Egyptian Myth and Legend
The Religion of the Stone Workers
Memphite Religion--The Cult of Ptah--Ethical Beliefs----Pharaoh worshipped as a God--"Husband of his Mother"--Magical Incantations--"Mesmerizing the Gods"--The Earliest Mastabas--Endowment of Tomb Chapels--The Servants of the Dead--Scenes of Everyday Life--Zoser's Two Tombs--The First Pyramid--An Architect who became a God--Inspiration of Egyptian Religion--How it promoted Civilization--Mythology of the Stone Builders----Ptah and Khnumu--The Frog Goddess--A Prototype of Isis--A Negroid Deity--Khnumu associated with Khufu (Cheops).
WHEN Old Memphis became the leading city of United Egypt the religious beliefs of the mingled peoples were in process of fusion and development. Commerce was flourishing, and ideas were being exchanged as freely as commodities. In the growing towns men of many creeds and different nationalities were brought into close personal contact, and thought was stimulated by the constant clash of opinions. It was an age of change and marked progress. Knowledge was being rapidly accumulated and more widely diffused. Society had become highly organized, and archaic tribal beliefs could no longer be given practical application under the new conditions that obtained throughout the land. A new religion became a necessity-at any rate existing beliefs had to be unified and systematized in the interests of peace and order, especially in a city like Memphis with its large and cosmopolitan population.
The cult which began to mummify the dead had evidently formulated a creed which appealed to the intellectual
classes. Beliefs regarding the after-life took definite shape. The "land of shades" was organized like the land of Egypt. Ideas of right living and good government prevailed, and the growth of ethical thought was reflected in the conception of a Judge of the Dead who justified or condemned men after consideration of their actions during life. The attributes of the principal gods were defined; their powers and their places were adjusted; they were grouped in triads and families; and from the mass of divergent beliefs was evolving a complex mythology which was intended not only to instruct but to unite the rival beliefs prevailing in a community.
Egyptian religion as a whole, however, was never completely systematized at this or any subsequent period. Each locality had its own theological system. The old tribal gods remained supreme in their nomes, and when they were grouped with others; the influence at work was more political than intellectual in character. The growth of culture did not permeate all classes of society, and the common people, especially in rural districts, clung to the folk beliefs and practices of their ancestors. A provincial nobleman, supported by the priests, secured the loyalty of his followers therefore by upholding the prestige of their ancient god, who could be linked, if needs be, with the deity of another tribe with whom a union had been effected. If the doctrines of a rival creed influenced the beliefs of the people of a particular district the attributes of the rival god were then attached to their own. When Ptah, for instance, ceased to make intellectual appeal as a creation artificer he was exalted above Ra and the other gods, whom he was supposed to have called into existence by uttering magical words.
Ptah, as we have seen, was linked with Osiris. The combined deity was at once the god of the industrial and
agricultural classes, and the Judge of the Dead. He was the chief deity of the new religion which controlled the everyday life of the people. He was the Revealer who made city life possible by promoting law and order as a religious necessity, and by instructing the people how to live honourably and well. He ordained the fate of all men; he rewarded the virtuous and punished the sinners. Masters were required to deal humanely with their servants, and servants to perform their duties with diligence and obedience. Children were counselled to honour their parents lest they might complain to the god and he should hear them.
The supremacy of Ptah was not yet seriously threatened by the sun god Ra, whose cult was gathering strength at Heliopolis. For a full century the ascendancy of the Memphite cult was complete and unassailable. The influence of the north was thus predominant. The Horite religion, which was a form of sun worship, had been displaced; it was overshadowed by the Ptah Osiris creed. Apparently the people of Lower Egypt had achieved an intellectual conquest of their conquerors. The Osirian Paradise was a duplicate of the Delta region, and the new creed was strongly influenced by Osirian beliefs which had prevailed before Mena's day.
