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


Before the full significance of these procedures can be appreciated it is essential to try to get at the back of the Proto-Egyptian's mind and to understand his general trend of thought. I specially want to make it clear that the ritual use of water for animating the corpse or the statue was merely a specific application of the general principles of biology which were then current. It was no mere childish make-believe or priestly subterfuge to regard the pouring out of water as a means of animating a block of stone. It was a conviction for which the Proto-Egyptians considered there was a substantial scientific basis; and their faith in the efficacy of water to animate the dead is to be

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regarded in the same light as any scientific inference which is made at the present time to give a specific application of some general theory considered to be well founded. The Proto-Egyptians clearly believed in the validity of the general biological theory of the life-giving properties of water. Many facts, no doubt quite convincing to them, testified to the soundness of their theory. They accepted the principle with the same confidence that modern people have adopted Newton's Law of Gravitation, and Darwin's theory of the Origin of Species, and applied it to explain many phenomena or to justify certain procedures, which in the light of fuller knowledge seem to modern people puerile and ludicrous. But the early people obviously took these procedures seriously and regarded their actions as rational. The fact that their early biological theory was inadequate ought not to mislead modern scholars and encourage them to fall into the error of supposing that the ritual of libations was not based upon a serious inference. Modern scientists do not accept the whole of Darwin's teaching, or possibly even Newton's "Law," but this does not mean that in the past innumerable inferences have been honestly and confidently made in specific application of these general principles.

It is important, then, that I should examine more closely the Proto-Egyptian body of doctrine to elucidate the mutual influence of it and the ideas suggested by the practice of mummification. It is not known where agriculture was first practised or the circumstances which led men to appreciate the fact that plants could be cultivated. In many parts of the world agriculture can be carried on without artificial irrigation, and even without any adequate appreciation on the part of the farmer of the importance of water. But when it came to be practised under such conditions as prevail in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the cultivator would soon be forced to realize that water was essential for the growth of plants, and that it was imperative to devise artificial means by which the soil might be irrigated. It is not known where or by whom this cardinal fact first came to be appreciated, whether by the Sumerians or the Egyptians or by some other people. But it is known that in the earliest records both of Egypt and Sumer the most significant manifestations of a ruler's wisdom were the making of irrigation canals and the controlling of water. Important as these facts are from their bearing upon the material prospects of the people, they had an infinitely more profound and far-reaching effect upon the

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beliefs of mankind. Groping after some explanation of the natural phenomenon that the earth became fertile when water was applied to it, and that seed burst into life under the same influence, the early biologist formulated the natural and not wholly illogical idea that water was the repository of life-giving powers. Water was equally necessary for the production of life and for the maintenance of life.

At an early stage in the development of this biological theory man and other animals were brought within the scope of the generalization. For the drinking of water was a condition of existence in animals. The idea that water played a part in reproduction was co-related with this fact.

Even at the present time many aboriginal peoples in Australia, New Guinea, and elsewhere, are not aware of the fact that in the process of animal reproduction the male exercises the physiological rile of fertilization. 1

There are widespread indications throughout the world that the appreciation of this elementary physiological knowledge was acquired at a relatively recent period in the history of mankind. It is difficult to believe that the fundamental facts of the physiology of fertilization in animals could long have remained unknown when men became breeders of cattle. The Egyptian hieroglyphs leave no doubt that the knowledge was fully appreciated at the period when the earliest picture-symbols were devised, for the verb "to beget" is represented by the male organs of generation. But, as the domestication of animals may have been earlier than the invention of agriculture, it is possible that the appreciation of the fertilizing powers of the male animal may have been definitely more ancient than the earliest biological theory of the fertilizing power of water.

I have discussed this question to suggest that the knowledge that animals could be fertilized by the seminal fluid was certainly brought within the scope of the wider generalization that water itself was endowed with fertilizing properties. Just as water fertilized the earth, so the semen fertilized the female. Water was

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necessary for the maintenance of life in plants and was also essential in the form of drink for animals. As both the earth and women could be fertilized by water they were homologized one with the other. The earth came to be regarded as a woman, the Great Mother. 1 When the fertilizing water came to be personified in the person of Osiris his consort Isis was identified with the earth which was fertilized by water. 2

One of the earliest pictures of an Egyptian king represents him using the hoe to inaugurate the making of an irrigation-canal. 3 This was the typical act of benevolence on the part of a wise ruler. It is not unlikely that the earliest organization of a community under a definite leader may have been due to the need for some systematized control of irrigation. In any case the earliest rulers of Egypt and Sumer were essentially the controllers and regulators of the water supply and as such the givers of fertility and prosperity.

