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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
Religion and Morals in Ancient Egypt
Life In Ancient Egypt
UNTIL the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Napoleon took a group of French scientific men to the valley of the Nile, the ancient Egyptian civilization had been to the mass of mankind, like ancient Babylon, just one of the nations which had sat in darkness and the shadow of death until the light of Christ broke upon the world. Scholars knew from Greek literature that Egypt had had a wonderful civilization. The wisest of the Greeks had learned from it. But men and women generally knew nothing of these facts. It was a dogma, created by the priests of the Middle Ages, that there had been no light and no virtue until Judaism gave a dawn, and Christianity the full noonday sun of wisdom, to the world.
There has been a remarkable revolution of opinion. Early, astronomers measured the pyramids and thought that they discovered secrets of the universe embodied in those extraordinary constructions five thousand years before science was born. Builders assured us that the Egyptians must have had some art of building which the world has lost. Mystics found profound wisdom in the myths and legends of the ancient people.
The learning of Egypt began to seem quite a miracle in the human chronicle. Theosophists and Freemasons began to trace their profound discoveries or secret rites to the ancient temples on the banks of the Nile. A medical man has recently published a large and expensive work in England in which he contends that Egypt was civilized a million years ago, and the whole of the rest of the world was civilized from that center. Even a brilliant scientific man of our time and his school believe that the Mexican and other far-lying cultures were derived from Egypt.
Egyptian culture is just a natural part of our human evolution, and it contributes to and in part explains the Christian culture which follows. Egypt was neither inferior to Christendom nor equal to the secular civilization of modern times. It had no vast and mysterious antiquity, no miracles of genius or revelation. To the end its “science” was childish and its legends as ridiculous as those of the Jews; but from the first its ethic was high, and it was based upon beliefs which must startle the average Christian who thinks that his own beliefs are original.
First recall to mind the unique position of Egypt as a land. The valley of the Nile is a dip in the ground, a broad channel cut by the river through the sand and underlying rocks of the desert, a hundred times as long as it is wide. A few miles from, the river, on either side, is a cliff-wall. It is the edge of the desert.
Probably the Nile cut this channel when its waters, coming from the lofty mountains to the south, were swollen with the melting ices and snows at the close of the Ice Age; or, rather, at the turn of the Ice Age, for the south would feel the change before Europe. There was no valley of the Nile worth speaking of thirty or forty thousand years ago, so it is preposterous to talk of a million years of civilization.
As the valley floor was formed, or carpeted with soil, by the annually overflowing river, it became a very desirable country to live in. The climate is glorious. The soil, formed from river-mud, is magnificent. And men were just at that time — say, roughly, about ten thousand years ago — learning agriculture. This valley and Mesopotamia were the two most desirable spots in the vast expanse of desert from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean; and man had been driven south by the great ice sheet that covered Europe. There is no mystery about the beginning of civilization in Egypt and Babylonia.
Scholars are not at all agreed as to where the men came from who invaded the valley of the Nile. We are not concerned with that here; so I will only briefly suggest that they were mainly refugees from icy Europe who had been driven still further south by the flooding of the Mediterranean, and that tribes from the eastern deserts, and possibly blacks from the south, mingled with them and fought for the soil. The great length of the Nile valley made it accessible to tribes from many directions: but the narrowness of the valley kept them from mingling as thoroughly as they would on an open plain like Mesopotamia. There you have the material conditions for interpreting the religious development of Egypt: the clash of cultures which made for progress, the isolation which checked the progress in many ways. You understand why Egypt was so early civilized: you understand also certain primitive features of its religion.
Somewhere about 10,000 B.C. tribes from north and south and east pour into the valley, Except where they touch, they know little of each other. The narrow way south or north is choked with tribes. Men in the north know nothing of men fifty miles away. Moreover, men on one side of the river are hostile to men on the other; they are, in great measure, even today. Each, therefore, clings to its tribal religion, and the valley of the Nile becomes a seething mass, a long chain, of antagonistic peoples, each with its own chief or prince and its own primitive religion.
