Few subjects of inquiry have proved more perplexing than the question of the purpose for which the pyramids of Egypt were built. Even in the remotest ages of which we have historical record, nothing seems to have been known certainly on this point. For some reason or other, the builders of the pyramids concealed the object of these structures, and this so successfully that not even a tradition has reached us which purports to have been handed down from the epoch of the pyramids' construction.
We find, indeed, some explanations given by the earliest historians; but they were professedly only hypothetical, like those advanced in more recent times. Including ancient and modern theories, we find a wide range of choice. Some have thought that these buildings were associated with the religion of the early Egyptians; others have suggested that they were tombs; others, that they combined the purposes of tombs and temples, that they were astronomical observatories, defences against the sands of the Great Desert, granaries like those made under Joseph's direction, places of resort during excessive overflows of the Nile; and many other uses have been suggested for them. But none of these ideas are found on close examination to be tenable as representing the sole purpose of the pyramids, and few of them have strong claims to be regarded as presenting even a chief object of these remarkable structures. The significant and perplexing history of the three oldest pyramids—the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Shofo, or Suphis, the pyramid of Chephren, and the pyramid of Mycerinus; and the most remarkable of all the facts known respecting the pyramids generally, viz., the circumstance that one pyramid after another was built as though each had become useless soon after it was finished, are left entirely unexplained by all the theories above mentioned, save one only, the tomb theory, and that does not afford by any means a satisfactory explanation of the circumstances.

I propose to give here a brief account of some of the most suggestive facts known respecting the pyramids, and, after considering the difficulties which beset the theories heretofore advanced, to indicate a theory (new so far as I know) which seems to me to correspond better with the facts than any heretofore advanced; I suggest it, however, rather for consideration than because I regard it as very convincingly supported by the evidence. In fact, to advance any theory at present with confident assurance of its correctness, would be simply to indicate a very limited acquaintance with the difficulties surrounding the subject.
Let us first consider a few of the more striking facts recorded by history or tradition, noting, as we proceed, whatever ideas they may suggest as to the intended character of these structures.
It is hardly necessary to say, perhaps, that the history of the Great Pyramid is of paramount importance in this inquiry. Whatever purpose pyramids were originally intended to subserve, must have been conceived by the builders of that pyramid. New ideas may have been superadded by the builders of later pyramids, but it is unlikely that the original purpose can have been entirely abandoned. Some great purpose there was, which the rulers of ancient Egypt proposed to fulfil by building very massive pyramidal structures on a particular plan. It is by inquiring into the history of the first and most massive of these structures, and by examining its construction, that we shall have the best chance of finding out what that great purpose was.
According to Herodotus, the kings who built the pyramids reigned not more than twenty-eight centuries ago; but there can be little doubt that Herodotus misunderstood the Egyptian priests from whom he derived his information, and that the real antiquity of the pyramid-kings was far greater. He tells us that, according to the Egyptian priests, Cheops 'on ascending the throne plunged into all manner of wickedness. He closed the temples, and forbade the Egyptians to offer sacrifice, compelling them instead to labour one and all in his service, viz., in building the Great Pyramid.' Still following his interpretation of the Egyptian account, we learn that one hundred thousand men were employed for twenty years in building the Great Pyramid, and that ten years were occupied in constructing a causeway by which to convey the stones to the place and in conveying them there. 'Cheops reigned fifty years; and was succeeded by his brother Chephren, who imitated the conduct of his predecessor, built a pyramid—but smaller than his brother's—and reigned fifty-six years. Thus during one hundred and six years, the temples were shut and never opened.' Moreover, Herodotus tells us that 'the Egyptians so detested the memory of these kings, that they do not much like even to mention their names. Hence they commonly call the pyramids after Philition, a shepherd who at that time fed his flocks about the place.' 'After Chephren, Mycerinus, son of Cheops, ascended the throne, he reopened the temples, and allowed the people to resume the practice of sacrifice. He, too, left a pyramid, but much inferior in size to his father's. It is built, for half of its height, of the stone of Ethiopia,' or, as Professor Smyth (whose extracts from Rawlinson's translation I have here followed) adds 'expensive red granite.' 'After Mycerinus, Asychis ascended the throne. He built the eastern gateway of the Temple of Vulcan (Phtha); and, being desirous of eclipsing all his predecessors on the throne, left as a monument of his reign a pyramid of brick.'
