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

p. 36


So far I have referred in detail only to the offering of libations. But this was only one of several procedures for animating statues, mummies, and food-offerings. I have still to consider the ritual procedures of incense-burning and "opening the mouth".

From Mr. Blackman's translations of the Egyptian texts it is clear that the burning of incense was intended to restore to the statue (or the mummy) the odour of the living body, and that this was part of the procedure considered necessary to animate the statue. He says "the belief about incense [which is explained by a later document, the Ritual of Amon] apparently does not occur in the Old Kingdom religious texts that are preserved to us, yet it may quite well be as ancient as that period. That is certainly Erman's view" (op. cit. p. 75).

He gives the following translation of the relevant passage in the Ritual of Amon (XII, 11): "The god comes with body adorned which he has fumigated with the eye of his body, the incense of the god which has issued from his flesh, the sweat of the god which has fallen to the ground, which he has given to all the gods. … It is the Horus eye. If it lives, the people live, thy flesh lives, thy members are vigorous" (op. cit. p. 72). In his comments upon this passage Mr. Blackman states: "In the light of the Pyramid libation-formulæ the expressions in this text are quite comprehensible. Like the libations. the grains of incense are the exudations of a divinity, 1 'the fluid which issued from his flesh,' the god's sweat descending to the ground. … Here incense is not merely the 'Odour of the god,' but the grains of resin are said to be the god's sweat" (op. cit. p. 72). "Both rites, the pouring of libations and the burning of incense, are performed for the same purpose—to revivify the body [or the statue] of god and man by restoring to it its lost moisture" (p. 75).

In attempting to reconstitute the circumstances which led to the

p. 37

invention of incense-burning as a ritual act, the nature of the problem to be solved must be recalled. Among the most obtrusive evidences of death were the coldness of the skin, the lack of perspiration and of the odour of the living. It is important to realize what the phrase "odour of the living" would convey to the Proto-Egyptian. From the earliest Predynastic times in Egypt it had been the custom to make extensive use of resinous material as an essential ingredient (what a pharmacist would call the adhesive "vehicle") of cosmetics. One of the results of this practice in a hot climate must have been the association of a strong aroma of resin or balsam with a living person. 1 Whether or not it was the practice to burn incense to give pleasure to the living is not known. The fact that such a procedure was customary among their successors may mean that it was really archaic; or on the other hand the possibility must not be overlooked that it may be merely the later vulgarization of a practice which originally was devised for purely ritual purposes. The burning of incense before a corpse or statue was intended to convey to it the warmth, the sweat, and the odour of life.

When the belief became well established that the burning of incense was potent as an animating force, and especially a giver of life to the dead, it naturally came to be regarded as a divine substance in the sense that it had the power of resurrection. As the grains of incense consisted of the exudation of trees, or, as the ancient texts express it, "their sweat," the divine power of animation in course of time became transferred to the trees. They were no longer merely the source of the life-giving incense, but were themselves animated by the deity whose drops of sweat were the means of conveying life to the mummy.

The reason why the deity which dwelt in these trees was usually identified with the Mother-Goddess will become clear in the course of the subsequent discussion (p. 38). It is probable that this was due mainly to the geographical circumstance that the chief source of incense was Southern Arabia, which was also the home of the primitive goddesses of fertility. For they were originally nothing more than personifications of the life-giving cowry amulets from the Red Sea.

Thus Robertson Smith's statement that "the value of the gum of the acacia as an amulet is connected with the idea that it is a clot of

p. 38

menstruous blood, i.e., that the tree is a woman" 1 is probably an inversion of cause and effect. It was the value attached to the gum that conferred animation upon the tree. The rest of the legend is merely a rationalization based upon the idea that the tree was identified with the mother-goddess. The same criticism applies to his further contention (p. 427) with reference to "the religious value of incense," which he claims to be due to the fact that "like the gum of the samora (acacia) tree, … it was an animate or divine plant".

Many factors played a part in the development of tree-worship, but it is probable the origin of the sacredness of trees must be assigned to the fact that it was acquired from the incense and the aromatic woods which were credited with the power of animating the dead. But at a very early epoch many other considerations helped to confirm and extend the conception of deification. When Osiris was buried, a sacred sycamore grew up as "the visible symbol of the imperishable life of Osiris". 2 But the sap of trees was brought into relationship with life-giving water and thus constituted another link with Osiris. The sap was also regarded as the blood of trees and the incense that exuded as the sweat. Just as the water of libation was regarded as the fluid of the body of Osiris, so also, by this process of rationalization, the incense came to possess a similar significance.

For reasons precisely analogous to those already explained in the case of libations, the custom of burning incense, from being originally a ritual act for animating the funerary statue, ultimately developed into an act of homage to the deity.

