The recovery of the history of the nearer Orient in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic and Babylonian cuneiform brought with it many unexpected revelations, but none more impressive than the length of the development disclosed. In Babylonia, however, the constant influx of foreign population resulted in frequent and violent interruption of the development of civilization. In Egypt, on the other hand, the isolation of the lower Nile valley permitted a development never seriously arrested by permanent immigrations for over three thousand years. We find here an opportunity like that which the zoologist is constantly seeking in what he calls “unbroken series,” such as that of the horse developing in several millions of years from a creature little larger than a rabbit to our modern domestic horse. In all the categories of human life: language, arts, government, society, thought, religion—what you please—we may trace a development in Egypt essentially undisturbed by outside forces, for a period far surpassing in length any such development elsewhere preserved to us; and it is a matter of not a little interest to observe what humankind becomes in the course of five thousand years in such an Island of the Blest as Egypt; to follow him from the flint knife and stone hammer in less than two thousand years to the copper chisel and the amazing extent and accuracy of the Great Pyramid masonry; from the wattle-hut to the sumptuous palace, gorgeous with glazed tile, rich tapestries, and incrusted with gold; to follow all the golden threads of his many-sided life, as it was interwoven at last into a rich and noble fabric of civilization. In these lectures we are to follow but one of these many threads, as its complicated involutions wind hither and thither throughout the whole fabric.

There is no force in the life of ancient man the influence of which so pervades all his activities as does that of the religious faculty. It is at first but an endeavor in vague and childish fancies to explain and to control the world about him; its fears become his hourly master, its hopes are his constant mentor, its feasts are his calendar, and its outward usages are to a large extent the education and the motive toward the evolution of art, literature, and science. Life not only touches religion at every point, but life, thought, and religion are inextricably interfused in an intricate complex of impressions from without and forces from within. How the world about him and the world within him successively wrought and fashioned the religion of the Egyptian for three thousand years is the theme of these studies.

As among all other early peoples, it was in his natural surroundings that the Egyptian first saw his gods. The trees and springs, the stones and hill-tops, the birds and beasts, were creatures like himself, or possessed of strange and uncanny powers of which he was not master. Nature thus makes the earliest impression upon the religious faculty, the visible world is first explained in terms of religious forces, and the earliest gods are the controlling forces of the material world. A social or political realm, or a domain of the spirit where the gods shall be supreme, is not yet perceived. Such divinities as these were local, each known only to the dwellers in a given locality.

As the prehistoric principalities, after many centuries of internal conflict, coalesced to form a united state, the first great national organization of men in history (about 3400 B.C.), this imposing fabric of the state made a profound impression upon religion, and the forms of the state began to pass over into the world of the gods.

At the same time the voices within made themselves heard, and moral values were discerned for the first time. Man’s organized power without and the power of the moral imperative within were thus both early forces in shaping Egyptian religion. The moral mandate, indeed, was felt earlier in Egypt than anywhere else. With the development of provincial society in the Feudal Age there ensued a ferment of social forces, and the demand for social justice early found expression in the conception of a gracious and paternal kingship, maintaining high ideals of social equity. The world of the gods, continuing in sensitive touch with the political conditions of the nation, at once felt this influence, and through the idealized kingship social justice passed over into the character of the state god, enriching the ethical qualities which in some degree had for probably a thousand years been imputed to him.

Thus far all was national. As the arena of thought and action widened from national limits to a world of imperial scope, when the Egyptian state expanded to embrace contiguous Asia and Africa, the forces of imperial power consistently reacted upon the thought and religion of the empire. The national religion was forcibly supplanted by a non-national, universal faith, and for the first time in history monotheism dawned. Unlike the social developments of the Feudal Age, this movement was exclusively political, artificial, and imposed upon the people by official pressure from above. The monotheistic movement also failed for lack of nationalism. The Mediterranean world was not yet ripe for a world-religion. In the reversion to the old national gods, much of the humane content of the monotheistic teaching survived, and may be recognized in ideas which gained wide currency among the people. In this process of popularization, the last great development in Egyptian religion took place (1300–1100 B.C.), a development toward deep personal confidence in the goodness and paternal solicitude of God, resulting in a relation of spiritual communion with him. This earliest known age of personal piety in a deep spiritual sense degenerated under the influence of sacerdotalism into the exaggerated religiosity of Græco-Roman days in Egypt.

Such is the imposing vista of development in the religion and thought of Egypt, down which we may look, surveying as we do a period of three thousand years or more. To sum up: what we shall endeavor to do is to trace the progress of the Egyptian as both the world about him and the world within him made their impression upon his thought and his religion, disclosing to us, one after another, nature, the national state, the inner life with its growing sense of moral obligation, the social forces, the world state, the personal conviction of the presence and goodness of God, triumphant sacerdotalism, scribal literalism, and resulting decay—in short, all these in succession as felt by the Egyptian with profound effect upon his religion and his thought for three thousand years will constitute the survey presented in these lectures.

The fact that a survey of exactly this character has not been undertaken before should lend some interest to the task. The fact that objective study of the great categories mentioned has ranged them chronologically in their effect upon thought and religion in the order above outlined, disclosing a religious development in the main points analogous with that of the Hebrews, though with differences that might have been expected, should also enhance the interest and importance of such a reconstruction. Indeed one of the noticeable facts regarding the religious and intellectual development of the Hebrews has been that the Oriental world in which they moved has heretofore furnished us with no wholly analogous process among kindred peoples.

It will be seen that such a study as we contemplate involves keeping in the main channel and following the broad current, the general drift. It will be impossible, not to say quite undesirable, to undertake an account of all the Egyptian gods, or to study the material appurtenances and outward usages of religion, like the ceremonies and equipment of the cult, which were so elaborately developed in Egypt. Nor shall we follow thought in all its relations to the various incipient sciences, but only those main developments involved in the intimate interrelation between thought and religion.

