The Unexpected Reactions of a Traveler in Egypt, February 1914

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We have so long been taught that the temples and tombs of ancient Egypt are the very earliest of the surviving records of ideas and men, that we approach them with a certain sense of familiarity, quite ready to claim a share in these "family papers and title deeds of the race." We fancy that to know this first inheritance from the past will make it easier forevermore to adjust the things of the present to the things that have been; to realize "where we are in regard to time," in the words of Emerson.

The traveler in Egypt may also consider it probable that these primitive human records will stir within him certain early states of consciousness, having learned, with the readiness which so quickly attaches itself to the pseudo-scientific phrase, that every child repeats in himself the history of the race. Nevertheless, what I, at least, was totally unprepared to encounter, was the constant revival of primitive and overpowering emotions which I had experienced so long ago that they had become absolutely detached from myself and seemed to belong to some one else--to a small person with whom I was no longer intimate, and who was certainly not in the least responsible for my present convictions and reflections.

When visiting the imposing fragments of rituals and theogonies at Memphis and Thebes, or in the wonderful museum in Cairo, or when reading the fascinating books recently written by historians and archaeologists, it became obvious that the ancient Egyptians had known this small person quite intimately and had most seriously and naively set down upon the walls of their temples and tombs her earliest reactions in the presence of death.

Of course Egypt meant infinitely more than this, and there were days when I experienced no such reactions. On the other hand, often when looking at the spirited portrayal in relief of the conquests of the great Ramses, or at [Akhenaten]'s marvelous attempt to substitute monotheism for the worship of the myriad gods of Egypt, or at the valiant efforts of the first feminist, Queen Hatshepsut, to hold her constantly disputed throne, or at the rich and varied speculations concerning the life after death accumulated through centuries of an hereditary priesthood, my adult intelligence would be unexpectedly submerged by the emotional message which was written underneath it all. Rising to the surface like a flood, this primitive emotion would sweep away both the historic record itself and the adult consciousness interested in it, leaving only a child's mind struggling through an experience which it found overwhelming.

It may have been because these records of the early Egyptians are so endlessly preoccupied with death, portraying man's earliest efforts to defeat [page 2] it, his eager desire to survive, to enter by force or by guile into the heavens of the western sky, that the mind is pushed back into that earliest childhood when the existence of the soul, its exact place of residence in the body, its experiences immediately after death, its journeying upward, its relation to its guardian angel, so often afford material for the crudest speculation. In the obscure renewal of these childish fancies, there is nothing that is definite enough to be called memory; it is rather that Egypt reproduces a state of consciousness which has so absolutely passed into oblivion that only the most powerful stimuli could revive it.

This revival doubtless occurs more easily because these early records in relief and color not only suggest in their subject-matter that a child has been endowed with sufficient self-consciousness to wish to write down his own state of mind upon a wall, but also because the very primitive style of drawing to which the Egyptians adhered long after they had acquired a high degree of artistic freedom, is the most natural technique through which to convey so simple and archaic a message. The squared shoulders of the men, the stairways done in profile, and a hundred other details, constantly remind one of a child's drawings. It is as if they Egyptians had painstakingly portrayed everything that a child has felt in regard to death, and, having during the process gradually discovered the style of drawing naturally employed by a child, had deliberately stiffened it into an unchanging convention. The result is that the traveler, reading in these drawings which stretch the length of three thousand years the long endeavor of the Egyptians to overcome death, finds that the experiences of the two--the child and the primitive people--often become confused, or rather that they are curiously interrelated. 

This begin from the moment that the traveler discovers that the earliest tombs surviving in Egypt, the mastabas, -- which resembled the natural results of a child's first efforts to place one stone upon another, -- are concerned only with size, as if that first crude belief in the power of physical bulk to protect the terrified human being against all shadowy evils were absolutely instinctive and universal. The mastabas gradually develop into the pyramids, of which Breasted says that "they are not only the earliest emergence of organized men and the triumph of concerted effort, they are likewise a silent but eloquent expression of the supreme endeavor to achieve immortality by sheer physical force." Both the mastabas at Sakkara and the pyramids at Gizeh, in the sense of [Tolstoy's] definition of art as that which reproduces in the spectator the state of consciousness of the artist, at once appeal to the child surviving in the traveler, who insists irrationally, after the manner of children, upon sympathizing with the attempt to shut out death by strong walls.

