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Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity - The Religion Under the Romans


The Religion Under the Romans

Fig. 86.--Horus as the vault of Heaven.

DURING the two or three centuries before the Christian era, Osiris the judge of the dead, in his character of Osiris-Apis, or Serapis, had risen to a higher rank in the Egyptian mythology, and had been personified by the Ptolemies in Alexandria as the chief of the gods. He had at the same time become more a god to be feared, of which we shall see clearer proof when we come to speak of the Gnostics, when he will appear as the god of evil, under the form of the wicked serpent. This seems to have turned the worshippers towards other gods, who might shield them from his severity and wrath; and it led them to seek another judge, whom they might look upon with love. Such friends they found in the goddess Isis and her son Horus, who then took that place in their affections which, under the kings of Sais, had been held by the goddess Neith. Horus, in one of his three characters, that of the Scarabus, takes the place of Amun-Ra, the all-seeing god; and we find the vault of heaven represented not by the outstretched wings of either that god of Thebes, or of Neith, the queen of Sais, but by the two arms of Horus, with the head hanging downwards, as the Almighty is painted by some of the early Italian masters (see Fig. 86). At the same time, either alone, or in his three characters of Horus the King, Horus the Scarabeus, and Horus-Ra, he sits in the sacred barge, which used to be filled with either Amun-Ra or Kneph-Ra. To Horus, with the head of a hawk, is then given the two sceptres of Osiris, and he is sometimes worshipped on the funereal papyri as the judge of the dead in place of his father. The sinner hopes to find more mercy at the judgment seat of the son. He then even rises over his father, and becomes the more important of the two in the minds of the worshippers. On a mummy case in the British Museum, where Horus is seated on the throne, holding the two sceptres of the judge, Osiris and Isis are standing before him as gods of lower rank, and as he is spoken of by the writer of Deuteronomy, who says, chap. xxxiii. 27, "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms."

Fig. 87.

At times he forms one of a trinity in unity, with Ra and Osiris, as in Fig. 87, a god with the two sceptres of Osiris, the hawk's head of Horus, and the sun of Ra. This is the god described to Eusebius, who tells us that when the oracle was consulted about the divine nature, by those who wished to understand this complicated mythology, it had answered, "I am Apollo and Lord and Bacchus," or, to use the Egyptian names, "I am Ra and Horus and Osiris." Another god, in the form of a porcelain idol to be worn as a charm, shows us Horus as one of a trinity in unity, in name, at least, agreeing with that afterwards adopted by the Christians--namely, the Great God, the Son God, and the Spirit God. In Fig. 88, the ugly grotesque human body is that of the great Pthah, the hawk's wings are those of the child Horus, and the ram's head is that of Kneph, the Spirit. But the favourite character of Horus is that of the Son. Instead of being a crowned king, the avenger of his Fig. 88. father, he becomes a young man, or rather a child, with a finger on his mouth, as if he had not yet learned to talk, as in Fig. 89. He is sometimes seated, as a baby, within the leaves of a lotus flower representing the rising sun; and even while a baby, holds the sceptres of Osiris as judge of the (lead. Among the porcelain images, made to be worn as charms, and to be tied round the neck with a string, he is often a child in his mother's arms (see Fig. 90).

Fig. 88


Fig. 89

Fig. 90

This worship of Osiris, or Serapis, as the wrathful god to be feared, and of Isis and Horus, as the merciful gods to be loved, was at its height when Antony and Cleopatra were conquered by Augustus, and Egypt became a Roman province. With the obelisks, the statues and the gold, which were carried to Rome, were at the same time taken the Egyptian superstitions, and by many they were as much valued. Horace tells us that the beggar at the corner of the street in Rome in his time would ask the passers by for alms in the name of the holy Osiris; and Juvenal says that the painters of that city almost lived upon the goddess Isis, such was the popularity of that most winning form of worship, which is still continued there in the pictures of the Virgin Mary, with the infant Jesus in her arms.

The spread of Egyptian opinions in Rome was so rapid under Augustus that it was felt to be of political importance, and it alarmed that prudent Emperor. The Romans by no means equalled the Greeks in their indifference to all religions and their toleration of all. Augustus made a law that no Egyptian ceremony should be allowed within either the city or the suburbs of Rome. But his law was without much effect, as at the same time Virgil, the court poet, was teaching the Egyptian millennium, or the resurrection of the dead when the thousand years are ended, and borrowing visions of the infernal regions from the Egyptian funereal papyri. Tiberius repeated the same law; but so little did it check the inroad of Egyptian superstition, that when the secular games were celebrated in Rome under the Emperor Claudius, the fabulous Egyptian bird, the phoenix, was said to have arrived there. Nero openly patronised Apollonius of Tyrana, who, under the guidance of the Egyptian priests, and by the direct appointment of the Egyptian sacred tree, professed himself a teacher from heaven. Vespasian was so far pleased with the Egyptians that, when in Alexandria, he undertook, with their approval, to work miracles. His son, Domitian, wholly gave way to public opinion, and built in Rome a temple to Serapis, and another to Isis. Holy, water was then brought from the Nile, for the use of the votaries in the temple of Isis in the Campus Martius; and a college of priests was maintained there with a splendour worthy of the Roman capital. The wealthy Romans wore upon their fingers gems engraved with the head of Hor-pi-krot, or Horus the child, called by them Harpocrates (see Fig. 91). The Museums of Europe contain many statues of the Egyptian gods made about this time by Roman artists, or perhaps by Greek artists in Rome, such as Jupiter-Serapis, Diana-Triformis, and Harpocrates. The Emperor Hadrian made his favourite Antinous into an Egyptian god; and Commodus had his head shaved as a priest of Isis, that he might more properly carry an Anubis-staff in the sacred processions in honour of the goddess. These circumstances are surely evidence enough of the readiness with which Rome under the Emperors shaped its Paganism after the Egyptian model, and prepare us to see without surprise that it looked to the same source for its views of Christianity. They prepare us for the remark of Origen, that all the neighbouring nations borrowed their religious rites and ceremonies from Egypt. (In Epist. ad Rom. ii. 495.)

Fig. 91

Egyptian gods on a coin of Malta.

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