Once men first consciously formulated the belief that death was not the end of all things, 4 that the body could be re-animated and

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consciousness and the will restored, it was natural that a wise ruler who, when alive, had rendered conspicuous services should after death

continue to be consulted. The fame of such a man would grow with age; his good deeds and his powers would become apotheosized; he would become an oracle whose advice might be sought and whose help be obtained in grave crises. In other words the dead king would be "deified," or at any rate credited with the ability to confer even greater boons than he was able to do when alive.

It is no mere coincidence that the first "god" should have been a dead king, Osiris, nor that he controlled the waters of irrigation and was specially interested in agriculture. Nor, for the reasons that I have already suggested, is it surprising that he should have had phallic attributes, and in himself have personified the virile powers of fertilization. 1

In attempting to explain the origin of the ritual procedures of burning incense and offering libations it is essential to realize that the creation of the first deities was not primarily an expression of religious belief, but rather an application of science to national affairs. It was the logical interpretation of the dominant scientific theory of the time for the practical benefit of the living; or in other words, the means devised for securing the advice and the active help of wise rulers after their death. It was essentially a matter of practical politics and applied science. It became "religion" only when the advancement of knowledge superseded these primitive scientific theories and left them as soothing traditions for the thoughts and aspirations of mankind to cherish. For by the time the adequacy of these theories of knowledge began to be questioned they had made an insistent appeal, and had come to be regarded as an essential prop to lend support to man's conviction of the reality of a life beyond the grave. A web of moral precept and the allurement of hope had been so woven around them that no force was able to strip away this body of consolatory

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beliefs; and they have persisted for all time, although the reasoning by which they were originally built up has been demolished and forgotten several millennia ago.

It is not known where Osiris was born. In other countries there are homologous deities, such as Ea, Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis, which are certainly manifestations of the same idea and sprung from the same source. Certain recent writers assume that the germ of the Osiris-conception was introduced into Egypt from abroad. But if so, nothing is known for certain of its place of origin. In any case there can be no doubt that the distinctive features of Osiris, his real personality and character, were developed in Egypt.

For reasons which I have suggested already it is probable that the significance of water in cultivation was not realized until cereals were cultivated in some such place as Babylonia or Egypt. But there are very definite legends of the Babylonian Ea coming from abroad by way of the Persian Gulf. 1 The early history of Tammuz is veiled in obscurity. Somewhere in South Western Asia or North Eastern Africa, probably within a few years of the development of the art of agriculture, some scientific theorist, interpreting the body of empirical knowledge acquired by cultivating cereals, propounded the view that water was the great life-giving element. This view eventually found expression in the Osiris-group of legends.

This theory found specific application in the invention of libations and incense. These practices in turn reacted upon the general body of doctrine and gave it a more sharply defined form. The dead king also became more real when he was represented by an actual embalmed body and a life-like statue, sitting in state upon his throne and holding in his hands the emblems of his high office.

Thus while, in the present state of knowledge, it would be unjustifiable to claim that the Osiris-group of deities was invented in Egypt, and certainly erroneous to attribute the general theory of the fertilizing properties of water to the practice of embalming, it is true that the latter was responsible for giving Osiris a much more concrete

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and clearly-defined shape, of "making a god in the image of man," and for giving to the water-theory a much richer and fuller significance than it had before.

The symbolism so created has had a most profound influence upon the thoughts and aspirations of the human race. For Osiris was the prototype of all the gods; his ritual was the basis of all religious ceremonial; his priests who conducted the animating ceremonies were the pioneers of a long series of ministers who for more than fifty centuries, in spite of the endless variety of details of their ritual and the character of their temples, have continued to perform ceremonies that have undergone remarkably little essential change, Though the chief functions of the priest as the animator of the god and the restorer of his consciousness have now fallen into the background in most religions, the ritual acts (the incense and libations, the offerings of food and blood and the rest) still persist in many countries: the priest still appeals by prayer and supplication for those benefits, which the Proto-Egyptian aimed at securing when he created Osiris as a god to give advice and help. The prayer for rain is one of the earliest forms of religious appeal, but the request for a plentiful inundation was earlier still.

I have already said that in using the terms "god" and "religion" with reference to the earliest form of Osiris and the beliefs that grew up with reference to him a potent element of confusion is introduced.