One characteristic of Egyptian thinking should be borne in mind from the outset: it was always in graphic form. The Egyptian did not possess the terminology for the expression of a system of abstract thought; neither did he develop the capacity to create the necessary terminology as did the Greek. He thought in concrete pictures, he moved along tangible material channels, and the material world about him furnished nearly all of the terms which he used. While this is probably ultimately true of all terms in any early language, such terms for the most part remained concrete for the Egyptian. We shall discern the emergence of the earliest abstract term known in the history of thought as moral ideas appear among the men of the Pyramid Age in the first half of the third millennium B.C. Let us not, therefore, expect an equipment of precise abstract terms, which we shall find as lacking as the systems which might require them. We are indeed to watch processes by which a nation like the Greeks might have developed such terms, but as we contemplate the earliest developments in human thinking still traceable in contemporary documents, we must expect the vagueness, the crudities, and the limitations inevitable at so early a stage of human development. As the earliest chapter in the intellectual history of man, its introductory phases are, nevertheless, of more importance than their intrinsic value as thought would otherwise possess, while the climax of the development is vital with human interest and human appeal.

As we examine Egyptian religion in its earliest surviving documents, it is evident that two great phenomena of nature had made the most profound impression upon the Nile-dwellers and that the gods discerned in these two phenomena dominated religious and intellectual development from the earliest times. These are the sun and the Nile. In the Sun-god, Re, Atum, Horus, Khepri, and in the Nile, Osiris, we find the great gods of Egyptian life and thought, who almost from the beginning entered upon a rivalry for the highest place in the religion of Egypt—a rivalry which ceased only with the annihilation of Egyptian religion at the close of the fifth century of the Christian era. He who knows the essentials of the story of this long rivalry, will know the main course of the history of Egyptian religion, not to say one of the most important chapters in the history of the early East.

The all-enveloping glory and power of the Egyptian sun is the most insistent fact in the Nile valley, even at the present day as the modern tourist views him for the first time. The Egyptian saw him in different, doubtless originally local forms. At Edfu he appeared as a falcon, for the lofty flight of this bird, which seemed a very comrade of the sun, had led the early fancy of the Nile peasant to believe that the sun must be such a falcon, taking his daily flight across the heavens, and the sun-disk with the outspread wings of the falcon became the commonest symbol of Egyptian religion. As falcon he bore the name Hor (Horus or Horos), or Harakhte, which means “Horus of the horizon.” The latter with three other Horuses formed the four Horuses of the eastern sky, originally, doubtless, four different local Horuses.  We find them in the Pyramid Texts as “these four youths who sit on the east side of the sky, these four youths with curly hair who sit in the shade of the tower of Kati.”

At Heliopolis the Sun-god appeared as an aged man tottering down the west, while elsewhere they saw in him a winged beetle rising in the east as Khepri. Less picturesque fancy discerned the material sun as Re, that is the “sun.” While these were early correlated they at first remained distinct gods for the separate localities where they were worshipped. Survivals of the distinction between the archaic local Sun-gods are still to be found in the Pyramid Texts. Horus early became the son of Re, but in the Pyramid Texts we may find the dead Pharaoh mounting “upon his empty throne between the two great gods” (Re and Horus).  This separation of earth and sky had been accomplished by Shu the god of the atmosphere, who afterward continued to support the sky as he stood with his feet on earth. There, like Atlas shouldering the earth, he was fed by provisions of the Sun-god brought by a falcon.

Long before all this, however, there had existed in the beginning only primeval chaos, an ocean in which the Sun-god as Atum had appeared. At one temple they said Ptah had shaped an egg out of which the Sun-god had issued; at another it was affirmed that a lotus flower had grown out of the water and in it the youthful Sun-god was concealed; at Heliopolis it was believed that the Sun-god had appeared upon the ancient pyramidal “Ben-stone in the Phœnix-hall in Heliopolis” as a Phœnix.  or by a consort who appeared to him, the Sun-god now begat Shu the Air-god, and Tefnut his wife. Of these two were born Geb the Earth-god, and Nut the goddess of the sky, whose children were the two brothers Osiris and Set, and the sisters Isis and Nephthys.

In the remotest past it was with material functions that the Sun-god had to do. In the earliest Sun-temples at Abusir, he appears as the source of life and increase. Men said of him: “Thou hast driven away the storm, and hast expelled the rain, and hast broken up the clouds.”  These were his enemies, and of course they were likewise personified in the folk-myth, appearing in a tale in which the Sun-god loses his eye at the hands of his enemy. Similarly the waxing and waning of the moon, who was also an eye of the Sun-god, gave rise to another version of the lost eye, which in this case was brought back and restored to the Sun-god by his friend Thoth the Moon-god.

As the Egyptian state developed and a uniformly organized nation under a single king embraced and included all the once petty and local principalities, the Sun-god became an ancient king who, like a Pharaoh, had once ruled Egypt. Many folk-myths telling of his earthly rule arose, but of these only fragments have survived, like that which narrates the ingratitude of his human subjects, whom he was obliged to punish and almost exterminate before he retired to the sky.

While the Egyptian still referred with pleasure to the incidents which made up these primitive tales, and his religious literature to the end was filled with allusions to these myths, nevertheless at the beginning of the Pyramid Age he was already discerning the Sun-god in the exercise of functions which lifted him far above such childish fancies and made him the great arbiter and ruler of the Egyptian nation. While he was supreme among the gods, and men said of him, “Thou passest the night in the evening-barque, thou wakest in the morning-barque; for thou art he who overlooks the gods; there is no god who overlooks thee”;  he was likewise at the same time supreme over the destinies of men.