This helps us to understand the greatest peculiarity of Egyptian religion. Half its gods have animal beads, and we found no such gods in Babylonia. Scholars have to a great extent traced for us the various phases of the life of Egypt, and we begin to understand this. First we have traces of men of the New Stone Age settling on the soil. Of these we have little definite knowledge, but we know their life well in other places and in general it does not concern us here. Their primitive religious ideas, as happened everywhere else lingered longest, and we picked them up at the dawn of civilization: an intense belief in survival, a great deal of magic and demonism, and a readiness to imagine spirits throughout nature — in trees, stones, rivers; etc.
This state of things passes gradually into primitive civilization: which was no miracle of genius, but a slow process stretching over two thousand years. Villages grew into towns. Chiefs became petty kings; and, as they levied tribute in corn, their servants scrawled so many baskets on the mud-wall of a peasant’s hut. In such ways picture-writing began. Pottery, weaving, and agriculture improved. “Civilization” opened.
The peculiarity of the religious development is that at first most of the “gods” are animals. The primitive Egyptians revere the bull in one place, the ram in another, the hawk in another, and so on. Some writers call this “totemism”: which should mean that a tribe thought it had some genealogical or mystic connection with a bull or ram, and took it as the sacred symbol of that tribe. Others think — it seems more likely — that it was a result of Animism. Remember how religion develops: Man first believes in his own “soul.” Then, since things move in nature, he puts spirits in those: in the growing tree, the rolling stone, the rushing stream, etc. At first be “animates” everything that moves. Later be selects things that show special vitality and thinks them the abodes of particularly powerful spirits. It is not difficult on those lines to understand how the various tribes would pick out the hawk, the baboon (considered remarkable for its air of wisdom!), the vulture, the bull, the cow, the ram, the lioness, the crocodile, the cat, and so on.
Priesthoods grew round these semi-deities, in the way we have described; and in each tribe one spirit-animated animal gets pushed by its priests to a commanding position. The crocodile, the hawk, or the bull becomes the really great power: that is to say, the animal through or in which the great spirit manifests itself. At this stage, at the beginning of Egyptian history — which is generally put at about 3300 B.C. — the statues of the gods are animal-statues, and they have special names and strong priesthoods.
It is not so ridiculous as it looks when one is in a museum. In the fiery and fertile lands of Egypt it was easy for a primitive mind to imagine that the hawk, the lioness, or the bull had a very powerful spirit in it. People did not suppose that somewhere in the heavens there was a goddess with a cow’s head, a god with a hawk’s head, and so on. It is really the advance — the putting of the animal’s head on a human body — that makes it look ridiculous. But bodies of primitive worshipers, whether in ancient Egypt or modern Tennessee, resist changes, and keep as much of the old as they can.
However, all Egyptian gods did not have an animal origin. I sketch the development as follows:
(1) Belief in Shadow or Soul (2a) Animism and Fetishism (2b) Ancestor-Worship (3a) Deification of sun, moon, etc.(3b) Deified ancestors (4) Polytheism (5) Monotheism (6) Atheism
What Egyptologists tell us is quite in accordance with this. A very large number of the Egyptian deities were deified animals, or the outcome of Animism. But some — the great god Osiris particularly — never had an animal form. Some of these, and they were very old deities, were nature-gods: Horus and Ra and other sun-gods, Seb the earth-god, Neith the sky-goddess, and so on. Osiris, on the other hand, is said in Egyptian legend to have once been king of the country, and most scholars believe that this is a case of deification of an ancestor. Later, other gods were added to the pantheon as the spirits of abstract ideas (of love, of war, of writing, of truth, and so on).
The Judgement Of The Soul
Let us now take up the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, because it is in the development of this that the Egyptians differed most from contemporary civilizations, and it is this which most profoundly, from the very beginning, influenced the life of the people.
I have observed that the actual historical development of religion no more confirms the theory that we have a “religious instinct” than does our own experience. Let me repeat this, as the theory is a very popular theme of the new or “liberal” religion of our time. Religious believers who know the facts of science and history — which merely means, the truth about nature and man — abandon all the old arguments and entrench themselves in a psychological position which they believe to be quite scientific and impregnable. It is as feeble and transient as all the arguments that have captivated the religious mind since the days of Pythagoras and Plato.
