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Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 139

An Architectural Renaissance

The cult of the Old Kingdom persisted through the early, and perhaps even into the later, Hellenic period. Those temples raised in the time of the Ptolemies[Pg 309] exhibit strong resemblances to those of the Old Kingdom. Dendereh, for example, was built to a design of the time of Kheops, and Imhotep, the hero-god, was the architect of Edfû. The walls of these Ptolemaic temples were covered with inscriptions dealing with the rites and customs used therein. Temple ceremonials and festivals, such as that of Horus of Edfû, were held as in ancient times. The ancient written language was studied by the priests, who thus had at their command a tongue unknown to the laity. A reversion to ancient things was evident in every phase of the Egyptian religion, and the Greeks, far from dispelling the dust of long-past centuries, entered partly into the spirit of the time, gave their protection to the old customs and cults, and themselves worshipped at the shrines of sacred cats, cows, and crocodiles. Truly a strange position for the fathers of classicism!

During the early centuries of the Christian era foreign religions began to penetrate the land of the Pharaohs and to mingle with the Græco-Egyptian compound in a manner most perplexing to the student of the period. The predominant alien faith, and the one which finally triumphed, was Christianity. Osiris, the Greek gods, and the archangel Sabaoth are mentioned in the same breath. In the magical texts especially this confusion is noticeable, for they frequently contain Christian, Jewish, Greek, and Egyptian allusions. Doubtless the magicians reasoned that if the deities of one faith failed them those of another might prove more successful, and so, to make assurance doubly sure, they included all the gods they knew in their formulæ.

Change in the Conception of the Underworld

Meanwhile a change took place in the popular conception of the underworld. It was still the Duat,[Pg 310] governed by Osiris or Sarapis; but now it tended to be a place of punishment for the wicked, where the future of the deceased was influenced less by his tomb-furnishings and inscriptions than by the conduct of his life while on earth. Nevertheless, the burial rites continued to be elaborate and costly. Mummification was extensively practised even among Christians, and amulets were buried in their coffins. In the fourth and fifth centuries there was still a considerable proportion of pagans in the country: in Alexandria Sarapis was the principal deity; in Memphis Imhotep was worshipped under the name of Asklepios; Zeus, Apollo, and Rhea were favourite divinities, while at Abydos the oracle of Bes was worshipped.

Twilight of the Gods

At length, however, Christian fanaticism blotted out the ancient religion of the Pharaohs, as well as many of its priests and adherents. The temple of Sarapis was stormed amid scenes of riot and turbulence, and the last refuge of the Egyptian faith was gone. Henceforth the names and myths of the ancient deities survived only in the spells and formulæ of the magicians, while their dreary ghosts haunted the ruined temples wherein they were nevermore to reign.


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