This fundamental transition, the earliest known, transferred the activities of the Sun-god from the realm of exclusively material forces to the domain of human affairs. Already in the Pyramid Age his supremacy in the affairs of Egypt was celebrated in the earliest Sun-hymn which we possess. It sets forth the god’s beneficent maintenance and control of the land of Egypt, which is called the “Horus-eye,” that is the Sun-god’s eye. The hymn is as follows:

“Hail to thee, Atum!
Hail to thee, Kheprer!
Who himself became (or ‘self-generator’).
Thou art high in this thy name of ‘Height,’
Thou becomest (ḫpr) in this thy name of ‘Beetle’ (ḫprr).
Hail to thee, Horus-eye (Egypt),
Which he adorned with both his arms.

“He permits thee (Egypt) not to hearken to the westerners,
He permits thee not to hearken to the easterners,
He permits thee not to hearken to the southerners,
He permits thee not to hearken to the northerners,
He permits thee not to hearken to the dwellers in the midst of the earth,
But thou hearkenest unto Horus.

“It is he who has adorned thee, It is he who has built thee,
It is he who has founded thee.
Thou doest for him everything that he says to thee
In every place where he goes.

“Thou carriest to him the fowl-bearing waters that are in thee;
Thou carriest to him the fowl-bearing waters that shall be in thee.
Thou carriest to him every tree that is in thee,
Thou carriest to him every tree that shall be in thee.
Thou carriest to him all food that is in thee,
Thou carriest to him all food that shall be in thee.
Thou carriest to him the gifts that are in thee,
Thou carriest to him the gifts that shall be in thee.
Thou carriest to him everything that is in thee,
Thou carriest to him everything that shall be in thee.
Thou bringest them to him,
To every place where his heart desires to be.

“The doors that are on thee stand fast like Inmutef,
They open not to the westerners,
They open not to the easterners,
They open not to the northerners,
They open not to the southerners,
They open not to the dwellers in the midst of the earth,
They open to Horus.
It was he who made them,
It was he who set them up,
It was he who saved them from every ill which Set did to them.
It was he who settled (grg) thee, In this thy name of ‘Settlements’ (grg-wt).
It was he who went doing obeisance (nyny) after thee,
In this thy name of ‘City’ (nwt)
It was he who saved thee from every ill
Which Set did unto thee.” 

Similarly the Sun-god is the ally and protector of the king: “He settles for him Upper Egypt, he settles for him Lower Egypt; he hacks up for him the strongholds of Asia, he quells for him all the people,  who were fashioned under his fingers.”  Such was his prestige that by the twenty-ninth century his name appeared in the names of the Gizeh kings, the builders of the second and third pyramids there, Khafre and Menkure, and according to a folk-tale circulating a thousand years later, Khufu the builder of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, and the predecessor of the two kings just named, was warned by a wise man that his line should be superseded by three sons of the Sun-god yet to be born. As a matter of fact, in the middle of the next century, that is about 2750 B.C., the line of Khufu, the Fourth Dynasty, was indeed supplanted by a family of kings, who began to assume the title “Son of Re,” though the title was probably not unknown even earlier. This Fifth Dynasty was devoted to the service of the Sun-god, and each king built a vast sanctuary for his worship in connection with the royal residence, on the margin of the western desert. Such a sanctuary possessed no adytum, or holy-of-holies, but in its place there rose a massive masonry obelisk towering to the sky. Like all obelisks, it was surmounted by a pyramid, which formed the apex. The pyramid was, as we shall see, the chief symbol of the Sun-god, and in his sanctuary at Heliopolis there was a pyramidal stone in the holy place, of which that surmounting the obelisk in the Fifth Dynasty sun-temples was perhaps a reproduction. It is evident that the priests of Heliopolis had become so powerful that they had succeeded in seating this Solar line of kings upon the throne of the Pharaohs. From now on the state fiction was maintained that the Pharaoh was the physical son of the Sun-god by an earthly mother, and in later days we find the successive incidents of the Sun-god’s terrestrial amour sculptured on the walls of the temples. It has been preserved in two buildings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the temple of Luxor and that of Der el-Bahri.

The legend was so persistent that even Alexander the Great deferred to the tradition, and made the long journey to the Oasis of Amon in the western desert, that he might be recognized as the bodily son of the Egyptian Sun-god;  and the folk-tale preserved in Pseudo-Callisthenes gave the legend currency as a popular romance, which survived until a few centuries ago in Europe. It still remains to be determined what influence the Solar Pharaoh may have had upon the Solar apotheosis of the Cæsars, five hundred years later.

From the foundation of the Fifth Dynasty, in the twenty-eighth century B.C., the position of the Sun-god then, as the father of the Pharaoh and the great patron divinity of the state, was one of unrivalled splendor and power. He was the great god of king and court. When King Neferirkere is deeply afflicted at the sudden death of his grand vizier, who was stricken down with disease at the king’s side, the Pharaoh prays to Re;

The conception of the Sun-god as a former king of Egypt, as the father of the reigning Pharaoh, and as the protector and leader of the nation, still a kind of ideal king, resulted in the most important consequences for religion. The qualities of the earthly kingship of the Pharaoh were easily transferred to Re. We can observe this even in externals. There was a palace song with which the court was wont to waken the sovereign five thousand years ago, or which was addressed to him in the morning as he came forth from his chamber. It began:

“Thou wakest in peace,
The king awakes in peace,
Thy wakening is in peace.” 

This song was early addressed to the Sun-god,  The whole earthly conception and environment of the Egyptian Pharaoh were soon, as it were, the “stage properties” with which Re was “made up” before the eyes of the Nile-dweller. When later on, therefore, the conception of the human kingship was developed and enriched under the transforming social forces of the Feudal Age, these vital changes were soon reflected from the character of the Pharaoh to that of the Sun-god. It was a fact of the greatest value to religion, then, that the Sun-god became a kind of celestial reflection of the earthly sovereign. This phenomenon is, of course, merely a highly specialized example of the universal process by which man has pictured to himself his god with the pigments of his earthly experience. We shall later see how this process is closely analogous to the developing idea of the Messianic king in Hebrew thought.