I have pointed out how utterly inconsistent it is with the facts of life today. This supposed religious sense gives believers a hundred different versions of religion; and it generally fades away in proportion to the intelligence and knowledge of the individual. We are now seeing how inconsistent it is with religious history in the past. It tells the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, and (apparently) the Cretans that the immortality of the soul is a negligible ancient belief to which they need pay no practical attention; and it tells the Egyptians and Persians that the future life is of such profound importance, and is so definitely known, that it must entirely over-shadow this life. It tells all these nations that god or gods certainly exist and must be worshiped; and it tells the sages of Asia, Buddha and Kong-fu-tse, that the belief in gods is a negligible ancient idea to which a wise man will pay no piratical attention! “Modernism” is as vulnerable as Fundamentalism. The life of Egypt seems at first sight to have been one long preoccupation about the future life. I might be reminded that we have, on the other hand, a remarkable and exceptionally full knowledge of the daily life of the people. We have stores of the actual furniture of their houses: down-cushions, chairs, couches, and so on. We have the child’s toys, the work- man’s tools, the scribe’s implements, the housewife’s cooking utensils. We have, painted or carved, innumerable scenes from the festive or solemn or tragic experiences of the people; scenes of life in the palace and the cottage and the workshops. We have extraordinarily life-like statues of the people themselves, of almost every class of society. But nearly the whole of these treasures have come from tombs, and so we are led back to their belief in the after-life.
Sir Flinders Petrie gives us a shrewd warning in this connection. It is largely by accident that we have such a mass of evidence from tombs and so little from homes of the living. The homes of the earlier Egyptians, the very floors of their towns and villages, are buried under twenty feet of Nile mud. Every year the river overflows and, when it subsides again, leaves a thin layer of fertilizing mud over the land. So we have to dig for the old sites; and most of them are now buried under new towns, new villages, new corn fields. The tombs, on the contrary, are naturally on raised land at the edge of the desert, and we have only to break them open.
Yet it is true that no other nation in history ever showed such an intense concern about the future life; and the main reason for it startles simple-minded believers of modern times. The Persians believed in a Day of Judgment, when God (their one great god, Ahura Mazda) would destroy the earth, summon before him the souls of all men who had ever lived, reward the good and punish the living. It is clearly from Persia that certain sects of the Jews, and Christ and the early Christians, borrowed this idea of (in Persian language) “the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The Roman Catholics, and in a less explicit way other Christians, believe in two judgments of the dead: the Particular Judgment (of each soul after death) and the General Judgment (of all men at the close of the human comedy). Roman Catholics, I find, are astounded and embarrassed to learn that this particular judgment of each soul after death was the most outstanding and most influential belief of the ancient Egyptians from the very dawn of history, and probably long before it.
It would be a fascinating task to attempt to trace in an intelligible fashion the evolution of such ideas in the light of the new scientific principles of history. Some of our great Egyptologists, like Professor Breasted and Sir Flinders Petrie, do apply these principles in some measure to the general development of Egyptian life, but comparatively little has been done. We want to know what there was in the environment of Egypt — let us drop all notion that special germ-plasm or special genius or instinct explains any of these things — which shaped their belief in gods so predominantly in the direction of deified animals: what there was that, in such contrast to the neighboring civilization in Babylonia, gave them this very definite and practical idea of a future life and an ethical judgment after death.
The Egyptians were peculiar once more in their conception of the nature of man. He had a body and a soul, and be had a third something, which they called the ka. In fact, as time went on the “immaterial” part of man was broken up into a number of princinles which puzzle the most learned Egyptologists. There was the khu. the soul proper, the intelligence. Then there was the ka, or double, the seat of sense and perception, so closely allied to the body that it was almost regarded as an ethereal counterpart of it, even as a sort of guardian angel. There was also the ba. vaguely conceived as a disembodied soul, winged like a bird and flitting about the tombs and cemeteries at night. Moreover, there were other fanciful abstractions — an essence of the heart, of the navel, and so on — and the confusion of all these in what remains of Egyptian thought gives a big task to the expert.
With all this we are not concerned in detail. I suggest that in the mist of prehistoric times, when tribes from very different parts were mingling, three different ideas of the soul were adopted. The ka seems to be the original conception of the soul: the shadow or reflection or double of the body. The khu is a more advanced idea of it, when men learn to reflect on the mind. The ba is an idea suggested to some primitive folk by the white owls that fly solemnly and mysteriously about the graveyards in that part of the world at night. The other elements are abstract ideas of a later date.
