A History of Science, Volume 1(of 5)
by Henry Smith Williams
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Should the story that is about to be unfolded be found to lack interest, the writers must stand convicted of unpardonable lack of art. Nothing but dulness in the telling could mar the story, for in itself it is the record of the growth of those ideas that have made our race and its civilization what they are; of ideas instinct with human interest, vital with meaning for our race; fundamental in their influence on human development; part and parcel of the mechanism of human thought on the one hand, and of practical civilization on the other. Such a phrase as "fundamental principles" may seem at first thought a hard saying, but the idea it implies is less repellent than the phrase itself, for the fundamental principles in question are so closely linked with the present interests of every one of us that they lie within the grasp of every average man and woman—nay, of every well-developed boy and girl. These principles are not merely the stepping-stones to culture, the prerequisites of knowledge—they are, in themselves, an essential part of the knowledge of every cultivated person.

It is our task, not merely to show what these principles are, but to point out how they have been discovered by our predecessors. We shall trace the growth of these ideas from their first vague beginnings. We shall see how vagueness of thought gave way to precision; how a general truth, once grasped and formulated, was found to be a stepping-stone to other truths. We shall see that there are no isolated facts, no isolated principles, in nature; that each part of our story is linked by indissoluble bands with that which goes before, and with that which comes after. For the most part the discovery of this principle or that in a given sequence is no accident. Galileo and Keppler must precede Newton. Cuvier and Lyall must come before Darwin;—Which, after all, is no more than saying that in our Temple of Science, as in any other piece of architecture, the foundation must precede the superstructure.

We shall best understand our story of the growth of science if we think of each new principle as a stepping-stone which must fit into its own particular niche; and if we reflect that the entire structure of modern civilization would be different from what it is, and less perfect than it is, had not that particular stepping-stone been found and shaped and placed in position. Taken as a whole, our stepping-stones lead us up and up towards the alluring heights of an acropolis of knowledge, on which stands the Temple of Modern Science. The story of the building of this wonderful structure is in itself fascinating and beautiful.


To speak of a prehistoric science may seem like a contradiction of terms. The word prehistoric seems to imply barbarism, while science, clearly enough, seems the outgrowth of civilization; but rightly considered, there is no contradiction. For, on the one hand, man had ceased to be a barbarian long before the beginning of what we call the historical period; and, on the other hand, science, of a kind, is no less a precursor and a cause of civilization than it is a consequent. To get this clearly in mind, we must ask ourselves: What, then, is science? The word runs glibly enough upon the tongue of our every-day speech, but it is not often, perhaps, that they who use it habitually ask themselves just what it means. Yet the answer is not difficult. A little attention will show that science, as the word is commonly used, implies these things: first, the gathering of knowledge through observation; second, the classification of such knowledge, and through this classification, the elaboration of general ideas or principles. In the familiar definition of Herbert Spencer, science is organized knowledge.

Now it is patent enough, at first glance, that the veriest savage must have been an observer of the phenomena of nature. But it may not be so obvious that he must also have been a classifier of his observations—an organizer of knowledge. Yet the more we consider the case, the more clear it will become that the two methods are too closely linked together to be dissevered. To observe outside phenomena is not more inherent in the nature of the mind than to draw inferences from these phenomena. A deer passing through the forest scents the ground and detects a certain odor. A sequence of ideas is generated in the mind of the deer. Nothing in the deer's experience can produce that odor but a wolf; therefore the scientific inference is drawn that wolves have passed that way. But it is a part of the deer's scientific knowledge, based on previous experience, individual and racial; that wolves are dangerous beasts, and so, combining direct observation in the present with the application of a general principle based on past experience, the deer reaches the very logical conclusion that it may wisely turn about and run in another direction. All this implies, essentially, a comprehension and use of scientific principles; and, strange as it seems to speak of a deer as possessing scientific knowledge, yet there is really no absurdity in the statement. The deer does possess scientific knowledge; knowledge differing in degree only, not in kind, from the knowledge of a Newton. Nor is the animal, within the range of its intelligence, less logical, less scientific in the application of that knowledge, than is the man. The animal that could not make accurate scientific observations of its surroundings, and deduce accurate scientific conclusions from them, would soon pay the penalty of its lack of logic.

What is true of man's precursors in the animal scale is, of course, true in a wider and fuller sense of man himself at the very lowest stage of his development. Ages before the time which the limitations of our knowledge force us to speak of as the dawn of history, man had reached a high stage of development. As a social being, he had developed all the elements of a primitive civilization. If, for convenience of classification, we speak of his state as savage, or barbaric, we use terms which, after all, are relative, and which do not shut off our primitive ancestors from a tolerably close association with our own ideals. We know that, even in the Stone Age, man had learned how to domesticate animals and make them useful to him, and that he had also learned to cultivate the soil. Later on, doubtless by slow and painful stages, he attained those wonderful elements of knowledge that enabled him to smelt metals and to produce implements of bronze, and then of iron. Even in the Stone Age he was a mechanic of marvellous skill, as any one of to-day may satisfy himself by attempting to duplicate such an implement as a chipped arrow-head. And a barbarian who could fashion an axe or a knife of bronze had certainly gone far in his knowledge of scientific principles and their practical application. The practical application was, doubtless, the only thought that our primitive ancestor had in mind; quite probably the question as to principles that might be involved troubled him not at all. Yet, in spite of himself, he knew certain rudimentary principles of science, even though he did not formulate them.

Let us inquire what some of these principles are. Such an inquiry will, as it were, clear the ground for our structure of science. It will show the plane of knowledge on which historical investigation begins. Incidentally, perhaps, it will reveal to us unsuspected affinities between ourselves and our remote ancestor. Without attempting anything like a full analysis, we may note in passing, not merely what primitive man knew, but what he did not know; that at least a vague notion may be gained of the field for scientific research that lay open for historic man to cultivate.

It must be understood that the knowledge of primitive man, as we are about to outline it, is inferential. We cannot trace the development of these principles, much less can we say who discovered them. Some of them, as already suggested, are man's heritage from non-human ancestors. Others can only have been grasped by him after he had reached a relatively high stage of human development. But all the principles here listed must surely have been parts of our primitive ancestor's knowledge before those earliest days of Egyptian and Babylonian civilization, the records of which constitute our first introduction to the so-called historical period. Taken somewhat in the order of their probable discovery, the scientific ideas of primitive man may be roughly listed as follows:

1. Primitive man must have conceived that the earth is flat and of limitless extent. By this it is not meant to imply that he had a distinct conception of infinity, but, for that matter, it cannot be said that any one to-day has a conception of infinity that could be called definite. But, reasoning from experience and the reports of travellers, there was nothing to suggest to early man the limit of the earth. He did, indeed, find in his wanderings, that changed climatic conditions barred him from farther progress; but beyond the farthest reaches of his migrations, the seemingly flat land-surfaces and water-surfaces stretched away unbroken and, to all appearances, without end. It would require a reach of the philosophical imagination to conceive a limit to the earth, and while such imaginings may have been current in the prehistoric period, we can have no proof of them, and we may well postpone consideration of man's early dreamings as to the shape of the earth until we enter the historical epoch where we stand on firm ground.

