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Laura Woolsey Lord Scales

Meryt and the Eye of Horus

The Egyptian Builder

E ARLY in the morning Meryt-Nefer was at work. When the sun rose over the desert and touched the sands with colors of rose and pearl and lighted up the river with flashes of gold, his slaves were already at work, obedient to his commands. And Meryt was working at the command of the great Pharaoh. Far up its course above the first cataract, he was widening the channel of the Nile so that the ships of the king might pass through to go to conquer the Nubians at the South. But the sun had scarcely risen, when running through the midst of the slaves there came a messenger, breathless, his tongue parched with thirst, and carrying in his hand a faded lotus flower. "A token, Lord Meryt," he said, holding it toward him, "a token and a true message. So it was said to me in these very words, 'Say to my Lord Meryt—The perfect flower of joy has budded.' "



To the others about them it was a strange message, but Meryt lifted his eyes on high to give thanks to the great Sun-god, Re. For by this he knew that there had been born to him a child who would sit in his chair when he was gone, a son who would cause his name to live. Happiness filled his heart. Yet even to see his son he might not leave the work of the Pharaoh. But he knew that his wife with the child in her arms would climb, each evening, to the roof of his house and looking far to the South would send him a message and a promise that she would take care of his son until he came.

Meryt, the boy, was named for his father. Childhood went swift and sweet for him, for his mother carried him tenderly on her neck, and as soon as he was old enough to enjoy them gave him wonderful dolls and toys, a good little man who would jump, and a crocodile with a movable jaw, and for a playmate a dwarf who watched over him. And at evening it was his great delight to go to the housetop and watch the cattle come home from their pastures in the marshes. It was a pretty sight in the sunset glow. From all over the land little processions of cattle could be seen winding across the desert—pure white cows and frisking calves, and here and there a little child at their head to lead them. Though he was scarcely more than a baby, Meryt begged to go and march at the head of his father's herd, each one of which he knew by name. And at last a day came when his mother gave him to the herdsman and let him go. Proudly he walked before the lowing cattle, listening to hear if perhaps his cows, like those in the stories he had heard, would talk to him and say: "Pleasant it is to follow behind thee."



Proudly the little fellow marched in, and as he came to the steps of his house someone was waiting for him there,—a stranger. His mother ran to him, caught him and brought him in, for this was his father come at last to see his son. From about his neck his father took an amulet, a charm in the shape of an eye,—the familiar symbol of good luck, the eye of Horus,—and this he fastened about the little Meryt's neck, saying, "So like the good god Horus shalt thou cause thy father's name to live." For, like every Egyptian, the dearest desire of Meryt-Nefer's heart was to have a son who should carry on his name and care for his tomb when he was gone. From that time on the boy always wore his amulet as a charm against evil and a promise of devotion to his father.



The Sacred Eye was one of the symbols of good luck. The story shows its connection with the god Horus. Here four eyes are grouped together

The months went on, and there came a day when his mother looked sad, but his father said to him: "Today is a lucky day, for this is the day that the good Horus made peace with the evil Set, so today shalt thou go to the house of books to begin thine instruction. For nothing is so precious as learning. Now shalt thou set to work to learn the profession of the scribe, for so shalt thou be a leader of men." He took the young Meryt to the school, even to the school at the court of the Pharaoh. There, with the young princes and sons of other nobles, he was taught good manners and to read the writings of his people and to learn to write. Early in the morning he began his work at the school, and his mother came daily, bringing bread for him from her house. Pens of reeds were given him, and a copy book of papyrus made from the pith of the reeds, and he applied himself diligently to learn the difficult letters, for he had heard often enough his schoolmaster's proverb: "The youth has a back, he attends when it is beaten." So he worked hard at his writing, copying the sayings of the wise men; and from them as well as from his masters he learned how a boy should behave—how to eat at table, how to rise in the presence of his elders, and how to guard his tongue lest he speak too much. But once lessons were over for the day, he and Khety and Bagt and the others went out with shouts of joy to play ball or to wrestle or to row up and down the Nile in their boats.

