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Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 116

[Pg 257]Instances of this elsewhere are extremely rare, and it would seem as if the deities of Egypt had evolved in many cases from mere animistic conceptions. This is true in effect of all deities, but at a certain point in their history most gods arrive at such a condition of eminence that they soar far above any possibility of being employed by the magician as mere tools for any personal purpose. We often, however, find the broken-down, or deserted, deity coerced by the magician. Of this class Beelzebub might be taken as a good example. A great reputation is a hard thing to lose, and it is possible that the sorcerer may descry in the abandoned, and therefore idle, god a very suitable medium for his purpose. But we find the divinities of Egypt frightened into using their power on behalf of some paltry sorcerer even in the very zenith of their fame. One thing is of course essential to a complete system of sorcery, and that is the existence of a number of spirits, the detritus of a vanished or submerged religion. As we know, there were numerous strata in Egyptian religion—more than one faith had obtained on the banks of the Nile, and it may be that the worshippers of the deities of one system regarded the deities of another as magical on the first introduction of a new system; in fact, these may have been interchangeable, and it is possible that by the time the various gods became common to all the practice had become so universal as to be impossible of abandonment.

If our conclusions are correct, it would seem that Maspero's statement that magic is the foundation of religion is scarcely consonant with fact. We have seen that at least the greater part of barbarian magic so-called (that is, sympathetic magic) is probably not of the nature of magic at all, so that the scope of his[Pg 258] contention is considerably lessened. Budge's dictum that the magic of every other nation of the Ancient East but the Egyptian was directed entirely against the powers of darkness, and was invented to frustrate their fell designs by invoking a class of benevolent beings, is so far an error in that the peoples of the Ancient Orient invoked evil beings equally with good. At the same time it must be admitted that Egyptian magic had much more in common with religion than most other magical systems, and this arose from the extraordinary circumstances of the evolution of religion on Egyptian soil.

Names of Power

One of the most striking circumstances in connexion with Egyptian magic was the use of what has come to be known as 'names of power.' The savage fancies that there is a very substantial bond between a man and his name—that, in fact, magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through the possession of his hair or his nails. Indeed, primitive man regards his name as a vital portion of himself. Sir John Rhys has shown that among the ancient Celts there was a universal belief not only that the name was a part of the man, but that it was that part of him which is termed the 'soul,' and many barbarian races at the present day regard their names as vital parts of themselves and take extraordinary precautions to conceal their real names lest these should give to the witch, or shaman, a handle by which to injure their owners. Howitt has shown in a monograph on Australian medicine-men that the Australian aborigine believes that if an enemy has his name he has something which he can use magically to his detriment. The Australian black is always reluctant to reveal his[Pg 259] real name to anyone. Thus in many Australian tribes a man gives up his name for ever at the time when he undergoes initiation into the ceremonies which confer upon him the rites of manhood. This results in the use of such titles among the members of the tribe as 'brother,' 'nephew,' or 'cousin,' as the case may be. New names are thus probably given at initiation, and carefully concealed for fear of sorcery. We find the same superstition in Abyssinia, Chile, Senegambia, North America, and a score of other countries. To return to Egypt, we find that many Egyptians received two names—the 'great' name and the 'little' name, or the 'true' name and the 'good' name; the latter was that made public, but the 'true' or 'great' name was most carefully concealed.[4] We find the use of these 'names of power' extremely common all over the East. Even to-day, in reading the sacred name, Jahveh, the Jews render it 'Adonai'; but nowhere was its use in such vogue as in Egypt. A good illustration of the power possible to the wielder of a name is found in the legend of the manner in which Isis succeeded in procuring his secret name from Ra. Isis, weary of the world of mortals, determined to enter that of the gods, and to this end made up her mind to worm his secret name from the almighty Ra. This name was known to no mortal, and not even to any god but himself. By this time Ra had grown old, and, like many another venerable person, he often permitted the saliva to flow from the corners of his mouth. Some of this fell to the earth, and Isis, mixing it with the soil, kneaded it into the shape of a serpent, and cunningly laid it in the path traversed by the great god every day. Bursting upon the world in his effulgence, and attended by the entire pantheon, he was astounded when the serpent,[Pg 260] rising from its coil, stung him. He cried aloud with pain, and, in answer to the agitated questions of his inferior divinities, was silent. The poison swiftly overcame him, and a great ague seized him. He called all the gods to come that their healing words might make him well, and with them came Isis, who cunningly inquired what ailed him. He related the incident of the serpent to her, and added that he was suffering the greatest agony. "Then," said Isis, "tell me thy name, Divine Father, for the man shall live who is called by his name." Ra attempted a compromise by stating that he was 'Khepera' in the morning, 'Ra' at noon, and 'Atem' in the evening; but the poison worked more fearfully within him than before, and he could no longer walk. Isis conjured him to tell her his name in order that he might live; so, hiding himself from all the other gods, he acquainted her with his hidden title. When this was revealed Isis immediately banished the poison from his veins, and he became whole again. The scribe takes infinite care not to communicate the sacred name to his readers, and the probabilities are that, although he knew the legend, he did not know the name himself, which was possibly 'unknown' to the wizards of Egypt. The speech of Ra, "I consent that Isis shall search into me and that my name shall pass from my breast into hers," would seem to show that not only was the power of the god inextricably bound up with his real name, but that it was supposed to be lodged in an almost physical sense, somewhere in his breast, whence it could be extricated and transferred with all its supernatural powers to the breast of another. What Isis was able to do was aspired to by every Egyptian magician, who left no stone unturned to accomplish this end. We find magicians threatening Osiris that if he does not do the[Pg 261] bidding of the sorcerer, he will be named aloud in the port of Busiris. The practice is by no means extinct in Egypt, for we find in Lane's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians that the man who knows the most great name of God can, by the mere utterance of it, kill the living, raise the dead, and perform most marvellous miracles; and if this was true of the Egypt of sixty years ago, we may be sure that it is true of the Egypt of to-day.

Occasionally the gods themselves vouchsafed to mankind the secret of their names, and divulged the formulas by which they might be evoked. We find a parallel in the mythology of certain North American Indian tribes, where the secrets of initiatory ceremonies and 'medicine' in general are divulged by deities to men.


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