2. Primitive man must, from a very early period, have observed that the sun gives heat and light, and that the moon and stars seem to give light only and no heat. It required but a slight extension of this observation to note that the changing phases of the seasons were associated with the seeming approach and recession of the sun. This observation, however, could not have been made until man had migrated from the tropical regions, and had reached a stage of mechanical development enabling him to live in subtropical or temperate zones. Even then it is conceivable that a long period must have elapsed before a direct causal relation was felt to exist between the shifting of the sun and the shifting of the seasons; because, as every one knows, the periods of greatest heat in summer and greatest cold in winter usually come some weeks after the time of the solstices. Yet, the fact that these extremes of temperature are associated in some way with the change of the sun's place in the heavens must, in time, have impressed itself upon even a rudimentary intelligence. It is hardly necessary to add that this is not meant to imply any definite knowledge of the real meaning of, the seeming oscillations of the sun. We shall see that, even at a relatively late period, the vaguest notions were still in vogue as to the cause of the sun's changes of position.

That the sun, moon, and stars move across the heavens must obviously have been among the earliest scientific observations. It must not be inferred, however, that this observation implied a necessary conception of the complete revolution of these bodies about the earth. It is unnecessary to speculate here as to how the primitive intelligence conceived the transfer of the sun from the western to the eastern horizon, to be effected each night, for we shall have occasion to examine some historical speculations regarding this phenomenon. We may assume, however, that the idea of the transfer of the heavenly bodies beneath the earth (whatever the conception as to the form of that body) must early have presented itself.

It required a relatively high development of the observing faculties, yet a development which man must have attained ages before the historical period, to note that the moon has a secondary motion, which leads it to shift its relative position in the heavens, as regards the stars; that the stars themselves, on the other hand, keep a fixed relation as regards one another, with the notable exception of two or three of the most brilliant members of the galaxy, the latter being the bodies which came to be known finally as planets, or wandering stars. The wandering propensities of such brilliant bodies as Jupiter and Venus cannot well have escaped detection. We may safely assume, however, that these anomalous motions of the moon and planets found no explanation that could be called scientific until a relatively late period.

3. Turning from the heavens to the earth, and ignoring such primitive observations as that of the distinction between land and water, we may note that there was one great scientific law which must have forced itself upon the attention of primitive man. This is the law of universal terrestrial gravitation. The word gravitation suggests the name of Newton, and it may excite surprise to hear a knowledge of gravitation ascribed to men who preceded that philosopher by, say, twenty-five or fifty thousand years. Yet the slightest consideration of the facts will make it clear that the great central law that all heavy bodies fall directly towards the earth, cannot have escaped the attention of the most primitive intelligence. The arboreal habits of our primitive ancestors gave opportunities for constant observation of the practicalities of this law. And, so soon as man had developed the mental capacity to formulate ideas, one of the earliest ideas must have been the conception, however vaguely phrased in words, that all unsupported bodies fall towards the earth. The same phenomenon being observed to operate on water-surfaces, and no alteration being observed in its operation in different portions of man's habitat, the most primitive wanderer must have come to have full faith in the universal action of the observed law of gravitation. Indeed, it is inconceivable that he can have imagined a place on the earth where this law does not operate. On the other hand, of course, he never grasped the conception of the operation of this law beyond the close proximity of the earth. To extend the reach of gravitation out to the moon and to the stars, including within its compass every particle of matter in the universe, was the work of Newton, as we shall see in due course. Meantime we shall better understand that work if we recall that the mere local fact of terrestrial gravitation has been the familiar knowledge of all generations of men. It may further help to connect us in sympathy with our primeval ancestor if we recall that in the attempt to explain this fact of terrestrial gravitation Newton made no advance, and we of to-day are scarcely more enlightened than the man of the Stone Age. Like the man of the Stone Age, we know that an arrow shot into the sky falls back to the earth. We can calculate, as he could not do, the arc it will describe and the exact speed of its fall; but as to why it returns to earth at all, the greatest philosopher of to-day is almost as much in the dark as was the first primitive bowman that ever made the experiment.

Other physical facts going to make up an elementary science of mechanics, that were demonstratively known to prehistoric man, were such as these: the rigidity of solids and the mobility of liquids; the fact that changes of temperature transform solids to liquids and vice versa—that heat, for example, melts copper and even iron, and that cold congeals water; and the fact that friction, as illustrated in the rubbing together of two sticks, may produce heat enough to cause a fire. The rationale of this last experiment did not receive an explanation until about the beginning of the nineteenth century of our own era. But the experimental fact was so well known to prehistoric man that he employed this method, as various savage tribes employ it to this day, for the altogether practical purpose of making a fire; just as he employed his practical knowledge of the mutability of solids and liquids in smelting ores, in alloying copper with tin to make bronze, and in casting this alloy in molds to make various implements and weapons. Here, then, were the germs of an elementary science of physics. Meanwhile such observations as that of the solution of salt in water may be considered as giving a first lesson in chemistry, but beyond such altogether rudimentary conceptions chemical knowledge could not have gone—unless, indeed, the practical observation of the effects of fire be included; nor can this well be overlooked, since scarcely another single line of practical observation had a more direct influence in promoting the progress of man towards the heights of civilization.

4. In the field of what we now speak of as biological knowledge, primitive man had obviously the widest opportunity for practical observation. We can hardly doubt that man attained, at an early day, to that conception of identity and of difference which Plato places at the head of his metaphysical system. We shall urge presently that it is precisely such general ideas as these that were man's earliest inductions from observation, and hence that came to seem the most universal and "innate" ideas of his mentality. It is quite inconceivable, for example, that even the most rudimentary intelligence that could be called human could fail to discriminate between living things and, let us say, the rocks of the earth. The most primitive intelligence, then, must have made a tacit classification of the natural objects about it into the grand divisions of animate and inanimate nature. Doubtless the nascent scientist may have imagined life animating many bodies that we should call inanimate—such as the sun, wandering planets, the winds, and lightning; and, on the other hand, he may quite likely have relegated such objects as trees to the ranks of the non-living; but that he recognized a fundamental distinction between, let us say, a wolf and a granite bowlder we cannot well doubt. A step beyond this—a step, however, that may have required centuries or millenniums in the taking—must have carried man to a plane of intelligence from which a primitive Aristotle or Linnaeus was enabled to note differences and resemblances connoting such groups of things as fishes, birds, and furry beasts. This conception, to be sure, is an abstraction of a relatively high order. We know that there are savage races to-day whose language contains no word for such an abstraction as bird or tree. We are bound to believe, then, that there were long ages of human progress during which the highest man had attained no such stage of abstraction; but, on the other hand, it is equally little in question that this degree of mental development had been attained long before the opening of our historical period. The primeval man, then, whose scientific knowledge we are attempting to predicate, had become, through his conception of fishes, birds, and hairy animals as separate classes, a scientific zoologist of relatively high attainments.

In the practical field of medical knowledge, a certain stage of development must have been reached at a very early day. Even animals pick and choose among the vegetables about them, and at times seek out certain herbs quite different from their ordinary food, practising a sort of instinctive therapeutics. The cat's fondness for catnip is a case in point. The most primitive man, then, must have inherited a racial or instinctive knowledge of the medicinal effects of certain herbs; in particular he must have had such elementary knowledge of toxicology as would enable him to avoid eating certain poisonous berries. Perhaps, indeed, we are placing the effect before the cause to some extent; for, after all, the animal system possesses marvellous powers of adaption, and there is perhaps hardly any poisonous vegetable which man might not have learned to eat without deleterious effect, provided the experiment were made gradually. To a certain extent, then, the observed poisonous effects of numerous plants upon the human system are to be explained by the fact that our ancestors have avoided this particular vegetable. Certain fruits and berries might have come to have been a part of man's diet, had they grown in the regions he inhabited at an early day, which now are poisonous to his system. This thought, however, carries us too far afield. For practical purposes, it suffices that certain roots, leaves, and fruits possess principles that are poisonous to the human system, and that unless man had learned in some way to avoid these, our race must have come to disaster. In point of fact, he did learn to avoid them; and such evidence implied, as has been said, an elementary knowledge of toxicology.

