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The Golden Bough

Chapter 39. The Ritual of Osiris
1. The Popular Rites.
A USEFUL clue to the original nature of a god or goddess is often furnished by the
season at which his or her festival is celebrated. Thus, if the festival falls at the new or the
full moon, there is a certain presumption that the deity thus honoured either is the moon
or at least has lunar affinities. If the festival is held at the winter or summer solstice, we
naturally surmise that the god is the sun, or at all events that he stands in some close
relation to that luminary. Again, if the festival coincides with the time of sowing or
harvest, we are inclined to infer that the divinity is an embodiment of the earth or of the
corn. These presumptions or inferences, taken by themselves, are by no means
conclusive; but if they happen to be confirmed by other indications, the evidence may be
regarded as fairly strong.
Unfortunately, in dealing with the Egyptian gods we are in a great measure precluded
from making use of this clue. The reason is not that the dates of the festivals are always
unknown, but that they shifted from year to year, until after a long interval they had
revolved through the whole course of the seasons. This gradual revolution of the festal
Egyptian cycle resulted from the employment of a calendar year which neither
corresponded exactly to the solar year nor was periodically corrected by intercalation.
If the Egyptian farmer of the olden time could get no help, except at the rarest intervals,
from the official or sacerdotal calendar, he must have been compelled to observe for
himself those natural signals which marked the times for the various operations of
husbandry. In all ages of which we possess any records the Egyptians have been an
agricultural people, dependent for their subsistence on the growth of the corn. The cereals
which they cultivated were wheat, barley, and apparently sorghum (Holcus sorghum,
Linnaeus), the doora of the modern fellaheen. Then as now the whole country, with the
exception of a fringe on the coast of the Mediterranean, was almost rainless, and owed its
immense fertility entirely to the annual inundation of the Nile, which, regulated by an
elaborate system of dams and canals, was distributed over the fields, renewing the soil
year by year with a fresh deposit of mud washed down from the great equatorial lakes
and the mountains of Abyssinia. Hence the rise of the river has always been watched by
the inhabitants with the utmost anxiety; for if it either falls short of or exceeds a certain
height, dearth and famine are the inevitable consequences. The water begins to rise early
in June, but it is not until the latter half of July that it swells to a mighty tide. By the end
of September the inundation is at its greatest height. The country is now submerged, and
presents the appearance of a sea of turbid water, from which the towns and villages, built
on higher ground, rise like islands. For about a month the flood remains nearly stationary,
then sinks more and more rapidly, till by December or January the river has returned to
its ordinary bed. With the approach of summer the level of the water continues to fall. In
the early days of June the Nile is reduced to half its ordinary breadth; and Egypt,