Not all parts of Egyptian mythology and/or religion regarded the gods directly. Many of the myths of the ancient Egyptians were tales of morality, of triumph and loss, love and warfare, and it is in this chapter that we will take a closer look at those. Some are somewhat strange to us today, but others have a striking resemblance to stories that we still tell today.
Due to the necessary length of these stories, I am only able to include a very select number of them, but I think these particular tales can give you an idea of the character of the Egyptian thought in a couple of very specific ways.
Let’s begin with the tale of The Prince and the Sphinx. This is the story from “The Dream Stelé” of Thutmose IV, the pharaoh who rediscovered and unburied the great sphinx. This story would be used by Thutmose IV himself as a way to grant a sort of ideological legitimacy to his claim to the throne of Egypt.
Thutmose, a prince of Egypt was born to the pharaoh Amenhotep. He was only one of a number of siblings (and thus, possible heirs,) but he was being groomed to be pharaoh, much to the chagrin of his envious brothers and sisters. As in most stories of this type, the wicked siblings would often try to make Thutmose look bad in front of both his father and the others who might have a say in his ability to lead Egypt. Often these were simple lies, stating that he lacked discretion or balance, that he did not revere the gods enough or properly, but as time went on, the actions of his siblings became more and more drastic, and it was beginning to look like he may not be made pharaoh after all.
Thutmose was a skilled archer and, indeed, quite talented in every way which a young pharaoh-to-be could want to be, but the vitriol of his siblings drove him not only to unhappiness, but to escape the royal palace whenever he could. He would present himself when called upon, but was notorious for absconding at the first opportunity.
One of his greatest loves was to hunt with his bow at the cusp of the desert where he could be alone and ply his skills. As a skilled charioteer, he would chase his game. It is said that his were the fastest horses in the kingdom, and he often used his chariot in his hunting expeditions.
While a festival was being held at the royal palace, Thutmose decided to leave on a hunting trip once more, taking a couple of his servants along with him. They hunted far and long and the desert eventually began to grow too hot to continue. Still restless, Thutmose continued on, finally coming across the enormous stone head of a pharaoh protruding from the sand, buried to the neck. Thutmose finally collapsed from exhaustion and fell asleep beneath this enormous stone figure.
When he awoke, he found himself still under the sphinx, but no longer felt alone. It is then that the sphinx spoke to him. It told him that his heirship would be ensured, if only the young prince would remove the sand covering the rest of its figure. Thutmose was skeptical at first, due to the efficacy of his siblings’ smear campaigns against him, but did as the sphinx had instructed and revealed the body of the lion to which the head of the pharaoh was attached. Upon his return to the royal palace, Thutmose was granted Pharaohship of Egypt.
The original version of the preceding story was found when the sphinx was uncovered, yet again, after having been buried up to the neck in sand. The stelé containing this story was directly between the forepaws of the sphinx itself. This story gives us an idea how mythologies and propaganda were often used by pharaohs to garner public favor and to legitimize their rule and/or their actions.
Next we’ll take a look at one of the much later myths of Egypt, and gives an idea of the changes which were occurring in the land shortly before the Persians conquered the land. This tale was actually originally penned by Herodotus, a Greek, and was likely told to him as he travelled in the land of Egypt. The reason for including a partially Grecian story here is that it gives us an idea of the impact of Greece on Egypt just before the fall of the great pharaohs. There are a few names in here that you may recognize. This particular tale bears quite a resemblance to a more modern fairy tale. Let’s see if you can figure out which one…
A short time before Egypt would be taken by the Persian Empire, there was a pharaoh named Ahmose II. During this time, the threat of the Persians was constantly growing and, in an effort to ward off invasion, Ahmose welcomed trade and immigration from Greece, even going as far as to give them their own city, thus giving Greece a stake in the fate of Egypt.
During this time, the slave trade was big business, and a Grecian, said to be the brother of Sappho, was walking through town. He had been a tradesman for many years and had accumulated a great deal of wealth. His name was Charaxos.
One day, as Charaxos was walking through the marketplace, he noticed a large group gathered and decided to investigate. What he came upon was a slave being sold, obviously a Grecian woman. When Charaxos saw this woman, he was instantly struck by her beauty and decided that he must be the one to buy her.
