A young woman, scantily clad except for a long diaphanous wedding veil, stands on a stone platform. She is barefoot, and chained by her ankles to a heavy rock; her hands are tied at her sides. She is to be thrown into the river as a sacrifice.
This ubiquitous myth about Egyptian culture, ancient and Coptic, panders to the western taste for exoticism and the “barbaric” but fascinating east. In a nutshell, a beautiful maiden is supposedly married to the river god, her wedding day attended by many thousands of “well wishers” concludes with her immolation by drowning. The practice was supposedly revived by Coptic Christians to indulge their Roman masters’ taste for sex and death. Then supposedly banned by the Muslim Omar within living memory but still celebrated in effigy in annual Nile regattas. It has inspired at least two modern Egyptomaniacal novels, one, which gives its name to this article, by the celebrated Georg Ebers, Egyptologist and novelist, whose main claim to fame is the discovering of the important medical papyri that bears his name.
The famous image above By W Gentz, taken from Eber’s
(Aegypten in Bild und Wort (Picturesque Egypt) (1878) vol 1226
Another retelling of the myth is Robert Hume, “Meroth: The Sacrifice to the Nile – a tradegy” , is a mercifully short, five act play, privately printed 1850. “Meroth” is the name of the play’s principle character, an Egyptian high priest, symbolizing “perverted knowledge”. One purpose of this kind of novel is to demonstrate the clear superiority of Christianity over the supposed Pagan dark continent.
It even appears on early Pathe News film . . .
According to early Islamic sources, the practice was revived at the urging of the Coptic community, after a series of particularly poor inundations. Ebers writes that “As soon as the cutting of the dykes takes place, a coarsely moulded figure made of Nile mud is — even to this day — flung into the river with much rejoicing of the people, by whom it is called “the bride”; and it is considered as a substitute for a fair virgin who, it is said, used to be richly dressed as a bride and cast into the stream to purchase its favours. When, after the founding of Fostât, the Nile did not rise to its proper level, Ibn-Ayas relates that the Copts implored the governor Amroo to allow them to offer such a victim to the river. The general refused, but when the Nile remained at its low level and famine seemed to threaten the land, Amroo made the Kalif Omar acquainted with the state of affairs. His messenger came back with a letter and the order to cast it into the Nile. Amroo obeys, and the very next night the Nile reached the required level of sixteen ells; the letter of the Commander of the Faithful contained these words: “To the blessed Nile of Egypt. If up till this time thou hast flowed only by thine own will, then cease to flow; but if thy stream was obedient to the command of the most high God, we beseech that God that he will grant thee thy necessary increase.” This pretty legend is hardly credible, because the ancient Egyptian faith forbids human sacrifice as strictly as the Christian religion itself. However, in pre-Islamite times some kind of offering was no doubt cast into the stream, though not a maiden; and Makreezee tells us, so circumstantially as to exclude all doubt, that in the fourteenth century the Christians were wont to throw a reliquary with the finger of a saint into the Nile to secure a good inundation.”
This accusation against the Copts actually comes from the ninth-century writer Ibn cAbd el-Hakam in his historical work Futuh Misr ([The History of the] Conquests of Egypt). “He is a traditionalist rather than a pure historian. He was interested mainly in historical incidents which illustrated early Muslim Arab customs which he could use to teach Islamic law.”(1)
Thus the Muslim conquerors are cast as civilizing influences that stopped a barbaric custom. The issue is still relevant as apparently there have been modern political discussions circulating on the web, reviving the potentially dangerous slander against the Copts. So once again “history becomes sociology”.(2)
Origins of the Myth
So what is the origin of this myth, which most experts agree has no basis in Egyptian culture, Pharaonic or Coptic (The myth later reemerges as a “slander” against Coptic Christians, )? The finger of blame for this story is usually pointed at Roman author Plutarch. You can look in vain for this in his masterly study of Egyptian culture “Isis and Osiris”. In fact scholars agree the source is pseudo-epigraphy, ie later work ascribed to Plutarch but by no means displaying his genius. The second century AD work, whose abbreviated title is “De Fluviis” (About Rivers) full title “About Rivers and things found in them.”
