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Alfred J. Church

Of the Manners of the Egyptians

There is no country in the whole world that hath in it more marvellous things or greater works of buildings and the like than hath the land of Egypt. And as the heavens in this land are such as other men know not—for in the upper parts there falls not rain but once in a thousand years or more, and in the lower parts not often—and the river is different from all other rivers in the earth, seeing that it overflows in the summer and is at its least in the winter, so also do the manners of the Egyptians differ from the manners of all other men. For among them the women buy and sell in the market, but the men sit at home and spin. And even in this matter of spinning they do not as others, for others push the shuttle in the loom from below upwards, but these men push it from above downwards. Also the men carry burdens on their heads, but the women carry them on their shoulders. And the women pray to none, either god or goddess, but the men pray to all. And there is no duty laid on a son to succour father or mother, if it be not his pleasure to do it, but on a daughter there is laid, whether she will or no. In the matter of mourning for the dead these folk have a strange custom, for they let grow the hair upon the head and chin when they mourn, but are shaven at other times. And whereas other men hold themselves better than the beasts, the Egyptians have these in great honour, keeping them in their houses, aye, and worshipping them. Nor do they eat the food of other men, holding it a shame to be fed on wheat and barley which others use, and eating the grain of millet only; and the dough that it is made of, this they knead, trampling it with their feet, but mud and such like things they are wont to take up with their hands. About garments, their custom is that a man hath two but a woman only one; and in their ships and boats they fasten the sheets and ropes to the sails from within, whereas other men fasten them from without; also in their books they write not as others, from left to right, but from right to left.


Inspection of Cattle.

Now as to the beasts and the honour in which the Egyptians hold them, there are many strange things to be said. The cow they reckon to be sacred to Isis the goddess, who is the same that the Greeks call so, fabling her to be a maiden whom Heré changed into the shape of a heifer. Nor will any Egyptian man or woman kiss a Greek upon the mouth, knowing that they are wont to eat cow's flesh; neither will they use any knife or spit or cauldron of a Greek, nor will they eat even of the flesh that is lawful to be eaten (for they eat of oxen, as I shall presently tell) if it be cut with the knife of a Greek. The oxen they hold to be sacred to Apis, whom the Greeks call Epaphus, saying that he was the son of Isis. These they sacrifice, if so be that they find them to be clean. And the manner of finding whether they be clean or no is this. One of the priests that is set to perform this office diligently examines the beast, both when he stands up and when he lies down, to see whether there be any black hairs on him, and if there be so much as one, then he is not clean. Then he looks at the tongue to see if it be without certain signs, and at the tail, whether the hairs be set in due order. And if he find it to be altogether clean he twisteth a reed about the horns of the beast, and putteth a seal of clay upon his forehead. And when they sacrifice it, they cut off the head, praying at the same time that if any evil thing be about to happen either to them that do the sacrifice or to the land of Egypt, it may fall rather upon this head. And of the body, some parts they burn with fire and some they eat.

Sometimes it comes to pass that there is born a bull calf that hath such a colour and such marks upon him that this people deem it to be the god Apis himself. It is black with a foursquare mark of white upon its forehead, and on its back the similitude of an eagle, and the hair on its tail double, and under its tongue a mark like unto a beetle. When such a one is born the people put on their best apparel and make great rejoicing, saying that the god hath come down to dwell among them. This thing came to pass when King Cambyses of Persia was in Egypt. Now it chanced that in those days the King was much troubled, because the army which he had sent against the men of Hammon who dwelt in the desert had wholly perished, a mighty wind from the south blowing mountains of sand upon it. And he was in great wrath to see the Egyptians making merry, for he thought that they did it in scorn of him and his troubles. And first he sent for the chief men of Memphis, for that was the city in which he chanced to be dwelling, and enquired of them why the people rejoiced; and when they said that the god had appeared among them after many years, and that the people rejoiced therefore according to custom, he answered in great anger that they had lied to him, and ordered them to be put to death as having said a thing manifestly false. Afterwards he sent for the priests, and when they answered him after the same manner, he said that he would not that a god should come to the land that could be handled and he not see him, and bade them bring him. So the priests brought the calf Apis, and the King, when he saw him, drew a dagger that he had and smote the beast on the thigh, saying to the priests, "Ye knaves! be these your gods, creatures that have flesh and blood, and can be hurt with steel? Truly such a god is worthy of the Egyptians. But surely ye shall not go unpunished." And he bade the executioners scourge them to death, and to slay any Egyptian that they should find making merry. So the feast of the Egyptians had an end, and the calf that had been wounded lay for a while grievously sick in the temple, and so died. But when it was dead the priests buried it, taking good care that the matter should not come to the ears of the King.

