Monday, February 13, 2012

The Anubian Culture

The Cult of Ra
This page will contain extracts from this book.
Title: The Cult of Ra
Author: Stephen Quirke
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Pages: 184
The names of Ra
The various compositions reveal a vision of the unfurling of the world, redo­lent in poetic phrasing where none of the mystery of existence is lost. As the sum of all matter this first appearance of the sun god could be named Atum, meaning 'the All', but as the sun, source of life and energy, he could be named more specifically as Ra, the ~ain word in the Egyptian language for 'sun' (ill. 4). Both terms are used in Coffin Text 335 (the same composition as the later Book of the Dead 'chapter' 17), one of the most frequently attested incantations from the period 2000 Be to the Roman Period (cited here from the coffin of Sebekaa):
FORMULA FOR GOING FORTH BY DAY IN THE UNDERWORLD BY THE HONOURED [NAME OF THE DECEASED], HE SAYS:
The spoken came to be: Mine is All [Arum] in my existence, alone
I am Ra in his first risings. I am the great god who came into being of himself, He who created his names, lord of the Nine Gods [i.e. of all gods],
He who has no opponent among the gods,
Mine is yesterday, and I know tomorrow - it means Osiris.
These different terms are sometimes combined, for example in the divine name Ra-Atum, where two aspects of divine creation are to be invoked at the same time. Far the most common of such compound names is Ra­Horakhty, using the concept of Horus, god of kingship, as embodiment of divine kingly power: we might loosely paraphrase this favourite Egyptian name for the sun god as 'the sun as the sovereign power in the horizon' (akhty = 'he of the horizon'). The horizon as home of the creator becomes the focus for one late Middle Kingdom prayer, labelled in Egyptology as Coffin Text 788, and found inscribed on the east face of the pyramidion, the capstone for the king's pyramid:
Open the face [i.e. the sight] for [the name of the deceased], That he may see the lord of the horizon,
That he may cross the sky,
And may he [the lord of the horizon] cause that he rise as the great god, lord of Time,
An indestructible star,
May he be stellar among the stars.

The scarab as solar symbol
At the beginning of creation, the Egyptians imagined that the sun must have arisen out of nothingness. This mystery could be expressed as an act of spontaneous self-creation, for which the Egyptians used the word kheper'to come into being', 'to take new form'. Accordingly, one of the names of the sun god was Khepri 'the one who comes into being', and a frequent epithet for a creator god is kheper-djesef'he who comes into being of himself', the self-created.
To express this aspect of the sun god, the Egyptians used a humble analogy from their observation of nature, the beetle pushing a ball of dung along the ground (ill. 5). The sight of the sphere rolling as if self-propelled seems to have provided a parallel in the Egyptian mind for the great solar sphere moving through the heavens, and the link with the creator was confirmed by the notion that the eggs of the beetle would hatch from the dung-ball, as if the beetle were spontaneously regenerating itself From the late New Kingdom, the sun god could be depicted as a being with a male human body and a dung beetle for a head. The analogy may strike a modern audience as rather crude or undignified, but today we have moved too far from contact with the earthiness of nature. Instead the motif should remind us how the Egyptian world interlocked the minute and the mighty, the one a possible microcosm embodying the other. Similarly, in the 5th century AD, one of the great fathers of Egyptian Christianity, the abbot Shenute, did not hesitate to find analogies in the behaviour of flies and ants to remind his congregation of the workings of the divine in human life. In ancient Egyptian iconography, the scarab became one of the most popular motifs in art on the smaller scale, thanks to a development in writing and administrative practice at the end of the Old Kingdom.
From the begin­nings of the Egyptian state, around 3IOO BC, for a thousand years the Egyptians used the cylinder seal, a device imported from Mesopotamia for impressing the mud sealings securing documents or commodity containers. At the time that the Egyptian kingdom began to lose its political unity, around the 22nd century BC, the cylinder seal began to be replaced by stamp seals of various forms. By the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, when unity was restored shortly before 2000 BC, the scarab had been widely adopted as the most appropriate symbol and most practical form. The religious signifi­cance of the beetle made it a perfect guarantor for the act of sealing, of great importance in the ages before technology provided better security in the form of locks and keys. In form, the features of a scarab can be relatively easily cut from a small oval piece of steatite, leaving the underside flat for the design to be impressed on the sealing. After about 1700 BC the signet ring replaced the scarab as the means of sealing documents with a motif or inscription. Yet the scarab continued to be used in Egypt as a solar amulet in life and in burial, sometimes in the larger form placed on the chest as a 'heart scarab', down to Ptolemaic times. Outside the Nile Valley the form was already being imitated in Minoan Crete and then in Western Asia before 1700 BC, and during the 1st millennium BC it became one of the most popular items of amuletic jewelry, surviving its usage in ancient Egyptian art.