Although great rivalry existed between the various cults throughout the land, the people were united in reverencing the Pharaoh. He was exalted as a god; indeed he was regarded as an incarnation of the ruling deity. Until the Fourth Dynasty the monarch was the living Osiris; then he became the earthly manifestation of Ra, the sun god. The people believed that a deity must needs take human form to associate with mankind. His Ka, therefore, entered the king's body as the king's Ka entered his statue. In temple scenes we find the
people engaged in worshipping Pharaoh; in fact, the Pharaoh might worship himself--he made offerings to his Ka, which was the Ka of a god.
The idea of the divinity of kings was, no doubt, a survival of ancestor worship. Families worshipped the spirit of their dead sire, and tribes that of their departed leader. But the Pharaoh was not like other men, who became divine after death; he was divine from birth. His father had been the ruling god and his mother the god's wife. On the walls of temples elaborate scenes were carved to remind the people of the divine origin of their ruler. At the marriage ceremony the king impersonated the god, and he was accompanied by his divine attendants. As Ptah Tanen he wore "the high feathers" and two ram's horns, and carried the holy symbols; as Osiris he appeared with crook and flail.; as Ra he was crowned with the sun disk. The queen was thus married to the god within his temple. In sculptured scenes depicting royal births we see goddesses in attendance as midwives, nurses, and foster mothers. This close association with deities was supposed to continue throughout the Pharaoh's life; he was frequently shown in company of gods and goddesses.
When the king died, the spirit of the god passed to his successor. The son, therefore, according to Egyptian reasoning, became his own father, and, in the theological Sense, "husband of his mother". Horus, who was born after Osiris was slain, was "the purified image of his sire". In one of the religious chants the same idea is given expression when it is declared that "the god Seb was before his mother". The new Pharaoh, on ascending the throne, became doubly divine, because both ideas regarding the divinity of kings were perpetuated at the same time.
The worship of a particular Pharaoh did not cease when he died. Like other departed souls he required the service of the living. His priests must assist him to reach the Osirian Paradise of Aalu, or the sun bark of Ra. Even Ra had to be assisted to pass through the perilous hour-divisions of the night. Indeed all the good forces of Nature had to be continually prompted by men who desired to be benefited by them; similarly the evil forces had to be thwarted by the performance of magical ceremonies and the repetition of' magical formulae. Egyptian religion was based upon belief in magic.
Pharaoh's body was therefore mummified, so that his soul might continue to exist and be able to return to reanimate the bandaged form. Food offerings were given regularly for the sustenance of the Ka. Magical ceremonies, which were religious ceremonies, were performed to cause the gods to act and to speak as was desired--to imitate those who impersonated them upon earth. The priests were supposed, as it were, to mesmerize the gods when they went through their elaborate ceremonies of compulsion and their ceremonies of riddance.
It was considered necessary to afford secure protection for the Pharaoh's mummy; his enemies might seek to dismember it with purpose to terminate the life of the soul. Substantial tombs were therefore erected, and the old brick and wood erections which were constructed for the kings at Abydos went out of fashion.
A tomb chamber was hewed out of solid rock, and over it was built an oblong platform structure of limestone called a mastaba. The mummy was lowered down the shaft. which was afterwards filled up with sand and gravel and closed with masonry. This low and flat-roofed
building was large enough to accommodate at least a hundred bodies) but it was made solid throughout with the exception of the secret shaft. Robbers would have to wreck it completely before the hiding place of the body could be discovered. On the east side there was a false door through which the Ka could pass when it came from) or departed towards, the western land of shades. In time a little chapel was provided, and the false door was placed at the end of it. This apartment was used for the performance of the ceremonies associated with the worship of the dead; mourners came with offerings, and met in presence of the invisible Ka.
The statue was concealed in an inner chamber, which was built up, but occasionally narrow apertures were constructed through which food and drink were given to the Ka. But only to kings and rich men could this service be rendered for a prolonged period, so the practice ultimately evolved of providing the dead with models of offerings which by a magical process gave sustenance to the hungry spirit.
Mortuary chapels were endowed as early as the First Dynasty. Priests were regularly engaged in worshipping dead kings and princes who had made provision in their wills for the necessary expenses. The son of one monarch in the Fourth Dynasty devoted the revenues of a dozen towns to maintain the priesthood attached to his tomb. This custom created grave financial problems.