Commonly when an ox dieth they bury it in the suburbs of the city with one of his horns, or it may be both, above the ground that they may know the place. And after a certain time when they judge the flesh to have altogether rotted, they take up the bones and put them into a ship, which cometh for that purpose from a certain island in the lower part of the river, where there is a temple of the goddess Aphrodite. In this place are gathered together the bones of all the oxen that die, and here are they buried. In like manner do they bring other beasts that die, for none of them do they kill, save only in sacrifice.

As to sacrifice, indeed, they follow different customs in different places. Thus they that are of the region of Thebes sacrifice goats, but will have nothing to do with sheep; and, on the other hand, they that are of the region of Mende sacrifice sheep, but hold goats to be unclean.

The crocodile some of the Egyptians hold to be sacred, but not all. And in every city where they hold it, as in Thebes and in the cities round about the lake Moeris, they keep one crocodile to which they do special honour. This they train to be tame to the hand, and they put earrings of glass and of gold into his ears, and bracelets on his fore feet, and give it a portion of food day by day, and make offerings to it, and when it dies they embalm it and bury it in the sacred sepulchres. But the people that dwell in the city of Elephantiné count them not to be sacred at all, but slay them and eat them.

Of hunting them there are many ways, but the most noteworthy is this. The hunter fastens a chine of swine's flesh upon a hook, and casts it into the middle of the river. After this he takes a live pig and beats it by the banks of the river. And the crocodile, hearing the crying of the pig, makes for the place, and chancing on the hook with the swine's flesh swallows it down. Then the men drag it to land. But so soon as ever it touches the land the hunter daubeth the eye of the beast with mud. If he do this, then will he easily do what he will with it; but if not, he hath much trouble.

The river-horse, which is a great beast, as big as the biggest of oxen, having an ox's hoof, only cloven, and the mane and tail and voice of a horse, the people of one region hold to be sacred, but to the rest it is common. There are water snakes in the river; these they all hold sacred, and among fish one that has great scales, and also the eel.

Among birds are sacred the fox goose (which they so call because it has a hole in the earth, such as the foxes have), and the ibis, which the Egyptians honour because it fights against the winged serpents. For they say that in the spring-time a great multitude of winged serpents cometh out of the land of Arabia seeking to pass into Egypt, and that the ibis meet them in a narrow way which there is between Arabia and Egypt, and will not let them pass. But the most sacred of all birds is the phœnix. This bird men do not often see, for it cometh, they say, into the land of Egypt but once in five hundred years. And the manner of his coming is this, according to the report of the country, though, indeed, it is a thing hard to be believed. He bringeth his father, covered round about with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and burieth him in the temple of the Sun. And that he may do this, he first maketh a great ball of myrrh, as big as he can carry, making trial of what he can do in carrying. And when he hath finished the trial and can carry such weight as is needed, he holloweth out the ball, and putteth his father within, and addeth thereto such myrrh as he has taken from within. And the weight, they say, is the same as it was before. The feathers of this bird are in part golden and in part red: and it hath the shape and bigness of an eagle.

Of the beasts that are held sacred there are keepers appointed, both men and women; and this office the son inheriteth from his father and the daughter from her mother. When a man maketh a vow to the god to whom a beast is counted to belong, and the time is come that he should pay it, he shaves the heads of his children, or the half, or, it may be, the third part of their heads, according to the letter of his vow. Then he weigheth the hair that hath been cut of against silver, and payeth the silver to the keeper of the beast, who buyeth food for it, fish or the like. Thus are the beasts nourished. If a man kill a beast that is sacred, he must suffer for it. If he kill it of set purpose, then he is put to death, but if he kill it unknowingly, then he payeth a fine, such as the priests may choose to lay upon him. But if a man kill an ibis or a hawk, whether he do it of set purpose or no, he must die.

