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"Of the Egyptian Rites" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's Philosophic Criticism: "Of the Egyptian Rites." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

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Philosophic Criticism: "Of the Egyptian Rites" by Voltaire



In the first place, did the Egyptians acknowledge one supreme God? If this question had been propounded to the commonality of that people themselves, they would not have known what to reply: if to the young students in Egyptian theology, they would have harangued for a long time, without understanding themselves: if to any one of the sages consulted by Pythagoras, Plato, or Plutarch, he would ingenuously have replied that he adored only one God, which answer would be founded upon the ancient inscription of the statue of Isis, "I am what is;" and this other, "I am all that has been and shall be; no mortal can raise my veil." He would have pointed out the globe, placed upon the temple-gate at Memphis, which represented the unity of the divine nature, under the word Knef.

The most sacred name amongst the Egyptians, was that of Y-ha-ho, which the Hebrews adopted. It is variously pronounced; but Clement of Alexandria assures us, in his Stromates, that those who entered into the temple of Serapis, were obliged to wear the inscription of the name I-ha-ho, or I-ha-hou, which signified the God eternal. The Arabians have retained only the syllable hou, afterwards adopted by the Turks, who pronounce it with still greater respect than the word Allah, for they use Allah in conversation, and they never use hou, but when at prayer. Let us observe here, en passant, that when the Turkish ambassador, Said Effendi, saw the representation of the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, or Tradesman turned Gentleman, and that ridiculous ceremony in which he is made a Turk, and hearing the sacred word hou pronounced with derision and extravagant gestures, he looked upon this diversion as the most abominable profanation.

But to resume. The Egyptian priests fed a sacred ox, a sacred dog, and a sacred crocodile it is true; and the Romans had also their sacred geese. They had gods of every kind, and the devotees had, among their household deities, the god of the open-chair, Deum Stercutium, and the god Pet, Deum crepitum; but did they the less acknowledge the Deum optimum maximum -- the master of gods and men.

Which is the country that has not abounded with superstitious bigots, and a small number of reasonable people?

What should be particularly observed with respect to Egypt and all other nations, is, that they never had any invariable opinions, any more than laws, that were always uniform, notwithstanding the attachment which men have to their ancient customs.

There is nothing immutable but Geometry, all things else undergo incessant variation.

The learned dispute, and will dispute. One asserts that the ancient people were all idolaters, another denies it; one says that they adored only one God, without an image; another says that they adored several gods in several images. They are all right; nothing more is requisite than to distinguish the times and men which have changed; there never was any agreement. When the Ptolomies and the principal priests made a joke of Apis's bull, the people prostrated themselves before it.

Juvenal says that the Egyptians adored onions; but we do not find it in any history. There is a great deal of difference between a sacred onion, and an onion that is a god. Every thing is not adored that is placed, that is consecrated, upon the altar. We read in Cicero, that those men who have drained every kind of superstition, have not yet arrived at that of eating their gods; and that this is the only absurdity they are deficient in.

Is circumcision derived from the Egyptians, the Arabians, or the Ethiopians? I am ignorant. Let those who know speak. All I know is, that the priests of antiquity imprinted upon their bodies marks of their consecration, as the Roman soldiers were afterwards marked with a hot iron. There, the sacrificing priests slashed the bodies, as did afterwards the priests of Bellona: Here, they made themselves eunuchs, in imitation of the priests of Cybele.

The Jews adopted circumcision from the Egyptians, with part of their ceremonies. They have always retained it, as well as the Arabians and the Ethiopians; the Turks have submitted to it, though it is not ordered in the Alcoran. It is only an ancient usage, which was introduced by superstition, and which has been preserved by custom.

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