IN ancient times the land that is now called Egypt was called by the people, then inhabiting that part of Africa, "Kam," a word that means "black" or "dark-colored" and referred to the dark color of the muddy soil in their land. To the Hebrews this name was known as "Khám" or "Ham" and in the Bible the Egyptians are referred to as "Sons of Ham" or "Children of Ham."
These people had a God called "Ptah" to whom they raised a temple--the temple was called "He-Ka-ptah" or House of "Ka"--of "Ptah." This name, that was in the beginning confined to "Memphis," gradually spread to other parts of the Nile Valley, and by degrees the whole country became known as "HeKapath," to other people with whom these people had contact.
The Greeks changed the name into "Aiguptos" and the Romans changed it into "Aegyptus," so from these names we get the name in its present form--"Egypt,"
To what race do the Egyptians belong? On this
subject Prof. James Breasted in his "History of Egypt" writes the following:
"On the now bare and windswept desert plateau, through which the Nile has hollowed its channel, there once dwelt a race of men. Plenteous rains, now no longer known there, rendered it a fertile and productive region. The geological changes which have since made the country almost rainless, denuded it of vegetation and soil, and made it for the most part uninhabitable, took place many thousands of years before the beginning of the Egyptian civilization, which we are to study; but the prehistoric race, who before these changes peopled the plateau, left behind them as the sole memorial of their existence vast numbers of rude flint implements, now lying scattered about the surface of the present desert exposed by denudation.
"These men of the paleolithic age were the first inhabitants of whom we have any knowledge in Egypt. They cannot be connected in any way with the historic or prehistoric civilization of the Egyptians and they fall exclusively within the province of the geologist and anthropologist. The forefathers of the people with whom we shall have to deal were related to the Libyans or North Africans on the one hand, and on the other to the peoples
of eastern Africa, now known as the Galla, Somali, Bega and other tribes.
"An invasion of the Nile Valley by Semitic Nomads of Asia, stamped its essential character unmistakably upon the language of the African people there. The earliest strata of the language accessible to us, betray clearly this composite origin. While still colored by its African antecedents, the language is in structure Semitic. It is moreover a completed product as observable in our earliest preserved examples of it; but the fusion of the Libyans and East Africans with the Nile Valley peoples continued far into historic times, and in the case of the Libyans may be traced in ancient historical documents for three thousand years or more.
"The Semitic immigration from Asia, examples of which are also observable in the historic age, occurred in an epoch that lies far below our remotest historical horizon. We shall never be able to determine when, nor with certainty through what channels, it took place, although the most probable route is that along which we may observe a similar influx from the deserts of Arabia in historic times, the isthmus of Suez, by which the Mohammedan invasion entered the country.
"While the Semitic language which they brought with them left its indelible impress upon the old Nile Valley people, the nomadic life of the desert which the invaders left behind them, evidently was not so persistent, and the religion of Egypt, that element of life which always receives the stamp of its environment, shows no trace of the desert life. The affinities observable in the language are confirmed in case of the Libyans, by the surviving products of archaic civilization in the Nile Valley such as some of the early pottery, which closely resembles that still made by the Libyan Kabyles. Again the representations of the early Puntites, or Somali people, on the Egyptian monuments, show striking resemblances to the Egyptians themselves. The examination of the bodies exhumed from archaic burials in the Nile Valley, which we had hoped might bring further evidence f or the settlement of the problem, has, however, produced such diversity of opinion among the physical anthropologists, as to render it impossible for the historian to obtain decisive results from their researches. The conclusion once maintained by some historians, that the Egyptian was of African negro origin is now refuted; and evidently indicated that at most he may have been slightly tinctured with negro
blood, in addition to other ethnic elements already mentioned."
If we were called upon to characterize the Egyptian religion in a few words, we should call it, both as a system and as a cult, an almost monarchical polytheism in a theocratic form. The Egyptian polytheism was not purely monarchical, for there were several divine monarchies; and only by the somewhat arbitrary doctrine that all the chief gods were in reality the same under different names, could the semblance of monarchy be maintained. But this religion was undoubtedly theocratic in the strictest sense of the word. The divinity himself reigned through his son, the absolute king, his incarnation and representative on earth. The priesthood of Amon, strengthened by its victory over the heretic, and by the measureless wealth which the munificence of successful conquerors poured into its lap, had attained the most tremendous power in the state; and when, after a long time, its members had reduced the king to weak tools in their hands, and succeeded at last in usurping the throne itself, the theocracy was altered in form only, but not in its essence. The place of the king
highpriest was taken by the highpriest-king. But even this change was of short duration. Against another power no less favored by the kings of the new empire, the power of the army (composed for the greater part of hired foreign troops), the priestly princes proved unable to keep their ground. They had to leave the country, and in Ethiopia they founded a new sacerdotal kingdom. Still the rule of the kings, who sprang from this military revolution, was purely theocratic.
But this only characterizes the form of the Egyptian religion. If we search for the leading thought, contained in all its myths and symbols, and in all its institutions and ceremonies, it may best be comprised in the word "life." The sign of life (ankh) is the holiest and the most commonly used of all the symbols. The gods bear it in their hands, hold it to the lips of their worshippers, and pour it out in streams over the heads of their favorites. For they actually give life, now by the light which they continually cause to triumph over the powers of darkness, again by the regular recurrence of the fructifying waters, or by mysterious operations in the centre of the earth. And hence they set such store on the possession of the lawful king. He, the son of the sun, was the living pledge that these
blessings should not cease. His coronation was an agricultural festival, the beginning of the harvest; his greatest care was to spread the waters of the Nile through canals as far as possible over the fields. From this arose also their great fear of death and eternal darkness, and the efforts and sacrifices which they made to secure an eternal existence, either in the fertile land of Osiris, or as a follower of the god of light, and, as it is put, "to obtain the crown of life."
