Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lecture Two



1) Here at Dynegypt.blospot, com, review the summary of Lecture One (below). Then read my essay, “Greece, Egypt, and the Near East,” which fleshes out the material that we could not complete in class at the end of Lecture One.

2) In the textbooks, read: Shaw, pp. 17-60; Malek, pp. 9-66.


1) Cyberland

For the best gateway to Internet material go to Greg Reeder’s, and click on THE BEST EGYPT LINKS ON THE WEB. This collection of 164 items is a mixed bag, for it mingles several levels--advanced sites consorting with introductory ones. (Warning: as is always the case with the Internet, there are some speculative sites and some trivia.) Among the most impressive are the “cutting-edge” sites on two of the most important locales: 10. The Lost City, on the Giza Mapping Project; and 33. the Theban Mapping Project. Several sites offer alphabetical lexica of the gods and goddesses, one with 115 (a realistic figure, alas). There are interactive sites, together with some reflecting special interests (e.g. 95. Autofellatio and Ontology).

For recent discoveries one can consult the site of Zawi Hawass, the flamboyant General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt (The Plateau, at:

On the whole, I find the museum sites disappointing, because they tend to illustrate only a few objects in their care. With some 250 photos, Cairo’s Egyptian Museum has the most. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a valuable Timeline, illustrated with a few objects. This site is best regarded as the prelude to a visit.

2) Printed materials. I still find these essential, because the best ones gather a wealth of material that would take much patience to assemble from the ‘net.

Comparable to our Malek text as general surveys are: Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt; and W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (somewhat out of date, but still the fullest one-volume account, with many references for further research). For quick reference, Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, is unsurpassed.

Mark Lehner’s The Complete Pyramids of Ancient Egypt, ranks as the best handbook on this important subject. The Thames and Hudson firm has produced a number of other books, using the “Complete” formula (which is sometimes a bit of an exaggeration). Among the best of these is Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddess of Ancient Egypt. Wilkinson has also produced an enlightening Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture.

As an introduction, I still have a fondness for Joseph and Lenore Scott, Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Everyone (out of print, but easily available); there are of course fuller and more recent manuals on this important subject.

For almost two centuries, specialists have labored to edit and translate Egyptian writings. From a scholarly point of view, the collection of Miriam Lichtheim, ed., Ancient Egyptian Literature (3 vols. 1973-80) remains standard. Yet these translations give little idea of the real beauty that some of these writings display; for that one can turn to John L. Foster, ed., Ancient Egyptian Literature. A good compromise between the two approaches is R. B. Parkinson, ed., The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC (Oxford World Classics). Oddly enough, there seems to be no real history of Egyptian literature; this is a pity, because literature is one of the major areas of ancient Egyptian creativity.

A lavish monograph on a subject of perennial interest is Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians addressed issues of sexuality candidly. As yet we have no fully satisfactory monograph, but see Lisa Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt.

There is a glossy magazine called KMT (pricey), which I usually just glance at because the information is mostly available elsewhere.

3) A resource that has few peers is the Metropolitan Museum, right here in Manhattan. The collections occupy the entire North Wing (main floor). It is best to follow the historical trajectory, which is counterclockwise. The main bookstore at the Met is a good general source for printed volumes.

4) Summaries of the lectures appear here at, after the presentation. Supporting materials and research tips will also be found here.


As with most ancient peoples, the Egyptians observed polytheism, revering many deities. Most observers (and even Egyptians themselves) have been struck by the proliferation of Egyptian gods and goddesses, striking even by polytheistic standards. Unlike ancient Greece with her Twelve Olympians, there is no canonical list of the most important ones. (The ones shown on the handout are a personal selection by a French scholar, François Daumas.) To be truly proficient in the pantheon of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, one should know about a hundred, a quantity not expected in this class. In due course it will be evident which ones are most important in the instructor’s judgment.

The following is a basic categorization according to function. 1) Some deities correspond to natural forces, such as the air and moisture, the earth and sky, the sun and the moon. Of particular interest is Hapy, the Nile god. 2) Then there are gods with special responsibilities, such as Tawert who helps with pregnancy and Thoth, the scribe, who keeps careful records. 3) Many deities relate to particular places--towns and nomes--which benefited from the festivals which were found there. 4) Personification deities represent particular qualities, as Ma’at (truth, justice) and her polar opposite, Isfet (chaos). Note also Heh (eternity), and Shai (fate). These deities tend to be somewhat bloodless, lacking the colorful life histories of such figures as Horus and Seth. 5) In principle, the kings were divine. At times, though, this claim seemed to wear a little thin. If they were gods, how is it that they could not protect their tombs from violation by robbers? Addressing these doubts, perhaps, is the later tradition of the merger of the deceased king with Osiris, ruler of the afterworld.

