The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia - A. H. Sayce - E-Book

The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia E-Book

A. H. Sayce

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It is through its temples and tombs that ancient Egypt is mainly known to us. It is true that the warm and rainless climate of Upper Egypt has preserved many of the objects of daily life accidentally buried in the ruins of its cities, and that even fragments of fragile papyrus have come from the mounds that mark the sites of its villages and towns; but these do not constitute even a tithe of the monuments upon which our present knowledge of ancient Egyptian life and history has been built. It is from the tombs and temples that we have learned almost all we now know about the Egypt of the past. The tombs were filled with offerings to the dead and illustrations of the daily life of the living, while their walls were adorned with representations of the scenes at which their possessor had been present, with the history of his life, or with invocations to the gods. The temples were storehouses of religious lore, which was sculptured or painted on their walls and ceilings. In fact, we owe most of our knowledge of ancient Egypt to the gods and to the dead; and it is natural, therefore, that the larger part of it should be concerned with religion and the life to come.

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The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia

The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia Preface.Part I. The Religion Of Ancient Egypt.Part II. The Religion Of The Babylonians.FootnotesCopyright

The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia

A. H. Sayce


The subject of the following Lectures was “The Conception of the Divine among the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians,” and in writing them I have kept this aspect of them constantly in view. The time has not yet come for a systematic history of Babylonian religion, whatever may be the case as regards ancient Egypt, and, for reasons stated in the text, we must be content with general principles and fragmentary details.It is on this account that so little advance has been made in grasping the real nature and characteristics of Babylonian religion, and that a sort of natural history description of it has been supposed to be all that is needed by the student of religion. While reading over again my Hibbert Lectures, as well as later works on the subject, I have been gratified at finding how largely they have borrowed from me, even though it be without acknowledgment. But my Hibbert Lectures were necessarily a pioneering work, and we must now attempt to build on the materials which were there brought together. In the present volume, therefore, the materials are presupposed; they will be found for the most part either in my Hibbert Lectures or in the cuneiform texts which have since been published.We are better off, fortunately, as regards the religion of ancient Egypt. Thanks more especially to Professor Maspero's unrivalled combination of learning and genius, we are beginning to learn what the old Egyptian faith actually was, and what were the foundations on which it rested. The development of its dogmas can be traced, at all events to a certain extent, and we can even watch the progress of their decay.There are two facts which, I am bound to add, have been forced upon me by a study of the old religions of civilised humanity. On the one hand, they testify to the continuity of religious thought. God's light lighteth every man that cometh into the world, and the religions of Egypt and Babylonia illustrate the words of the evangelist. They form, as it were, the background and preparation for Judaism and Christianity; Christianity is the fulfilment, not of the Law only, but of all that was truest and best in the religions of the ancient world. In it the beliefs and aspirations of Egypt and Babylonia have found their explanation and fulfilment. But, on the other hand, between Judaism and the coarsely polytheistic religion of Babylonia, as also between Christianity and the old Egyptian faith,—in spite of its high morality and spiritual insight,—there lies an impassable gulf. And for the existence of this gulf I can find only one explanation, unfashionable and antiquated though it be. In the language of a former generation, it marks the dividing-line between revelation and unrevealed religion. It is like that “something,” hard to define, yet impossible to deny, which separates man from the ape, even though on the physiological side the ape may be the ancestor of the man.

Part I. The Religion Of Ancient Egypt.

Lecture I. Introduction.It was with a considerable amount of diffidence that I accepted the invitation to deliver a course of lectures before this University, in accordance with the terms of Lord Gifford's bequest. Not only is the subject of them a wide and comprehensive one; it is one, moreover, which is full of difficulties. The materials upon which the lectures must be based are almost entirely monumental: they consist of sculptures and paintings, of objects buried with the dead or found among the ruins of temples, and, above all, of texts written in languages and characters which only a century ago were absolutely unknown. How fragmentary and mutilated such materials must be, I need hardly point out. The Egyptian or Babylonian texts we possess at present are but a tithe of those which once existed, or even of those which will yet be discovered. Indeed, so far as the Babylonian texts are concerned, a considerable proportion of those which [pg 002] have already been stored in the museums of Europe and America are still undeciphered, and the work of thoroughly examining them will be the labour of years. And of those which have been copied and translated, the imperfections are great. Not infrequently a text is broken just where it seemed about to throw light on some problem of religion or history, or where a few more words were needed in order to explain the sense. Or again, only a single document may have survived to us out of a long series, like a single chapter out of a book, leading us to form a wholly wrong idea of the author's meaning and the object of the work he had written or compiled. We all know how dangerous it is to explain a passage apart from its context, and to what erroneous conclusions such a practice is likely to lead.And yet it is with such broken and precarious materials that the student of the religions of the past has to work. Classical antiquity can give us but little help. In the literary age of Greece and Rome the ancient religions of Babylonia and Egypt had passed into their dotage, and the conceptions on which they were founded had been transformed or forgotten. What was left of them was little more than an empty and unintelligible husk, or even a mere caricature. The gods, in whose name the kings of Assyria had gone forth to conquer, and in whose honour Nebuchadrezzar had reared the temples and palaces of Babylon, had degenerated into the patrons of a system of magic; the priests, who had once made and unmade the lords of the East, had become “Chaldæan” fortune-tellers, and the religion and science of Babylonia were remembered only for their connection with astrology. The old tradition had survived in Egypt with less apparent alteration, but even there the continuity of religious belief and teaching was more apparent than real, external rather than internal; and though the [pg 003] Ptolemies and early Roman emperors rebuilt the temples on the old lines, and allowed themselves to be depicted in the dress of the Pharaohs, making offerings to gods whose very names they could not have pronounced, it was all felt to be but a sham, a dressing up, as it were, in the clothes of a religion out of which all the spirit and life had fled.Both in Egypt and in Babylonia, therefore, we are thrown back upon the monumental