Egyptian Myth and Legend, by Donald Mackenzie, , at sacred-texts.com
Nobles become Little Pharaohs--The Growth of Culture--Temple Building--Maxims of Ptah--hotep--Homely Superstitions--Charms to protect Children--Fear of the Evil Eye--Set and Red--haired Babes--Gruesome Ghosts--Feudal Lords assert Themselves--A Strong Monarch--Military Expeditions--The Promotion of Uni--Coming of the Deng--A Queen's Vengeance--Revolt of Feudal Lords--Pyramids raided.
DURING the Fifth Dynasty the power of the nobles gradually increased until they became little Pharaohs in their own provinces. Even at the Court they could make their influence felt, and when they set out on expeditions their successes received personal acknowledgment and were not recorded to the credit of an overshadowing monarch. They recognized the official religion, but fostered the local religious cult, and in their tombs related the stories of their own lives, boasting of their achievements and asserting the ethical principles which justified them before Osiris. The age thus became articulate. Education was spreading, and the accumulation of wealth promoted culture. The historic spirit had birth, and the scribes began to record the events of the past and compile lists of kings. Among the tomb pictures of everyday life were inscribed fragments of folksong, and it is evident that music was cultivated, for we find groups of harpers and flautists and singers.
The religious energies of the Pharaohs were devoted
more to the building of temples than to the erection of tombs. Ra worship introduced elaborate ceremonials, and large numbers of priests were engaged at Heliopolis. At a later period we learn that over 12,000 persons were directly connected with the temples there. The Pharaohs continued to reside in the vicinity of Memphis, and the Court was maintained with great splendour; their tombs were erected at Abusir, farther south than those of the Khufu line of kings.
No wars of any consequence occurred during the Fifth Dynasty, but exploring expeditions were fitted out, and in the time of Sahura, the second monarch, the coast of Somaliland, which was called Punt, was visited, and there were large imports of gum and resins for incense in the temples, and of wood and precious metals.
The quarries in Sinai continued to be worked, and the name of Isôsi, the eighth monarch, is associated with the working of black granite at Wadi Hammamat. We know little or nothing regarding the personalities of the kings. They appear to have reigned with discretion and ability, for the age was one of political progress and extending culture.
In the reign of King Dedka Ra Isôsi--to give him his full name--that famous collection of maxims, "The Instruction of Ptah-hotep", was compiled. This production survives in the Prisse Papyrus, which was called after the French archæologist who purchased it from a native in 1847. The author was Isôsi's grand vizier, and he was evidently of Memphite birth and a Ptah worshipper, for his name signifies "Ptah is well pleased". He lived over a thousand years before Hammurabi, the wise king of Babylon, and long ages ere Solomon collected his Proverbs at Jerusalem.
The maxims of Ptah-hotep were for centuries copied
by boys in the schools of ancient Egypt. In their papyrus "copybooks" they were wont to inscribe the following phrases:--
It is excellent for a son to obey his father.
He that obeys shall become one who is obeyed.
Carelessness to-day becomes disobedience to-morrow.
He that is greedy for pleasure will have an empty stomach.
A loose tongue causes strife.
He that rouses strife will inherit sorrow.
Good deeds are remembered after death.
The maxims afford us interesting glimpses of the life and culture of the times. Old Ptah-hotep is full of worldly wisdom, and his motto is: "Do your duty and you will be happy". He advises his son to acquire knowledge and to practise the virtues of right conduct and right living. His precepts are such as we would expect to find among a people who conceived of an Osirian Judgment Hall in the next world.
The "Instruction" is dedicated to King Isôsi. The vizier feels the burden of years, and laments his fate. He opens in this manner:
O King, my lord, I draw nigh to life's end,
To me the frailties of life have come
And second childhood. . . . Ah! the old lie down
Each day in suffering; the vision fails,
Ears become deaf and strength declines apace,
The mind is ill at case. . . . An old man's tongue
Has naught to say because his thoughts have fled,
And he forgets the day that has gone past. . . .
Meanwhile his body aches in every bone;
The sweet seems bitter, for all taste is lost--
Ah! such are the afflictions of old age,
Which work for evil. . . . Fitful and weak
His breath becomes, standing or lying down.
Ptah-hotep then proceeds to petition the king to be released of his duties, so that his son may succeed him. He desires to address to the young man the words of wisdom uttered by sages of old who listened when the gods spake to them.
His Majesty at once gives his consent, and expresses the hope that Ptah-hotep's son will hearken with understanding and become an example to princes. "Speak to him", adds the king, "without making him feel weary."
The "Instruction" is fairly long--over 4000 words--so that it was necessary to have it copied out. We select a few of the most representative maxims.
Do not be vain although you are well educated; speak to an illiterate man as you would to a wise one. After all, there is a limit to cleverness; no worker is perfect. Courteous speech is more uncommon than the emeralds which girl slaves find among the stones.
