Egyptian Myth and Legend
The Great Pyramid Kings
Zoser and Sneferu--Their Great Tombs--Sneferu's Battles with Invaders--Mastabas of Officials--The Grand Vizier--A New Dynasty--Khufu the Tyrant King--His Great Pyramid--The World's Greatest Stone Structure--An Army of Workers--How the Pyramids were built--Rocking Machines--A Religious Revolution--The Gods of the Sun Cult--Ptah excluded--King Khafra--Menkaura the just King--The Sacred Heifer--Khufu's Line overthrown.
WHEN the great pyramids were being erected Egypt was already a land of ancient memories. Some of the royal tombs at Abydos were a thousand years old. Folk tales had gathered round the memories of notable kings; their order was confused and not a few were quite forgotten.
Zoser and Sneferu of the Third Dynasty are really the first Egyptian monarchs of whom we obtain any accurate idea. They were forceful personalities. We trace Zoser's activities in Sinai, where he continued to work the copper mines from which several of his predecessors had obtained supplies of indispensable metal. He waged war on the southern frontier, which he extended below the First Cataract, and he imposed his rule firmly over the north. That peace prevailed all over the kingdom is evident; otherwise he could not have devoted so much time to the erection of his great tomb, at which a great army of workmen were kept continuously employed.
Sneferu, whose very name suggests swiftness of
decision and unswerving purpose, impressed himself on the imagination of the Egyptians for many generations. When a great national achievement was accomplished it became customary to remark that no such success had been attained "since the days of Sneferu". He battled against Asian hordes who invaded the Delta region, and erected forts, like a chain of blockhouses, across the frontier, and these were associated with his name for over ten centuries. In Sinai there was trouble regarding the copper mines. Other people had begun to work them and disputed right of possession with the Egyptians. Sneferu conducted a vigorous and successful campaign, and so firmly established his power in that region that his spirit was worshipped generations afterwards as the protecting god of the mines. His ambitions were not confined to land, for he caused great ships to be built and he traded with Crete and the Syrian coast. The cedars of Lebanon were then cut and drifted to the Nile by Egyptian mariners. In the south Nubia was dealt with firmly. We gather that thousands of prisoners were captured and taken north as slaves to be employed, apparently, at the building of temples and tombs. Two pyramids are attributed to Sneferu, the greatest of which is situated at Medum.
The power and wealth of the officials had increased greatly. Their mastabas, which surround the royal tombs, are of greater and more elaborate construction. Pharaoh was no longer hampered with the details of government. A Grand Vizier controlled the various departments of State, and he was the supreme judge to whom final appeals were made by the Courts. There were also a "Chancellor of the Exchequer" and officials who controlled the canals and secured an equitable distribution of water. There were governors of nomes and towns,
and even villages had their "chief men". To secure the effective control of the frontier, always threatened by raids from Nubia, a local vizier was appointed to quell outbreaks, and troops were placed at his disposal. These high offices were usually held by princes and noblemen, but apparently it was possible for men of humble rank to attain distinction and be promoted, like Joseph, to positions of influence and responsibility. In mastaba chapels there are proud records of promotion acquired by capable and successful officials who began life as scribes and were governors ere they died.
The Fourth Dynasty begins with Khufu the Great, the Cheops of the Greeks, who erected the largest pyramid in Egypt. His relationship to Sneferu. is uncertain. He was born in the Beni Hassan district, and was probably the son of a nobleman of royal birth. Sneferu may have left no direct heir or one who was a weakling. There is no record or tradition of a revolution, and it may be that Khufu was already a prominent figure at the Court when he seized the crown. In his harem was a lady who enjoyed the confidence of his predecessor, and it is possible that matters were arranged in his interests in that quarter.
