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The Most Religious Nation of Antiquity

“Now the Egyptians believed that as the souls of the departed could assume the form of any living thing or plant, so the “gods,” who in many respects closely resembled them, could and did take upon themselves the forms of birds and beasts; this was the fundamental idea of the so-called “Egyptian animal worship,” which provoked the merriment of the cultured Greek, and drew down upon the Egyptians the ridicule and abuse of the early Christian writers.

But if the matter be examined closely its apparent stupidity disappears. The Egyptians paid honour to certain birds, and animals, and reptiles, because they considered that they possessed certain of the characteristics of the gods to whom they made them sacred.

The bull was a type of the strength and procreative power of the god of reproduction in nature, and the cow was the type of his female counterpart; every sacred animal and living thing possessed some quality or attribute which was ascribed to some god, and as each god was only a form of Râ, the quality or attribute ascribed to him was that of the Sun-god himself.

The educated Egyptian never worshipped an animal as an animal, but only as an incarnation of a god, and the reverence paid to animals in Egypt was in no way different from that paid to the king, who was regarded as “divine” and as an incarnation of Râ the Sun-god, who was the visible symbol of the Creator.

The relation of the king to Râ was identical with that of Râ to God. The Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans never understood the logical conception which underlay the reverence with which the Egyptians regarded certain animals, and as a result they grossly misrepresented their religion.

The ignorant people, no doubt, often mistook the symbol for what it symbolized, but it is wrong to say that the Egyptians worshipped animals in the ordinary sense of the word, and this fact cannot be too strongly insisted on.

Holding the views he did about transformations there was nothing absurd in the reverence which the Egyptian paid to animals. When a sacred animal died the god whom it represented sought out another animal of the same species in which to renew his incarnation, and the dead body of the animal, inasmuch as it had once been the dwelling-place of a god, was mummified and treated in much the same way as a human body after death, in order that it might enjoy immortality.

These views seem strange, no doubt, to us when judged by modern ideas, but they formed an integral part of the religious beliefs of the Egyptians, from the earliest to the latest times.

What is remarkable, however, is the fact that, in spite of invasions, and foreign wars, and internal dissensions, and external influences of all kinds, the Egyptians clung to their gods and the sometimes childish and illogical methods which they adopted in serving them with a conservatism and zeal which have earned for them the reputation of being at once the most religious and most superstitious nation of antiquity.

Whatever literary treasures may be brought to light in the future as the result of excavations in Egypt, it is most improbable that we shall ever receive from that country any ancient Egyptian work which can properly be classed among the literature of atheism or freethought; the Egyptian might be more or less religious according to his nature and temperament, but, judging, from the writings of his priests and teachers which are now in our hands, the man who was without religion and God in some form or other was most rare, if not unknown.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 232-4.

Dreaming at the Base of the Sphinx

In early Christian literatures we find a number of examples of demoniacal possession in which the demon who has entered the body yields it up before a demon of greater power than himself, but the demon who is expelled is invariably hostile to him that expels him, and he departs from before him with every sign of wrath and shame.

The fact that it was believed possible for the demon of Bekhten and the god Khonsu to fraternize, and to be present together at a festival made by the Prince of the country, shews that the people of Bekhten ascribed the same attributes to spirits or demons as they did to men.

The demon who possessed the princess recognized in Khonsu a being who was mightier than himself, and, like a vanquished king, he wished to make the best terms he could with his conqueror, and to be on good terms with him.

The Egyptians believed that the divine powers frequently made known their will to them by means of dreams, and they attached considerable importance to them; the figures of the gods and the scenes which they saw when dreaming seemed to them to prove the existence of another world which was not greatly unlike that already known to them.

The knowledge of the art of procuring dreams and the skill to interpret them were greatly prized in Egypt as elsewhere in the East, and the priest or official who possessed such gifts sometimes rose to places of high honour in the
state, as we may see from the example of Joseph, (see Genesis, Chapters xi., xii) for it was universally believed that glimpses of the future were revealed to man in dreams.

As instances of dreams recorded in the Egyptian texts may be quoted those of Thothmes IV., king of Egypt about B.C. 1450, and Nut-Amen, king of the Eastern Sûdân and Egypt, about B.C. 670.

