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Chapter 2 Chapters 4-5

Egyptian Origins (3 Abridged)
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Neolithic Lower Egypt: Merimde & Maadi

As we have seen, long before there was a politically or culturally united Egypt, there was already a considerable population along the Nile. The adaptations of the communities varied, but the greatest differences were between the lush swampland of Lower Egypt and the narrow banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt, where the encroaching desert was ever visible on either side of the narrow river basin. These regions were so different that for thousands of years Egyptian monarchs would continue to refer to themselves as rulers "of the two lands" of Upper and Lower Egypt and to think of history as beginning with the unification of the delta and the river valley by a hypothetical "first Pharaoh."

Tombs were located near the living areas, although with little by way of tomb artifacts. Provocatively, however, it is in the Delta that the cult of the later god of the dead, Osiris, seems to have originated. Because this myth became one of the most important articles of Egyptian religion and an important support of state power, it is worthwhile to pause and examine it:

Excursus: The Myth of Osiris

Osiris may once have been an actual person, perhaps a chieftain in the central Delta community of Busiris (Egyptian: Djedu). The most often told myth one hears about Osiris (offered in its fullest surviving form by the Roman writer Plutarch) is that he was responsible for the invention of agriculture, crop rotation, irrigation, and the use of grain to make bread and beer. His wife Isis was venerated for figuring out how to grind grain and for devising the loom and weaving.

Osiris' brother Seth became envious of the acclaim that Osiris was receiving, so he captured, killed, and hacked up Osiris, and then, in order to be sure he stayed dead, scattered bits of him all over the world.

The faithful Isis gathered up these pieces of her dead husband, wrapped them together as the first mummy. Some sources say she bound him with his penis erect. When he was thus prepared, she assumed the form of a bird, hovered above the mummy, and became impregnated by it. Then, resuming her prior shape and rewrapping the mummy more demurely, she gave him a proper burial.

Thus was born Horus, son of Osiris and Isis. Because of his partial bird nature, he is often represented by a falcon. And, inspired by Isis, Horus vowed a filial war against Seth.

Much is known about the Osiris myth, which of course is far more complex than what is included here, and typically involves other gods as well. Later belief sees Osiris as specifically the god of the dead, and especially of the dead kings, and sees Horus as the patron of living kings and the model of a filial son. If it is accurate to project these views to earlier periods, where they are not directly documented, then this may suggest an active ancestral cult informing the cultures of the Delta. It may initially have been absent further to the south, which seems to have acquired the Osiris story only later.

There was always some trade and some exchange of ideas (archaeologically represented by styles) between Upper and Lower Egypt, and, for that matter, between Lower Egypt and adjacent areas along the Mediterranean coast. One Lower Egyptian site from which we can see this is Maadi, near Cairo, occupied in about 3200 BC. In the predynastic levels at Maadi, excavators found products made of local materials, of course. But they also found Upper Egyptian pottery vessels and slate palettes. Houses tended to be oval or circular, which is typical for Lower Egypt, but some were also underground dwellings of a kind found in Palestine. Local pottery was mostly undecorated, rather typical Lower Egyptian ware, but a few pieces were polished red or black items of the kind usually found in Upper Egypt. Copper seems to have been worked at Maadi, but the ore has to have come from elsewhere, since there are no local copper deposits. (Sinai seems the likely source.) All of this suggests that there was more exchange of ideas and sometimes even objects between Lower Egypt and the adjacent areas of Upper Egypt and of the Mediterranean coast than had previously been realized (Spencer 1993:47).

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