Certainly we can all vaguely remember, when death itself, or stories of ghost, had come to our intimate child's circle, going about saying to ourselves that we were "not afraid," that it "could not come here," that "the door was locked, the windows tight shut," that "this was a big house," and a great deal more talk of a similar sort.

In the presence of these primitive attempts to defeat death, and without the conscious aid of memory, I found myself living over the emotions of a child six years old, saying some such words as I sat on the middle of the stairway in my own home, which yet seemed alien because all the members of the family had gone to the funeral [page 3] of a relative and would not be back until evening, "long after you are in bed," they had said. In this moment of loneliness and terror, I depended absolutely upon the brick walls of the house to keep out the prowling terror, and neither the talk of kindly Polly, who awkwardly and unsuccessfully reduced an unwieldy theology to child-language, nor the strings of paper dolls cut by a visitor, gave me the slightest comfort. Only the blank wall which flanked one side of the stairway seemed to afford protection in this bleak moment against the formless peril.

Doubtless these huge tombs were built to preserve from destruction the royal bodies which were hidden within them at the end of tortuous and carefully concealed passages; but both the gigantic structures in the vicinity of Memphis and the everlasting hills which were later utilized at Thebes inevitably give the traveler the impression that death is defied and shut out by massive defenses.

Even when the traveler sees that the Egyptians defeated their object by the very success of the Gizeh pyramids, -- for when their overwhelming bulk could not be enlarged and their bewildering labyrinths could not be multiplied, effort along that line perforce ceased, -- there is something in the next attempt of the Egyptians to overcome death which the child within us again recognizes as an old experience. The traveler who takes pains to inquire concerning the meaning of the texts which were inscribed on the inner walls of the pyramids and the early tombs find that the familiar terror of death is still there, although expressed somewhat more subtly; that the Egyptians are trying to outwit death by magic tricks.

One who reads in translation hundreds of these texts finds that they are designed to teach the rites that redeem a man from death and insure his continuance of life not only beyond the grave but in the grave itself. 'He who sayeth this chapter and who has been justified in the waters of Natron, he shall come forth the day after his burial.' Because to recite them was to fight successfully against the enemies of the dead, these texts came to be inscribed on tombs, on coffins, and on the papyrus hung around the necks of a mummy. But woe to the man who was buried without the texts: "He who knoweth not this chapter cannot come forth by day." Access to Paradise and all its joys were granted to any one, good or bad, who knew the formulae, for in the first stages of Egyptian civilization, as in all others, the gods did not concern themselves with the conduct of man toward other men, but solely with his duty to the gods themselves.

The value of the magic formulæ could scarcely be overestimated. They alone afforded protection against the shadowy dangers awaiting the dead man when first he entered the next world, and enabled him to overcome the difficulties of his journey. The texts taught him how to impersonate particular gods, and by this subterfuge to overcome the various foes he must encounter, because these foes, having at one time been overcome by the gods, were easily terrified by such pretense.

When I found myself curiously sympathetic with this desire "to pretend," and with the eager emphasis attached by the Egyptians to their magic formulae, I was inclined to put it down to that secret sympathy with magic by means of which all children, in moments of rebellion against a humdrum world, hope to wrest something startling and thrilling out of the environing realm of the supernatural; but beyond a kinship with this desire to placate the evil one, to overcome him by mysterious words, I found it baffling to trace my sympathy [page 4] to a definite experience. Gradually, however, it emerged, blurred in certain details, surprisingly alive in others, but all of it suffused with the selfsame emotions which impelled the Egyptian to write his Book of the Dead.

To describe it as a spiritual struggle is to use much too dignified and definite a term: it was the prolonged emotional stress throughout one cold winter when revival services -- protracted meetings they were called -- were held in the village church night after night. I was, of course, not permitted to attend them, but I heard them talked about a great deal by simple adults and children who told of those who shouted aloud for joy or lay on the floor 'stiff with power' because they were saved; and of others -- it was for those others that my heart was wrung with sympathetic understanding -- who, although they wrestled with the spirit until midnight and cried out that they felt the hot breath of hell upon their cheeks, could not find salvation. Would it do to pretend? I anxiously asked myself; why didn't they say the right words so that they could get up from the mourners' bench and sit with the others people, who must feel so sorry for them that they would let them pretend? What were these words that made such a difference that to say them was an assurance of heavenly bliss, but if you failed to say them you burned in hell forever and ever? Was the preacher the only one who knew them for sure? Was it possible to find them without first kneeling at the mourners' bench and groaning? These words must certainly be in the Bible somewhere, and if one read it out loud all through, every word, one must surely say the right words in time; but if one died before one was grown up enough to read the Bible through, -- [tonight] for instance, -- what would happen then? Surely nothing else could be so important as these words of salvation. While I did not exactly scheme to secure them, I was certainly restrained only by my impotence, and I anxiously inquired from every one what these magic words might be; and only gradually did this childish search for magic protection from the terrors after death imperceptibly merge into a concern for the fate of the soul.

