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Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, [1919], at


The central idea of this lecture was suggested by Mr. Aylward M. Blackman's important discovery of the actual meaning of incense and libations to the Egyptians themselves. 1 The earliest body of literature preserved from any of the peoples of antiquity is comprised in the texts inscribed in the subterranean chambers of the Sakkara Pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. These documents, written forty-five centuries ago, were first brought to light in modern times in 1880-81; and since the late Sir Gaston Maspero published the first translation of them, many scholars have helped in the task of elucidating their meaning. But it remained for Blackman to discover the explanation they give of the origin and significance of the act of pouring out libations. "The general meaning of these passages is quite clear. The corpse of the deceased is dry and shrivelled. To revivify it the vital fluids that have exuded from it [in the process of mummification] must be restored, for not till then will life return and the heart beat again. This, so the texts show us, was believed to be accomplished by offering libations to the accompaniment of incantations" (op. cit. p. 70).

In the first three passages quoted by Blackman from the Pyramid Texts "the libations are said to be the actual fluids that have issued from the corpse". In the next four quotations "a different notion is introduced. It is not the deceased's own exudations that are to revive his shrunken frame but those of a divine body, the [god's fluid] 2 that

p. 24

came from the corpse of Osiris himself, the juices that dissolved from his decaying flesh, which are communicated to the dead sacrament-wise under the form of these libations."

This dragging-in of Osiris is especially significant. For the analogy of the life-giving power of water that is specially associated with Osiris played a dominant part in suggesting the ritual of libations. Just as water, when applied to the apparently dead seed, makes it germinate and come to life, so libations can reanimate the corpse. These general biological theories of the potency of water were current at the time, and, as I shall explain later (see p. 28), had possibly received specific application to man long before the idea of libations developed. For, in the development of the cult of Osiris 1 the general fertilizing power

p. 25

of water when applied to the soil found specific exemplification in the potency of the seminal fluid to fertilize human beings. Malinowski

has pointed out that certain Papuan people, who are ignorant of the fact that women are fertilized by sexual connexion, believe that they can be rendered pregnant by rain falling upon them (op. cit. infra). The study of folk-lore and early beliefs makes it abundantly clear that in the distant past which I am now discussing no clear distinction was made between fertilization and vitalization, between bringing new life into being and reanimating the body which had once been alive. The process of fertilization of the female and animating a corpse or a statue were regarded as belonging to the same category of biological processes. The sculptor who carved the portrait-statues for the Egyptian's tomb was called sa’nkh, "he who causes to live," and "the word 'to fashion' (ms) a statue is to all appearances identical with ms, 'to give birth'". 1

Thus the Egyptians themselves expressed in words the ideas which an independent study of the ethnological evidence showed many other peoples to entertain, both in ancient and modern times. 2

The interpretation of ancient texts and the study of the beliefs of less cultured modern peoples indicate that our expressions: "to give birth," "to give life," "to maintain life," "to ward off death," "to insure good luck," "to prolong life," "to give life to the dead," "to animate a corpse or a representation of the dead," "to give fertility," "to impregnate," "to create," represent a series of specializations of meaning which were not clearly differentiated the one from the other in early times or among relatively primitive modern people.

p. 26

The evidence brought together in Jackson's work clearly suggests that at a very early period in human history, long before the ideas that found expression in the Osiris story had materialized, men entertained in all its literal crudity the belief that the external organ of reproduction from which the child emerged at birth was the actual creator of the child, not merely the giver of birth but also the source of life.

The widespread tendency of the human mind to identify similar objects and attribute to them the powers of the things they mimic led primitive men to assign to the cowry-shell all these life-giving and birth-giving virtues. It became an amulet to give fertility, to assist at birth, to maintain life, to ward off danger, to ensure the life hereafter, to bring luck of any sort. Now, as the giver of birth, the cowry-shell also came to be identified with, or regarded as, the mother and creator of the human family; and in course of time, as this belief became rationalized, the shell's maternity received visible expression and it became personified as an actual woman, the Great Mother, at first nameless and with ill-defined features. But at a later period, when the dead king Osiris gradually acquired his attributes of divinity, and a god emerged with the form of a man, the vagueness of the Great Mother who had been merely the personified cowry-shell soon disappeared and the amulet assumed, as Hathor, the form of a real woman, or, for reasons to be explained later, a cow.

The influence of these developments reacted upon the nascent conception of the water-controlling god, Osiris; and his powers of fertility were enlarged to include many of the life-giving attributes of Hathor.


23:1 "The Significance of Incense and Libations in Funerary and Temple Ritual," Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache and Altertumskunde, Bd. 50, 1912, p. 69.

23:2 Mr. Blackman here quotes the actual word in hieroglyphics and adds the translation "god's fluid" and the following explanation in a footnote: "The Nile was supposed to be the fluid which issued from Osiris. The expression in the Pyramid texts may refer to this belief—the dead" [in the Pyramid Age it would have been more accurate if he had said the dead p. 24 king, in whose Pyramid the inscriptions were found] "being usually identified with Osiris—since the water used in the libations was Nile water."

24:1 The voluminous literature relating to Osiris will be found summarized in the latest edition of "The Golden Bough" by Sir James Frazer. But in referring the reader to this remarkable compilation of evidence it is necessary to call particular attention to the fact that Sir James Frazer's interpretation is permeated with speculations based upon the modern ethnological dogma of independent evolution of similar customs and beliefs without cultural contact between the different localities where such similarities make their appearance.

The complexities of the motives that inspire and direct human activities are entirely fatal to such speculations, as I have attempted to indicate (see above, p. 195). But apart from this general warning, there are other objections to Sir James Frazer's theories. In his illuminating article upon Osiris and Horus, Dr. Alan Gardiner (in a criticism of Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough: Adonis, Attis, Osiris; Studies in the History of Oriental Religion," Journal of Egyptian Archæology, Vol. II, 1915, p. 122) insists upon the crucial fact that Osiris was primarily a king, and that "it is always as a dead king," "the rôle of the living king being invariably played by Horus, his son and heir".

He states further: "What Egyptologists wish to know about Osiris beyond anything else is how and by what means he became associated with the processes of vegetable life". An examination of the literature relating to Osiris and the large series of homologous deities in other countries (which exhibit prima facie evidence of a common origin) suggests the idea that the king who first introduced the practice of systematic irrigation thereby laid the foundation of his reputation as a beneficent reformer. When, for reasons which I shall discuss later on (see p. 220), the dead king became deified, his fame as the controller of water and the fertilization of the earth became apotheosized also. I venture to put forward this suggestion only because none of the alternative hypotheses that have been propounded p. 25 seem to be in accordance with, or to offer an adequate explanation of, the body of known facts concerning Osiris.

It is a remarkable fact that in his lectures on "The Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt," which are based upon his own studies of the Pyramid Texts, and are an invaluable storehouse of information, Professor J. H. Breasted should have accepted Sir James Frazer's views. These seem to me to be altogether at variance with the renderings of the actual Egyptian texts and to confuse the exposition.

25:1 Dr. Alan Gardiner, quoted in my "Migrations of Early Culture," p. 42: see also the same scholar's remarks in Davies and Gardiner, "The Tomb of Arnenemhēt," 1915, p. 57, and "A new Masterpiece of Egyptian Sculpture," The Journal of Egyptian Archæology, Vol. IV, Part I, Jan., 1917.

25:2 See J. Wilfrid Jackson, "Shells as Evidence of the Migrations of Early Culture," 1917, Manchester University Press.

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