Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 140

[1] In the earliest representations the feathers do not appear.

[2] In the earliest sarcophagi in the Serapeum no mummies were found, only a few bones.

[3] Cf. the priests of the kings of the Old Kingdom.

[4] Or Serapis.

[Pg 311]


The output of the great Egyptian masters of the graphic arts has virtually no counterpart, and, bold as this statement may appear at first sight, it will be found to withstand tolerably close scrutiny. Looking at some of the incomparable embroideries of bygone Persia, studying the divine porcelain of mediæval China, or turning over woodcuts by the great Japanese artists of the Ukiyoé school—men like Hokusai and Utamaro, Hiroshige, Yeizan and Toyokuni—we no doubt feel ourselves in touch with something different from European art, yet only partly different. Strange as these Eastern objects are, we find in them a certain familiarity, we find them expressive of emotions and sentiments not altogether unknown to us; and herein Egyptian things are different, for these seem to us entirely novel, they suggest some weird, enchanted world untrodden by the foot of man, perhaps a supernatural world. Nor is their strangeness, their almost sinister unfamiliarity so very hard to explain, it being due not only to the curious conventions which the Egyptian masters obeyed so implicitly century after century, but to the fact that the arts were indigenous to ancient Egypt. Japan derived her painting from China about the fourteenth century A.D.; Chinese work, in turn, frequently discloses affinities with that of ancient Greece; and the great Italian masters of the Renaissance owed much to the Græco-Roman school; while the old Spanish artists, again, were under obligations to the Moors and Arabs, and in England and in Scotland, in Germany and in France, painting did not grow up like a flower, but was rather an exotic imported chiefly from the Low Countries. In short, throughout bygone times, no less essentially than in[Pg 312] modern periods, the arts in nearly every country owed something to those of other countries, a great interchange going forward perpetually; but the mighty works of Egypt were mostly wrought long before the advent of this interchange, and painting and sculpture, architecture and other domestic arts, would seem to have arisen of their own accord in the land of Isis, there to thrive and develop throughout æons of years a pure African product, uninfluenced in any way by the handiwork of other races.

It is always difficult to speak of the origin of anything, for even the oldest thing has its ancestry. And while it is possible to treat with some definiteness of the first great period of Egyptian art, the Thinite, which commenced about 5000 B.C., we have to remember that the output of this period was no exception to the rule aforesaid, but had its ancestry, this consisting in the work of the shadowy pre-dynastic time. Even at that far-off era crude images of living animals were made in Egypt, mud, of course, being the material commonly used; while a great deal of pottery, some of it incised with quaint patterns, was also produced; and if many of these vases and the like are no better than those of most primitive artists, others, again, manifest a distinct feeling for shapeliness and proportion. Nor did the Egyptians of this period eschew that immemorial practice, the decoration of themselves; for among the oldest relics of the country's art are numerous personal ornaments, some made of bone or of shell, some of stone or ivory, and some even of precious metals. Moreover, rude forms of architecture were early essayed, this in its turn begetting pristine efforts at mural embellishment.