Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Page: 135The cult of the oracle flourished greatly during the decadent period, and afforded, as we may conjecture, considerable scope for priestly ingenuity. The usual method of consulting the oracle was to write on papyrus certain words, whether of advice or judgment, which it was proposed to put into the mouth of the deity, and to which he might assent by nodding.
Toward the end of the eighth century B.C. a great religious reaction set in. Hitherto the brilliant opening of the New Empire, particularly the time of Rameses II, had set a model for the pious of the Late period; now the Old Kingdom, its monuments, rites, and customs, its fervent piety and its proud conservatism, was become the model epoch for the whole nation. It was, however, less a faithful copy than a caricature of the Old Kingdom which the Decadent period provided. All that was most strange and outré in the ancient religion was sought out and emulated. Old monuments and religious literature were studied; the language and orthography of long-past centuries were revived and adopted; and if much of this was incomprehensible to the bulk of the people, its very mystery but made it the more sacred. In the funerary practices of the time the antiquarian spirit is very evident. Ancient funerary literature was held in high esteem; the Pyramid Texts were revived; old coffins, and even fragments of such, were utilized in the burying of the dead. The tomb furniture was elaborate and magnificent—in the case of rich persons, at least—while even the poorest had some such furnishings provided for them. Ushabti figures of blue faience were buried with the deceased, to accomplish for him any compulsory labour he might be called upon to do in the domain of Osiris, and scarabs also were placed in his coffin. The rites and ceremonies of mummification followed those of the Old Kingdom, and were religiously carried out. The graves of even the royal Thebans were not so magnificent as those of private persons of this era. Yet because their inscriptions were almost invariably borrowed from the Old Kingdom,[Pg 302] it is hard to guess what their ideas really were on the subjects of death and the underworld. It may be that these also were borrowed. From the tombs of foreigners—of Syrians belonging to the fifth century B.C.—some little information may be gathered relative to the status of the dead in the underworld which probably represents the popular view of the time. Herodotus asserts that the Egyptians of this epoch believed in the transmigration of souls, and it is possible that they did hold this belief in some form. It may well have been a development of the still more ancient idea that the soul was capable or appearing in a variety of shapes—as a bird, an animal, and so on.
A very prominent feature of the religion of the Late period, and one which well illustrates the note of exaggeration already mentioned, was the worship of animals, carried by the pious Egyptian to a point little short of ludicrous. Cats and crocodiles, birds, beetles, rams, snakes, and countless other creatures were reverenced with a lavishness of ceremony and ritual which the Egyptian knew well how to bestow. Especially to Apis, the bull of the temple of Ptah in Memphis, was worship accorded. The Saïte king Amasis, who did a great deal in connexion with the restoration of ancient monuments, is mentioned as having been especially devoted to the sacred bull, in whose honour he raised the first of the colossal sarcophagi at Saqqara. But these elaborate burial rites were not reserved for individual sacred animals; they were accorded to entire classes. It was a work of piety, for instance, to mummify a dead cat, convey the remains to Bubastis, where reigned the cat-headed Bast, and[Pg 303] there inter the animal in a vault provided with suitable furnishings. Dead mice and sparrowhawks were taken to Buto; the ibis found his last resting-place at Eshmunên; while the cow, the most sacred of Egyptian animals, was thrown at death into the Nile.