Being quite well off from his years as a merchant and tradesman, he was able to purchase the woman with ease. Upon collecting his purchase, he inquired as to the woman’s name. She told him that she was called Rhodopis, and that she had become a slave after having been captured by privateers when she was a child. She had been sold to a wealthy man who had many other slaves besides her. In time, she became close friends with a ragged, ugly old slave by the name of Aesop who had told her countless marvelous tales. It is through this old man’s stories that the girl was able to bear the burden of slavery.
By the time she had grown to womanhood, however, her master saw the potential in selling Rhodopis, due to her entrancing beauty.
Charaxos, mesmerized by the young woman’s beauty and broken-hearted to hear of the hardships that she had endured immediately whisked her away. He provided her a home of her own and slaves to attend to her every whim. No expense was spared on the young woman, and she was given a secluded garden containing a pool in which to soothe herself. One of the most precious gifts that the old man bestowed upon this woman, who he saw as a daughter, was a pair of slippers, the color of a red rose.
She lay one day in her pool, bathing herself while her personal slaves attended to her belongings. The sun was beating down heavily, but the young woman couldn’t have been more content as she lazed in the cool waters within her secluded garden.
Just as she had reached the pinnacle of relaxation, a furor was heard coming from the slave girls. An eagle had descended upon them and they ran screaming from the pool, leaving Rhodopis’s clothing and jewelry behind. Rhodopis, hearing the commotion, backed against the edge of her pool as her slaves hid, fearing the eagle was going to attack them.
The eagle, however, wasn’t after the girls.
With a single swoop, it snatched one of the red slippers in its talons and took off again into the sky from whence it came. Rhodopis, having loved the slipper and, indeed, all of the gifts which her new benefactor had bestowed upon her, wept, saddened by the loss of her beautiful gift.
The eagle, however, (one of the symbols of the god Horus) had been sent forth with a specific purpose and it travelled, still carrying the slipper, all the way to the seat of the Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose II.
The pharaoh was attending to his duties, arbitrating disputes among his people when the eagle soared in and dropped the slipper onto the lap of the pharaoh. The pharaoh was enamored with the fine workmanship of the slipper and became convinced that such a lavish adornment could only belong to the most beautiful woman in the world.
So taken was he that he gathered his servants and bade them go to every nome (city) in Egypt with the red slipper and declare the woman whose foot it fit that she would be his wife.
The servants and messengers went far and wide, taking the slipper with them everywhere they went, but alas, the shoe was too small to fit any of the women who claimed it to be theirs.
It wasn’t until they happened upon the city of Naucratis that they were informed of the merchant and the beautiful slave-girl that he had purchased. The tales of the lavish gifts that he showered upon her sent the servants running. Upon their arrival, Rhodopis was by the very pool where her slipper had been taken. When they caught her attention, she immediately recognized the slipper and cried out in joy. She sent one of her slaves to retrieve the mate of the slipper to prove her ownership of the pair, and the messengers were convinced.
They informed her that the pharaoh had commanded them to find the woman to whom the slipper belonged and return her to his palace where she would be given a place of honor and that it was the god Horus himself who had sent him on his search for her.
She said a tearful goodbye to Charaxos who, while thrilled for her gain, mourned for his own loss. She then went forth with the messengers to Memphis, the capitol of Egypt at the time and, upon seeing Rhodopis, the pharaoh knew her to be the woman for whom he had been searching.
The words of the messengers were fulfilled and exceeded as she was not only given high honor, but made the queen of the pharaoh. The two would live in delirious happiness until one year before the invasion of the Persians. They died together with Egypt still intact.
Okay, so if you haven’t guessed, that story is the origin of Cinderella. Written many centuries before the brothers Grimm would augment the tale to the form from which our modern retelling is based.
In the tales of the Egyptians, we can often see the origin of the stories that we tell each other today. The Egyptians were, in truth, not all that different from us, at least not on a human level. Their civilization was based upon different structures and their religious beliefs may differ from those of the modern world in ways, but at the heart of Egyptian mythology there is a soul which resonates with us still. We want the same things that we wanted back then: love, respect, honor; and we still have the same fears and strikingly similar ways of dealing with them. To share our experiences, we tell stories as the Egyptians did. It is what makes these stories timeless, this constancy of the human spirit: often troubled, but perpetually looking for that next ray of light to shine down and change our lives.