Coupled with this knowledge of things dangerous to the human system, there must have grown up, at a very early day, a belief in the remedial character of various vegetables as agents to combat disease. Here, of course, was a rudimentary therapeutics, a crude principle of an empirical art of medicine. As just suggested, the lower order of animals have an instinctive knowledge that enables them to seek out remedial herbs (though we probably exaggerate the extent of this instinctive knowledge); and if this be true, man must have inherited from his prehuman ancestors this instinct along with the others. That he extended this knowledge through observation and practice, and came early to make extensive use of drugs in the treatment of disease, is placed beyond cavil through the observation of the various existing barbaric tribes, nearly all of whom practice elaborate systems of therapeutics. We shall have occasion to see that even within historic times the particular therapeutic measures employed were often crude, and, as we are accustomed to say, unscientific; but even the crudest of them are really based upon scientific principles, inasmuch as their application implies the deduction of principles of action from previous observations. Certain drugs are applied to appease certain symptoms of disease because in the belief of the medicine-man such drugs have proved beneficial in previous similar cases.

All this, however, implies an appreciation of the fact that man is subject to "natural" diseases, and that if these diseases are not combated, death may result. But it should be understood that the earliest man probably had no such conception as this. Throughout all the ages of early development, what we call "natural" disease and "natural" death meant the onslaught of a tangible enemy. A study of this question leads us to some very curious inferences. The more we look into the matter the more the thought forces itself home to us that the idea of natural death, as we now conceive it, came to primitive man as a relatively late scientific induction. This thought seems almost startling, so axiomatic has the conception "man is mortal" come to appear. Yet a study of the ideas of existing savages, combined with our knowledge of the point of view from which historical peoples regard disease, make it more probable that the primitive conception of human life did not include the idea of necessary death. We are told that the Australian savage who falls from a tree and breaks his neck is not regarded as having met a natural death, but as having been the victim of the magical practices of the "medicine-man" of some neighboring tribe. Similarly, we shall find that the Egyptian and the Babylonian of the early historical period conceived illness as being almost invariably the result of the machinations of an enemy. One need but recall the superstitious observances of the Middle Ages, and the yet more recent belief in witchcraft, to realize how generally disease has been personified as a malicious agent invoked by an unfriendly mind. Indeed, the phraseology of our present-day speech is still reminiscent of this; as when, for example, we speak of an "attack of fever," and the like.

When, following out this idea, we picture to ourselves the conditions under which primitive man lived, it will be evident at once how relatively infrequent must have been his observation of what we usually term natural death. His world was a world of strife; he lived by the chase; he saw animals kill one another; he witnessed the death of his own fellows at the hands of enemies. Naturally enough, then, when a member of his family was "struck down" by invisible agents, he ascribed this death also to violence, even though the offensive agent was concealed. Moreover, having very little idea of the lapse of time—being quite unaccustomed, that is, to reckon events from any fixed era—primitive man cannot have gained at once a clear conception of age as applied to his fellows. Until a relatively late stage of development made tribal life possible, it cannot have been usual for man to have knowledge of his grandparents; as a rule he did not know his own parents after he had passed the adolescent stage and had been turned out upon the world to care for himself. If, then, certain of his fellow-beings showed those evidences of infirmity which we ascribe to age, it did not necessarily follow that he saw any association between such infirmities and the length of time which those persons had lived. The very fact that some barbaric nations retain the custom of killing the aged and infirm, in itself suggests the possibility that this custom arose before a clear conception had been attained that such drags upon the community would be removed presently in the natural order of things. To a person who had no clear conception of the lapse of time and no preconception as to the limited period of man's life, the infirmities of age might very naturally be ascribed to the repeated attacks of those inimical powers which were understood sooner or later to carry off most members of the race. And coupled with this thought would go the conception that inasmuch as some people through luck had escaped the vengeance of all their enemies for long periods, these same individuals might continue to escape for indefinite periods of the future. There were no written records to tell primeval man of events of long ago. He lived in the present, and his sweep of ideas scarcely carried him back beyond the limits of his individual memory. But memory is observed to be fallacious. It must early have been noted that some people recalled events which other participants in them had quite forgotten, and it may readily enough have been inferred that those members of the tribe who spoke of events which others could not recall were merely the ones who were gifted with the best memories. If these reached a period when their memories became vague, it did not follow that their recollections had carried them back to the beginnings of their lives. Indeed, it is contrary to all experience to believe that any man remembers all the things he has once known, and the observed fallaciousness and evanescence of memory would thus tend to substantiate rather than to controvert the idea that various members of a tribe had been alive for an indefinite period.

Without further elaborating the argument, it seems a justifiable inference that the first conception primitive man would have of his own life would not include the thought of natural death, but would, conversely, connote the vague conception of endless life. Our own ancestors, a few generations removed, had not got rid of this conception, as the perpetual quest of the spring of eternal youth amply testifies. A naturalist of our own day has suggested that perhaps birds never die except by violence. The thought, then, that man has a term of years beyond which "in the nature of things," as the saying goes, he may not live, would have dawned but gradually upon the developing intelligence of successive generations of men; and we cannot feel sure that he would fully have grasped the conception of a "natural" termination of human life until he had shaken himself free from the idea that disease is always the result of the magic practice of an enemy. Our observation of historical man in antiquity makes it somewhat doubtful whether this conception had been attained before the close of the prehistoric period. If it had, this conception of the mortality of man was one of the most striking scientific inductions to which prehistoric man attained. Incidentally, it may be noted that the conception of eternal life for the human body being a more primitive idea than the conception of natural death, the idea of the immortality of the spirit would be the most natural of conceptions. The immortal spirit, indeed, would be but a correlative of the immortal body, and the idea which we shall see prevalent among the Egyptians that the soul persists only as long as the body is intact—the idea upon which the practice of mummifying the dead depended—finds a ready explanation. But this phase of the subject carries us somewhat afield. For our present purpose it suffices to have pointed out that the conception of man's mortality—a conception which now seems of all others the most natural and "innate"—was in all probability a relatively late scientific induction of our primitive ancestors.

5. Turning from the consideration of the body to its mental complement, we are forced to admit that here, also, our primitive man must have made certain elementary observations that underlie such sciences as psychology, mathematics, and political economy. The elementary emotions associated with hunger and with satiety, with love and with hatred, must have forced themselves upon the earliest intelligence that reached the plane of conscious self-observation. The capacity to count, at least to the number four or five, is within the range of even animal intelligence. Certain savages have gone scarcely farther than this; but our primeval ancestor, who was forging on towards civilization, had learned to count his fingers and toes, and to number objects about him by fives and tens in consequence, before he passed beyond the plane of numerous existing barbarians. How much beyond this he had gone we need not attempt to inquire; but the relatively high development of mathematics in the early historical period suggests that primeval man had attained a not inconsiderable knowledge of numbers. The humdrum vocation of looking after a numerous progeny must have taught the mother the rudiments of addition and subtraction; and the elements of multiplication and division are implied in the capacity to carry on even the rudest form of barter, such as the various tribes must have practised from an early day.

