Little, Brown and Company -- Boston -- 1952
COPYRIGHT 1952, BY HOMER W. SMITH
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO PART OF THIS BOOK IN EXCESS OF FIVE HUNDRED WORDS MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOG CARD NO. 52-5512
The lines from Gilgamesh: Epic of Old Babylonia by William Ellery Leonard (Copyright 1934 by William Ellery Leonard) are used by permission of The Viking Press, Inc., New York.
in Canada by McClelland and Stewart Limite
PRINTED IN THE UNITED
STATES OF AMERICA
BY THE HADDON CRAFTSMEN, SCRANTON, PA.
At every crossway on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past. Let us have no fear lest the fair towers of former days be sufficiently defended. The least that the most timid among us can do is not to add to the immense dead weight which nature drags along.
Let us not say to ourselves that the best truth always lies in moderation, in the decent average. This would perhaps be so if the majority of men did not think on a much lower plane than is needful. That is why it behooves others to think and hope on a higher plane than seems reasonable. The average, the decent moderation of today, will be the least human of things tomorrow. At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the opinion of good sense and of the good medium was certainly that people ought not to burn too large a number of heretics; extreme and unreasonable opinion obviously demanded that they should burn none at all.
Let us think of the great invisible ship that carries our human destinies upon eternity. Like the vessels of our confined oceans, she has her sails and her ballast. The fear that she may pitch or roll on leaving the roadstead is no reason for increasing the weight of the ballast by stowing the fair white sails in the depths of the hold. They were not woven to molder side by side with cobblestones in the dark. Ballast exists everywhere; all the pebbles of the harbor, all the sand of the beach, will serve for that. But sails are rare and precious things; their place is not in the murk of the well, but amid the light of the tall masts, where they will collect the winds of space.
-- MAETERLINCK: Our Social Duty.
Foreword by Albert Einstein
The Talisman (3 files)
The Great Mother (1 file)
The Resurrected God and the Clever Ghost (2 files)
The Species Problem (3 files)
Light Will Be Thrown on Man (2 files)
To Whatever Abyss (2 files)
Epilogue (1 file)
MAN AND HIS GODS
PROFESSOR Smith has kindly submitted his book to me before publication. After reading it thoroughly and with intense interest I am glad to comply with his request to give him my impression.
The work is a broadly conceived attempt to portray man's fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations. It relates the impact of these phantasmagorias on human destiny and the causal relationships by which they have become crystallized into organized religion.
This is a biologist speaking, whose scientific training has disciplined him in a grim objectivity rarely found in the pure historian. This objectivity has not, however, hindered him from emphasizing the boundless suffering which, in its end results, this mythic thought has brought upon man.
Professor Smith envisages as a redeeming force, training in objective observation of all that is available for immediate perception and in the interpretation of facts without preconceived ideas. In his view, only if every individual strives for truth can humanity attain a happier future; the atavisms in each of us that stand in the way of a friendlier destiny can only thus be rendered ineffective.
His historical picture closes with the end of the nineteenth century, and with good reason. By that time it seemed that the influence of these mythic, authoritatively anchored forces which can be denoted as religious, had been reduced to a tolerable level in spite of all the persisting inertia and hypocrisy.
Even then, a new branch of mythic thought had already grown strong, one not religious in nature but no less perilous to mankind -- exaggerated nationalism. Half a century has shown that this new adversary is so strong that it places in question man's very survival. It is too early for the present-day historian to write about this problem, but it is to be hoped that one will survive who can undertake the task at a later date.
MAN AND HIS GODS
WHEN in 1863 Thomas Huxley coined the phrase 'Man's Place in Nature,' it was to name a short collection of his essays applying to man Darwin's theory of evolution. The Origin of Species had been published only four years before, and the thesis that man was literally a part of nature, rather than an earthy vessel charged with some sublimer stuff, was so novel and so offensive to current metaphysics that it needed the most vigorous defense. Half the civilized world was rudely shocked, the other half skeptically amused.
Nearly a century has passed since the Origin shattered the complacency of the Victorian world and initiated what may be called the Darwinian revolution, an upheaval of man's ideas comparable to and probably exceeding in significance the revolution that issued from Copernicus's demonstration that the earth moves around the sun. The theory of evolution was but one of many factors contributing to the destruction of the ancient beliefs; it only toppled over what had already been weakened by centuries of decay, rendered suspect by the assaults of many intellectual disciplines; but it marked the beginning of the end of the era of faith.
It was said by one horrified reviewer of Darwin's book that if his views held, then humanity 'would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history!' (Like many of his Victorian contemporaries, the writer knew little of human history.) No one can deny that since the Origin was published man has given a good exhibition of his lowly nature. Darwin's book can explain man's bestial propensities, but it is scarcely responsible for them. Yet in truth much that hitherto served to hold civilization together, to give life meaning and direction, to keep courage in men's hearts, has fallen away because of it. It was inevitable that men should live differently because the book had been written.
Now that the Origin has begun to do its work man stands among the ruins left from some five millenniums of civilization, surrounded by shattered hopes and burned-out creeds where once were impregnable faith and assured belief, asking himself again, What is his place in nature? Why should he live? And how? This question has from time immemorial played a dominant role in his thoughts. Repeatedly he has reshaped the answer, and always the answer has reshaped the pattern of his life, socially, economically and politically, and frequently set the limits to his physical and intellectual freedom.
All students of history must at times have felt despairingly that this history has been inevitable, that it could not have happened otherwise. If this be true, then of course the history that is to come cannot be modified. Historians may debate the relative importance of ideas as against other factors in the shaping of this history: but any application, of the principle of determinism implies that history would have been different had the determinants been different -- among other things had man's ideas been different. The Scholastics condemned reason and examination as fallible and feeble tools, and fallible and feeble they seem to be as opposed to the dead weight of vulgar belief that stands against them as a mountain stands against the wind and rain: yet perspective reveals that mountains do wear away, and the student who scans the past in its entirety takes heart in the conviction that man's future history will be changed by ideas more even than has the past.
