Ancient Beliefs in Modern Egypt June 8, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Time brings its chopper down on generation after generation, annihilating almost all memory. How little we know of our grandparents’ lives, how very little of our great grandparents’: while most people living in the west today have no idea where their great grandparents lived or, indeed, their names.
Yet every so often history gives evidence of tiny, apparently random, fragments of past knowledge and belief that have survived changes in language, religion and population: sometimes through not just decades but generations, centuries and even millennia.
Where better to see this in action than Egypt where the wonders of the ancients stand side to side with twenty-first century corrugated slums.
The religion of the Ancient Egyptians was a curious affair that has kept many very learned men and women guessing as to its secrets. So little is known about it because the faith of the pharaohs was hit by three terrible body blows. First, Greco-Roman polytheism with its weasel like attacks on ‘alien’ gods; then Coptic Christianity – memories of the late antique crosses defacing ancient Egyptian murals; and last Islam with its yoke of monotheistic truth.
In short, Horus was pummeled stupid by Jupiter, Christ and Mohammed. Poor Horus! What would you look like after ten rounds with these three?
And yet.. And yet… Incredibly some memories of ancient Egyptian belief survived the legions, the monks and the imams and made it through to modern times. Beachcombing will start with one tiny but suggestive example. At Denderah Temple there was – and perhaps, for all Beach knows, still is – a belief that a great cow wanders around the fields there at night guarding a fabulous treasure. A curious belief, but is there any reason for thinking, even for a moment, that this cow has anything to do with ancient Egyptian belief? Well, in fact, there is, for Denderah was dedicated to Hathor the cow goddess. A connection there must be then: the question is whether we have a distant and confused memory of the holy bovine herself or perhaps a deduction by some medieval or contemporary Egyptians looking at cow icons in the temple or the dunes thereabouts.
More dramatic are the peculiar modern Egyptian beliefs about certain magical boats near ancient shrines. At Karnak, for example, it is believed that a treasure boat appears on the Sacred Lake there full of bags of gold. ‘According to one account it is conducted by a king in gold and a crew in silver; according to another, it has neither pilot nor rowers but guides itself slowly over the waters. The treasure may be obtained from the boat by anyone who does not break silence while doing so; but if he makes any sound, the boat vanishes.’ It is tempting to relate this to the ancient Egyptian belief that a king is transferred to the afterlife on the magical boat of the sun – ‘May the one whose face is turned behind ferry the king over!’ – or to one of the many other ancient Egyptian legends about gods on barques.
In other cases, the connection between modern folklore and ancient beliefs is more than just conjecture . At Luxor and Qeneh boat procession festivals are held today, as boat processions were held at the ancient Egyptian temples in both these places. Now this is, of course, an affront to common sense. One ancient Egyptian custom cannot surely have survived three alien religions, including two hostile monotheistic traditions (Christianity and Islam), particularly as any survival would have depended on oral transmission. Yet, to take the instance of Luxor, three times a year, against the laws of historical gravity, the boat of a Muslim ‘saint’ Abu’l Haggag is pulled through the city dragged by the faithful. Abu’l Haggag is also said to have travelled through the air on a stone boat: a confused memory perhaps of one of the surviving stone boats that played such an important role in ancient Egyptian religion? The names have changed but the forms have apparently remained the same.
Any other examples of unusual religious survivals: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
8 June 2011: Several emails here and lots on saints. Donnal writes in to remind Beach that several early Irish saints were allegedly Irish gods ‘in disguise’, the best example being Brigit. Cainand describes several Greco-Roman gods as well that became saints: Demeter, Aphrodite and Venus: Beach should mention here that he has previously visited the Buddha as a Catholic saint. Finally, Neville writes in with the most curious piece of information of all. It seems that the whippet (dog) is portrayed on Ancient Egyptian tombs and that ‘whippet’ is, in fact, a Coptic word! Can this be true? Thanks Donnal, Neville and Cainand!
17 June 2011: ML kindly writes in to say ‘I can direct you to a ritual which indisputably has been going on continually for three and a half thousand years, i.e. since the bronze age, although it may be more tribal in nature than religious. I refer of course to the scouring of the white horse of Uffington. It was archaeologically dated in 1994 to between 1400 to 600 BC. To stop it disappearing forever under the sward it has to be cleaned (‘scoured’) every seven to ten years. Accordingly, the ritual must have persisted throughout Celtic times, has outlasted the Romans, survived the Dark Ages, and the Norman conquest and the turmoil of the Civil War. I find this to be quite extraordinary and to do not know of any other ceremony anything like as old as this must be.’ Thanks ML, a future post on this!