Ancient Egyptian Legends

Masonic, Occult and Esoteric Online Library

Ancient Egyptian Legends

By M. A. Murray


Published: Prisse d’Avennos, Monuments Egyptiens, pl. xxiv.
Translated: Wiedemann, Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 275.
This tale is sculptured on a sandstone tablet found by Champollion in the temple of Khonsu at Thebes, and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris.

There are twenty-eight horizontal lines of inscription, and above them is a scene of two boats of Khonsu borne on the shoulders of priests, with the king offering incense before them.

When first translated, the tale was supposed to be a record of fact, but now it is generally considered a folk-tale, redounding to the credit and glory of Khonsu, and therefore made use of by the priests of that god. The king mentioned in it cannot be identified with any of the historical monarchs of Egypt, although his personal name, Rameses, is sufficiently common among the rulers of the xxth dynasty.

Published: Lepsius, Denkmäler, iii, 68.
Translated: Breasted, Ancient Records, ii, 810-815.
The inscription is sculptured on a round-topped stela of red granite, fourteen feet high, set up in the little temple which lies between the paws of the Great Sphinx.

The temple was excavated by Captain Caviglia in 1817. It forms the end of a processional way which leads downwards by paved causeways and flights of steps from the edge of the desert into the sanctuary (see Vyse, Pyramids of Gizeh, iii, 107). The tiny shrine is only ten feet long by five wide, and at its farthest end, with its back to the breast of the Sphinx, stands this stela.

The inscription, which is in horizontal lines, is surmounted by a scene, duplicated to right and left, of the king making a libation of water and burning incense before the figure of a Sphinx couchant upon a pylon or altar. The lower half of the stela is so mutilated that the inscription is either destroyed or illegible.

The inscription purports to be of the time of Thothmes IV, a king of the xviiith dynasty, about 1400 B.C.; erected by that monarch as a votive offering. But from the evidence of the language in which the inscription is couched it is obviously much later; Erman dates it to a period between the xxiiird and xxvith dynasties. It may, however, be a restoration of an earlier record, though of the early inscription nothing remains.

Published: Naville, Deir el Bahari, ii, pls. xlvi-li (with translation).
Translated: Breasted, Ancient Records, ii, 187-220.
The inscription, with the scenes illustrating it, are sculptured on the walls of the temple of Deir el Bahari, on the north side of the retaining wall of the upper platform.

The great building, known in modern times as the temple of Deir el Bahari, was erected by Queen Hatshepsut of the xviiith dynasty, about 1500 B. C., for the double purpose of her own funerary cult, and of the worship of the goddess Hathor. The chief events of the Queen's reign are sculptured on the walls; the record of her divine descent naturally holds a prominent place. The inscriptions in the temple were wrecked and restored anciently, therefore much of the record is lost. Fortunately, however, Amenhotep III, a king of the same dynasty rather more than a century later than Hatshepsut, adorned his temple of Luxor with similar scenes and inscriptions, relating to his own divine descent, changing of course the names of the mother and child and making a few immaterial alterations in the inscriptions. By means of this later example the whole of the earlier record is made clear.

The white colonnades of Hatshepsut's temple, set against a background of dark cliffs, form one of the most striking scenes in the valley of the Nile. The temple was used at one time as a Coptic village; hence its modern name of Deir el Bahari, the Northern Convent.

It has recently been excavated and restored by Dr. Naville for the Egypt Exploration Fund.

Published: Spiegelberg, Demotische Papyrus (Cairo Catalogue).
Translated: Petrie, Egyptian Tales, ii, 89.
This story is written in demotic on a papyrus found at Thebes in the grave of a Coptic monk. It was among other papyri, written in hieratic and in Coptic, in a wooden chest, and is now in the Cairo Museum. Demotic is the script in which the latest form of the Egyptian language was written; the earliest example remaining is of the reign of Shabaka of the xxvth dynasty, about 715 B.C.; it continued in use till Roman times, when it was superseded by the Greek alphabet.