This volume closes with the end
of the nineteenth century. It is difficult to appraise one's contemporaries;
they are too much a beam in the eye. If an appraisal were rashly to be ventured,
it might incline towards an unwarranted pessimism: despite a clearer vision
in some quarters of the meaning of liberty and responsibility, and despite
some notable progress in natural philosophy, the first half of our century
seems, with respect to ideas, to have regressed a little into the penumbra
of intellectual eclipse. Historians of the future may look back upon the nineteenth
century as we look back upon the early days of Greece, seeing it as a brilliant
period for the human intellect but with promises unfulfilled, aborted because
that intellect was too immature for its promises to complete gestation. Perhaps
this pessimism is also a beam in the eye, so this book closes with the end
of the century in which Darwin lived. It begins, fragmentally and imperfectly,
at the beginning, in so far as the beginning can be perceived.
The basic fact of the past, and of the future, is that man and the anthropoid apes together constitute a natural biological group, known as the superfamily Hominoidea. They possess in common hundreds of anatomical characters that demonstrate their kinship and that set them off from their nearest relatives, the lower Old World apes, as well as from all other mammals.
The men who inhabit the world today all belong to a single species, Homo sapiens, as demonstrated by their anatomical relationships and by the fact that they can interbreed, but they are divided by most authorities into a few geographical varieties or races, the Australoids, Bushmen and Hottentots, Pygmies, Negroids, Mongoloids, and Europeans. Also a member of this species was neolithic man (New Stone Age), whose remains are scarcely distinguishable from modern races, and who appeared in Europe, Asia and Egypt at the close of the Pleistocene Period or shortly after the beginning of what the geologist calls Recent Time (15,000 years). Neolithic man appeared after the greatest severity of the last glacial age had passed, probably at a date not earlier than 13,000 B.C. With the increasing opportunities for migration that followed the last retreat of the ice his divergent descendants invaded each other's territory and, during the course of historic times, produced the complex mixture that forms the modern European population.
Back of the Neolithic Age stretches the long interval of the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, which is anthropologically parallel to the geologic Pleistocene Period, nearly 1,000,000 years in length. It was during this long interval that man developed from a fumbling apelike creature into a skilled worker of fine tools. The three latest of the paleolithic forms -- Cro-Magnon man (Homo sapiens fossilis), Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalensis) and Heidelberg man (Homo heidelbergensis) -- are so distinctly human that they are included with recent man in the single modern genus Homo.
Heidelberg man, whose remains date from about the middle of the Paleolithic, is poorly known, but roughly contemporary with him are forms so different from modern man that new genera have been erected by some authorities to include Piltdown man (Eoanthropus dawsonii), Peking man (Sinanthropus pekinensis) and the Java ape-man (Pithecanthropus erectus), forms evolved early in the Pleistocene Period, the last two perhaps at its beginning.
It required close to 1,000,000 years to transmute the dawn man, Eoanthropus, into neolithic man, while 40,000 years have given no detectable evidence of the evolution of the latter, for the significant differences between the pure Mediterranean, Alpine and Nordic types of modern Europe are much less than the differences between Cro-Magnon and neolithic man, if indeed these represent different species. In the long view of evolution Homo sapiens is simply a survival from the Neolithic Age.
The basal criterion of a true species
is its inability to breed with another species. The common root of the anthropoid
apes and man is found in the middle Miocene; if the human stock ceased to interbreed
with the anthropoid stock at about this time, an interval of 10,000,000 years
would have elapsed before the appearance of the hominid stock at the close
of the Pliocene. Assuming a generation every 12 years, 800,000 generations
of men-no-longer-apes would have existed before they acquired the rudimentary
capacity of speech or the facility to chip flint instruments. Calculated in
the same manner, Homo sapiens (including neolithic man) has inhabited
the earth for not over 1500 generations (18,000 years), a mere fraction of
the time required to transmute the ancestral ape into early man. Lengthening
the cycle of a generation to 20 years, the whole history of civilization comprises
scarcely more than 300 generations. The rapid development in technical and
intellectual activity in this period cannot be interpreted as evidence of acceleration
in man's evolution: civilization is nothing more than the accumulation of experience
and knowledge; it reflects nothing other than the use to which man has put
his brain, which is probably not superior, and quite possibly inferior, to
the brain of Cro-Magnon.
When we speak of the Age of Man we usually think of the period in which man has been a tool maker and has known the use of fire, though we may justifiably expand this term to include the entire period when manlike creatures, whether or not possessing tools or even rudimentary speech, can clearly be distinguished as having deviated from anthropoid evolution. In this broader sense, the Age of Man reaches back of Pithecanthropus, Eoanthropus and Sinanthropus, who were distinctly more human than apelike; they might have been the progenitors of modern men while it is inconceivable that they could have been the progenitors of modern apes.
One important feature of ape-to-man evolution was a retardation of the rate of development, a delay in the reaching of individual maturity. The gross anatomical differences between man and the great apes are more quantitative than qualitative, and appear to be attributable in part to the fact that both prenatal and postnatal development in man are considerably retarded. An adult man much more closely resembles an infant gorilla than he does the adult of that species; in fact, it is not inaccurate to say that Homo sapiens represents an anthropoid whose development in certain respects has not only been greatly slowed but arrested at an early stage. The most important consequences of this retardation are that the time during which the cranium remains plastic and the brain has an opportunity to enlarge is greatly prolonged; and that the young are cared for over a longer period, during which time they remain amenable to education and enjoy an opportunity for the transmission of cultural experience from one generation to another.
