THE “GODS” OF THE EGYPTIANS.
THROUGHOUT this book we have had to refer frequently to the “gods” of Egypt; it is now time to explain who and what they were. We have already shown how much the monotheistic side of the Egyptian religion resembles that of modern Christian nations, and it will have come as a surprise to some that a people, possessing such exalted ideas of God as the Egyptians, could ever have become the byword they did through their alleged worship of a multitude of “gods” in various forms. It is quite true that the Egyptians paid honour to a number of gods, a number so large that the list of their mere names would fill a volume, but it is equally true that the educated classes in Egypt at all times never placed the “gods” on the same high level as God, and they never imagined that their views on this point could be mistaken. In prehistoric times every little village or town, every district and province, and every great city, had its own particular god; we may go a step farther, and
say that every family of any wealth and position had its own god. The wealthy family selected some one to attend to its god, and to minister unto his wants, and the poor family contributed, according to its means, towards a common fund for providing a dwelling-house for the god, and for vestments, etc. But the god was an integral part of the family, whether rich or poor, and its destiny was practically locked up with that of the family. The overthrow of the family included the overthrow of the god, and seasons of prosperity resulted in abundant offerings, new vestments, perhaps a new shrine, and the like. The god of the village, although he was a more important being, might be led into captivity along with the people of the village, but the victory of his followers in a raid or fight caused the honours paid to him to be magnified and enhanced his renown.
The gods of provinces or of great cities were, of course, greater than those of villages and private families, and in the large houses dedicated to them, i.e., temples, a considerable number of them, represented by statues, would be found. Sometimes the attributes of one god would be ascribed to another, sometimes two or more gods would be “fused” or united and form one, sometimes gods were imported from remote villages and towns and even from foreign countries, and occasionally a community or town would repudiate its god or gods, and adopt a brand new set from some
neighbouring district. Thus the number of the gods was always changing, and the relative position of individual gods was always changing; an obscure, and almost unknown, local god to-day might through a victory in war become the chief god of a city, and on the other hand, a god worshipped with abundant offerings and great ceremony one month might sink into insignificance and become to all intents and purposes a dead god the next. But besides family and village gods there were national gods, and gods of rivers and mountains, and gods of earth and sky, all of which taken to-ether made a formidable number of “divine” beings whose good-will had to be secured, and whose ill-will must be appeased. Besides these, a number of animals as being sacred to the gods were also considered to be “divine,” and fear as well as love made the Egyptians add to their numerous classes of gods.
The gods of Egypt whose names are known to us do not represent all those that have been conceived by the Egyptian imagination, for with them as with much else, the law of the survival of the fittest holds good. Of the gods of the prehistoric man we know nothing but it is more than probable that some of the gods who were worshipped in dynastic times represent, in a modified form, the deities of the savage, or semi-savage, Egyptian that held their influence on his mind the longest. A typical example of such a
god will suffice, namely Thoth, whose original emblem was the dog-headed ape. In very early times great respect was paid to this animal on account of his sagacity, intelligence, and cunning; and the simple-minded Egyptian, when he heard him chattering just before the sunrise and sunset, assumed that he was in some way holding converse or was intimately connected with the sun. This idea clung to his mind, and we find in dynastic times, in the vignette representing the rising sun, that the apes, who are said to be the transformed openers of the portals of heaven, form a veritable company of the gods, and at the same time one of the most striking features of the scene. Thus an idea which came into being in the most remote times passed on from generation to generation until it became crystallized in the best copies of the Book of the Dead, at a period when Egypt was at its zenith of power and glory. The peculiar species of the dog-headed ape which is represented in statues and on papyri is famous for its cunning, and it was the words which it supplied to Thoth, who in turn transmitted them to Osiris, that enabled Osiris to be “true of voice,” or triumphant, over his enemies. It is probably in this capacity, i.e., as the friend of the dead, that the dog-headed ape appears seated upon the top of the standard of the Balance in which the heart of the deceased is being weighed against the feather symbolic of Maât; for the commonest titles
of the god are “lord of divine books,” “lord of divine words,” i.e., the formulæ which make the deceased to be obeyed by friend and foe alike in the next world. In later times, when Thoth came to be represented by the ibis bird, his attributes were multiplied, and he became the god of letters, science, mathematics, etc.; at the creation he seems to have played a part not unlike that of “wisdom” which is so beautifully described by the writer of Proverbs (see Chap. VIII. vv. 23-31).