The papyrus is of the Ptolemaic period, but the exact date is uncertain, as the colophon at the end is partly illegible. The year 15 only is visible, which, however, is not sufficient guide to the reign of the king under whom it was written.

The legend given in this book is part only of a much longer tale; it is in fact a story within a story, told by the ka of Ahura to the high priest of Memphis, when he ventured into the tomb of Nefer-ka-ptah in search of the Book of Thoth.

The Book of Thoth is said to contain only two pages; it must therefore have been a roll of papyrus written on both sides.

Original: Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride.
Translated: Mead, Thrice-greatest Hermes, i, 278.
The treatise on Isis and Osiris was written by Plutarch, himself an initiate into the Osiris-mysteries, to a fellow initiate, a woman named Klea. It was written at Delphi in the second century A.D.

It is the only connected account remaining of the death of Osiris and the wanderings of Isis. Though of so late a date, it is found to be correct on the whole when checked by the inscriptions and sculpture of Pharaonic times.

The so-called Ritual of Denderah is our principal authority for the worship of Osiris in the chief temples of Egypt on the festivals of the month of Khoiakh. The Ritual is sculptured on the walls of the temple of Denderah, and gives in great detail the rites in use, and even the size and material of the symbolical images. The inscription dates to the Ptolemaic period, but the Ritual is considerably earlier.

"Mystery-plays" of the death of Osiris and of the repulse of Set by Horus appear to have been enacted on certain great occasions at the chief centres of worship. The principal part was that of Horus, which was acted by the Pharaoh himself in the capital, and by the chief local notabilities in provincial centres.

Published: Golénischeff, Metternichstele (with German translation).
Translated: Budge, Legends of the Gods, p. 157.
This inscription is sculptured on a round-topped stela of serpentine (?), fixed in a square pedestal. It was found at Alexandria at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and was presented to Prince Metternich by Mohamed Ali in 1828.

The front, back, and sides of both stela and pedestal are sculptured with horizontal and vertical lines of inscription and with mythological figures. The stela belongs to a class of amuletic objects, usually called Cippi of Horus, which are inscribed with magical spells against all animals "biting with their mouths or stinging with their tails." This stela is the largest Cippus of Horus known. On the front is sculptured in high relief the figure of Horus represented as a naked child, standing on two crocodiles, and holding a lion, a gazelle, scorpions, and snakes in his hands. He stands within a shrine, which is surmounted by the head of Bes. Isis and Thoth, the goddesses of the South and North, and other mythological figures and emblems are within and without the shrine. Above this scene are horizontal registers filled with figures, possibly representing scenes from legends which are now lost.

The text which preserves the story of the scorpions of Isis is inscribed on the back of the tablet, ll. 48-70. The date of the stela is about 370 B.C., in the reign of Nectanebo I. of the xxxth dynasty.

Published: Naville, Das Aegyptische Todtenbuch, pl. cxxiv.
Translated: Budge, Book of the Dead, ch. cxii.
The so-called Book of the Dead is a compilation of texts which are found, written on papyri or on coffins, in the tombs. No copy containing all the chapters is known; the order has therefore been arranged from a comparison of many examples.

The ancient name of these texts is "Chapters of Coming forth to the Day"; the modern name is "Book of the Dead," as it is evidently a manual for the use of the dead. It consists of a series of prayers, hymns, magical formulae, and allusions to mythological stories, a knowledge of which was considered necessary in order to escape the perils and dangers of the life hereafter. It is obviously very ancient, for even in the earliest known examples, the Pyramid Texts of the vith dynasty, the text is often very corrupt. The Pyramid Texts show traces of very primitive usages and cults, many of which are lost in the later forms of the Book of the Dead.

The story related under the name of the Black Pig refers to an incident in the war between Horus and Set, and is not known elsewhere. Probably many such legends were current in ancient Egypt, but few have been preserved to us intact. Horus was the great hero-god, and, like the heroes of other countries, he absorbed all the legends of local champions. Some of his exploits and adventures seem to have been so well known that a mere allusion was sufficient to recall them to the mind of the reader. Sometimes a short and, to us confused account is given, as in chapter cxiii of the Book of the Dead, where the restoration to Horus of his hands and arms, which have been lost in a swamp, is related in a manner which conveys very little to the modern reader.