In a few generations the whole land might be mortgaged to maintain mortuary chapels, with the result that a revolution involving a change of dynasty became an economic necessity.
Hearken! ye kings, while horror stalks the land, Lo! your poor people fall a ready prey Made weak by your oppression, even in death--[p. 108] Burdened and bruised and terrorized; their lands Tax ridden for these temples ye endowed, That fawning priests might meek obeisance make And render ceaseless homage to your shades. The walls of the chapel were either sculptured in low relief or painted with scenes of daily life, and from these we gather much of what we know regarding the manners and customs of the ancient people. But such works of art were not intended merely to be decorative or to perpetuate the fame of the dead. It was desired that those scenes should be duplicated in Paradise. The figures of farm servants sowing and reaping corn, of artisans erecting houses, and cooks preparing meals, were expected to render similar services to the departed soul. Magical texts were inscribed with purpose to ensure this happy condition of affairs; others called down curses on the heads of tomb robbers.
Kings and nobles had no pleasure in the prospect that they would have to perform humble tasks in the Nether World. They desired to occupy there the exalted stations which they enjoyed upon earth. It was necessary, therefore, to have numerous employees so that their mansions might be erected, their fields cultivated, and their luxuries provided as of old.
The custom at first obtained of slaying a number of servants to accompany the great dignitary to Paradise. These poor victims were supposed to be grateful, because they were to be rewarded with assured immortality. But the shedding of blood was rendered unnecessary when the doctrine obtained that substitutes could be provided by sculptors and painters.
Another mortuary custom was to provide little figures, called Ushebtiu, "the answerers", inscribed with magical formulae, which would obey the dead and perform
SERVITORS BRINGING THEIR OFFERINGS
From the bas-relief in the Mastaba of Ti, Sakhara
"USHEBTIU" FIGURES OF VARIOUS PERIODS
1. Limestone: made for Ahmes I (XVIII Dynasty). 2. Limestone (XII Dynasty). 3. Painted alabaster: about 1100 B.C. 4. Porcelain, inscribed for an official (XXVI Dynasty). 5. Zoned alabaster, probably made for a king: about 1200 B.C. 6. Limestone: about 800 B.C. 7. Painted limestone: about 550 B.C.
whatever duties he desired of them in Paradise. These were ultimately shaped in mummy form, and in the later Dynasties were made of glazed ware, because wooden figures suffered from the ravages of the white ant.
Many toy-like figures of servants are found in early tombs. Here we discover, perchance, the model of a nobleman's dwelling. An ox is being slain in the backyard. In the kitchen the staff is engaged cooking an elaborate repast; a little fellow devotes himself entirely to a goose which he turns on a spit before the fire. We have a glimpse of high life in another scene. The nobleman has feasted, and he sits at ease in a large apartment listening to singers and harpers. A dancing girl comes out to whirl before him, while her companions keep time to the music by clapping their hands. Meanwhile artisans are busy in their workshops. We see a potter moulding a vessel of exquisite shape, while near at hand a carpenter saws wood with which he intends to construct an elaborate article of furniture. Boats are rocking at a pier, for the soul may desire to sail down the Nile of the Nether World. Here. in fact, is a boat pursuing its way; a dozen strenuous oarsmen occupy the benches, while the steersman stands erect at the helm with the guiding rope in his hands; armed men are on guard, and the nobleman sits with a friend below an awning on a small deck in the centre of the boat, calmly engaged playing a game of draughts.
King Zoser had two tombs erected for himself. One is a great brick mastaba at Abydos, which may have been a "soul house" in the chapel of which his "double" was worshipped; the other, which is constructed of limestone, is situated on the desert behind Memphis. The latter is of particular interest to students of Egyptian history.
[paragraph continues] It is a terraced structure nearly 200 feet in height, formed by a series of mastabas of decreasing size superimposed one above another. This wonderful building has been called "the step pyramid of Sakkara"; it is not only the first pyramid which was erected in Egypt, but the earliest great stone structure in the world.