texts which the excavator has recovered from the soil, and the decipherer has pieced together with infinite labour and patience. At every step we are brought face to face with the imperfections of the record, and made aware how much we have to read into the story, how scanty is the evidence, how disconnected are the facts. The conclusions we form must to a large extent be theoretical and provisional, liable to be revised and modified with the acquisition of fresh material or a more skilful combination of what is already known. We are compelled to interpret the past in the light of the present, to judge the men of old by the men of to-day, and to explain their beliefs in accordance with what seem to us the common and natural opinions of civilised humanity.I need not point out how precarious all such attempts must necessarily be. There is nothing harder than to determine the real character of the religion of a people, even when the religion is still living. We may describe its outward characteristics, though even these are not unfrequently a matter of dispute; but the religious ideas themselves, which constitute its essence, are far more difficult to grasp and define. Indeed, it is not always easy for the individual himself to state with philosophical or scientific precision the religious beliefs which he may hold. Difficult as it is to know what another man believes, it is sometimes quite as difficult to know exactly [pg 004] what one believes one's self. Our religious ideas and beliefs are a heritage which has come to us from the past, but which has also been influenced and modified by the experiences we have undergone, by the education we have received, and, above all, by the knowledge and tendencies of our age. We seldom attempt to reduce them into a harmonious whole, to reconcile their inconsistencies, or to fit them into a consistent system. Beliefs which go back, it may be, to the ages of barbarism, exist with but little change by the side of others which are derived from the latest revelations of physical science; and our conceptions of a spiritual world are not unfrequently an ill-assorted mixture of survivals from a time when the universe was but a small tract of the earth's surface, with an extinguisher-like firmament above it, and of the ideas which astronomy has given us of illimitable space, with its millions of worlds.If it is difficult to understand and describe with accuracy the religions which are living in our midst, how much more difficult must it be to understand and describe the religions that have gone before them, even when the materials for doing so are at hand! We are constantly told that the past history of the particular forms of religion which we profess, has been misunderstood and misconceived; that it is only now, for example, that the true history of early Christianity is being discovered and written, or that the motives and principles underlying the Reformation are being rightly understood. The earlier phases in the history of a religion soon become unintelligible to a later generation. If we would understand them, we must have not only the materials in which the record of them has been, as it were, embodied, but also the seeing eye and the sympathetic mind which will enable us to throw ourselves back into the past, to see the world as our forefathers saw it, and to share for a time [pg 005] in their beliefs. Then and then only shall we be able to realise what the religion of former generations actually meant, what was its inner essence as well as its outer form.When, instead of examining and describing a past phase in the history of a still existing form of faith, we are called upon to examine and describe a form of faith which has wholly passed away, our task becomes infinitely greater. We have no longer the principle of continuity and development to help us; it is a new plant that we have to study, not the same plant in an earlier period of its growth. The fundamental ideas which form, as it were, its environment, are strange to us; the polytheism of Babylonia, or the animal-worship of Egypt, transports us to a world of ideas which stands wholly apart from that wherein we move. It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the place of those who saw no underlying unity in the universe, no single principle to which it could all be referred, or who believed that the dumb animals were incarnations of the divine. And yet, until we can do so, the religions of the two great cultured nations of the ancient world, the pioneers of the civilisation we enjoy to-day, will be for us a hopeless puzzle, a labyrinth without a clue.Before that clue can be found, we must divest ourselves of ourmodernism. We must go back in thought and sympathy to the old Orient, and forget, so far as is possible, the intervening ages of history and development, and the mental and moral differences between the East and the West. I say so far as is possible, for the possibility is relative only. No man can shake off the influences of the age and country of which he is the child; we cannot undo our training and education, or root out the inherited instincts with which we were born. We cannot put back the hand of time, nor can the [pg 006] Ethiopian change his skin. All we can do is to suppress our own prejudices, to rid ourselves of baseless assumptions and prepossessions, and to interpret such evidence as we have honestly and literally. Above all, we must possess that power of sympathy, that historical imagination, as it is sometimes called, which will enable us to realise the past, and to enter, in some degree, into its feelings and experiences.The first fact which the historian of religion has to bear in mind is, that religion and morality are not necessarily connected together. The recent history of religion in Western Europe, it is true, has made it increasingly difficult for us to understand this fact, especially in days when systems of morality have been put forward as religions in themselves. But between religion and morality there is not necessarily any close tie. Religion has to do with a power outside ourselves, morality with our conduct one to another. The civilised nations of the world have doubtless usually regarded the power that governs the universe as a moral power, and have consequently placed morality under the sanction of religion. But the power may also be conceived of as non-moral, or even as immoral; the blind law of destiny, to which, according to Greek belief, the gods themselves were subject, was necessarily non-moral; while certain Gnostic sects accounted for the existence of evil by the theory that the creator-god was imperfect, and therefore evil in his nature. Indeed, the cruelties perpetrated by what we term nature have seemed to many so contrary to the very elements of moral law, as to presuppose that the power which permits and orders them is essentially immoral. Zoroastrianism divided the world between a god of good and a god of evil, and held that, under the present dispensation at all events, the god of evil was, on the whole, the stronger power.