It may be that early man made many things with his hands which, because of their destructible nature, have not survived, but it is doubtful if he did anything that required a higher type of cerebration than does the preparation of fine flint instruments. The anthropologist Leakey had to spend several years in experimentation before he could chip a flint ax equal in workmanship to the average ax turned out by the men of the late Paleolithic. He found that success depended on a knowledge of the cleavage planes in the lump of flint, on the ability to strike a blow of just the right force and direction at the proper point, and on the exercise of considerable skill in the selection of the striking tools. It would seem that by random pounding a man might quickly, learn the relative hardness of various objects and thus come to choose flint in preference to softer materials for his weapon, but it is inconceivable that without instruction he could in the space of a single lifetime discover how to chip a flint equal to even the poorer neolithic scrapers. Actually, the development of the art of flint chipping required close to a million years -- and this in spite of the fact that no animal is more curious, more impelled to feel things, handle them, bite them, tear them to pieces, pound them, to experiment with them in every conceivable way, than are young apes and children. Curiosity and manual restlessness have been the chief forces that have impelled man's exploration of the world and ultimately enabled him to win what control he has of it, but it is appalling to observe how long he took to come into his own.
THE last of the Pleistocene ice had scarcely withdrawn from the Pyrenees and Caucasus before neolithic man followed the line of melting snow to the north. Along the ever-greening banks of the turbulent rivers he lived by hunting the reindeer, the woolly rhinoceros and mammoth, the wild horse and bear, while in the coastal regions he fished among the ice floes or speared walruses and seals. From the eighth millennium before the Christian Era, Europe from England to the Urals was forested with pines, oaks and hazels, and supplied an adequate if chilly habitat for advanced peoples who chipped excellent flints, clothed themselves in sewn skins, shaped and baked a coarse pottery, and built dog sleds with wooden shoes. But the rigors of the seasonal climate and the necessity of ever moving onwards in search of game did not encourage communal life, and until after the beginning of the Christian Era the hunters of the north continued to shelter themselves in caves or thickets, or at best to erect crude huts of saplings founded on a circle of stones and roofed with thatch or skins.
In the south, however, in China, India, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean basin and Africa, the amelioration of climate which accompanied the Pluvial Period created more favorable living conditions. About the fifth millennium B.C., several branches of the human stock, long experienced in the making of fine weapons and in hunting game, simultaneously developed a communal life based on agriculture. This art has arisen independently many times, in Egypt, Asia Minor, several places in central Asia, in northern India, central and southern China, perhaps in Abyssinia, and in North and South America, but in no instance is it clear how the start was made. Because of the minuteness of the seed and the long period of quiescence which usually intervenes between fruition and germination, the relation of seed to plant is by no means obvious, and indeed is unrecognized by many living peoples. Grant Allen suggested that agriculture was discovered, in connection with the interment of the dead, the grave being the one piece of ground which primitive man had occasion to harrow and weed, to fertilize with bone and flesh, and, most importantly, to enrich with funerary deposits of grain and fruit, and thereby to plant with seed. One may take it that a people who covered their dead with earth and fortified the departed with gifts of grain and water would soon be reaping crops.
There were three regions in which circumstances particularly favored the development of agriculture: the valley of the Indus, the common valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and the valley and delta of the Nile. Authorities do not agree as to which of these localities should have priority, and it is not with the intent of assigning it greater antiquity that Egyptian culture is given precedence here, but because the records of the Nile are better preserved and because Egyptian culture more than Indian or Mesopotamian, predominantly shaped the subsequent beliefs of the Western World.
Both by its character and its role in history, the Nile is unique among rivers; it has shaped man's ideas to a greater extent than any other purely terrestrial phenomenon. The rise and fall of its waters have been as a pulse to quicken his mental development, even while they sustained his life from season to season. Its delta, which Herodotus called 'the river's gift to man,' might have been specially designed to cradle his infant arts.
In the late Pleistocene the Mediterranean reached to the foot of the eminence on which stand the pyramids of Cairo, forming a gulf which stretched between the halls of Libya on the west and those of Arabia on the east. In the last 50,000, or perhaps 20,000 years, the river has built out a delta of rich alluvium so black that the Egyptians called their country 'the Black Land.' This delta, historically called Lower Egypt, is a flat plain a hundred miles in length covered with water-loving plants and rushes and transected by innumerable marshy channels and rich lagoons. South of the delta, the river narrows between the Libyan and Arabian hills, and at Cairo begins the true valley of the Nile, and Egypt proper. Beyond Cairo and as far south as Thebes the river bed has cut deep into soft limestone, lying in places a thousand feet below the plateau of the desert. Though this valley sometimes reaches a width of a hundred miles, at averages scarcely over ten. Beyond Thebes the limestone gives way to red and yellow sandstone, the erosion of which has supplied the Libyan Desert with its shifting sands, and here Egypt is nothing but a gorge between two towering escarpments of naked rock rarely more than two miles apart, while occasionally the desert sand flows down the lateral canyons to the water's edge. At places the water has worn entirely through the sandstone to the underlying crystalline rocks, the outcroppings of which form numerous islands and churning, unnavigable rapids. It was chiefly the barrier to navigation presented by these cataracts that set the southern limit to the Egyptians' world.
For sixteen hundred miles -- all
the river that was available to the ancient Egyptians -- the stream winds a
sinuous course through barren desert without receiving a single tributary on
either side. Throughout this length it rises and falls in an annual and apparently
causeless flood, the recession of which leaves the valley transformed from
a serpentine black mud fiat into a bright green garden. The enigma of this
annual flood remained unexplained until nineteenth-century explorers penetrated
to the heart of Africa. They found that the first tributary to the river is
the White Nile which drains the central plateau of equatorial Africa, wherein
lie the great buffer lakes of Victoria, Albert and Edward; downstream are added
the Sobat, Blue Nile and Atbara, draining the mountains of Abyssinia. Abyssinia
has no great lakes to act as reservoirs and the rain which falls unfailingly
from June to August drains rapidly off the mountains and throws the middle
and lower Nile into a flood which ranges in height from fifty feet at the First
Cataract to twenty-five in the delta. The waters begin to rise at Memphis about
June 21 and to recede at the end of September. Were this flood to fail, the
entire population of the Nile Valley would die of starvation within a year.
