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THE RELIGION OF ANCIENT EGYPT,
Introite, nam et heic Dii sunt!
ENN. AP GELL.
It has often struck us, that notwithstanding the distinguished and deserved attention bestowed among us on classical learning, we should bave yet been so deficient in our acquaintance with one branch of it, and certainly not the least important and interesting-we mean the religions of antiquity. We confess we are unable to account for this, be it indolence or ignorance. The classical authors are in the hands of every one, and in the memory of many. They are construed in the grammar-schools, and quoted in the House of Commons. The most intimate familiarity with the idiom in which they wrote, is contracted, or, if it is not, at least it might be. We are taught to write nonsense verses, and whose fault is it, if we cannot afterwards afford both reason and metre? We are taught to scan the trimeter, and to blunder about the choruses. We know what feet admit of the anapaest, and under what circumstances; and, thanks to Porson, we know a good deal more about the metres, than the Greek tragedians themselves. By dint of application, we have a fair chance of getting the Crases Attice at our fingers' ends. We do not wish to say any thing to depreciate these studies; no.
We entertain personally a very high regard for the Crases Atticæ. We are well aware, that all our great men have been materialiy assisted by an exact knowledge of them,
Hac arte Pollux et vagus Hercules
Enisu arces attigit igneas. But while we should be sorry to see those pursuits abandoned, which lead to exact scholarship, an attainment in which we feel confident that our Universities will be found equal to those in any part of the world, we could wish at the same time, that the range of our studies were extended. We could wish that more were done to encourage those studies, which not only promote accuracy and precision of knowledge, but also expand the mind. Too much is, in our opinion, done for the acquirement of a kind of knowledge, which at best can but be cousidered as subordinate. We spend a great deal of time in studying the languages, and we pay little attention to the ideas of antiquity. The most important lessons which an acquaintance with the ancient world would teach, the must interesting results which it would offer, are far from being generally known, or sufficiently appreciated.
For a proof of what we have just observed, or rather for an exemplification of the fact, we would particularly refer to the subject to which we have alluded above-to the religions of antiquity. We are sick with the endless repetition of the terms heathenish superstition and scurrilous stories affixed to ancient mythology, by those from whom we had expected better things. It is in vain to tell us,
that the multitude believed in the most absurd traditions, and prac. tised the most ridiculous ceremonies. We know too well, that there was, in all ages, something superior to the belief of the multitude. To say that there was not, or that it is not worth knowing, is a fair way to be sure of getting rid of the trouble of investigating it. A round denial of facts, an affected depreciation of knowledge, are commodious apologies of ignorance or listlessness. But we are surprised that those also, whose learning and genius we revere, have not thought it worth while to add to their extensive acquirements a knowledge of a subject, of which we should expect that it could not be indifferent to any one interested in the history of mankind. When we speak of the history of mankind, we do not mean a dry, or be it even an animated, recital of battles and political events, and of the overthrow of empires-of “ moving accidents by flood and field :" but we mean the history of man, of human nature, with its passions and energies, its efforts and errors. And we know not a better mir. ror of the intellectual and moral worth, of the “ age and body” of the time, than the opinions which were entertained on the highest problems that can occupy the ingenuity, or interest the heart, of man. In tracing the history of opinions, and religious opinions especially, in canvassing the errors of the least enlightened, and in admiring the aspirations of the best and wisest of our race, the mind is deeply imbued with that sentiment, than which nothing can be more worthy of humanity,
“ Homo sum: nihil humani à me alienum puto." And on this very subject we regret to find that so little has been done among us.
Bacon's hints on “ The Fables of the Ancients" are forgotten. The volumes of Cudworth are laid on the shelf. If original research is out of the question, who is there that has even turned Cudworth's labors to account? We admire the ingenuity of Bryan, and the acuteness of Payne Knight; but it strikes us that the one is more fanciful than accurate, and the other more bold than just. We could wish that more justice had been done to Mr. Taylor. We do not mean the “ Reverend" Mr. Taylor, but Mr. Taylor the Platonist. He has entered into his subject with more congeniality of feeling. But though his laborsare voluminous, his results are but fragmentary: and it has been his misfortune, that his peculiar manner has been still more unpopular than his subject.
