Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 146

Temple of Isis at Philæ—Photo Bonfils.

The Great Simplicity of Egyptian Art

We have spoken of sundry Egyptian works as subtle, delicate, and refined; but these are not characteristic examples, they are not those which chiefly command homage. Subtlety, an exquisite quality, one of the ultimate qualities, is nevertheless closely allied to weakness, and the sustained effort to express it is apt to prove injurious to the artist. Whistler, for one, striving after the delicate, the refined and subtle, too often approximated effeminacy; and some of the greater Japanese painters, preoccupied with dreamy half-tints and febrile lines, came dangerously near producing the merely pretty. In the characteristic work of the Egyptians, however, we never detect a hint of this failing; for theirs is before all else a powerful, bold, simple art, often reflecting a grand, ruthless brutality like that in the great English dramatists. We have seen that it was their simplicity which engaged the Frenchmen of the Empire, eager to make something of a strenuous temper; we have seen that it was this element, too, which commanded homage from the Post-Impressionists, so intensely serious and aspirational a group. And may we not add that this simplicity is the loftiest factor discernible in Egyptian art? May we not add that the Egyptians achieved this merit with a triumph almost unrivalled by other races? And may we not say, finally, that simplicity is the noblest of all artistic qualities? The great poems, those which live from generation unto generation, are most assuredly those in which the subject is expressed with divine simplicity, the poet attaining the maximum of expression with the minimum of means, which is exactly what the great painters and sculptors of Egypt compassed.

[Pg 326]

But simplicity, like subtlety, has its concomitant danger, for what is very simple is apt to be deficient in mystery, so essential an item in a vital work of art. Yet here, again, we find the Egyptian victorious; he has adroitly evaded the peril of baldness. The Egyptian sculptor, producing a portrait, always adumbrates the character of his sitter, itself a mysterious quality, and there is in a host of Egyptian works of art a curious sense of infinity, a suggestion of the eternal riddle of the universe. They are the most mysterious works ever wrought by man, some seeming verily eloquent of silence; we feel in their presence a strange mood of awe, a feeling which has been thus happily expressed:

Tread lightly, O my dancing feet,
Lest your untimely murmurs stir
Dust of forgotten men who find death sweet,
At rest within their sepulchre.

These lines, written by Lady Margaret Sackville while tarrying at Assuan, crystallize the reverential mood which often possesses us in the presence of Egyptian art; and yet, are these entombed men of whom the writer sings really forgotten?

Past ruined Ilion Helen lives,

eternal life vouchsafed to her by the song of Homer; surely bygone Egyptians have, in like fashion, won immortality through the genius of their mighty artists.

[Pg 327]
[Pg 328]

[1] Single statues in the Old Kingdom, figures in groups in Middle Kingdom.

[2] Recueil d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques, romaines et gauloises. Six vols. Paris, 1752-1755.

[3] See Frontispiece and illustration facing p. 120 [reproduced in black and white in the present edition].



The correct pronunciation of Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian can only be gleaned by analogy from that of Coptic, which represents the popular language of Egypt from the third to the ninth century A.D. But this tongue was strongly reinforced by Greek loan-words, and as it was rendered in writing by the Greek alphabet it is difficult to say how much of the native linguistic element it really represents. But its orthography gives a clear idea of its pronunciation, and it is the mainstay of Egyptian philologists in restoring the word-forms of the ancient language, or at least Late Egyptian, between which and the Middle and Old dialects there is a wide linguistic gap. Indeed, the pronunciation of these archaic forms is probably for ever lost to modern scholarship. Speaking generally, Egyptian words and names are usually pronounced by scholars as they are spelt.



AAH'MES, QUEEN. Wife of King of Egypt, 246;
visited by Amen-Ra, 247;
raised above the earth by Neith and Selk 247;
the mother of Queen Hatshepsut, 248;
likeness, of, 318
AAH-TE-HU'TI, or TE-HU'TI. Equivalent, Thoth, 106, 107
AA-RU. Underworld known as, 64
AAT-AB. Shrine of Heru-Behudeti at, 86
AB'TU. A pilot fish to Ra's barque, 131
ABU. Alternative, Elephantine, 152
ABU RO'ASH. Second pyramid built at, 25
AB-Y'DOS. Five priests comprised the staff at, 54;
centre of worship of Osiris, 63;
oracle of Bes at, 281, 310;
likeness of Seti I at, 318
AD-O'NIS. Similarity of myth to that of Osiris, 70;
reference to, 160
Æ-GE'AN. Merchants of the, evolved their alphabet from Egyptian hieratic, 185
Æ'LI-AN, 284, 291
AF'A. Beings in heaven; characteristics of, unknown, 126
AF'RA. Variant of Ra-Osiris, 78;
boat of, meets boats of Osiris in underworld, 117;
as Afra, Osiris continues his journey through the Duat, 118;
passes through body of monstrous serpent, and emerges as Khepera, 118
AFRICA-N. Origin of older religion of Egypt certainly, 3;
Osiris, god of North-east, 64;
origin, Osiris of, 64;
origin, Anqet of, 156
AFRICA-N INFLUENCE. Semitic and, on Egyptian religious ideas, 280-282;
deities, Bes the most important of, 281
AH. The moon-god; Ashtoreth and, 278
AH-U'RA. Wife of Neper-ka-Ptah, 268;
her prophecy regarding Setne, 268;
requests Setne not to remove her husband's book, 266
AÏ. The palace of, 42;
hymn to Aten found in tomb of, 161
AI'NU OF JAPAN. God of the, 146
AK'ER. The lion-god; guarded the gate of the dawn, 291
AK'ER-BLAD. One who helped decipher Rosetta Stone, 187
AK'ER-TET. Celebration of mysteries of, 57
AK'HEN-AT-EN. See Amen-hetep IV.