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Alfred J. Church

Of Certain Kings of Egypt

Of all the kings of Egypt there has been none greater than Sesostris. This man made ships of war, and sailing down the Red Sea conquered the nations that dwelt upon its shores. And this he did till he could sail no further by reason of the shallows. And in the land of each nation that he conquered he set up a pillar with an inscription with his own name, speaking honourably of such as had fought bravely against him, and with scorn of such as had not quitted themselves like men. And thus he passed through the whole land of Asia, and from Asia he crossed over into Europe. And when he had subdued this also as far as Scythia and Thrace, he turned back to Egypt, and coming to the river Phasis, which floweth into the Black Sea by the way of the east, he left there a certain part of his army; but whether he did this to take possession of that country, or that the men were wearied with their wanderings, cannot be known. Coming back to Egypt, he brought with him a great multitude of men of all the nations whom he had conquered. And when he came to Daphnæ, his brother, whom he had made king in his stead, called him and his wife and children to a banquet. But while Sesostris sat at meat, the brother piled wood about the banqueting-house and set fire to it. Then Sesostris took counsel with his wife how they might be saved. And she said that he should slay two out of the number of his sons, for he had six in all, and using them as a bridge should so pass over the fire. This he did and escaped, he and his wife and four of his sons. After this, having first punished his brother, he appointed work to the multitude of men whom he had brought with him, to drag great blocks of stone for the building of temples, and to dig canals. For before the days of Sesostris horses and chariots could pass over the land of Egypt; but after him they could not, though indeed it is a plain country, so divided is it by canals. This the King did that he might bring the water of the river to such towns as lie far from it. Sesostris also divided the land of Egypt in equal plots among the inhabitants. These paid dues for their land year by year, and so the King had his revenue. And if the river carried away any part of a man's plot, he told the matter to the King. Then the King would send men to measure the plot; and according as it was found to be less, the less was demanded of the man. And thus was the art of geometry, that is to say, the measuring of land, first known in Egypt.

Many years after Sesostris there reigned King Proteus. In his days, as the Egyptians say, came Paris to Egypt, bringing with him Queen Helen, whom he had carried off from Menelaüs her husband. For the Egyptian story of Paris is this, being wholly different from that which Homer hath in his Iliad. When Paris had sailed from Sparta, and was now in the midst of the Ægean Sea, a storm arose, and carried him to the land of Egypt. Being arrived here he disembarked at a place which was called the "Saltpans," near to the mouth of the Nile that is called Canopus. Here there stood on the shore, and, indeed, stands to this day, a temple of Hercules. And the custom of the temple is, that if a slave runs away from his master, and has certain marks made upon him, he belongeth to the god, and his master may not lay hand upon him. So the slaves of Paris left him and fled to the temple, and that they might do him damage with the King, they told the whole story of Queen Helen to the priest of the temple, and to the captain of the river, a certain Thonis. This Thonis sent to the King, saying, "There hath come to this land a certain stranger of Troy, who hath done a wicked deed in the land of Greece, for from one who showed him hospitality he hath taken away his wife, and great riches also with her. Wilt thou then that we let him depart unharmed, or that we take from him that which he hath?" King Proteus made answer, "I will that ye bring this man who hath so wronged his host before me, that I may hear what he shall say." So Thonis took Paris and Helen, and the riches that they had with them, and the slaves also. Then the King asked Paris who he was and whence he had come. And Paris answered that he was a man of Troy, and that he sailed from Sparta. But when the King would know whence he had taken Queen Helen, he was confused, speaking things that were not true. But when the King had heard from the slaves the whole story, he gave sentence in this manner: "I am steadfastly purposed not to put to death any stranger who may be carried out of his course by stormy winds to this country; otherwise I had surely avenged this fault on thee. For indeed thou art the wickedest of men, that hast so wronged thy host, stealing from him his wife, and also robbing him of much treasure. Thee indeed I slay not, for I would not slay any stranger, but I suffer thee not to have this woman or this treasure. These will I keep for the host himself, till he shall himself come and take them, if he will. But as to thee and thy comrades, I bid you depart from my land within three days, and if not, ye shall be dealt with as enemies."