[pg 007]It is strength rather than goodness that primitive man admires, worships, and fears. In the struggle for existence, at any rate in its earlier stages, physical strength plays the most important part. The old instinctive pride of strength which enabled our first ancestors to battle successfully against the forces of nature and the beasts of the forest, still survives in the child and the boy. The baby still delights to pull off the wings and legs of the fly that has fallen into its power; and the hero of the playground is the strongest athlete, and not the best scholar or the most virtuous of schoolboys. A sudden outbreak of political fury like that which characterised the French Revolution shows how thin is the varnish of conventional morality which covers the passions of civilised man, and Christian Europe still makes the battlefield its court of final appeal. Like the lower animals, man is still governed by the law which dooms the weaker to extinction or decay, and gives the palm of victory to the strong. In spite of all that moralists may say and preach, power and not morality still governs the world.We need not wonder, therefore, that in the earliest forms of religion we find little or no traces of the moral element. What we term morality was, in fact, a slow growth. It was the necessary result of life in a community. As long as men lived apart one from the other, there was little opportunity for its display or evolution. But with the rise of a community came also the development of a moral law. In its practical details, doubtless, that law differed in many respects from the moral law which we profess to obey to-day. It was only by slow degrees that the sacredness of the marriage tie or of family life, as we understand it, came to be recognised. Among certain tribes of Esquimaux there is still promiscuous intercourse between the two sexes; and wherever Mohammedanism [pg 008] extends, polygamy, with its attendant degradation of the woman, is permitted. On the other hand, there are still tribes and races in which polyandry is practised, and the child has consequently no father whom it can rightfully call its own. Until the recent conversion of the Fijians to Christianity, it was considered a filial duty for the sons to kill and devour their parents when they had become too old for work; and in the royal family of Egypt, as among the Ptolemies who entered on its heritage, the brother was compelled by law and custom to marry his sister. Family morality, in fact, if I may use such an expression, has been slower in its development than communal morality: it was in the community and in the social relations of men to one another that the ethical sense was first developed, and it was from the community that the newly-won code of morals was transferred to the family. Man recognised that he was a moral agent in his dealings with the community to which he belonged, long before he recognised it as an individual.Religion, however, has an inverse history. It starts from the individual, it is extended to the community. The individual must have a sense of a power outside himself, whom he is called upon to worship or propitiate, before he can rise to the idea of tribal gods. The fetish can be adored, the ancestor addressed in prayer, before the family has become the tribe, or promiscuous intercourse has passed into polygamy.The association of morality and religion, therefore, is not only not a necessity, but it is of comparatively late origin in the history of mankind. Indeed, the union of the two is by no means complete even yet. Orthodox Christianity still maintains that correctness of belief is at least as important as correctness of behaviour, and it is not so long ago that men were punished and done [pg 009] to death, not for immoral conduct, but for refusing to accept some dogma of the Church. In the eyes of the Creator, the correct statement of abstruse metaphysical questions was supposed to be of more importance than the fulfilment of the moral law.The first step in the work of bringing religion and morality together was to place morality under the sanction of religion. The rules of conduct which the experiences of social life had rendered necessary or advantageous were enforced by an appeal to the terrors of religious belief. Practices which sinned against the code of social morality were put under the ban of the gods and their ministers, and those who ventured to adopt them were doomed to destruction in this world and the next. Thetapu, which was originally confined to reserving certain places and objects for the use of the divine powers, was invoked for the protection of ethical laws, or to punish violations of them, and the curse of heaven was called down not only upon the enemy of the tribe, but upon the enemy of the moral code of the tribe as well.Religion thus became tribal as well as personal; the religious instinct in the individual clothed itself with the forms of social life, and the religious conceptions which had gathered round the life of the family were modified and transferred to the life of the community. It was no longer only a feeling of fear or reverence on the part of the individual which made him bow down before the terrors of the supernatural and obey its behests; to this were now added all the ties and associations connected with the life of a tribe. The ethical element was joined to the religious, and what has been termed the religious instinct or consciousness in the individual man attached itself to the rules and laws of ethical conduct. But the attachment was, in the first instance, more or less [pg 010] accidental; long ages had to pass before the place of the two elements, the ethical and religious, was reversed, and the religious sanction of the ethical code was exchanged for an ethical sanction of religion. It needed centuries of training before a Christian poet could declare: “He can't be wrong whose life is in the right.”There is yet another danger against which we must guard when dealing with the religions of the past; it is that of confusing the thoughts and utterances of individuals with the common religious beliefs of the communities in which they lived. We are for the most part dependent on literary materials for our knowledge of the faiths of the ancient world, and consequently the danger of which I speak is one to which the historian of religion is particularly exposed. But it must be remembered that a literary writer is, by the very fact of his literary activity, different from the majority of his contemporaries, and that this difference in the ages before the invention of printing was greater than it is to-day. He was not only an educated man; he was also a man of exceptional culture. He was a man whose thoughts and sayings were considered worthy of being remembered, who could think for himself, and whose thoughts were listened to by others. His abilities or genius raised him above the ordinary level; his ideas, accordingly, could not be the ideas of the multitude about him, nor could he, from the nature of the case, express them in the same way. The poets or theologians of Egypt and Babylonia were necessarily original thinkers, and we cannot, therefore, expect to find in their writings merely a reflection of the beliefs or superstitions of those among whom they lived.To reconstruct the religion of Egypt from the literary works of which a few fragments have come down to us, would be like reconstructing the religion of this country [pg 011] in the last century from a few tattered pages of Hume or Burns, of Dugald Stewart or Sir Walter Scott. The attempts to show that ancient Egyptian religion was a sublime monotheism, or an enlightened pantheism which disguised itself in allegories and metaphors, have their origin in a confusion between the aspirations of individual thinkers and the actual religion of their time. There are indeed literary monuments rescued from the wreck of ancient Egyptian culture which embody the highest and most spiritual conceptions of the Godhead, and use the language of the purest monotheism. But such monuments represent the beliefs and ideas of the cultured few rather than of the Egyptians as a whole, or even of the majority of the educated classes. They set before us the highest point to which the individual Egyptian could attain in his spiritual conceptions—not the religion of the day as it was generally believed and practised. To regard them as representing the popular faith of Egypt, would be as misleading as to suppose that Socrates or Plato were faithful exponents of Athenian religion.That this view of the literary monuments of ancient Egypt is correct, can be shown from two concrete instances. On the one side, there is the curious attempt made by Amon-hotep iv., of the Eighteenth Dynasty, to revolutionise Egyptian religion, and to replace the old religion of the State by a sort of monotheistic pantheism. The hymns addressed to the solar disk—the visible symbol of the new God—breathe an exalted spirituality, and remind us of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. “O God,” we read in one of them. “O God, who in truth art the living one, who standest before our eyes; thou created that which was not, thou formest it all”; “We also have come into being through the word of thy mouth.”