Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Page: 134The sycamore, whose shade was so welcome in the brazen glare of Egypt, had its counterpart in the Land of the Dead, and from its midst leaned out a Hathor, Lady of the Underworld, offering sustenance and water to the passing souls. Sometimes it is a palm-tree from which she ministers to the dead, and perhaps it is a leaf from this tree circled by inverted horns which stands for the peculiar symbol of Safekht, the goddess of learning. But the sycamore seems to have been first favourite, and on some monuments it is represented with peasants gathered round fervently paying their devotions to it and making offerings of fruit and vegetables and jars of water. It was always held as sacred to Nut and Hathor, and their doubles were believed to inhabit it, a certain species being regarded as "the living body of Hathor on earth"; indeed, the Memphite Hathor was called the 'Lady of the Sycamore.'
As to the later development of this belief Wiedemann states: "In Ptolemaic times a systematic attempt was made to introduce this form of cult into the temple of every nome; according to the contemporary lists relating to the subject, twenty-four nomes worshipped[Pg 299] the Nile acacia, seventeen the Corda myxa, sixteen the Zizyphus Spina Christi, while other trees, such as the sycamore, the Juniperus Phœnica, and the Tamarisk Nilotica, are named but once or twice. Ten kinds of sacred trees are here mentioned, in all of which as many as three were sometimes worshipped in the same nome." Again, there is evidence to prove that every temple had its sacred tree and sacred groves, whilst it is recorded that rare trees were brought as precious spoil from conquered countries, their roots carefully encased in great chests of earth that they might be planted about temples and palaces.
Amongst flora the only kind which may be said to be sacred is the lotus. In Egyptian symbolism and decoration it is to be found everywhere. From the cup of a lotus blossom issues the boy Horus, the 'rising sun,' and again it is the symbol of resurrection, when Nefer-tem, crowned with the flowers, grants continuance of life in the world to come. On the altars of offering the blossoms were laid in profusion.
The conclusion of the New Empire and the succession of political chaos during what is known as the Libyan period witnessed what was really, so far as Egyptian religion is concerned, the beginning of the end. Thenceforward a gradual decline is apparent in the ancient faith of the Pharaohs, a subtle decay which the great revival of the eighth century and onward was powerless to arrest. The ever-increasing introduction into it of foreign elements, Greek and Persian and Semitic, and the treasuring of the dry husks of ancient things, from which the soul had long since departed—these[Pg 300] sapped the strength and virility of the Egyptian religion, hampered true progress, and contributed to its downfall, till it was finally vanquished and thrown into obscurity by the devotees of Christianity.
At the beginning of the Libyan period, then, there were a number of petty rulers in the land of Egypt—a monarch held court at Tanis, in the Delta; at Thebes the priesthood of Amen's cult were the rulers; other districts were governed by the chief men among the Libyan soldiery. One of these latter, Sheshonk by name, attained supremacy about the middle of the tenth century B.C., and as his capital was at Bubastis, Bast, the cat-headed goddess of that locality, became for a time supreme deity of Egypt, while other Delta divinities also came into vogue. A share of the worship also fell to Amen. It is remarkable that this deity was himself the ruler of Thebes, being represented by a Divine Wife, always the eldest princess of the ruling family. So firm was the belief in the divine government of Thebes that no human monarch of the Late period, however powerful, made any attempt to take the city. Meanwhile a revulsion of feeling occurred against Set, the dark brother of Isis and Osiris. Hitherto his position among the gods of the Egyptian pantheon had been unquestioned, but now he was thrown from his high estate and confused or identified with the dragon Apep; he was no longer a god, but a devil.