While there is no question whatever regarding the natural phenomenon of which Re, Atum, Horus, and the rest were personifications, there has been much uncertainty and discussion of the same question in connection with Osiris.

The oldest source, the Pyramid Texts, in combination with a few later references, settles the question beyond any doubt. The clearest statement of the nature of Osiris is that contained in the incident of the finding of the dead god by his son Horus, as narrated in the Pyramid Texts: “Horus comes, he recognizes his father in thee, youthful in thy name of ‘Fresh Water.”‘

Similarly in the Pyramid Texts, Osiris is elsewhere addressed: “Ho, Osiris, the inundation comes, the overflow moves, Geb (the earth-god) groans: ‘I have sought thee in the field, I have smitten him who did aught against thee . . . that thou mightest live and lift thyself up.'”  Again when the dead king Unis is identified with Osiris, it is said of him: “Unis comes hither up-stream when the flood inundates. . . . Unis comes to his pools that are in the region of the flood at the great inundation, to the place of peace, with green fields, that is in the horizon. Unis makes the verdure to flourish in the two regions of the horizon”;

Likewise the deceased king Pepi I is addressed as Osiris thus: “This thy cavern,

In a short hymn addressed to the departed king, Pepi II, as Osiris, we should discern Osiris either in the life-giving waters or the soil of Egypt which is laved by them. The birth of the god is thus described: “The waters of life that are in the sky come; the waters of life that are in the earth come. The sky burns for thee, the earth trembles for thee, before the divine birth. The two mountains divide, the god becomes, the god takes possession of his body. Behold this king Pepi, his feet are kissed by the pure waters which arose through Atum, which the phallus of Shu makes and the vulva of Tefnut causes to be.  They come to thee, they bring to thee the pure waters from their father. They purify thee, they cleanse thee, O Pepi. . . . The libation is poured out at the gate of this king Pepi, the face of every god is washed. Thou washest thy arms, O Osiris.”

While the great fountains of water are thus identified with Osiris, it is evidently a particular function of the waters with which he was associated. It was water as a source of fertility, water as a life-giving agency with which Osiris was identified. It is water which brings life to the soil, and when the inundation comes the Earth-god Geb says to Osiris: “The divine fluid that is in thee cries out, thy heart lives, thy divine limbs move, thy joints are loosed,” in which we discern the water bringing life and causing the resurrection of Osiris, the soil. In the same way in a folk-tale thirteen or fourteen hundred years later than the Pyramid Texts, the heart of a dead hero, who is really Osiris, is placed in water, and when he has drunk the water containing his heart, he revives and comes to life.

As we have seen in the last passage from the Pyramid Texts, Osiris is closely associated with the soil likewise. This view of Osiris is carried so far in a hymn of the twelfth century B.C. as to identify Osiris, not only with the soil but even with the earth itself. The beginning is lost, but we perceive that the dead Osiris is addressed as one “with outspread arms, sleeping upon his side upon the sand, lord of the soil, mummy with long phallus. . . . Re-Khepri shines on thy body, when thou liest as Sokar, and he drives away the darkness which is upon thee, that he may bring light to thy eyes. For a time he shines upon thy body mourning for thee. . . . The soil is on thy arm, its corners are upon thee as far as the four pillars of the sky. When thou movest, the earth trembles. . . . As for thee, the Nile comes forth from the sweat of thy hands. Thou spewest out the wind that is in thy throat into the nostrils of men, and that whereon men live is divine. It is ⌈alike in⌉ thy nostrils, the tree and its verdure, reeds—plants, barley, wheat, and the tree of life. When canals are dug, . . . houses and temples are built, when monuments are transported and fields are cultivated, when tomb-chapels and tombs are excavated, they rest on thee, it is thou who makest them. They are on thy back, although they are more than can be put into writing. [Thy] back hath not an empty place, for they all lie on thy back; but [thou sayest] not, ‘I am weighed down.’ Thou art the father and mother of men, they live on thy breath, they eat of the flesh of thy body. The ‘Primæval’ is thy name.”

The earlier views of the Pyramid Texts represent him as intimately associated with vegetable life. We find him addressed thus: “O thou whose ab-tree is green, which (or who) is upon his field; O thou opener of the ukhikh-flower that (or who) is on his sycomore; O thou brightener of regions who is on his palm; O thou lord of green fields.”  In the earliest versions of the Book of the Dead likewise, the deceased says of himself: “I am Osiris, I have come forth as thou (that is “being thou”), I have entered as thou . . . the gods live as I, I live as the gods, I live as ‘Grain,’  I grow as ‘Grain.’ . . . I am barley.” With these early statements we should compare the frequent representations showing grain sprouting from the prostrate body of Osiris, or a tree growing out of his tomb or his coffin, or the effigies of the god as a mummy moulded of bruised corn and earth and buried with the dead, or in the grain-field to insure a plentiful crop.

It is evident from these earliest sources that Osiris was identified with the waters, especially the inundation, with the soil, and with vegetation. This is a result of the Egyptian tendency always to think in graphic and concrete forms. The god was doubtless in Egyptian thought the imperishable principle of life wherever found, and this conception not infrequently appears in representations of him, showing him even in death as still possessed of generative power. The ever-waning and reviving life of the earth, sometimes associated with the life-giving waters, sometimes with the fertile soil, or again discerned in vegetation itself—that was Osiris. The fact that the Nile, like the vegetation which its rising waters nourished awl supported, waxed and waned every year, made it more easy to see him in the Nile, the most important feature of the Egyptian’s landscape, than in any other form.  As a matter of fact the Nile was but the source and visible symbol of that fertility of which Osiris was the personification.