We have indeed one name, one brilliant name, which, whatever others may have done, or may still do, for the science we allude to, we shall always quote with exultation as our own, one of the few who have shone in every branch of literature which they attempted, and whose genius was born to sympathize with the noblest and most beautiful effusions of all ages, and all nations ; one in whose laurel were twined the roses of the West, and the palm of the East.
There are few, indeed, who, for extent of knowledge, for elegance of taste, and universality of genius, deserve to be mentioned together with Sir William Jones. Among them, it is our conviction,
that there is Herder, and we shall perhaps have occasion in a subsequent article to justify this statement. Sir William Jones was the first to point out the affinity of the religions of classical antiquity with the still existing philosophy of the oriental nations. Had he lived to give the full proof of his propositions, and were it not the fate of all distinguished men to throw out leading ideas rather than to detail systems, he might have finished the work he commenced. But though after his death the volumes of the Asiatic Researches still continued to give valuable articles on the subject of the oriental systems, yet the spirit with which he had known to combine the phenomena of the most distant epochs and climates, was no longer conspicuous in most of the essays which the Society caused to be printed.
But the ideas of Sir William Jones were taken up with increased interest in a country which was never known to be backward in the honor paid to genius and talent, with whatever nation the impulse of a new pursuit may have originated. The classical scholars of Ger. many, among them, or rather at the head of them, Frederick Creuzer, gave much of their time and their best abilities to the investigation into the subject of the ancient religions. . Creuzer's work, Symbolik und Mythologie, first appeared in 1810; the sensation which it created, the interest with which these studies were taken up by the young, and the juvenile ardor with which men of a more advanced age joined in a new course of research, the opposition which it met with from a party, whose acute criticism was generally feared, and whose dictatorial authority had been offended by the confident tone of the new school, the sober and judicious inquiries of impartial judges, the follies and extravagant speculations of mythological Ultras-all this produced a mošt animated scene in the literary world, which grew still more animated, when a new edition, or rather a new work, of Professor Creuzer appeared. He had in the mean time an opportunity of gaining access to many sources of information unknown before; he had been confirmed in many of his views; he had improved upon others, and he had been irritated by opposition, and called upon to make his arguments good by proofs, and to develope them with spirit. There is scarcely at present a distinguished scholar or “ humanist” in the better sense, in Germany, who has not formed and pronounced his opinion on the subject. The most illustrious names, and among them the celebrated Schelling, have engaged in the question, and in a friendly sense to the efforts of Creuzer.
The first scholars of France have done the same. leading reviews, and our eminent scholars, have been observing a course of dignified silence. That the existence of Creuzer's work is known to them, we have no doubt ; for we feel confident that they all read the Literary Gazette, which mentioned it last year“ with a “ word, and with a sign.” But it seems to us extraordinary, that while our scholars bunt up and translate grammars and dictionaries - from the German, while Matthiae is the great oracle, while our
classical booksellers are reprinting the notes of German commentators, and publishing classical authors edited by Berlin professors, while even other labors of German scholars are noticed and reviewed, it seems to us extraordinary, that the works of Creuzer and other writers on the same subject should remain altogether unknown.
It cannot be our purpose, in a publication like this, to offer a critique of the works which we have mentioned. But it is our intention, as far as our limits will allow us, to give an idea of the subject, and of the mode in which it is treated. We cannot of course engage to reproduce any thing but a faint outline of some parts of the work. But it is our wish, that those who are interested in these studies, may be induced to consult Creuzer's work, either in the original, or in the French translation, by Guignot, which, we understand, is about to be completed. And it is our ulterior wish, that they may be sufficiently interested in the subject, to take up these studies, to follow them up to the original authorities, and to cultivate a science, in which our antiquarians have too long been deficient of original research, and ignorant of the character and results of foreign compositions.
Our prefatory remarks have been carried to greater length than we had intended : and we hall confine ourselves, in this number, to a rapid sketch of the principal results of Creuzer's Essay on the Religion of Egypt.
