Egyptian Mythology - 1

The ancient Egyptians had many Mythological tales, usually link to their Gods and Goddesses.

The Book of Thoth

Ramesses II had over a hundred sons but his favorite was Prince Khaemwese, whom he made High Priest of Ptah at Memphis.

Khaemwese was famous for his learning and for his interest in ancient times.

A thousand years after his death the Egyptians were still telling stories which portrayed him as the wisest of magicians.

One such story relates how Prince Setna Khaemwese discovered where the Book of Thoth was hidden.

'The Book of Thoth' contained the most powerful of magic spells, and also the most dangerous, but that did not deter the royal magician.

One day, when the court was at Memphis, Setna went to his father and asked his permission to open one of the royal tombs in the City of the Dead.

The whole court was shocked at such a request, but Setna explained that the famous Book of Thoth was hidden in the tomb of Prince Neferkaptah.

Pharaoh tried hard to make his son give up such a rash idea, but when he saw that the prince was determined, he let him have his way.

Ramesses knew that the dead could protect themselves and that Setna would have to learn to respect them.

The prince asked Anhurerau, the bravest of his younger brothers, to go with him and they took a gang of workmen into the City of the Dead.

When they reached the ancient tomb of Neferkaptah, the workmen shovelled away the sand that had blown against its entrance. Gradually a wooden door was revealed.

Setna broke the seals on the door and ordered the workmen to hack through the wood. Reluctantly, they obeyed. The rotten wood crumbled after a few blows and the tomb stood open.

Setna and Anhurerau waited ten, tense minutes to let fresh air seep through the tomb, and then a torch was lit for them.

None of the workmen would enter the black doorway, so the two brothers went in alone, Anhurerau holding up the torch and Setna a pace ahead of him.

They walked cautiously down a narrow passageway and through a shadowy hall carved with scenes of Prince Neferkaptah's funeral.

Beyond, was a maze of small rooms and twisting passages. As they went deeper into the tomb, the heat and the stale air were suffocating. The light of Anhurerau's torch hardly seemed to penetrate the intense darkness and all around them there were rustlings and scratchings. 'It's only bats.'

Setna had meant to reassure his brother, but his whisper echoed through the tomb and above them dozens of bats erupted into flight.

As Anhurerau ducked, the whirr of their wings put out his torch and the darkness pounced.

Setna froze.

They would have to go back-if he could remember the way. It would be no use shouting for help; none of the workmen would enter the tomb.

Suddenly Anhurerau gripped his brother�s arm: 'Look!' Ahead of them was a faint glow.

As the brothers moved towards it, the light grew brighter.

Setna and Anhurerau crept round a corner in the passageway and found themselves staring into the burial chamber itself.

The room was crammed with rich furnishings; ebony thrones and vases of alabaster, stools draped with leopard skins and ivory caskets.

On a golden couch lay the mummy of Neferkaptah, wrapped in scented linen, his face covered by a glittering mask. Beside the couch sat a beautiful woman, pale as a white lotus, with a little boy huddled at her feet.

Light streamed from the scroll of papyrus that lay on a table in front of them, and Setna knew that he was looking at the Book of Thoth.

Anhurerau stood trembling in. the doorway, but Setna stepped boldly into the burial chamber and saluted the lady.

The hand she raised to greet him was almost transparent, but her voice was low and sweet. 'Setna Khaemwese, why do you disturb the rest of the dead?'

'If you give me the Book of Thoth,' said Setna, trying not to sound as frightened as he felt, 'I will leave you in peace.' The lovely ka shook her head. 'Setna, if you steal the Book of Thoth, it will bring you nothing but disaster.

I see from your face that you do not believe me. I will tell you our story, and then you will understand the danger.'

'My name is Ahwere. I was the only daughter of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt,' said the ka proudly. She looked down at the silent figure on the couch.

'I loved my brother Neferkaptah more than anything in the world and he loved me. I begged our father the king to let us marry and he agreed. A splendid feast was held to mark our marriage and we lived together very happily. It was not long before a son was born to us and we called him Mrib.'

Ahwere reached down to touch the little boy who lay at her feet, and he smiled up at her as if just waking from a dream.

'My husband was like you, Setna. He loved to wander in the City of the Dead to study the tombs or to visit temple libraries and try to read the ancient scrolls.