During the last fifty centuries the meanings of those two words have become so complexly enriched with the glamour of a mystic symbolism that the Proto-Egyptian's conception of Osiris and the Osirian beliefs must have been vastly different from those implied in the words "god" and "religion" at the present time. Osiris was regarded as an actual king who had died and been reanimated. In other words he was a man who could bestow upon his former subjects the benefits of his advice and help, but could also display such human weaknesses as malice, envy, and all uncharitableness. Much modern discussion completely misses the mark by the failure to recognize that these so-called "gods" were really men, equally capable of acts of beneficence and of outbursts of hatred, and as one or the other aspect became accentuated the same deity could become a Vedic deva or an Avestan dæva, a deus or a devil, a god of kindness or a demon of wickedness.

The acts which the earliest "gods" were supposed to perform

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were not at first regarded as supernatural. They were merely the boons which the mortal ruler was supposed to be able to confer, by controlling the waters of irrigation and rendering the land fertile. It was only when his powers became apotheosized with a halo of accumulated glory (and the growth of knowledge revealed the insecurity of the scientific basis upon which his fame was built up) that a priesthood, reluctant to abandon any of the attributes which had captured the popular imagination, made it an obligation of belief to accept these supernatural powers of the gods for which the student of natural phenomena refused any longer to be a sponsor. This was the parting of the ways between science and religion; and thenceforth the attributes of the "gods" became definitely and admittedly superhuman.

As I have already stated (p. 23) the original object of the offering of libations was thus clearly for the purpose of animating the statue of the deceased and so enabling him to continue the existence which had merely been interrupted by the incident of death. In course of time, however, as definite gods gradually materialized and came to be represented by statues, they also had to be vitalized by offerings of water from time to time. Thus the pouring out of libations came to be an act of worship of the deity; and in this form it has persisted until our own times in many civilized countries.

But not only was water regarded as a means of animating the dead, or statues representing the dead, and an appropriate act of worship, in that it vitalized an idol and the god dwelling in it was thus able to hear and answer supplications. Water also became an essential part of any act of ritual rebirth. 1 As a baptism it also symbolized the giving of life. The initiate was re-born into a new communion of faith. In scores of other ways the same conception of the life-giving properties of water was responsible for as many applications of the use of libations in inaugurating new enterprises, such as "baptising" ships and blessing buildings. It is important to remember that, according to early Egyptian beliefs, the continued existence of the dead was wholly dependent upon the attentions of the living. Unless this animating ceremony was performed not merely at the time of the funeral, but also at stated periods afterwards, and unless the friends of the deceased

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periodically supplied food and drink, such a continuation of existence was impossible.

The development of these beliefs had far-reaching effects in other directions. The idea that a stone statue could be animated ultimately became extended to mean that the dead man could enter into and dwell in a block of stone, which he could leave or return to at will. From this arose the beliefs, which spread far and wide, that the dead, ancestors, kings, or deified kings, dwelt in stones; and that they could be consulted as oracles, who gave advice and counsel. The acceptance of this idea that the dead could be reanimated in a stone statue no doubt prepared the minds of the people to credit the further belief, which other circumstances were responsible for creating, that men could be turned into stone. In the next chapter I shall explain how these petrifaction stories developed. 1

All the rich crop of myths concerning men and animals dwelling in stones which are to be found encircling the globe from Ireland to America, can be referred back to these early Egyptian attempts to solve the mysteries of death, and to acquire the means of circumventing fate.

These beliefs at first may have concerned human beings only. But in course of time, as the duty of revictualling an increasingly large number of tombs and temples tended to tax the resources of the people, the practice developed of substituting for the real things models, or even pictures, of food-animals, vegetables, and other requisites of the dead. And these objects and pictures were restored to life or reality by means of a ritual which was essentially identical with that used for animating the statue or the mummy of the deceased himself. 2

It is well worth considering whether this may not be one of the basal factors in explanation of the phenomena which the late Sir Edward Tylor labelled "animism".

So far from being a phase of culture through which many, if not all, peoples have passed in the course of their evolution, may it not have been merely an artificial conception of certain things, which was

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given so definite a form in Egypt, for the specific reasons at which I have just hinted, and from there spread far and wide?

Against this view may be urged the fact that our own children talk in an animistic fashion. But is not this due in some measure to the unconscious influence of their elders? Or at most is it not a vague and ill-defined attitude of anthropomorphism necessarily involved in all spoken languages, which is vastly different from what the ethnologist understands by "animism" 1?

