by Kay Bellinger

FOREWORD by Professor Rosalie David

This book explores a variety of topics, using ancient Egyptian literature, the Bible, the writings of Shakespeare, and other historical texts, as source material. Some of the subjects considered include various explanations of creation that have been proposed; the jealous conflicts of brothers as exemplified by the Biblical Cain and Abel and the Egyptian deities Osiris and Seth; the links between the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Virgin Mary; and parallels that can be drawn between the Egyptian Wisdom Texts and the Bible.

There is also a discussion of various ceremonies, such as funerals, coronations and jubilee festivals, which highlight the similarities that can be determined in Egyptian and later examples. Parallels are drawn between the lives and reigns of the Egyptian king Tutankhamun and the English ruler Edward VI, and a description of their coronations demonstrates that, in both cultures, the king was considered in some way to be divine. The book further explores the concept that the royal crowns and insignia used in these ceremonies were imbued with magical powers that would protect the king.

Other themes include a review of some of the modern theories relating to the Biblical Exodus and the Ten Plagues of Egypt, where the natural and ecological circumstances that may have caused the events are considered. Also, the contributions made by Egyptian religious cults to Western paganism, and by Coptic traditions such as monasticism to the wider sphere of Christianity, are explored.

To demonstrate Egypt’s wide-ranging legacy, this book draws on a variety of literary and archaeological evidence: myths and festivals are described and compared; and the architecture and decoration of the famous tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens and the treasures of King Tutankhamun from his burial in the Valley of the Kings are used to describe some of the Egyptian funerary customs and symbolism. The lives and times of some famous rulers are also considered: Shakespeare’s account of the life and death of Cleopatra, and the actions taken by King Akhenaten of Egypt and Henry VIII of England in their conflicts with the priesthood provide an insight into contemporary attitudes towards royalty and show how rulers from widely differing times and backgrounds have dealt with the problems they encountered.

For the general reader who has an interest in religion, literature and historical traditions this book provides an original viewpoint, by suggesting links between cultures that are widely separated by time and place. To demonstrate these links, it includes information from a wide variety of sources, and because the facts are brought together in this way, the reader has an opportunity to consider a range of materials of which he might otherwise be unaware.

Some beliefs and customs persisted for many centuries; despite the differences between the cultures and societies in which they flourished, nevertheless it is shown that people’s attitudes towards life, death and the afterlife, and to religion and kingship, remained remarkably similar.

On an academic note, past writers such as the remarkable Victorian, Lucie Duff-Gordon, described Egypt in these words:

This country is a palimpsest in which the Bible is written over Herodotus, and the Koran over that.

In ancient Egypt, religion permeated every aspect of man’s life and death, and therefore it is not surprising that it is through religious belief and custom that we can trace many of the Egyptian legacies to civilisations and peoples who came later.

In his significant study, Egyptian Religion (transl. A. Keep; London 1973, reprinted New York 1990), Morenz states (p.251):

The influence of Egyptian religion on posterity is mainly felt through Christianity and its antecedents . . . its contribution to the New Testament, indeed even to early Christian theology, must be seen as a special instance of that general influence exerted by Egypt upon the Hellenistic world. It was only when these two religions became established that the Egyptian influences contained within them could be transmitted to later generations.

He goes on to acknowledge that major differences exist between the ancient Egyptian religion on the one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other; in particular, he comments that, whereas Judaism and Christianity are both religions based on scriptures which, according to their believers, were revealed to mankind by God, the ancient Egyptian religion was not. He is also careful to emphasise that the Egyptian influence on Judaism and Christianity should not be over-emphasised:

In expounding this principle, it is to be hoped that we have left no room for any suspicion on the reader’s part that … we are either depreciating the role of Judaism or Christianity in the history of religion or overestimating the importance of trivia.