He was a skilled magician, but he was always seeking more powerful spells. One day my husband attended a festival in the temple of Ptah.

As he walked behind a procession, he read the spells written on the shrines of the gods. Suddenly Neferkaptah heard someone laughing at him. In the shadow of a column stood an old priest, amusement doubling the wrinkles on his face.'

'Why are you laughing at me?' my husband demanded indignantly.

I laugh at you reading such paltry spells,' answered the priest, 'when I could tell you where to find a magic book written by Thoth himself.

There are two spells in it. If you read the first spell aloud, you will enchant the sky above and the sky below and the earth itself from the mountains to the seas.

You will be able to understand every beast and bird and summon the fishes of the deep, just like a god.

If you read the second spell, even if you are in the Land of the Dead, you will take your own form again and see the sun shine and the moon rise and the gods themselves.'

'Then my husband flattered the priest. �Oh great one, may you live for ever! Name one wish that I can grant you, but tell me how to find the Book of Thoth.'

The old man's eyes glittered with greed. 'Give me a hundred silver pieces to pay for my funeral, and when the time comes, two priests to serve my ka.'

Neferkaptah sent for the silver and when the old priest had counted it he whispered to my husband, 'The Book of Thoth is hidden in an iron box at the bottom of the river, near Coptos.

Inside the iron box is a box of bronze and inside the box of bronze is a box of sycamore. Inside the sycamore box is a box of ebony and inside that, a box of ivory.

In the ivory box is a box of silver and in the silver box, a box of gold and in that box, the Book of Thoth, and there are snakes and scorpions guarding all the boxes.'

'Then Neferkaptah was dizzy with excitement. He rushed back to the palace to tell me everything that had happened and said, 'I will sail to Coptos at once and bring back the Book of Thoth!' Then I was afraid and I cursed that old priest.

'May the gods smite him for telling you such a secret. I know that Coptos will bring us nothing but sorrow.' I begged Neferkaptah not to sail south, but he could think of nothing but the Book of Thoth and he would not listen.'

Ahwere sighed. 'The king gave us a splendid ship. Neferkaptah sailed south and Mrib and I went with him.

When we reached Coptos the priests of the temple of Isis and their wives hurried out to meet us and we spent four days feasting with them.

On the fifth day my husband sent for pure wax and modelled a boat with all its crew. Then he crouched over it, muttering spells and breathed life into the crew.

He launched the wax boat on the river and loaded the royal ship with sand.

Then my husband went on board and I sat down on the river bank, determined not to move until he came back.'

'Neferkaptah called out to the crew of the wax boat: 'Row oarsmen, row to the place where the Book of Thoth is hidden!'

The wax men took up their oars and they rowed for three days and three nights and the royal ship followed.

On the fourth morning, the wax boat stopped and my husband knew that they must have reached the right place. He threw out the sand on either side of the ship so that the waters divided and there was a strip of dry land in the middle of the river.

Neferkaptah went down between the banks of sand, reciting spells, for the iron box crawled with snakes and scorpions.

'The snakes hissed and the scorpions raised their deadly tails but my husband's spells were strong and the snakes froze as they tried to spit poison and the scorpions could not reach him with their stings. Yet around the iron box itself was coiled a serpent too vast for any spell to bind.

My husband was not afraid; he stunned it with a blow from his bronze axe and chopped it in half. To his horror the two halves joined up again and within seconds the great serpent was coiling round him.

'Neferkaptah flinched from its poisonous breath.

The coils tightened as the serpent tried to crush him, but he just had time to draw his dagger and hack through the glittering scales. Again my husband cut the serpent in two, but as he staggered backwards the coils rejoined.

Neferkaptah snatched up his axe and wearily attacked for the third time. He slashed through its coils and for a moment the serpent lay motionless.

Then to my husband's despair the severed coils began to wriggle towards each other. With sudden inspiration, Neferkaptah picked up a handful of sand and threw it between the two halves.

The snake struggled to join itself together again but now there was something between the halves the magic wouldn�t work. With a frantic hissing the creature quivered and died.

'Neferkaptah kicked the body aside and wrenched open the iron box. Inside was a box of bronze, just as the old priest had said.

Impatiently my husband tore open the boxes of bronze and sycamore, ebony, ivory and silver and came to a slender golden box. He lifted the lid and there lay a gleaming scroll-the Book of Thoth.'

