Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lecture Three


Assignment: Shaw, 61-88; Malek, 66-88.


The expression “Mind of Ancient Egypt” is probably not inclusive enough. This approach encompasses patterns, customs, and assumptions as well as concepts that are made explicit in texts. It might be called the search for the “deep structure” of ancient Egypt.

The endeavor is not unlike the attempt to assess “national character” in relation to modern peoples. Most of us do this in a kind of seat-of-the-pant way. We have been told that the English are polite and quaintly traditional, while Germans are industrious and orderly. And so we find such people in those countries--but not always. Nonetheless, there is a problem of stereotyping. As a result we need to separate misconstruals of national character from persuasive accounts. It is tempting to speak of the “personality” of peoples, but a nation is an aggregate of individuals, not some sort of superindividual.

Still, there are encouraging prototypes. A famous example comes from the brilliant American anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In 1946 Benedict published a book entitled “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” an effort to describe the national character of the Japanese. Her findings are summed up in the title: Japanese culture exhibits a tension between two dominant character traits: a deferential side, which defers to authority and manifests flexibility (the chrysanthemum) and assertive, often unthinking rigidity (the sword). Since she began work during World War II she was unable to visit Japan. She has been criticized for practicing an “anthropology of distance,” but that is all we can do with a “dead” society like that of ancient Egypt. Benedict rose above her lack of sources--she began work during World War II--and succeeded in putting aside the intense negativity revealed in the disgraceful deportation of Japanese-Americans to “relocation camps.” From her anthropological training, Benedict retained two valuable assumptions: 1) one must start from an assumption of sympathy (otherwise there is a rush to judgment); and 2) one must try to understand how the individual parts fit together.

As we noted above, in traveling abroad, even to a relatively familiar society, the temptation to judgmentalism is strong. For example, Americans visiting Britain often say: “Why do they drive on the wrong side of the road? (I suspect that Britons make the same observation when visiting the US.)

The perception that the Egyptians do things the reverse of everyone else occurs in a famous section of Herodotus’ “Histories” (2:33-34). “In keeping with the idiosyncratic climate which prevails there and he fact that their river behaves differently from any other river, almost all the Egyptian customs and practices are the opposite of everywhere else. For example, women go to the town square and retail goods, while men stay at home and do the weaving; and whereas everyone else weaves by pushing the weft upwards, the Egyptian push it downwards. Or again, men carry loads on their heads, while women do so on their shoulders. Women urinate standing up, while men do so squatting. They relieve themselves indoors, but eat outside on the streets. ... Everywhere else in the world priests let their hair grow, but in Egypt they shave their heads. ... Other peoples, unless they have been influenced by the Egyptians, leave their (male) genitals in their natural state, but the Egyptians practice circumcision. . . . As Greeks write and do their sums they move their hands from left to right, but Egyptians move from right to left. ... They have two types of script, sacred and demotic.”

Note that a number of these observations have to do with gender roles and are quite modern. What is not convincing, though, is the idea that a single trope--”they do everything in reverse”--can guide us. Herodotus’ ploy is the first in a series of stereotypes, that we are briefly reviewing. They must be set aside, before proceeding to a more plausible account of the ancient Egyptian national character.

Following the 1822 decipherment, Egyptologists made great progress in publishing and translating the texts that the explorers had been unearthing. Still, these savants often had trouble making sense of the whole. In 1905, for example, Adolf Erman (probably the greatest Egyptologist of his time) found Egyptian religion to be a weird stew, in which he could find no consistency. Such conclusions reflect in part the immaturity of the discipline, influenced also by the fact that Egyptologists had originally been trained in the study of the Greco-Roman classics, where different norms prevail.

At first this sense of bafflement took hold--instead of (ultimately) fading as greater familiarity led to a more sensible approach. In this first approximation to the issue, it was felt that. the problem lay not with the observer (as it surely was), but with the Egyptians themselves. They belonged to a “pre-logical” stage of culture, unable to take the steps that would be needed to resolve their contradictions.