So much attention is paid to the three sublime pyramids at Gizeh that Zoser's limestone tomb is apt to be overlooked. Yet it is of marked importance in the history of the country. It was constructed nearly a hundred years before Khufu (Cheops) ascended the throne, and the experience gained in undertaking a work of such vast dimensions made possible the achievements of later times. The architect was the renowned Imhotep, one of the world's great men. His fame was perpetuated in Egypt until the Saite or Restoration period, when he was worshipped as the god called by the Greeks "Imuthes". He was an inventive and organizing genius, and a statesman who exercised much influence at the Court of King Zoser. Like Solomon, he was reputed to be the wisest man of his Age. He was the author of a medical treatise, and he left behind him a collection of proverbs which endured as long as the old Egyptian language. As a patron of learning his memory was revered by the scribes for over two thousand years, and it was their custom before beginning work to pour out from their jars a libation to his spirit.
The step pyramid was Imhotep's conception. He prepared the plans and overlooked the work of construction. No doubt, too, he was responsible for the organization of the army of labourers and artisans who were employed for a prolonged period in erecting this enduring memorial of a great monarch.
Such a vast undertaking is a sure indication of the
advanced character of the civilization of the times. Much wealth must have accumulated in the royal exchequer. The country was in a settled and prosperous condition., owing to the excellent system of government and the activity of administrators. It was no small task to bring together thousands of workmen, who had to be housed and fed and kept under control. Skilled tradesmen were employed, who had been trained in quarrying and dressing stone. Evidently masonry had flourished in Memphis for a considerable period. There were hundreds of overseers experienced in the organization of labour, and large numbers of educated scribes conversant with the exact keeping of accounts.
Education was no longer confined to the ruling classes. We know that there were schools in Memphis. Boys were instructed in "the three R's", and in a papyrus of maxims it was quaintly remarked that they could "hear with their backs", an indication as to the manner in which corporal punishment was inflicted. The system of writing was the cursive style called "hieratic", which originated in pre-Dynastic times as a rough imitation in outline of hieroglyphics. A knowledge of elementary arithmetic was required in the ordinary transactions of business. Some corrected exercises have survived. Advanced pupils were instructed in geometry--which had its origin in Egypt--in mensuration, and in the simpler problems of algebra.
As the Egyptians were an intensely practical people, school studies were specialized. Boys were trained for the particular profession in which they were to be employed. If they were to become business men they attended commercial classes. The number of "trial pieces" which have been found show that young sculptors attended technical schools, as did also artists and
metal workers. In the temple colleges the future officials and lawyers and doctors were made conversant with the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the age. Education was evidently controlled by the priests.
Memphis was a hive of organized industry. The discipline of business pervaded all classes, and everywhere law and order were promoted. Pharaoh was no idler. His day was fully occupied in the transaction of public business, and to every prince was allotted a responsible post, and his duties had to be efficiently performed. The nation was in its young manhood; the foundations had been securely established of a great civilization, which was to endure for some thirty centuries.
It may be said that the royal house of the Old Kingdom was established upon a rock. When the Pharaoh's builders discarded brick, and began to quarry and hew stones, Egyptian civilization made rapid progress. It had had its beginnings in the struggle with Nature in the Nile valley. An increasing population was maintained under peaceful conditions when the problem of water distribution was solved by the construction of canals. These had to be controlled, and the responsibility of a regulated flow was imposed upon the Pharaoh. Good government, therefore, became a necessity; a failure of water caused famine and insurrection. To those who toiled and those who protected the toiler Nature gave a bountiful reward. More food was produced than was required for home consumption. The surplus yield of corn was, as we have seen, the means of promoting trade, which made Egypt a wealthy country. As capital accumulated, the progress of knowledge was assured, and men entered upon those higher pursuits which promote moral and intellectual advancement.
