Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Page: 4Beginning with forms of the lower cultus—forms almost certainly of African origin—the older religion[Pg 4] of Egypt persisted strongly up to the time of the Hyksos period, after which time the official religion of the country may be found in one or other form of sun-worship. That is to say, all the principal deities of the country were at some time amalgamated or identified with the central idea of a sun-god.
The Egyptian religion of the Middle and Late Kingdoms was as much a thing of philosophic invention as later Greek myth, only, so far as we have the means of judging, it was not nearly so artistic or successful. For, whereas we find numerous allusions in the texts to definite myths, we seldom find in Egyptian literature the myths themselves. Indeed, our chief repository of Egyptian religious tales is the De Iside et Osiride of the Greek Plutarch—an uncertain authority. It is presumed that the myths were so well known popularly that to write them down for the use of such a highly religious people as the Egyptians would have been a work of supererogation. The loss to posterity, however, is immeasurable, and, lacking a full chronicle of the deeds of the gods of Egypt, we can only grope through textual and allied matter for scraps of intelligence which, when pieced together, present anything but an appearance of solidity and comprehensiveness.
It has been admitted that the ancient Egyptians, like other early races, could not have evolved a religion unless by the usual processes of religious growth. Thus we discover, by means of numerous clues more or less strong, that they passed through the phase known as animism, or animatism. This is the belief[Pg 5] that practically every object in the universe surrounding man has a soul and a personality such as he himself possesses. Man at an early date of his consciousness formulated the belief in a soul, that mysterious second self which even the most debased races believe in. The phenomena of sleep, the return of consciousness after slumber, and the strange experiences of life and adventures in dreamland while asleep would force early man to the conclusion that he possessed a double or second self, and it was merely an extension of that idea which made him suppose that this secondary personality would continue to exist after death.
But what proof have we that the early dwellers in Egypt passed through this phase? Besides the belief in a human soul, the animistic condition of mind sees in every natural object a living entity. Thus trees, rivers, winds, and animals all possess the gift of rational thought and speech. How is it possible to prove that the ancient Egyptians believed that such objects possessed conscious souls and individualities of their own?
First as to the early Egyptian belief that man himself possessed a soul. The Egyptian symbol for the soul (the ba) is a man-headed bird. Now the conception of the soul as a bird is a very common one among savages and barbarians of a low order. To uncultured man the bird is always incomprehensible because of its magical power of flight, its appearance in the sky where dwell the gods, and its song, approaching speech. From the bird the savage evolves the idea of the winged spirit or god, the messenger from the heavens. Thus many supernatural beings in all mythological systems are given wings. Many American Indian tribes believe that birds are the visible spirits of the dead. The Powhatans of Virginia believed that birds received the souls of their chiefs at death, and the[Pg 6] Aztecs that the spirits of departed warriors took the shapes of humming-birds and flitted from flower to flower in the sunshine. The Boros of Brazil believe that the soul has the shape of a bird, and passes in that form out of the body in dream. The Bilquila Indians of British Columbia conceive the soul as residing in an egg situated in the nape of the neck. If the shell cracks and the soul flies away the man must perish. A Melanesian magician was accustomed to send out his soul in the form of an eagle to find out what was happening in passing ships. Pliny states that the soul of Aristeas of Proconnesus was seen to issue from his mouth in the shape of a raven. A like belief occurs in countries so far distant from one another as Bohemia and Malaysia.