[pg 012]But all such language was inspired by a cult which was not Egyptian, and which the Egyptians themselves regarded as an insult to their national deity, and a declaration of war against the priesthood of Thebes. Hardly was its royal patron consigned to his tomb when the national hatred burst forth against those who still adhered to the new faith; the temple and city of the solar disk were levelled with the ground, and the body of the heretic Pharaoh himself was torn in pieces. Had the religious productions of the court of Amon-hotep iv. alone survived to us, we should have formed out of them a wholly false picture of the religion of ancient Egypt, and ascribed to it doctrines which were held only by a few individuals at only one short period of its history,—doctrines, moreover, which were detested and bitterly resented by the orthodox adherents of the old creeds.My other example is taken from a class of literature which exists wherever there is a cultured society and an ancient civilisation. It is the literature of scepticism, of those minds who cannot accept the popular notions of divinity, who are critically contemptuous of time-honoured traditions, and who find it impossible to reconcile the teaching of the popular cult with the daily experiences of life. It is not so much that they deny or oppose the doctrines of the official creed, as that they ignore them. Their scepticism is that of Epicurus rather than of the French encyclopædists. Let the multitude believe in its gods and its priests, so long as they themselves are not forced to do the same.Egypt had its literary sceptics like Greece or Rome. Listen, for instance, to the so-called Song of the Harper, written as long ago as the age of the Eleventh Dynasty, somewhere about 2500 b.c. This is how a part of it runs in Canon Rawnsley's metrical translation, [pg 013] which faithfully preserves the spirit and sense of the original—1 “What is fortune? say the wise.Vanished are the hearths and homes;What he does or thinks, who dies,None to tell us comesEat and drink in peace to-day,When you go your goods remain;He who fares the last long way,Comes not back again.”The Song of the Harper is not the only fragment of the sceptical literature of Egypt which we possess. At a far later date, a treatise was written in which, under the thinly-veiled form of a fable the dogmas of the national faith were controverted and overthrown. It takes the form of a dialogue between an Ethiopian cat—the representative of all that was orthodox and respectable in Egyptian society—and a jackal, who is made the mouthpiece of heretical unbelief.2But it is clear that the sympathies of the author are with the sceptic rather than with the believer; and it is the cat and not the jackal who is worsted in argument. In this first controversy between authority and reason, authority thus comes off second best, and just as Epicurus has a predecessor in the author of the Song of the Harper, so Voltaire has a predecessor in the author of the dialogue.Here, again, it is obvious that if only these two specimens of Egyptian theological literature had been preserved, we should have carried away with us a very erroneous idea of ancient Egyptian belief—or unbelief. Who could have imagined that the Egyptians were a people who had elaborated a minutely-detailed description of the world beyond the grave, and who believed [pg 014] more intensely perhaps than any other people has done either before or since in a future life? Who could have supposed that their religion inculcated a belief not only in the immortality of the soul or spirit, but in the resurrection of the body as well; and that they painted the fields of the blessed to which they looked forward after death as a happier and a sunnier Egypt, a land of light and gladness, of feasting and joy? We cannot judge what Egyptian religion was like merely from the writings of some of its literary men, or build upon them elaborate theories as to what priest and layman believed. In dealing with the fragments of Egyptian literature, we must ever bear in mind that they represent, not the ideas of the mass of the people, but the conceptions of the cultured few.But there is still another error into which we may fall. It is that of attaching too literal a meaning to the language of theology. The error is the natural result of the reaction from the older methods of interpretation, which found allegories in the simplest of texts, and mystical significations in the plainest words. The application of the scientific method to the records of the past brought with it a recognition that an ancient writer meant what he said quite as much as a writer of to-day, and that to read into his language the arbitrary ideas of a modern hierophant might be an attractive pastime, but not a serious occupation. Before we can hope to understand the literature of the past, we must try to discover what is its literal and natural meaning, unbiassed by prejudices or prepossessions, or even by the authority of great names. Theologians have been too fond of availing themselves of the ambiguities of language, and of seeing in a text more than its author either knew or dreamt of. Unless we have express testimony to the contrary, it is no more permissible to find parables and [pg 015] metaphorical expressions in an old Egyptian book than it is in the productions of the modern press.But, on the other hand, it is possible to press this literalism too far. Language, it has been said, is a storehouse of faded metaphors; and if this is true of language in general, it is still more true of theological language. We can understand the spiritual and the abstract only through the help of the material; the words by which we denote them must be drawn, in the first instance, from the world of the senses. Just as in the world of sense itself the picture that we see or the music that we hear comes to us through the nerves of sight and hearing, so all that we know or believe of the moral and spiritual world is conveyed to us through sensuous and material channels. Thought is impossible without the brain through which it can act, and we cannot convey to others or even to ourselves our conceptions of right and wrong, of beauty and goodness, without having recourse to analogies from the world of phenomena, to metaphor and imagery, to parable and allegory. What is “conception” itself but a “grasping with both hands,” or “parable” but a “throwing by the side of”? If we would deal with the spiritual and moral, wemusthave recourse to metaphorical forms of speech. A religion is necessarily built up on a foundation of metaphor.To interpret such metaphors in their purely natural sense would therefore land us in gross error. Unfortunately, modern students of the religious history of the past have not always been careful to avoid doing so. Misled by the fact that language often enshrines old beliefs and customs which have otherwise passed out of memory, they have forgotten that a metaphor is not necessarily a survival, or a survival a metaphor. In the hieroglyphic texts discovered in the Pyramids of the [pg 016] sixth Egyptian dynasty, Sahu or Orion, the huntsman of the skies, is said to eat the great gods in the morning, the lesser gods at noon and the smaller ones at night, roasting their flesh in the vast ovens of the heavens; and it has been hastily concluded that this points to a time when the ancestors of the historical Egyptians actually did eat human flesh. It would be just as reasonable to conclude from the language of the Eucharistic Office