A great number of legends have been preserved in magical papyri, but even among these the quantity of tantalising allusions is larger than the number of complete legends. Thus, in the Demotic Papyrus of London and Leyden, a charm against fever begins "Horus was going up a hill at midday in the verdure season, mounted on a white horse." He finds the gods eating, and they invite him to join them, but he refuses as he has fever. This is all that is said, but it is evidently an allusion to a well-known story.

Published: Naville, Mythe d’Horus (with French translation).
Translated: Wiedemann, Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 69.
The account of the war between Horus and Set is sculptured on the inner part of the west side of the girdle-wall of the temple of Edfu. The whole temple is dedicated to Horus; though undoubtedly an early foundation, the present structure dates only to the Ptolemaic period. It was begun by Ptolemy III Euergetes I, and took 180 years to build and decorate. The girdle-wall, on which these scenes and inscriptions were sculptured, was built and decorated about 100 B.C., either by Soter II or Alexander I.

The temple was excavated by Mariette, and is the most perfect in condition of all the temples in Egypt, for with the exception of the wanton multilation of the faces, probably by Christian fanatics, both building and sculpture are untouched save by time.

The inscription appears to give in legendary form a fairly accurate account of tribal battles of a very early period. Though the actual inscription is of a late date, many primitive ideas are preserved, especially in the hymns of the women to Horus. "Eat ye the flesh of the vanquished, drink ye his blood," is not a sentiment of the civilisation of Ptolemaic times. Human sacrifice, however, appears to have been practised in Egypt at all periods. Harvest victims were burnt at Eleithyapolis (El Kab). Amasis II of the xxvith dynasty put an end to human sacrifice at Heliopolis; Diodorus says that red-haired men were offered up at the sepulchre of Osiris; as the king was the incarnate Osiris, this would mean that human sacrifices were made at the royal graves, probably during the funeral ceremonies. The Book of the Dead also continually alludes to human sacrifice. At Edfu an altar was found sculptured with representations of offerings in which human beings are the victims. Small figures, carved in the round, are known, which are in the form of bound captives; and show probably the method of binding the victim; the legs are bent at the knees, and the feet bound to the thighs; the arms are bent at the elbows and securely lashed to the body. This is not the ordinary way of binding a prisoner, but is a special method reserved probably for a human victim. The figures represent sometimes men, sometimes women.

Judging by the representations and scenes on the girdle-wall, a "mystery-play" was acted in the temple of Edfu, the Pharaoh playing the principal part, that of Horus. In early times it seems more than probable that Set, or the Ally of Set, was played by a human being, who was actually killed during the performance. When the custom of human sacrifice begins to die out, the human victim is often replaced by an animal. This is the case at Edfu, where Set is called a hippopotamus and represented as a pig.

Published: Léfébure, Tombeau de Sety Ie, pt. iii, pls. 15-18 (Annales du Musée Guimet, ix).
Translated: Wiedemann, Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 62. (For a description of the tomb of Sety I see the Notes on Legend xi).
This story is sculptured on the walls of a side-chamber off one of the inner halls of the tomb of Sety I (room xii of the guide-books). On one of the walls is a representation of a cow standing under the star-sprinkled vault of heaven This is Nut, the sky-goddess; she is raised on the uplifted hands of the god Shu, and each leg is supported by two gods; planets, and Boats of the Sun travel across her body. The connection between this representation and the legend is quite uncertain.

The tale occurs only in this one place, but every excavator hopes that he may one day find a tomb with a complete copy of the story sculptured on the walls.

Published: Pleyte and Rossi, Papyrus de Turin, pls. 31, 77, 131-138.
Translated: Wiedemann, Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 54.
This tale is found in a hieratic papyrus of the xxth dynasty (about 1200-1100 B.C.). It is written on both sides; the handwriting on one side differs from the handwriting on the other, showing that it is the work of two scribes. The writing is in black ink with occasional sentences in red. Hieratic is the running hand, derived from the hieroglyphs; the earliest example occurs in the first dynasty; it was superseded by demotic in the latest period of Egyptian history.