Entirely swayed by these ideas, the Egyptian, although his religious thinking did not stand still, clung to the existing state of things; he did not relinquish what was old. He may have connected different ideas with it; but the holy texts which he muttered during the Ptolemean era were often the same as those his ancestors had uttered at the altars and the tombs more than thirty centuries ago. The nature of the land which bore and fed him had imprinted a peculiar stamp on his religion. Moreover, his religion became to him more and more the only thing of supreme value. Treasures, the fruits of his industry, and all the skill which was the product of his remarkable civilization, he spent on the building and the decorating of his tombs and temples. Those of Amon at Thebes gradually
became the largest in the world. His whole literature, even that which was not destined for a religious purpose, is, with a few exceptions, saturated by a religious spirit.
Many of the virtues which we are apt to suppose a monopoly of Christian culture appear as the ideal of these old Egyptians. Brugsch says a thousand voices from the tombs of Egypt declare this. One inscription in upper Egypt says: "He loved his father, he honored his mother, he loved his brethren, and never went from his home in bad-temper. He never preferred the great man to the low one." Another says: "I was a wise man, my soul loved God. I was a brother to the great men and a father to the humble ones, and never was a mischief-maker." An inscription at Sais, on a priest who lived in the sad days of Camybses, says, "I honored my father, I esteemed my mother, I loved my brothers. I found graves for the unburied dead. I instructed little children. I took care of orphans as though they were my own children. For great misfortunes were on Egypt in my time, and on this city of Sais."
In speaking of the ancient books of Egyptian wisdom--the "Ptah-Hotep" and the "Ke-Gemni," Dr. Battiscombe Gunn says: "Nor do the oldest
books of any other country approach these two in antiquity. To draw comparisons between them let us, in imagination, place ourselves at the period at which Ptah-hotep lived, that is, about B.C. 3550, under King Isôsi, and take a glance at futurity.
"The Babylonians are doubtless exercising their literary talents; but they will leave nothing worthy the name of book to the far posterity of fifty-four centuries hence. Thirteen centuries shall pass before Hammurabi, king of Babylon, drafts the code of laws that will be found at that time. Only after two thousand years shall Moses write on the origin of things, and the Vedas be arranged in their present form. It will be two-and-a-half thousand years before the great king of Jerusalem will set in order many proverbs and write books so much resembling, in form and style, that of Ptah-hotep; before the source and summit of European literature will write his world epics. For the space of years between Solomon and ourselves, great though it seem, is not so great as that between Solomon and Ptah-hotep."
Dr. Wallis Budge sums up the Egyptian character thus: "A good general idea of the average Egyptian can be derived from the monuments and writings that have come down to us. In the first
place he was a very religious man. He worshipped God and his deified ancestors, offered sacrifices and offerings to the dead, and prayed at least twice daily, i.e., morning and evening. He believed in the resurrection of the dead through Osiris, and in the life everlasting, and was from first to last confident that those who had led righteous lives on earth were rewarded with happiness and lived with Osiris in heaven, and that the wicked on earth were punished with annihilation in the next world. His deep-seated interest in religion had a very practical object, namely, the resurrection of his spirit-body and his soul's future happiness in heaven. His conscience was well developed and made him obey religious, moral, and civil laws without question; a breach of any of these he atoned for, not by repentance, for which there is no word in his language, but by the making of offerings. In all religious matters he was strongly conservative, and his conservatism led him to hold at the same time beliefs that were not only inconsistent with each other, but sometimes flatly contradictory. In reality his religious books are filled with obsolete beliefs, many of which were contradicted by his religious observances. He had a keen sense of humor and was easily pleased. He loved eating and drinking,
music and dancing, festivals and processions, and display of all sorts and kinds, and he enjoyed himself whenever an opportunity offered. Over and over again the living are exhorted to eat and drink and enjoy themselves. His morality was of the highest kind, and he thoroughly understood his duty towards his neighbor. He was kindly and humane, he fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, lent a boat to the shipwrecked man, protected the widows and orphans, and fed the starving animals of the desert. He loved his village and his home and rejoiced when he was 'loved by his father, praised by his mother, and beloved by his brothers and sisters.' He was a hard worker, as the taxes wrung from him by tax-gatherers and priests in all periods testify. He was intensely superstitious, and was easily duped by the magician and medicine man, who provided him with spells and incantations and amulets of all kinds. He was slow to anger and disliked military service and war. His idea of heaven was the possession of a homestead in a fertile district, with streams of water and luxuriant crops of wheat, barley, fruit, etc., wherein he would live a life of leisure surrounded by all those whom he had known and loved upon earth. He had no wish to enlarge the borders of Egypt, except for
the loot which raids brought in; he never sought to bestow the blessings of Egyptian civilization upon other lands, and he never indulged in missionary enterprises of any kind. His religious toleration was great. He was content to serve God and Pharaoh, and he wished above all things to be allowed to till his land and do his own business in his own way in peace.
"The influence of his beliefs and religion, and literature, and arts and crafts on the civilization of other nations can hardly be overestimated. In one of the least known periods of the world's history he proclaimed the deathlessness of the human soul, and his country has rightly been named the 'land of immortality."'