that the members of the Christian Church were once addicted to cannibalism. Eating and drinking are very obvious metaphors, and there are even languages in which the word “to eat” has acquired the meaning “to exist”.3I remember hearing of a tribe who believed that we worshipped a lamb because of the literal translation into their language of the phrase, “O Lamb of God.” Theology is full of instances in which the language it uses has been metaphorical from the outset, and the endeavour to interpret it with bald literality, and to see in it the fossilised ideas and practices of the past, would end in nothing but failure. Christianity is not the only religion which has consciously employed parable for inculcating the truths it professes to teach. Buddhism has done the same, and the “Parables of Buddhagosha” have had a wider influence than all the other volumes of the Buddhist Canon.Survivals there undoubtedly are in theological language as in all other forms of language, and one of the hardest tasks of the student of ancient religion is to determine where they really exist. Is the symbolism embodied in a word or an expression of primary or secondary origin? [pg 017] Was it from the very beginning a symbol and metaphor intended to be but the sensuous channel through which some perception of divine truth could be conveyed to us, or does it reflect the manners and thought of an earlier age of society, which has acquired a symbolical significance with the lapse of centuries? When the primitive Aryan gave the Being whom he worshipped the name of Dyaus, from a root which signified “to be bright,” did he actually see in the bright firmament the divinity he adored, or was the title a metaphorical one expressive only of the fact that the power outside himself was bright and shining like the sun? The Babylonians pictured their gods in the image of man: did Babylonian religion accordingly begin with the worship of deified ancestors, or were the human figures mere symbols and images denoting that the highest conception man could form of his creator was that of a being like himself? The answer to these questions, which it has been of late years the fashion to seek in modern savagery, is inconclusive. It has first to be proved that modern savagery is not due to degeneration rather than to arrested development, and that the forefathers of the civilised nations of the ancient world were ever on the same level as the savage of to-day. In fact the savage of to-day is not, and cannot be, a representative of primitive man. If the ordinary doctrine of development is right, primitive man would have known nothing of those essentials of human life and progress of which no savage community has hitherto been found to be destitute. He would have known nothing of the art of producing fire, nothing of language, without which human society would be impossible. On the other hand, if the civilised races of mankind possessed from the outset the germs of culture and the power to develop it, they can in no way be compared with the savages of the modern world, who [pg 018] have lived, generation after generation, stationary and unprogressive, like the beasts that perish, even though at times they may have been in contact with a higher civilisation. To explain the religious beliefs and usages of the Greeks and Romans from the religious ideas and customs of Australians or Hottentots, is in most cases but labour in vain, and to seek the origin of Semitic religion in the habits and superstitions of low-caste Bedâwin, is like looking to the gipsies for an explanation of European Christianity. Such a procedure is the abuse, not the use, of the anthropological method. Folk-lore gives us a key to the mind of the child, and of the childlike portion of society; it sheds no light on the beginnings either of religion or of civilisation, and to make it do so is to mistake a will-o'-the-wisp for a beacon-light. It is once more to find “survivals” where they exist only in the mind of the inquirer. So long as civilised society has lasted, it has contained the ignorant as well as the learned, the fool as well as the wise man, and we are no more justified in arguing from the ignorance of the past than we should be in arguing from the ignorance of the present. So far as folk-tales genuinely reflect the mind of the unlearned and childlike only, they are of little help to the student of the religions of the ancient civilised world.We must, then, beware of discovering allegory and symbol where they do not exist; we must equally beware of overlooking them where they are actually to be found. And we must remember that, although the metaphors and symbolism of the earlier civilisations are not likely to be those which seem natural to the modern European, this is no reason why we should deny the existence of them. In fact, without them religious language and beliefs are impossible; it is only through the world of the senses that a way lies to a knowledge [pg 019] of the world beyond. The conditions into which we were born necessitate our expressing and realising our mental, moral, and religious conceptions through sensuous imagery and similitude. Only we must never forget that the imagery is not the same for different races or generations of mankind.Before concluding, I must say a few words in explanation of the title I have given to the course of lectures I have the honour of delivering before you. It is not my intention to give a systematic description or analysis of the ancient religions of Egypt and Babylonia. That would hardly be in keeping with the terms of Lord Gifford's bequest, nor would the details be interesting, except to a small company of specialists. Indeed, in the case of the ancient religion of Babylonia, the details are still so imperfect and disputed, that a discussion of them is fitted rather for the pages of a learned Society's journal than for a course of lectures. What the lecturer has to do is to take the facts that have been already ascertained, to see to what conclusions they point, and to review the theories which they countenance or condemn. The names and number of the gods and goddesses worshipped by the Egyptians and Babylonians is of little moment to the scientific student of religion: what he wants to know is the conception of the deity which underlay these manifold forms, and the relation in which man was believed to stand to the divine powers around him. What was it that the civilised Babylonian or Egyptian meant by the term “god”? What was the idea or belief that lay behind the polytheism of the popular cult, and in what respects is it marked off from the ideas and beliefs that rule the religions of our modern world? The old Egyptian, indeed, might not have understood what we mean by “polytheism” and “monotheism,” but would he not have already recognised the two [pg 020] tendencies of thought which have found expression among us in these words? Was St. Paul right when he declared that the old civilised nations had sought after the God of Christianity, “if haply they might feel after Him and find Him,” or is there an impassable gulf between the religious conceptions of paganism and those of Christian Europe? Such are some of the questions to whose solution I trust that the facts I have to bring before you may contribute, in however humble a degree.