If you speak with an argumentative man who really knows more than you do yourself, listen respectfully to him, and do not lose your temper if he differs from you.
If, however, an argumentative man knows less than you do, correct him and show him that you are the wiser of the two; others will approve of you and give you an excellent reputation.
If a man of low rank argues without knowledge, be silent. Do not speak angrily to him. It is not very creditable to put such an one to shame.
When you become a leader, be courteous and see that your conduct is exemplary. . . . Do not tyrannize over men. . . . It is he who gives to those who are in need that prospers; not the man who makes others afraid. . . . Listen graciously to one who appeals to you. Let him speak frankly, and be ever ready to put an end to a grievance. If a man is not inclined to tell everything he knows, it is because he to whom he speaks has the reputation of not dealing fairly. A mind that is well controlled is always ready to consider. . . . See that your employees are adequately rewarded, as is proper on the part of one to whom the god has
given much. It is well known that it is no easy thing to satisfy employees. One says to-day: "He is generous; I may get much", and to-morrow: "He is a mean, exacting man". There is never peace in a town where workers arc in miserable circumstances.
That man is never happy who is always engaged reckoning his accounts, but the man whose chief concern is to amuse himself does not provide for his household. . . . If you become rich after having been poor, do not bind your heart with your wealth; because you are the administrator of what the god has given you. Remember that you are not the last, and that others will become as great as you. . . . Enjoy your life, and do not occupy the entire day at your work. Wealth is no use to a worn-out man.
Love your wife; feed her and clothe her well; make her happy; do not deal sternly with her; kindness makes her more obedient than harshness; if she yearns for something which pleasures her eye, see that she gets it. . . . Do not be jealous, or despondent, or cross if you have no children. Remember that a father has his own sorrows, and that a mother has more troubles than a childless woman. . . . How beautiful is the obedience of a faithful son. The god loves obedience; he hates disobedience. A father rejoices in a son's obedience and honours him. A son who hearkens to counsel guards his tongue and conducts himself well. A disobedient son is foolish and never prospers. He blunders continually. . . . In the end he is avoided because he is a failure. . . . A father should teach wisdom to his sons and daughters, so that they may be of good repute. When others find them faithful and just, they will say: "That father has trained them well". . . . A good son is a treasure given by the god.
Ptah-hotep reminds his son that when he goes to dine with a great man he should take what is given to him. A nobleman gives the daintiest portions to those he likes best. He must not keep staring at his host, or speak until he is spoken to; then he should answer readily. . . . When he is sent with a message from one nobleman to another he should take care not to say anything which will cause strife between them. He should not repeat what a nobleman said when in a temper
"Let your heart be more generous than your speech," advises Ptah-hotep as he draws his "Instruction" to a close. He hopes that his son will prosper as well as he himself has prospered, and that he will satisfy the king by his actions. "I have lived", he adds, "for a hundred and ten years, and have received more honours from His Majesty than did any of my ancestors, because I have been just and honourable all through life."
Such was the ethical. but there was also a superstitious element in Egyptian domestic life. The people believed that the world swarmed with spirits which were continually desiring to inflict injuries upon living beings, and were abroad by day as well as by night. An amulet on which was depicted a human hand was considered to be efficacious, and the Egyptian mother suspended it from a cord which was put round the baby's neck. She tied a knot in the morning and another in the evening until there were seven knots in all. On each occasion she repeated a formula over a knot, which was to the following effect: "Isis has twisted the cord; Nepthys has smoothed it; and it will guard you, my bonnie bairn, and you will become strong and prosper. The gods and the goddesses will be good to you, and the evil ones will be thwarted, the mouths of those who utter spells against you will be closed. . . . I know all their names, and may those, whose names I know not, suffer also, and that quickly." 1
Erman, the German Egyptologist, has translated an interesting papyrus by an unknown scribe, which contains the formulæ used to protect children. Some children were more liable to be attacked by evil spirits than
others. In Europe pretty children require special protection against the evil eye. Red-haired youngsters were disliked because the wicked god Set was red-haired) and was likely to carry them away. Their mothers, therefore, had to exercise special care with them, and there was a particular charm for their use. In Russia red-haired people are believed to have more knowledge of magic than others, and are disliked on that account.
The Egyptian ghosts, the enemies of the living, like the archaic deities, were of repulsive aspect. They came from tombs in mummy bandages with cheeks of decaying flesh, flat noses, and eyes of horror, and entered a room with averted faces, 1 which were suddenly turned on children, who at once died of fright. They killed sleeping babies by sucking their breath 2 when they kissed, or rather smelled, them, and if children were found crying they rocked them to sleep--the sleep of death.
