The Old Pagan Civilizations

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But it is not my purpose to discuss the religion of the Jews in this connection, since it is treated in other volumes of this series, and since everybody has access to the Bible, the earlier portions of which give the true account not only of the Hebrews and their special progenitor Abraham, but of the origin of the earth and of mankind; and most intelligent persons are familiar with its details.

I begin my description of ancient religions with those systems with which the Jews were more or less familiar, and by which they were more or less influenced. And whether these religions were, as I think, themselves corrupted forms of the primitive revelation to primitive man, or, as is held by some philosophers of to-day, natural developments out of an original worship of the powers of Nature, of ghosts of ancestral heroes, of tutelar deities of household, family, tribe, nation, and so forth, it will not affect their relation to my plan of considering this background of history in its effects upon modern times, through Judaism and Christianity.

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The first which naturally claims our attention is the religion of ancient Egypt. But I can show only the main features and characteristics of this form of paganism, avoiding the complications of their system and their perplexing names as much as possible. I wish to present what is ascertained and intelligible rather than what is ingenious and obscure.

The religion of Egypt is very old,--how old we cannot tell with certainty. We know that it existed before Abraham, and with but few changes, for at least two thousand years. Mariette places the era of the first Egyptian dynasty under Menes at 5004 B.C. It is supposed that the earliest form of the Egyptian religion was monotheistic, such as was known later, however, only to a few of the higher priesthood. What the esoteric wisdom really was we can only conjecture, since there are no sacred books or writings that have come down to us, like the Indian Vedas and the Persian Zend-Avesta. Herodotus affirms that he knew the mysteries, but he did not reveal them.

But monotheism was lost sight of in Egypt at an earlier period than the beginning of authentic history. It is the fate of all institutions to become corrupt, and this is particularly true of religious systems. The reason of this is not difficult to explain. The Bible and human experience fully exhibit the course of this degradation. Hence, before Abraham's visit to Egypt the religion of that land had degenerated into a gross and complicated polytheism, which it was apparently for the interest of the priesthood to perpetuate.

The Egyptian religion was the worship of the powers of Nature,--the sun, the moon, the planets, the air, the storm, light, fire, the clouds, the rivers, the lightning, all of which were supposed to exercise a mysterious influence over human destiny. There was doubtless an indefinite sense of awe in view of the wonders of the material universe, extending to a vague fear of some almighty supremacy over all that could be seen or known. To these powers of Nature the Egyptians gave names, and made them divinities.

The Egyptian polytheism was complex and even contradictory. What it lost in logical sequence it gained in variety. Wilkinson enumerates seventy-three principal divinities, and Birch sixty-three; but there were some hundreds of lesser gods, discharging peculiar functions and presiding over different localities. Every town had its guardian deity, to whom prayers or sacrifices were offered by the priests. The more complicated the religious rites the more firmly cemented was the power of the priestly caste, and the more indispensable were priestly services for the offerings and propitiations.

Of these Egyptian deities there were eight of the first rank; but the list of them differs according to different writers, since in the great cities different deities were worshipped. These were Ammon--the concealed god,--the sovereign over all (corresponding to the Jupiter of the Romans), whose sacred city was Thebes. At a later date this god was identified with Ammon Ra, the physical sun. Ra was the sun-god, especially worshipped at Heliopolis,--the symbol of light and heat. Kneph was the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters, whose principal seat of worship was in Upper Egypt. Phtha was a sort of artisan god, who made the sun, moon, and the earth, "the father of beginnings;" his sign was the scarabaeus, or beetle, and his patron city was Memphis. Khem was the generative principle presiding over the vegetable world,--the giver of fertility and lord of the harvest. These deities are supposed to have represented spirit passing into matter and form,--a process of divine incarnation.

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