For the inhabitants of the valley the first rise of the water is the chief
event of the calendar; the time of its appearance has been recorded for well
over five thousand years.
In paleolithic times most of the Sahara Desert was a park land or savanna and enjoyed an abundant rainfall. While Neanderthal was pursuing the woolly rhinoceros and mammoth in France and England, a more generalized type of man was chipping flint hand axes in Algeria for the pursuit of bears, jackals, cave hyenas, lions, Barbary sheep and deer; rock engravings now located in the almost inaccessible heart of the desert where not a tree or beast is to be found show bulls, oryx, sheep and dogs. With the close of the Pluvial Period North Africa began to suffer a slow process of desiccation, and as the savannas shrank to mere oases, animals and men were forced to compete for the dwindling supplies of water and to enter into that symbiotic relationship called domestication. From earliest times hunters from the plateaus on either side had visited the valley, leaving their implements on its terraced walls; now under the pressure of spreading desiccation this influx of nomads was greatly accelerated and some of the visitors lingered long enough at particular sites to be called permanent inhabitants. The earliest of these settlers, the Tasians of Deir Tasa, made fine flint axes sharpened with a ground edge to cut timber where now no timber grows; they made rough earthenware pots which they decorated with incised lines, probably in imitation of basketry, and which they baked over a smoking fire; they apparently wove linen of a sort, and may have cultivated the ground; they painted their eyes and faces with ocher and malachite, and decorated themselves with perforated shells from the Red Sea, and with cylindrical beads of bones and ivory -- all evidences of a concern with magic.
Close by in the Fayum a related people had domesticated swine, cattle, sheep and goats, learned to hunt with bows and arrows, to fish with hooks and harpoons, and to cultivate emmer wheat and barley identical with modern species. At Merimde, in the delta, a third culture had added miniature celts or stone axes to their art; these were pierced for suspension on necklaces and unquestionably served as amulets. No graves have been found at Fayum, but the peoples of Tasa and Merimde buried their dead, though apparently without grave offerings. These sites were abandoned, at a rough guess, by 10,000 B.C.
A later and more advanced people at Badari, above Assiut gave their cattle and sheep ceremonial burial, and placed their human dead in graves lined with matting, the body generally facing west and sometimes accompanied by female figurines carved from ivory or molded in clay. They used malachite as a cosmetic, and had discovered, probably by accidentally dropping this substance into the fire, how to make copper beads. Their pottery, shaped without a wheel, achieved a delicacy and simple perfection never exceeded at the height of Egyptian civilization, the vases and bowls being of extreme thinness and decorated with an exquisite ripple effect, and fired to produce a brown or red body with blackened interior and rim. They used the boomerang and wore necklaces of copper tubes and glazed quartz, bracelets and rings of ivory, and pottery nose plugs. Their concern with magic had increased to the point where amulets were now made in the shape of the antelope and hippopotamus. The Badarians may be dated at about 5000 B.C., and are considered to be the physical and cultural ancestors of the so-called 'predynastic' Egyptians.
The earliest of these people, the Amratians, were presumably identical with the true Egyptians. They appear to have lived in autonomous villages, each village having its revered animal deity which was identified by a replica or clan ensign. From these villages there grew the nomes or political units of dynastic Egypt, and from the local totems, the gods of the dynastic pantheon. The Amratians possessed slaves and personal property, but there is no sign of kings or powerful overlords. They chipped copper as they would chip stone, but they did not hammer or melt it. They traded with far distant countries, as is attested by gold from Nubia, obsidian from western Asia, cedar from Byblos, marble from Paros and emery from Naxos. The art of making pottery had degenerated, but they rode the river in serviceable boats made of bundles of papyrus lashed together and propelled by as many as eight pairs of oars and perhaps a sail. Unlike the Egyptians of a later day, they did not slaughter the wives, servants and cattle of a dead man to supply him with company in the other world, but they buried with him substitute statuettes, the forerunners of the ushabti figures of Egyptian times. Only occasionally did an Amratian man take his dog, for which apparently no substitute of clay would do, with him into the other world, but he had in the grave a liberal provision of food, weapons, ornaments and malachite. The funerary vases and slate palettes were decorated with vivid scenes forecasting the tomb decorations of later kings, and the amulets now included diverse animals, birds, and fishes, as well as human figurines.
Elsewhere other cultures, similar
in fundamentals but diversified in details, were developing in more or less
isolated areas. The Gerzean culture of Upper Egypt ultimately dominated the
Badarian and introduced as amulets, perhaps as images of totems already deified,
the falcon, symbol of the god Ra, and the cow, symbol of the goddess Hathor.
The Gerzeans broke the funerary ornaments, vases and implements in order to
'kill' them too. The corpse was placed in a wooden coffin or laid upon a bier
of twigs, and before the close of the period rich men were having their graves
lined with mud bricks. In one notable tomb the walls had been plastered with
mortar and decorated with a painting depicting scenes of the chase, combats
between men and ships, and great magical dances: here, certainly, was the tomb
of an 'overlord' who was on the way to becoming a king.
When the dynastic period opened, Egypt was probably much as it is today, a vast sandy desert in which the valley was the only habitable portion and the river the only route of travel. By contrast with the barren mountains on the east or the sterile dunes on the west the green valley must have seemed like paradise. The quiet lagoons, walled in by papyrus reeds, were covered with white, pink and blue lotus blossoms and edged with delicate aquatic plants. As soon as the flood subsided the valley became carpeted with grasses and reeds, and ferns filled out the shady recesses. Flowers blossomed in profusion: roses, jasmine, narcissi, lilies, oleanders, the Egyptian privet (said to be the flower of paradise because the dye henna, made from its stalks and leaves, was red, the life-giving color). Palms and trees afforded food and shade: dates and doms, figs, apricots, prickly pears, grapes, pomegranates and bananas (called the fruit of paradise because it is always ripe), locusts, mimosas, ash, mulberries, tamarisks, olives and sycamores.