When an infant was being hushed to sleep the Egyptian mother sang a ditty to scare away the ghosts of dead men, and then made a protecting charm with lettuce, garlic, tow, bones, and honey. The following is a rendering of one of the old "sleepy songs":--
Oh, avaunt! ye ghosts of night,
Nor do my baby harm;
Ye may come with steps so light,
But I'll thwart you with my charm.
For my babe you must not kiss,
Nor rock if she should cry--
Oh! if you did aught amiss,
My own, my dear, would die.
O ye dead men, come not near--
Now I have made the charm--
There's lettuce to prick you here,
Garlic with smell to harm;
There 's tow to bind like a spell,
The magic bones are spread;
There's honey the living love well--
'T is poison to the dead.
According to tradition, the Sixth-Dynasty kings were not descendants of Mena. Teta, the first king, may have come to the throne as a result of a harem conspiracy. He was a Ra worshipper, and probably a powerful nobleman, supported by a well-organized military force, which held the balance of power. The kingdom was in a state of political unrest. In every nome the hereditary chieftains clamoured for concessions from the royal house, and occasionally their requests were couched in the form of demands. Pepi 1, the third king of the line, who was a strong monarch, appears to have secured the stability of the throne by promoting a policy of military aggression which kept the ambitious nobles fully engaged on the northern and southern frontiers. Nubia was invaded with success, and expeditions visited the land of Punt.
The Egyptians had imagined that the edge of the world was somewhere a little beyond the first cataract, and that the intervening space was peopled by demigods, called "Manes". Now the horizon was considerably widened. The heavenly Nile was believed to descend in a cascade much farther south than had hitherto been supposed, and the region of mystery was located beyond the area occupied by the too-human and ever-aggressive Nubians.
Pepi selected capable officials of proved loyalty to hold
the noblemen in check and secure the equitable distribution of water throughout the kingdom. These were liberally rewarded, and were privileged to erect elaborate tombs, like the nome governors, and in these they had their biographies inscribed.
On an Abydos tomb wall we have recorded the achievements of Uni, who rose from humble official rank to be Pharaoh's intimate confidant and counsellor. He was, he says, Pepi's "guardian of heart", and he "knew everything that happened and every secret affair". Although he was only "superintendent of irrigated lands", he exercised more influence over the kingdom than any other dignitary. Royal journeys were arranged by him and at Court ceremonies he marshalled the nobles, which was, no doubt, a delicate task. The perils which continually beset the throne are indicated in his reference to a harem conspiracy. "When one visited the palace to give secret information against the great royal wife Ametsi, His Majesty selected me to enter the harem to listen to business. No scribe was called, nor any other except me alone. I was selected because of my probity and discretion. I recorded everything."
He was only, he repeats, "superintendent of irrigated lands". It was the first occasion on which a man of his rank had listened to harem secrets. Uni tells us no more. We do not even know what fate befell the plotting queen.
When military campaigns were carried out, Uni was placed in command of the army. He tells that there were generals in it, mamelouks from Lower Egypt, friends of the king, and princes from the north and south, besides a host of officials of high rank. But they had all to obey the man who was only the superintendent of irrigated lands. Evidently the commissariat arrangements were of
a simple character. Each man carried his own supply of bread. The inhabitants of the towns they passed through had to supply the soldiers with beer and "small animals".
Several campaigns were successfully conducted by Uni, and on each occasion large numbers of the enemy were slain, while "fig trees were cut down and houses burned". So firmly was peace established in the south that Merenra, the next monarch, was able to visit the first cataract, where he received the homage of the nobles.
After Uni's death, the chief of a warlike tribe at Elephantine, who was a veritable Rob Roy, came into royal favour. He made several raids into Nubia, and brought back ivory and ebony and gold. On one occasion he returned with a pygmy or "Deng". It was a great triumph, for "Dengs" belonged to the land of the "Manes" (demigods), and were able to charm even the sulky ferryman who transported the dead over the river of Hades. King Merenra had just died, and his successor, Pepi II, a young man, was greatly excited over the coming of the "Deng". Orders were sent to guard the pygmy carefully; and those who slept beside him in the boat were changed ten times each night. The little fellow was welcomed like royalty at Memphis, and he delighted the Pharaoh with his strange antics, boisterous manners, and war dances. It was the desire of everyone who watched him to be transformed into a "Deng" after death, so that the ferryman of Hades might come to the bank at once to transport the waiting soul to the other side.
These military expeditions taught the Nubians to respect the power of Egypt, and they subsequently became subjects of the Pharaohs.