No statues of Khufu survive. These were probably destroyed when, a few centuries after his death, his tomb was raided and his mummy torn to pieces, for he was remembered as a great tyrant. So much was he hated that Herodotus was informed by the priests that he "degenerated into the extremest profligacy of conduct". He barred the avenues to every temple and forbade the Egyptians to offer sacrifices. He proceeded next to make them labour as slaves for himself. Some he compelled to hew stones n the quarries of the Arabian mountains and drag them to the banks of the Nile;
others were selected to load vessels. . . . A hundred thousand men were employed." But the memory of ancient wrongs was perpetuated by the priests not merely in sympathy for the workers and those who had to bear the burdens of taxation. A religious revolution was imminent. The sun worshippers at Heliopolis were increasing in numbers and power, and even in Khufu's day their political influence was being felt. In fact, their ultimate ascendancy may have been due to the public revolt against the selfish and tyrannical policy of the pyramid-building kings.
We enjoy a privilege not shared by Greeks or Romans, who heard the Egyptian traditions regarding the masterful monarch. Petrie discovered an ivory statue of Khufu, which is a minute and beautiful piece of work. The features occupy only a quarter of an inch, and are yet animate with life and expression. Khufu's face suggests that of the Duke of Wellington. The nose is large and curved like an eagle's beak; the eyes have a hard and piercing look; the cheek bones are high, the cheeks drawn down to knotted jaws; the chin is firmly cut and the hard mouth has an uncompromising pout; the brows are lowering. The face is that of a thinker and man of action--an idealist and an iron-willed ruler of men--
whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that the sculptor well those passions read Which still survive stamped on the statuette of the greatest of the pyramid builders. There is withal an air of self-consciousness, and we seem to hear, "My name is Khufu"-- . . . King of Kings; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. [p. 135]
[paragraph continues] Petrie, the great Egyptian archaeologist, calculates that Khufu's vast pyramid is composed of some 2,003,000 blocks of limestone averaging about 2 1/2 tons each. It occupies an area of 13 acres. Each side of the square base originally measured 768 feet, but the removal of the coating which left the sides smooth caused a shrinkage of about 18 feet. The height is now roughly 450 feet, 30 ft. less than when it was completed.
This pyramid is the greatest pile of masonry ever erected by man. Not only is it a monument to a mighty ruler and his great architects and builders, but also to the stone workers of Memphis. Many of the great stones have been cut and dressed with amazing skill and accuracy, and so closely are they placed together that the seams have to be marked with charcoal to be traced in a photograph. Blocks of limestone weighing tons are finished with almost microscopic accuracy, "equal", says Petrie, "to optician's work of the present day".
Volumes have been written to advance theories regarding the purpose of this and other pyramids. The orientation theory has especially been keenly debated. But it no longer obtains among prominent Egyptologists. A pyramid has no astronomical significance whatsoever; the Egyptians were not star worshippers. It is simply a vast burial cairn, and an architectural development of the mastaba, which had been growing higher and higher until Zoser's architect conceived the idea of superimposing one upon the other until an effect was obtained which satisfied his sense of proportion. Geometricians decided its final shape rather than theologians.
There are several chambers in the interior of Khufu's pyramid, whose mummy reposed in a granite sarcophagus in the largest, which is 19 feet high, 34 1/2 feet in length, and 17 feet in breadth. The entrance is from the north.
Herodotus was informed by the Egyptian priests that 100,000 workers were employed, and were relieved every three months. The limestone was quarried on the eastern side of the Nile, below Cairo, and drifted on rafts across the river. The low ground was flooded, so that the high ground was made an island. We are informed that ten years were spent in constructing a causeway up which the blocks were hauled. A considerable time was also spent in preparing the rocky foundations. The pyramid itself was the work of twenty years.