A prince, according to the stele which he set up before the breast of the Sphinx at Gizeh, was one day hunting near this emblem of Râ-Harmachis, and he sat down to rest under its shadow and fell asleep and dreamed a dream.

In it the god appeared to him, and, having declared that he was the god Harmachis-Khepera-Râ-Temu, promised him that if he would clear away from the Sphinx, his own image, the drift sand in which it was becoming buried, he would give to him the sovereignty of the lands of the South and of the North, i.e., of all Egypt.

In due course the prince became king of Egypt under the title of Thothmes IV, and the stele which is dated on the 19th day of the month Hathor of the first year of Thothmes IV proves that the royal dreamer carried out the wishes of the god. (See Vyse, Appendix, London, 1842, vol. iii., p. 114 ff).

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 213-5.

Egyptian Magic

A STUDY of the remains of the native religious literature of ancient Egypt which have come down to us has revealed the fact that the belief in magic, that is to say, in the power of magical names, and spells, and enchantments, and formulæ, and pictures, and figures, and amulets, and in the performance of ceremonies accompanied by the utterance of words of power, to produce supernatural results, formed a large and important part of the Egyptian religion.

[ … ]

The belief in magic, the word being used in its best sense, is older in Egypt than the belief in God, and it is certain that a very large number of the Egyptian religious ceremonies, which were performed in later times as an integral part of a highly spiritual worship, had their origin in superstitious customs which date from a period when God, under any name or in any form, was unconceived in the minds of the Egyptians.

[ … ]

From the religious books of ancient Egypt we learn that the power possessed by a priest or man who was skilled in the knowledge and working of magic was believed to be almost boundless. By pronouncing certain words or names of power in the proper manner and in the proper tone of voice he could heal the sick, and cast out the evil spirits which caused pain and suffering in those who were diseased, and restore the dead to life, and bestow upon the dead man the power to transform the corruptible into an incorruptible body, wherein the soul might live to all eternity.

His words enabled human beings to assume divers forms at will, and to project their souls into animals and other creatures; and in obedience to his commands, inanimate figures and pictures became living beings and things which hastened to perform his behests. The powers of nature acknowledged his might, and wind and rain, storm and tempest, river and sea, and disease and death worked evil and ruin upon his foes, and upon the enemies of those who were provided with the knowledge of the words which he had wrested from the gods of heaven, and earth, and the underworld.

Inanimate nature likewise obeyed such words of power, and even the world itself came into existence through the utterance of a word by Thoth; by their means the earth could be rent asunder, and the waters forsaking their nature could be piled up in a heap, and even the sun’s course in the heavens could be stayed by a word.

No god, or spirit, or devil, or fiend, could resist words of power, and the Egyptians invoked their aid in the smallest as well as in the greatest events of their lives. To him that was versed in the lore contained in the books of the “double house of life” the future was as well known as the past, and neither time nor distance could limit the operations of his power; the mysteries of life and death were laid bare before him, and he could draw aside the veil which hid the secrets of fate and destiny from the knowledge of ordinary mortals.

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In the “white” and “black” magic of the Egyptians most of the magic known in the other countries of the world may be found; it is impossible yet to say exactly how much the beliefs and religious systems of other nations were influenced by them, but there is no doubt that certain views and religious ideas of many heathen and Christian sects may be traced directly to them.

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But the fact remains that they did believe in One God Who was almighty, and eternal, and invisible, Who created the heavens, and the earth, and all beings and things therein; and in the resurrection of the body in a changed and glorified form, which would live to all eternity in the company of the spirits and souls of the righteous in a kingdom ruled by a being who was of divine origin, but who had lived upon the earth, and had suffered a cruel death at the hands of his enemies, and had risen from the dead, and had become the God and king of the world which is beyond the grave; and that, although they believed all these things and proclaimed their belief with almost passionate earnestness, they seem never to have freed themselves from a hankering after amulets and talismans, and magical names, and words of power, and seem to have trusted in these to save their souls and bodies, both living and dead, with something of the same confidence which they placed in the death and resurrection of Osiris.

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. vii. – xiv.

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