The Sixth Dynasty, however, was doomed. Conspiring nobles regarded one another with suspicion, and cast ambitious eyes upon the throne. Local religious cults also gathered strength, and the political influence exercised by the priests of Heliopolis suffered decline. For about three centuries Ra had remained supreme; now his power was being suppressed. Serious revolts occurred. Merenra II--the successor of Pepi II, who is credited with a reign of over ninety years--was deposed twelve months after he ascended the throne. According to Herodotus, who is supported in this connection by Manetho, his queen immediately seized the reins of power. The Egyptian priests informed the Greek historian that Merenra was murdered, and that the queen Nitocris avenged his death in the following manner. She caused a large subterranean hall to be made for the purpose of celebrating festivals, as she pretended, and invited a number of noblemen to visit it. As the conspirators sat feasting, the waters of the Nile flooded the artificial cave through a secretly constructed canal, and the guests were all drowned. Great indignation was aroused throughout the kingdom, and the queen committed suicide by suffocation in an apartment filled with the fumes of burning wood. The story appears to be more mythical than historical.
At the close of the Sixth Dynasty the kingdom was plunged in anarchy. The nobles attempted to establish a government in which they were to hold power in rotation. It was impossible for such an arrangement to succeed, because the interests of each feudal lord were centred in his own particular nome. The Seventh Dynasty was brief. According to tradition there were "seventy kings in seventy days". Egypt was then divided into a number of small separated states, which were administrated
by the hereditary owners of the soil, and we find one of them declaring, significantly enough, in his tomb inscription that he had "freed his city in a time of war from the oppression of the king".
Thus came to an end the Old Kingdom, which had existed for about 1700 years from the time of Mena. A great civilization had evolved during that period. It had grown rich in art and architecture. Indeed, the artistic achievements of the Old Kingdom were never afterwards surpassed either in technique or naturalism; the grandeur of its architectural triumphs is emphasized by the enduring Pyramids, and especially Khufu's great tomb with its finely wrought stonework, which remains unequalled to the present day.
The people, too, had prospered and made great progress. Refined and cultured faces appear in the surviving statuary; indeed many of the men and women look much like those of the present day. Agriculture flourished, the industries developed, and commerce made the people prosperous. Education appears to have been thorough within its limits, and had gradually become more widespread.
Although the power of the monarchy declined, the people as a whole did not lapse back into a state of semi-savagery. The nomes were well governed by the nobles, but a system of detached local administration was foredoomed to failure on account of the physical conditions of the country. Egypt required then, as now, a strong central government to promote the welfare of the entire country. A noble might continue to cut canals, but there was no guarantee that he would receive an equitable and regular supply of water. In an irrigated country water laws must be strictly observed, otherwise the many will suffer because of the heedlessness or selfishness of the
few. When the power of the Pharaoh was shattered, the natural resources of Egypt declined, and a great proportion of the people were threatened with periodic famines.
The demands of the Court when at the height of its power may have seemed oppressive to the feudal lords. Pharaoh required a proportion of their crops and of their live stock, much free labour, and many fighting men, because he gave them water and protected them against the inroads of invaders. He had also private ambitions, and desired to erect a great tomb for himself. Yet he governed Egypt for the good of the greater number, and the conflicts between the Court and the feudal lords were really conflicts between national and local interests. The country as a whole suffered from the effects of extreme governmental decentralization- a policy inaugurated by priestly Pharaohs, who were, perhaps, too greatly concerned about promoting a national religion based upon sun worship.
The ascendancy of the nobles was impossible so long as the Pharaohs were, in a practical sense, the chief priests of each particular cult. Diplomatic rulers honoured local gods and attended to the erection and endowment of temples. They wedged themselves in between the hereditary chieftains and the priests who exercised so powerful an influence over the people. When, however, the nobles became the sole patrons of their nome cults, they were able to openly defy the Court.
So, when the throne tottered, a plague of anarchy fell upon Egypt, and the forces of reaction were let loose. Nome warred against nome and the strong prevailed over the weak. Temples were ruthlessly pillaged, and tombs were raided by robber bands; the mummies of hated kings were torn from the Pyramids; statuary was
shattered and inscriptions were destroyed. Only in those provinces where good government was maintained did the old order of things remain. But Egypt was so thoroughly disorganized as a whole that several centuries had to elapse before the central government could be once again firmly established in the interests of progress and the welfare of the great mass of the people.
Occasionally a strong Pharaoh arose to compel the rival lords to make truce one with another, but such successes were only temporary. The feudal system was deeply rooted, and all a king could do was to organize a group of nobles to deal with those who threatened to grow too powerful. He could not raise or maintain a standing army, for each lord commanded all the fighting men in his own nome, and they owed allegiance to him alone; nor could the Pharaoh employ mercenaries, because the resources of the royal treasury were strictly limited.
176:1 The knotted cord was in general use throughout Europe. It is not yet uncommon in the Highlands of Scotland, where red neck cords protect children against the evil eye, while sprains. &c., are cured by knotted cords, a charm being repeated as each knot is tied.
177:1 Like Turnface in the boat of the dead.
177:2 Cats are credited in Europe with taking away life by sucking children's breath as they lie asleep.