There is a curious analogy, which has not been noticed, in advanced Greek thought and Roman Catholic philosophy. Aristotle distinguished three kinds of souls or immaterial principles: a vegetative soul (for functions of a plant-nature), an animal (non- intelligent) soul, and a human or intelligent soul. This idea was taken over (with scores of others) from the Moors of Spain who followed Aristotle, by the schoolmen of the Middle Ages, and it is still taught in Catholic philosophy. For instance, stories of the growth of a corpse’s beard or nails, after the soul has departed, are explained by saying that the “vegetative soul” still lingers and can promote these “plant-like” growths!
The ka or double of the Egyptians has proved very important for us. During life it clung to a man like his shadow (from which it was doubtless derived), and after death it remained in the tomb with the mummy. But a disembodied shadow, it was felt, must be uncomfortable, and life-like statues of the deceased, in wood and stone, were put in the tomb with the mummy. The more life-like they were, the happier the poor ka would be; so right early in Egyptian history we get most wonderful and beautifully carved statues of the dead — of relatively poor workers as well as nobles — the eyes often filled in with enamel and quicksilver. In this way the earliest Egyptians are brought vividly before us.
Moreover, the ka could enjoy pictures, toys, models of food, and so on. The insides of the tombs were therefore richly painted and carved with scenes from daily life, and the little treasures of the dead poor or of a dead king were (as we saw lately in the case of Tut-ankh-amen) stored in it. To the ka we owe an immense amount of our remarkable knowledge of the Egyptians who built the great pyramids five thousand years ago.
But we will now ignore these distinctions and speak only of the “soul.” From the very earliest times the Egyptians kept the primitive belief in survival very definite and vivid. At first the dead were supposed, vaguely, to go to the misty and little known region in the Delta where Osiris had his sea. As this became better known, the home of the dead was located in Syria. When travel made it plain that the dead were not there, they were located in the sky: a happy garden of Osiris, watered by the celestial Nile (the Milky Way).
Even before the dawn of history, however, the Egyptians believed that a man’s soul went to live with the gods (or the god Osiris), and its qualifications for such high company had to be considered. A king might get the laws stretched a little — “The Almighty would never damn a man of his quality,” as the French lady said of a wicked noble who had recently died — but other folks had to be “clean.” Mummifying the body is not an original Egyptian practice. Very early we find a weird practice of cutting off the head and limbs, stripping the flesh from the bones, cleaning the bones, and then putting the human wreck together again to be buried. Thus was the naughty boy or girl cleaned to go into the presence of a god; and I am not sure that it is not a better idea than the Catholic belief in a horrible period of torment in Purgatory (or “purging fire”)!
The next and most important question is: What were the sins which disqualified the Egyptian? Obviously this intense belief in a future life of eternal happiness, which would be forfeited by sin, had a profound influence. We saw that the Babylonian ethical scheme was just as formidable in its way, but the Egyptian must have been even more effective than the medieval belief in hell and heaven. Priests, of course, professed to get forgiveness of sin during life; but there was in Egypt nothing like the mathematical insurance-scheme, so to say, of the Roman Catholic Church.
Here we are well informed, because what is sometimes called the Egyptian bible and commonly called the “Book of the Dead,” gives us the full code of conduct by which the soul was judged. Thoth, the assistant of Osiris who took down the record of a man’s deeds, was the wisdom-god of Egypt, the scribe of the great gods; and what we call the “Book of the Dead” was a collection of writings known to the Egyptians as “the Book of Thoth.”
Here there is an amusing parallel to the behavior of the Jewish priests. In Chap. Ixiv of the “Book of the Dead” it is stated that the volume was discovered at On (or Heliopolis), and it was found to be “in the very handwriting of the god.” Thoth had, of course, taken it down from the dictation of the older and greater gods! This was not the only fabrication of the Egyptian priests. Every legend about the gods was touched up and altered by them to meet every new theological need.
