The Origin of Religion

THE enormous difficulties in the way and the costly outfit necessary to prosecute the study will prevent any considerable number of men, in any generation, from becoming Egyptologists. But there is evidently a great and increasing interest on the part of the reading public in the discoveries, deductions, and inferences of the learned explorers who are slowly re-creating the fabric of the Egyptian empire. The labors of Lepsius, Brugsch, De Rougé, and others have been largely devoted to the collection and coördination of facts. Dr. Brugsch, in particular, has imitated the patience as well as the marvelous constructive skill of the comparative anatomist in arranging the membra disjecta of Egyptian history. He has put kings and their edifices, statues, poets, generals, and expeditions in something like chronological order, — has given a backbone to parts whose relations have been heretofore wholly conjectural. Whatever merit may be claimed for other great scholars, this is the great distinction of the author of Egypt under the Pharaohs. But Dr. Brugsch and most of his associates take so many things for granted that the general reader is apt to be lost for want of lucid explanations. They mention the Rosetta Stone, the fragments of Manetho, and the Tables of Abydos, as if no one could be ignorant of them.

Professor Renouf is kindly considerate. He begins by detailing the sources of our knowledge of Egypt in the classic authors and the patristic writings. lie tells us of the general ignorance that prevailed and of the tomb-like silence of the monuments before Champollion found the key to their interpretation. Then we see the Rosetta Stone, a tablet of black granite, on which an inscription in three languages is engraved, “ in the sacred characters, in the vernacular, and in Greek.” He shows that the glory of the discovery which has opened to us the history of the most ancient civilized kingdom is Champollion’s alone. “ The sacred characters ” are the hieroglyphics, and “ the vernacular ” are the cursive modifications in common use by scribes, and commonly called demotic. The key once found, the work of interpretation went on rapidly. Many volumes have been published, and still there are great numbers of mural inscriptions as yet undeciphered.

In a similarly clear manner Professor Renouf deals with the intricate questions of chronology. He asks his auditors whether they would not ordinarily accept the evidence of a head-stone in an English church-yard as to the date of its erection and (prima facie) as to the age of the person commemorated. He points out the apparent trustworthiness of the stones which were erected to perpetuate the names and deeds of kings. He shows how different inscriptions in different localities and in widely differing times confirm each other, or supply words and sentences destroyed by accident or violence.

Like all other persons competent to form an opinion, Professor Renouf accepts without hesitation the direct and irrefragable testimony of the monuments as to the extreme antiquity of the kingdom, evidently considering that the highest figures B. c., given to Mena the founder, will come nearest the true date. His observations upon the evidence of the royal list of Abydos are sensible and convincing.

It would be impossible in a brief notice to summarize his account of the gods of Egypt. It is evident, however, that in his opinion there was, in the time of the early dynasties, a purer conception of a First Cause, as well as a purer code of morals, than prevailed later. The sublime precepts so often quoted from the Book of the Dead had their origin probably not later than the reign of Men-kau-ra, builder of the third pyramid. The highest ethics are observable in the oldest literary performances, as in that of Ptah-hotep. As time went by, there was an increasing tone of epicureanism. We pass by the vague and conflicting myths which finally took form in so many deities, and observe that the older writings appear to teach something very like the doctrine of one God.

Observe the directness and force of the ascriptions: —

“ The great God, Lord of heaven and of earth, who made all things which are.”

“ O my God and Lord, who hast made me and formed me, give me an eye to see and an ear to hear thy glories ! ”

“ He judges the world according to his will ; heaven and earth are in subjection to him.”

“ Every one glorifieth his goodness ; his tenderness encircles our hearts; great is his love in all bosoms.”

“ When I open my eyes, there is light ; when I close them, there is darkness.”

“ I am yesterday, I am to-day, I am to-morrow.”

It does not matter that such adoration is addressed now to Amon, now to Ptah, and now to Osiris; for it is evident from the italicized line following that each name in the mind of the worshiper was only a symbol for the creative and sustaining Power, of which the titular deity was a representative: —

“ That which persisteth in all things is Amon. This lordly god was from the very beginning. He is Ptah, the greatest of the gods. . . . Each god hath assumed thy aspect. . . . Thine is the kingdom of heaven, and the earth is at thy will. Thou art youth and age. . . . Thou art heaven, thou art earth, thou art fire, thou art water, thou art air, and whatever is in the midst of them.”

Professor Renouf calls this Pantheism.

Evidently there was a time when the Egyptian mind conceived the idea of a great Original, and set it forth in as clear terms as was possible in the unscientific language they had to use. Dialectics began with the Greeks. Afterwards, traits and attributes were differentiated, named, and worshiped; but still the primal ideas of the oneness of the great force of the universe remained. It is the same sun that rises and sets, but the Egyptians adored him as Ra at his rising and Tum at his setting. (Tmu is the form Renouf gives it.)

As an illustration of the same tendency in modern times, we can see that the position of the mother of Jesus in the Catholic church to-day is quite different from the regard entertained for her in the early Christian centuries. The real Mary was a sorrowing mother. The Blessed Virgin is a quasi deity.

Most reflecting persons will question, and, we believe, will wholly reject, the sweeping statement in the concluding lecture, that neither the Jews nor the Greeks derived any of their ideas of religion from Egypt. The professor is a shade too positive to retain our confidence. The Greek Pantheon, we know, was quite unlike the assembly of the gods of the Nile Valley; but why not insist that the art of Egypt was not the parent or precursor of Greek art ? That the alphabet was not a development of the hieratic characters, but was invented by Cadmus? As to the Jews, although there are remarkable exceptions, the resemblances of the noblest passages of their sacred writings to those of the unknown Egyptian sages and psalmists are too many and too striking to be disposed of by an ipse dixit. The names and attributes of God, to go no further, prove clearly the intimate relation between the thought of Judea and that of Egypt. The mass of evidence collected by Dr. Brugsch and the authentic documents printed in the Records of the Past will outweigh a great many passionate negations.

Even if there were no such direct evidence, it is contrary to all we know of human development to suppose that an empire like Egypt, with such art and architecture, such philosophy and poetry, and other fruits of intellectual effort, should for long ages — certainly for more than three thousand years — dominate over the whole known world, and yet leave no perceptible trace of its ideas upon a people so near its sea-coast as the Greeks, or upon the small tribe of desert-born slaves which it held in its service for four hundred years. The supposition is unreasonable.

The history of ideas is the most important part of our heritage from the past, and that there has been, in the main, a gradual development is the surest part of our knowledge.

After all, one finds it necessary to be self-poised, and not to be upset by every new dogmatist. Recognizing this, the reader will derive a great deal of pleasure from the book.

  1. The Origin and Growth, of Religion, as illustrated by the Religion of Ancient Egypt. BY P. LE PAGE RENOUF. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.