Whenever and wherever the Egyptians attempted to set up a system of gods they always found that the old local gods had to be taken into consideration, and a place had to be found for them in the system. This might be done by making them members of triads, or of groups of nine gods, now commonly called “enneads”; but in one form or other they had to appear. The researches made during the last few years have shown that there must have been several large schools of theological thought in Egypt, and of each of these the priests did their utmost to proclaim the superiority of their gods. In dynastic times there must have been great colleges at Heliopolis, Memphis, Abydos, and one or more places in the Delta, not to mention the smaller schools of priests which probably existed at places on both sides of the Nile from Memphis to the south. Of the theories and doctrines of all such schools and colleges, those of Heliopolis have survived in the completest form, and by careful
examination of the funeral texts which were inscribed on the monuments of the kings of Egypt of the Vth and VIth dynasties we can say what views they held about many of the gods. At the outset we see that the great god of Heliopolis was Temu or Atmu, the setting sun, and to him the priests of that place ascribed the attributes which rightly belong to Râ, the Sun-god of the day-time. For some reason or other they formulated the idea of a company of the gods, nine in number, which was called the “great company (paut) of the gods,” and at the head of this company they placed the god Temu. In. Chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead 1 we find the following passage:–
“I am the god Temu in his rising; I am. the only One. I came into being in Nu. I am Râ, who rose in the beginning ”
Next comes the question, “But who is this?” And the answer is: “It is Râ when at the beginning he rose in the city of Suten-henen (Heracleopolis Magna) crowned like a king in rising. The pillars of the god Shu were not as yet created when he was upon the staircase of him that dwelleth in Khemennu (Hermopolis Magna).” From these statements we learn that Temu and Râ were one and the same god, and that he was the first offspring of the god Nu, the primeval watery mass, out of which all the gods
came into being. The text continues: “I am the great god Nu who gave birth to himself, and who made his names to come, into being and to form the company of the gods. But who is this? It is Râ, the creator of the names of his members which came into being in the form of the gods who are in the train of Râ.” And again: “I am he who is not driven back among the gods. But who is this? It is Tem, the dweller in his disk, or as others say, it is Râ in his rising in the eastern horizon of heaven.” Thus we learn further that Nu was self-produced, and that the gods are simply the names of his limbs; but then Râ is Nu, and the gods who are in his train or following are merely personifications of the names of his own members. He who cannot be driven back among the gods is either Temu or Râ, and so we find that Nu, Temu, and Râ are one and the same god. The priests of Heliopolis in setting Temu at the head of their company of the gods thus gave Râ, and Nu also, a place of high honour; they cleverly succeeded in making their own local god chief of the company, but at the same time they provided the older gods with positions of importance. In this way worshippers of Râ, who had regarded their god as the oldest of the gods, would have little cause to complain of the introduction of Temu into the company of the gods, and the local vanity of Heliopolis would be gratified.
But besides the nine gods who were supposed to
form the “great company” of gods of the city of Heliopolis, there was a second group of nine gods called the “little company” of the gods, and yet a third group of nine gods, which formed the least company. Now although the paut or company of nine gods might be expected to contain nine always, this was not the case, and the number nine thus applied is sometimes misleading. There are several passages extant in texts in which the gods of a paut are enumerated, but the total number is sometimes ten and sometimes eleven. This fact is easily explained when we remember that the Egyptians deified the various forms or aspects of a god, or the various phases in his life. Thus the setting sun, called Temu or Atmu, and the rising sun, called Khepera, and the mid-day sun, called Râ, were three forms of the same god; and if any one of these three forms was included in a paut or company of nine gods, the other two forms were also included by implication, even though the pautthen contained eleven instead of nine gods. Similarly, the various forms of each god or goddess of the paut were understood to be included in it, however large the total number of gods might become. We are not, therefore, to imagine that the three companies of the gods were limited in number to 9 x 3, or twenty-seven, even though the symbol for god be given twenty-seven times in the texts.