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Moses, apparently without a miracle since he has not recorded it, could read the Tables of the Law. He might have learned them either in Egypt or in Syria : in Midian with Jethro, or else after the Exodus in the desert. Mahommed acquired them similarly.
The OTOIXEIWv. ygach of Sanchoniatho, in recording Thoth's invention, though rendered by Mr. Cory-Letters, might refer equally to Sigus in arrangement, as of the Zodiac. (Euseb. and Salmas.). It must probably ever remain doubtful whether Thoth compiled his History from mere pictures alone; but if otherwise, he could not have invented hieroglyphic or alphabetic writing. Was Thoth really an Egyptian?
The Syro-Phænicians, then, had the reputation of the alphabet, not the Egyptians; but the Egyptian literati or priests used pictures figuratively, symbolically, and phonetically; and their progress towards letters is unquestionable. So far as we see, however, these modes were imperfect, voluminous, and clumsy in the last degree, and employed only in religious and state documents, public edicts, contracts, &c. originally. The Nabathæans and Brahmins furnish somewhat parallel cases.
Of these hieroglyphics such infinite varieties exist as to make us suspect the necessity of intinite numbers of systems. Des Guignes, it is true, pretended to have found a key of 214 characters in those, as in the Chinese; but his work, however curious, has never been published, though it might be worth bringing forward now; and he wrote in ignorance of recent discoveries.
We cannot wonder then that the infinity of signs produced infinite confusion; and if moderns, as Kircher and others, have read the philosophy of life and the psalms of David in the Egyptian hieroglyphics, it is consoling to know or suppose that the vulgar of Egypt were no better informed. But we have no trace at all of approximation between the Phoenician letters and the Egyptian picture-writing, or the letters immediately derived from this.
The origin of letters therefore is not traceable to a system of picture-writing. Farther, as presumptions,
Admitting the stone in Athanasi's collection to the antiquity claimed for it, we have there proof of hieroglyphics in the time of Joseph at oldest. The oldest proof of Letters is of the time of Cadmus, i.e. in round numbers, 200 years later; and Job, who wished his words written down, engraved with a pen of iron in lead and on the rock, is admitted of superior antiquity to Moses and the Exodus. He was a borderer of Chaldea, where Egyptian hieroglyphics are not pretended to have been used, but where Letters, if not really invented there, were, from the very circumstance of this attribution, in early use. The Assyrian letters, according to Herodotus, were used monumentally by Darius the Persian, and his, and his predecessors', monumental inscriptions in Persia are in the cuneiform character; no way resembling the old hieroglyphic pictures and picture-writings, but proceeding on a different system entirely; for they unite aspirates with vocals, rude but ingeniously, to produce sounds, and combine elements into alphabetic words.
The words of Job, ch. xix. are indicative only of a public inscription; as in lead, on the rock: but his wish that his adversary would write a register, or book, of his errors, (and Job alone could have borne the reading of it,) intimates that letters were then sufficiently common to be applied to private purposes; and this holds even on the supposition that the imaginary adversary of this (presumed Arabian) prince was a prince also.
Admitting, then, Thoth's invention of hieroglyphics, the above shows that Letters were freely in use out of Egypt within about a century and a half after Thoth's invention: and it is not unreasonable to suppose that a considerable time in those early ages elapsed between the first formation, and the free use, of an alphabetic system,- possibly the cuneiform, as we have shown, and perhaps others also. (Diodorus, 1. 5.) If there is any truth in the tradition of centuries between the Egyptian and Phænician inventions, the cuneiform, or some such, must have been almost or quite cotemporary with the hieroglyphic system. Had this last been long previous to the other, it must have spread; for other nations would have borrowed the idea, even if the key of the existing system had been withheld from them, and they would have made something resembling, if not identical with it. But the alphabetic system, if discovered soon after, would naturally prevent its diffusion.
Picture-writing therefore was not, so far as appears, the prototype of the alphabetic writing in Phænicia, in Persia, or in China. Consequently it is not the primary, and first essentially necessary modification of pictures into writing.
How then came it so in Egypt?
We answer-For the essential purposes of mysticism and concealment only; to uphold the power of the priests, by incapacitating rivalry in the knowledge of archives and documents; to render their knowledge a miracle, their rites and ceremonies awful; their origin, hopelessly obscure; their influence, universal and supreme.
The absence of all literature is a suspicious fact. Hermes or Thoth set the example; 36,000 volumes of the Hermesians followed, we are told. Yet the priests could tell Herodotus nothing of their 330 kings, because they left no monuments, as Moris
and others did. Then the hieroglyphic system was not so old as the 330 kings; a ridiculous consequence; and also, the priests could have had no archives, nor writing and were, at that time, behind even the Greeks in this branch of art! How then could they invent Letters, unless they meant only their own demotic? and this perhaps is the invention which they claimed according to Tacitus, and in ignorance confounded those with the Phoenician letters, which they also claimed, as we find elsewhere. Egyptian literature was unknown to antiquity as to ourselves, and the Coptic MSS. are evidently, from the character, as above shown, late. Had they then any literature after those early traditions? We may presume not.
The imperfections of the Egyptian system become obvious to us in its earliest extant and known contact with foreigners,the time of Herodotus. It was then such, that we have only to choose between wilful falsification by the priests, or ignorance in these of their own historical events. This last is the conclusion of Herodotus and Heeren; and the increase of their symbolical characters, probably designed to remedy the evil, has probably aggravated it. We doubt not they deceived themselves as well as others.