Awhere paused. Her pale fingers touched the papyrus on the table in front of her but her eyes lingered on the mask that hid her husband's face.

'Neferkaptah unrolled the Book of Thoth and dared to read the first spell. He enchanted the sky above and the sky below and the whole earth from the mountains to the seas.

He understood the speech of every living thing, even the fishes of the deep and the beasts of the desert hills.

That was not enough for my husband and he read the second spell. By its terrible power he saw the Sun and the Moon and the stars in their true form and the glory of the gods themselves.

Then Neferkaptah returned to his ship. He spoke a spell to the river and the waters flooded back over the scattered boxes, but the Book of Thoth was safe in my husband�s hand.

He ordered the crew of the wax boat to row back to Coptos and they rowed without pausing for three days and three nights.'

'Now all this time I had been sitting on the river bank below the temple of Isis. I wouldn't eat or drink until I knew what had happened to my husband and by the seventh morning I looked fit for the embalmers.

'But at last the royal ship sailed into view and Neferkaptah sprang ashore. When we�d embraced each other, I asked to see the Book of Thoth and he put it in my hand. I read the first spell and the second and shared my husband�s power.

'Then Neferkaptah sent for fresh papyrus and he copied down the words of the Book of Thoth.

He soaked the new scroll in beer and then crumbled it into a bowl and dissolved it in water.

He swallowed the water and with it drank the power of the two spells. We made thank offerings in the temple of Isis and sailed north again with Mrib our son.

'My husband was delighted with his success but the Wise One knew what Neferkaptah had done and he was very angry. Thoth hurried to Ra the King of the Gods and demanded justice:

'Neferkaptah the son of King Mernebptah has discovered the hiding place of my magic book.

He has killed the guardian and opened the seven boxes and read the forbidden spells! Such crimes cannot go unpunished.'

Then Ra gave judgement in favour of Thoth and decreed that we should never come safely home to Memphis.

The three of us were sitting on deck beneath a gilded awning. We did not know that from that moment we were doomed.'

Ahwere's dark eyes filled with tears and Mrib covered his ears, as if he could not bear to listen to the next part of the story.

'Our little boy slipped away from the couch where I sat with Neferkaptah. As Mrib leaned over the ship's rail to gaze at the Nile, the curse of Ra struck him and he tumbled into the water.

I screamed at the splash and all the sailors shouted. My husband ran out from under the awning and said the second spell of the Book of Thoth.

Mrib rose up from the Nile, threw back his sodden hair and spoke. He told us of the anger of Thoth and that Ra had cursed us.

No spell could save Mrib, he was already drowned. His lips closed and our son fell dead at my feet.

We returned to Coptos and lived through seventy desolate days while Mrib�s body was prepared by the embalmers and a princely tomb was made ready.

After the burial we sailed north to tell our father the king the tragic news of Mrib's death. Neferkaptah watched over me anxiously but I paced the deck, grieving for my son.

When we reached the place where Mrib had drowned, the curse of Ra struck me and I fell into the river.

The waters closed over my head and I drowned before my husband could reach me. Neferkaptah spoke the second spell and raised up my body.

I told him of the anger of Thoth and the curse of Ra, but my ka had already passed into the West. My husband took me back to Coptos and I was buried in Mrib�s tomb.

'Neferkaptah boarded the royal ship to sail back to Memphis, but he said to himself, 'I cannot bear to stay in Coptos, close to the tomb of my wife and son but how can I go back to Memphis and tell the king 'I took your daughter and your only grandchild to Coptos but I cannot bring them back.

I am alive, but they are dead'. 'My husband knew that he could not bear to live a day longer.

He took a strip of linen and bound the Book of Thoth to his body.

Then he leaped over the ship's rail and into the Nile.

The sailors cried out in horror, but they could not even find my husband's body.

'When the ship reached Memphis, the sailors sent a messenger with the terrible news that both the king�s children were dead.

The court went into mourning and the king himself came down to the harbour with all the people of Memphis and the priests of Ptah.

He saw Neferkaptah's body tangled in the rudders of the royal ship.

The body was taken out of the water and all the people wept. The king said, 'Let that accursed book be buried with my son.'

The body of Neferkaptah was taken to the embalmers and after seventy days it was laid to rest in this very tomb.

Now I have told you how misery came to us because of the book you want me to give you. T

he Book of Thoth cost us our lives, it can never be yours.'