Benu bird of Ra, the 'phoenix' of Egypt
In addition to the scarab, the Egyptians drew a variety of other motifs from the landscape of the Nile - a bird alighting on dry ground, for example, or a lotus flower opening as the flood water recedes. Both images would fill the landscape in the annual experience of the Egyptians, when the late-summer Nile flood subsided during the autumn. The flood left behind it a valley covered in fertile mud, the silt brought downstream by the torrent. This created a new beginning physically every year. The primeval mound, first dry land of creation, seems to receive focus in cult, and in religious litera­ture, in the form of a mysterious sloped stone called the benben. Repeating the consonants b+n, this word derives from the root weben 'to shine', as does the name for the bird of solar creation, the benu, forerunner of the phoenix of classical Greek myth. The sources for the benu deserve some extended comment, as this is one of the recurrent motifs in sun worship, and beautifully illustrates the way in which the Egyptians used the natural environment for imagery to speak of the divine.

The Greek account of the phoenix requires some untangling, to extract elements attested in ancient Egyptian sources. These do not provide antecedents for its most dramatic theme, of a bird that burns itself and rises from the ashes. However, there are strands linking the Greek phoenix with the Egyptian benu. Both are birds of the sun, both take form of themselves, rather than being born from other creatures, both undergo death, and both become symbols of regeneration. Another feature shared by the Egyptian and the later solar bird is the theme of periods of time. According to the Greek writer Herodotus, the phoenix went through its fiery cycle every 500 years. Intriguingly, the Roman author Tacitus refers to a cycle of 1,461 years, which is four times 365 and a quarter. This number carries hidden significance for Egypt, where the ancient calendar rounded off the actual solar year to 365. The earth in fact takes 365 and a quarter days to go around the sun, but the round number has advantages for accountancy, and the Egyptians did not feel the need to add a day in the manner of our leap year. Every 1,{61 years the New Year of the Egyptian calendar would coincide again with the 'real' New Year of the solar, and so of the agricultural calen­dar. This suggests a Nilotic origin for the phoenix at least in the version recorded by Tacitus. Yet it may not be wise at this stage to insist upon too close an identification of the classical phoenix with the ancient benu bird of the sun. By the time Tacitus or even, six centuries earlier, Herodotus wrote their accounts, the Greek world had met, absorbed and influenced an extraordinary array of oriental traditions, including those of Syria and Persia, Mesopotamia and Anatolia, as much as those of Egypt.

From Egyptian sources we may draw the character of the benu separately from the fabulous phoenix with its own distinctive, if related resonance. The depictions (ill. 6) show the benu as a bird in the heron family, possibly a specific type, but often indistinguishable from the ordinary heron (Egyptian shenty). In the funerary papyri of the New Kingdom and later, two formulae seek to provide the deceased with the ability to take the form, in one case of a heron (Book of the Dead 'chapter' 84), in the other of the benu bird ('chapter' 83). The two scenes, side by side, may introduce details to separate the birds, such as a pair of tufts at the crest and/or the breast of the benu. However, these may be symbols of distinction, rather than accurate repre­sentations of two separate bird species in nature. In these illustrations the benu generally has light blue feathers. The bird produced a sound evoked in Egyptian literature: a harpist's song from the late New Kingdom compares the voice of the deceased to that of the 'divine benu'. Any physical presence of the bird in Egyptian temples cannot be demonstrated, but there were several places named 'Domain of the Benu'. The most important of these stood at the central city of the sun, Iunu (see Chapter Three), but there were others in the 7th and 18th provinces of Upper Egypt, that in the 18th giving its name to the local city. There were also shrines for this sacred bird at Edfu, Ihnasya and Sais, at least by the Late Period. This indicates that the benu shared the destiny of the sun cult itself, radiating out from its centre at Iunu to reach, by the end of ancient Egyptian history, every corner of the land. The religious literature names the benu ba (or 'sou!'), 'form' or 'image' of Ra. From at least the reign ofTutankhamun, the heron appears on heart scarabs, the amulets protecting the heart as source of life in Egyptian elite burials. The bird embodies the radiance emanating from the sun, and one rare New Kingdom funerary composition (Book of the Dead 'chapter' 29B, known from only three manuscripts) places the hopes of survival beyond death on this single solar force:

FORMULA FOR [RECITING OVER] A HEART OF CaRNELIAN RECITED BY [NAME OF DECEASED]-

I am the benu, ba-soul of Ra,
He who leads the blessed to the Underworld, He who has Osiris return to earth,
To do what his ka-spirit desires,
Who has [name of deceased] return to earth, To do what his ka-spirit desires.

Whether image, soul or offspring, the motifs refer to the effect, the conse­quence of the existence of the sun. This makes them appropriate to the birth of time, where the first rising of the sun brings not only light but the possi­bility of existence, the bubble of space and movement within the inert masses of the uncreated void outside. The hieroglyphic script uses the image of a heron perched on a stick to write the word 'flood', presumably from the common sight of the birds clinging to wood above water during the season of the high Nile, every summer. Perhaps in a sense the benu means the shining of the sun at the water, on the first moment of creation: the heron is the tangible incarnation, for Egyptian art, but the word itself may in origin be the 'shining' webenu. Certainly, in the Egyptian sources, the benu pre­sides over the flood, and this provides much of the power of the symbol, in its combination of the solar and the fertile. These motifs mean so much more in the valley of the Nile, with the periodic flood, precisely under the heat of the midsummer sun. This may account for the surprising control ascribed to the benu in a line from the same widely attested Middle Kingdom composition on creation cited above, Coffin Text 335:

I am that great benu bird which is in Iunu, the keeper of the inventory of what exists –
it means Osiris - what exists means the Time-cycle and the Time-line.

The gloss does not provide any explanation for the preceding phrase in the way we expect from an encyclopaedia entry. Instead, as throughout this remarkable composition, it expands the base of reference, as if feeling its way around an invisible divine form. Each divine feature corresponds to another, and the combination becomes the source of any enlightenment or 'clarification'. The glosses work more like examples given to illustrate differ­ent uses of one word in a modern dictionary, as opposed to the definitions given there for the word. Here we learn that the benu in Iunu presides over the inventory of existence, echoing the role of Osiris (in terms of fertility?) and the expanse of time in both its aspects, circular and linear.
The sun in all creation: the Litany of Ra
Among the finest of Egyptian religious compositions, the Litany of Ra pro­vides perhaps the most explicit demonstration of the unity of creation in its creator. According to this belief, creation unfurled out of the sun god, Atum or 'All', fissioning over time into a world of different features within which Ra or 'the sun' remained the principal figure. The Litany of Ra gives voice and image to this belief, in a series of 75 acclamations of Ra 'in' each of 74 forms in his creation. The composition is best known from Thebes, where it appears first in the tomb of the king during the New Kingdom, before vari­ations occur on Third Intermediate Period papyri. The images illustrating the words of acclamation achieve a unity out of the multitude by giving most of the 74 manifestations of the sun god a mummiform figure (ill. 7). The differences between each form appear either in the head of the figure, or simply in its name. Several names refer directly to other gods and goddesses.
For example, one form of Ra is the god Horus, another is the goddess Isis. Clearly, then, all creation derives from the one creator, and, in a certain sense, remains a part of that divine being, even if the individual elements take on lives of their own. Curiously, at the heart of the sequence stands 'the pig', deliberately selected for this position, it appears, despite the generally observed but un~ritten rule banning the animal from religious writing and illustration. The pig is as omnivorous as man, and thereby violates the usual demarcation in nature between carnivores and herbivores. This reminder of the human condition perhaps demanded that the pig never be mentioned­ quite apart from the fact that it would have been dangerous to eat the meat of a scavenging animal in such a hot climate. After all, scavenging dogs, cats and rats were never demonized in ancient Egyptian art in quite the same way as the pig. The appearance of the pig at the centre of the acclamations to forms of the sun god must have seemed all the more striking, a disturbing reminder that creation includes at its heart the capacity to devour and destroy.