But whether this be so or not, there can be no doubt that the "animism" of the early Egyptians assumed its precise and clear-cut distinctive features as the result of the growth of ideas suggested by the attempts to make mummies and statues of the dead and symbolic offerings of food and other funerary requisites.

Thus incidentally there grew up the belief in a power of magic by means of which these make-believe offerings could be transformed into realities. But it is important to emphasize the fact that originally the conviction of the genuineness of this transubstantiation was a logical and not unnatural inference based upon the attempt to interpret natural phenomena, and then to influence them by imitating what were regarded as the determining factors. 2

In China these ideas still retain much of their primitive influence and directness of expression. Referring to the Chinese "belief in the identity of pictures or images with the beings they represent" de Groot states that the kwan shuh or "magic art" is a "main branch of Chinese witchcraft". It consists essentially of "the infusion of a soul, life, and activity into likenesses of beings, to thus render them fit to work in some direction desired … this infusion is effected by blowing or breathing, or spurting water over the likeness: indeed breath or khi, or water from the mouth imbued with breath, is identical with yang substance or life." 3


28:1 Baldwin Spencer and Gillen, "The Northern Tribes of Central Australia"; "Across Australia"; and Spencer's "Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia". For a very important study of the whole problem with special reference to New Guinea, see B. Malinowski, "Baloma: the Spirits of the Dead," etc., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1916, p. 415.

29:1 The idea of the earth's maternal function spread throughout the greater part of the world.

29:2 With reference to the assimilation of the conceptions of human fertilization and watering the soil and the widespread idea among the ancients of regarding the male as "he who irrigates," Canon van Hoonacker gave M. Louis Siret the following note:—

"In Assyrian the cuneiform sign for water is also used, inter alia, to express the idea of begetting (banû). Compare with this the references from Hebrew and Arabic writings. In Isaiah xlviii. 1, we read 'Hear ye this, O house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah'; and in Numbers xxiv. 7, 'Water shall flow from his buckets and his seed shall be in many waters'.

"The Hebrew verb (shangal) which denotes sexual intercourse has, in Arabic (sadjala), the meaning 'to spill water'. In the Koran, Sur. 36, v. 6, the word mâ’un (water) is used to designate semen" (L. Siret, "Questions de Chronologie et d’Ethnographie Ibériques," Tome I, 1913, p. 250).

29:3 Quibell, "Hieraconpolis, Vol. I, 260, 4.

29:4 In using this phrase I want to make a clear distinction between the phase of culture in which it had never occurred to man that, in his individual case, life would come to an end, and the more enlightened stage, in which he fully realized that death would inevitably be his fate, but that in spite of it his real existence would continue.

It is clear that at quite an early stage in his history man appreciated the fact that he could kill an animal or his fellow-man. But for a long time he failed to realize that he himself, if he could avoid the process of mechanical p. 30 destruction by which he could kill an animal or a fellow-man, would not continue to exist. The dead are supposed by many people to be still in existence so long as the body is preserved. Once the body begins to disintegrate even the most unimaginative of men can entirely repress the idea of death. But to primitive people the preservation of the body is equally a token that existence has not come to an end. The corpse is merely sleeping.

30:1 Breasted, op. cit., p. 28.

31:1 The possibility, or even the probability, must be borne in mind that the legend of Ea arising from the waters may be merely another way of expressing his primary attribute as the personification of the fertilizing powers of water.

33:1 This occurred at a later epoch when the attributes of the water-controlling deity of fertility became confused with those of the birth-giving mother goddess (vide infra, p. 40).

34:1 For a large series of these stories see E. Sidney Hartland's "Legend of Perseus". But even more instructive, as revealing the intimate connexion of such ideas with the beliefs regarding the preservation of the body, see J. J. M. de Groot, "The Religious System of China," Vol. IV, Book II, 1901.

34:2 In this connexion see de Groot, op. cit. pp. 356 and 415.

35:1 The child certainly resembles primitive man in the readiness with which it attributes to even the crudest models of animals or human beings the feelings of living creatures.

35:2 It became "magical" in our sense of the term only when the growth of knowledge revealed the fact that the measures taken were inadequate to attain the desired end; while the "magician" continued to make the pretence that he could attain that end by ultra-physical means.

35:3 De Groot, op. cit. p. 356.

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