Lynellen Perry BITH 331 February 28, 1992
The Four Living Creatures Compared to the Four Sons of Horus
In "The Splendor that was Egypt," Murray makes a comment that there is an interesting coincidence that the four Sons of Horus (Canopic deities) and the four Living Creatures of the Bible each have a being with the head of a man and a being with the head of a bird (123). Having recently written a paper on the four Living Creatures of Revelation and Ezekiel, her note caught my attention. This research paper will explore the similarities and differences between these quadrinities and the possibility of one having influenced the development of the other.
Egypt is perhaps best known for its pyramid tombs, and it is true that the afterlife was very important to the ancient Egyptian. Accordingly, Egyptians of means spent a good deal of time and money assuring that the three prerequisites of a happy afterlife would be filled, namely "that his name should continue to exist, that his body should remain intact and that he should be regularly supplied with necessary food and drink" (James, 155-156). These beliefs in an afterlife lead to the development of an elaborate processes of mummification. In refining their embalming techniques, the Egyptians discovered that removing the internal organs prevented the body from decomposing (James, 157). These organs were not disposed of, but preserved so that the body would be whole for the next life. Various methods of preservation were developed, the most sophisticated of which was that which used Canopic jars.
Canopic jars, containing the viscera, were used from the time of the Old Kingdom until the Ptolemaic Period (James, 160). Previously, the organs had been either preserved with salt and resin, made into bundles with linen wrapped around them, and placed on a special shelf in the tomb (Petrie, 140), or the packages were interned still soaking in a natron solution inside of a partitioned calcite chest (James, 157). Petrie claims that Canopic jars were first used in the Sixth Dynasty. By the Twelfth Dynasty, Canopic jars had human head shaped lids on them (140), which may have been painted as portraits of the deceased (Murray, 123). This practice continued until sometime between the Fourteenth Dynasty (Petrie, 140) and the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (James, 160).
During this period, three of the jars began to be given stoppers of animal head shapes. These heads were representative of the god who protected the part of the viscera contained in that jar. The Canopic jars themselves were protected by four female deities: Neith, Selkis, Nephthys, and Isis (James, 160). The Canopic jars became so important to the burial process that even during the 21st Dynasty, when the viscera were placed back inside the body in four packages along with a wax figure of the corresponding god, a set of empty jars was still included in the funerary equipment (James, 160).
The four minor gods who protected the viscera were the Sons of Horus. Horus was "the falcon-deity, originally the sky-god, identified with the king during his lifetime (James, 150). The Sons of Horus can perhaps be counted as the sixth generation of deities in the system of the Heliopolitan ennead. The primeval deity Atum created the first couple Shu and Tefnut, their children were Geb and Nut who had four children--Osiris, Seth (Set), Isis and Nephthys. Horus, the fifth generation, is the son of Osiris and Isis and he had four sons, but it is not clear who was his mate (Hornung, 146). The names of Horus' sons were: Imsety (Amset), protector of the liver; Hapy, protector of the lungs; Duamutef, protector of the stomach; and Qebhsenuef, protector of the intestines (James, 160).
The Sons of Horus were the gods of the cardinal points of the compass (Murray, 123) and are mentioned several times in The Book of the Dead. They are asked to protect the deceased in Spell 137A,
O you Children of Horus, Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef, Qebhsenuef, as you spread your protection over your father Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, so spread your protection over N. [the deceased] as when you removed the impediment from Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, so that he might live with the gods and drive Seth from him; as when at dawn Horus became strong that he himself might protect his father Osiris when wrong was done to your father when you drove Seth off (Faulkner, 127-128).
They are among the seven chosen to protect Anubis' burial of Osiris (Faulkner, 47); they are the ribs of the ferry that crosses the celestial river, the Milky Way (Faulkner, 96); and in Spell 151, they themselves pronounce their protection of the deceased:
Words spoken by Imsety: I am your son, O N. I have come that I may be your protection, and that I may make your house to flourish and endure, in accordance with the command of Ptah and in accordance with the command of Re.
The four Living Creatures of the Bible are quite different from the Sons of Horus. This can be first seen in comparing the description of the Living Creatures with that of the Sons. Ezekiel chapter one records a vision of a terrible storm cloud that comes from the north, in which there are "figures resembling four living Creatures" (v5) surrounding "something that looked like burning coals of fire" (v13) which was bright and gave off flashes of lightning. This description alone would suggest that the Sons of Horus are not related to the Living Creatures since the Living Creatures are in the storm cloud where we would not expect the Sons of Horus to be since Seth (Set), the opponent of Horus, is the god of storms (James, 153).
