Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
The Pyramids at Gizeh—Photo Bonfils
Several of the pyramids alluded to in the ancient texts of these buildings have either entirely disappeared, or cannot be identified. Thus the burial-place of Shepseskaf, known by the delightful title of 'the Cool,' is unknown. We can picture the shaven priests stealing into the recesses of its thickly shadowed galleries to shelter from the fierce Egyptian sun. No doubt the ka of Shepseskaf found its shade acceptable[Pg 26] enough as he played at draughts with his mummy in its inaccessible chambers. It is known that the pyramid of Menkauhor, 'the most divine edifice,' is somewhere at Saqqara, but which of its stately piles can be attributed to him it is impossible to say. So with the pyramid of Assa, who is mentioned in tablets at Saqqara, Karnak, and elsewhere. This was called 'the Beautiful.' Neither can the similarly named 'beautiful rising' of Rameses and the 'firm life' of Neferarkara be satisfactorily placed. It is highly unlikely that these structures can have crumbled into a ruin so complete that no trace whatsoever has been left of them—that is, unless they were built of mud bricks. The brick pyramid of Amenemhat III at Howara, however, still remains, as does that of Senusert III at Dahshur.
So much has been written of late concerning the pyramids that it would be idle to pursue the subject further in a work such as this, which professes to give an account of the mythology of Egypt and an outline only of its polity and arts. There can be little interest for the general reader in mere measurements and records of bulk.
Mummification was, as has been said, probably an invention of the Osirian cult. The priests of Osiris taught that the body of man was a sacred thing and not to be abandoned to the beasts of the desert, because from it would spring the effulgent and regenerated envelope of the purified spirit. In prehistoric times some attempt appears to have been made toward preservation, either by drying in the sun or smearing the corpse with a resinous preparation; and as the centuries went by this primitive treatment developed into[Pg 27] the elaborate art of embalming, with all its gloomy, if picturesque, ceremonial. By the time of the Middle Kingdom, as is evidenced by the graves of Beni Hassan, the practice prevailed of removing the internal organs and placing them in a box divided into four compartments inscribed with the names of the four canopic deities who presided over them. In some burials of this date, to avoid the trouble of removing the intestines those responsible for the obsequies simply made up parcels which purported, by written descriptions upon them, to contain the organs in question, believing, doubtless, that the written statement that these bundles contained the heart, lungs, and so forth was magically efficacious, and quite as satisfactory as their real presence within the receptacle.
We do not find the process of mummification reaching any degree of elaboration until the period of the New Kingdom. At first it was confined to the Pharaohs alone, who were identified with Osiris; but the necessity for a retinue which would attend him in the dark halls of the Tuat prescribed that his courtiers also should be embalmed. The custom was taken up by the wealthy, and filtered down from rank to rank until at length even the corpse of the poorest Egyptian was at least subjected to a process of pickling in a bath of natron. The art reached its height in the Twenty-first Dynasty. At that period the process was costly in the extreme, and a mummification of an elaborate kind cost about £700 in modern currency. When the relations of the deceased consulted the professional embalmers they were shown models of mummies, one of which they selected. The corpse was then placed in the hands of the embalmers. First of all they injected a corrosive into the brain cavity, after which its softened contents were removed through the nostrils by hooked instruments. A mummifier,[Pg 28] whose office rendered him almost a pariah, so sacred was the human body considered, made an incision in the corpse with a flint knife, a time-honoured instrument that seems eloquent of prehistoric practice. The intestines and the principal organs were then removed, washed, and steeped in palm wine. The body then underwent a drying process, and, according to the period, was stripped of its flesh, only the skin remaining, or was stuffed with sawdust, skilfully introduced through incisions, so that the natural form was completely restored. The cavity occupied by the organs might otherwise be stuffed with myrrh, cassia, or other spices. When sewn up the corpse was next pickled in a bath of natron for seventy days, and then meticulously bandaged with linen which had been dipped in some adhesive substance. A coffin was built for it which retained the shape of the human form, and which was gaily and elaborately painted with figures of divinities, amulets, symbols, and sometimes burial scenes. The carven countenance of the deceased surmounted this funerary finery, and the short wig, typical of the living Egyptian, glowed in gilded hues or in less costly colour above the conventional death-mask, which in general bore but little resemblance to him.