It is soundly remarked (Edinb. Rev. Oct. 1836), that the Egyptians and the Chinese, having proceeded to a certain point, went no farther in their improvement of written characters. But the causes of this stoppage we suspect to be essentially different in the two cases. Upon Egypt we have dwelt largely.
In China, where the doctrines of Confucius were found so essentially serviceable to the state, that the government embraced and interlaced itself with his moral system, as others have done with religious,--and where in consequence, as Mr. Davis well observes, (China, vol. ii. p. 47, &c.) no change or improvement, however slight, is permitted in that moral system; it is but extending, we submit, the same principle, to suggest, that the written medium of those morals is for the same reason unchangeably retained.
If the more refined age and superior intellect of Mencius was confined to illustrating rather than enlarging on Confucius;---and the suspicious internal policy of China long after the death of Mencius, hesitated to grant him the due honours of his career ;-we can well imagine how sacredly they would maintain their written barrier against all innovation from succeeding mental efforts, both at home and from other countries.
One scriptural word, tending to establish the Christian church, has been extended to support also the extravagances of modern priesthood and assumption. One scriptural word, tending to establish the authority of the ancient dispensation, has been misungenius, their morals, their worship, or their psychology raise them higher ?
Their very literature was either borrowed or unimproved in the land that brought it forth; their picture-symbols repelled the two Syrian inventions of syllabic writings and alphabetic characters. Their divisions of hieroglyphic and hieratic were, first to record, and next to conceal, themselves. Their morals were but laws; their philosophy, a deeper darkness; their theology, a confused phrenesy of material and immaterial; their worship, a debasement of humanity; their revelations, mystery. Even their priests were, not the guides, but the masters of the people. Religion with them was the golden chaos of their craft; the human form was but a barrier against worms; the human soul, the navigator of a dismal swamp; the aim of human hopes, to resuscitate a beast; and the shrine erected to the worship of Deity itself, was deemed honoured and sanctified by the residence of a brute. With such notions these, and who can wonder that their subterraneous chambers were one delusion the more ? or who can doubt that their ideas of futurity clung to Being, with an intensity proportioned to its dark, if not dreaded incertitude? Why should we then fondly persist in believing that the immortality of the soul was their doctrine; and colour this with our own impression of that truth, when it is clear that its durability was all they contended for; that they held its migration and return to the body after three thousand years ; and to prevent its disappointment, embalmed the body, lest it should perish from the worms. They furnished the chambers of the dead more carefully than the houses of the living; and this, it is thus evident from the act itself, in a doubtful and dark-uncertain but trembling-hope; a hope too, which the earth-worm might mock, and a reptile annihilate immortality! It was clearly, then, not a belief of futurity-a place for souls--but a mere yearning after life itself, in the body, even amidst chambers of sempiternal gloom. Existence was their want, prolonged or renewed-still dear to their earthly aspirations, whether sunk to the brute or shrouded from the day. Thus, all they sought was resuscitation, not resurrection; and this was all they made of the sublime doctrine of an eternal and immaterial existence, which they borrowed to debase, down to the level of their own comprehensions, unable to grasp this purer tenet of the Assyrian's creed.
Granting then to Egypt, as all must grant, the possession of every marvel of her wonder-fraught realities, still we must not and cannot grant her the praise of wisdom and intellectual eminence, due, not to her, but to her masters from every age. We judge from what is before us : of that which is concealed we can frame no conclusion, beyond the stigma justly attached to the ignorance that hid itself in systematic concealment.
We are aware that this low appreciation of Egyptian intellect may appear extravagant or paradoxical ; but, it must be recollected that the Egyptians have been viewed imperfectly, with a feeling that the unknown was sublinity; and stand enlarged to superhuman proportions, like the shadow on the Brocken, even by the first, far, misty rays that fall upon them. The preservation to this day of those monuments, the praise of antiquity, and the very improvements of other nations upon parts of their system, all conspire to present them as through a haze to our imaginations, and elevate them, if we may carry on the simile, by the consequent refraction. Credit might be due to them bad they originated the sources of those improvements; but, since the labour was not theirs, the light it affords sheds a false lustre upon them.
Greece, that in ignorance claimed every eartbly fiction as her own, in equally vain ignorance bas pandered to the historic aggrandisement of Egypt. She listened to the voice of tradition till she deemed it inspired, and gazed upon splendours till she raised them to divine. 'Her vanity first appropriated for her proper antiquity what she had received from others, but received in legitimate descent; her royal gods and godlike abominations, her own especial deluge and autocthonic dreams. When this theme was exhausted, she flew to marvellize Egypt: the tale of mysteries has at length had its day, and more sober evening approaches to dissipate the parhelion's beams. Preceded by the torch of Arabian curiosity the investigation of Europe has penetrated the Pyramid, copied the inhumed images of the royal chambers, and sought out the mummy from its catacomb : and what is the development? A broken coffin, a contracted dynasty, minute and inane triflings of feebly consecrated superstition ! With all that has filled our ears and bowed our sight down, even to earth, we shall find, to reward our abject belief, that the forms of Greece were but a glowing phantasy, and Egypt one mighty and magnificent lie!
An Egyptian Society has lately been formed at Cairo, and their first Report is already published. For the particulars we refer the reader to our Literary Notices, under the head of EGYPT.
VOL. XXI. NO. XLII.