The cat the Egyptians hold in great honour. Of this beast there is a very marvellous thing to be told. When it chanceth that a house is burning a strange madness cometh upon the cats, for they are very desirous to leap into the fire. And the Egyptians set guards round about the place, if by any means they may keep the cats from their purpose; nor do they care to quench the fire, if so be that they may do this: but the cats, nevertheless, making their way through them, or leaping over them, have their will, and so perish. Over this the Egyptians make great lamentation. If a cat die in the course of nature, all that are in that house shave their eyebrows only, but all the dwellers in a house wherein a dog shall die shave their heads and whole bodies. The cats, when they are dead, they carry away for burial to the city of Bubastis, but the dogs they bury each in the city where he dies, only in the holy sepulchres. Other beasts and birds they bury elsewhere, according to the nature of each. Bears, of which there are few only, and wolves (and the wolves in this country are but little bigger than foxes) they bury where they may chance to find them.


Pursuing Birds.

Swine the Egyptians hold to be altogether abominable. If a man so much as touch one of these beasts in passing, he goeth straightway to the river, and dippeth himself therein and his garments also. No swineherd is permitted to enter the temple of any god, nor will any man give his daughter in marriage to a swine-herd, or take a swineherd's daughter to wife; but they marry and are given in marriage among themselves only. Notwithstanding, on a certain day, to wit, the day of the full moon, and to certain gods, that is, to the Moon and to Bacchus, they offer swine in sacrifice. And when they offer them to the Moon, after they have burnt certain parts with fire, that which remains of the flesh they eat. But on no other day would they so much as taste it. And the poor, such as for lack of means cannot buy the beast itself, make swine of dough. These they cook and offer in sacrifice, and so eat. But the swine which they offer in sacrifice to Bacchus they eat not, but give them to the swineherds from whom they may have bought them.

For food the Egyptians have bread made of millet, as has been said before. They have wine made of barley, for the vine groweth not in their land. Of birds they eat doves and pigeons, and such small kinds as there are in the country. Of fish they have a great store, not a few in the river, but yet more in lakes and ponds, where they nourish them. Of such fish as pass from the lakes into the sea there is told this thing, that such as be caught passing from the lake into the sea are found to have their heads rubbed upon the left side, and such as are caught passing from the sea to the lake have their heads rubbed upon the right. And the cause is this: that when they swim downwards they keep themselves very close to the left shore, and when they swim upwards they keep themselves very close to the right shore, not ceasing to touch it, lest haply through the flow of the stream they should miss the way, and so be lost. There is also another strange thing of the fish in Egypt. So soon as the Nile begins to rise, the hollows of the earth and the pools that are by the side of the river begin to fill, for the water runs through to them from the river. And so soon as they are full they are seen to abound with multitudes of small fishes. Whereof the cause seemeth to be this: in the year before the fish that have been in these pools and hollows run out with the water as the river falls, but leave their eggs in the mud. And these, when the season of the flood comes round again, speedily become fishes.

Such of the Egyptians as dwell in the marshes of the river have also for food the seed of the water-lilies, which grow abundantly when the river overfloweth the plains. This seed is like to the seed of a poppy, and they make of it loaves which they bake with fire, having first dried it in the sun. Also the root of this water-lily (which they call the lotus) may be eaten, being round, and of the bigness of an apple. Other lilies there are growing in the river, like to roses, which have a fruit very like to a wasp's comb, and in it many seeds of the bigness of an olive, which the men eat both green and dry. Also these marsh folk gather the reeds, and use the upper part for other things, as for the making of paper and the like, but the lower part, as much as a cubit's length from the ground, they eat. Those who will have this dish at its best cook it in an oven red hot, and so eat it. For oil olive these people use that which they press out of the castorberry, of which they plant great store by the riverside. It serveth for lamps as oil-olive, but hath an evil smell.

It must be told how they escape from the biting of the gnats, of which there are great multitudes. For they that dwell in the upper country find help in their towers, into which they climb of a night, and so sleep in peace. But the marsh folk do not so, but every man has his cast-net, and with this he catches fish by day and hangs it over his bed by night. And if he sleep wrapped in his cloak or in a hair garment, the gnats bite through it, but through the net they bite not.

The rich men among the Egyptians have this custom at their feasts. When the meal is ended there is carried round to every one of the guests an image made of wood, shapen and painted to the likeness of a man. This image is of a cubit, or may be, two cubits in length, and is laid in a coffin. And he that beareth it saith to each man, "Look thou at this, and drink, and rejoice thy heart, for when thou diest thou shalt be such as this image."