We turn now to the background of this “pre-logical” assumption. The French scholar Lucien Lévy-Brühl (1857-1939) ranks as the first anthropologist to address comparative cognition. In his work How Natives Think (English translation, 1910), Lévy-Brühl posited two basic mindsets of humanity, "primitive" and "Western." The primitive mind does not differentiate the supernatural from reality, but rather uses "mystical participation" to manipulate the world. According to Lévy-Brühl, moreover, the primitive mind doesn't address contradictions. The Western mind, by contrast, uses conjecture, which must be tested, and logic. Like many theorists of his time, Lévy-Brühl believed in a historical and evolutionary teleology leading from the primitive mind to the Western mind. In this passage, evidently the ancient Egyptians got stranded along the way (such at any rate is the view expounded in a once- famous book called “Before Philosophy” written by Henri Frankfort and others). The English anthropologist Evans Pritchard critiqued Lévy-Brühl, arguing that the “primitive mind” does address contradictions, but does so differently.

As we noted previously, the Egyptians had three major creation stories. They compete, yet the stories themselves show an effort to bring order into complexity, as seen in four generations of the Heliopolitan version. The old idea that Egyptian ideas are “hopelessly confused” is the product of a lack of imagination on the part of modern scholars. Even today we must tolerate some contradictions, as in the contrast of Einsteinian physics with Quantum mechanics.

We no longer speak of the “primitive mind,” an expression that reveals condescension and a lack of careful comparative analysis. Today the prelogical claim is pretty much discarded, and we acknowledge that Egyptian culture is consistent within its own terms.

Another misconception is the idea that the Egyptian concept of the universe is “static.” This is clearly an exaggeration. The Egyptians prized stability, and sought to reestablish it when things had gone awry. They did, however, have a concept of improvement. Through careful attunement of the personality one could become worthy of the afterlife; this status did not come automatically.
Let us turn now to some culture traits that can be more plausibly ascribed to the ancient Egyptians.

A. Complementary dualism

Instances of duals are: the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt); the two banks; the black and the red land; the contentions of Horus and Seth. Anyone who could afford it had two houses: a temporary abode and a house for eternity. The two-gender system in language. One of the reasons why the Amarna religion of Aten proved so unpalatable is that is sought to repeal this idea of complementarity. Instead of two factors supplementing one another, there was only a stark contrast between truth and falsitity.

B. Stability

Ma’at, the goddess of justice and truth, did her best to maintain the stability that the Egyptians regarded as essential for individual flourishing. Wary of change per se--it could always be for the worse--the Egyptians acknowledged the need for improvement (kheper, personified by the scarab): through careful molding of the self one could merit the afterlife.

The pharaohs, it was claimed, aided Ma’at in this essential task. The existence of Seth, god of confusion, Attested that some perturbation would occur from time to time. Such “noise” would not affect the overall harmony.

Stability had several visual counterparts, such as the careful alignment of the pyramids, and the gridiron planning of mastaba groups and planned cities. The retention of the block form in statutes powerfully conveys a sense of imperturbability and stability. The execution of paintings was generally preceded by the laying out of a grid of squares. Individual features of the representation were then placed according to the preestablished coordinates. (This procedure is a little like our latitude and longitude, applied to a small scale.) Through the Egyptians showed a preference for the right angle, a view to be echoed in our own time by the architect Le Corbusier--while at the same time it was rejected by Buckminister Fuller.

C. Patrimonial government.

The pharaohs governed Egypt as if it were a family business. They could not do this alone, and required the assistance of the scribe class (the bureaucracy). The premise of pharaonic supremacy was generally accepted; such divine figures could do no harm Not so the bureaucracy, and Egyptian literature gives examples of individuals who appealed to the arbitrary judgments of officials. Implicitly, the protester relied on the principle of Ma’at.

D. Ethnocentrism.

Like some later peoples, the Egyptians were convinced of the inherent superiority of the Egyptian way of life. Their view of the earth was necessarily a restricted one, but it allowed for the existence of neighboring peoples. It was easy to disregard the desert dwellers to the east and the west; a nomads, they had no settled way of life. Encounters with Nubians and the mainly Semitic peoples of Western Asia were more problematic, as they had evolved complex societies. Nonetheless, the Egyptians tended to steretype them, as seen in Tutankhamen’s wood box. These ideas were the accompaniment of imperialism, in which the Egyptians established colonies on their southern and northeastern frontiers.