The passage reads:
“Nile is a river of Egypt near the city of Alexandria. Formerly it was called Melas from Melas, a child of Poseidon. Later it was instead called Egyptus for a reason of this sort. Egyptus, a child of Hephaestus and Leucippe, was king of the regions, and, through a civil war, since the Nile did not rise and the natives were oppressed by famine, the Pythis delivered the solution: if the king sacrifice his daughter to the gods as an averter. Distressed by the evils, the tyrant conducted Aganippe to the altars. When she was sacrificed, Egyptus, through surfeit of grief, flung himself into the river Melas, which, from him, was renamed Egyptus.”(3)
Interesting though this text is for other reasons, it does not display any genuine first hand knowledge of Egyptian religion. Modern Arabists have several suggestions as to where this pseudo-Plutarch got this story. Dr Ahmad Al Safi has produced a primer for health care providers, researchers and students entitled “Tradition Sudanese Medicine”. It’s a mine of information on local folklore, the Nile Bride being one example of a common myth to be dispelled. This is relevant to health care because it has been reported (Tigani Al Mahi 1959) that mental breakdown occurs in some patients when the Nile inundation is immanent. “Sudanese people offer Nile sacrifices to pacify it. The sacrifices are of several kinds, but do not include the sacrifice of young women, as has been unjustifiably reported.” (p68). Ni’mat Ahman Fouad, an Egyptian folklorist, discredits the myth in her book Al-Nil fi Al-Adab Al Shabi. (The Nile in Folklore) She quotes the views of many historians and Egyptologists; all agree that the custom never existed. They do not find any evidence for it in Pharaonic times, nor could they consider that Christianity could have condoned such a brutal practice in the Christian era.” (4 : 68)
“She goes on the consider the Harris Papyrus (1198-1167bc) as the possible source. The Papyrus states that food was offered to Hapi, the Nile God, and that, Egyptian priests also made six idols out of wood for the Nile gods and an equal number for Repyt, the consort of Hapi. Other statues were also made of silver, gold and precious stones. These were all thrown into the Nile just before flooding to celebrate Hapi’s festivities. The priests then made another set for the next season.”
The Great Harris Papyrus certainly lives up to its name, one of the largest temple scrolls thus far found. It was excavated at Deir El Madina but its original home would be the “small” (main) temple of Amun situated in the sacred precinct of Medinet Habu, a complex and important site dominated by the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, for whose benefit this papyrus was compiled. It documents the offerings and provisions for for the annual feast of Opet, dedicated to Amun and the Theban triad. The manuscript is in five parts, the last section detailing a feast to mark the beginning of the inundation or to ensure it achieves its optimum level. It is here that one reads of the preparations of cult statues of Hapu, the personification of the Nile and also statues/effigies of his bride Rypet, both made of sycamore wood:
Sycamore wood for statues for the “book of Hapu”
Sycamore wood for effigies of his wife for the “Book of Hapu” (5)
If one compares the Ramesside mss with the Arab account, there is a very interesting example of “archaeological memory”. Al Hakam’s account of the supposed abolition of human sacrifice by Caliph Omar, says this is done via a “letter to the Nile”, which is offered to the Nile in lieu of the “bride”. Arabic “kitab” means any written document, a letter or a complete book.
The Arab Caliph exercises a sacerdotal authority over the spirits of the Nile through the power of his written word. The remarkable thing about this is that in the pharaonic example 2000years earlier, the ritual is referred to as the “Book of Hapu”.
The meaning of the above designation is not oblivious and requires a bit of complex theorizing by the Egyptologist. The “Book” must refer to the papyrus on which is written the entire rubric of the ritual. The vast papyrus also in some sense transfers merit to Ramses III, the feast’s patron, whose generosity is recorded in the Harris papyrus for eternity. In a real sense, every time someone reads to book, the rite is accomplished and his soul accumulates more merit.
