Peeps at Ancient Egypt - Jamse Baikie

An Egyptian's Heaven

In this chapter I want to tell you a little about what the Egyptians thought of heaven—what it was, where it was, how people got there after death, and what kind of a life they lived when they were there. They had some very quaint and curious ideas about the heavens themselves. They believed, for instance, that the blue sky overhead was something like a great iron plate spread over the world, and supported at the four corners, north, south, east, and west, by high mountains. The stars were like little lamps, which hung down from this plate. Right round the world ran a great celestial river, and on this river the sun sailed day after day in his bark, giving light to the world. You could only see him as he passed round from the east by the south to the west, for after that the river ran behind high mountains, and the sun passed out of sight to sail through the world of darkness.

Behind the sun, and appearing after he had vanished, came the moon, sailing in its own bark. It was protected by two guardian eyes, which watched always over it, and it needed the protection, for every month it was attacked by a great enemy in the form of a sow. For a fortnight the moon sailed on safely, and grew fuller and rounder; but at the middle of the month, just when it was full, the sow attacked it, tore it out of its place, and flung it into the celestial river, where for another fortnight it was gradually extinguished, to be revived again at the beginning of the next month. That was the Egyptians' curious way of accounting for the waxing and waning of the moon, and many of their other ideas were just as quaint as this.



I do not mean to say anything of what they believed about God, for they had so many gods, and believed such strange things about them, that it would only confuse you if I tried to make you understand it all. But the most important thing in all the Egyptian religion was the belief in heaven, and in the life which people lived there after their life on earth was ended. No other nation of these old times ever believed so firmly as did the Egyptians that men were immortal, and did not cease to be when they died, but only began a new life, which might be either happy or miserable, according to the way in which they had lived on earth.

They had a lot of different beliefs about the life after death, some of them rather confusing, and difficult to understand; but I shall tell you only the main things and the simplest things which they believed. They said, then, that very long ago, when the world was young, there was a great and good King called Osiris, who reigned over Egypt, and was very good to his subjects, teaching them all kinds of useful knowledge. But Osiris had a wicked brother named Set, who hated him, and was jealous of him. One day Set invited Osiris to a supper, at which he had gathered a number of his friends who were in the plot with him. When they were all feasting gaily, he produced a beautiful chest, and offered to give it to the man who fitted it. One after another they lay down in the chest, but it fitted none of them. Then at last Osiris lay down in it, and as soon as he was inside, his wicked brother and the other plotters fastened the lid down upon him, and threw the chest into the Nile. It was carried away by the river, and at last was washed ashore, with the dead body of the good King still in it.

But Isis, wife of Osiris, sought for her husband everywhere, and at last she found the chest with his body. While she was weeping over it the wicked Set came upon her, tore his brother's body to pieces, and scattered the fragments far and wide; but the faithful Isis traced them all, and buried them wherever she found them.

Now, Isis had a son named Horus, and when he grew to manhood he challenged Set, fought with him, and defeated him. Then the gods all assembled, and gave judgment that Osiris was in the right, and Set in the wrong. They raised Osiris up from the dead, made him a god, and appointed him to be judge of all men after death. And then, not all at once, but gradually, the Egyptians came to believe that because Osiris died, and rose again from the dead, and lived for ever after death, therefore all those men who believed in Osiris would live again after death, and dwell for ever with Osiris. You see that in some respects the story is strangely like that of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Well, then, they supposed that, when a man died on earth, after his body was mummified and laid in its tomb, his soul went on to the gates of the palace of Osiris in the other world, where was the Hall of Truth, in which souls were judged. The soul had to know the magic names of the gates before it could even enter the Hall; but as soon as these names were spoken the gates opened, and the soul went in. Within the Hall there stood a great pair of scales, and beside the scales stood a god, ready to mark down the result of the judgment; while all round the Hall sat forty-two terrible creatures, who had authority to punish particular sins.

The soul had to make confession to these avengers of sin that he had not been guilty of the sins which they had power to punish; then, when he had made his confession, his heart was taken, and weighed in the scales against a feather, which was the Egyptian sign for truth. If it was not of the right weight, the man was false, and his heart was thrown to a dreadful monster, part crocodile, part hippopotamus, which sat behind the balances, and devoured the hearts of the unjust; but if it was right, then Horus, the son of Osiris, took the man by the hand, and led him into the presence of Osiris the Judge, and he was pronounced just, and admitted to heaven.

But what was heaven? Well, the Egyptians had several different ideas about it. One rather pretty one was that the souls which were pronounced just were taken up into the sky, and there became stars, shining down for ever upon the world. Another was that they were permitted to enter the boat, in which, as I told you, the sun sails round the world day by day, and to keep company with the sun on his unending voyage.

But the idea that most believed in and loved was that somewhere away in a mysterious land to the west, there lay a wonderful and beautiful country, called the Field of Bulrushes. There the corn grew three and a half yards high, and the ears of corn were a yard long. Through the fields ran lovely canals, full of fish, and bordered with reeds and bulrushes. When the soul had passed the Judgment Hall, it came, by strange, hard roads, and through great dangers, to this beautiful country. And there the dead man, dead now no more, but living for ever, spent his time in endless peace and happiness, sowing and reaping, paddling in his canoe along the canals, or resting and playing draughts in the evening under the sycamore-trees.

Now, I suppose that all this seemed quite a happy sort of heaven to most of the common people, who had been accustomed all their days to hard work and harder fare; but by-and-by the great nobles came to think that a heaven of this sort was not quite good enough for them. They had never done any work on earth; why should they have to do any in heaven? So they thought that they would find out a way of taking their slaves with them into the other world. I fancy that at first they actually tried to take them by killing the slaves at their master's grave. When the funeral of a great man took place, some of his servants would be killed beside the tomb, so that they might go with their lord into heaven, and work for him there, as they had worked for him on earth.

But the Egyptians were always a gentle, kind-hearted people, and they quickly grew disgusted with the idea of such cruelty, so they found another way out of the difficulty. They got numbers of little clay figures made in the form of servants—one with a hoe on his shoulder, another with a basket in his hand, and so on. They called these little figures "Answerers," and when a man was buried, they buried a lot of these clay servants along with him, so that, when he reached heaven, and was summoned to do work in the Field of Bulrushes, the Answerers would rise up and answer for him, and take the task off his shoulders.

So, along with the mummies of the dead Egyptians, there is often found quite a number of these tiny figures, all ready to make heaven easy for their master when he gets there. They have sometimes a little verse written upon them, to tell the Answerer what he has got to do in the other world. It runs like this:

"Oh, thou Answerer, when I am called, and when I am asked to do any kind of work that is done in heaven, and am required at any time to cause the field to flourish, or to convey the sand from east to west, thou shalt say, 'Here am I.'"

It all seems rather a curious idea of heaven, does it not? And most curious of all is the idea of dodging work in the other world by carrying a bundle of china dolls to heaven with you. But, even if we think that very ridiculous, we need not forget that the Egyptians had a wonderfully clear and sure grasp of the fact that it is a man's character in this world which will make him either happy or unhappy in the next, and that evil-doing, even if it escapes punishment in this life, is a thing that God will surely punish at last.

Remember that these men of old, wonderfully wise and strong as they were in many ways, were still the children of the time when the world was young; like children, forming many false and even ridiculous ideas about things they could not understand; like children, too, reaching out their groping hands through the darkness to a Father whose love they felt, though they could not explain His ways. We need not wonder if at times they made mistakes, and went far astray. We may wonder far more at the way in which He taught them so many true and noble things and thoughts, never leaving Himself without a witness even in those days of long ago.