This account is so suggestive, as will presently be shown, that it may be well to inquire whether it can be relied on. Now, although there can be no doubt that Herodotus misunderstood the Egyptians in some matters, and in particular as to the chronological order of the dynasties, placing the pyramid kings far too late, yet in other respects he seems not only to have understood them correctly, but also to have received a correct account from them. The order of the kings above named corresponds with the sequence given by Manetho, and also found in monumental and hieroglyphic records. Manetho gives the names Suphis I., Suphis II., and Mencheres, instead of Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus; while, according to the modern Egyptologists, Herodotus's Cheops was Shofo, Shufu, or Koufou; Chephren was Shafre, while he was also called Nou-Shofo or Noum-Shufu as the brother of Shofo; and Mycerinus was Menhere or Menkerre. But the identity of these kings is not questioned. As to the true dates there is much doubt, and it is probable that the question will long continue open; but the determination of the exact epochs when the several pyramids were built is not very important in connection with our present inquiry. We may, on the whole, fairly take the points quoted above from Herodotus, and proceed to consider the significance of the narrative, with sufficient confidence that in all essential respects it is trustworthy.
There are several very strange features in the account.
In the first place, it is manifest that Cheops (to call the first king by the name most familiar to the general reader) attached great importance to the building of his pyramid. It has been said, and perhaps justly, that it would be more interesting to know the plan of the architect who devised the pyramid than the purpose of the king who built it. But the two things are closely connected. The architect must have satisfied the king that some highly important purpose in which the king himself was interested, would be subserved by the structure. Whether the king was persuaded to undertake the work as a matter of duty, or only to advance his own interests, may not be so clear. But that the king was most thoroughly in earnest about the work is certain. A monarch in those times would assuredly not have devoted an enormous amount of labour and material to such a scheme unless he was thoroughly convinced of its great importance. That the welfare of his people was not considered by Cheops in building the Great Pyramid is almost equally certain. He might, indeed, have had a scheme for their good which either he did not care to explain to them or which they could not understand. But the most natural inference from the narrative is that his purpose had no reference whatever to their welfare. For though one could understand his own subjects hating him while he was all the time working for their good, it is obvious that his memory would not have been hated if some important good had eventually been gained from his scheme. Many a far-seeing ruler has been hated while living on account of the very work for which his memory has been revered. But the memory of Cheops and his successors was held in detestation.
May we, however, suppose that, though Cheops had not the welfare of his own people in his thoughts, his purpose was nevertheless not selfish, but intended in some way to promote the welfare of the human race? I say his purpose, because, whoever originated the scheme, Cheops carried it out; it was by means of his wealth and through his power that the pyramid was built. This is the view adopted by Professor Piazzi Smyth and others, in our own time, and first suggested by John Taylor. 'Whereas other writers,' says Smyth, 'have generally esteemed that the mysterious persons who directed the building of the Great Pyramid (and to whom the Egyptians, in their traditions, and for ages afterwards, gave an immoral and even abominable character) must therefore have been very bad indeed, so that the world at large has always been fond of standing on, kicking, and insulting that dead lion, whom they really knew not; he, Mr. John Taylor, seeing how religiously bad the Egyptians themselves were, was led to conclude, on the contrary, that those they hated (and could never sufficiently abuse) might, perhaps, have been pre-eminently good; or were, at all events, of different religious faith from themselves.' 'Combining this with certain unmistakable historical facts,' Mr. Taylor deduced reasons for believing that the directors of the building designed to record in its proportions, and in its interior features, certain important religious and scientific truths, not for the people then living, but for men who were to come 4000 years or so after.
I have already considered at length (see the preceding Essay) the evidence on which this strange theory rests. But there are certain matters connecting it with the above narrative which must here be noticed. The mention of the shepherd Philition, who fed his flocks about the place where the Great Pyramid was built, is a singular feature of Herodotus's narrative. It reads like some strange misinterpretation of the story related to him by the Egyptian priests. It is obvious that if the word Philition did not[Pg 84] represent a people, but a person, this person must have been very eminent and distinguished—a shepherd-king, not a mere shepherd. Rawlinson, in a note on this portion of the narrative of Herodotus, suggests that Philitis was probably a shepherd-prince from Palestine, perhaps of Philistine descent, 'but so powerful and domineering, that it may be traditions of his oppressions in that earlier age which, mixed up afterwards in the minds of later Egyptians with the evils inflicted on their country by the subsequent shepherds of better known dynasties, lent so much fear to their religious hate of Shepherd times and that name.' Smyth, somewhat modifying this view, and considering certain remarks of Manetho respecting an alleged invasion of Egypt by shepherd-kings, 'men of an ignoble race (from the Egyptian point of view) who had the confidence to invade our country, and easily subdued it to their power without a battle,' comes to the conclusion that some Shemite prince, 'a contemporary of, but rather older than, the Patriarch Abraham,' visited Egypt at this time, and obtained such influence over the mind of Cheops as to persuade him to erect the pyramid. According to Smyth, the prince was no other than Melchizedek, king of Salem, and the influence he exerted was supernatural. With such developments of the theory we need not trouble ourselves. It seems tolerably clear that certain shepherd-chiefs who came to Egypt during Cheops' reign were connected in some way with the designing of the Great Pyramid. It is clear also that they were men of a different religion from the Egyptians, and persuaded Cheops to abandon the religion of his people. Taylor, Smyth, and the Pyramidalists generally, consider this sufficient to prove that the pyramid was erected for some purpose connected with religion. 'The pyramid,' in fine, says Smyth, 'was charged by God's inspired shepherd-prince, in the beginning of human time, to keep a certain message secret and inviolable for 4000 years, and it has done so; and in the next thousand years it was to enunciate that message to all men, with more than traditional force, more than all the authenticity of copied manuscripts or reputed history; and that part of the pyramid's usefulness is now beginning.'
