Hark the Herald Isis and Nephthys Sing

It’s all go with copyediting the Quareia course and writing my Egypt book at the moment, so this week I haven’t had much time to spend putting together a blog article.  Instead I wanted to share a piece of silliness I put together just before Christmas for my own amusement.

Part of my research for my book involves going through all the surviving Ancient Egyptian temple rituals I can find, and noting whatever may be of magical and mystical interest.  One very useful source has been the Late Period Bremner Rhind Papyrus, well worth reading in its entirety if you can find a copy of Faulkner’s translation.  The first book of the papyrus is called the Songs of Isis and Nephthys.  It’s the libretto of a sacred operetta dedicated to Osiris, which, the text informs us, is to be sung by

[TWO] women pure of body and virgin, with the hair of their bodies removed, their heads adorned with wigs, […..] tambourines in their hands, and their names inscribed on their arms, to wit Isis and Nephthys, and they shall sing from the stanzas of this book in the presence of this god.

Not bad, eh?

As I read through the libretto, the strangest sense came over me that I had read all its words before—nay, that I had even sung them myself long, long ago…

Could it be that in a past life I was one of the delectable, hairless virgins selected to sing Osiris’s praises in His very presence?

No such luck.  After a few minutes thought, I realized that the reason I felt that I ‘remembered’ singing this song was that many of its lines bore an uncanny resemblance to a popular Christmas hymn—to wit, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, which was written by Charles Wesley in the 1730s.

It’s no great secret that Christianity owes a lot to Egypt.  I’ll look at this in some detail in my book, but meanwhile, if you want a fun time, I suggest you first research Origen for a warm up, and then trace the links between Hypatia, the bishop Synesius, and the Holy Trinity.

Nevertheless, the similarities between the Song of Isis and Nephthys and Hark the Herald staggered me.  It was as though whole lines of this ancient hymn had been channelled by Charles Wesley and set down afresh on paper.

If not me, could it be that in a past life, Charles Wesley had been one of those beautiful bewigged hairless tambouriners?

Much as I’d like to believe it, I think there’s a more prosaic explanation for the similarities, which is that there’s only a certain number of ways you can toady up to a deity before you have to start repeating yourself. (Cough, cough, Crossword Hymn to Mut, cough.) And Jesus and Osiris share some suspiciously similar life events—which a comparison of these two devotional pieces picks out—perhaps as a result of the the Christian egg being incubated in Egypt before finally hatching as the new Roman state religion.

To test how similar this ancient operetta really is to Hark the Herald, I made a two-column table.  Against each line of Hark the Herald, I lined up those parts of the Song of Isis and Nephthys that seemed most similar.  I wanted to see whether the resulting ‘hymn’ in the second column was sufficiently like Hark the Herald that it would be recognizable as a paraphase of it.

The result was in equal parts disappointing and intriguing.  It wasn’t nearly as Chinese Whispers as I’d hoped, but it nevertheless brought into focus how these two songs, written millennia apart from each other, deal with very similar themes.

Here’s my table—see what you think of the similarities, and if you have any thoughts, do drop me a note in the comments.

Author: Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard edits the Quareia course. He is also writing a book on Ancient Egyptian magic.

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