The feminine aspect of creation, and the family of Ra

Although the sun god consistently appears as the creator who created himself, numerous sources indicate that the stimulus to this creation takes the form of a divine female complement. In general terms the feminine complement to the solar creator is the goddess Hathor, but for the aspect of aide to creation the Egyptians used a more specific name, Iusaas 'She who grows as she comes'. As we see later, in the account of Iunu, city of the sun, the sacred precinct of Ra included prominent architectural space for the cult of the feminine in creation, in its different guises as Hathor, Iusaas and a sometimes separated epithet Nebethetepet 'Lady of the Field of Offerings'. Originally the two names denote a single entity, but after the Middle Kingdom Nebethetepet and Iusaas can appear as separate goddesses, as if to emphasize two separate aspects of the feminine complement to creation, abundance (Nebethetepet) and growth (Iusaas). For example, in a painting illustrating the good deeds of Ramesses III on Papyrus Harris, the two goddesses appear side by side, following the two aspects of the solar creator also separated into the divine sovereign Atum and the falcon-headed Ra­Horakhty. The role of Hathor, or more generally of the feminine principle in creation, underwrites much of kingly court ritual. In their titles and iconography the women around the king relate to him as Hathor relates to Ra. Later we see another key female character added to the solar drama, the figure of Nut, goddess of the sky. Still later in the unfurling of creation comes the great healer, Isis. Hathor, Isis and Nut provide the substance behind the ritual titles 'king's wife/mother/daughter', often read too literally as kinship terms in Egyptology. This mythical ambience provides the basis for understanding how Egyprian kingship operated, particularly in such radically innovative times as the reign of Akhenaten (see Chapter Five).

The first division in creation was the opposition of dry and moist, expressed as the issue of a male and a female child from the sun god. The Egyptian words for 'dry', Shu, and 'moisture', Tefnet, appear in the accounts of creation as god and goddess, the first generation after the sun god. This second act of self-generated creation could, like the first, be envisaged in various ways, this time linked to the physicality of the integral male human body. Thus it came about through his mouth, as spit, or his hand, as mastur­bated semen. These physical motifs derive in part from associations between words. The word-links (inaptly named 'wordplay' in Egyptology) violate our dearly held philological faith in etymology. In our sciences of language, we construct family trees for words, and derive meanings from their history. Against this, the ancient Egyptians linked words not because they shared origins, but because they shared consonants, or structure. The interest is not in the past behind each word, but in a present perceived as immutable and god-given. Words correspond to the created matter of creation. In this view, we receive a mystery, hidden information, from the fact that Shu 'dry (air)' echoes in sound ishesh'to sneeze out' (transitive), and that Tefnet 'moisture' shares two consonants with tef'to spit'. These words and relations between words correspond somehow to created features and the relations between them. All creation belongs to the divine, including language and script. The creation is a mystery, but these words are a part of the mystery, and can help to convey it. The word-links work as curiously in our eyes as the mystic cal­culations of more recent radical thinkers on creation, such as Khlebnikov in the early 20th century. Out of these reflections on existence emerge extraor­dinary poetry and art, and these may guide us to our own reflections more sensitively than laws of philology.