Perhaps because it is so impossible to classify one's own childish experiences or to put them into chronological order, the traveler at no times feels a lack of consistency in the complicated attitude toward death which is portrayed on the walls of the Egyptian temples and tombs. Much of it seems curiously familiar; from the earliest times the Egyptian held the belief that there is in man a permanent element which survives--it is the double, the Ka, the natural soul in contradistinction to the spiritual soul, which fits exactly into the shape of the body but is not blended with it. In order to save this double from destruction, the body must be preserved in a recognizable form.

This insistence upon the preservation of the body among the Egyptians, antedating their faith in magic formulae, clearly had its origin, as in the case of the child, in a desperate revolt against the destruction of the visible man.

Owing to this continued insistence upon corporeal survival, the Egyptians at length carried the art of embalming to such a state of perfection that mummies of royal personages are easily recognized from their likenesses to portrait statues. Such confidence did they have in their own increasing ability to withhold the human frame from destruction that many of these texts inscribed on the walls of tombs assure the very dead man himself that he is not dead, and endeavor to [page 5] convince his survivors against the testimony of their own senses; or rather, they attempt to deceive the senses. The texts endlessly repeat the same assertion, "Thou comest not dead to thy sepulcher, thou comest living"; and yet the very reiteration as well as the decorations upon the walls of every tomb portray a primitive terror lest after all the body be destroyed and the element of life be lost forever. One's throat goes dry over this old fear of death expressed by men who have been so long dead that there is no record of them but this, no surviving document of their once keen reactions to life. 

Doubtless the Egyptians in time overcame this primitive fear concerning the disappearance of the body, as we all do, although each individual is destined to the devastating experience. The memory of mine came back to me vividly as I stood in an Egyptian tomb: I was a tiny child, making pothooks in the village school, when one day, -- it must have been in the full flush of spring, for I remember the crab-apple blossoms, -- during the afternoon session, the A B C class was told that its members would march all together to the burial of the mother of one of the littlest girls. Or course, I had been properly taught that people went to heaven when they died and that their bodies were buried in the cemetery, but I was not at all clear about it, and I was certainly totally unprepared to see what appeared to be the very person herself put deep down into the ground. The knowledge came to me so suddenly and brutally that for weeks afterwards the days were heavy with a nameless oppression and the nights were filled with horror.

The cemetery was hard by the schoolhouse, placed there, it had always been whispered among us, to make the bad boys afraid. Thither the A B C class, in awestruck procession, each child carefully holding the hand of another, was led by the teacher to the very edge of the open grave and bidden to look on the still face of the little girl's mother.

Our poor knees quaked and quavered as we stood shelterless and unattended by family protection or even by friendly grown-ups; for the one tall teacher, while clearly visible, seemed inexpressibly far away as we kept an uncertain footing on the freshly spaded earth, hearing the preacher's voice, the sobs of the motherless children, and, crowning horror of all, the hollow sounds of three clods of earth dropped impressively upon the coffin lid.

After endless ages the service was over, and we were allowed to go down the long hill into the familiar life of the village. But a new terror awaited us even there, for our houses stood at the extreme end of the street and the last of the way home was therefore solitary. I remember a breathless run from the blacksmith shop, past the length of our lonely orchard, until the carriage-house came in sight, through whose wide-open doors I could see a man moving about. One last panting effort brought me there, and after my spirit had been slightly reassured by conversation, I took a circuitous route to the house, that I might secure as much companionship as possible on the way. I stopped at the stable to pat an old horse who stood munching in his stall, and again to throw a handful of corn into the poultry yard. The big turkey gobbler who came greedily forward gave me a great comfort because he was so absurd and awkward that no one could possibly associate him with anything so solemn as death. I went into the kitchen where the presiding genius allowed me to come without protest, although the family dog was at my heels. I felt constrained to keep my arms about his shaggy neck while trying [page 6] to talk of familiar things--would the cake she was making be baked in the little round tins or in the big square one? But although these idle words were on my lips I wanted to cry out that "their mother was dead, whatever, whatever would the children do?" These words, which I had overheard as we came away from the graveyard, referred doubtless to the immediate future of the little family, but in my mind were translated into a demand for definite action on the part of the children against this horrible thing which had befallen their mother.

