due to such costly gifts, and is placed in its tomb, by the side of which stands the tombstone. Then begin the events of the next life, in a series of four pictures. In the first, the deceased, in the boat of Ra, on his knees before the threefold Horus, presents his offerings to these gods. In the second, he joins his wife in worshipping the sun, which is shown to be in its place in the heavens by the rays of light which it sheds upon the worshippers. In the third, the sun sheds no rays; it is beneath the earth in its passage from the place of setting to the place of its rising. It is upheld by a figure of the ocean, and is worshipped by, the souls of the deceased and his wife in the form of birds, and by four apes, the usual inhabitants of hell. In the fourth picture a priest presents to him and his wife fire and water, as divine honours. Before his journey forward headdresses his prayers to the various gods, and then enters upon his labours. He attacks with spear in hand the crocodiles, lizards, scorpions, and snakes which beset his path, and passing through these dark regions he at length reaches the land of Amenti, whose goddess is a hawk standing upon a perch. Here the sun's rays cheer his steps, and he meets among other wonders the head of Horus rising out of a Lotus flower, the god Pthah, the phoenix, his own soul in the form of a bird with human head, and the goddess Isis as a serpent of goodness. The soul then returns to the mummy, and puts life into its mouth. He then enters upon his farm, floating upon one of the canals in a boat, and passing by the landmark at its boundary. In this farm he ploughs, he sows the seed, he reaps the corn, and presents his offerings to the god of the Nile who fills the canals with water. Then follow his prayers to numerous gods and temples. At length arrives the day of judgment, and he is brought before the god Osiris and his forty-two assessors, to have his conduct weighed in the great scales, as described in page 51. After the trial we are shown the lake of fire into which the wicked are to be thrown (see page 72), and the gods of punishment, the Cabeiri, with swords in their hands (see Fig. 79). These, however, do him no injury, they are in his case overcome, and each safely imprisoned in a cell under ground, or under the river Nile.

Sometimes the tree of life, with the goddess Neith in its branches, is one of the trees in the paradise which the deceased enters. Sometimes he only reaches this happy land after his trial and acquittal, instead of being allowed to wait there until the day of judgment. Sometimes we see more of the punishment of the wicked, their heads are hanging from posts, their bodies imprisoned in caves, or they are awaiting their punishment with their arms tied behind them. Some papyri explain the transmigration of souls, as before mentioned, and show us the good man within the body of a ram, and the wicked man driven away in the form of a pig. (See Papyri in the British Museum.)

The favourable verdicts of the assessors explain to us that in the Egyptian religion, Osiris, like an earthly judge, (does not require any virtuous acts of the deceased, but only inquires whether he has broken any of the forty-two commandments, and committed any of the forty-two sins therein forbidden. A man was thought virtuous and good if he had avoided forbidden sin. The code of morals had not yet risen so high as to require active goodness of any man.

The religious earnestness of the Egyptians was unfortunately accompanied with the same fault that it carries with it in modern times--namely, religious intolerance, from which Greeks and Romans were far more free. The people of Marea and Apis, on the banks of the Lake Mareotis, who were Libyians, and did not hold the religious opinions of the Egyptians, saw nothing wicked in eating beef, and did not like to be forbidden to kill a cow in their own cities. They pleaded that they were not Egyptians. But they could obtain no religious toleration from their rulers; they might kill and eat buffaloes, whether male or female, but they were not allowed to keep cows for their own eating, because in drinking out of their lake they drank the sacred waters of the Nile. In some cases the Egyptians seem to have wished even to force their religion upon unwilling neighbours. When king Shishank had defeated Rehoboam, King of Judah, and made Jeroboam king of the northern tribes of Israel, it would seem that the golden calves set up by both sovereigns were acts of homage to the Egyptian conqueror. The spread of the emblems of Egyptian religion in Etruria, and in the islands of Cyprus, Malta, and Sardinia, must be owing to the peaceable intercourse by trade, through the vessels of the Phenicians, rather than to any act of violence; and, indeed, it was again and again remarked by the Greeks, that such was the serious nature of the Egyptian superstitions, that they conquered and put down every other superstition that they came near.