The dead they embalm; and the manner of this embalming differeth according as the man or woman that is dead is rich or poor or between the two. But if a man be torn by a crocodile or die by drowning in the river, then, whether he be an Egyptian born or a stranger in the land, must he be embalmed with all the costliest spices that may be, and buried in the sacred sepulchres. Neither may any man touch him, whether kinsman or friend, but the priests of the Nile only. These handle him with all reverence as being more than a mortal man, and so bury him.

The Egyptians have among them a great multitude of physicians. But each man is a physician of one part of the body only; for one healeth diseases of the eyes, and another diseases of the head, and a third diseases of the teeth.

Priests are held in great honour among them. For indeed there is no nation in the whole world that is more careful to pay due reverence to the Gods and to all holy things. These priests shave their bodies every third day. They wear garments of linen and sandals of reed from the river, and other garments or sandals it is not lawful for them to have. They bathe themselves in water twice every day, and twice every night; and other things of the like kind without end do they observe. Nevertheless, they are by no means in evil case. There is no need for them to spend aught of their own possessions, for there is brought to them day by day for their food great store of the flesh of oxen and of geese. For the Egyptians keep with them great flocks of these birds, holding them to be sacred. Also they have a provision of wine, and this is not of barley, such as men commonly drink in this country, but wine of grapes. But it is not lawful for them to eat of any kind of fish, and as for beans, they may not so much as look at them; and indeed none of the Egyptians will eat of the bean.


A Flock of Geese.

To each god there are many priests, and of these one is called the high priest. When a priest dieth, his son taketh his office.

All the Egyptians worship not the same gods, but Isis and Osiris they all worship; and this Osiris is the same as he whom the Greeks call Bacchus or Dionysus; and his feast is in all things like to that which the Greeks keep to their gods, only that there is no acting of plays. As for Isis the Greeks call her Demeter, that is to say, being interpreted, Mother Earth.

Hercules the most of them worship, but not all. But this Hercules is not the same as he of whom the Greeks talk as being a hero and the son of Amphitryon of Argos, but an ancient god, and one of the twelve. For the Egyptians say that there were in the beginning eight gods, and that of these eight were born other twelve; and that it is seventeen thousand years reckoned to the days of King Amasis, of whom mention will be made hereafter, since these twelve were born. Also in Tyre of Phœnicia there is a temple of Hercules, very noble, in which are many gifts and offerings, and especially two pillars, the one of pure gold and the other of emerald, which shines mightily by night. The priests of this temple affirm that it was built at the very beginning, together with the city itself; and that as for the city, there were two thousand years and more from its building to the days of King Amasis. Neither doth this agree with what the Greeks say of Hercules; and as for what they tell of his doings in Egypt, it is a vain thing and altogether incredible. For they say that coming to Egypt he was taken of a great multitude of the people, and crowned with garlands, and led to the altar of Zeus, to the intent that he might be sacrificed; and that he submitted himself to them till he came to the altar itself, but that being there, he turned upon them and slew them all. Now, it is not lawful for the Egyptians to sacrifice any animal save only sheep and oxen and calves and geese. How, then, could they sacrifice a man? And how could Hercules, being but one, and a mortal man—for the Greeks count him to have been—slay thousands?



Ares they worship in other cities and in Papremis, in which last place they follow this custom. The image of the god, which abides in a small shrine of wood covered over with gold, they carry out on the day before the feast from the temple to another of the holy places. And on the day of the feast, when the sun is now drawing near to his setting, they put the image and its shrine on a waggon with four wheels, and drag him towards the temple. Now in the front of the temple there is ranged a multitude of men, having all of them clubs of wood in their hands. These seek to hinder the priests that drag the waggon and the image from entering the temple. And there is ranged upon the other side of the court another multitude, of a thousand men and more, having also clubs of wood in their hands. These busy themselves with the saying of prayers. But when they see that the god is hindered from entering his temple, they come to his help and the help of his priests. Upon this there ariseth a very fierce battle, the men striking each other with their clubs of wood, and breaking each others' heads. And it is to be believed that many die of their wounds, yet the Egyptians affirm that no man so dieth.

Let so much then be said about the Egyptians and their customs and manner of life, and the gods whom they worship.