There were many birds; fish were abundant and grew to gigantic size. In the desert there were no animals more dangerous than the hyena, fox, gazelle, ostrich and rabbit, and the large animals of the swamps: the hippopotamus, crocodile, ox, boar, lion and wildcat were not prone to invade the cultivated land. The one animal the Egyptians had cause to fear was the snake -- much of the Egyptian magic was concerned with antidoting snake bite, and one of the special favors of Thoth was protection against this injury.
If the periodicity of the Nile afforded the Egyptian a few months of luxury, it was also a test of his ingenuity and providence. During low Nile the valley passed into estivation, the fields became parched, the marshes shrank into pools of mud, the trees and bushes became sterile, and the hungry carnivores concentrated along the shrunken watercourse, fighting for survival. The transience of nature's beneficence stimulated thrift and promoted study of the storage of fruit and seeds, and supplied the optimal circumstances for the discovery of agriculture. The food gatherer was forced to muster all his intelligence, courage and foresight and become a farmer.
However the neolithic Egyptian obtained his first clue to agriculture, he advanced steadily. He learned to make holes in the earth with a pointed stick, then to furrow it in continuous rows that grew longer as he trained himself, and then his oxen, to pull a plow. As many a Nile fellah does today, he covered the seed by driving his sheep back and forth across the fields. He learned to construct large containers of clay in which to store the grain. He learned to barter, and of necessity to measure, count and keep tallies, to map his fields, and to estimate their area and appraise their value. He could not move about freely, even if inclined to do so, for the valley itself was densely populated and there were only desert and mountains on either side. Moreover, the vats and granaries in which he stored his supplies of fruit and seed were too large to be dragged from place to place; and since these valuable stores were safe only in the citadel of a permanent abode, he had to join with his fellows in defending them against lazy neighbors or robbers. The periodic flooding of the Nile Valley, more than any other circumstance on earth, promoted the development of a culture based upon conservative economics and produced the type of man who lived by an artificial harvest, stored his food, his oxen and his plow in a permanent home of his own; and who was forced by his dependence on his fellow men to participate in a community prepared to defend itself with military vigor. It was from these primitive farmers that there came the patience and the manual skill, the intelligence, the creative imagination and artistic taste, the indomitable courage, cheerful optimism and kindly humor that in a relatively short period were to achieve the first great civilization on earth.
In studying the fragmentary list of Egyptian kings available to him, Manetho, a historian-priest of Sebennytus writing in the third century B.C., noted that they could be grouped on the basis of blood descent or other close relationship into a number of royal lines, and accordingly he broke up the list into 'dynasties,' a method of subdivision which modern historians retain. The period from the Ist to the end of the VIth Dynasty (3400-2475 B.C.) is commonly known as the Old Kingdom. During this period, when the seat of government was at Memphis, Egyptian culture made its most fundamental advances.
With the XIth Dynasty (2160 B.C.)
of Thebes began the Middle Kingdom, and with the XVIIIth Dynasty, the most
spectacular period of Egyptian history. Military successes carried the power
of the Pharaoh far into Asia Minor, so that the period is appropriately known
as the New Empire or New Kingdom. This empire was allowed to fall to pieces
by the fanatical priest-king Amenhotep III (Akhnaton) about 1350 B.C., and
in spite of partial reorganization under the Ramessids in the (?)XXth Dynasty,
the political power of Egypt was ended. In the XXIst Dynasty (945 B.C.) the
government passed into the hands of the priests of Amen and all development
ceased. In the XXVIth Dynasty (525 B.C.) Egypt, now a weak sacerdotal state,
was occupied by the Persian Cambyses, losing an independence which it never
again achieved until recent times (1922).
The earliest Egyptians, perhaps no more but certainly no less than any other primitive people, were intensely occupied with the supernatural. During the long ages in which they had lived a hand-to-mouth existence, gathering food where they could and chipping away at flints as necessity demanded, they had doubtless endured vague and generally fearsome relations with the spirits of trees and animals and of their disembodied ancestors, but they had lacked both the opportunity and the stimulus to develop an integrated theology. Then it was that the River Nile watered the humanly innate desire for an everlasting happy life and caused that desire to blossom and to bear an unbelievably strange fruit. Nearly every one of the rudiments of civilization writing, carpentry, stonemasonry, sculpture, painting, dancing, a stable government with taxes and tax collectors, temples with priests and services and capital trusts intended to function in perpetuity -- all these were most favorably fostered, if indeed they were not directly engendered, by the Egyptians' efforts to gain immortality by magic means.
The Egyptians viewed the magic inherent in things and words as an effective force which could be transferred from one amulet to another, from one sacred image to another, or from one man to another. The gods had used magic to create the world, and the magicians used it to control both the world and the gods.
Judging from the literature of the dynastic period, blood sacrifice of human beings never played a major role in Egyptian magic. Circumcision had early been elevated to an apparently universal custom, and with the increased emphasis attached to this single ritual and the routine sacrifice of animals in the temples there was perhaps less need for repeated human bleedings. Nevertheless, the people of the Nile continued in the magic use of red. They tinctured their nails with henna extracted from the privet, and continuously applied red ocher in the form of carmine paste to the face and body. They used their leisure to polish red cornelian into beads, replicas of sacred animals, and a variety of amulets. To obtain this precious stone they maintained for centuries mines in the mountains bordering the Red Sea. The only other stone they valued as highly was malachite, which they mined at great trouble and military cost in the distant Sinai Peninsula. They early learned from the river valley that green is the color of rejuvenated life, and they ground the malachite with resin, forming an adhesive mixture which was applied in crescents above and below the eyes to give health and protection against evil powers. Palettes for grinding this cosmetic are among the commonest objects found in predynastic graves, and it was the continuous use of this mineral that ultimately led to the discovery that in a charcoal fire it was transformed into copper. White was the color of ritual cleanness and it was affected in matters of dress by all the people who could afford it. White linen was obligatory for the priests, who had to change their garments and wash their hands every time they entered the sacred precincts of the temple.