This ever-dying, ever-reviving god, who seemed to be subjected to human destiny and human mortality, was inevitably the inexhaustible theme of legend and saga. Like the Sun-god, after kings appeared in the land, Osiris soon became an ancient king, who had been given the inheritance of his father Geb, the Earth-god. He was commonly called “the heir of Geb,” who “assigned to him the leadership of the lands for the good of affairs. He put this land in his hand, its water, its air, its verdure, all its herds, all things that fly, all things that flutter, its reptiles, its game of the desert, legally conveyed to the son of Nut (Osiris).”

Thus Osiris began his beneficent rule, and “Egypt was content therewith, as he dawned upon the throne of his father, like Re when he rises in the horizon, when he sends forth light for him that is in darkness. He shed forth light by his radiance, and he flooded the Two Lands like the sun at early morning, while his diadem pierced the sky and mingled with the stars—he, leader of every god, excellent in command, favorite of the Great Ennead, beloved of the Little Ennead.”

His sister Isis, who was at the same time his wife, stood loyally at his side; she “protected him, driving away enemies, warding off ⌈danger,⌉ taking the foe by the excellence of her speech—she, the skilful-tongued, whose word failed not, excellent in command, Isis, effective in protecting her brother.”

Nevertheless his assailants at last prevailed against him, if not openly then by stratagem, as narrated by Plutarch, although there is no trace in the Egyptian sources of Plutarch’s story of the chest into which the doomed Osiris was lured by the conspirators and then shut in to die.

The oldest source, the Pyramid Texts, indicates assassination: “his brother Set felled him to the earth in Nedyt”;

When the news reached the unhappy Isis, she wandered in great affliction seeking the body of her lord, “seeking him unweariedly, sadly going through this land, nor stopping until she found him.”  All this is doubtless closely connected with the identification of Osiris with the waters, or even with the sea, and harmonizes easily with the other version of his death, which represents him as drowning. In that version “Isis and Nephthys saw him. . . . Horus commanded Isis and Nephthys in Busiris, that they seize upon Osiris, and that they prevent him from drowning. They turned around the head (of Osiris) . . . and they brought him to the land.”  The lamentations of Isis and Nephthys became the most sacred expression of sorrow known to the heart of the Egyptian, and many were the varied forms which they took until they emerged in the Osirian mysteries of Europe, three thousand years later.

Then the two sisters embalm the body of their brother to prevent its perishing,  Then when they have laid him in his tomb a sycomore grows up and envelops the body of the dead god, like the erica in the story of Plutarch. This sacred tree is the visible symbol of the imperishable life of Osiris, which in the earliest references was already divine and might be addressed as a god. Already in the Pyramid Age men sang to it: “Hail to thee, Sycomore, which encloses the god, under which the gods of the Nether Sky stand, whose tips are scorched, whose middle is burned, who art just in ⌈suffering⌉. . . . Thy forehead is upon thy arm (in mourning) for Osiris. . . . Thy station, O Osiris; thy shade over thee, O Osiris, which repels thy defiance, O Set; the gracious damsel (meaning the tree) which was made for this soul of Gehesti; thy shade, O Osiris.”

Such was the life and death of Osiris. His career, as picturing the cycle of nature, could not of course end here. It is continued in his resurrection, and likewise in a later addition drawn from the Solar theology, the story of his son Horus and the Solar feud of Horus and Set, which was not originally Osirian. Even in death the life-giving power of Osiris did not cease. The faithful Isis drew near her dead lord, “making a shadow with her pinions and causing a wind with her wings . . . raising the weary limbs of the silent-hearted (dead), receiving his seed, bringing forth an heir, nursing the child in solitude, whose place is not known, introducing him when his arm grew strong in the Great Hall” (at Heliopolis?)

The imagination of the common people loved to dwell upon this picture of the mother concealed in the marshes of the Delta, as they fancied, by the city of Khemmis, and there bringing up the youthful Horus, that “when his arm grew strong” he might avenge the murder of his father. All this time Set was, of course, not idle, and many were the adventures and escapes which befell the child at the hands of Set. These are too fragmentarily preserved to be reconstructed clearly, but even after the youth has grown up and attained a stature of eight cubits (nearly fourteen feet), he is obliged to have a tiny chapel of half a cubit long made, in which he conceals himself from Set.

The filial piety of Horus was also a theme which the imagination of the people loved to contemplate, as he went forth to overthrow his father’s enemies and take vengeance upon Set. They sang to Osiris: “Horus hath come that he might embrace thee. He hath caused Thoth to turn back the followers of Set before thee. He hath brought them to thee all together. He hath turned back the heart of Set before thee, for thou art greater than he. Thou hast gone forth before him, thy character is before him. Geb hath seen thy character, he hath put thee in thy place. Geb hath brought to thee thy two sisters to thy side: it is Isis and Nephthys. Horus hath caused the gods to unite with thee and fraternize with thee. . . . He hath caused that the gods avenge thee. Geb hath placed his foot on the head of thy enemy, who hath retreated before thee. Thy son Horus hath smitten him. He hath taken away his eye from him; he hath given it to thee, that thou mightest become a soul thereby and be mighty thereby before the spirits. Horus hath caused that thou seize thy enemies and that there should be none escaping among them before thee. . . . Horus hath seized Set, he hath laid him for thee under thee, that he (Set) may lift thee up and tremble under thee as the earth trembles. . . . Horus hath caused that thou shouldest recognize him in his inner heart, without his escaping from thee. O Osiris, . . . Horus hath avenged thee.”  “Loose thou Horus from his bonds, that he may punish the followers of Set. Seize them, remove their heads, wade thou in their blood. Count their hearts in this thy name of ‘Anubis counter of hearts.'”

