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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 48

THE CORN-SPIRIT AS GOD

These considerations lead to the question: In what manner are the gods of the agricultural community evolved? Does the corn-spirit, the genius of the wheat or maize, triumph over and banish the older animistic deities of the chase? These certainly sink into a secondary position, although some gods of totemic origin continue to flourish, despite their new agricultural surroundings, and even survive and hold high positions in the pantheon, perhaps altered by later political and abstract ideas out of all semblance to their original condition. Old tribal gods, too, may become agricultural.

In what manner, then, does the triumphant corn-spirit evolve into the god? And, firstly, what is the nature of a corn-spirit? In animistic belief everything natural possesses life and so, probably, 'soul,' 'ghost,' or 'spirit,' the corn-plant no less than any other object. Representations of corn-and maize-gods almost invariably show them as symbolically decorated with the plant they were supposed to inhabit. The genius, spirit, or informing soul of the grain would in an agricultural community attain such prime importance that within a short time it would undoubtedly receive divine honours.

FROM CORN-SPIRIT TO GOD

The corn-spirit was capable of attaining a high rank of godhead, as we may see from the myth of the Egyptian god Osiris. Osiris was the first to instruct men how to plant the corn-seed, and his annual festival began with the tillage of the soil. In one of the chambers dedicated to him in the great[Pg 114] temple of Isis at Philæ his dead body is represented with stalks of corn springing from it. These are being watered by a priest, and the accompanying inscription reads that this is "Osiris of the mysteries who springs from the returning waters" (of the Nile). Surely such a painting can only illustrate Osiris as a corn-deity. And were not, according to legend, his mangled remains scattered up and down the land of Egypt?—perhaps a mythical way of expressing the sowing or winnowing of the grain, an interpretation supported by the tale that Isis placed the severed limbs of Osiris on a corn-sieve.

Granted, then, that Osiris was a corn-spirit in one of his manifestations, we have now to judge from his tale how far it is possible for the corn-spirit to evolve in the line of godhead—to what altitude of deity it is possible for him to soar and what divine honours he is capable of reaching.

At an early stage of Egyptian history we find Osiris the deity of an agricultural religion, plainly the god of a grain-growing people. His cult persisted through all the exigencies and changes of Egyptian theology and occupied a prominent place in the affections of the people, who, although they acknowledged the worship of Ra and Amen at various epochs, continued faithful to Osiris. His worship by reason of its antiquity and popularity triumphed in the end over more aristocratic and perhaps alien forms. But the early conception of Osiris as the spirit of the corn-plant and afterward as a guardian deity of agriculture, although maintained in essence, was greatly modified and overshadowed by the attributes which were bestowed upon him at a later period. Thus, like Persephone and other corn-deities, he was regarded as a god of the Underworld, or place of the dead, and consequently as judge of the departed. In his history we observe the process of evolution from an animistic spirit inhabiting the corn-plant to a god embodying divine justice, and holding in his hands both reward and punishment.


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