As to political ideas, even the crudest tribal life was based on certain conceptions of ownership, at least of tribal ownership, and the application of the principle of likeness and difference to which we have already referred. Each tribe, of course, differed in some regard from other tribes, and the recognition of these differences implied in itself a political classification. A certain tribe took possession of a particular hunting-ground, which became, for the time being, its home, and over which it came to exercise certain rights. An invasion of this territory by another tribe might lead to war, and the banding together of the members of the tribe to repel the invader implied both a recognition of communal unity and a species of prejudice in favor of that community that constituted a primitive patriotism. But this unity of action in opposing another tribe would not prevent a certain rivalry of interest between the members of the same tribe, which would show itself more and more prominently as the tribe increased in size. The association of two or more persons implies, always, the ascendency of some and the subordination of others. Leadership and subordination are necessary correlatives of difference of physical and mental endowment, and rivalry between leaders would inevitably lead to the formation of primitive political parties. With the ultimate success and ascendency of one leader, who secures either absolute power or power modified in accordance with the advice of subordinate leaders, we have the germs of an elaborate political system—an embryo science of government.

Meanwhile, the very existence of such a community implies the recognition on the part of its members of certain individual rights, the recognition of which is essential to communal harmony. The right of individual ownership of the various articles and implements of every-day life must be recognized, or all harmony would be at an end. Certain rules of justice—primitive laws—must, by common consent, give protection to the weakest members of the community. Here are the rudiments of a system of ethics. It may seem anomalous to speak of this primitive morality, this early recognition of the principles of right and wrong, as having any relation to science. Yet, rightly considered, there is no incongruity in such a citation. There cannot well be a doubt that the adoption of those broad principles of right and wrong which underlie the entire structure of modern civilization was due to scientific induction,—in other words, to the belief, based on observation and experience, that the principles implied were essential to communal progress. He who has scanned the pageant of history knows how often these principles seem to be absent in the intercourse of men and nations. Yet the ideal is always there as a standard by which all deeds are judged.

It would appear, then, that the entire superstructure of later science had its foundation in the knowledge and practice of prehistoric man. The civilization of the historical period could not have advanced as it has had there not been countless generations of culture back of it. The new principles of science could not have been evolved had there not been great basal principles which ages of unconscious experiment had impressed upon the mind of our race. Due meed of praise must be given, then, to our primitive ancestor for his scientific accomplishments; but justice demands that we should look a little farther and consider the reverse side of the picture. We have had to do, thus far, chiefly with the positive side of accomplishment. We have pointed out what our primitive ancestor knew, intimating, perhaps, the limitations of his knowledge; but we have had little to say of one all-important feature of his scientific theorizing. The feature in question is based on the highly scientific desire and propensity to find explanations for the phenomena of nature. Without such desire no progress could be made. It is, as we have seen, the generalizing from experience that constitutes real scientific progress; and yet, just as most other good things can be overdone, this scientific propensity may be carried to a disastrous excess.

Primeval man did not escape this danger. He observed, he reasoned, he found explanations; but he did not always discriminate as to the logicality of his reasonings. He failed to recognize the limitations of his knowledge. The observed uniformity in the sequence of certain events impressed on his mind the idea of cause and effect. Proximate causes known, he sought remoter causes; childlike, his inquiring mind was always asking, Why? and, childlike, he demanded an explicit answer. If the forces of nature seemed to combat him, if wind and rain opposed his progress and thunder and lightning seemed to menace his existence, he was led irrevocably to think of those human foes who warred with him, and to see, back of the warfare of the elements, an inscrutable malevolent intelligence which took this method to express its displeasure. But every other line of scientific observation leads equally, following back a sequence of events, to seemingly causeless beginnings. Modern science can explain the lightning, as it can explain a great number of the mysteries which the primeval intelligence could not penetrate. But the primordial man could not wait for the revelations of scientific investigation: he must vault at once to a final solution of all scientific problems. He found his solution by peopling the world with invisible forces, anthropomorphic in their conception, like himself in their thought and action, differing only in the limitations of their powers. His own dream existence gave him seeming proof of the existence of an alter ego, a spiritual portion of himself that could dissever itself from his body and wander at will; his scientific inductions seemed to tell him of a world of invisible beings, capable of influencing him for good or ill. From the scientific exercise of his faculties he evolved the all-encompassing generalizations of invisible and all-powerful causes back of the phenomena of nature. These generalizations, early developed and seemingly supported by the observations of countless generations, came to be among the most firmly established scientific inductions of our primeval ancestor. They obtained a hold upon the mentality of our race that led subsequent generations to think of them, sometimes to speak of them, as "innate" ideas. The observations upon which they were based are now, for the most part, susceptible of other interpretations; but the old interpretations have precedent and prejudice back of them, and they represent ideas that are more difficult than almost any others to eradicate. Always, and everywhere, superstitions based upon unwarranted early scientific deductions have been the most implacable foes to the progress of science. Men have built systems of philosophy around their conception of anthropomorphic deities; they have linked to these systems of philosophy the allied conception of the immutability of man's spirit, and they have asked that scientific progress should stop short at the brink of these systems of philosophy and accept their dictates as final. Yet there is not to-day in existence, and there never has been, one jot of scientific evidence for the existence of these intangible anthropomorphic powers back of nature that is not susceptible of scientific challenge and of more logical interpretation. In despite of which the superstitious beliefs are still as firmly fixed in the minds of a large majority of our race as they were in the mind of our prehistoric ancestor. The fact of this baleful heritage must not be forgotten in estimating the debt of gratitude which historic man owes to his barbaric predecessor.


In the previous chapter we have purposely refrained from referring to any particular tribe or race of historical man. Now, however, we are at the beginnings of national existence, and we have to consider the accomplishments of an individual race; or rather, perhaps, of two or more races that occupied successively the same geographical territory. But even now our studies must for a time remain very general; we shall see little or nothing of the deeds of individual scientists in the course of our study of Egyptian culture. We are still, it must be understood, at the beginnings of history; indeed, we must first bridge over the gap from the prehistoric before we may find ourselves fairly on the line of march of historical science.

At the very outset we may well ask what constitutes the distinction between prehistoric and historic epochs—a distinction which has been constantly implied in much that we have said. The reply savors somewhat of vagueness. It is a distinction having to do, not so much with facts of human progress as with our interpretation of these facts. When we speak of the dawn of history we must not be understood to imply that, at the period in question, there was any sudden change in the intellectual status of the human race or in the status of any individual tribe or nation of men. What we mean is that modern knowledge has penetrated the mists of the past for the period we term historical with something more of clearness and precision than it has been able to bring to bear upon yet earlier periods. New accessions of knowledge may thus shift from time to time the bounds of the so-called historical period. The clearest illustration of this is furnished by our interpretation of Egyptian history. Until recently the biblical records of the Hebrew captivity or service, together with the similar account of Josephus, furnished about all that was known of Egyptian history even of so comparatively recent a time as that of Ramses II. (fifteenth century B.C.), and from that period on there was almost a complete gap until the story was taken up by the Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus. It is true that the king-lists of the Alexandrian historian, Manetho, were all along accessible in somewhat garbled copies. But at best they seemed to supply unintelligible lists of names and dates which no one was disposed to take seriously. That they were, broadly speaking, true historical records, and most important historical records at that, was not recognized by modern scholars until fresh light had been thrown on the subject from altogether new sources.

These new sources of knowledge of ancient history demand a moment's consideration. They are all-important because they have been the means of extending the historical period of Egyptian history (using the word history in the way just explained) by three or four thousand years. As just suggested, that historical period carried the scholarship of the early nineteenth century scarcely beyond the fifteenth century B.C., but to-day's vision extends with tolerable clearness to about the middle of the fifth millennium B.C. This change has been brought about chiefly through study of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. These hieroglyphics constitute, as we now know, a highly developed system of writing; a system that was practised for some thousands of years, but which fell utterly into disuse in the later Roman period, and the knowledge of which passed absolutely from the mind of man. For about two thousand years no one was able to read, with any degree of explicitness, a single character of this strange script, and the idea became prevalent that it did not constitute a real system of writing, but only a more or less barbaric system of religious symbolism. The falsity of this view was shown early in the nineteenth century when Dr. Thomas Young was led, through study of the famous trilingual inscription of the Rosetta stone, to make the first successful attempt at clearing up the mysteries of the hieroglyphics.