The Living Creatures in Ezekiel have four different faces each. However, I believe that these Creatures are the same as those described in Revelation, where each Creature has only one of those four faces. (The discussion of this point is beyond the scope of this paper and was the subject of a paper last semester if you are really that interested.) Based on this belief, the Living Creatures would be able to more closely correspond to the Sons of Horus. The four faces of the Living Creatures are listed in Ezekiel 1 as "the face of a man, . . . the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and . . . the face of an eagle" (v10) is presumably in the back. Only two faces of the four Creatures would then correspond to the shapes of the Sons, which: a human, an ape, a jackal, and a falcon (Faulkner, 190-192).
In addition to being described differently, the Living Creatures have a different function than the Sons. Johnson says that the Living Creatures are "actual supernatural beings involved with the purpose of God on earth and His worship in heaven" (71). In Ezekiel 10, the Living Creatures are identified as cherubim, a special order of angel. They are also linked to Isaiah's seraphim (Johnson, 72). We see from both the vision in Ezekiel and in Revelation 4, that these Creatures have special access to God's presence and that they are the bearers of God's throne-chariot. We also know that they are nearer to God than the rest of the angels or the elders. This is very different from the Sons' role of guarding internal organs and being a compass-point deity.
I believe that the animal faces of the Living Creatures are symbolically important. The lion was fairly common in the thickets on the fringe of the Jordan River (Davis, 476), and in Biblical literature the lion is used mostly in reference to its characteristic features, including majesty, strength, royalty, courage, and cruelty (Vine, 346). The ox, or bull, was used for plowing, treading out grain, dragging carts or wagons, and as food or a sin sacrifice to God (Davis, 585). These two Creatures do not appear to have a direct correlation to any of the Sons of Horus. If the ape-headed Son is actually a Baboon, then he represents seriousness and thoughtfulness, and is a personification of wisdom. The jackal represents the god of the cemetery, inviting Anubis to come to the offerings left by family members or priests (Petrie, 80-81).
The remaining two Creatures and Sons do seem to correspond to each other in some way. We assume, possibly wrongly, that the humans in both sets are meant to represent and symbolize the feature characteristics of man, such as intelligence and spirituality . . . the essence and image of the supreme God. There were about eight species of eagle occupying Palestine, and the eagle, like the lion, is referred to mostly in terms of its features. The eagle is a large bird of prey (and thus unclean, according to the Law) which builds its nest on lofty rocks, can see great distances, and flies swiftly. It was believed to be immortal, in that legend said it would, upon reaching old age, fly up toward the sun until its feathers burned off and fell into the sea. By doing this, it would renew its youth (Davis, 192). Compare this to the Falcon (or hawk) of Egyptian religion. The falcon was associated with royalty and the soul of the Pharaoh was supposed to fly to heaven in the form of a falcon (Petrie, 85). In Ezekiel 17, the eagle represent the great powers of Egypt and Babylon being used to punish corrupt and faithless Israel. This also corresponds nicely, for the Pharaoh of Egypt (as a falcon, or the Israeli equivalent, an eagle) would be the one to lead the Egyptian army into war.
It seems that if there is any chain of influence between these two quadrinities which are, on the whole, dissimilar, that it is from the Egyptian to the Hebrew. This possible chain is supported by fact that the representation of the Sons of Horus on the Canopic jars came into existence during the period of 1786 BC to 1320 BC while Ezekiel was not written until approximately 580 BC. So, while Murray's note is indeed interesting, it does not seem to result in any significant conclusions.
Davis, John D. Davis Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Faulkner, R. O., Translator. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1972.
Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Ith aca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971.
James, T. G. H. An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1979.
Johnson, Alan F. Revelation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983.
Morenz, H. Ancient Egyptian Religion. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 19 48.
Murray, Margaret A. The Splendor that was Egypt. New York: Praeger Publishers , 1964.
Petrie, Sir William Matthew Flinders. Religious Life in Ancient Egypt. New Yo rk: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc, 1972.
Vine, W. E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, Iowa: Word Bible Publishers, 1981.
All Scripture was quoted from The Open Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.