Among the most eloquent writings on the origins of the world may be found in the Coffin Texts, columns of cursive hieroglyphs covering the inner sides of the finest coffins from elite provincial cemeteries of the early Middle Kingdom, from abour 2000 to 1850 Be. The most perfect of these masterpieces of craft and art survive from the cemetery of the nobles of Khemenu (modern Ashmunein), the cult centre of Thoth, god of knowl­edge. The city lies in Middle Egypt, midway between Memphis in the north and Thebes to the south, across the Nile from the site later chosen by Akhenaten for the city to his refined version of the sun god. We know little of Middle Kingdom Khemenu beyond the evidence from the tombs, but the quality of the work suffices to demonstrate its importance. Other coffins of the same period from other cemeteries vary in quality from the finest to more clearly provincial work, developing the same and similar traditions. The images and words probably drew from the output of the king's court, bur the cemeteries for the Middle Kingdom royal residence did not survive the turmoil of the Second Intermediate Period. Thus we rely on these second and third rungs of the hierarchy for the preservation of what we might call Middle Kingdom philosophy, the intellectual speculation on the origins and meaning of life. The Coffin Texts include a particular group of compositions to which we might loosely apply the label 'Liturgy of Shu' (CT 75 to 80). As god of the air, Shu represents the essential difference between the animate and the inanimate body. Air, or more specifically breathing, is the quality of being alive, and the 'Shu Liturgy' aims to secure for the dead body the possibility of continuing to live. The original manu­scripts are lost, and there survive instead the coffin sides, to which the artists of the word adapted the liturgies recited at the funeral. Our of an undiffer­entiated matter the sun god emerged with the twin principles of Ankh 'Life' and Maat 'What is Right'. Here Shu can be aligned with the grammatically masculine Egyptian word Ankh 'Life', and Tefnet with the feminine word Maat 'What is Right'. This account of creation gives a succinct poetic view of the world. In effect, life and justice existed embedded within the creator before this unfurling, and they take shape as the two complementary physi­cal forces in life, the enduring dry and the corroding moist. The following excerpts from two compositions within the Liturgy illustrate the way in which the Egyptians applied their creation beliefs to the trauma, and the practicalities, of embalming and the funeral procession.
For the first, we may take the version on the coffin of Mesehty, a governor of the strategic city Asyur in Middle Egypt during the early Middle Kingdom (Cairo CG 28n8).

FORMULA OF THE BA OF SHU, FOR TAKING THE FORM OF SHU [TITLE OF THE COMPOSITION ow UMBERED CT 75]
I am the ba of Shu, the god who took form of himself,
I am the ba of Shu, invisible of form.
I took form as the limbs of the god who took form of himself.
I am the one in the flank of the god - I took form in him.
I am the one amid the gods of Unending,
One who hears the words of the gods of Unending.

Here the governor Mesehty obtains life for his body after death by a bold strategy typical of Egyptian funerary literature. The verses identify him directly with Shu, the air, not in general terms but precisely at the moment of creation. The rebirth of Mesehty receives the same assurance as existence itself: in the midst oflifeless­ness, the inert body belies appearance, and stirs with new and divine life.
The second excerpt can be cited from a more southerly source of the period, the coffin for a man named Iqer, excavated by Ernesto Schiaparelli at Gebelein and now preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Turin. The phrasing fuses in the clearest manner the two worlds of creation theology and funeral directives.

FOR EMERGING TO THE SKY, FOR BOARDING THE BOAT OF RA, FOR TAKING THE FORM OF A LIVING GOD
[TITLE OF THE COMPOSITION NOW NUMBERED CT 76]

O eight gods of Unending, keepers of the regions of the sky,
You whom Shu fashioned from the fluids of his flesh,
You who tie together the ladder for Ra-Arum,
Come towards your father in me, tie the ladder for me,
For I am the one who created you and fashioned you, Just as I was created by your father Arum.
It is I, Shu, created by Arum who took form of himself.
I was not made in the womb, I was not assembled in the egg, I was not born in birth.
My father Arum spat me out as spittle [ishesh] of his mouth, Together with my sister Tefner.
She emerged after me, and I was clothed in the breath of life of the throat.

