Egypt was a country steeped in superstition. The people believed in sorcery, magic, and enchantments; and there is the fullest evidence in the sacred pages that the Egyptian magicians were able to perform dexterous feats that were truly surprising.
Astronomy was studied with a view to success in astrology, as the latter was a science much esteemed, and very lucrative. Public or state astrologers were consulted in cases of emergencies. None dared to practise astrology, magic, sorcery, or any of the various modes of divination unless authorised by a master in the art, before whom he had “spread the carpet” for prayer. To procure sublime visions, seers shut themselves up for a long time, without food or water, in a dark place, and prayed aloud until they fainted. While in a swoon, strange visions appeared to them, and revelations made which sometimes filled the nation with gladness, and at other times spread mourning over the country. In advanced ages, as well as in early times, men believed there were a multitude of subordinate spirits, as ministers, to execute the behests of the supreme sovereign. To these spirits were committed the superintendence of all the different parts of nature, and their bodies were imagined to be composed of that particular element in which they resided. Altars were built in the midst of groves, where the spirits were supposed to assemble. Gratitude and admiration tended to the deification of departed heroes and other eminent persons. This probably gave rise to the belief of national and tutelar gods, as well as the practice of worshipping gods through the medium of statues cut into human form. At one time demi-gods gradually rose in the scale of divinities until they occupied the places of the heavenly bodies. Thus, following ancient hyperbole, a king, for his beneficence, was called the sun, and a queen, for her beauty, was styled the moon. As this adulation advanced into an established worship, the compliment was reversed by calling planets or luminaries after heroes. And to render the subject more reconcilable to reason, the Eastern priests taught that the early founders of states and inventors of arts were divine intelligences, clothed with human bodies. When celestial divinities disappeared or were obscured from observation, men had recourse to symbols of a temporary nature that produced fire. Altars of stone were built and consecrated in the name of the divinity whom it was intended to represent. Such altars were called animated or living stones, from a belief that a portion of divine spirit resided in them, and the prayers and praises offered up before them were thought to be as acceptable as if addressed to the gods themselves. That those altars or stones might be as near as possible to the objects of worship represented, they were generally placed on the tops of mountains, or, in flat countries like Egypt, on high structures, the works of men’s hands. Many have attributed the building of the pyramids to the worship of gods; but whether that was the purpose to which those majestic structures, that have puzzled learned men, were devoted, we shall not venture to say. This, however, is certain that, throughout the East, altars, statues, and pillars were erected for superstitious purposes upon mountains and other high places.
Herodotus informs us that the ancient Egyptians were the first people who gave names to their gods. Of Osiris, Isis, and the many other gods and sacred animals that were worshipped in Egypt, we shall say little at this part of our subject. The bull, it is well known, was one of the most sacred animals. The priests affirmed that Apis was of divine origin, the cow that produced him having been impregnated with holy fire. Dogs, the Egyptians said, deserved homage because they guided Isis when she searched for the body of Osiris. She, it may be remembered, sought for the precious remains with true pertinacity till she found them. To accomplish her purpose, she found it necessary to transform herself into a swallow, to dry up the river Phœdrus, and to kill with her glances the eldest son of a king. Her tears were supposed to cause the inundation of the Nile. At times she had the head of a cow, which identified her with the cow of whom the sun was born. The hawk was deified because one of these birds brought to the priests of Thebes a book, tied round with a scarlet thread, containing the rites and ceremonies to be observed in the worship of the gods. The wolf was adored because Osiris arose in the shape of that animal from the infernal regions, and assisted Isis and her son Horus to battle against Typhon. The cat was revered as an emblem of the moon, for its various spots, fruitfulness, and activity in the night. The goat (which, by the by, is said to be absent from the earth and present with Satan a part of every twenty-four hours of the day, and can never be seen from sunrise to sunrise without being lost sight of for a longer or shorter time) was honoured as the representation of manhood in full vigour, and was worshipped, from gratitude to the gods, for multiplying the people of the country. The crocodile was also advanced to the dignity of a god. If one killed any of the sacred animals designedly, he was put to death,—if involuntarily, his punishment was referred to the priests; but if a man killed a hawk, a cat, or an ibis, whether designedly or not, he died without mercy. During a severe famine, when the Egyptians became cannibals, not one of them was known to have tasted the sacred animals.
All revered animals were kept at great expense, and when they died costly funerals took place. When the Apis died at Memphis, in the reign of Ptolemy the son of Lagus, his funeral cost not less than £13,000 sterling. When a cat died, the family it belonged to expressed great grief, and prayed and fasted several days. In cases of fire, more care was taken to preserve the feline animals than the most valuable property in the house. Dead cats, which were almost invariably embalmed, were sometimes carried from remote parts to be interred in the city of Bubastis, and hawks and moles were buried with great solemnity at Butos, even though they should have died in foreign countries. Juvenal mentions that leeks and onions were objects of worship, and others say that the lotus was also sacred in various parts of the East. The priests were both physicians and interpreters of oracles; they carefully observed the phenomena of nature, and registered every uncommon occurrence. From such observations, they calculated the results of other events of similar nature. Hence arose the practice of divination, and afterwards that of dispensing oracles. Oracles were erected in every part of Egypt. Even the sacred animals had their several oracles. The Apis was consulted by observing into which of his chambers he entered. By a certain principle understood, the omen was regarded as foretelling good or evil.
The barbarous custom of sacrificing human victims was long in force in Egypt, and prevailed down to the reign of Amasis, by whom it was abolished. Not to give too severe a shock to the superstitious feelings of the people, wax figures, representing human beings, were permitted to be substituted for the living mortals. These customs were, no doubt, what sorcerers and witches imitated at their midnight feasts in after ages, and which led old women to imagine that, by making wax images of those whom they intended to injure, and sticking sharp instruments into them at one time, and at another time exposing them to a scorching heat before a fire, they would wreak their vengeance upon the individuals whom the figures represented. We have it from more than one learned writer, that the cruel and gloomy worship of Egypt arose from a belief that Typhon was labouring incessantly to counteract the happiness of mankind. He was considered to be greedy and voracious, and that it was necessary to glut his altars with blood in order to appease his anger.
Magic was a science in which the Egyptians excelled. Its attainment was esteemed the highest exertion of human intellect. Some imagined that the invention of magic exceeded human invention, and they pretended that the angel who fell in love with the antediluvian women taught it, and that the principles thereof were preserved by Ham after the Deluge, and that he communicated them to his son Mizraim; but others ascribed the invention to Hermes. Without either admitting or denying these assertions, we can have no hesitation in stating that much of our superstition may be traced back to Egyptian religion and customs, and that the singular belief of the Egyptians was general, and long anterior to the time Jacob and his sons went down to that country.
The Egyptian priests, taking advantage of the people’s credulity, taught that the sun, moon, and whole host of heaven were endowed with intelligence, and exerted an influence over the destinies of men; and they (the priests) pretended to work miracles, and obtain oracles and omens. They also laid claim to the power of interpreting dreams.
The Egyptians believed that the souls of men went into other bodies at death,—such as had been virtuous going into exalted bodies, but the vicious passing into mean reptiles and other contemptible creatures. After remaining in a state of punishment for a certain number of years, they were supposed to pass into more exalted beings. Praise was not bestowed indiscriminately upon every person who died, however exalted his position. Characters were given by judges, after inquiry into the life and conduct of the deceased. The judges sat on the opposite side of a lake; and while they crossed the lake, he who sat at the helm was called Charon, which gave rise to the fable among the Greeks, that Charon conducted the souls of deceased persons into the infernal regions.