The battle of Horus with Set, which as we shall see was a Solar incident, waged so fiercely that the young god lost his eye at the hands of his father’s enemy. When Set was overthrown, and it was finally recovered by Thoth, this wise god spat upon the wound and healed it. This method of healing the eye, which is, of course, folk-medicine reflected in the myth, evidently gained wide popularity, passed into Asia, and seems to reappear in the New Testament narrative, in the incident which depicts Jesus doubtless deferring to recognized folk-custom in employing the same means to heal a blind man. Horus now seeks his father, even crossing the sea in his quest,  that he may raise his father from the dead and offer to him the eye which he has sacrificed in his father’s behalf. This act of filial devotion, preserved to us in the Pyramid Texts (see above, p. 12), made the already sacred Horus-eye doubly revered in the tradition and feeling of the Egyptians. It became the symbol of all sacrifice; every gift or offering might be called a “Horus-eye,” especially if offered to the dead. Excepting the sacred beetle, or scarab, it became the commonest and the most revered symbol known to Egyptian religion, and the myriads of eyes, wrought in blue or green glaze, or even cut from costly stone, which fill our museum collections, and are brought home by thousands by the modern tourist, are survivals of this ancient story of Horus and his devotion to his father.

A chapter of the Pyramid Texts tells the whole story of the resurrection. “The gods dwelling in Buto ⌈approach⌉, they come to Osiris  at the sound of the mourning of Isis, at the cry of Nephthys, at the wailing of these two horizon-gods over this Great One who came forth from the Nether World. The souls of Buto wave their arms to thee, they . strike their flesh for thee, they throw their arms for thee, they beat on their temples for thee. They say of thee, O Osiris:

“‘Though thou departest, thou comest (again); though thou sleepest, thou wakest (again); though thou diest, thou livest (again).’

“‘Stand up, that thou mayest see what thy son has done for thee. Awake, that thou mayest hear what Horus has done for thee.’

“‘He has smitten (ḥy) for thee the one that smote thee, as an ox (yḥ); he has slain (sm’) for thee the one that slew thee, as a wild bull (sm’). He has bound for thee the one that bound thee.’

“‘He has put himself under thy daughter, the Great One (fem.) dwelling in the East, that there may be no mourning in the palace of the gods.’

“Osiris speaks to Horus when he has removed the evil that was in Osiris on his fourth day, and had forgotten what was done to him on his eighth day. Thou hast come forth from the lake of life, purified in the celestial lake, becoming Upwawet. Thy son Horus leads thee when he has given to thee the gods who were against thee, and Thoth has brought them to thee. How beautiful are they who saw, how satisfied are they who beheld, who saw Horus when he gave life to his father, when he offered satisfaction to Osiris before the western gods.”

“Thy libation is poured by Isis, Nephthys has purified thee, thy two great and mighty sisters, who have put together thy flesh, who have fastened together thy limbs, who have made thy two eyes to shine (again) in thy head.”

Sometimes it is Horus who puts together the limbs of the dead god,

The malice of Set was not spent, however, even after his defeat by Horus and the resurrection of Osiris. He entered the tribunal of the gods at Heliopolis and lodged with them charges against Osiris. We have no clear account of this litigation, nor of the nature of the charges, except that Set was using them to gain the throne of Egypt. There must have been a version in which the subject of the trial was Set’s crime in slaying Osiris. In dramatic setting the Pyramid Texts depict the scene. “The sky is troubled, earth trembles, Horus comes, Thoth appears. They lift Osiris from his side; they make him stand up before the two Divine Enneads. ‘Remember O Set, and put it in thy heart, this word which Geb spoke, and this manifestation which the gods made against you in the hall of the prince in Heliopolis, because thou didst fell Osiris to the earth. When thou didst say, O Set, “I have not done this to him,” that thou mightest prevail thereby, being saved that thou mightest prevail against Horus. When thou didst say, O Set, “It was he who bowed me down” . . . When thou didst say, O Set, “It was he who attacked me” . . . Lift thee up, O Osiris! Set has lifted himself. He has heard the threat of the gods who spoke of the Divine Father. Isis has thy arm, Osiris; Nephthys has thy hand and thou goest between them.'”

But Osiris is triumphantly vindicated, and the throne is restored to him against the claims of Set. “He is justified through that which he has done. . . . The Two Truths

The verdict rendered in favor of Osiris, which we translate “justified,” really means “true, right, just, or righteous of voice.” It must have been a legal term already in use when this episode in the myth took form. It is later used in frequent parallelism with “victorious” or “victory,” and possessed the essential meaning of “triumphant” or “triumph,” both in a moral as well as a purely material and physical sense. The later development of the Osirian litigation shows that it gained a moral sense in this connection, if it did not possess it in the beginning. We shall yet have occasion to observe the course of the moral development involved in the wide popularity of this incident in the Osiris myth.

The gods rejoice in the triumph of Osiris.
“All gods dwelling in the sky are satisfied;
All gods dwelling in the earth are satisfied;
All gods southern and northern are satisfied;
All gods western and eastern are satisfied;
All gods of the nomes are satisfied;
All gods of the cities are satisfied;

with this great and mighty word that came out of the mouth of Thoth in favor of Osiris, treasurer of life, seal-bearer of the gods.”

The penalty laid upon Set was variously narrated in the different versions of the myth. The Pyramid Texts several times refer to the fact that Set was obliged to take Osiris on his back and carry him. “Ho! Osiris! Rouse thee! Horus causes that Thoth bring to thee thy enemy. He places thee upon his back. Make thy seat upon him. Ascend and sit down upon him; let him not escape thee”;  or again, “The great Ennead avenges thee; they put for thee thy enemy under thee. Carry one who is greater than thou,’ say they of him. . . . ‘Lift up one greater than thou,’ say they.”