Setna was shaken by Ahwere�s story but the light of the Book of Thoth dazzled him and he could not bear to give it up.

'Let me have the book,' he repeated, 'or I'll take it by force!' Then the mummy of Prince Neferkaptah slowly sat up and a voice came from behind the mask:

'Setna Khaemwese, if you will not listen to Ahwere's warning, are you a great enough magician to take the Book of Thoth from me? Or will you play four games of draughts? If you win, you shall have the Book of Thoth as your prize.

At the chilling sound of Neferkaptah's voice, Anhurerau shrank back. What would happen if Setna lost the games ?

He whispered to his brother to run but Setna stepped closer to the Book of Thoth. 'I am ready,' he said.

Close to the couch was a draughts board with squares of ebony and ivory, set with pieces of gold and silver.

They began the first game, and the pieces moved without being touched. Setna was a skilful player but the dead prince was a better one. Neferkaptah won the first game and murmured a spell. Setna sank into the ground up to his ankles.

Anhurerau tried to pull his brother out, but he was stuck fast. There was nothing that Setna could do but play the second game; he lost that too.

Neferkaptah murmured another spell and Setna sank into the ground up to his hips. Setan relaized that he had staked his life against the Book of Thoth and the third game began.

There was silence in the burial chamber as the pieces moved across the squares.

Setna played cunningly but the dead prince seemed to read his mind and slowly the game was lost. Neferkaptah spoke a third spell and Setna sank into the ground up to his chin. He could move nothing but his eyes and his lips.

Setna whispered desperately to Anhurerau: 'Get out of the tomb! Run to Pharaoh and fetch my magic books and the Amulets of Ptah.'

As the fourth and final game began, Anhurerau fled back along the passage.

As the light from the burial chamber faded, he felt his way along the walls, praying to Ptah that he would not get lost in the darkness. It seemed a horribly long time before he saw daylight again.

Anhurerau burst out of the tomb, terrifying the nervous workmen, and ran to the place where Pharaoh was.

When he had gasped out his story Ramesses said, 'Hurry my son, take Setna these books of magic and these amulets of power!'

Anhurerau hurried back with magic scrolls under his arm, a torch in one hand and the Amulets of Ptah in the other.

In the burial chamber the silver pieces were already outnumbered by the gold; Setna was losing for the fourth time.

It would be his last game; already he could imagine the earth closing over his lips, his nose, his eyes. . . Setna was not playing to win any more, only to delay the dreadful moment.

Finally it came. Neferkaptah made the winning move and the words of the fourth spell came from the glittering mask.

Setna was opening his mouth to beg for mercy when he heard the sound of running feet.

Anhurerau rushed into the burial chamber, knelt by his brother and placed the Amulets of Ptah on his head. Instantly the power of Ptah freed Setna from the dead prince's spell.

He shot out of the ground, swayed for a moment and then grabbed the Book of Thoth. Setna and his brother fled from the burial chamber.

There was no need for Anhurerau's torch, light walked in front of them, and darkness behind them.

In the gloomy burial chamber Ahwere wept and Mrib clung to her.

'Hail King of Darkness,' she whispered. 'Farewell King of Light! The power that kept us together is gone, and I shall be banished to my lonely tomb.'

But Neferkaptah had drunk the words of the Book of Thoth and he was far from helpless.

'Do not be unhappy,' he said. 'I will make Setna return the book himself, with a forked stick in his hand and a dish of incense on his head.'

When the two princes emerged from the tomb, they ordered the workmen to brick up the entrance and pile sand against it.

Then Setna hurried before Pharaoh and told him everything that had happened. Ramesses looked grave.

'If you are wise my son, you will return the Book of Thoth at once or Neferkaptah will humiliate you and make you take it back, carrying the stick of a suppliant, with incense burning to protect you.'

Setna was not listening; he could not wait to unroll the gleaming papyrus. For several days he studied the scroll, learning to read the ancient script. One morning Setna paced the courtyard of the temple of Ptah, pondering the words of the first spell.

Suddenly he saw a woman walking towards the inner temple with a great crowd of maids and pages. From her dainty sandalled feet to her shining braids of blue-black hair, she was the loveliest creature that Setna had ever seen.

For a moment their eyes met and he hardly knew where he was. Then the woman hid her face behind an ostrich feather fan and walked on.

Setna called to one of his slaves, 'Did you see that woman? Find out who she is!'