Now that Homer had heard this tale of the coming of Paris into Egypt may be taken for certain, being manifest from this that in the book of "The Valiant Deeds of Diomed" he speaketh thus: "There were robes of many colours, the work of women of Sidon, which the noble Paris brought thence in the voyage whereon he carried with him Queen Helen, sailing over the broad sea." Also in the "Wanderings of Ulysses," he saith: "Such marvelous medicine had the daughter of Zeus; good medicine which Polydamna of Egypt, the wife of Thonis, gave to her, for there the land bringeth forth medicines in abundance, and some are good and some are evil."

But in the meantime the Greeks had gathered together a great army and sailed to the land of Troy, that they might avenge themselves on him that had done this wrong. These, having disembarked and pitched their camp, sent ambassadors to Troy and King Menelaüs himself with them, who, when they had come within the walls, demanded of the men of the city both Queen Helen and the treasure which Paris had carried off. Also they asked that satisfaction should be given for this wrong. To this the men of Troy made answer that they had neither Queen Helen nor the treasure in their city, but that these were in Egypt, and that it was unreasonable to demand from them things that King Proteus of Egypt had in his possession. And this same answer they made both first and last, both as men commonly say such things and also confirming it with an oath. But the Greeks thought they were mocked by the men of Troy. Wherefore they besieged the city until they took it. But when they had taken it and found it was indeed as the men of Troy had said, and that Queen Helen was not there, they sent Menelaüs to Egypt to King Proteus. So Menelaüs departed to Egypt, and sailed up the river as far as the city of Memphis. Then Proteus courteously entreated him, giving him back Queen Helen unharmed and all the treasure with her. Notwithstanding Menelaüs dealt not with the Egyptians as they had dealt with him. For when he would have departed to his own country, and was hindered by contrary winds, and this for many days, he devised a most wicked thing. He took two children of men of the land, and offered them as a burnt-offering. And when this became noised abroad, and there was much indignation against him, he departed in great haste, marching towards the land of Libya. This is the story which the priests of Egypt tell of Menelaüs, and Helen, and Paris. And as for that which concerneth the city of Troy, they say that they heard it from King Menelaüs himself.

When Proteus was dead Rhampsinitus reigned in his stead. This Rhampsinitus had great store of silver, such as none of the kings after him were able to surpass or even to approach. Wishing to keep these riches in safety he would have a treasure-house built, whereof one side was in the outer wall of his palace. But the builder of this treasure-house devised means whereby he should himself have access to it, the means being this: he caused that there should be one stone in the outer wall which could be easily taken from its place by two men, or even by one. So the treasure house was built, and the King laid up his silver therein. Now it came to pass after a time that the builder fell sick, and being about to die called his sons unto him—for the man had two sons—and set forth to them how, not without forethought for them, that they might have stores of wealth without end, he had built the King's treasure-house. Then he made the whole matter plain to them about the taking out of the stone, and gave them the measurements that they might know its place. At the same time he said, "If ye keep this secret, ye shall be stewards after a fashion of the King's treasure." After this the man died, and his sons made no long delay in setting to work, but came by night to the King's palace, and finding the stone in the building, moved it easily from its place, and carried off great store of money. But when the King chanced to open the treasury-house he marvelled to see that the silver was lower in the jars where it was kept. Nor had he whom to blame, for the seals upon the door were not broken, and the door was safely shut. But when the thing happened again, and he found, opening the treasure-house twice or thrice, that the store of silver was diminished—for the thieves ceased not to plunder it—he contrived this thing. He caused men to make nets for hunting, and these he put above the jars in which the silver was stored. Then the thieves made their way into the treasure-house in the same manner as before; but when they came near to the jars, one of them fell into the net that was set for a trap, and was caught. And so soon as the man knew in what an evil plight he was, he called his brother to take counsel with him. To whom he said, "Come hither to me as quickly as thou canst, and cut off my head, lest haply some one should know me and thou perish with me." The man thought that his brother had spoken wisely; therefore he did this thing, and cut off the head of his brother, and departed, carrying off the head, having first fitted the stone in its place.