This is not the place to tell the story of his fascinating discoveries and those of his successors. That story belongs to nineteenth-century science, not to the science of the Egyptians. Suffice it here that Young gained the first clew to a few of the phonetic values of the Egyptian symbols, and that the work of discovery was carried on and vastly extended by the Frenchman Champollion, a little later, with the result that the firm foundations of the modern science of Egyptology were laid. Subsequently such students as Rosellini the Italian, Lepsius the German, and Wilkinson the Englishman, entered the field, which in due course was cultivated by De Rouge in France and Birch in England, and by such distinguished latter-day workers as Chabas, Mariette, Maspero, Amelineau, and De Morgan among the Frenchmen; Professor Petrie and Dr. Budge in England; and Brugsch Pasha and Professor Erman in Germany, not to mention a large coterie of somewhat less familiar names. These men working, some of them in the field of practical exploration, some as students of the Egyptian language and writing, have restored to us a tolerably precise knowledge of the history of Egypt from the time of the first historical king, Mena, whose date is placed at about the middle of the fifth century B.C. We know not merely the names of most of the subsequent rulers, but some thing of the deeds of many of them; and, what is vastly more important, we know, thanks to the modern interpretation of the old literature, many things concerning the life of the people, and in particular concerning their highest culture, their methods of thought, and their scientific attainments, which might well have been supposed to be past finding out. Nor has modern investigation halted with the time of the first kings; the recent explorations of such archaeologists as Amelineau, De Morgan, and Petrie have brought to light numerous remains of what is now spoken of as the predynastic period—a period when the inhabitants of the Nile Valley used implements of chipped stone, when their pottery was made without the use of the potter's wheel, and when they buried their dead in curiously cramped attitudes without attempt at mummification. These aboriginal inhabitants of Egypt cannot perhaps with strict propriety be spoken of as living within the historical period, since we cannot date their relics with any accuracy. But they give us glimpses of the early stages of civilization upon which the Egyptians of the dynastic period were to advance.

It is held that the nascent civilization of these Egyptians of the Neolithic, or late Stone Age, was overthrown by the invading hosts of a more highly civilized race which probably came from the East, and which may have been of a Semitic stock. The presumption is that this invading people brought with it a knowledge of the arts of war and peace, developed or adopted in its old home. The introduction of these arts served to bridge somewhat suddenly, so far as Egypt is concerned, that gap between the prehistoric and the historic stage of culture to which we have all along referred. The essential structure of that bridge, let it now be clearly understood, consisted of a single element. That element is the capacity to make written records: a knowledge of the art of writing. Clearly understood, it is this element of knowledge that forms the line bounding the historical period. Numberless mementos are in existence that tell of the intellectual activities of prehistoric man; such mementos as flint implements, pieces of pottery, and fragments of bone, inscribed with pictures that may fairly be spoken of as works of art; but so long as no written word accompanies these records, so long as no name of king or scribe comes down to us, we feel that these records belong to the domain of archaeology rather than to that of history. Yet it must be understood all along that these two domains shade one into the other and, it has already been urged, that the distinction between them is one that pertains rather to modern scholarship than to the development of civilization itself. Bearing this distinction still in mind, and recalling that the historical period, which is to be the field of our observation throughout the rest of our studies, extends for Egypt well back into the fifth millennium B.C., let us briefly review the practical phases of that civilization to which the Egyptian had attained before the beginning of the dynastic period. Since theoretical science is everywhere linked with the mechanical arts, this survey will give us a clear comprehension of the field that lies open for the progress of science in the long stages of historical time upon which we are just entering.

We may pass over such rudimentary advances in the direction of civilization as are implied in the use of articulate language, the application of fire to the uses of man, and the systematic making of dwellings of one sort or another, since all of these are stages of progress that were reached very early in the prehistoric period. What more directly concerns us is to note that a really high stage of mechanical development had been reached before the dawnings of Egyptian history proper. All manner of household utensils were employed; the potter's wheel aided in the construction of a great variety of earthen vessels; weaving had become a fine art, and weapons of bronze, including axes, spears, knives, and arrow-heads, were in constant use. Animals had long been domesticated, in particular the dog, the cat, and the ox; the horse was introduced later from the East. The practical arts of agriculture were practised almost as they are at the present day in Egypt, there being, of course, the same dependence then as now upon the inundations of the Nile.

As to government, the Egyptian of the first dynasty regarded his king as a demi-god to be actually deified after his death, and this point of view was not changed throughout the stages of later Egyptian history. In point of art, marvellous advances upon the skill of the prehistoric man had been made, probably in part under Asiatic influences, and that unique style of stilted yet expressive drawing had come into vogue, which was to be remembered in after times as typically Egyptian. More important than all else, our Egyptian of the earliest historical period was in possession of the art of writing. He had begun to make those specific records which were impossible to the man of the Stone Age, and thus he had entered fully upon the way of historical progress which, as already pointed out, has its very foundation in written records. From now on the deeds of individual kings could find specific record. It began to be possible to fix the chronology of remote events with some accuracy; and with this same fixing of chronologies came the advent of true history. The period which precedes what is usually spoken of as the first dynasty in Egypt is one into which the present-day searcher is still able to see but darkly. The evidence seems to suggest than an invasion of relatively cultured people from the East overthrew, and in time supplanted, the Neolithic civilization of the Nile Valley. It is impossible to date this invasion accurately, but it cannot well have been later than the year 5000 B.C., and it may have been a great many centuries earlier than this. Be the exact dates what they may, we find the Egyptian of the fifth millennium B.C. in full possession of a highly organized civilization.

All subsequent ages have marvelled at the pyramids, some of which date from about the year 4000 B.C., though we may note in passing that these dates must not be taken too literally. The chronology of ancient Egypt cannot as yet be fixed with exact accuracy, but the disagreements between the various students of the subject need give us little concern. For our present purpose it does not in the least matter whether the pyramids were built three thousand or four thousand years before the beginning of our era. It suffices that they date back to a period long antecedent to the beginnings of civilization in Western Europe. They prove that the Egyptian of that early day had attained a knowledge of practical mechanics which, even from the twentieth-century point of view, is not to be spoken of lightly. It has sometimes been suggested that these mighty pyramids, built as they are of great blocks of stone, speak for an almost miraculous knowledge on the part of their builders; but a saner view of the conditions gives no warrant for this thought. Diodoras, the Sicilian, in his famous World's History, written about the beginning of our era, explains the building of the pyramids by suggesting that great quantities of earth were piled against the side of the rising structure to form an inclined plane up which the blocks of stone were dragged. He gives us certain figures, based, doubtless, on reports made to him by Egyptian priests, who in turn drew upon the traditions of their country, perhaps even upon written records no longer preserved. He says that one hundred and twenty thousand men were employed in the construction of the largest pyramid, and that, notwithstanding the size of this host of workers, the task occupied twenty years. We must not place too much dependence upon such figures as these, for the ancient historians are notoriously given to exaggeration in recording numbers; yet we need not doubt that the report given by Diodorus is substantially accurate in its main outlines as to the method through which the pyramids were constructed. A host of men putting their added weight and strength to the task, with the aid of ropes, pulleys, rollers, and levers, and utilizing the principle of the inclined plane, could undoubtedly move and elevate and place in position the largest blocks that enter into the pyramids or—what seems even more wonderful—the most gigantic obelisks, without the aid of any other kind of mechanism or of any more occult power. The same hands could, as Diodorus suggests, remove all trace of the debris of construction and leave the pyramids and obelisks standing in weird isolation, as if sprung into being through a miracle.