Nevertheless, although Morenz does not regard Egyptian influence on the other religions to be considerable, he claims that certain strands of belief and custom were indeed adopted from the old traditions by the newer religions.
The avenues through which these beliefs and customs were transmitted are generally accepted to be the Biblical Old Testament or Egypto-Hellenistic sources. Egypt’s links with the Old Testament have been known and studied for a long time, but there has been less emphasis on the fact that Egyptian religion, through its legacy to the Hellenistic world, also had an effect on the New Testament and thus on early Christianity. Indeed, in general, Egypt’s influence on the Hellenistic world has not been fully appreciated or explored.

There are a number of ancient Egyptian religious concepts which may have influenced later beliefs. One major concept was that of the triad or trinity: the idea behind this was either the belief that the triad (three forms of one god) could enhance the nature and the powers of a specific deity, or that three separate, independent gods could be brought together as a triad, to represent plurality, or that three deities could be selected to represent a family group consisting of a father, mother and child. When faced with the problem of how to unify different gods – local, national and cosmic – the Egyptians created the concept of the trinity or three-in-one; however, the other early civilisations, such as those that arose in Mesopotamia, did not arrive at the same solution. It is the influence of the Egyptian triad that is evident later in the Biblical Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Another important Egyptian belief was the idea that everything, including mankind, was created through divine thought and utterance. As early as the Old Kingdom (c.2600BC), the creator-god, Ptah of Memphis, was believed to have created the gods, the world of nature, and human beings through “what the god’s heart thought and his tongue commanded.” Later, in the same way, the Old Testament promotes the idea of creation coming about through the Divine Word, and, in turn, this important concept was conveyed into Christian belief.

As a time of great emotional turmoil, the experience of death in ancient societies was the focus of some of the most significant myths, beliefs and customs, and it is not surprising that, in various forms, some of these have been transmitted from one religion to another.

For example, the most famous ancient Egyptian myth which recounted the life, death and resurrection of the god Osiris may have prepared the Egyptians to readily accept Christianity when it was presented to them. Also, the Egyptian concept of a Day of Judgement when the deceased was interrogated about his actions in this world, and asked to recite the Negative Confession, foreshadows Judaic and Christian traditions.

Some of the funerary customs of the ancient Egyptians were also carried over into later times. For example, the long-established practice of mummifying the dead continued in parts of Egypt and Nubia into early Christian times. Although the evisceration of the body (a significant stage in mummification in pharaonic Egypt) was discontinued, the surface of the body was coated with natron and other substances, including coarse salt, to dehydrate the tissues and make them pliable. The body was then dressed in embroidered clothes and boots and wrapped in linen sheets.

The Egyptian Christians accepted the earlier custom of preserving the body in this way (although this was not based on the original religious ideas) and indeed, there is evidence that it was practised in monastic communities at Sakkara, Abu Roash and elsewhere. The practise only ceased with the Arab invasion into Egypt in 641AD.

Other survivals from pharaonic times included the custom of holding funerary banquets at the tomb. In later times, there were attempts to stop this; for example, in the Roman era, the Theodosian Code stated that funerary meals should not be taken within the necropolis (cemetery). However, even today, at least two funerary occasions have survived that can trace their origins back to pharaonic Egypt.

In his book The Modern Egyptians (1834), Edward Lane states (p.272):

It is customary among the peasants of Upper Egypt for the female relations and friends of a person deceased to meet together by his house on each of the first three days after the funeral, and there to perform a lamentation and a strange kind of dance. They daub their faces and bosoms, and part of their dress, with mud; and tie a rope girdle, generally made of the coarse grass called ‘halfa’, round the waist.

This ceremony, known as El-Arbelyin and performed forty days after the funeral, was also described by the classical writer Herodotus who was recounting events towards the end of Egyptian civilisation (Histories, Book II, para.85). It retains elements of the burial service that was carried out in pharaonic times, when relatives gathered at the tomb for ceremonies which culminated in a funerary banquet.