Particularly striking are the animal-headed forms. The animal references may relate, in a general way, to the old idea of totemism (now considered problematic by anthropologists). Rarely does the reverse occur--as in the sphinx, where the human head concludes an animal body. The animal may also appear whole, as the falcon of Horus and the jackal of Anubis.

To be candid, the sheer mass of Egyptian deities, each one set apart with his or her distinctive characteristics and responsibilities, tends to create a bewildering effect. Apparently, the Egyptians themselves sometimes felt this way, so that they developed ways of linking deities: there are pairs (using siblings, such as Isis and Nephthys) and couples. Triads (family groupings) also occurred, such as Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Creation stories entailed genealogies, e.g. the Heliopolitan Ennead :

Shu -- Tefnut
Geb -- Nut
Osiris -- Isis -- Seth -- Nephthys

As worshippers discovered that two deities were “really” one, fusion could occur: Re-Harakhte; Amun-re. Some quarters showed the gradual emergence of the concept of a supreme figure: Amun-Re (cf. Zeus in Greece). This development, sometimes known as summodeism, allows for the existence of other deities, though these are subordinate to the supreme one. Finally there are transcendent principles, preeminently Ma’at, and the solar concept.

It seems that a certain uneasiness lies at the heart of Egyptian polytheism. Many felt must be some underlying principle that governs this welter; netcher (God) instead of netcheru (gods). A similar view sometimes occurred in ancient Greece and ancient India.

We tend to study Egyptian religion as if it were always the same. Yet we must not expect unchanging uniformity in human affairs. According to Jan Assmann, Egyptian religion evolves from a state of almost pure praxis (in the Old Kingdom, when devotion to the gods was unproblematic) to a new, more intellectual form, eventuating in something that we might term theology. This trend towards complexity first emerges after the time of troubles that preceded the Middle Kingdom. Theology reached its full flower in the New Kingdom, especially with the emergence of the New Solar Religion, evident from the reign of Amenhotep III in the 18th dynasty.

As described in the hymns of the mid-18th dynasty, the main features of this New Solar Religion are as follows. 1) The sun is alone in the sky, so that the sun god accomplishes his course in complete solitude. 2) The sun is distant, so that the sun god is inaccessibly remote and unfathomable in his essence. 3) Though distant, the light of the sun is on earth. 4) Light opens up the world. making it visible and useful to humankind. 5) Light fills the world with the incarnate visibility and “beauty” of the sun god. 6) Light reveals the god who is hidden in it. 7) Light grants the ability to see to all eyes. 8) Light gives life to all creatures, who live on the sight of the god. 9) Light is the gaze of the god, with which he beholds his creation. 10) Movement is the “work” of the god, which he accomplishes by rising and setting with miraculous constancy. 11) Considering both space and time, movement is miraculously swift. 12) In the periodicity of his movement, the god ever again create himself as a new and yet the same being. 13) Movement creates time, with its cyclical, rhythmic regularity; 14) Along with time, movement creates transitoriness. 15) And along with time, movement creates the lifetime (‘h’w) of every living creature, in whom individual essence and destiny can unfold. [This enumeration, which I derive from Jan Assmann, was not presented in class because of time constraints, but is a useful reminder that the Amarna revolution did not come out of nowhere.]

It is clear then that such ideas constitute the indispensable precursor of Akhenaten’s monotheism, the Amarna religion centering around Aten, the sun disk. What then was new in it?

The Amarna revolution lasted only about twenty years. It is the first instance of a FOUNDED religion, foreshadowing the religion of Moses, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (as distinct from the polytheistic religions which evolved organically), Amarna challenged the basis of every previous religious orientation. In general, polytheistic devotees acknowledged an easy tolerance. Not so the Aten faith which is based on a stark contrast of truth and falsity. The old cults are simply wrong. Moreover, the imagery of the Amarna faith is essentially aniconic, rejecting human and animal forms in favor of the abstract symbol of the sun disk. By the same token, Amarna aspired to be universal (the sun shines on all peoples), taking issue with the traditional Egyptian sense of ethnocentrism (national chauvinism).

These qualities are strikingly similar to the monotheism ascribed to Moses in the Hebrew Bible. In the past such correspondences have triggered the assumption that Moses might have been an officer in Akhenaten’s court. However, the time gap, amounting to several centuries at least, is too great for such a direct link to be possible.

There would seem to be two solutions to this puzzle. The first acknowledges the human capacity for reinvention. Writing, for example, was separately invented over and over again, in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. This may have happened with monotheism also. There is, however, another possiblity, and that is that a “subterranean” monotheistic religion persisted in Egypt long after the formal profession of the Amarna faith was stamped out. At all events, the emergence of monotheism remains one of the most intriguing contributions of Egyptian civilization.

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