It has been necessary to bear in mind these phases of practical civilization because much that we know of the purely scientific attainments of the Egyptians is based upon modern observation of their pyramids and temples. It was early observed, for example, that the pyramids are obviously oriented as regards the direction in which they face, in strict accordance with some astronomical principle. Early in the nineteenth century the Frenchman Biot made interesting studies in regard to this subject, and a hundred years later, in our own time, Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer, following up the work of various intermediary observers, has given the subject much attention, making it the central theme of his work on The Dawn of Astronomy.(1) Lockyer's researches make it clear that in the main the temples of Egypt were oriented with reference to the point at which the sun rises on the day of the summer solstice. The time of the solstice had peculiar interest for the Egyptians, because it corresponded rather closely with the time of the rising of the Nile. The floods of that river appear with very great regularity; the on-rushing tide reaches the region of Heliopolis and Memphis almost precisely on the day of the summer solstice. The time varies at different stages of the river's course, but as the civilization of the early dynasties centred at Memphis, observations made at this place had widest vogue.

Considering the all-essential character of the Nile floods-without which civilization would be impossible in Egypt—it is not strange that the time of their appearance should be taken as marking the beginning of a new year. The fact that their coming coincides with the solstice makes such a division of the calendar perfectly natural. In point of fact, from the earliest periods of which records have come down to us, the new year of the Egyptians dates from the summer solstice. It is certain that from the earliest historical periods the Egyptians were aware of the approximate length of the year. It would be strange were it otherwise, considering the ease with which a record of days could be kept from Nile flood to Nile flood, or from solstice to solstice. But this, of course, applies only to an approximate count. There is some reason to believe that in the earliest period the Egyptians made this count only 360 days. The fact that their year was divided into twelve months of thirty days each lends color to this belief; but, in any event, the mistake was discovered in due time and a partial remedy was applied through the interpolation of a "little month" of five days between the end of the twelfth month and the new year. This nearly but not quite remedied the matter. What it obviously failed to do was to take account of that additional quarter of a day which really rounds out the actual year.

It would have been a vastly convenient thing for humanity had it chanced that the earth had so accommodated its rotary motion with its speed of transit about the sun as to make its annual flight in precisely 360 days. Twelve lunar months of thirty days each would then have coincided exactly with the solar year, and most of the complexities of the calendar, which have so puzzled historical students, would have been avoided; but, on the other hand, perhaps this very simplicity would have proved detrimental to astronomical science by preventing men from searching the heavens as carefully as they have done. Be that as it may, the complexity exists. The actual year of three hundred and sixty-five and (about) one-quarter days cannot be divided evenly into months, and some such expedient as the intercalation of days here and there is essential, else the calendar will become absolutely out of harmony with the seasons.

In the case of the Egyptians, the attempt at adjustment was made, as just noted, by the introduction of the five days, constituting what the Egyptians themselves termed "the five days over and above the year." These so-called epagomenal days were undoubtedly introduced at a very early period. Maspero holds that they were in use before the first Thinite dynasty, citing in evidence the fact that the legend of Osiris explains these days as having been created by the god Thot in order to permit Nuit to give birth to all her children; this expedient being necessary to overcome a ban which had been pronounced against Nuit, according to which she could not give birth to children on any day of the year. But, of course, the five additional days do not suffice fully to rectify the calendar. There remains the additional quarter of a day to be accounted for. This, of course, amounts to a full day every fourth year. We shall see that later Alexandrian science hit upon the expedient of adding a day to every fourth year; an expedient which the Julian calendar adopted and which still gives us our familiar leap-year. But, unfortunately, the ancient Egyptian failed to recognize the need of this additional day, or if he did recognize it he failed to act on his knowledge, and so it happened that, starting somewhere back in the remote past with a new year's day that coincided with the inundation of the Nile, there was a constantly shifting maladjustment of calendar and seasons as time went on.

The Egyptian seasons, it should be explained, were three in number: the season of the inundation, the season of the seed-time, and the season of the harvest; each season being, of course, four months in extent. Originally, as just mentioned, the season of the inundations began and coincided with the actual time of inundation. The more precise fixing of new year's day was accomplished through observation of the time of the so-called heliacal rising of the dog-star, Sirius, which bore the Egyptian name Sothis. It chances that, as viewed from about the region of Heliopolis, the sun at the time of the summer solstice occupies an apparent position in the heavens close to the dog-star. Now, as is well known, the Egyptians, seeing divinity back of almost every phenomenon of nature, very naturally paid particular reverence to so obviously influential a personage as the sun-god. In particular they thought it fitting to do homage to him just as he was starting out on his tour of Egypt in the morning; and that they might know the precise moment of his coming, the Egyptian astronomer priests, perched on the hill-tops near their temples, were wont to scan the eastern horizon with reference to some star which had been observed to precede the solar luminary. Of course the precession of the equinoxes, due to that axial wobble in which our clumsy earth indulges, would change the apparent position of the fixed stars in reference to the sun, so that the same star could not do service as heliacal messenger indefinitely; but, on the other hand, these changes are so slow that observations by many generations of astronomers would be required to detect the shifting. It is believed by Lockyer, though the evidence is not quite demonstrative, that the astronomical observations of the Egyptians date back to a period when Sothis, the dog-star, was not in close association with the sun on the morning of the summer solstice. Yet, according to the calculations of Biot, the heliacal rising of Sothis at the solstice was noted as early as the year 3285 B.C., and it is certain that this star continued throughout subsequent centuries to keep this position of peculiar prestige. Hence it was that Sothis came to be associated with Isis, one of the most important divinities of Egypt, and that the day in which Sothis was first visible in the morning sky marked the beginning of the new year; that day coinciding, as already noted, with the summer solstice and with the beginning of the Nile flow.

But now for the difficulties introduced by that unreckoned quarter of a day. Obviously with a calendar of 365 days only, at the end of four years, the calendar year, or vague year, as the Egyptians came to call it, had gained by one full day upon the actual solar year—that is to say, the heliacal rising of Sothis, the dog-star, would not occur on new year's day of the faulty calendar, but a day later. And with each succeeding period of four years the day of heliacal rising, which marked the true beginning of the year—and which still, of course, coincided with the inundation—would have fallen another day behind the calendar. In the course of 120 years an entire month would be lost; and in 480 years so great would become the shifting that the seasons would be altogether misplaced; the actual time of inundations corresponding with what the calendar registered as the seed-time, and the actual seed-time in turn corresponding with the harvest-time of the calendar.

At first thought this seems very awkward and confusing, but in all probability the effects were by no means so much so in actual practice. We need go no farther than to our own experience to know that the names of seasons, as of months and days, come to have in the minds of most of us a purely conventional significance. Few of us stop to give a thought to the meaning of the words January, February, etc., except as they connote certain climatic conditions. If, then, our own calendar were so defective that in the course of 120 years the month of February had shifted back to occupy the position of the original January, the change would have been so gradual, covering the period of two life-times or of four or five average generations, that it might well escape general observation.

Each succeeding generation of Egyptians, then, may not improbably have associated the names of the seasons with the contemporary climatic conditions, troubling themselves little with the thought that in an earlier age the climatic conditions for each period of the calendar were quite different. We cannot well suppose, however, that the astronomer priests were oblivious to the true state of things. Upon them devolved the duty of predicting the time of the Nile flood; a duty they were enabled to perform without difficulty through observation of the rising of the solstitial sun and its Sothic messenger. To these observers it must finally have been apparent that the shifting of the seasons was at the rate of one day in four years; this known, it required no great mathematical skill to compute that this shifting would finally effect a complete circuit of the calendar, so that after (4 X 365 =) 1460 years the first day of the calendar year would again coincide with the heliacal rising of Sothis and with the coming of the Nile flood. In other words, 1461 vague years or Egyptian calendar years Of 365 days each correspond to 1460 actual solar years of 365 1/4 days each. This period, measured thus by the heliacal rising of Sothis, is spoken of as the Sothic cycle.

