Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Page: 133Another bird held in great reverence was the bennu, a bird of the heron species which gave rise to the mythical bird, the phœnix. It is identified with the sun, a symbol of the rising and the setting sun. Many fables arose concerning this bird, and are recounted by Herodotus and Pliny. Another sun-bird was the falcon, sacred to Horus, Ra, and Osiris, and this was worshipped throughout Egypt in the pre-dynastic period. In another form, represented with a human head, it was symbolic of the human soul, a[Pg 297] distinction it shared with the heron and swallow, in both of which it was believed the human soul might reincarnate itself. Plutarch says that it was in the form of a swallow that Isis lamented the death of Osiris. Also sacred to Isis was the goose, though one species of it was devoted to Amen-Ra; while the vulture was the symbol of the goddesses Nekhebet and Mut. There is some evidence to prove that certain fish were held as sacred, and worshipped because of their mythological connexion with divers gods and goddesses.
Though as a country Egypt was not rich in trees, yet certain of the family played a not unimportant part in the religious cult, so much so that tree-worship has been accepted as a fact by most Egyptologists. That these trees were held in special veneration would support that belief, though recorded instances of actual tree-worship are rare. This Wiedemann attributes to the same reason that accounts for the scant notice taken in Egyptian texts of animal-worship, though we know from other sources that it formed the most considerable part in popular religion. And the reason is that official religion took but little notice of the 'minor' divinities to whom the people turned rather than to the greater gods; that the priestly class hardly admitted to their pantheon the 'rustic and plebeian' deities of the lower classes. He goes on to say that "so far as we can judge, the reception of tree-worship into temple-service and mythology was always the result of a compromise; the priests were compelled to make concessions to the faith of the masses and admit into the temples the worship of the people's divinities; but they did so grudgingly, and this explains the apparent insignificance[Pg 298] of the official cult of vegetation in Egypt as compared with the worship of the great gods and their cycles."
In their religious symbolism we find the ancient sacred tree which grew in the 'Great Hall' of Heliopolis on the place where the solar cat slew that great serpent of evil, Apep, the place, too, from which the Phœnix rose. The leaves of this tree possessed magical powers, for when Thoth or the goddess Safekht wrote thereon the name of the monarch, then was he endowed with immortality. Again, there was the wonderful tree, a tamarisk, which wound its stem and branches about the chest that held the dead Osiris. An olive-tree is mentioned, too, the habitation of a nameless demon.