The risen and victorious Osiris receives the kingdom. “The sky is given to thee, the earth is given to thee, the fields of Rushes are given to thee, the Horite regions, the Setite regions, the cities are given to thee. The nomes are united for thee by Atum. It is Geb (the Earth-god) who speaks concerning it.”  There he is proclaimed king. Horus “proclaimed the royal decree in the places of Anubis.  It was a subterranean kingdom of the dead over which Osiris reigned, and it was as champion and friend of the dead that he gained his great position in Egyptian religion.

But it will be discerned at once that the Osiris myth expressed those hopes and aspirations and ideals which were closest to the life and the affections of this great people. Isis was the noblest embodiment of wifely fidelity and maternal solicitude, while the highest ideals of filial devotion found expression in the story of Horus. About this group of father, mother, and son the affectionate fancy of the common folk wove a fair fabric of family ideals which rise high above such conceptions elsewhere. In the Osiris myth the institution of the family found its earliest and most exalted expression in religion, a glorified reflection of earthly ties among the gods. The catastrophe and the ultimate triumph of the righteous cause introduced here in a nature-myth are an impressive revelation of the profoundly moral consciousness with which the Egyptian at a remote age contemplated the world. When we consider, furthermore, that Osiris was the kindly dispenser of plenty, from whose prodigal hand king and peasant alike received their daily bounty, that he was waiting over yonder behind the shadow of death to waken all who have fallen asleep to a blessed hereafter with him, and that in every family group the same affections and emotions which had found expression in the beautiful myth were daily and hourly experiences, we shall understand something of the reason for the universal devotion which was ultimately paid the dead god.

The conquest of Egypt by the Osiris faith was, however, a gradual process. He had once in prehistoric times been a dangerous god, and the tradition of his unfavorable character survived in vague reminiscences long centuries after he had gained wide popularity.  and even in the Pyramid Texts he is identified with the “First of the Westerners.”

“Thou art on the throne of Osiris,
As representative of the First of the Westerners.” 

[paragraph continues]As “Lord of Abydos,” Osiris continued his triumphant career, and ultimately was better known under this title than by his old association with Busiris (Dedu). All this, however, belongs to the historical development which we are to follow.

In spite of its popular origin we shall see that the Osirian faith, like that of the Sun-god, entered into the most intimate relations with the kingship. In probably the oldest religious feast of which any trace has been preserved in Egypt, known as the “Heb-Sed” or “Sed-Feast,” the king assumed the costume and insignia of Osiris, and undoubtedly impersonated him. The significance of this feast is, however, entirely obscure as yet. The most surprising misunderstandings have gained currency concerning it, and the use of it for far-reaching conclusions before the surviving materials have all been put together is premature.

One of the ceremonies of this feast symbolized the resurrection of Osiris, and it was possibly to associate the Pharaoh with this auspicious event that he assumed the rôle of Osiris. In the end the deceased Pharaoh became Osiris and enjoyed the same resuscitation by Horus and Isis, all the divine privileges, and the same felicity in the hereafter which had been accorded the dead god.

Some attempt to correlate the two leading gods of Egypt, the Sun-god and Osiris, was finally inevitable. The harmonization was accomplished by the Solar theologians at Heliopolis, though not without inextricable confusion, as the two faiths, which had already interfused among the people, were now wrought together into a theological system. It is quite evident from the Pyramid Texts that the feud between Horus and Set was originally a Solar incident, and quite independent of the Osiris myth. We find that in the mortuary ceremonies, Set’s spittle is used to purify the dead in the same words as that of Horus;  Set was doubtless some natural phenomenon like the others of the group to which he belongs, and it is most probable that he was the darkness. He and Horus divided Egypt between them, Set being most commonly represented as taking the South and Horus the North. The oldest royal monuments of Egypt represent the falcon of Horus and the strange animal (probably the okapi) of Set, side by side, as the symbol of the kingship of the two kingdoms now ruled by one Pharaoh. It is not our purpose, nor have we the space here, to study the question of Set, further than to demonstrate that he belonged to the Solar group, on full equality with Horus.

By what process Set became the enemy of Osiris we do not know. The sources do not disclose it. When this had once happened, however, it would be but natural that the old rival of Set, the Solar Horus, should be drawn into the Osirian situation, and that his hostility toward Set should involve his championship of the cause of Osiris. An old Memphite document of the Pyramid Age unmistakably discloses the absorption of the Set-Horus feud by the Osirian theology. In dramatic dialogue we discern Geb assigning their respective kingdoms to Horus and Set, a purely Solar episode, while at the same time Geb involves in this partition the incidents of the Osirian story.

“Geb says to Set: ‘Go to the place where thou wast born.'”

“Geb says to Horus: ‘Go to the place where thy father was drowned.'”

“Geb says to Horus and Set: ‘I have separated you.'”

“Set: Upper Egypt.”

“Horus: Lower Egypt.”

“[Horus and Set]: Upper and Lower Egypt.”

“Geb says to the Divine Ennead: ‘I have conveyed my heritage to this my heir, the son of my first-born son. He is my son, my child.'”

The equality of Horus and Set, as in the old Solar theology, is quite evident, but Horus is here made the son of Osiris. An ancient commentator on this passage has appended the following explanation of Geb’s proceeding in assigning the kingdoms.

“He gathered together the Divine Ennead and he separated Horus and Set. He prevented their conflict and he installed Set as king of Upper Egypt in Upper Egypt, in the place where he was born in Sesesu. Then Geb installed Horus as king of Lower Egypt, in Lower Egypt in the place where his father was drowned, at (the time of) the dividing of the Two Lands.”

“Then Horus stood in (one) district, when they satisfied the Two Lands in Ayan—that is the boundary of the Two Lands.”

“Then Set stood in the (other) district, when they satisfied the Two Lands in Ayan—that is the boundary of the Two Lands.

“It was evil to the heart of Geb, that the portion of Horus was (only) equal to the portion of Set. Then Geb gave his heritage to Horus, this son of his first-born son, and Horus stood in the land and united this land.”