There are many very obvious difficulties surrounding this theory; as, for example the absurd waste of power in setting supernatural machinery at work 4000 years ago with cumbrous devices to record its object, when the same machinery, much more simply employed now, would effect the alleged purpose far more thoroughly; the enormous amount of human misery and its attendant hatreds brought about by this alleged divine scheme; and the futility of an arrangement by which the pyramid was only to subserve its purpose when it had lost that perfection of shape on which its entire significance depended, according to the theory itself. But, apart from these, there is a difficulty, nowhere noticed by Smyth or his followers, which is fatal, I conceive, to this theory of the pyramid's purpose. The second pyramid, though slightly inferior to the first in size, and probably far inferior in quality of masonry, is still a structure of enormous dimensions, which must have required many years of labour from tens of thousands of workmen. Now, it seems impossible to explain why Chephren built this second pyramid, if we adopt Smyth's theory respecting the first pyramid. For either Chephren knew the purpose for which the Great Pyramid was built, or he did not know it. If he knew that purpose, and it was that indicated by Smyth, then he also knew that no second pyramid was wanted. On that hypothesis, all the labour bestowed on the second pyramid was wittingly and wilfully wasted. This, of course is incredible. But, on the other hand, if Chephren did not know what was the purpose for which the Great Pyramid was built, what reason could Chephren have had for building a pyramid at all? The only answer to this question seems to be that Chephren built the second pyramid in hopes of finding out why his brother had built the first, and this answer is simply absurd. It is clear enough that whatever purpose Cheops had in building the first pyramid, Chephren must have had a similar purpose in building the second; and we require a theory which shall at least explain why the first pyramid did not subserve for Chephren the purpose which it subserved or was meant to subserve for Cheops. The same reasoning may be extended to the third pyramid, to the fourth, and in fine to all the pyramids, forty or so in number, included under the general designation of the Pyramids of Ghizeh or Jeezeh. The extension of the principle to pyramids later than the second is especially important as showing that the difference of religion insisted on by Smyth has no direct bearing on the question of the purpose for which the Great Pyramid itself was constructed. For Mycerinus either never left or else returned to the religion of the Egyptians. Yet he also built a pyramid, which, though far inferior in size to the pyramids built by his father and uncle, was still a massive structure, and relatively more costly even than theirs, because built of expensive granite. The pyramid built by Asychis, though smaller still, was remarkable as built of brick; in fact, we are expressly told that Asychis desired to eclipse all his predecessors in such labours, and accordingly left this brick pyramid as a monument of his reign.
We are forced, in fact, to believe that there was some special relation between the pyramid and its builder, seeing that each one of these kings wanted a pyramid of his own. This applies to the Great Pyramid quite as much as to the others, despite the superior excellence of that structure. Or rather, the argument derives its chief force from the superiority of the Great Pyramid. If Chephren, no longer perhaps having the assistance of the shepherd-architects in planning and superintending the work, was unable to construct a pyramid so perfect and so stately as his brother's, the very fact that he nevertheless built a pyramid shows that the Great Pyramid did not fulfil for Chephren the purpose which it fulfilled for Cheops. But, if Smyth's theory were true, the Great Pyramid would have fulfilled finally and for all men the purpose for which it was built. Since this was manifestly not the case, that theory is, I submit, demonstrably erroneous.