To us who are trained from childhood to understand that the year consists of (approximately) 365 1/4 days, and to know that the calendar may be regulated approximately by the introduction of an extra day every fourth year, this recognition of the Sothic cycle seems simple enough. Yet if the average man of us will reflect how little he knows, of his own knowledge, of the exact length of the year, it will soon become evident that the appreciation of the faults of the calendar and the knowledge of its periodical adjustment constituted a relatively high development of scientific knowledge on the part of the Egyptian astronomer. It may be added that various efforts to reform the calendar were made by the ancient Egyptians, but that they cannot be credited with a satisfactory solution of the problem; for, of course, the Alexandrian scientists of the Ptolemaic period (whose work we shall have occasion to review presently) were not Egyptians in any proper sense of the word, but Greeks.

Since so much of the time of the astronomer priests was devoted to observation of the heavenly bodies, it is not surprising that they should have mapped out the apparent course of the moon and the visible planets in their nightly tour of the heavens, and that they should have divided the stars of the firmament into more or less arbitrary groups or constellations. That they did so is evidenced by various sculptured representations of constellations corresponding to signs of the zodiac which still ornament the ceilings of various ancient temples. Unfortunately the decorative sense, which was always predominant with the Egyptian sculptor, led him to take various liberties with the distribution of figures in these representations of the constellations, so that the inferences drawn from them as to the exact map of the heavens as the Egyptians conceived it cannot be fully relied upon. It appears, however, that the Egyptian astronomer divided the zodiac into twenty-four decani, or constellations. The arbitrary groupings of figures, with the aid of which these are delineated, bear a close resemblance to the equally arbitrary outlines which we are still accustomed to use for the same purpose.


In viewing this astronomical system of the Egyptians one cannot avoid the question as to just what interpretation was placed upon it as regards the actual mechanical structure of the universe. A proximal answer to the question is supplied us with a good deal of clearness. It appears that the Egyptian conceived the sky as a sort of tangible or material roof placed above the world, and supported at each of its four corners by a column or pillar, which was later on conceived as a great mountain. The earth itself was conceived to be a rectangular box, longer from north to south than from east to west; the upper surface of this box, upon which man lived, being slightly concave and having, of course, the valley of the Nile as its centre. The pillars of support were situated at the points of the compass; the northern one being located beyond the Mediterranean Sea; the southern one away beyond the habitable regions towards the source of the Nile, and the eastern and western ones in equally inaccessible regions. Circling about the southern side of the world was a great river suspended in mid-air on something comparable to mountain cliffs; on which river the sun-god made his daily course in a boat, fighting day by day his ever-recurring battle against Set, the demon of darkness. The wide channel of this river enabled the sun-god to alter his course from time to time, as he is observed to do; in winter directing his bark towards the farther bank of the channel; in summer gliding close to the nearer bank. As to the stars, they were similar lights, suspended from the vault of the heaven; but just how their observed motion of translation across the heavens was explained is not apparent. It is more than probable that no one explanation was, universally accepted.

In explaining the origin of this mechanism of the heavens, the Egyptian imagination ran riot. Each separate part of Egypt had its own hierarchy of gods, and more or less its own explanations of cosmogony. There does not appear to have been any one central story of creation that found universal acceptance, any more than there was one specific deity everywhere recognized as supreme among the gods. Perhaps the most interesting of the cosmogonic myths was that which conceived that Nuit, the goddess of night, had been torn from the arms of her husband, Sibu the earth-god, and elevated to the sky despite her protests and her husband's struggles, there to remain supported by her four limbs, which became metamorphosed into the pillars, or mountains, already mentioned. The forcible elevation of Nuit had been effected on the day of creation by a new god, Shu, who came forth from the primeval waters. A painting on the mummy case of one Betuhamon, now in the Turin Museum, illustrates, in the graphic manner so characteristic of the Egyptians, this act of creation. As Maspero(2) points out, the struggle of Sibu resulted in contorted attitudes to which the irregularities of the earth's surface are to be ascribed.

In contemplating such a scheme of celestial mechanics as that just outlined, one cannot avoid raising the question as to just the degree of literalness which the Egyptians themselves put upon it. We know how essentially eye-minded the Egyptian was, to use a modern psychological phrase—that is to say, how essential to him it seemed that all his conceptions should be visualized. The evidences of this are everywhere: all his gods were made tangible; he believed in the immortality of the soul, yet he could not conceive of such immortality except in association with an immortal body; he must mummify the body of the dead, else, as he firmly believed, the dissolution of the spirit would take place along with the dissolution of the body itself. His world was peopled everywhere with spirits, but they were spirits associated always with corporeal bodies; his gods found lodgment in sun and moon and stars; in earth and water; in the bodies of reptiles and birds and mammals. He worshipped all of these things: the sun, the moon, water, earth, the spirit of the Nile, the ibis, the cat, the ram, and apis the bull; but, so far as we can judge, his imagination did not reach to the idea of an absolutely incorporeal deity. Similarly his conception of the mechanism of the heavens must be a tangibly mechanical one. He must think of the starry firmament as a substantial entity which could not defy the law of gravitation, and which, therefore, must have the same manner of support as is required by the roof of a house or temple. We know that this idea of the materiality of the firmament found elaborate expression in those later cosmological guesses which were to dominate the thought of Europe until the time of Newton. We need not doubt, therefore, that for the Egyptian this solid vault of the heavens had a very real existence. If now and then some dreamer conceived the great bodies of the firmament as floating in a less material plenum—and such iconoclastic dreamers there are in all ages—no record of his musings has come down to us, and we must freely admit that if such thoughts existed they were alien to the character of the Egyptian mind as a whole.

While the Egyptians conceived the heavenly bodies as the abiding-place of various of their deities, it does not appear that they practised astrology in the later acceptance of that word. This is the more remarkable since the conception of lucky and unlucky days was carried by the Egyptians to the extremes of absurdity. "One day was lucky or unlucky," says Erman,(3) "according as a good or bad mythological incident took place on that day. For instance, the 1st of Mechir, on which day the sky was raised, and the 27th of Athyr, when Horus and, Set concluded peace together and divided the world between them, were lucky days; on the other hand, the 14th of Tybi, on which Isis and Nephthys mourned for Osiris, was an unlucky day. With the unlucky days, which, fortunately, were less in number than the lucky days, they distinguished different degrees of ill-luck. Some were very unlucky, others only threatened ill-luck, and many, like the 17th and the 27th Choiakh, were partly good and partly bad according to the time of day. Lucky days might, as a rule, be disregarded. At most it might be as well to visit some specially renowned temple, or to 'celebrate a joyful day at home,' but no particular precautions were really necessary; and, above all, it was said, 'what thou also seest on the day is lucky.' It was quite otherwise with the unlucky and dangerous days, which imposed so many and such great limitations on people that those who wished to be prudent were always obliged to bear them in mind when determining on any course of action. Certain conditions were easy to carry out. Music and singing were to be avoided on the 14th Tybi, the day of the mourning of Osiris, and no one was allowed to wash on the 16th Tybi; whilst the name of Set might not be pronounced on the 24th of Pharmuthi. Fish was forbidden on certain days; and what was still more difficult in a country so rich in mice, on the 12th of Tybi no mouse might be seen. The most tiresome prohibitions, however, were those which occurred not infrequently, namely, those concerning work and going out: for instance, four times in Paophi the people had to 'do nothing at all,' and five times to sit the whole day or half the day in the house; and the same rule had to be observed each month. It was impossible to rejoice if a child was born on the 23d of Thoth; the parents knew it could not live. Those born on the 20th of Choiakh would become blind, and those born on the 3d of Choiakh, deaf."


