Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 26

In chapter i of the Book of the Dead, too, we[Pg 57] encounter the phrase, "I look upon the hidden things in Re-stau"—an allusion to the ceremonies which were performed in the sanctuary of Seker, the god of death at Saqqara. These typified the birth and death of the sun-god, and were celebrated betwixt midnight and dawn. Again, in chapter cxxv of the Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani) we read, "I have entered into Re-stau [the other world of Seker, near Memphis] and I have seen the Hidden One [or mystery] who is therein."

Chapter cxlviii (Saïte Recension) is to be recited "on the day of the new moon, on the sixth-day festival, on the fifteenth-day festival, on the festival of Uag, on the festival of Thoth, on the birthday of Osiris, on the festival of Menu, on the night of Heker, during the mysteries of Maāt, during the celebration of the mysteries of Akertet," and so forth. Herodotus, who was supposed to have been initiated into these mysteries, is righteously cryptic concerning them, and just as he has aroused our interest to fever heat he invariably sees fit to remark that his lips are sealed on the subject.

But is there anything so very extraordinary in these terrible doings? Theosophists and others would lead us to suppose that in the gloomy crypts of Egypt weird spiritistic rites of evocation and magical ceremonies of dark import were gone through. What are the probabilities?

The Greek Mysteries

Let us briefly examine the mysteries of ancient Greece. We find that these are for the most part pre-Hellenic, and that the conquered populations of the country adopted the mystic attitude in order to shroud their religious ceremonies from the eyes of the[Pg 58] invaders. Now those early populations inherited a strong cultural influence from Egypt. The most important of the mysteries was perhaps the Eleusinian, and we may take it as typical of the Greek religious mysteries as a whole. The chief figures in this mysterious cult were Demeter and Kore (or Persephone) and Pluto. Now these are all deities of the underworld and, like many other gods of Hades all the world over, they are also deities possessing an agricultural significance. Much remains uncertain regarding the actual ritual in the hall of the Mystæ, but one thing is certain, and that is that the ceremony was in the nature of a religious drama or Passion-play, in which were enacted the adventures of Demeter and Kore, symbolic of the growth of the corn. Hippolytus also stated that a cornstalk was shown to the worshippers at the Eleusinian mysteries. The whole mystery then resolved itself into symbolism of the growth of the crops. Exactly how the ceremonies in connexion with this came to have the appearance of those usually associated with a savage secret society is not quite clear. The blackfellows of Australia and certain North American Indian tribes possess societies and celebrations almost identical with that of Eleusis, but why they should be wrapped in such mystery it is difficult to understand. It has been stated that the mystic setting of these cults arose in many cases from the dread of the under-world and the miasma which emanated therefrom, and which necessitated a ritual purification; but this does not seem at all explanatory. In the Popul Vuh of Central America we find what appear to be the doings of a secret society among the deities of the underworld, some of whom are gods of growth.

We seem to see some such society outlined in[Pg 59] the Book of the Dead, which perhaps dates from prehistoric times, and is most probably the remains of a Neolithic cult connected with the phenomena of growth. In its pages we find password and countersign and all the magical material necessary to the existence of such a secret cult as we have been speaking of. We may take it, then, that the Egyptian mysteries strongly resembled those of Greece, that their ritual was of a character similar to that of the Book of the Dead, and that it perhaps possessed an origin in common with that work. These mystical associations would appear to be all of Neolithic origin, and to possess an agricultural basis for the most part. When, therefore, we see in Herodotus and elsewhere a strong disposition to preserve these mysteries intact we find ourselves once more face to face with the original question—Why are they mysteries?

In the first place, all growth is mysterious, and primitive man probably regarded it as in some manner magical. Secondly, it is noticeable that nearly all these mysteries, in the old world at least, took place underground, in darkness, and that there was enacted the symbolism of the growth of corn, probably for the purpose of inciting the powers of growth to greater activity by dint of sympathetic magic.

The Egyptian Temple

The earliest form of temple was a mere hut of plaited wickerwork, serving as a shrine for the symbols of the god; the altar but a mat of reeds. The earliest temples evolve from a wall built round the name-stelæ, which was afterward roofed in. With the advent of the New Empire the temple-building became of a much more complicated character, though the essential plan from the earliest period to the latest[Pg 60] remained practically unchanged. The simplest form was a surrounding wall, the pylon or entrance gateway with flanking towers, before which were generally placed two colossal statues of the king and two obelisks, then the innermost sanctuary, the naos, which held the divine symbols. This was elaborated by various additions, such as three pylons, divided by three avenues of sphinxes, then columned courts, and a hypostyle or columnar hall. In this way many of the Egyptian kings enlarged the buildings of their predecessors.