[pg 021]Lecture II. Egyptian Religion.It is through its temples and tombs that ancient Egypt is mainly known to us. It is true that the warm and rainless climate of Upper Egypt has preserved many of the objects of daily life accidentally buried in the ruins of its cities, and that even fragments of fragile papyrus have come from the mounds that mark the sites of its villages and towns; but these do not constitute even a tithe of the monuments upon which our present knowledge of ancient Egyptian life and history has been built. It is from the tombs and temples that we have learned almost all we now know about the Egypt of the past. The tombs were filled with offerings to the dead and illustrations of the daily life of the living, while their walls were adorned with representations of the scenes at which their possessor had been present, with the history of his life, or with invocations to the gods. The temples were storehouses of religious lore, which was sculptured or painted on their walls and ceilings. In fact, we owe most of our knowledge of ancient Egypt to the gods and to the dead; and it is natural, therefore, that the larger part of it should be concerned with religion and the life to come.We are thus in an exceptionally good position for ascertaining, at all events in outline, the religious ideas of the old Egyptians, and even for tracing their history through long periods of time. The civilisation of Egypt [pg 022] goes back to a remote past, and recent discoveries have carried us almost to its beginnings. The veil which so long covered the origin of Egyptian culture is at last being drawn aside, and some of the most puzzling inconsistencies in the religion, which formed so integral a part of that culture, are being explained. We have learnt that the religion of the Egypt which is best known to us was highly composite, the product of different races and different streams of culture and thought; and the task of uniting them all into a homogeneous whole was never fully completed. To the last, Egyptian religion remained a combination of ill-assorted survivals rather than a system, a confederation of separate cults rather than a definite theology. Like the State, whatever unity it possessed was given to it by the Pharaoh, who was not only a son and representative of the sun-god, but the visible manifestation of the sun-god himself. Its unity was thus a purely personal one: without the Pharaoh the Egyptian State and Egyptian religion would alike have been dissolved into their original atoms.The Pharaonic Egyptians—the Egyptians, that is to say, who embanked the Nile, who transformed the marsh and the desert into cultivated fields, who built the temples and tombs, and left behind them the monuments we associate with Egyptian culture—seem to have come from Asia; and it is probable that their first home was in Babylonia. The race (or races) they found in the valley of the Nile were already possessed of a certain measure of civilisation. They were in an advanced stage of neolithic culture; their flint tools are among the finest that have ever been made; and they were skilled in the manufacture of vases of the hardest stone. But they were pastoral rather than agricultural, and they lived in the desert rather than on the river-bank. They proved no match for the newcomers, with their weapons of [pg 023] copper; and, little by little, the invading race succeeded in making itself master of the valley of the Nile, though tradition remembered the fierce battles which were needed before the “smiths” who followed Horus could subjugate the older population in their progress from south to north.How far the invaders themselves formed a single race is still uncertain. Some scholars believe that, besides the Asiatics who entered Egypt from the south, crossing the Red Sea and so marching through the eastern desert to the Nile, there were other Asiatics who came overland from Mesopotamia, and made their way into the Delta across the isthmus of Suez. Of this overland invasion, however, I can myself see no evidence; so far as our materials at present allow us to go, the Egyptians of history were composed, at most, of three elements, the Asiatic invaders from the south, and two older races, which we may term aboriginal. One of them Professor Petrie is probably right in maintaining to be Libyan.4We thus have at least three different types of religious belief and practice at the basis of Egyptian religion, corresponding with the three races which together made up the Egyptian people. Two of the types would be African; the third would be Asiatic, perhaps Babylonian. From the very outset, therefore, we must be prepared to find divergences of religious conception as well as divergences in rites and ceremonies. And such divergences can be actually pointed out.5The practice of embalming, for instance, is one which we have been accustomed to think peculiarly characteristic of ancient Egypt. It is referred to in the Book of [pg 024] Genesis, and described by classical writers. There are many people whose acquaintance with the old Egyptians is confined to the fact that when they died their bodies were made into mummies. It is from the wrappings of the mummy that most of the small amulets and scarabs have come which fill so large a space in collections of Egyptian antiquities, as well as many of the papyri which have given us an insight into the literature of the past. We have been taught to believe that from times immemorial the Egyptians mummified their dead, and that the practice was connected with an equally immemorial faith in the resurrection of the dead; and yet recent excavations have made it clear that such a belief is erroneous. Mummification was never universal in Egypt, and there was a time when it was not practised at all. It was unknown to the prehistoric populations whom the Pharaonic Egyptians found on their arrival in the country; and among the Pharaonic Egyptians themselves it seems to have spread only slowly. Few traces of it have been met with before the age of the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, if, indeed, any have been met with at all.But, as we shall see hereafter, the practice of mummification was closely bound up with a belief in the resurrection of the dead. The absence of it accordingly implies that this belief was either non-existent, or, at all events, did not as yet occupy a prominent place in the Egyptian creed. Like embalming, it must have been introduced by the Pharaonic Egyptians; it was not until the older races of the country had been absorbed by their conquerors that mummification became general, along with the religious ideas that were connected with it. Before the age of the Eighteenth Dynasty it seems to have been practically confined to the court and the official priesthood.[pg 025]On the other hand, one at least of the prehistoric races appears to have practised secondary burial. The skeletons discovered in its graves have been mutilated in an extraordinary manner. The skull, the legs, the arms, the feet, and the hands have been found dissevered from the trunk; even the backbone itself is sometimes broken into separate portions; and there are cases in which the whole skeleton is a mere heap of dismembered bones. But, in spite of this dismemberment, the greatest care has been taken to preserve the separate fragments, which are often placed side by side. An explanation of the dismemberment has been sought in cannibalism, but cannibals do not take the trouble to collect the bones of their victims and bury them with all the marks of respect; moreover, the bones have not been gnawed except in one or two examples, where wild beasts rather than man must have been at work. It seems evident, therefore, that the race whose dismembered remains have thus been found in so many of the prehistoric cemeteries of Egypt, allowed the bodies of the dead to remain unburied until the flesh had been stripped from their bones by the birds and beasts of prey, and that it was only when this had been done that the sun-bleached bones were consigned to the tomb. Similar practices still prevail in certain parts of the world; apart from the Parsi “towers of silence,” it is still the custom in New Guinea to leave the corpse among the branches of a tree until the flesh is entirely destroyed.6[pg 026]Between mummification and secondary burial no reconciliation is possible. The conceptions upon which the two practices rest are contradictory one to the other. In the one case every effort is made to keep the body intact and to preserve the flesh from decay; in the other case the body is cast forth to the beasts of the