At length the time came when he could write well enough to be given his masterpiece of copying, a long exercise to be written down in a careful hand on a clean copy roll, fit to be put in his tomb with him when he died. The exercise the master gave him was one both familiar and dear to him. It was the old, old story of his people about the god Osiris. Though he had read it in the papyrus rolls and had once seen it acted by the priests in a wonderful drama at Abydos, he was glad now to learn it better still by copying it in his roll. This was the legend which he wrote:

The Earth-god and the Heaven-goddess had two sons, Set and Osiris, and Set married Nephthys and Osiris married Isis. Osiris was just and kind. But Set was evil and planned a trick against his brother. For he had a beautiful chest made, and though he knew that it had been made to the exact measure of Osiris, he pretended to offer it to whoever would fit it best when lying inside it. Many lay down in the chest, hoping to get it for themselves, but when Osiris stretched himself within it, of course it fitted him perfectly. Set was ready for him. Quickly he nailed down a cover upon the chest, sealed it with hot lead, and floated it out upon the river, and then the river carried it out to sea.



Osiris is seated on the throne, and behind him is Horus, shown as the hawk-headed god. The king is making an offering before them, pouring out water from three vases

Isis went to the marshes mourning her husband, and there she stayed until her son Horus was born. But as soon as he was old enough she left him, and with the help of the god Anubis went near and far searching for the body of her husband. At last she found the chest, though it was in the midst of a great tree which had grown up around it. But she freed it and brought it home, where she wept and prayed over her husband's body, though she kept the chest carefully hidden. But again the evil Set, while hunting by moonlight, came and stole it away; and Anubis once more had to help Isis, until together they recovered the body and cared for it. From that time on, Osiris's spirit could rest in peace, since it had a sure dwelling place in the life after death.

Meantime Isis had brought up her son Horus to honor his father's name and live for the day when he could avenge him on the evil Set. And that came at length. Horus, a, young man grown, pursued Set and fought with him, and though the struggle was long and hard, and though in the course of it Horus himself lost an eye, in the end he conquered Set and made glorious his father's name. Then Osiris became King of the dead, while Horus was King on earth. And so from that day the eye of Horus had been to all the sign of good fortune and of devotion and of the protection of the god.

Meryt, even as he wrote the words, reached up to the amulet which always hung about his neck—the eye of Horus—and he heard again his father's words, "So shalt thou too make thy father's name to live."

On the very day when his copying was done and the last letters were scarcely dry on his papyrus, word came to him that he was to dress himself in a clean linen skirt and go to join his father in the court of the Pharaoh's palace. That was a summons to fire his heart, for young Meryt had as yet never seen the Pharaoh, and it was long since he had seen his father. For his father had been at the North working on the great project of the Pharaoh to drain the marshes of the Fayum and turn them into a lake with fertile lands around it. So he had been long from home. Now Meryt, trembling with excitement, approached his father, who greeted him eagerly: "Is all well with thee, my son? Hast thou honored and obeyed thy mother? But now, come with me, for today great honor is ours, even to ascend to the Pharaoh."



This is a woden status about 4000 years old. (Photograph furnished by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Then into the great hall of pillars, into the council room of the palace, Meryt was led with his father. The air was sweet with perfumes, the sound of softly trickling waters met their ears, and their eyes were dazzled at first by the splendor in this hall of pale gold. But as they looked longer they could see, besides the gold glistening from stools or couches, rich hangings of bright colors and glazed tiles of fine blue, and above on the ceiling a painted sky of blue set with golden stars. And at the far end of the hall they saw the Pharaoh beneath a gayly colored canopy, seated on a splendid throne of gold, his royal staff in his hand, the crown upon his head and around him fan-bearers and throngs of courtiers. The two Meryts bowed low before him with both hands on the ground in honor of the king, while Meryt the father greeted him with a hymn of praise. The Pharaoh spoke, addressing the father, "The lad is comely; good things the scribes say of him in the house of books"; and to young Meryt he said: "Be worthy of thy father. Make his name to live. So shall it be well with thee forever." Then the two went out.

That day was the beginning of much happiness for Meryt, for now for a time he was released from school to go with his father to learn to hunt with the throw stick in the marshes and to see the great work of irrigation that he was conducting at the Fayum. Never had he been so long with his father, and he learned from him many things. He saw how upright and true he was, so that he was honored of all, and Meryt too learned to love and reverence him more than ever before. His days went by in great contentment and all too fast.