For Iqer, and for any other Egyptian man or woman receiving this funeral liturgy, solar creation provides the means for infusing the inanimate body with breath. The phrasing recasts death as the origin of life, just as in myth the sun regains at midnight the energy for dawn birth. When the bearers of the coffin raise it aloft, they become the deities surrounding the germ of life at the beginning of creation. The breath for the corpse is the very god Shu, and by this means the Egyptians transformed the moment of loss oflife into the very source of existence. This remarkable strategy reveals the depth of belief in the creative roles of Ra-Atum, Shu and the other deities in this cycle.

In the next step discernible across the various sources, abstract principle becomes tangible. Shu and Tefnet couple to produce the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Unlike their parents, or indeed Ra, Geb and Nut have names of their own which are not identical with the features of the environ­ment that they represent (the Egyptian for the earth is ta and for the sky pet). Geb is a divine presence in the earth on which humans walk, and Nut is the divine, maternal, aspect of the sky above them. In the Egyptian view of the world, these gods are not in the world, rather they constitute the framework of that world. Geb and Nut suffered the fate of separation from each other by Shu, the dry air between heaven and earth. Yet with the help of the moon god Thoth they won five days outside the regular year, and on these Nut gave birth to their children: their eldest, the perfect Osiris, the two sister­goddesses Isis and Nephthys, and, violently torn from his mother, the anarchic Seth. Ever since, in the ancient Egyptian view, the year contained besides its 12 mon ths of 30 days each a liminal period of five extra days. This gave the total of 365 days by which the Egyptians reckoned the years of their kings, and from that all calculated time. For the ancient Egyptians, the regnal year formed the basic framework in time, as the sun, earth and sky formed the parameters in space: the birth of the children of Nut marked the beginning of this regular cycle of time.
Ra withdraws to the sky
Curiously for us, the creation of humankind does not seem to form a major episode in Egyptian creation myths, at least in the surviving record. Instead human beings make their first appearance in accounts of rebellion against Ra. The solar cycle in nature involves the darkening and setting, one might say the ageing, of the sun. In terms of a ruler, this evokes ideas of a loss of power, and the Egyptians did not hesitate to depict this 'eldest' of the gods as an aged being, leaning on a stick as in the hieroglyph denoting old age. Some compositions go so far as to paint the Ra of late evening, or late in rule, as a decrepit figure in advanced senility. From one narrative first attested in the reign of Tutankhamun, we learn that the sun god ruled earth in the early phase of creation, only to face rebellion. In his anger he sent out
" I his eye, emblem of all-seeing divine power (if ill. 8). In the Egyptian lan­guage, the word for eye is feminine, and the despatched eye could accordingly be perceived as a 'daughter of the sun', a raging goddess. One of the most widely used names for this force was Sekhmet, meaning simply 'the Mighty Goddess', the righteous Fury in the world of the gods. Sekhmet set about annihilating all life on earth, including all human beings, with such ferocity that the sun god relented. The hieroglyphic inscriptions relat­ing this tale show that the goddess could not be dissuaded from her bloodthirsty destruction, and the gods resorted to a ruse: at the instigation ofThoth, god of wisdom, they coloured a lake of beer with red ochre, to make it look like human blood. Sekhmet came upon the lake, drank herself into a stupour, and relaxed from hatred into the benign intoxicated force of love in creation - effectively turning from Sekhmet the fury into Hathor the creative feminine principle. Despite this happy outcome, the sun withdrew from his direct rule on earth, and from that time began his distant journey through the heavens around the earth. This immense voyage appears in Egyptian imagery as a journey by river boat, typically enough for the civi­lization of the Nile (ill. 9). In the morning he appeared on a boat named Mandjet; in the evening the boat was named Mesketet. His retinue included the supreme mechanisms of power, Sia 'farsightedness' and Hu 'command'. A third companion enabling the sun to oversee the created world from a dis­tance was Heka, for which the conventional translation 'magic' fails to capture the essential meaning, the genius of creation.
The failed rebellion against Ra and his consequent withdrawal to the sky accounted for the essential structure of the earth as viewed by men. This is encapsulated in an image among the most frequently reproduced in modern books on Egypt, in which Nut bears the boat of the sun god as she arches over the prostrate Geb, held aloft by Shu (if ill. IO). The scene offers a mythic dimension to the visible world as it appeared along the Nile in the 2nd and 1st millennia before Christ. Beyond the horizon of this world of gods and men, the endless nothingness might at any moment attempt to reclaim this precious space, suspended as an air bubble of time and space within anti-matter. The day and night journeys of the sun kept the structure of the earth and sky intact, but he and his crew had to resist and overcome