Egypt might have continued happily on the even
tenor of its way as an agricultural and trading country, but its civilization could never have attained so high a degree of perfection if its arts and industries had not been fostered and developed. We may riot think highly of Egyptian religion, of which, after all, we have but imperfect knowledge, but we must recognize that it was the inspiration of the architects and craftsmen whose sublime achievements we regard with wonder and admiration after the lapse of thousands of years. It was undoubtedly a civilizing agency; it promoted culture and refinement, and elevated mankind to love beauty for its own sake. Egyptian art flourished because it was appreciated and was in demand.
The surplus wealth of Egypt was expended largely for religious purposes. Temple building kept those wonderful old architects and sculptors constantly engaged. an ever-increasing class of skilled workers had also to be trained, disciplined, and organized. Men of ability were brought to the front and were judged on their own merits. There is no place for pretenders in the world of Art. When the Pharaohs, therefore, undertook the erection of temples and tombs they not only ensured regularity of labour, but also stimulated intellectual effort, with results that could not have been otherwise than beneficial to society at large.
We may well regard the conquest of stone as one of the greatest conquests which the Egyptians achieved. In our Introduction we have suggested that the new industry may have been introduced by the cave-hewing pre-Semitic inhabitants of southern Palestine. The remarkable skill manifested by the earliest stone workers of Egypt with almost dramatic suddenness was evidently the result of long experience. Deft workmanship was accomplished from the outset; stones were measured and dressed with
wonderful accuracy and skill. The changes which took place in the burial customs during the early Dynasties also suggest that influences from without were being felt in the ancient kingdom.
Whatever the origin of the stone workers may have been, it is evident that they were closely associated with Memphis at a very early period. As we have seen, the art of stone working and stone building on a sublime scale was first displayed by the worshippers of Ptah, the artificer god. It is of special interest to find, therefore, that Manetho has preserved those persistent Egyptian traditions which connect Memphis with the new industry. He credited Zoser, the builder of the step pyramid at Sakkara, with the introduction of stonework; he also recorded that the first temple in Egypt was erected at Memphis to Ptah by King Mena. The city's name of "White Walls" suggests that the fortress was constructed of limestone.
We know now that stone was used at Abydos before Zoser's day--not, however, until after the conquest of the north--but the traditional association of Memphis with the new industry is none the less significant. The probability that a colony of Memphite artisans settled in the vicinity of the Assouan quarries, and introduced stone working into Upper Egypt, is emphasized by the worship of Khnumu, the god of the First Cataract, who bears so striking a resembling to Ptah. He was similarly regarded as the modeller of the world. Like Ptah, he was associated with the chaos egg, and he is depicted shaping the first man upon his potter's wheel.
Khnumu was merged at an early date with the ram god Min, for he is invariably shown with ram's horns or a ram's head. He was a Great Father, and represented the male principle. His consort is Hekt, the frog-headed
goddess, who is evidently of great antiquity. The Egyptians believed that frogs were generated spontaneously from Nile-fertilized mud, and they associated Hekt with the origin of life. This quaint goddess was one of the "mothers" who was supposed to preside at birth, and so persistent was the reverence shown her by the great mass of the people that she was ultimately fused with Hathor. In Coptic times Hekt was a symbol of the resurrection.
Another goddess associated with Khnumu was named Sati. Her title "Lady of the Heavens" links her with Nut and Hathor. She is usually depicted as a stately woman wearing a cow's horns and the crown of Upper Egypt; she is "the queen of the gods".
An island goddess, called Anukt, belongs to the same group. She has negroid attributes and wears a crown of feathers.
It is apparent that this arbitrary grouping of deities at the First Cataract was the direct result of the mingling of peoples of different origin. Hekt represents a purely Egyptian cult, while Sati is evidently one of the forms of the Great Mother deity of the earliest civilized people in the Nile valley; she resembles closely the historic Isis. Anukt, on the other hand, was probably of Nubian origin, and may have been introduced by those dusky settlers from the south whose aggressive tendencies caused so much concern at the royal Court from time to time. The theory that Khnumu was the god of the quarries, and builders especially, is supported not only by his resemblance to Ptah, but also by the fact that the Pharaoh who erected the greatest pyramid at Gizeh was called Khnumu Khufu; this is the monarch whom the Greeks called Cheops.