The next day at dawn King Rhampsinitus, coming into his treasure-house, was beyond measure astonished to see in the trap a body that had not a head, but the house remaining as before, without any place to be seen where a man might come in or go out. Being, therefore, much perplexed, he commanded that they should hang the dead body of the thief from the wall, and over this body he set guards, commanding that if they should see any one weeping or bewailing himself near the place, they should lay hold of the man and bring him before him. Now when the mother of the dead man knew that his body was hung up she was sore troubled, and spake to the son that was yet left to her, commanding him that he should devise means as best he could by which he might carry away the body of his brother. And she affirmed that if he heeded her not, she would go straightway to the King and declare the whole matter, how he had stolen the treasure. Now as the heart of the woman was wholly set upon this thing, and the man for all that he could say could not prevail over her to change her purpose, he contrived this way of doing it. He harnessed asses, and laid on them skins which he had filled with wine, and drave them past the palace. And when he was come to the place where the guards watched the dead body, he loosed the necks of some of the skins. And when the wine ran out abundantly, he made much ado, beating his head with his fist, and crying out aloud, as though he knew not to which of the asses he should first turn. But when the guards saw the wine flow out, they ran into the road, holding pitchers in their hands, thinking to collect some what of it, and so profit by the chance. And at the first the man made as if he were angry, and reviled them; but when they comforted him, he seemed to be persuaded and to abate his wrath. And after a while he drove his asses out of the road as if he would have set their burdens in order. So the guards and he fell to talking and laughing together, and after a while he gave them one of the skins of wine. Whereupon the men lay down as they were, and drank, and would have him bear them company and drink with them. Then the man seemed to be persuaded, and sat down with them; and in time, all being very friendly and merry together, the man gave them another skin, till at the last they had drunk so much that they were wholly overcome, and lay down to sleep in the place. But when the night was now far spent he loosed the body of his brother from the chain wherein it was hung, and for scorn shaved the right cheeks of the guards, and so, laying the body upon the asses, carried it home. Thus did he fulfill that which his mother had commanded him.

But when the King heard that the body of the thief had been stolen, he had great wrath. But being resolved that he would by some means find out the man who had contrived these things, he devised this device. He proclaimed that he would give his daughter in marriage to that man, though he were of the very lowest of the people, who should have done a thing more witty and wicked than any other. So many came wishing to have the King's daughter to wife, and told what they had done. And at last came the thief, for he would not that the King should seem in any way to have outwitted him. And when he was come into the chamber where the King's daughter sat, and she asked him the thing which she had asked of the others, he made answer that the wickedest thing that he had done in his life was this, that he had cut off his brother's head when he had been caught in a trap in the King's treasure-house, but that the wittiest thing was that he had made the King's guards drunk with wine, and so stolen the body of his brother. Now, when the King's daughter heard these things, she stretched forth her hand, thinking to hold him fast, for so it had been commanded her to do. But the man had cut off the arm from a body that was newly dead, and put the arm under his cloak, making as if it were his own. So the King's daughter laid hold of the hand of the dead body, but the thief left it with her, and fled forth by the door. But when they told the King what had befallen, he marvelled beyond measure at the man, so bold was he and so ready of conceit. Wherefore he sent messengers throughout all the towns in his kingdom, saying, that if the man who had done these things would come forth and show himself, he should have free pardon and great rewards to boot, and also that the King would give him his daughter in marriage. And the thief believed that which the King had said, and came forward and showed himself. Whereupon the King did as he had promised, for he said, "The Egyptians surpass all other men in wisdom, but this man surpasseth the Egyptians."

Of this King Rhampsinitus they also tell that being yet alive he went down to the regions of the dead, and played at dice with Demeter, who, they say, is Queen of those parts, and that he sometimes won and sometimes lost, and at the last came back to the earth having a napkin woven with gold, which the goddess had given him for a gift.

Of this journey of Rhampsinitus the Egyptians have yet, they say, this remembrance. On a certain day in the year the priests weave a mantle and bind the eyes of one of their company with a fillet and take him, having the mantle upon him, to the road that leads to the temple of Demeter, and thus leave him, and themselves return. And they say that the priest, having his eyes thus blinded, is led by two wolves to the temple of Demeter, which is distant from the city about the space of two miles and a half, and that also the wolves lead him back from the temple to the place where he was set by his fellows.