Divine rebels
Threats to divine order did not come only from beyond its confines. Strife within creation did not end with the rebellion which resulted in the with­drawal of Ra to the heavens. Later texts paint a picture of continuous jealousies and rebellions in the following reigns of his firstborn Shu, and then of his male offspring in turn, Geb. However, the conflicts most prominent in the sources from the Old Kingdom to the Roman Period are those in the following generation of Ra's family - the tales surrounding Osiris, Seth and Horus. In these tales, the sun god continues to act as the supreme authority, despite his withdrawal to the heavens. Osiris as eldest son becomes the next king of the world, but his perfect rule rouses the jealousy of his anarchic younger brother Seth. For Seth, Egyptian formal art delivered one of its most brilliant compositions, an amalgam of a series of features as they do not occur in nature.
This creature has long ears like those of a donkey, but straight ­topped a long tail, but forked rather than tufted, and a curving snout not quite like that of any creature. Several scholars have tried to identify the Seth­ animal, but it seems more likely that this is a sort of anti-animal, a creature deliberately constructed to express the violation of natural laws. If the ancient Egyptian artist excelled in one area, it was animal art, the concise and evocative depiction of animal figures. Such an art would not have been likely to produce an unrecognizable animal form without good reason. This anarchic force struck out at perfect order: Seth murdered Osiris. The exact details rarely surface even as an echo in Egyptian sources, and we rely on the Greek historian Plutarch for one series of grisly details about the methods used by Seth. Common to both sets of sources, however, are the theme of dismemberment and the role ofIsis in bringing the corpse back to life to the point where she could conceive be impregnated by it.
After the murder, Osiris retired to the underworld, mirroring the retreat of Ra to the heavens, leaving earth to become a battleground between Seth and his new nephew, the adolescent Horus, child of Isis and Osiris. In the early days after the birth, Isis fled with the child into the most inaccessible marshes of the Nile Valley, deep in the western Delta. The terrain becomes so deceptive there that the Greek historian Herodotus speaks of the place, Akhbit (later written Kheby, and rendered Chemmis in Greek versions), as a floating island. Here the child would be safe from his dangerous uncle, but must still survive the noxious forces of chaos ever present in Egypt as the serpents and scorpions lurking among the fields and rocks. Isis had repeatedly to use all her powers to protect her child, until he was old enough to challenge his uncle in a series of physical and legal duels. Finally the sun god and the company of the gods around him brought themselves to arbitrate, at first delivering one part of Egypt to Horus and another to Seth, but eventually handing the kingship entirely to Horus. Seth continued to embody the forces ranged against life in the desert, and his anarchic physical power was even harnessed to the cause of good, as he wielded his sceptre on the prow of the sun god's boat against the ultimate enemies of order, the chaos beyond creation.
The family of Ra in Egyptian life
These episodes form the framework not only for the cult of the sun god, but in a sense for all ancient Egyptian life. Each episode or 'constellation', each grouping of deities, provided the prototype for personal experience. We might more tellingly reverse this formulation, and recognize that each chal­lenge in life takes on the form of words and illustrations in the mythic episodes. Isis is the great healer: she corresponds to the experience of being healed. Horus as child is the experience of being vulnerable to ill health (ill. n). Horus the adult champion expresses the prowess of the young man at the peak of his physical abilities, again a human experience that the ancient Egyptians lived no less vividly than our generations today. Seth is the mythic form of disorder in society, in the family, and in the individual. Osiris is the body surviving death, corresponding to the practice of mum­mification. In their various combinations, each finds its meaning. There
Ra could be no Osiris with our Seth, no Horus with our Isis, just as within their pairings order and disorder, good and bad health, must mutually define each other. The surviving manuscripts and inscriptions contain relatively few examples where different episodes combine to form narrative sequences. Where this is attested in manuscript, the source is more literary than reli­gious, that is to say, it carries no liturgical or cuItic function, no role in healing, bur is written for a more reflexive social function, that of being read.