For the time came when once again he must return to the school to go on with the education of a scribe,—to learn the sciences, the study of the stars and of the seasons and many sorts of magic. But his studies were not to go on for long. Something happened which overturned all plans. It was on the day when he and Bagt, his chief comrade at school, anxious for some excitement, were about to try out a kind of magic on their schoolfellow Khety. For Khety, they pretended, was in an evil mood and doubtless under the power of a demon. So according to a recipe they had heard, they had taken a scarab beetle, cut off his head and his wings, boiled these and laid them in oil, and the body of the beetle they had boiled and put in snake fat, and then they mixed the two together. That done, they were about to catch hold of Khety to pour the drink down his throat. But Khety never had to defend himself against their mischief. Before they had begun, a messenger appeared with his clothes torn and his face smeared with dust and sweat. Everything about him proclaimed bad news even before his words announced it: "Evil is the day. Now is the light of the sun darkened never to shine again." It was so that Meryt learned that his father was gone, had disappeared from his post in the Fayum, no one knew how. But foul play was suspected. For on the same day with his going an overseer and two Libyans who had been making trouble among the slaves in the camp had also disappeared, having gone presumably with a caravan bound for the North.

What should Meryt do? That the Pharaoh himself would send men to look for his father he felt sure, but he could not stay quietly at the school. He was now almost a man, who should himself do things, and, too, he wore about his neck the charm that was to him all but a promise to his father to care for his name. Useless though it might be, he must go to the Fayum, and if necessary follow in the steps of the caravan,—do something himself to learn his father's fate. He went down the river by boat, but when he came to the Fayum no news was to be had. No one could tell him anything except that perhaps somewhere in the North the caravan might be overtaken, and that only from the men of the caravan, if at all, could he learn any news. So staff in hand he set out with a small party that were leaving the camp for the North. Though he knew it was foolish and though all tried to dissuade him, he had to go.

But, at best, journeying across the desert is painful work, and Meryt, with fear eating always at his heart, grew more and more discouraged the farther he went on. And at last an evening came when his companions had to return to their work, and he must bid them good-by. Though he did not know what to do, he could not bring himself to turn back. Left alone, he sat down under a palm tree near a little village in the desert, and, lonely and discouraged, he buried his head in his hands. At that moment he felt more like a boy than a man, and the tears began to trickle down between his fingers. A woman's voice roused him, speaking kindly, "What bird of evil omen feeds upon thy heart, my son?"

"Alas!" Meryt groaned, without looking up, "if I could but find the one who would unriddle my secret!"

"Know you not Hordedef, whose dwelling is a tomb in the shadow of the great pyramids built by the kings of old? He knows all things."

Then Meryt started up and questioned her eagerly, and once more with hope in his heart set out to reach the pyramids and find Hordedef.

It was just at sunset that he came in view of the pyramids. Awe and wonder thrilled him at the sight. Those great works of the past of his people, of the mighty kings of old of whom he had so often heard, were before him. Tremendous and marvelously beautiful they seemed in this light. They towered above the desert, and the last rays of the sun still gleamed bright on their limestone sides, while, beneath, the purple and rose sands of the desert were fading into darkness. For a moment Meryt forgot himself and his errand in his wonder. But with the setting of the sun the wind changed, and even before he could reach the pyramids he was caught in whirls of sand that choked him. The desert in a sandstorm was no place for a man alone. He knew that. But where to find shelter was another matter, for, if there were houses or persons within reach, in that whirling darkness he could see nothing.

Putting his face in his hand, he turned his back to the wind and ran. He ran and stumbled, not knowing where he was going or what he ought to do. It was a desperate flight. Then he ran hard into something, and was at first almost unconscious from the blow. But he pulled himself together and found that he was close against a low stone wall. Feeling along with his hand he discovered an opening, and, though it was small, he got down on all fours and crawled in. Here at least was shelter from the storm. For he had blundered upon a partly buried tomb of a nobleman of earlier times which had been broken into and opened up by robbers seeking gold. Now for Meryt the open tomb meant safety and escape from death. Here he stayed. Coughing and choking he crouched down, but a vague fear of something on beyond kept him near the entrance.

It was not long before he heard sounds coming nearer, and his heart began to beat hard, caught between two fears—the fear of the unknown men and of the tomb beyond him. But he crawled back a little farther and kept still. Then, outlined against the sky at the entrance of the tomb, he saw three men, their faces buried in their hands, evidently driven like himself to seek shelter from the storm. In the dark Meryt could not be seen, and he made no sound. And in a few moments the men, who came and seated themselves within reach of his arm, began to talk. At first he had difficulty in understanding them, for two of them were evidently Libyans speaking the Egyptian tongue with difficulty. Soon he was holding back his breath in his body while he listened with all his might. For these men were outlining a plot against the Pharaoh. Before the king could hear of it, they said, there was to be an uprising among bands of discontented slaves in the North aided by Libyans. Meryt, in spite of himself, shuddered.

"Hush!" one of the men said instantly, "was it a sound? Speak softly."