Next in order of popularity as a magic agent was the cowrie shell. This object has ever had a strange fascination for the primitive mind; some aspect of it -- the pink luster of its interior, the mottled brown or black and white markings on its convoluted surface -- has exerted an irresistible appeal the world over and in all ages. The Egyptians treasured it as a talisman of good fortune, and particularly of fertility, and in a few instances the shell was used as intertribal currency. They reproduced amulets of it in wood, clay, or precious stones; such amulets, together with real cowrie shells, were deposited at the sacred tombs of Osiris at Abydos and elsewhere literally by the millions. The king's umbilical cord -- his twin spirit -- was treasured in predynastac times, and on gala occasions brought forth from its shrine and carried through the streets, gaily decorated with ribbons. It has been suggested that this custom was the origin of the standard, or flag, which ultimately came to serve as a substitute for the precious twin in promoting success in warfare by its supernatural power.
Nor did the practitioners of magic deviate significantly from the worldwide custom of murder by image. Out of nail parings, hair, a drop of saliva, of other fragments of the body, the sorcerers compounded figurines of wax or clay which they pierced with needles, burned or buried alive, in order to bring illness or death to those they hated. Relying upon such paraphernalia, which they preserved in mysterious chests, and upon verbal execrations, they harassed men with apparitions and terrifying voices, plagued them with spectral diseases, caused women to be the victims of infatuations, to forsake those they had loved and to love those they had previously detested, while they as obligingly protected others against these very evils. Their exploits became legendary wonders. In the presence of the Pharaoh Khufu (Kheops), one magician decapitated a goose, a snake and a bull, and then at his command each head moved back and rejoined its body. Another wonder-worker parted wide the waters of a deep lake that he might walk on dry ground to recover a lost jewel; another stopped the sun in its course, another rent the earth, another correctly prophesied the future; another read the contents of an unopened roll of papyrus -- nothing was impossible to these servants of the supernatural, and on occasion the more courageous sorcerer-priests threatened to pull down the very pillars that supported the heavens and to destroy the gods themselves if their commands were not obeyed immediately.
The most potent supernatural instrument of the magicians was the written word. If we accept the view that writing began as pictographic representation, which in turn arose from magic signs associated with the hunt, then paleolithic man must be credited with the discovery of its first principles, perhaps as far back as 30,000 B.C. He drew pictures of food and animals, the latter sometimes with extraordinary skill, on the walls of his caves and on his weapons, apparently with the belief that the graphic representation of an object could magically give him control over it. When he made replicas of the cowrie shell he was obviously multiplying his magic capital; and since a good picture is scarcely less a 'representation' than is a wooden or clay replica, once having discovered the art of making images that 'spoke silently to the eyes,' it was but a short step to the rapid inflation of all magic wealth. The Egyptians had brought the art of 'representation' to the stage of crude pictographic writing early in predynastic times. Though it does not date the origin of continuous hieroglyphic writing, the oldest example of the kind is an ebony label found in the tomb of Aha Menes, the third king of the Ist Dynasty. Shortly thereafter the hieroglyphic script appeared in a highly developed form. The scribes by whose genius the art was transmitted and perfected were no doubt deemed to possess a superhuman talent, and to the end of their history the inhabitants of the Nile Valley never abandoned the conviction that written symbols possessed unlimited magic power, that an incantation inscribed upon a bit of papyrus, an amulet or a slab of stone could move all things in earth or heaven to a chosen end.
The early hieroglyphic was a mixture of pictorial representation of fractional parts of animals or objects, with a few conventional ideographs to indicate abstractions. Some objects, such as the crescent moon, a lion, a man, a fish, were represented literally, while abstractions were represented by symbols, as a feather was used to indicate truth or justice. These pictographs and symbols were gradually compounded both phonetically and ideologically to express ideas of all kinds, until a single noun or verb came to have a little of everything in it -- a few pictures, several syllabics, some phonetic letters and an ideograph or two.
Since the hieroglyphic system required long years of study and a sustained effort of memory for its mastery, probably very few Egyptians, apart from the professional scribes, ever possessed a working knowledge of it. With the development of speedier cursive scripts the ability to read the hieroglyphic dwindled, and after the Roman Empire it remained a forgotten tongue until Thomas Young in 1818 gave to nine characters complete or partial values which are still accepted. Four years later Champollion, in consequence of his studies of the Rosetta stone and of an obelisk from the Island of Philae, was able to give a complete system of decipherment and was the first European to understand an Egyptian inscription.
The untrained eye sees in the ancient
hieroglyphic writing chiefly a mysterious and teasing beauty which obscures
its primal significance. For it has been questioned whether writing, instead
of having been a benefit to the Egyptians, did not rather injure them. Nilotic
legend had it that the god Thoth had invented writing and given it to men,
and that when Thoth revealed his clever discovery to King Thamos, the monarch
immediately raised an objection against it. Children and young people, he said,
who had hitherto been forced to apply themselves diligently to learn and retain
whatever was taught them, would cease entirely to apply themselves now that
they possessed a means of storing up knowledge without trouble. The wise king
failed to see the real danger in the 'ingenious art of painting words and of
speaking to the eyes' that it was destined to be the most powerful tool with
which to propitiate, and even to command, the gods.
By virtue of the diversified political units which went into its imperial make-up, Egypt was destined to a polytheism of the most complex kind. In the late predynastic period, the country had been divided into forty-two districts or nomes, each more or less independent of and antagonistic toward its neighbors. These nomes had, in addition to their household and tribal deities, their chief political divinities, probably resident in an image which was guarded in a shrine and carried to the battlefield when its votaries wanted its help in achieving victory. With the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt few of these local divinities were abandoned, the majority being absorbed into the common pantheon together with the legends concerning them. An Egyptian never doubted that his neighbor's gods were just as real, if less powerful, than his own, and consequently theology grew by syncretism and competition until it became a phantasmagoria of shadowy forms, endlessly substituting or exchanging roles in the drama of creation. As a city or nome advanced in prestige its priests, anxious to enhance the power of their deity, claimed for him the attributes and prerogatives of his competitors. Many deities were singly or collectively worshiped from one end of the valley to the other and all principalities agreed in proclaiming their sovereign power; but when the people began to particularize their attributes and forms, and the relations that subsisted between them, unanimity was at an end.