The most elaborate surviving literary tale about the gods is also one of the most beautifully craned books (scrolls) from ancient Egypt. This master­piece in the art of the book is known today as Papyrus Chester Beatty I, taking its name from its first modern owner, an industrialist who retired to Dublin, where the great work is preserved. Thanks to the detective work of scholars such as Georges Posener, we know in some considerable detail the social-historical background to the copying of this composition. It belonged to a man named Qenher khepshef, who was the secretary to a very particular workshop of artists, at the end of the 13th century Be. These were the draughtsmen and workers responsible for the cutting and decoration of the king's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. During the 19th and 20th Dynasties the team lived in a government-built and - supplied settlement at the edge of the desert, on the Theban West Bank. This demarcated group of houses appears in the ancient manuscript sources simply as 'the village'; in Egyptol­ogy it carries the more recent Arabic name Deir el-Medina ('monastery of the town'). As royal draughtsmen the artists needed to know the principles of the hieroglyphic script, and more could read and write than would have been usual in an average village of the day. Working on the edge of the desert, alongside the crews cutting the Rames side royal corridor tombs, they lived on an abundance of a rather unusual writing material, the clean, white limestone chippings. Limestone survives better than the ancient paper made from the papyrus plant, and so it is that we inherit from the colony of Rames side royal tomb artists one of the greatest treasuries of written infor­mation about any ancient community. From these chippings and from the
manuscripts buried at the dry desert edge, we learn that many regarded Qenherk hepshef as disagreeable, even corrupt. We learn that he married late in life a young widow, and that her children inherited his wealth - presumably including his library. For, despite his questionable personality, this clerk of works was a learned man with a good range of literary manuscripts, from technical prescriptions and incantations to secure good health, to copies of fine hymns, to the great manuscript here mentioned. On one side of the scroll runs a series of love songs, one of the most beautiful lyrical cycles to survive from Egypt. On the other we read the tale of the battles between Horus and Seth.
The narrative draws from the detailed episodes in religious literature recording all manner of legal and physical contests. In this sense it is a myth, a tale of the gods. Yet the social context indicates what we might see as a secular motivation uniting all these episodes. For it is difficult to read the tales as written here, with a knowledge of Egyptian myth, without laughing. The repetition of the episodes (the very feature absent in religious contexts) makes the gods, or rather the procedures described, look ridiculous. Most ludicrous of all is the behaviour of the sun god, who assumes the role of judge in the tale. This is a tale of the justification of Horus, the long- drawn ­out procedure to the point where the tribunal declares him 'true of voice', vindicating his claim to inherit the kingship from the murdered Osiris. Yet the literary strategy of uniting all the mythic episodes in one long sequence obtains a quite specific effect: the tale of justice becomes a satirical commen­tary on the slow delivery of justice. You have to read this in the light of the litigious wranglings, the petty disputes, the accusations between neighbours, the divorce suits, even the bitter will of Qenherk hepshef's widow, who, long after his death, disinherits the children who failed to help her in her old age. This is a darkly comic tale from a very human setting. Egyptologists have often branded the Rames side period, to which this manuscript dates, as an age of corruption. They overlook the special survival of the sources: there seems to me no more, or less, corruption in this time and place than in any other. The difference lies rather in the survival of all these details from this singular community. Possibly it was a uniquely quarrelsome community, bur it seems not very different from societies small and large elsewhere. The tale provides us with numerous episodes confirmed from other, often much later sources, and can be mined as a rich store of religious-historical infor­mation. Yet it demonstrates also a familiarity with the gods that was felt by at least this outpost of relatively elite living. Ra, Horus and Seth made possi­ble this special means of criticizing Rames side village tribunals, much as Osiris 'meant' embalming, or Isis 'meant' healing. These names express human relations in life and death not only at a theological level of thinking, but also and more vitally in the lives lived throughout the Egyptian Nile Valley over these 3,000 years.

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