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Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 121

[6] that it may be derived from the Egyptian word kemt, which means 'black' or 'dusky,' and which was applied to the country on account of the dark colour of the mud which forms the soil on each side of the Nile. The Christian Egyptians or Copts, it is thought, transmitted the word in the form khême to the Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Arabs. At an early period in their history the Egyptians had attained to considerable skill in the working of metals, and according to certain Greek writers they employed quicksilver in the separation of gold and silver from the native ore. The detritus which resulted from these processes formed a[Pg 270] black powder, which was supposed to contain within itself the individualities of the various metals which had contributed to its composition. In some manner this powder was identified with the body which the god Osiris was known to possess in the underworld, and to both were attributed magical qualities, and both were thought to be sources of light and power. "Thus," says Dr. Budge, "side by side with the growth of skill in performing the ordinary processes of metal-working in Egypt, there grew up in that country the belief that magical powers existed in fluxes and alloys; and the art of manipulating the metals, and the knowledge of the chemistry of the metals and of their magical powers, were described by the name khemeia—that is to say, 'the preparation of the black ore,' which was regarded as the active principle in the transmutation." If this ingenious theory be correct, we have perhaps here not only the genesis of practical alchemy, but also the origin of a part of alchemistical science, which until recently has been strangely neglected. The allusion is to spiritual alchemy, which employed the same symbols and language as were used in the practical science, and which is credited with containing, in allegory, many a deep psychical and mystical secret.[7]

Animal Transformation

The idea of animal transformation was evidently a very ancient one in Egypt. We find from the texts that it was thought that in the future life both the gods and men were able at will to assume the form of certain animals, birds, and plants. Nearly twelve chapters of the Book of the Dead are occupied with spells which provide the deceased with formulæ to enable him to[Pg 271] transform himself into any shape from a bird, a serpent, or a crocodile to a god in the otherworld. He was able to assume practically any form, and to swim or fly to any distance in any direction. Strangely enough, no animal is alluded to in the texts as a type of his possible transformation.

In his valuable work upon Egyptian Magic, by far the most illuminating text-book on the subject, Dr. Budge says: "The Egyptians believed that as the souls of the departed could assume the form of any living thing or plant, so the 'gods,' who in many respects closely resembled them, could and did take upon themselves the forms of birds and beasts. This was the fundamental idea of the so-called 'Egyptian animal-worship,' which provoked the merriment of the cultured Greek, and drew down upon the Egyptians the ridicule and abuse of the early Christian writers." He further states that the Egyptians paid honour to certain animal forms because they considered they possessed the characteristics of the gods, to whom they made them sacred.

In another chapter we have dealt with the question of the totemic origin of certain of the Egyptian deities. There can be little doubt that the origin of the conception whereby the gods took upon themselves the forms of animals was a totemic one, and not magical at all in its basis. Regarding Dr. Budge's other statement that it is wrong to say that the Egyptians worshipped animals in the ordinary sense of the word, one must differentiate between the attitude of primitive man toward his personal or tribal totem and toward the full-fledged deity. It is extremely difficult at this time of day, even with the example of living totemic tribes before us, to ascertain the exact status of the totem as regards worship or adoration. The Egyptian god[Pg 272] certainly received worship of a very thorough description, and if he received it in his totem form, we may take it that it was on account of his status as a deity, and not as a totem. The contention that the animal form of many of the Egyptian gods is not of totemic origin is a vain one, and cannot be upheld in the light of modern researches. To state that the Egyptian gods were not totemic in their origin simply because they were Egyptian is to take up a totally untenable position—a position which cannot be supported by a single shred of evidence.

We do not hear very much concerning animal transformation on earth—that is, few tales exist which describe the metamorphosis of a sorcerer or witch into an animal form. So far as one can judge, the idea of the werewolf or any similar form was unknown in ancient Egypt. But a kindred type of great antiquity was not wanting—that of the vampire. We do not find the vampire in any concrete form, but figured as a ghost—indeed, as the wicked or spiteful dead so common in Hindu, Burmese, and Malay mythology. The Egyptian ghost slew the sleeping child by sucking its breath, and, strangely enough, the charm employed against such a being was the same as that used to-day in the Balkan peninsula against the attacks of the vampire—to wit, a wreath of garlic, a plant the vampire is known to detest.


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