As in Judea, however, the priests worked up older material. Sir E.A.W. Budge, the highest authority on the “Book of the Dead,” and one of the most learned living Egyptologists, tells us (“The Book of the Dead”) that it is “certain” that the book goes back beyond 3000 B.C. In its complete form the collection included forty-two books and dealt with theology, cosmogony, and all kinds of ecclesiastical rules. The part we have is essentially concerned with the long and arduous journey of the soul after death; and most of it is tiresome reading.
The Morals Of The Egyptians
We have now to consider Egyptian morals. There were in early times no “social” works dissecting the practices of the people. Where, as in the case of Rome, there were character-sketches which have come down to us, the darker of them (Juvenal and Ammianus Marcellinus) are no darker than contemporary descriptions of Roman Christians, and are far less reliable. Moralists have a way of being extremely immoral in the matter of truthfulness. So we do not much miss sermons and moralizers. We deduce the morals of Egypt from its ideals and from the incentives to observe them. If an eternal reward for good conduct and annihilation for evil conduct are not sufficient incentives, then the Christian has little reason to speak.
There is, in fact, a sufficient Egyptian literature for our purpose apart from the “Book of the Dead”; fortunately for our conception of the Egyptian people. From the texts of the “Book of the Dead” which are inscribed everywhere, and from the accident, of which I spoke, that the homes of the Egyptians lie under twenty feet of mud while their tombs are more accessible, we are apt to imagine the nation as brooding somberly all their lives upon the terrors of death. Let me correct that impression by quoting from Professor Steindorff’s “Religion of the Ancient Egyptians” a funeral song which he describes as “very old and popular”:
The noble also and the wise are buried in their pyramids.
They that built houses, their place is no longer.
Thou seest what is become of them. …
No one comes thence to tell us what is become of them.
To tell us how it fares with them, to comfort our heart.
Until thou approachest the place whither they are gone.
Forget not to glorify thyself with joyful heart,
And follow thy heart as long as thou livest.
Lay myrrh upon thy head; clothe thyself in fine linen,
Anointing thyself with the truly marvelous things of god.
Adorn thyself; make thyself as fair as thou canst;
And let thy heart sink not.
Follow thy heart and thy joy.
As long as thou livest upon earth:
Trouble not thy heart until the day of mourning come upon thee.
With joyous countenance keep a day of festival, and rest not in it;
For no one takes his goods with him;
Yea, no one returns that is gone hence.
One would almost say that there is a note of healthy skepticism in the song! Certainly, in many places it recalls the wisest book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes.
A nearer or more recognizable approach to liberality of thought is found in certain moral treatises which have been found amongst the remains of ancient Egypt. The writers seem (as Sir E.A.W. Budge expressly contends in his recent book “Tutankhamen”) to have been monotheistic quite early in Egyptian history. The popular gods are rarely mentioned, and then only with the kind of graceful gesture with which a learned Greek might speak of Zeus and Aphrodite. The writers speak of “God,” using a word that implies an eternal deity behind the gods of the priests. It is enough to say that even their one “God” is not very prominent. The writers lay little or no stress on duties to God, and they seem often to mention him in much the same way as Kong-fu-tse, the great Chinese Agnostic, occasionally spoke of “the will of heaven.”
The writers of these little treatises are educated or middle- class Egyptians, and the best known work of the kind is entitled “The Maxims of Ptah-hetep.” It is written on a papyrus kept in the British Museum at London. Naturally, such works cannot easily be dated, and this is put by different scholars at dates so wide apart as 3500 B.C. and 1800 B.C. Even if it belongs to the earlier date, we must remember it is far earlier than any fragment of Hebrew literature; but Professor E. Amelineau, the leading authority on it, is convinced that it goes back to the very earliest period of Egyptian history.
In the manuscript or papyrus (the “Prisse Papyrus”) which we have there is also a part of a book giving counsels or rules of conduct to judges, teachers, and other men of what we now call the middle class. This fragment is quite in keeping with the writings of Ptah-hetep, and the latter will suffice for our purpose. The title is like the title of some of the Hebrew books, an assumed name. Ptah-hetep was an early Egyptian king, and his name was borrowed, as that of Solomon was borrowed later; though in the Egyptian case we must remember that the work became part of no bible, and there was no deceit.