He waited impatiently in the shadow of the temple gateway until the boy returned.

'My Lord, her maids tell me that she is the Lady Tabube, the daughter of the Prophet of Bastet of Ankhtawy, and she has come here to pray to Ptah.

'Go back and speak to one of her maids, saying that Setna Khaemwese sends you.

Ask her to tell her mistress that she shall have ten gold pieces, or a law case settled in her favour, if she will come and spend some time with me.'

The slave was very surprised at his master's words but he hastened to obey.

Tabube was in the next courtyard making offerings of wine and flowers before the statue of Ptah.

The slave edged up to one of her maids and whispered his master's offer.

The maid was most indignant at such an insult to her mistress and railed at the poor slave.

Tabube soon asked what the matter was and, with great embarrassment, the boy repeated the message.

Tabube did not seem angry.

'Tell Setna Khaemwese,' she said, 'that I am a priestess and a lady of rank.

If he wants to meet me, he must visit my house in Bubastis and I will entertain him there.'

The boy hurried back to tell his master and Setna was delighted.

He forgot all about his wife and family, he even forgot about the Book of Thoth.

He could think of nothing but Tabube and the very next day he sailed north to Bubastis.

He soon found the house of the Prophet of Bastet of Ankhtawy and was asked to wait in the walled garden.

Setna walked through a grove of fig trees and sat in a vine arbour, thinking about Tabube.

Suddenly, he looked up and she was there. Tabube wore a clinging dress of transparent linen.

Her eyelids were green with malachite, her lashes dark with kohl and her hair scented by lotus flowers.

She beckoned to Setna and took him inside the house to an upper chamber.

The floor was of polished lapis and the walls were inlaid with turquoise.

Ebony couches were draped with soft linen and a table was spread with dishes of pomegranates and vessels of wine. The air was thick with incense.

Tabube drew Setna down beside her.

She offered him fruit but he was too excited to eat. Tabube poured out the strong red wine and they drank together.

Setna longed to kiss her, but Tabube said, 'I am a priestess, a lady of rank. You ought to marry me and draw up a proper contract.'

Setna was too infatuated to think twice about it. 'Send for a scribe,' he said.

Almost at once a scribe appeared with a contract drawn up which made over all of Setna's wealth to his new wife.

He signed it quickly and as soon as the scribe was gone, Setna tried to kiss Tabube again; but she drew back.

'That contract won't be valid unless your children agree to give up their rights.

They are downstairs now, have them sent up so that they can sign our marriage contract.'

Setna was too intoxicated by the strong wine and Tabube's beauty to think this odd.

His little daughters were brought up and meekly signed the contract that robbed them of their inheritance.

When they had gone, Setna drank another goblet of wine and put his arms around Tabube's waist.

She slipped out of his embrace and a tear shone on her rouged cheek.

'If you really love me,' she said, 'you will have your children killed. I am sure they will contest our marriage and make us unhappy.'

When Setna looked into Tabube's eyes, he could deny her nothing. He gave an order for his daughters to be killed and their bodies were thrown from the window into a courtyard.

Setna could hear dogs and cats tearing at their bodies as he sat drinking with the beautiful Tabube.

Then she put her white arms around his neck and leaned forward to kiss him.

Suddenly Tabube's lips opened in a scream and Setna found himself crouching in the middle of a public road, embracing the dust.

Tabube and her house had vanished. His head cleared and Setna realized the terrible thing that he had done. He moaned and grovelled in the dust.

Passing travellers stared at him, wondering if he was drunk or mad.

Poor Setna did not notice the approach of four Nubians carrying an ebony chair.

In the chair sat a man, dressed in splendid robes and wearing royal jewels. He seemed amused by Setna's plight.

'What is Prince Setna Khaemwese doing here in such a state?

Neferkaptah has done this to me,' said Setna bitterly. 'He has had his revenge and my children, my lovely daughters'.

The royal stranger smiled. 'Go back to Memphis. You will find your daughters safe and sound at Pharaoh's court.'

Setna could hardly believe his ears. Had it all been an illusion?

The royal stranger nodded to one of his slaves, who tossed Setna a cloak to cover his filthy clothes. 'Go back to Memphis. Your children are safe,' he repeated.

There was something familiar about the stranger's voice but before Setna could thank him, the chair and the Nubians and the stranger himself had vanished.