But it also acquired a special significance when the cult of sky-gods developed, 3 for the smoke of the burning incense then came to be regarded as the vehicle which wafted the deceased's soul to the sky or conveyed there the requests of the dwellers upon earth. 4

"The soul of a human being is generally conceived [by the

p. 39

[paragraph continues] Chinese] as possessing the shape and characteristics of a human being, and occasionally those of an animal; … the spirit of an animal is the shape of this animal or of some being with human attributes and speech. But plant spirits are never conceived as plant-shaped, nor to have plant-characters … whenever forms are given them, they are mostly represented as a man, a woman, or a child, and often also as an animal, dwelling in or near the plant, and emerging from it at times to do harm, or to dispense blessings. … Whether conceptions on the animation of plants have never developed in Chinese thought and worship before ideas about human ghosts … had become predominant in mind and custom, we cannot say: but the matter seems probable (De Groot, op. cit. pp. 272, 273). Tales of trees that shed blood and that cry out when hurt are common in Chinese literature (p. 274) [as also in Southern Arabia]; also of trees that lodge or can change into maidens of transcendant beauty (p. 276).

It is further significant that amongst the stories of souls of men taking up their residence in and animating trees and plants, the human being is usually a woman, accompanied by "a fox, a dog, an old raven or the like" (p. 276).

Thus in China are found all the elements out of which Dr. Rendel Harris believes the Aphrodite cult was compounded in Cyprus, 1 the animation of the anthropoid plant, its human cry, its association with a beautiful maiden and a dog. 2

The immemorial custom of planting trees on graves in China is supposed by De Groot (p. 277) to be due to "the desire to strengthen the soul of the buried person, thus to save his body from corruption, for which reason trees such as pines and cypresses, deemed to be bearers of great vitality for being possessed of more shen than other trees, were used preferably for such purposes". But may not such beliefs also be an expression of the idea that a tree growing upon a grave is developed from and becomes the personification of the deceased? The significance of the selection of pines and cypresses may be compared to that associated with the so-called "cedars" in Babylonia, Egypt, and Phœnicia, and the myrrh- and frankincense- producing trees in Arabia and East Africa. They have come to be

p. 40

accredited with "soul-substance," since their use in mummification, and as incense and for making coffins, has made them the means for attaining a future existence. Hence in course of time they came to be regarded as charged with the spirit of vitality, the Shen or "soul-substance".

In China also it was because the woods of the pine or fir and the cypress were used for making coffins and grave-vaults and that pine-resin was regarded as a means of attaining immortality (De Groot, op. cit. pp. 296 and 297) that such veneration was bestowed upon these trees. "At an early date, Taoist seekers after immortality transplanted that animation [of the hardy long-lived fir and cypress 1] into themselves by consuming the resin of those trees, which, apparently, they looked upon as coagulated soul-substance, the counterpart of the blood in men and animals" (p. 296).

In India the amrita, the god's food of immortality, was sometimes regarded as the sap exuded from the sacred trees of paradise.

Elsewhere in these pages it is explained how the vaguely defined Mother "Goddess" and the more distinctly anthropoid Water "God," which originally developed quite independently the one of the other, ultimately came to exert a profound and mutual influence, so that many of the attributes which originally belonged to one of them came to be shared with the other. Many factors played a part in this process of blending and confusion of sex. As I shall explain later, when the moon came to be regarded as the dwelling or the impersonation of Hathor, the supposed influence of the moon over water led to a further assimilation of her attributes with those of Osiris as the controller of water, which received definite expression in a lunar form of Osiris.

But the link that is most intimately related to the subject of this address is provided by the personification of the Mother-Goddess in incense-trees. For incense thus became the sweat or the tears of the Great Mother just as the water of libation was regarded as the fluid of Osiris.


36:1 As I shall explain later (see page 38), the idea of the divinity of the incense-tree was a result of, and not the reason for, the practice of incense-burning. As one of the means by which the resurrection was attained incense became a giver of divinity; and by a simple process of rationalization the tree which produced this divine substance became a god.

The reference to the "eye of the body" (see p. 55) means the life-giving god or goddess who is the "eye" of the sky, i.e. the god with whom the dead king is identified.

37:1 It would lead me too far afield to enter into a discussion of the use of scents and unguents, which is closely related to this question.

38:1 "The Religion of the Semites," p. 133.

38:2 Breasted, p. 28.

38:3 For reasons explained on a subsequent page (56).

38:4 It is also worth considering whether the extension of this idea may not have been responsible for originating the practice of cremation—as a device for transferring, not merely the animating incense and the supplications of the living, but also the body of the deceased to the sky-world. This, of course, did not happen in Egypt, but in some other country which adopted the Egyptian practice of incense-burning, but was not hampered by the religious conservatism that guarded the sacredness of the corpse.

39:1 "The Ascent of Olympus," 1917.

39:2 For a collection of stories relating to human beings, generally women, dwelling in trees, see Hartland's "Legend of Perseus".

40:1 The fact that the fir and cypress are "hardy and long-lived" is not the reason for their being accredited with these life-prolonging qualities. But once the latter virtues had become attributed to them the fact that the trees were "hardy and long-lived" may have been used to bolster up the belief by a process of rationalization.

Next: The Breath of Life