Even the symbolic identification of the gods was fluent in the extreme. The most distinguished deity of the Nile, the sun god, appeared in a variety of guises. In human form he was called Atum and wore upon his head the double crown of Egypt. He was also identified with the sacred scarab or dung beetle, Khepra. This beetle rolls dung into a ball which it then pushes to a cavity in the earth. After laying its eggs in the dung ball the beetle closes the mouth of the cavity with sand and proceeds to roll another ball in order to lay more eggs. The Egyptians supposed that the young beetles came out of the dung, self-created, and they saw in the dung beetle a mystical symbol of the sun god who daily rolled the ball of the sun across the sky. They reasoned that the solar ball was rolled by a great sky beetle, the self-created Khepra, who was not only immanent in all beetles but who daily created the universe. More widely, however, the sun god was conceived as a newborn child at dawn, when he was called Horus-of-the-East, as Ra, a hero in the prime of life at noon, and as Temu, an old man tottering with feeble steps at sunset. As Ra he sailed across the sky, the 'Field of Rushes,' in a splendid bark called the 'Boat of Millions of Years' accompanied by the gods of his train, and at night he returned to the east by way of the underworld, or variously by the western arc of the celestial river. Ra was usually depicted as a falcon, or a disk with falcon's wings. Ra was the ruler of the heavens, the celestial counterpart of Pharaoh, who lived upon Truth and judged the dead. By the IVth Dynasty he was the official god of the king, and although he was later displaced in the hearts of the people by the grain god, Osiris, the solar theology long continued to hold the royal affection.
Subordinate to Ra, though probably of greater age, was Ptah, the craftsman god of Memphis, patron of the arts and of wisdom, and famed for his miraculous cures and divinations. Possibly a deified ancestor who on earth had been a skillful worker in metals and stones, he was represented as a bearded mummy. He was early conceived as an intangible being who was self-created, self-subsisting, eternal. He had created all things -- earth, animals and men, even the other gods -- merely by 'thinking' them into existence. The god Horus was said to be Ptah's heart or mind, and the god Thoth was his 'word' which gave expression or existence to his creative thoughts. This ethereal concept of deity was at its zenith at the very beginning of recorded Egyptian history; under the influence of the solar theology, and later of Osiris, it was permanently replaced by grossly material beliefs. Although Ptah remained the Cause of Causes throughout the dominance of the Memphite kings, he never appealed to the masses -- he was too vague, abstract and incomprehensible for the common run of men.
Thoth, who was represented as an ibis-headed man or a dog-headed baboon, was, as Ptah's 'spoken word,' the orderer of the cosmos, the personification of wisdom, the inventor of language, letters and numbers, astronomy, architecture, medicine, indeed of all knowledge. It was he who set the stars in their courses, instituted temple worship and devised the incantations by which the magicians controlled both the natural and the supernatural world. Like Ptah, Thoth was a great healer and in his dual capacity as the 'wise one' and the inventor of writing he was the divinity of magic. He was the god who knew all the mighty 'words of power,' the prayers, the ceremonies, the formulas for all occasions, using them in the 'correct voice' and with the proper gestures. He even knew the secret names of the deities and hence could command the supreme beings to his will. In power as a sorcerer he was exceeded by none, and rivaled only by the clever Isis, who had come into her command of magic by stealing the 'secret name' of Ra.
Osiris was originally a local divinity of Mendes in the delta, whose power spread after the close of the Old Kingdom until he became the most popular god in Egypt; his success in unseating Ra, Ptah and other gods was attributable in part to the fact that he was par excellence god of the dead, the 'dead god' who assured his followers of eternal life. He was also identified with grain and (among other gods) with the River Nile. Like Ptah, Osiris was represented as a mummy.
Isis, Osiris's beloved wife and sister, was the divinity of the fertile black soil of the river valley, and the goddess of love and of maternity. Osiris and Isis had two brothers, Set and Horus the Elder, and a sister, Nephthys. Set was the 'Lord of Slaughter,' the 'Warrior of Egypt,' the great hunter, and also the ruler of northern Egypt and of the deserts. Horus was originally worshiped as the hawk, but later he was identified with the sky, of which Ra, the sun, was but the right eye and Thoth, the moon, the left. Another Horus, 'Horus the Child' or 'Horus the Younger,' was the posthumous child of Osiris and Isis, and was usually considered to be the reincarnation of Osiris. He was early drawn as a young boy standing between Isis and Nephthys, or as a child seated on a lotus flower, but after the XXVIth Dynasty he was widely depicted as a nursing infant in his mother's lap.
Among other deities who grew to national importance were Hathor, Apis, Anubis and Atum. Hathor was the goddess of the sky, the 'Mistress of Heaven,' the female counterpart of Ra, the goddess of love, the sponsor of joy and music, and the patroness of childbirth. She was represented as a cow, her sacred animal, or as a cow with a human body and bearing a globe, the solar disk, between her horns. Apis was a god of Memphis who was worshiped in the form of a bull and conceived variously to be the incarnation of Osiris, the 'son of Ptah,' or the 'living replica of Ptah.' In the Ptolemaic Period (305-30 B.C.) he was fused with Osiris to form Serapis. Anubis, the jackal, was the guardian of the dead, the guide who led the departed to the judgment hall of Osiris. Though not of great power, he was nonetheless of considerable personal importance to every man. Atum did not come into importance until the period of the Empire. Originally the sun god of Heliopolis, he was fused with Ra to form Atum-Ra, whose priests during the ascendancy of the Theban dynasties gained control of Egypt and established the sacerdotal state.