Lane continues (p.296):

The funeral-ceremonies of the Copts (Egyptian Christians) resemble, in many respects, those of the Muslims. The corpse is carried on a bier followed by women wailing in the same manner as the Muslims do on such occasions; but it is not preceded by hired chanters. Hired wailing-women are employed to lament in the house of the deceased for three days after death (though this custom is disapproved by the clergy and many others, being only a relic of ancient heathen usages); and they renew their lamentations there on the seventh and fourteenth days after death, and sometimes several weeks after that.

Here again, the presence of hired mourning women recalls the depiction of the funeral in ancient Egyptian tomb wall-scenes, and as such are shown playing an important role.

It was also an ancient custom for the family of the deceased to make an annual visit to the tomb, and distribute food to the poor. Again, this has survived in modern times in the form of regular visits made by Copts to the family graves. On three occasions in the year – on the evenings before the Festival of the Nativity, the commemoration of the birth of Christ, and Easter – the families go to the graves and spend the night there in special houses built for this purpose. The next morning, they sacrifice an animal and give the meat and some bread to the poor who gather there. The purpose of the visits is for the believers to distribute alms to the poor and to reflect on their religious beliefs.

Other pharaonic festivals that have survived in modern Egypt in a recognisable form include Sham el Nessim (“Smelling the Wind”). This is held on the first day when the Khamaseen (a hot, southerly wind) blows frequently, and celebrates the coming of Spring, recalling the ancient tradition which marked the rebirth of the land’s vegetation and the renewal of all life. According to Lane’s account in 1834, early in the morning, many people, especially women, broke an onion and smelt it, and in the afternoon, they went outdoors to ‘smell’ the air which they thought was beneficial to their health. Today, this celebration is marked by families taking part in outings, and giving each other presents of coloured eggs.

Another festival that recalls a pharaonic tradition is the Awru el Nil. Celebrated as a national holiday, when flowers are thrown into the Nile, this recalls the ancient festival which accompanied the inundation of the Nile, when prayers were offered to the gods to provide an adequate flood and thus bring prosperity to Egypt and its people. According to some accounts by Arab writers (including the famous author El Makrizi) the ancient Egyptians marked the annual occasion of the rising of the Nile by dressing a young virgin in colourful clothes and then throwing her into the Nile as a sacrifice, to become the god’s bride and ensure a satisfactory inundation. According to the Arab accounts, the custom was eventually abolished, but it may have given rise to the later tradition of raising a round pillar of earth (called ‘the bride’) on the top of which some maize or millet was grown; this pillar was then washed away by the rising Nile waters before the river attained its full height.

There are several other areas where ancient Egyptian concepts and rites may have been carried over into later beliefs and traditions. These include possible links between the cult of the goddess Isis and Mariolatry; the cults of saints; pilgrimages; dream interpretation; healing oracles; and ideas regarding sin and salvation. Also, there have been studies about the early role of the Alexandrian patriarch: these consider how, as the people’s ‘spiritual father’, and with wide-ranging political and economic powers at home and abroad, the head of the Christian Church in Egypt continued to represent many aspects of the Egyptian pharaoh. One area of transmission that has never been extensively explored, however, is the contribution that the Egyptian temple made to its successor, the Christian Church, in terms of architecture, ritual, organisation and administration.

For thousands of years, the ancient Egyptians were a dominating force in their world, and their religion undoubtedly influenced the beliefs and religious practises of their neighbours. This religion provided the Egyptians – a sophisticated and brilliant people – with ideas and institutions that supported them and apparently fulfilled their spiritual needs. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of these customs have survived as national traditions. However, even more significantly, in the context of this religion, we can recognise the contribution that ancient Egyptian theology and philosophy regarding immortality, monotheism, ethics and morals have made to the three great faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Therefore, it is generally accepted that strands can be tenuously traced from the religion of ancient Egypt through Judaism and Christianity. However, this book looks at the possibility of a much more extensive Egyptian legacy which, over the centuries, has had an impact on various attitudes towards life and death. It is suggested that some beliefs and customs of the ancient Egyptians continued to have an influence on various aspects of the medieval and modern world although, as the author states (p.10), “… a direct comparison is not intended, only the concept of an idea.”

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