When the base was completed, the same writer explains, the stones were raised by the aid of "machines" made of "short pieces of wood". Models have been found in tombs of wooden "cradles"--flat on the top and rounded off so that they could be rocked--on which boulders were evidently poised and then slewed into position by haulage and leverage. The "cradles" were raised by wedges. When the block was lifted high enough, it could be tilted and made to slide down skids into position. Herodotus says that according to one account the stones were elevated by the numerous "machines" from step to step, and to another they were lifted into position by one great contrivance. This process was continued until the summit was reached. Then a granite casing was constructed downward to the base, and it was covered over with hieroglyphics which recorded the various sums of money expended for food supplied to the workers. "Cheops (Khufu) exhausted his wealth", adds Herodotus.
The royal exchequer does not appear to have been depleted, because Khufu also erected three smaller pyramids for members of his family, and his successor afterwards undertook the construction of a vast tomb also.
Apart from his pyramid work we know little or
nothing regarding the events of Khufu's reign. Sneferu's military activities had secured peace on the frontiers, and neither dusky Nubian nor bearded Asiatic dared enter the land to plunder or despoil. That the administration was firm and perfectly organized under the iron-willed monarch may be taken for granted.
But a great change was impending which could not be controlled by the will of a single man. Prolonged peace had promoted culture, and the minds of men were centred on the great problems of life and death. Among the educated classes a religious revolution was imminent. Apparently Khufu was raised to power on an early wave of insurrection. It was a period of transition. The downfall of the Ptah cult as a supreme political force was in progress, and the rival cult of Ra, at Heliopolis, was coming into prominence. Already in Sneferu's reign a sun worshipper, one Ra-hotep, occupied the influential position of Superintendent of the South. It remained for the priests of the sun to secure converts among the members of the royal family, so as to obtain political and religious ascendancy, and it can be understood that those who were educated at their temple college were likely to embrace their beliefs. If they failed in that direction, the combined influence of priests and nobles was sufficient to threaten the stability of the throne. A strong ruler might delay, but he could not thwart, the progress of the new movement.
The king's name, as we have stated, was Khnumu Khufu, which means: "I am guarded by the god Khnumu". That "modeller" of the universe may have closely resembled Ptah, but the doctrines of the two sects developed separately, being subjected to different racial influences. Khnumu was ultimately merged with the sun god, and his ram became "the living soul of Ra". Khnumu was
regarded at Heliopolis as an incarnation of Osiris, whose close association with agricultural rites perpetuated his worship among the great mass of the people. In the theological system of the sun cult, Osiris became a member of the Ra family, and succeeded to the throne of the "first king" who ruled over Egypt. But Ptah, significantly enough, was never included among the sun god's companions, and the idea that he created Ra was confined to Memphis, and evolved at a later date. The rivalry between the two powerful cults must have been bitter and pronounced.
If Ptolemaic tradition is to be relied upon, Khufu constructed a temple to the goddess Hathor, who, as we have seen, was merged with the frog goddess Hekt, the spouse of Khnumu. Indeed Hekt came to be regarded as a form of Hathor. Sati, Khnumu's other spouse, was also a sky and cow goddess, so that she links with Nut, and with Hathor, who displaced Nut.
King Khufu's son and successor must have come under the influence of the Ra cult, for his name, Khaf-ra, signifies "Ra is my glory" or "My brightness is Ra". The sun cult had received their first great concession from the royal house. But not until the following Dynasty did the priests of Heliopolis obtain supreme power, and compel the Pharaoh to call himself "son of the sun", a title which ever afterwards remained in use. Sun worship then became the official religion of Egypt--gradually coloured every other cult. When the Osirian religion was revived, under the Libyan monarchs, the old deified king, who was an incarnation of the corn god, was also identified with the sun.
King Khafra did not, it would appear, satisfy the ambitions of the Ra worshippers, who desired more than formal recognition. A legend which survives only in
THE GREAT PYRAMID OF KHUFU (CHEOPS)
The two insets show front and side views of the small ivory statue of Khufu, which is now in the Cairo Museum.
KING KHAFRA (IV DYNASTY)
Who built the second Great Pyramid
From the statue in Cairo Museum
fragmentary form relates that "the gods turned away from Khufu and his house". The powerful cult became impatient, and "hope deferred" made them rebels. A political revolution was fostered, and Khufu's Dynasty was doomed.