There are Egyptologists who express a regret that the little book is not more spiritual, and that it does not speak of “sin” and “virtue” and “repentance.” Probably the modern reader will appreciate it more on that account. It has something of the practical and humanitarian quality of the Chinese moral works. In fact, it is so far divorced from the priests and the temples that I would — as far as its ideals are concerned — be tempted to compare it with the most beautifully written essays in our own time of Maurice Maeterlinck.
Amelineau himself makes a complaint which at first sight seems to reflect on the moral ideal of these ancient Egyptians. The book completely ignores the poor, he says, as if they did not exist. That should not surprise us. Egypt was a drastic feudal monarchy, and the workers were by no means cared for by law as they were in Babylon. But such sentences as the following warn us not to exaggerate this defect:
If a man wishes to live by terrifying others, God will take the bread from his mouth. … It is the will of God that we cause men no fear.
Justice is great, unchangeable, assured; it has not been disturbed since the age of Osiris [as a king].
The limits of justice are immovable.
Be not puffed up on account of thy science; speak equally with the ignorant and the learned, for the barriers of art are not yet known.
If thou art great after having been of little account, if thou art rich after having been poor, if thou art at the head of thy city, put on one side [the fact] that thou hast reached the first rank. Harden not thy heart because of thy elevation, for thou hast become the steward of God’s property. Put not at the back of thy head him who was thy equal, but be a companion to him.
Command only in order to direct: if thou art despotic, thou goest toward evil. Let thy thoughts be neither haughty nor base.
Treat thy people as well as thou canst: it is the mark of those favored by God.
Let the love thou feelest pass into the heart of those whom thou lovest: cause all men to be loving and obedient.
The last sentence is a variance with those who think the “Maxims” cold and business-like. They give the Golden Rule of Kong- fu-tse almost in the more tender language of Buddha. Put that rule together with the soul’s protestation before Osiris, “I have inflicted no pain,” and you have as high a rule of life as any religion ever taught, and higher than most religions have taught.
The writer, though quite unsystematic in his reflections, comes at last to speak of a man’s “rule” — the Egyptians had not a word corresponding to “duty” — as regards his wife. “She will be doubly attached if the chain is sweet to her,” he says. And the word “chain” must not be misunderstood. Women were just as free and honored in ancient Egypt (as I have shown in my “Woman in Political Evolution”) as in ancient Babylon and (apparently) in ancient Crete. During the whole of the three millennia before Christ woman was free and equal to man in all the great civilizations. Nowhere, until we come to Greece and Rome, do we find anything remotely approaching the long subjection of women under Christianity or the least need for any kind of woman-movement. Women were as free as men in ancient Egypt, and had their own property.
A few more quotations, taken from the translations of Professor Amelineau or Sir E. .W. Budge may be added to those I have given:
The daily bread is under the dispensation of God [“Give us this day our daily bread”]. When thou plowest, labor in the field that God hath given thee.
If thou wouldst be a perfect man, make thy son pleasing to God.
Wisdom is more difficult to find than the emerald, for the emerald is found by slaves amongst pegmatite rocks.
As to the vivacity of an ardent heart, moderate it; the temperate man penetrates obstacles.
The man who is busy all day has not a good moment; and the man who enjoys himself all day will not keep his fortune.
These sentences will suffice for my purpose. Four thousand years ago, at least, probably five thousand years ago, educated Egyptians were monotheistic and had the same code of conduct as we have. Nowhere in the whole of this little treatise is there any appreciable difference in sentiment from the code of the corresponding class in our time.
There is thus no doubt whatever that the notion that a higher ethic came into the world two thousand or even three thousand years ago is entirely false. But I have mentioned the feudalism of the Egyptian system and Professor Amelineau’s complaint about ignoring the poor, and it may be thought that in this respect — social justice — the Egyptians were far behind. What I have quoted, however, from the “Book of the Dead” shows clearly enough that they understood even the social implications of justice; and, if we turn for a moment to a different. kind of Egyptian literature, we shall see it even more clearly.
Curiously enough, it is in the pages of Professor Amelineau himself that we get this evidence best. In one of the finest works (in French) on Egyptian ethics he reminds us that the epitaphs on the earliest tombs echo and confirm the protestations of the “Book of the Dead.” “None was miserable in my time: none was oppressed in my days,” is on a prince’s tomb. On the tomb of a provincial governor is written:
He lowered the shoulder of the proud; he shortened the hour of the cruel; he was the husband of the widow and the refuge of the orphan.