It was with no sense of surprise that I found this long-forgotten experience spread before my eyes on the walls of a tomb built four thousand years ago into a sandy hill the Nile at Assuan. The man so long dead, who had prepared the tomb for himself, carefully ignored the grimness of death. He is portrayed as going about his affairs surrounded by his family, his friends and his servants: grain in being measured before him into his warehouse while a scribe by his side registers the amount; the herdsmen lead forth cattle for his inspection; two of them, enraged bulls, paying no attention to the somber implication of tomb-decoration, lower their huge heads, threatening each other as if there were no such thing as death in the world. Indeed, the builder of the tomb seems to have liked the company of animals, perhaps because they were so incurious concerning death. His dogs are around him, he stands erect in a boat from which he spears fish, and so on from one marvelous relief to another, but all the time your heart contracts for him, and you know that in the midst of this elaborately prepared nonchalance he is miserably terrified by the fate which may be in store for him, and is trying to make himself believe that he needs not leave all this wonted and homely activity; that if his body is but properly preserved he will be able to enjoy it forever.

Although the Egyptians, in their natural desire to cling to the familiar during the strange experience of death, portrayed upon the walls of their tombs many domestic and social habits whose likeness to our own household life gives us that quick satisfaction with which a traveler encounters the familiar and wonted in a strange land, such a momentary thrill is quite unlike the abiding sense of kinship which is founded upon the unexpected similarity of ideas, and it is the latter which the traveler encounters in the tombs of the eighteenth-century dynasty. The paintings portray a great hall, at the end of which sits Osiris, the god who himself had suffered death on earth, awaiting those who come before him for judgment. In the [center] of the hall stands a huge balance in which the hearts of men are weighed, once more reminiscent of the childish conception, making clear that as the Egyptians became more anxious and scrupulous they gradually made the destiny of man dependent upon morality, and finally directed the souls of men to heaven or hell according to their merits.

Whether or not the tremendous result of good and evil in the earliest awakening to them were first placed in the next world by a primitive people sore perplexed as to the partialities and injustices of life, this simple view is doubtless the one the child naturally takes. In Egypt I was so vividly recalled to my first apprehension of it that the contention that the very belief in immortality is but the postulate of the idea of conscience and retribution, seemed to me at the moment a perfectly reasonable one.

The incident of my childhood around which it had formulated itself [page 7] was very simple. I had been sent with a message -- an important commission it seemed to me -- to the leader of the church choir: that the hymn selected for the doctor's funeral was "How blest the righteous when he dies." The village street was so strangely quite under the summer sun that even the little particles of dust beating in the hot air were more noiseless than ever before. Frightened by the noonday stillness and instinctively seeking companionship, I hurried toward two women who were standing at a gate talking in low tones. In their absorption they paid no attention to my somewhat wistful greeting, but I heard one of them say with a dubious shake of the head that "he had never openly professed nor joined the church," and in a moment I understood that she thought the doctor might not go to heaven. What else did it mean, that half-threatening tone? Of course the doctor was good, as good as any one could be. Only a few weeks before he had given me a new penny when he pulled my tooth, and once I heard his buggy pass by in the middle of the night when he took a beautiful baby to the miller's house; he drove to the farms miles and miles away when people were sick, and everybody sent for him the minute they were in trouble. How could any one be better than that?

In defiant contrast to the whispering women, there arose in my mind composed doubtless of various "Bible illustrations," the picture of an imposing white-robed judge seated upon a golden throne, who listened gravely to all these good deeds as they were read by the recording angel from his great book, and then sent the doctor straight to heaven.

I dimly felt the challenge of the fine old hymn in its claim of blessings for the righteous, and was defiantly read at the moment to combat the theology of the entire community. Of my own claim to heaven I was most dubious, and I simply could not bring myself to contemplate the day when my black sins should be read aloud form the big book; but fortunately the claim of reward in the next world for well-doing in this thus came to me first in regard to one of whose righteousness I was quite certain, and whom I was eager to champion before all the world and even before the judges in the world to come.