Where such conceptions as these pertained, it goes without saying that charms and incantations intended to break the spell of the unlucky omens were equally prevalent. Such incantations consisted usually of the recitation of certain phrases based originally, it would appear, upon incidents in the history of the gods. The words which the god had spoken in connection with some lucky incident would, it was thought, prove effective now in bringing good luck to the human supplicant—that is to say, the magician hoped through repeating the words of the god to exercise the magic power of the god. It was even possible, with the aid of the magical observances, partly to balk fate itself. Thus the person predestined through birth on an unlucky day to die of a serpent bite might postpone the time of this fateful visitation to extreme old age. The like uncertainty attached to those spells which one person was supposed to be able to exercise over another. It was held, for example, that if something belonging to an individual, such as a lock of hair or a paring of the nails, could be secured and incorporated in a waxen figure, this figure would be intimately associated with the personality of that individual. An enemy might thus secure occult power over one; any indignity practised upon the waxen figure would result in like injury to its human prototype. If the figure were bruised or beaten, some accident would overtake its double; if the image were placed over a fire, the human being would fall into a fever, and so on. But, of course, such mysterious evils as these would be met and combated by equally mysterious processes; and so it was that the entire art of medicine was closely linked with magical practices. It was not, indeed, held, according to Maspero, that the magical spells of enemies were the sole sources of human ailments, but one could never be sure to what extent such spells entered into the affliction; and so closely were the human activities associated in the mind of the Egyptian with one form or another of occult influences that purely physical conditions were at a discount. In the later times, at any rate, the physician was usually a priest, and there was a close association between the material and spiritual phases of therapeutics. Erman(4) tells us that the following formula had to be recited at the preparation of all medicaments: "That Isis might make free, make free. That Isis might make Horus free from all evil that his brother Set had done to him when he slew his father, Osiris. O Isis, great enchantress, free me, release me from all evil red things, from the fever of the god, and the fever of the goddess, from death and death from pain, and the pain which comes over me; as thou hast freed, as thou hast released thy son Horus, whilst I enter into the fire and come forth from the water," etc. Again, when the invalid took the medicine, an incantation had to be said which began thus: "Come remedy, come drive it out of my heart, out of these limbs strong in magic power with the remedy." He adds: "There may have been a few rationalists amongst the Egyptian doctors, for the number of magic formulae varies much in the different books. The book that we have specially taken for a foundation for this account of Egyptian medicine—the great papyrus of the eighteenth dynasty edited by Ebers(5)—contains, for instance, far fewer exorcisms than some later writings with similar contents, probably because the doctor who compiled this book of recipes from older sources had very little liking for magic."

It must be understood, however—indeed, what has just been said implies as much—that the physician by no means relied upon incantations alone; on the contrary, he equipped himself with an astonishing variety of medicaments. He had a particular fondness for what the modern physician speaks of as a "shot-gun" prescription—one containing a great variety of ingredients. Not only did herbs of many kinds enter into this, but such substances as lizard's blood, the teeth of swine, putrid meat, the moisture from pigs' ears, boiled horn, and numerous other even more repellent ingredients. Whoever is familiar with the formulae employed by European physicians even so recently as the eighteenth century will note a striking similarity here. Erman points out that the modern Egyptian even of this day holds closely to many of the practices of his remote ancestor. In particular, the efficacy of the beetle as a medicinal agent has stood the test of ages of practice. "Against all kinds of witchcraft," says an ancient formula, "a great scarabaeus beetle; cut off his head and wings, boil him; put him in oil and lay him out; then cook his head and wings, put them in snake fat, boil, and let the patient drink the mixture." The modern Egyptian, says Erman, uses almost precisely the same recipe, except that the snake fat is replaced by modern oil.

In evidence of the importance which was attached to practical medicine in the Egypt of an early day, the names of several physicians have come down to us from an age which has preserved very few names indeed, save those of kings. In reference to this Erman says(6): "We still know the names of some of the early body physicians of this time; Sechmetna'eonch, 'chief physician of the Pharaoh,' and Nesmenan his chief, the 'superintendent of the physicians of the Pharaoh.' The priests also of the lioness-headed goddess Sechmet seem to have been famed for their medical wisdom, whilst the son of this goddess, the demi-god Imhotep, was in later times considered to be the creator of medical knowledge. These ancient doctors of the New Empire do not seem to have improved upon the older conceptions about the construction of the human body."

As to the actual scientific attainments of the Egyptian physician, it is difficult to speak with precision. Despite the cumbersome formulae and the grotesque incantations, we need not doubt that a certain practical value attended his therapeutics. He practised almost pure empiricism, however, and certainly it must have been almost impossible to determine which ones, if any, of the numerous ingredients of the prescription had real efficacy.

The practical anatomical knowledge of the physician, there is every reason to believe, was extremely limited. At first thought it might seem that the practice of embalming would have led to the custom of dissecting human bodies, and that the Egyptians, as a result of this, would have excelled in the knowledge of anatomy. But the actual results were rather the reverse of this. Embalming the dead, it must be recalled, was a purely religious observance. It took place under the superintendence of the priests, but so great was the reverence for the human body that the priests themselves were not permitted to make the abdominal incision which was a necessary preliminary of the process. This incision, as we are informed by both Herodotus(7) and Diodorus(8), was made by a special officer, whose status, if we may believe the explicit statement of Diodorus, was quite comparable to that of the modern hangman. The paraschistas, as he was called, having performed his necessary but obnoxious function, with the aid of a sharp Ethiopian stone, retired hastily, leaving the remaining processes to the priests. These, however, confined their observations to the abdominal viscera; under no consideration did they make other incisions in the body. It follows, therefore, that their opportunity for anatomical observations was most limited.

Since even the necessary mutilation inflicted on the corpse was regarded with such horror, it follows that anything in the way of dissection for a less sacred purpose was absolutely prohibited. Probably the same prohibition extended to a large number of animals, since most of these were held sacred in one part of Egypt or another. Moreover, there is nothing in what we know of the Egyptian mind to suggest the probability that any Egyptian physician would make extensive anatomical observations for the love of pure knowledge. All Egyptian science is eminently practical. If we think of the Egyptian as mysterious, it is because of the superstitious observances that we everywhere associate with his daily acts; but these, as we have already tried to make clear, were really based on scientific observations of a kind, and the attempt at true inferences from these observations. But whether or not the Egyptian physician desired anatomical knowledge, the results of his inquiries were certainly most meagre. The essentials of his system had to do with a series of vessels, alleged to be twenty-two or twenty-four in number, which penetrated the head and were distributed in pairs to the various members of the body, and which were vaguely thought of as carriers of water, air, excretory fluids, etc. Yet back of this vagueness, as must not be overlooked, there was an all-essential recognition of the heart as the central vascular organ. The heart is called the beginning of all the members. Its vessels, we are told, "lead to all the members; whether the doctor lays his finger on the forehead, on the back of the head, on the hands, on the place of the stomach (?), on the arms, or on the feet, everywhere he meets with the heart, because its vessels lead to all the members."(9) This recognition of the pulse must be credited to the Egyptian physician as a piece of practical knowledge, in some measure off-setting the vagueness of his anatomical theories.

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