This papyrus is not quite complete, but the part containing the legend is fortunately uninjured. The text consists of magical formulae against the bites of serpents. In healing by magic, the magician recited an event in the career of some deity in which the god suffered from the same malady as the human patient then seeking relief. The words which cured the divine patient would also cure the human invalid. The same idea prevails in the legend of the Scorpions of Isis.

Published: Léfébure, Tombeau de Seti I. (Annales du Musée Guimet, ix).
Translated: Jéquier, Livre de ce qu’il y a dans l’Hadès; Budge, Egyptian Heaven and Hell.
The description of the Journey of Ra through the Other World is sculptured on the walls of the tomb of Seti I atThebes. This is the great tomb discovered by Belzoni in October 1817. The length is 330 feet, and it consists of long corridors, pillared halls, and side-chambers, hewn out of the solid rock. The Book of Am Duat is sculptured on the walls of corridor iii, halls v, vi, and x, and side-chambers xi and xiii. Eleven hours only are given; the twelfth hour, though frequently found on papyri, is rare in sculpture.

There are two versions of the Sun's journey through the Duat. One was called by the Egyptians themselves the Book of that which is in the Other World (Am Duat); the other has no Egyptian name, but is now called the Book of Gates, for in it the gates are more important than the countries which they divide. (For a comparison of the two books, see Budge, Egyptian Heaven and Hell). The Book of Gates is rarer than the Book of Am Duat, and is found sculptured on sarcophagi; the finest example being the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, now in the Soane Museum in London.

The Book of Am Duat is found both in papyri and on tomb walls, the earliest example of the latter being the tomb of Amenhotep II of the xviiith dynasty. It is a compilation by the theologians of that period; an attempt to combine into one homogeneous whole several distinct ideas of the next world and the life hereafter. The fourth and fifth countries of the Duat are obviously one complete kingdom, ruled by the god Sokar, the Memphite god of the dead. As Memphis was a very important religious centre, its god of the dead and his kingdom had to be included in the Duat of Ra, in spite of the fact that it was a waterless desert, and that it ended with the Morning Star. It was a region totally different from any other kingdom of the hereafter; no river ran through it; it was inhabited by neither gods nor spirits, but by enormous and horrible reptiles. The ingenuity of the compilers of this Book in turning the Boat of Ra into a serpent, which could dispense with the river and glide over the sand, is certainly remarkable.

Another Morning Star appears also in the tenth hour, and the breeze of morning seems to be felt by the goddesses in the eleventh hour, for they raise their hands to shelter their faces from it. Budge (Egyptian Heaven and Hell) suggests also that the Egyptians looked upon the red clouds of the dawn as being tinged with the reflection from the pits of flame.

These indications of morning appearing in the wrong place point clearly to the fact of the book being a compilation, more or less clumsy.

The first hour seems to have been added in order to make a good introduction to the compilation. The last hour is evidently a compromise. The most ancient idea with regard to the sunrise was that the Sun was born anew every morning of the Sky-goddess Nut. This theory does not fit with the dogma of the Sun's nightly journey through the Other World in a Boat; therefore the last hour is represented as a dark and tortuous passage symbolising the womb of the goddess. The birth of the Sun was the most important event of the day to his worshippers, consequently the account of the last hour is found frequently on papyri, buried in the graves.

The Duat, or Other World, was generally supposed to be the region lying to the north of Egypt; the delta by the Egyptians of the South; the Mediterranean and its islands by the delta-people.

The Egyptians had an abridgment or summary of this long account of Ra's night-journey. It was always written on papyrus in vertical columns, with all the scenes and long speeches omitted. It gives the name of each gate and country and of the goddess of every hour; sometimes, though not always, the names of the gods who live in the different regions; and always the magical words of Ra to the inhabitants of each land. Felicitous results here and hereafter are promised to all who know the words and scenes thoroughly.

The hymn to Ra is a paraphrase of hymns which are still extant.



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