Other inscriptions are:
He was the father of the orphan, the husband of the widow, the eye of the blind, the foot of the lame.
He gave bread to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and clothed the naked.
He was exempt from all vice, virtuous in all his thoughts; there was no guile in him.
I do not suggest for a moment that the men over whose remains these things were written were as virtuous as they are described. Many a man of our time would, if he could return to earth, be amazed to see what his wife had had carved on his tombstone, or the press had written in his obituary notice.
But unquestionably these inscriptions, which go back to about 3000 B.C., give us the Egyptian ideal. Three millennia before the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to have been written its finest contents were commonplaces in Egypt! The seven works of mercy were required of a man by Osiris. The very phrases at times sound like the phrases of the New Testament.
Isis And Horus
Osiris, a very old Egyptian god, generally regarded as a deified king of the prehistoric period, was turned by the priestly legend-makers into a son of the oldest and discarded gods, and brother of Set. Their sisters were Isis and Nephthys. This was the usual way of adjusting the claims of rival deities when political fusion brought their worshipers under one head.
But quite early, in the very dawn of history, it was represented that Set had killed his brother-god Osiris. The story is, of course, quite childish, a long tissue of ridiculous adventures. Set gave a banquet and, producing a beautiful chest or cabinet, said that he would give it to any person present who would lie in it. Osiris took up the challenge, and the conspirators nailed down the lid and poured molten lead on it. It was put on the river and drifted out to the Asiatic coast.
Then began the adventures of Isis in search of the body of her brother and husband (a subsidiary legend said that they had been married in the womb!) until she found it in Syria. She had a sort of intercourse with the relevant part of the dead body, and in this way — a kind of virgin birth — Horus was conceived. Then she hid the body, but Set found it and tore it into fourteen pieces, which he buried in different parts (a kindly legend of the priests to explain why there were fourteen rival “graves of Osiris” in Egypt). Isis renewed her adventures, and recovered the fourteen parts. Seeing her grief, the great god Ra (who had meantime been adopted in Egypt and had to be given an important part) restored to life Osiris, and he passed to the underworld to be lord and judge of the dead.
As far as Osiris is concerned, the legend interests us because his death was annually celebrated with long and very popular ceremonies. A figure of him was laid on a bier, with corn sprouting round it; or corn was actually planted in the figure and grew out of it. On this account Sir J.G. Frazer, as is well known, interprets the ceremony as a celebration of the annual death and rebirth of the vegetation-god. Egyptologists are far from agreed on that. But it seems to me probable that in early religion the annual death and rebirth of the sun would not be very precisely distinguished from the annual death and rebirth of vegetation. The main point is that for several millennia before the time of Christ all Egypt annually celebrated the cruel death and restoration to life of a god who became the judge and recorder of the dead.
Isis naturally shared the popularity of Osiris. During the greater part of Egyptian history she was rather a private or domestic deity, without great temples. She was the model spouse, the model mother: with the women the most popular figure of the Egyptian “holy family:” Late in Egyptian history her importance grew so much that temples were built to her, and her cult spread as far as Rome. It is false to say either that any occult learning was associated with her, as Theosophists say, or that any immorality was associated with her cult. Roman writers tell us that devotees of Isis were quite ascetic; and we know that in Egypt the worship of her was in the latest period associated with a cult of virginity and asceticism. She ended her long career as the predecessor and prototype of the Christian Mary.
Her son Horus interests us in another way. An early Christian work, the “Paschal Chronicle” (Migne ed. xcii, col. 385), tells us that every year the temples of Horus presented to worshipers, in mid-winter (or about December 25th), a scenic model of the birth of Horus. He was represented as a babe born in a stable, his mother Isis standing by. Just in the same way is the birth of Christ dramatized today in every Roman Catholic church in the world on December 25th. The Roman writer Macrobius makes the same statement about the representation of the birth of Horus in the temples (Saturnalia, I., 18), and adds that the young god was a symbol of the rebirth of the sun at that date. The fact is, at all events, beyond question. We are brought to the very threshold of Christianity. The whole world by the year 1 A.D. was familiar with the Egyptian statues or pictures of Isis with the divine babe Horus in her arms.