From The Nineteenth Century.
THE RELIGION OF THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS.
"Oh Egypt! Egypt! Of thy religion fables only will remain, which thy disciples will understand as little as they do thy religion. Words cut into stone will alone remain telling of thy pious deeds. The Scythian, or the dweller by the Indus, or some other barbarian will inhabit thy fair land."
Such was the prophecy of Hermes Trismegistus, too literally fulfilled concerning the religion of the nation which Herodotus considered to be "by far the best-instructed people with whom he was acquainted, since they, of all men, store up most for recollection" — the people who "of all men were most attentive to the worship of the gods," and "most scrupulous in matters of religion" — the people from whose pantheon he gladly acknowledges that "almost all the gods came into Greece." The crowning glory of the wisdom of King Solomon was that it "excelled the wisdom of Egypt."
Of their love of learning and reverence for religion we have abundant proof in their writings on the papyrus of the Nile and the "fine linen of Egypt;" and in the "words cut into stone" on the walls of temples, on the tombs of kings and queens, of priests and priestesses, of noble men and fair women. Every temple had its library attached. On the walls of the library at Dendera is sculptured a catalogue raisonné of manuscripts belonging to the temple. The exhortations to follow learning are unceasing: "Love letters as thy mother. I make its beauty to appear in thy face. It is a greater possession than all honors."
And so we, descendants of the "barbarians," the thought of whose appearance on the banks of the Nile sent such a shiver to the heart of the cultured priest, are able to spell out the religion of the Egyptians; and, unsealing the lips of the dead, bid them speak for us their "sermons in stones."
The interest which attaches to the religion of ancient Egypt is due partly to the proof it gives that our Father — who is, as a Vedic hymn calls him, "the most fatherly of fathers "— fed the souls and spirits of his children when they "hungered and thirsted after righteousness" in the remotest ages of the world; and partly to the light it sheds upon the Mosaic conception and idea of the Divine Being and man's relation to him.
On this account it may be well to bear in mind the extreme antiquity of the Egyptians and the state of their civilization during the serfdom of the Israelites. A pyramid at Sakkárah, near Thebes, has a royal title on the inner door to the fourth king of the first dynasty. If this inscription be correct, then the pyramid was built from five to seven hundred years before the great pyramid of Cheops, and was two thousand years old in the time of Abraham. Of this pyramid we may say, as King Amenemha said of a palace he was building, "Made for eternity, time shrinks before it."
During the period of the slavery of the Israelites, Egypt was already in its decadence, and its religion had lost much of its original purity. We possess books of travels, moral treatises, letters, sacred hymns, and novels, some written before and some during this period. Moses was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," and the influence of this learning is felt in the Pentateuch.
The dry climate and the sand of Egypt have preserved the monuments, the papyri, and the frescoes, which appear fresh as the day on which they were painted. M. Mariette describes his penetrating into one of the sealed sepulchral chambers at Memphis and finding, on the thin layer of sand which covered the floor, the footprints of the workmen who, thirty-seven hundred years before, had laid the Apis mummy in its sarcophagus and closed, as they believed, the door of perfect fitting stone forever.
We shall consider (1) the idea of God, (2) the effect of this idea upon the life of the people, (3) the conception of the future life.
I. The manifold forms of the Egyptian pantheon were nothing, says the late E. Deutsch, but religious masks of the sublime doctrine of the unity of the Deity communicated to the initiated in the mysteries. "The gods of the pantheon were," says M. Pierrot, "only manifestations of the One Being in his various capacities." M. Maspero and other scholars have arrived at the same conclusion.
The following hymn occurs on two papyri in the British Museum. It represents the thought prevalent in Egypt at
- G. Maspero, Le Genre Epistolaire chez les Anciens Egyptiens, p. 48. Paris, 1872.
- Lit Rem. P. 178.
- Dict. d'Arch. Egypt., art. "Religion." Paris, 1875.
- Hist. Anc. des Peuples de 1'Orient, cap. i. Paris, 1876.