The earliest inhabitants of Egypt were, no doubt, wandering tribes of shepherds and fishermen, scattered on the banks of the river, and by the side of the sea. Among such a population, we cannot expect to meet with religious ideas very different from those which are commonly found among savage nations.
Man, in the lowest stage of civilization, is not much given to reasoning. He has causality very small, and wonderment (ideal. ity, we believe we should say) very large indeed. For a share in the mental faculties which he is possessed of, he gives credit to every thing around him. He ascribes reason to the irrational, and life to the inanimate creation. On some objects he looks with feelings of sympathy, on others with veneration. When we refer to the pages of Buffon, he looks back with a contented eye on the feats of his youth, on the scene of his life; when we call for the solar microscope, or for the Philosophical Transactions, he kneels down to worship.
Take the poor fisherman in his canoe in one of the mouths of the Nile. The luxuriant growth of the water plants, moving on its surface, the monsters lurking in the deep, the mighty ocean itself, must inspire him with mingled feelings of admiration and horror. Or take the shepherd in the plain. His is a more peaceful lot. He lives among his flock; he almost raises them to a level with himself. His dog is his favorite companion; the faithfulness and the sagacity of the animal must raise it in his estimation very high in the scale of beings. Who can describe the sort of commerce that exists between the shepherd and the rest of the flock, and most of all, the stately bull who strides at the head of them, with silent and impressive gra
vity, looking unutterable things ? The Bedouine even now gives a hundred names to his camel, and holds converse with his horse. And we would submit it to the consideration of Dr. Evelya, whether the delight taken in a rookery does not, after all, originate in the same feelings which gave rise to the hylozoic system.
This system, by which we mean, of course, the habit of ascribing a consciousness of purpose to irrational and even inanimate objects--this same hylozoic system was favored, in a great measure, by the peculiar nature of the country and the river. There was the regular rise and fall of the Nile; and as regular the appearance of the crocodiles, the serpents, and other uncouth animals; there was the wild gazelle, with its hurried retreat when the river threatened to overflow, and its return when the danger was over, a very convenient index of “high water” at Syene; and these extraordinary movements of the waters, and of the animals, regularly corresponding with the movements of the celestial bodies, so that the Nile was called an earthly satellite of the sun and moon. Besides, the burning plains of the Libyan and Arabian deserts formed a striking contrast with the warm and well-watered valley of the Nile.
Considering all these circumstances, it appears highly probable, that the primitive inhabitants of Egypt worshipped the same objects as the tribes on the borders of the Syrian lakes, or the first colonists in the deserts of Dodona, or the Negroes of this day in the interior of Africa. We may then conclude, that they worshipped plants and animals, the river and the ocean, the sun, moon, and stars. In addition to this, they had an idea, not perhaps of the migration, but at least of a continuation of existence of the soul after the death of the body. Nothing is more frequent than the formation of a sort of natural mummies in the sandy deserts, where the Sameum wind.completely dries up and thus preserves the dead bodies for some time. This occasioned the belief, that though animal life is fled, yet the soul still hovers near its former seat, until it is domesticated in another body; an idea, which afterwards encouraged the belief of its transmigration, and perhaps also the practice of embalming the mortal remains.
But though we have reason to suppose that so poor was the original creed of the Egyptians, yet in the first historical record in the Scriptures they appear already in a more advanced state. In the book of Genesis, Memphis* is described as a city, with all the advantages that prosperity and civilization can give in a country which is chiefly agricultural and very fertile; it is even described as the resort of foreign caravans, refined and depraved, and, in fact, in wealth and manners quite a capital. And yet, it appears from the historical dates still extant, that Memphis attained that importance only when Thebes was already declining, or had fallen altogether Thebes,
• The name of Memphis is not mentioned in the book of Genesis ; but it is evident, that the description applies to the capital of Middle Egypt.
+ This is at least decidedly the opinion of Creuzer, and adopted by him on the tes. timony of Jomard who examined the ruins of Thebes. But we must not omit to state,