It was probably the consideration of this point, viz. that each king had a pyramid constructed for himself, which led to the theory that the pyramids were intended to serve as tombs. This theory was once very generally entertained. Thus we find Humboldt, in his remarks on American pyramids, referring to the tomb theory of the Egyptian pyramids as though it were open to no question. 'When we consider,' he says, 'the pyramidical monuments of Egypt, of Asia, and of the New Continent, from the same point of view, we see that, though their form is alike, their destination was altogether different. The group of pyramids of Ghizeh and at Sakhara in Egypt; the triangular pyramid of the Queen of the Scythians, Zarina, which was a stadium high and three in circumference, and which was decorated with a colossal figure; the fourteen Etruscan pyramids, which are said to have been enclosed in the labyrinth of the king Porsenna, at Clusium—were reared to serve as the sepulchres of the illustrious dead. Nothing is more natural to men than to commemorate the spot where rest the ashes of those whose memory they cherish whether it be, as in the infancy of the race, by simple mounds of earth, or, in later periods, by the towering height of the tumulus. Those of the Chinese and of Thibet have only a few metres of elevation. Farther to the west the dimensions increase; the tumulus of the king Alyattes, father of Crœsus, in Lydia, was six stadia, and that of Ninus was more than ten stadia in diameter. In the north of Europe the sepulchre of the Scandinavian king Gormus and the queen Daneboda, covered with mounds of earth, are three hundred metres broad, and more than thirty high.'
But while we have abundant reason for believing that in Egypt, even in the days of Cheops and Chephren, extreme importance was attached to the character of the place of burial for distinguished persons, there is nothing in what is known respecting earlier Egyptian ideas to suggest the probability that any monarch would have devoted many years of his subjects' labour, and vast stores of material, to erect a mass of masonry like the Great Pyramid, solely to receive his own body after death. Far less have we any reason for supposing that many monarchs in succession would do this, each having a separate tomb built for him. It might have been conceivable, had only the Great Pyramid been erected, that the structure had been raised as a mausoleum for all the kings and princes of the dynasty. But it seems utterly incredible that such a building as the Great Pyramid should have been erected for one king's body only—and that, not in the way described by Humboldt, when he speaks of men commemorating the spot where rest the remains of those whose memory they cherish, but at the expense of the king himself whose body was to be there deposited. Besides, the first pyramid, the one whose history must be regarded as most significant of the true purpose of these buildings, was not built by an Egyptian holding in great favour the special religious ideas of his people, but by one who had adopted other views and those not belonging, so far as can be seen, to a people among whom sepulchral rites were held in exceptional regard.
A still stronger objection against the exclusively tombic theory resides in the fact that this theory gives no account whatever of the characteristic features of the pyramids themselves. These buildings are all, without exception, built on special astronomical principles. Their square bases are so placed as to have two sides lying east and west, and two lying north and south, or, in other words, so that their four faces front the four cardinal points. One can imagine no reason why a tomb should have such a position. It is not, indeed, easy to understand why any building at all, except an astronomical observatory, should have such a position. A temple perhaps devoted to sun-worship, and generally to the worship of the heavenly bodies, might be built in that way. For it is to be noticed that the peculiar figure and position of the pyramids would bring about the following relations:—When the sun rose and set south of the east and west points, or (speaking generally) between the autumn and the spring equinoxes, the rays of the rising and setting sun illuminated the southern face of the pyramid; whereas during the rest of the year, that is, during the six months between the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rays of the rising and setting sun illuminated the northern face. Again, all the year round the sun's rays passed from the eastern to the western face at solar noon. And lastly, during seven months and a half of each year, namely, for three months and three quarters before and after midsummer, the noon rays of the sun fell on all four faces of the pyramid, or, according to a Peruvian expression (so Smyth avers), the sun shone on the pyramid 'with all his rays.' Such conditions as these might have been regarded as very suitable for a temple devoted to sun-worship. Yet the temple theory is as untenable as the tomb theory. For, in the first place, the pyramid form—as the pyramids were originally built, with perfectly smooth slant-faces, not terraced into steps as now through the loss of the casing-stones—was entirely unsuited for all the ordinary requirements of a temple of worship. And further, this theory gives no explanation of the fact that each king built a pyramid, and each king only one. Similar difficulties oppose the theory that the pyramids were intended to serve as astronomical observatories. For while their original figure, however manifestly astronomical in its relations, was quite unsuited for observatory work, it is manifest that if such had been the purpose of pyramid-building, so soon as the Great Pyramid had once been built, no other would be needed. Certainly none of the pyramids built afterwards could have subserved any astronomical purpose which the first did not subserve, or have subserved nearly so well as the Great Pyramid those purposes (and they are but few) which that building may be supposed to have fulfilled as an astronomical observatory.


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