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Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 57

Fusion of Myths

It is not in Egypt alone that we find such astute subterfuges made to subserve the purposes of the priesthood. In most mythologies we discover that legends of creation and of the origin of deities have in many cases been manufactured from two or more myths which have been so skilfully amalgamated that it is only by the most careful and patient study that they can be resolved into their original components. Thus we find in the Book of Genesis that beside the existence of Jahveh, the creative power, we have evidences of a polytheistic pantheon called Elohim. This shows that two accounts of the Hebrew creation, the one monotheistic and the other polytheistic, have become fused together. Perhaps one of the best examples of this dovetailing of myths is to be found in one of the creation legends of Peru, in which philosophic skill has fused all the forms of worship through which Peruvian thought passed into one definite whole. Thus the various stages of belief from simple animism to anthropomorphism are visible to the student of mythology in perusing this one legend. That the same feat had been accomplished by the Kiches of Central America in their wonderful book, the Popol Vuh, was shown by the writer in an article printed in the Times some years ago.

The original local god of Heliopolis was Tem or Atum, who was united with Ra as Ra-Tem. The power of the priests of Ra declined somewhat about the close of the Sixth Dynasty, but in the reign of Senusert I[1][Pg 134] (c. 2433 B.C.) the temple at Heliopolis was rebuilt, being dedicated to Ra and to two of his forms, Horus and Temu. In this temple were kept models of the sacred boats of Ra, the Manzet, containing a hawk-headed figure of Ra, and the Mesektet, a man-headed statue of him.

Primitive as is the nature of sun-worship, it possesses elements which enable it to survive where many more advanced and complicated cults succumb. Even in such a country, side by side with an aristocracy of real intelligence but limited opportunities, there must naturally have existed millions of peasants and helots who were only to be distinguished from savages because of their contact with their superiors and their settlement as an agricultural race. To them the sun would, it might be thought, appear as the god par excellence, the great quickener and fructifier; but we find the cult of Ra more or less of an aristocratic theological system, in early times at least; and for the cult of the people we have to turn to the worship of Osiris. Undoubtedly the best parallel to the worship of Ra in Egypt is to be found in that of the sun in ancient Peru. Just as the monarch of Peru personified the sun on earth, and acted as his regent in the terrestrial sphere, so the Egyptian monarchs styled themselves 'sons of the sun.' In both instances the solar cult was eminently aristocratic in character. This is proved by the circumstance that the paradise of Ra was a sphere more spiritual by far than that of Osiris, with its purely material delights. Those happy enough to gain the heaven of the sun-god were clothed with light, and their food was described as 'light.' The Osirian paradise, again, it will be recalled, consisted of converse with Osiris and feasting with him. Indeed, the aristocratic caste in all countries shrinks from the conception that it must in the afterlife[Pg 135] rub shoulders with the common herd. This was definitely the case in ancient Mexico and Scandinavia, where only warriors killed in battle might enter paradise. These beliefs, however, were never sufficiently powerful to obliterate the cult of Osiris, and as the Egyptian mind was of a strongly material cast, it greatly favoured the conception of a 'field of reeds' and a 'field of peace,' where man could enjoy the good things and creature-comforts that he so much desired upon earth, rather than the unsubstantial fare and raiment of the more superlative sphere of Ra.

Ra and Osiris

A great but silent struggle was waged for many centuries between the priesthoods of Ra and Osiris, but in the end the beliefs clustering around the latter deity gained pre-eminence, and he took over the titles, powers, and attributes of the great god of the sun. Then it was probable, as has elsewhere been stated, that the conception of a moon- and a sun-god became fused in his person. The worship of Osiris was fundamentally African and Egyptian in character, but there is strong reason to believe that the cult of Ra possessed many foreign elements, possibly West Asiatic in origin, which accounts for the coldness with which the masses of Egypt regarded his worship. Heliopolis, his city, contained many inhabitants of Asiatic birth, and this may account to some extent for the introduction of some of the tenets in his creed which the native Egyptians found unpalatable.


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