Khafra, the Chephren of Herodotus, who says Khufu was his brother, erected the second great pyramid, which is only about 30 feet lower than the other. The remains of his temple still survive. It is built of granite, and although the workmanship is less exact, as if the work were more hastily performed than in Khufu's day, the architecture is austerely sublime. Immense square pillars support massive blocks; there are great open spaces, and one is impressed by the simplicity and grandeur of the scheme.
Seven statues of Khafra were discovered by Mariette, so that his "Ka" was well provided for. The great diorite statue preserved in the Cairo museum is one of the enduring triumphs of Egyptian art. The conception is at once grand and imposing. His Majesty is seated on the throne, but he wears the wig of the great ruling judge. At the back of his head is the figure of the protecting Horus hawk. His face is calmer than Khufu's--resolution is combined with dignity and patience. He seems to be imbued with the spirit of Old Kingdom greatness.
Although cut from so hard a material as diorite, there is much muscular detail in the figure, which is that of a strong and vigorous man. His throne is straight-backed, but the stately floral design of the sides, and the lions' heads and fore paws in front are in keeping with the naked majesty of the whole statue, which was originally covered with a soft material.
Again the reign is a blank. The priests informed
[paragraph continues] Herodotus that Khafra's conduct was similar to that of Khufu. "The Egyptians had to endure every species of oppression and calamity, and so greatly do they hate the memories of the two monarchs that they are unwilling to mention their names. Instead they called their pyramids by the name of the shepherd Philitis, who grazed his cattle near them."
The great Sphinx was long associated with Khafra, whose name was carved upon it during the Eighteenth Dynasty, but it is believed to be of much later date. It is fashioned out of the rock, and is over 60 feet in height. The body is a lion's, and the face was a portrait of a Pharaoh, but it has been so much disfigured by Mohammedans that it cannot be identified with certainty. Nor is there complete agreement as to the significance of the Sphinx. Centuries after its construction the Egyptians regarded it as a figure of the sun god, but more probably it was simply a symbol of royal power and greatness.
There were kindlier memories of Menkaura, the Mycernius of Herodotus, who said that this king was a son of Khufu. He erected the third great pyramid, which is but 218 feet high, and three small ones for his family. He was reputed, however, to have eased the burden of the Egyptians, and especially to have allowed the temples to be reopened, so that the people might offer sacrifices to the gods. As a just monarch he excelled all his predecessors, and his memory was long revered. Not only did he deliver equitable judgments, but was ever ready to hear appeals when complaints were made against officials, and willing to remove and redress wrongs. His statue shows us a less handsome man than either Khufu or Khafra, and the expression of the face accords with his traditional character. Indeed, it is not only unaffected, but melancholy.
A story was told to Herodotus that the king was greatly stricken by the death of his daughter. He had her body enclosed in a heifer made of wood, which was covered over with gold. It was not buried, but placed in a palace hall at Sais. Incense was burned before it daily, and at night it was illuminated. The heifer reclined on its knees. A purple robe covered the body, and between the gilded horns blazed a great golden star. Once a year, in accordance with the request of the dying princess, the image was carried outside so that she might behold the sun. The occasion was an Osirian festival, and the heifer, it is believed, represented Isis.
We know definitely that a daughter of Menkaura was given in marriage to Ptah-shepses, a high official, who became the priest of three obelisks. The appointment is full of significance, because these obelisks were erected to Ra. Sun worship was evidently gaining ground.
The mummy of the king was enclosed in a great sarcophagus of basalt, but was destroyed with the others. Mention is also made of a Fourth-Dynasty monarch named Radadef, but he cannot be placed with certainty. Khufu's line flourished for about a century and a half, and then was overthrown. A new family of kings, who were definitely Ra worshippers, sat on the throne of United Egypt. In the folk tales which follow are interesting glimpses of the life and beliefs of the times.