E. Earthiness

In the literal sense Egypt arose yearly from the mud deposited by the Nile inundations. There was not only mud, but dung. The scarab, a dung beatle, was important because it represents the principle of becoming or transformation (kheper) Khepri is the god of the rising sun.

However, by “earthiness” we generally mean something else--frankness regarding bodily functions and sex that shows their approach to be at odds with any sort of Victorian prudery. For example, the story of Atum’s creation of the first gods (Shu and Tefnut) shows them as emerging from his own body, possibly as the result of an act of autofellation.

By the 19th dynasty the enmity between Seth and Horus, in which Horus had ripped off one of his uncle Seth's testicles, was represented as a separate tale. Seth is depicted as trying to prove his dominance by seducing Horus and then sodomizing him. However, Horus places his hand between his thighs and catches Seth's semen, then subsequently throws it in the river, so that he may not be said to have been inseminated by Seth. Horus then deliberately spreads his own semen on some lettuce which was Seth's favorite food (regarded as aphrodisiac). After Seth has eaten the lettuce, they go to the gods to try to settle the argument over the rule of Egypt. The gods first listen to Seth's claim of dominance over Horus, and call his semen forth, but it answers from the river, invalidating his claim. Then, the gods listen to Horus' claim of having dominated Seth, and call his semen forth, and it answers from inside Seth. (In our eyes, the idea of “talking semen” is a bit bizarre.)

Geb (earth) and Nut (the sky) were entranced with each other. Efforts had to be made to prevent them from perpetually copulating, which would leave no room for humanity in the gap between them.

The ithyphallic god Min is known from earliest dynastic times, and perhaps from before. Other figures emphasize both male and female genitals.

We are tempted to regard such sexual and bodily themes as tainting serious, divine matters. Perhaps, though, the matter could be examined differently, as showing an effort to redeem and integrate aspects of human life that will always be with us.


As we noted earlier, the Egyptians kept careful records of the pharaoh’s reigns, eventually marshalling them into 31 dynasties. We currently place the start of Dynasty 1 about 3000 BC.

What happened before that? The Egyptians had some ideas, very different from those of modern archaeologists. For millions of years, the gods had kept the earth to themselves. Then, about 28,000 years ago, they decided to share the earth with human beings. There were two eras, the Age of the Gods proper (about 10,000 years) and the Age of Horus or the Spirits (a somewhat longer period. They also took a long view of the future. If all was well, one might expect to live a trillion years after being placed in the tomb.

Modern archaeology has established a series of periods. In all honesty, the paleolithic, with its endless scrapers and punchers, is not very interesting in Egypt (skim over those parts of the Shaw book). Things get more interesting about 5500 BC, when there is evidence of a more complex society, with pottery, some small sculptures, and evidence of social differentiation (as seen in the burials).

Flinders Petrie, the first archaeologist to investigate the matter thoroughly, set up a system of Sequence Dates, based on his excavation of burials (from 31-80). Nowadays we reckon on larger periods: Badarian, Naqada I-III. (The first two phases of Naqada were formerly termed Amratian and Gerzean, after two type-sites.) Naqada III corresponds to the transition to dynastic Egypt (sometimes termed Dynasty 0).

Pottery is our best index. Basically, the earlier pottery has light forms on a dark ground (Naqada I), while the later Naqada II ware is the reverse. (NB: In class, the instructor erred in ascribing the first group to the Badarian. This mistake will be corrected next time).

Characteristic scenes involve figures and boats, together with decorative motifs. The imagery finds parallels in petroglyphs from the wadis in the Eastern Desert.

The signature sculpture (as it were) is the Brooklyn Bird Goddess (actually one of a pair). Her gesture is paralleled in the pottery. Generally speaking it is hard to identify the (possibly) divine figures in these representations. The figure of Min is an exception. On the whole, though, it is frustrating the we cannot learn what we would like to learn about the origins of Egyptian religion as seen in Dynastic times from these early anticipations. It may be that the Predynastic people worshipped some gods who have disappeared from the later pantheon, while not yet knowing some figures who became prominent later.

Other small sculptures show different stylizations of human figures and animals. Some have a strikingly “modern” quality. They generally lack the canonical features that characterize representations from the pharaonic period.

The Hierakonpolis mural is a kind of anthology of late Predynastic motifs. Mesopotamian influence is evident, as is the warrior theme.

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