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- An Egyptian Princess, Volume 2. - 5/9 -
obedient and reverential servants of the king whom they profess to honor as divine; but believe me, Croesus, just in this very act of devotion, which no ruler can refuse to accept without giving offence, lies the most crafty, scandalous calculation. Each of these youths is my keeper, my spy. They watch my smallest actions and report them at once to the priests."
"But how canst thou endure such an existence? Why not banish these spies and select servants from the military caste, for instance? They would be quite as useful as the priests."
"Ah! if I only could, if I dared!" exclaimed Amasis loudly. And then, as if frightened at his own rashness, he continued in a low voice, "I believe that even here I am being watched. To-morrow I will have that grove of fig-trees yonder uprooted. The young priest there, who seems so fond of gardening, has other fruit in his mind besides the half-ripe figs that he is so slowly dropping into his basket. While his hand is plucking the figs, his ear gathers the words that fall from the mouth of his king."
"But, by our father Zeus, and by Apollo--"
"Yes, I understand thy indignation and I share it; but every position has its duties, and as a king of a people who venerate tradition as the highest divinity, I must submit, at least in the main, to the ceremonies handed down through thousands of years. Were I to burst these fetters, I know positively that at my death my body would remain unburied; for, know that the priests sit in judgment over every corpse, and deprive the condemned of rest, even in the grave."
[This well-known custom among the ancient Egyptians is confirmed, not only by many Greek narrators, but by the laboriously erased inscriptions discovered in the chambers of some tombs.]
"Why care about the grave?" cried Croesus, becoming angry. "We live for life, not for death!"
"Say rather," answered Amasis rising from his seat, "we, with our Greek minds, believe a beautiful life to be the highest good. But Croesus, I was begotten and nursed by Egyptian parents, nourished on Egyptian food, and though I have accepted much that is Greek, am still, in my innermost being, an Egyptian. What has been sung to us in our childhood, and praised as sacred in our youth, lingers on in the heart until the day which sees us embalmed as mummies. I am an old man and have but a short span yet to run, before I reach the landmark which separates us from that farther country. For the sake of life's few remaining days, shall I willingly mar Death's thousands of years? No, my friend, in this point at least I have remained an Egyptian, in believing, like the rest of my countrymen, that the happiness of a future life in the kingdom of Osiris, depends on the preservation of my body, the habitation of the soul.
[Each human soul was considered as a part of the world-soul Osiris, was united to him after the death of the body, and thenceforth took the name of Osiris. The Egyptian Cosmos consisted of the three great realms, the Heavens, the Earth and the Depths. Over the vast ocean which girdles the vault of heaven, the sun moves in a boat or car drawn by the planets and fixed stars. On this ocean too the great constellations circle in their ships, and there is the kingdom of the blissful gods, who sit enthroned above this heavenly ocean under a canopy of stars. The mouth of this great stream is in the East, where the sun-god rises from the mists and is born again as a child every morning. The surface of the earth is inhabited by human beings having a share in the three great cosmic kingdoms. They receive their soul from the heights of heaven, the seat and source of light; their material body is of the earth; and the appearance or outward form by which one human being is distinguished from another at sight--his phantom or shadow--belongs to the depths. At death, soul, body, and shadow separate from one another. The soul to return to the place from whence it came, to Heaven, for it is a part of God (of Osiris); the body, to be committed to the earth from which it was formed in the image of its creator; the phantom or shadow, to descend into the depths, the kingdom of shadows. The gate to this kingdom was placed in the West among the sunset hills, where the sun goes down daily,--where he dies. Thence arise the changeful and corresponding conceptions connected with rising and setting, arriving and departing, being born and dying. The careful preservation of the body after death from destruction, not only through the process of inward decay, but also through violence or accident, was in the religion of ancient Egypt a principal condition (perhaps introduced by the priests on sanitary grounds) on which depended the speedy deliverance of the soul, and with this her early, appointed union with the source of Light and Good, which two properties were, in idea, one and indivisible. In the Egyptian conceptions the soul was supposed to remain, in a certain sense, connected with the body during a long cycle of solar years. She could, however, quit the body from time to time at will, and could appear to mortals in various forms and places; these appearances differed according to the hour, and were prescribed in exact words and delineations.]
"But enough of these matters; thou wilt find it difficult to enter into such thoughts. Tell me rather what thou thinkest of our temples and pyramids."