The Egyptian's opinion of the creation was the growth of his own river's bank. The thoughtful man, who saw the Nile every year lay a body of solid manure upon his field, was able to measure against the walls of the old temples that the ground was slowly but certainly rising. An increase of the earth was being brought about by the river. Hence he readily believed that the world itself had of old been formed "out of water, and by means of water," as described in 2 Peter iii. 5. The philosophers were nearly of the same opinion. They held that matter was itself eternal, like the other gods, and that our world, in the beginning, before it took any shape upon itself, was like thin mud, or a mass of water containing all things that were afterwards to be brought forth out of it. When the water had by its divine will separated itself from the earth, then the great Ra, the sun, sent down his quickening heat, and plants and animals came forth out of the wet land, as the insects are spawned out of the fields, before the eyes of the husbandman, every autumn after the Nile's overflow has retreated. The crafty priests of the Nile, who had lived in confinement as Monks, declared that they had themselves visited and dwelt in the caverns beneath the river, where these treasures, while yet unshaped, were kept in store and waiting to come into being. And on the days sacred to the Nile, boys, the children of priestly families, were every year dedicated to the blue river-god that they might spend their youth in monastic retirement, and as it was said, in these caverns beneath his waves.

Fig. 82.

That some of these were very early Egyptian opinions we learn from our finding traces of them in the oldest of the Hebrew Scriptures, though the writers there are not so far warped by them as to rob the Creator of the praise for his own works. The author of the book of Genesis tells us that the Almighty formed our earth and its inhabitants by dividing the land from the water, and then commanding them both to bring forth living creatures; and again one of the Psalmists says that his substance, while yet imperfect, was by the Creator curiously wrought in the lowest depths of the earth. The Hebrew writer, however, is never misled, so far as to think that any part of the creation was its own creator. But in the Egyptian philosophy sunshine and the river Nile are themselves the divine agents; and hence fire and water received divine honours, as the two purest of the elements, and every day when the temple of Serapis in Alexandria was opened, the singer standing on the steps of the portico sprinkled water over the marble floor while he held forth fire to the people (see Fig. 82), and though he and most of his hearers were Greeks, he called upon the god in the Egyptian language. A vase of water, or sometimes of wine, and metal cup containing a small charcoal fire, Were often presented to the altar, as figurative of divine honours (see Fig. 60).

The waters were also thought to be peopled by some kind of ghosts or spiritual beings, and we see them represented among the sculptures on the sarcophagus of Oimenepthah I. (see Fig. 82a). They are in the form of men, but whether they were thought at any time to come out of the water and walk the earth does not appear. That they were natives of the water, and not new comers, we learn from the Book of job, which is full of Egyptian opinions. We there read in the Hebrew, ch. xxvi. 5, that these "Ghosts are born beneath the waters, and are the inhabitants thereof."

Fig. 82a.


The sarcophagus of Oimenepthah represents the earth as a round plain, encircled by the body of Osiris, and floating in the ocean, while the goddess Neith, the heavens, stands upon the head of Osiris to increase the height, and thus holds up the sun.

At the same time a large figure of the ocean rises out of the water, and holds up with his two hands the boat of Ra, in which the sun is carried. This opinion about the form of the earth was also held by the Hebrew writers, and in Proverbs viii. 27, we read in the Hebrew that wisdom was present "when God fixed the arch upon the face of the deep"; and through those waters under the earth the Egyptians, like most other ancient people, believed that the sun passed during the hours of night.

Among the Egyptian festivals was one called the Feast of Lamps, when upon a night in winter the houses and temples were lighted up with numerous lights. This was more particularly celebrated at Sais, in honour of the goddess Neith; but those who could not come up to that city to keep the festival burnt their own lamps at home (Herodotus ii. 62). The Jews seem to have borrowed this festival. It was the first that Judas Maccabus had an opportunity of celebrating in the Temple after he had gained possession of Jerusalem. It was the festival with which he recommenced the Temple service in the year B.C. 164., after it had been interrupted; and hence the Feast of Candles was more often called the Feast of Dedication (Josephus, Antiq. xii. 7). The Christians would seem to have taken the custom from the Egyptians as much as from the Jews, as the purpose of our Candlemas day, which is to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary, more resembles the worship of the goddess Neith than the purification of the Temple by Judas Maccabus.

Pit of Fire.

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