Another laughed—"And what sound here, unless old Khufu or Men-Kaura turning in his tomb?"

"Aye," said the first, "yet when we talked by the watercourses at the Fayum, remember how Meryt-Nefer overheard us."

"Aye, aye," the second man made answer, "and remember how Meryt ended his days. Never will his Ka enjoy a secure dwelling place in Meryt's body, nor will he build a tomb to prolong his name."

Then young Meryt had need of all his self-control, for anger and fear almost undid him. But some instinct saved him. He must keep still and listen and know all they had to say, until with the morning the chance would come to spread the alarm and work his own revenge. So all through the long night he held himself still, never stirring or sleeping. After some dispute as to what were the lucky days for starting such an enterprise, the men slept. But before it was really light they were out and moving off across the desert. Meryt, as soon as he dared, started to follow after them, but just at the opening of the tomb something bright caught his eye. It was a gold bracelet belonging to one of the men. Picking it up, he hurried on to make his way to Hordedef.

In a moment he stopped, held by a wonderful sight. Rising majestic from out of its bed of sand was the Great Sphinx, its face aglow as it looked toward the rising sun. To Meryt it seemed sublime. It seemed as if it were a god, and as if this great being were there in answer to his need, and he fell down on his face before it in worship. But only a moment was he there, when a sound startled him, and beside him, he saw an old, old man with shaved head and a long skirt like a priest's. "What do you here, my son?" the old man asked.

"I seek one Hordedef, who knows all things."

"Aye, aye," another voice made answer before the old man could speak, and, as if rising out of the ground, three men came from the other side of the Sphinx. Meryt's face turned white and his hand went to the dagger in his belt. They were his three men. But no one noticed him, for the old man was saying: "And Hordedef is here. I am he." One of the men quickly replied by asking him which were the lucky days, which one the best for beginning an affair of importance. But even as he spoke, another of the men noticed the bracelet in Meryt's hand.

"Whence had you this?" he cried, and swooped upon the boy.

"Murders!" cried Meryt, reckless in his anger. "Slayers of my father! There in the tomb I had it, where you made your plot against the Pharaoh and told how you had killed my father."



This wooden boat in miniature is like the large boats used on the Nile 4000 years ago, which had both oars and sails. (Photograph furnished by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

With one accord the three men, forgetting Hordedef, rushed upon Meryt, each with his dagger in hand, but Hordedef stepped between and by a gesture held them off. Deliberately raising his arms to the sky, he muttered strange words, words of magic, and the men, as if already spellbound, stopped in their tracks. So for a moment the old man stood with his hands to the sky, and then dropped them toward the men, as if actually placing upon their heads the curse he was calling down on them. "Go," he commanded in low, vibrant tones; "the curse of Set be on you. I see the boy speaks the truth. Go! and he that goes by the river, him shall the crocodile eat, and he that goes by the desert, the vulture shall feed upon his bones, and whoever escapes these two, him shall a worse fate overtake." Before he had finished, the men had fled, covering their heads with their hands, as if so they could keep off the magician's curses.



Such tombs as this, cut out of solid rock, were built in Egypt 4000 years ago. (From Breasted, "Ancient Times")

Then Meryt told Hordedef all, and together they went by boat up the river, warning the king's officers on the way, until at last they came to the city of the Pharaoh. Hordedef, the magician, was always welcome at the court of the king, and he brought Meryt to the king to tell his own story. And though the Pharaoh wanted to give him a rich reward, the only thing Meryt would have was permission to go with the fighting men to punish the rebels and to avenge his father. So armed with bow and arrows he went with the others, and though he was no soldier, he took part in the fight and did bravely. Because he was no soldier, things went hard with him, and he was wounded in the leg. But he was brought back to the court, and the Pharaoh had him cared for by his own physicians so that Meryt recovered, though always after that he went lame. The king honored him, putting a beautiful necklace about his neck and giving him in marriage one of the princesses of the court. And he sent him to be under his chief builder, so that Meryt might learn to construct tombs and temples, until in time he became builder to the king. Yet before he gave himself over to the Pharaoh's work, Meryt begged one favor—that the king would allow him to make first a tomb for his father and a statue to be placed in it. And not only did the Pharaoh give him permission but treasure too to aid him in the work. And Meryt hewed out a rock tomb and set up pillars before it, and inside he put a statue of granite made in his father's likeness. So the spirit of his father had at last a tomb to rest in, and at the festivals Meryt brought him offerings of food. And through all his life he honored his father's memory and caused his name to live.