desert and the fowls of the air, and its very skeleton allowed to be broken up. A people who practised secondary burial can hardly have believed in a future existence of the body itself. Their belief must rather have been in the existence of that shadowy, vapour-like form, comparable to the human breath, in which so many races of mankind have pictured to themselves the imperishable part of man. It was the misty ghost, seen in dreams or detected at night amid the shadows of the forest, that survived the death of the body; the body itself returned to the earth from whence it had sprung.This prehistoric belief left its traces in the official religion of later Egypt. TheBaor “Soul,” with the figure of a bird and the head of a man, is its direct descendant. As we shall see, the conception of theBafits but ill with that of the mummy, and the harmonistic efforts of a later date were unable altogether to hide the inner contradiction that existed between them. The soul, which fled on the wings of a bird to the world beyond the sky, was not easily to be reconciled with the mummified body which was eventually to lead a life in the other world that should be a repetition and reflection of its life in this. How theBaand the mummy were to be united, the official cult never [pg 027] endeavoured to explain; the task was probably beyond its powers. It was content to leave the two conceptions side by side, bidding the individual believer reconcile them as best he could.The fact illustrates another which must always be kept in mind in dealing with Egyptian religion. Up to the last it remained without a philosophic system. There were, it is true, certain sides of it which were reduced to systems, certain parts of the official creed which became philosophies. But as a whole it was a loosely-connected agglomeration of beliefs and practices which had come down from the past, and one after the other had found a place in the religion of the State. No attempt was ever made to form them into a coherent and homogeneous whole, or to find a philosophic basis upon which they all might rest. Such an idea, indeed, never occurred to the Egyptian. He was quite content to take his religion as it had been handed down to him, or as it was prescribed by the State; he had none of that inner retrospection which distinguishes the Hindu, none of that desire to know the causes of things which characterised the Greek. The contradictions which we find in the articles of his creed never troubled him; he never perceived them, or if he did they were ignored. He has left to us the task of finding a philosophic basis for his faith, and of fixing the central ideas round which it revolved; the task is a hard one, and it is rendered the harder by the imperfection of our materials.The Egyptian was no philosopher, but he had an immense veneration for the past. The past, indeed, was ever before him; he could not escape from it. Objects and monuments which would have perished in other countries were preserved almost in their pristine freshness by the climate under which he lived. As to-day, so too in the age of the Pharaohs, the earliest [pg 028] and the latest of things jostled one another, and it was often difficult to say which of the two looked the older. The past was preserved in a way that it could not be elsewhere; nothing perished except by the hand of man. And man, brought up in such an atmosphere of continuity, became intensely conservative. Nature itself only increased the tendency. The Nile rose and fell with monotonous regularity; year after year the seasons succeeded each other without change; and the agriculturist was not dependent on the variable alternations of rain and sunshine, or even of extreme heat and cold. In Egypt, accordingly, the new grew up and was adopted without displacing the old. It was a land to which the rule did not apply that “the old order changeth, giving place to new.” The old order might, indeed, change, through foreign invasion or the inventions of human genius, but all the same it did not give place to the new. The new simply took a place by the side of the old.The Egyptian system of writing is a striking illustration of the fact. All the various stages through which writing must pass, in its development out of pictures into alphabetic letters, exist in it side by side. The hieroglyphs can be used at once ideographically, syllabically, and alphabetically. And what is true of Egyptian writing is true also of Egyptian religion. The various elements out of which it arose are all still traceable in it; none of them has been discarded, however little it might harmonise with the elements with which it has been combined. Religious ideas which belong to the lowest and to the highest forms of the religious consciousness, to races of different origin and different age, exist in it side by side.It is true that even in organised religions we find similar combinations of heterogeneous elements. Survivals [pg 029] from a distant past are linked in them with the conceptions of a later age, and beliefs of divergent origin have been incorporated by them into the same creed. But it is a definite and coherent creed into which they have been embodied; the attempt has been made to fuse them into a harmonious whole, and to explain away their apparent divergencies and contradictions. Either the assertion is made that the creed of the present has come down unchanged from the past, or else it is maintained that the doctrines and rites of the past have developed normally and gradually into those of the present.But the Egyptian made no such endeavour. He never realised that there was any necessity for making it. It was sufficient that a thing should have descended to him from his ancestors for it to be true, and he never troubled himself about its consistency with other parts of his belief. He accepted it as he accepted the inconsistencies and inequalities of life, without any effort to work them into a harmonious theory or form them into a philosophic system. His religion was like his temples, in which the art and architecture of all the past centuries of his history existed side by side. All that the past had bequeathed to him must be preserved, if possible; it might be added to, but not modified or destroyed.It is curious that the same spirit has prevailed in modern Egypt. The native never restores. If a building or the furniture within it goes to decay, no attempt is made to mend or repair it; it is left to moulder on in the spot where it stands, while a new building or a new piece of furniture is set up beside it. That the new and the old should not agree together—should, in fact, be in glaring contrast—is a matter of no moment. This veneration for the past, which preserves without repairing [pg 030] or modifying or even adapting to the surroundings of the present, is a characteristic which is deeply engrained in the mind of the Egyptian. It had its prior origin in the physical and climatic conditions of the country in which he was born, and has long since become a leading characteristic of his race.Along with the inability to take a general view of the beliefs he held, and to reduce them to a philosophic system, went an inability to form abstract ideas. This inability, again, may be traced to natural causes. Thanks to the perpetual sunshine of the valley of the Nile, the Egyptian leads an open-air life. Except for the purpose of sleep, his house is of little use to him, and in the summer months even his sleep is usually taken on the roof. He thus lives constantly in the light and warmth of a southern sun, in a land where the air is so dry and clear that the outlines of the most distant objects are sharp and distinct, and there is no melting of shadow into light, such as characterises our northern climes. Everything is clear; nothing is left to the imagination; and the sense of sight is that which is most frequently brought into play. It is what the Egyptian sees rather than what he hears or handles that