More than this is that the unusual designation “Book of Hapu” has been interpreted by some to mean that the book itself, or that part of the rubric, was offered to the Nile, casting it into the waters, or perhaps burning on the sacrificial alter and casting the ashes in the Nile.
This ritual action is suggested by lines 6 & 10 in the popular “Hymn to the Nile”:
1 O Inundation of Nile, offerings are made to thee:
2 Oxen are slain to thee:
3 Great festivals are kept for thee;
4 Fowls are sacrificed to thee;
5 Beasts of the field are caught for thee
6 Pure flames are offered to thee;
7 Offerings are made to every god,
8 As they are made unto Nile.
9 Incense ascends unto heaven,
10 Oxen, bulls, fowls are burnt!
11 Nile makes for himself chasms in the Thebaid;
12 Unknown is his name in heaven,
13 He doth not manifest his form!
14 Vain are all representations! (6)
This offering of a letter also recalls another ancient magical technique. I’m thinking of the New Testament story of the centurion asking Jesus to cure his son, intuitively knowing that Jesus’ command of spirits works in same way as the soldier’s command of his slaves. The words used are similar to technical formulae seen everywhere in the magical papyri, “do it now, and do it quickly”.(7)
There are other examples of rituals in which the mere description acts, “pars pro toto” ie just a part representing the whole, in this case the writing representing the whole rite. For example in the Magical Papyri there is a rite to consecrate a magical ring, using a ritual with a very long pedigree called “Opening the Mouth” – however all the details of the rite can be omitted apart from the first word “Ouphor” which then stands as the name and potentiator of the whole rite.(8)
So the Arab version of the rite seems to be a mash-up of several sources, the erroneous Neo-platonic account of pseudo-Plutarch; but also a genuine understanding of the mechanics of magic, which uses a letter or book with similar understanding to the original Egyptian manuscript. There is also an acknowledgement of a tutelary spirit of the river Nile, to which offerings can be made. It is also a good example of “archaeological memory”; that Egyptian Muslims have a connection through time with ancient pharaonic culture and practice. This connection could be via works of earlier Islamic historians whose work is otherwise unknown to us or more probably via a living, oral tradition. Thus one may or another there is much we can learn from this story but one thing that is worth saying is that in the ancient Egyptian ritual there is no human sacrifice. This is a joyous feast uniting aristocrat, priest and commoner where effigies of the wife of the Nile god are offered, not as sacrifices but as a reenactment of the primary coupling of Hapu with his bride. This is all classic Egypt image magick.
[1. Ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam, Kitāb futuḥ misr wa akbārahā, edited and with English preface by Charles Torrey (English title The History of the Conquests of Egypt, North Africa, and Spain), Yale University Press, 1922. preface]
[2. See Ahmes Labib Pahor discussion of the legend of the so-called “Nile Bride” in Mariam F. Ayad, Coptic Culture: Past, Present and Future. Stevenage: Coptic Orthodox Church Centre, 2011. Pp. xiii, 238. ISBN 9781935488279. $45.00. reviewed in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.08 ]
[3. section XVI Nile – Pseudo-Plutarch “About Rivers and Mountains and things found in Them” translated by Thomas M Banchich with Sarah Brill, Emilyn Haremza, Dustin Hummel and Ryan Post, Canusius College, Buffalo, NY 2010]
[4. Dr Ahmad Al Safi “Tradition Sudanese Medicine”]
[5. Pierre Grandet Le Papyrus Harris I (BM 9999) (not to be confused with Harris Magical Pap BM10042) – 3 vols Inst FranCais D’ArchEologie Oriental , Vol1 page 298 List D. See notes 593 for extended essay on significance of this passage, also fn616, fn706-707 . ]
[6. Circa 2100BCE, Translated by Rev. F. C. Cook (1901)]
[7. Robert Conner, Magic in the new Testament, Mandrake 2010 p175 ]
[8. See Mogg Morgan (2014) “Phi-Neter:Power of the Egyptian Gods”, Mandrake]