This state of mind, this mood of truculent discussion, was recalled by the wall paintings in the tomb of a nobleman in the Theban hills. In an agonized posture he awaits the outcome of his trail before Osiris. Thoth, the true scribe, records on the wall the just balance between the heart of the noblemen, which is in one pan of the scale, and the feather of truth which is in the other. The noble appeals to his heart which has thus been separated from him, to stand by him during the weighing and not to bear testimony against him. "Oh, my heart of my existence, rise not up against me; be not an enemy against me before the divine powers; thou art my ka that is in my body, the heart that came to me from my mother." The noble even tires to bribe by reminding the ka that his own chance of survival is dependent on his testimony at this moment. The entire effort on the part of the man being tried is to still the voice of his own conscience, to maintain stoutly his innocence even to himself.

The attitude of the self-justifying noble might easily have suggested those later childish struggles in which a sense of hidden guilt, of repeated failures in 'being good,' plays so large a part, and humbles a child to the very dust. That the definite reminiscence that the tomb evoked belonged to an earlier period of rebellion may indicate [page 8] that the Egyptian had not yet learned to confess his sins, and certainly did not commune with his gods for spiritual refreshment.

Whether it is that the long days and magical nights on the Nile lend themselves to a revival of former states of consciousness, or that I had come to expect landmarks of individual development in Egypt, or, more likely still, that I had fallen into the temptation of proving a theory at all hazards, I am unable to state; but certainly, as the Nile boat approached nearer to him "who sleeps in Philae," something of the Egyptian feelings for Osiris, the god to whom was attributed the romance of a hero and the character of a benefactor and redeemer, came to me through long-forgotten sensations. Typifying the annual "great affliction," Osiris, who had submitted himself to death, returned each spring when the wheat and barley sprouted, bringing not only a promise of bread for the body but healing comfort for the torn mind; an intimation that death itself is beneficent and may be calmly accepted as a necessary part of an ordered universe.

Day after day the traveler, seeing the rebirth of the newly planted fields on the banks of the Nile, touched by a fresh sense of the enduring miracle of spring with its inevitable analogy to the vicissitudes of human experience, comprehends how the pathetic legends of Osiris, by providing the Egyptian with an example for his own destiny, not only opened the way for a new meaning in life, but also gradually vanquished the terrors of death.

Again there came a fain memory of a child's first apprehension that there may be poetry out of doors, of the discovery that myths have a foundation in natural phenomena, and at last a more definite reminiscence.

I saw myself a child of twelve, standing stock-still on the bank of a broad flowing river, with a little red house surrounded by low-growing willows on its opposite bank, striving to account to myself for a curious sense of familiarity, for a conviction that I had long ago know it all most intimately although I had certainly never seen the Mississippi River before. I remember that, much puzzled and mystified, at last I gravely concluded that it was one of these intimations of immortality that Wordsworth had written about, and I went back to my cousin's camp in so exalted a frame of mind that the memory of the evening light shining through the blades of young corn growing in a field passed on the way, has remained with me for forty years.

Was that fugitive sense of "having lived before" nearer to the fresher imaginations of Egyptians as it is nearer to the mind of a child? And did the myth of Osiris make them more willing to die because the myth came to embody a confidence in this transitory sensation of continuous life?

Such ghosts of reminiscences coming to the traveler as he visits one after another of the marvelous human documents on the banks of the Nile may be merely manifestations of that new humanism which is perhaps the most precious possession of this generation, the belief that no altar at which living men have once devoutly worshiped, no oracle to whom a nation long ago appealed in its moments of dire confusion, no gentle myth in which former generations have found solace, can lose all significance for us, the survivors.

Is it due to this same humanism that, in spite of the overweight of the tomb, Egypt never appears to the traveler as world-weary, or as a land of the dead? Although the slender fellaheen whom he sees all day pouring the water of the Nile on their parched fields, [page 9] use the primitive shaduf of their remote ancestors, and the stately women bear upon their heads water-jars of a shape unchanged for three thousand years, modern Egypt refuses to belong to the past and continually makes the passionate living appeal of these hard-pressed in the struggle for bread.

Under the smoking roofs of the primitive clay houses lifted high above the level of the fields, because resting on the ruins of villages which have crumbled there from time immemorial, mothers feed their children, with the old fear that there is not enough for each to have his portion; and the traveler comes to realize with a pang that the villages are built upon the bleak, barren places quite as the dead were always buried in the desert because no black earth could be spared, and that each new harvest, cut with sickles of a curve already ancient when Moses was born, in spite of its quick ripening, is garnered barely in time to save the labored form actual starvation.

Is it through these our living brothers, or through the unexpected reactions to the records of the past, that the traveler detects the growth within of an almost mystical sense of the life common to all the centuries, and of the unceasing human endeavor to penetrate into the unseen world.