impresses itself upon his memory, and it is through his eyes that he recognises and remembers.At the same time this open-air life is by no means one of leisure. The peculiar conditions of the valley of the Nile demand incessant labour on the part of its population. Fruitful as the soil is when once it is watered, without water it remains a barren desert or an unwholesome marsh. And the only source of water is the river Nile. The Nile has to be kept within its banks, to be diverted into canals, or distributed over the fields by irrigating machines, before a single blade of wheat can grow or a single crop be gathered in. Day [pg 031] after day must the Egyptian labour, repairing the dykes and canals, ploughing the ground, planting the seed, and incessantly watering it; the Nile is ready to take advantage of any relaxation of vigilance and toil, to submerge or sweep away the cultivated land, or to deny to it the water that it needs. Of all people the Egyptian is the most industrious; the conditions under which he has to till the soil oblige him to be so, and to spend his existence in constant agricultural work.But, as I have already pointed out, this work is monotonously regular. There are no unexpected breaks in it; no moments when a sudden demand is made for exceptional labour. The farmer's year is all mapped out for him beforehand: what his forefathers have done for unnumbered centuries before him, he too has to do almost to a day. It is steady toil, day after day, from dawn to night, during the larger portion of the year.This steady toil in the open air gives no opportunity for philosophic meditation or introspective theorising. On the contrary, life for the Egyptianfellahis a very real and practical thing: he knows beforehand what he has to do in order to gain his bread, and he has no time in which to theorise about it. It is, moreover, his sense of sight which is constantly being exercised. The things which he knows and remembers are the things which he sees, and he sees them clearly in the clear sunshine of his fields.We need not wonder, therefore, that the ancient Egyptian should have shown on the one hand an incapacity for abstract thought, and on the other hand a love of visible symbols. The two, in fact, were but the reverse sides of the same mental tendency. Symbolism, indeed, is always necessary before we can apprehend the abstract: it is only through the sensuous symbol that we can express the abstract thought. But [pg 032] the Egyptian did not care to penetrate beyond the expression. He was satisfied with the symbol which he could see and remember, and the result was that his religious ideas were material rather than spiritual. The material husk, as it were, sufficed for him, and he did not trouble to inquire too closely about the kernel within. The soul was for him a human-headed bird, which ascended on its wings to the heavens above; and the future world itself was but a duplicate of the Egypt which his eyes gazed upon below.The hieroglyphic writing was at once an illustration and an encouragement of this characteristic of his mind. All abstract ideas were expressed in it by symbols which he could see and understand. The act of eating was denoted by the picture of a man with his hand to his mouth, the idea of wickedness by the picture of a sparrow. And these symbolic pictures were usually attached to the words they represented, even when the latter had come to be syllabically and alphabetically spelt. Even in reading and writing, therefore, the Egyptian was not required to concern himself overmuch with abstract thought. The concrete symbols were ever before his eyes, and it was their mental pictures which took the place for him of abstract ideas.It must, of course, be remembered that the foregoing generalisations apply to the Egyptian people as a whole. There were individual exceptions; there was even a class the lives of whose members were not devoted to agricultural or other labour, and whose religious conceptions were often spiritual and sublime. This was the class of priests, whose power and influence increased with the lapse of time, and who eventually moulded the official theology of Egypt. Priestly colleges arose in the great sanctuaries of the country, and gradually absorbed a considerable part of its land and revenues. At first the [pg 033] priests do not seem to have been a numerous body, and up to the last the higher members of the hierarchy were comparatively few. But in their hands the religious beliefs of the people underwent modification, and even a rudimentary systematisation; the different independent cults of the kingdom were organised and combined together, and with this organisation came philosophic speculation and theorising. If Professor Maspero is right, the two chief schools of religious thought and systematising in early Egypt were at Heliopolis, near the apex of the Delta, and Hermopolis, the modern Eshmunên, in Central Egypt. In Hermopolis the conception of creation, not by voice merely, but even by the mere sound of the voice, was first formed and worked out while Heliopolis was the source of that arrangement of the deities into groups of nine which led to the identification of the gods one with another, and so prepared the way for monotheism.7If Heliopolis were indeed, as seems probable, the first home of this religious theory, its influence upon the rest of Egypt was profound. Already in the early part of the historical period, in the age of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, when the religious texts of the Pyramids were compiled, the scheme which placed the Ennead or group of nine at the head of the Pantheon had been accepted throughout the country. It was the beginning of an inevitable process of thought, which ended by resolving the deities of the official cult into forms or manifestations one of the other, and by landing its adherents in pantheism.To a certain extent, therefore, the general incapacity for abstract thought which distinguished the Egyptians did not hold good of the priestly colleges. But even among the priests the abstract was never entirely dissociated [pg 034] from the symbol. Symbolism still dominates the profoundest thoughts and expressions of the later inscriptions; the writer cannot free himself from the sensuous image, except perhaps in a few individual cases. At the most, Egyptian thought cannot rise further than the conception of “the god who has no form”—a confession in itself of inability to conceive of what is formless. It is true that after the rise of the Eighteenth Dynasty the deity is addressed asKheper zes-ef, “that which is self-grown,” “the self-existent”; but when we find the same epithet applied also to plants like the balsam and minerals like saltpetre, it is clear that it does not possess the abstract significance we should read into it to-day. It simply expresses the conviction that the god to whom the prayer is offered is a god who was never born in human fashion, but who grew up of himself, like the mineral which effloresces from the ground, or the plant which is not grown from seed. Similarly, when it is said of him that he is “existent from the beginning,”—kheper em ḥat,—or, as it is otherwise expressed, that he is “the father of the beginning,” the phrase is less abstract than it seems at first sight to be. The very wordkheperor “existent” denotes the visible universe, whileḥator “beginning” is the hinder extremity. The phrase can be pressed just as little as the epithet “lord of eternity,” applied to deities whose birth and death are nevertheless asserted in the same breath. Perhaps the most abstract conception of the divine to which the Egyptian attained was that of “the nameless one,” since the name was regarded as something very real and concrete, as, in fact, the essence of that to which it belonged. To say, therefore, that a thing was nameless, was equivalent to either denying its existence or to lifting it out of the world of the concrete altogether.