The Egyptians delighted in gods who were at one moment material animals or objects, and at another, shadowy beings 'mysterious of shape' and 'multiple of faces.' They never visualized their deities as truly anthropomorphic beings, and with a few exceptions, never depicted them with human forms, but as animal or half-animal creatures suggestive of another world. Although their religious beliefs had advanced to the point where the gods were highly personalized, they adhered stubbornly to the conviction that their deities were incarnate in certain animals, and they held these animals sacred and on occasion paid them the same homage as they paid the gods themselves. The lion and the hawk were sacred to Horus, the bull to Ptah and Apis, the cobra (uraeus) to Ra, the ram to both Ra and Osiris, the pig and the hunting dog (saluki) to Set, the dog-headed ape and the ibis to Thoth, the swallow to Isis, the scarab to Khepra, the jackal to Anubis, and in the late Graeco-Roman period deities had become incarnate in the hippopotamus, stag, hedgehog, mouse, crocodile, turtle, vulture, cat, scorpion and frog. Animal representation never offered difficulty to the Egyptian imagination. Of course not every jackal was actually Anubis, the solicitous guide to the nether world, for that deity was above and more enduring than all jackals; yet any jackal slinking through the shadows was touched by divinity, for it was thus that Anubis elected to reveal himself to the eyes of man.
Except for Aapep, a serpent who fought Ra each morning to prevent the rising of the sun, the gods were on the whole impartial or indifferent to good and evil. Misfortunes were generally ascribed to the machinations of sorcerers or to dismal demons who populated the nether world, but the latter were largely the product of individual imagination and, not being officially recognized by the priests, failed to supply a systematic demonology.
Set was an evil god, rather than a god of evil. In earliest times he had been credited with the murder of Osiris, and he forever typified the less admirable human traits. He was a prime liar and a breeder of mischief, and was forever destroying or attempting to destroy the good works of Osiris. The legends of the 'Contendings between Set and Osiris' comprise both the coarsest chapter in Egyptian literature and one of the best portraits ever drawn of a really debased, perfidious villain. But Set was never honored by being made commander in chief of the mischievous sprites and tormenting demons; he was only the bad boy of the celestial family. His uncommendable ways were less evil because they were so entirely human. He long remained the respected god of war, and during the XIIIth to XVIIth Dynasties he was perhaps the national god of the delta. Then in the XIXth Dynasty for reasons unknown, but probably related to national politics, he fell into such opprobrium that his name was stricken from all the monuments. It was only after this defilement that the nicknames the 'Evil One' and 'Stinking Face' were applied to him. Despite every opportunity the notion of truly supernatural Evil never became canonical in Nilotic belief.
When the shaman first emerges in the historic period he appears as the guardian of the sacred temple and the mediator between men and gods. It was his duty in the early morning to break the clay seal which protected the sacred room wherein the god was housed and to attend the deity with the necessary ritual -- washing, anointing and filling the chamber with the perfume of incense. He greeted the worshipers, led them in chanting hymns, in bowing in adoration and in making sacrifices, and libations; he alone interpreted the sacred books and spoke for the divinity. One of his most important duties was to mediate between the king and god in divination. In accordance with the wishes of the king he laid before the image a petition usually beginning: 'O God of Goodness, my Lord,' or 'Lord, may we lay before thee a serious affair?' and then stating the case. The reply often came in sealed writing, but in certain instances the statue of the divinity revealed its answer directly; if it remained motionless, the request was refused or the answer was no; but if the deity acquiesced, it made some movement of the head or arms, spoke out directly to the priest or king, or wrote its answer on the temple wall. The bull of Apis, sumptuously maintained in a temple of Memphis, gave oracles by refusing or accepting the food offered by the petitioner. At other times the suppliant whispered his request into the bull's ear and drew his answer from the first words he heard after he left its presence. Another mode of obtaining divine advice was by incubation. The king or the priest, after rendering his petition in a prayer, slept in the temple and during the night the answer was revealed in a dream, or delivered in the first words heard after the sleeper left the temple in the morning.
These guardians of the temple were probably the first astronomers. To know just when the Nile was going to overflow was of the utmost importance. To come into possession of this knowledge the dweller in the delta had but to watch the stars, for Sothis (Sirius), the Dog Star, rose above the horizon just before dawn on the day when the normal flood began. River and star were but different manifestations of Osiris, and by discovering this uniformity in nature the priest could tell ignorant human beings when the god was going to manifest himself. And who was more likely to note the passing months and years than the temple attendant who perforce must procure for the god (and for himself) meal after meal from a people who were prone to be forgetful? The man who first discovered the Sothis-Nilotic cycle was doubtless a tongue-in-the-cheek shaman who took advantage of his discovery to impress everyone with his esoteric power. He had in his possession knowledge never before available to any human being, for he could tell the people when to prepare the ground and plant the seed, when the flood would begin and when it would subside. He could measure the annual circle of the winds, the reproduction of animals, the bleeding of women, the germination of the seed, the birth of men. Because he knew so much it appeared that he knew everything, and he quickly convinced the Egyptians that it was his rites and ministrations that, by appealing to the gods, sustained these rhythms. It was his sacred attentions that brought Sothis into the morning sky, caused Isis to drop a tear into the celestial river, stirred the Nile into its flood and revivified the barren earth. He alone could mediate between men and gods because he alone knew the histories and the wishes of the supernal beings.
One of the products
of his ministrations was the invention of the calendar. Primitively the Egyptians
had marked time by the simple twenty-eight-day cycle of the moon. Then the
discovery that the heliacal rising of Sothis coincided with the annual flood
laid the basis for an arbitrary year of twelve months, each consisting of thirty
days, with five extra or intercalary days added to keep the calendar in step
with the seasons. This Sothic year, which was inaccurate by
only one quarter of a day, appears from reliable calculations to have been
inaugurated on July 19 of a year falling within the interval 4356 B.C. and
4380 B.C. -- a thousand years before the union of Lower and Upper Egypt and
longer before the oldest surviving written record.