Here the Osirian point of view no longer permits Set and Horus to rule in equality side by side, but Set is dispossessed, and Horus receives all Egypt. The Solar theologians of Heliopolis certainly did not take this position in the beginning. They built up a group, which we have already noted, of nine gods (commonly called an ennead), headed by the ancient Atum, and among this group of nine divinities appears Osiris, who had no real original connection with the Solar myth. As Horus had no place in the original ennead, it was the more easy to appropriate him for the Osirian theology. As the process of correlation went on, it is evident also that, like Osiris, the local gods of all the temples were more and more drawn into the Solar theology. The old local Sun-gods had merged, and we find five Solar divinities in a single list in the Pyramid Texts, all addressed as Re.  A distinct tendency toward Solar henotheism, or even pantheism, is now discernible. Each of the leading temples and priesthoods endeavored to establish the local god as the focus of this centralizing process. The political prestige of the Sun-god, however, made the issue quite certain. It happens, however, that the system of a less important temple than that of Heliopolis is the one which has survived to us. A mutilated stela in the British Museum, on which the priestly scribes of the eighth century B.C. have copied and rescued a worm-eaten papyrus which was falling to pieces in their day, has preserved for two thousand seven hundred years more, and thus brought down to our time, the only fragment of the consciously constructive thought of the time, as the priests endeavored to harmonize into one system the vast complex of interfused local beliefs which made up the religion of Egypt.

It was the priests of Ptah, the master craftsman of the gods, whose temple was at Memphis, who are at this juncture our guides in tracing the current of religious thought in this remote age. This earliest system, as they wrought it out, of course made Ptah of Memphis the great and central figure. He too had his Memphite ennead made up of a primeval Ptah and eight emanations or manifestations of himself. In the employment of an ennead to begin with, the theologians of Memphis were betraying the influence of Heliopolis, where the first ennead had its origin. The supremacy of the Solar theology, even in this Memphite system, is further discernible in the inevitable admission of the fact that Atum the Sun-god was the actual immediate creator of the world. But this they explained in this way. One of the members of the Memphite ennead bears the name “Ptah the Great,” and to this name is appended the remarkable explanation, “he is the heart and tongue of the ennead,” meaning of course the Memphite ennead. This enigmatic “heart and tongue” are then identified with Atum, who, perhaps operating through other intermediate gods, accomplishes all things through the “heart and tongue.” When we recall that the Egyptian constantly used “heart” as the seat of the mind, we are suddenly aware also that he possessed no word for mind. A study of the document demonstrates that the ancient thinker is using “heart” as his only means of expressing the idea of “mind,” as he vaguely conceived it. From Ptah then proceeded “the power of mind and tongue” which is the controlling power in “all gods, all men, all animals, and all reptiles, which live, thinking and commanding that which he wills.”

After further demonstrating that the members of Atum, especially his mouth which spake words of power, were made up of the ennead of Ptah, and thus of Ptah himself, our thinker passes on to explain his conception of the function of “heart (mind) and tongue.” “When the eyes see, the ears hear, and the nose breathes, they transmit to the heart. It is he (the heart) who brings forth every issue, and it is the tongue which repeats the thought of the heart. He  who made all food, all offerings, by this word; who made that which is loved and that which is hated. It was he who gave life to the peaceful and death to the guilty.”

After this enumeration of things chiefly supermaterial, of which the mind and the tongue were the creator, our Memphite theologian passes to the world of material things.

“It was he who made every work, every handicraft, which the hands make, the going of the feet, the movement of every limb, according to his command, through the thought of the heart that came forth from the tongue.”

“There came the saying that Atum, who created the gods, stated concerning Ptah-Tatenen: ‘He is the fashioner of the gods, he, from whom all things went forth, even offerings, and food and divine offerings and every good thing! And Thoth perceived that his strength was greater than all gods. Then Ptah was satisfied, after he had made all things and every divine word.”

“He fashioned the gods, he made the cities, he settled the nomes. He installed the gods in their holy places, he made their offerings to flourish, he equipped their holy places. He made likenesses of their bodies to the satisfaction of their hearts. Then the gods entered into their bodies of every wood and every stone and every metal. Everything grew upon its trees whence they came forth. Then he assembled all the gods and their kas (saying to them): ‘Come ye and take possession of “Neb-towe,” the divine store-house of Ptah-Tatenen, the great seat, which delights the heart of the gods dwelling in the House of Ptah, the mistress of life . . . whence is furnished the “Life of the Two Lands.”‘”

In this document we are far indeed from the simple folk-tales of the origin of the world, which make up the mythology of Egypt. Assuming the existence of Ptah in the beginning, the Memphite theologian sees all things as first existing in the thought of the god. This world first conceived in his “heart,” then assumed objective reality by the utterance of his “tongue.” The utterance of the thought in the form of a divine fiat brought forth the world. We are reminded of the words in Genesis, as the Creator spoke, “And God said.” Is there not here the primeval germ of the later Alexandrian doctrine of the “Logos”?

We should not fail to understand in this earliest philosophico-religious system, that the world which Ptah brought forth was merely the Egyptian Nile valley. As we shall discover in our further progress, the world-idea was not yet born. This Memphite Ptah was far from being a world-god. The world, in so far as it was possible for the men of the ancient Orient to know it, was still undiscovered by the Memphite theologians or any other thinkers of that distant age, and the impression which the world-idea was to make on religion was still over a thousand years in the future when this venerable papyrus of the Pyramid Age was written. The forces of life which were first to react upon religion were those which spent themselves within the narrow borders of Egypt, and especially those of moral admonition which dominate the inner world and which had already led the men of this distant age to discern for the first time in human history that God “gave life to the peaceful and death to the guilty.”

by James Henry Breasted



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