Croesus, after reflecting a moment, answered with a smile: "Those huge pyramidal masses of stone seem to me creations of the boundless desert, the gaily painted temple colonnades to be the children of the Spring; but though the sphinxes lead up to your temple gates, and seem to point the way into the very shrines themselves, the sloping fortress-like walls of the Pylons, those huge isolated portals, appear as if placed there to repel entrance. Your many-colored hieroglyphics likewise attract the gaze, but baffle the inquiring spirit by the mystery that lies within their characters. The images of your manifold gods are everywhere to be seen; they crowd on our gaze, and yet who knows not that their real is not their apparent significance? that they are mere outward images of thoughts accessible only to the few, and, as I have heard, almost incomprehensible in their depth? My curiosity is excited everywhere, and my interest awakened, but my warm love of the beautiful feels itself in no way attracted. My intellect might strain to penetrate the secrets of your sages, but my heart and mind can never be at home in a creed which views life as a short pilgrimage to the grave, and death as the only true life!"
"And yet," said Amasis, "Death has for us too his terrors, and we do all in our power to evade his grasp. Our physicians would not be celebrated and esteemed as they are, if we did not believe that their skill could prolong our earthly existence. This reminds me of the oculist Nebenchari whom I sent to Susa, to the king. Does he maintain his reputation? is the king content with him?"
"Very much so," answered Croesus. "He has been of use to many of the blind; but the king's mother is alas! still sightless. It was Nebenchari who first spoke to Cambyses of the charms of thy daughter Tachot. But we deplore that he understands diseases of the eye alone. When the Princess Atossa lay ill of fever, he was not to be induced to bestow a word of counsel."
"That is very natural; our physicians are only permitted to treat one part of the body. We have aurists, dentists and oculists, surgeons for fractures of the bone, and others for internal diseases. By the ancient priestly law a dentist is not allowed to treat a deaf man, nor a surgeon for broken bones a patient who is suffering from a disease of the bowels, even though he should have a first rate knowledge of internal complaints. This law aims at securing a great degree of real and thorough knowledge; an aim indeed, pursued by the priests (to whose caste the physicians belong) with a most praiseworthy earnestness in all branches of science. Yonder lies the house of the high-priest Neithotep, whose knowledge of astronomy and geometry was so highly praised, even by Pythagoras. It lies next to the porch leading into the temple of the goddess Neith, the protectress of Sais. Would I could show thee the sacred grove with its magnificent trees, the splendid pillars of the temple with capitals modelled from the lotus-flower, and the colossal chapel which I caused to be wrought from a single piece of granite, as an offering to the goddess; but alas! entrance is strictly refused to strangers by the priests. Come, let us seek my wife and daughter; they have conceived an affection for thee, and indeed it is my wish that thou shouldst gain a friendly feeling towards this poor maiden before she goes forth with thee to the strange land, and to the strange nation whose princess she is to become. Wilt thou not adopt and take her under thy care?"
"On that thou may'st with fullest confidence rely," replied Croesus with warmth, returning the pressure of Amasis' hand. "I will protect thy Nitetis as if I were her father; and she will need my help, for the apartments of the women in the Persian palaces are dangerous ground. But she will meet with great consideration. Cambyses may be contented with his choice, and will be highly gratified that thou hast entrusted him with thy fairest child. Nebenchari had only spoken of Tachot, thy second daughter."
"Nevertheless I will send my beautiful Nitetis. Tachot is so tender, that she could scarcely endure the fatigues of the journey and the pain of separation. Indeed were I to follow the dictates of my own heart, Nitetis should never leave us for Persia. But Egypt stands in need of peace, and I was a king before I became a father!"
The other members of the Persian embassy had returned to Sais from their excursion up the Nile to the pyramids. Prexaspes alone, the ambassador from Cambyses, had already set out for Persia, in order to inform the king of the successful issue of his suit.
The palace of Amasis was full of life and stir. The huge building was filled in all parts by the followers of the embassy, nearly three hundred in number, and by the high guests themselves, to whom every possible attention was paid. The courts of the palace swarmed with guards and officials, with young priests and slaves, all in splendid festal raiment.
On this day it was the king's intention to make an especial display of the wealth and splendor of his court, at a festival arranged in honor of his daughter's betrothal.
The lofty reception-hall opening on to the gardens, with its ceiling sown with thousands of golden stars and supported by gaily-painted columns, presented a magic appearance. Lamps of colored papyrus hung against the walls and threw a strange light on the scene, something like that when the sun's rays strike through colored glass. The space between the columns and the walls was filled with choice plants, palms, oleanders, pomegranates, oranges and roses, behind which an invisible band of harp and flute-players was stationed, who received the guests with strains of monotonous, solemn music.
The floor of this hall was paved in black and white, and in the middle stood elegant tables covered with dishes of all kinds, cold roast meats, sweets, well-arranged baskets of fruit and cake, golden jugs of wine, glass drinking-cups and artistic flower-vases.
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