Byron, in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, alludes to the story of Milo:
"He who of old would rend the oak Deemed not of the rebound; Chained by the trunk he vainly broke, Alone, how looked he round!"
The remarkable discovery by which Champollion the younger (so called to distinguish him from his older brother, Champollion Figeac, who also studied the hieroglyphics)) first opened to modern times the secret of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, has been followed up by laborious studies, which tell us more of Egyptian worship and mythology, with more precision, than we know of any other ancient religion but that of the Hebrews. We have even great numbers of copies of the liturgies, or handbooks of worship, of funeral solemnities, and other rituals, which have been diligently translated. And we have a sufficient body of the literature written and used by the priesthood.
These discoveries give to writers of this generation a much fuller knowledge of the Egyptian religion, of its forms, and of the names of its gods, than they had before. It is impossible, and probably always will be, to state with precision the theology on which it rested. It is impossible, because that theology was different in one time and with one school from what it was at other times. Mr. S. Birch, of the British Museum, says, "The religion of the Egyptians consisted of an extended polytheism represented by a system of local groups." But Mr. Pierret says, "The polytheism of the monuments is but an outward show. The innumerable gods of the Pantheon are but manifestations of the One Being in his various capacities. Mariette Bey says, "The one result is that according to the Egyptians, the universe was God himself, and that Pantheism formed the foundation of their religion."
In this book it is not necessary to reconcile views so diverse, nor indeed to enter on studies so profound as those which should decide between them. For our purpose here it is enough to know that the Sun was the older object of worship, and in his various forms rising, midday, or setting was adored under different names. Frequently his being and these names were united to the types of other deities. Mr. Birch believes that the worship of Osiris prevailed largely beside the worship of the Sun, and is not to be confounded with it. To Osiris, Set, the Egyptian devil, was opposed.
The original God, the origin of all things, manifests himself to men, in lesser forms, according to this mythology, more and more human and less and less intangible. These forms are generally triads, and resolve themselves into a male deity, a female deity, and their child. Triad after triad brings the original Divinity into forms more and more earthly, till at last we find "that we have no longer to do with the infinite and intangible God of the earliest days, but rather with a God of flesh and blood, who lives upon earth, and has so abased himself as to be no more than a human king. It is no longer the God of whom no man knew either the form or the substance: it is Kneph at Esneh, Hathor at Durderah, Horus, king of the divine dynasty at Edfoo." These words are M. Maspero's.
The Greek and Latin poets and philosophers, as they made some very slight acquaintance with Egyptian worship, give Greek or Latin names to the divinities worshipped. Thus we sometimes hear Osiris spoken of as the Egyptian Hermes. But such changes of names are confusing, and are at best but fanciful (In the same way Plutarch, a Greek writer, says of the Jews' Feast of Tabernacles, "I know that their God is our Bacchus." This was merely from the vines, vine leaves and wine used in the ceremonies.) It would happen sometimes, in later times, that a fashion of religion would carry the worship of one God or Goddess to a distance. Thus the worship of Isis became fashionable in Rome in the time of Nero and Paul, as readers of Bulwer's Last Days of Pompeii will remember.
The latest modern literature occasionally uses the Egyptian names, as the last two centuries have disinterred them from the inscriptions on the monuments, and from the manuscripts in the tombs. Earlier English writers generally use the names like Osiris, Anubis, and others found in Latin and Greek writers.