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Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt.

Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. By JAN ASSMANN, translated by David Lorton. Ithaca: CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005. Pp. xiii + 490. $59.95.

The present work represents a comprehensive study of the concepts of death and afterlife in ancient Egypt.(1) Its author opts for a thematic rather than a historical analysis, covering the most important manifestations and evidence of Egyptian mortuary beliefs from the Old Kingdom to the Graeco-Roman period. His attempt to categorize and interpret these phenomena is addressed to a diverse audience, ultimately aiming to contribute to general cultural theory. The constant use of cross-references and the various strata of theoretical perspectives bring other approaches and schools of interpretation under examination, q.v. Plato, Hebrew Bible, Nietzsche, Freud. In addition, each chapter allows for an independent reading. The volume is composed of four well-organized sections, preceded by a table of contents and a translator's note. Endnotes and index close the book.

In the introduction, Assmann defines death as "the origin and center of culture" (p. 1), a twofold concept understood as a project of supplementary and compensatory amendment, and a surplus of knowledge that helps to mitigate the awareness of death. He distinguishes cultures that perceived death as an addendum to life ("pieced-on") from those in which life is permeated by death, and categorizes the ancient Egyptian as belonging to the second type.

Chapter one describes death and dismemberment as social isolation and disintegration. The heart (jb/h[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].tj) constitutes the center of the system of integration that must be recomposed through embalming and rituals. Chapter two deals with the social isolation that threatens the deceased (Osiris). By ritual, his son (Horus) restores his father's status. Assmann outlines the character of this connection by means of social memory and ethical behavior, detected in biographical and instructional texts. Chapter three explores the dangers of death, described as an unnatural phenomenon and embodiment of evil. After the New Kingdom, a new model of redemption found evil and judgment within the individual. Chapter four is directly concerned with the fundamental dissociation of the individual's parts: b[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], k[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], body (d.t), corpse (h[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],t), mummy (s'h), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]h, heart, shadow, and name. The funerary rites bring about the separation of ba and corpse, while the ka is restored as a social entity. The representations of the deceased, statues, reserve heads, and mummy masks ensure his "corporeal" presence in the tomb.

Chapter five presents death as departure and transition through the motif of the widow's lamentations, which touch on three themes: separation, a fearful netherworld, and the reversal of the deceased's situation. Chapter six is an overview of the transition into the netherworld. The "crossing of the waters" is a journey in which the deceased must avoid evil beings and dangerous places. His goal is to become a rightful passenger of the solar barque or Osiris on his throne. Chapter seven describes death as a return to life, not as a forceful distancing. Assmann examines this Egyptian belief on the basis of the Nut/Neith-texts, which compare the coffin with a regenerative womb. In chapter eight, death is categorized as a mystery, and four topics relate to this view: the night circuit of the sun, Osiris in the netherworld, the tomb as a sacred place, and the initiation of the dead. Chapter nine explores the notion of destination after death in royal and private contexts, stressing the prevalence of the concept of "Going Forth by Day" (CT340, BD 86), the visits to gardens and homes of the living (BD 32), and the participation in major festivals.

Chapter ten examines the recording of recitation texts (s[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] h.w) and their distinction from mortuary literature.(2) The author also touches on greetings and requests from the epistolary genre in the context of its mortuary origin. Chapter eleven is devoted to the invocations recited in the embalming place on the night before the burial. Chapter twelve concentrates on one of these liturgies, the khebes-ta ("the Earth is hacked up"), consisting of an enactment of the Judgment of the Dead. Artistic and textual depictions of the funeral and its rites performed from the home to the tomb are discussed in chapter thirteen. Among them, the Opening-of-the-Mouth (wp.t r[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), as a ritual for the awakening of the deceased, is examined. In chapter fourteen. Assmann explores the meaning and significance of provisioning the dead, focusing on the invocation pr.t-hrw. Chapter fifteen deals with the sacramental explanation of death and regeneration, discussing the water rites as "discharge of Osiris," and the rites of Khoiak in the Graeco-Roman temples. In chapter sixteen, Assmann explains the hopes for freedom from the yoke of transitoriness in death, distinguishing the "continuative" prospect for the afterlife from "immortality." While this chapter covers the principles of the first notion, chapter seventeen deals with immortality and the unio liturgica that ensures redemption to a well-provided spirit.

The "After word" describes the differences between the ancient Egyptian experience of death and our own culture's. For Assmann, death in ancient Egypt was not viewed as the end of life, but as part of the group of constellations that each individual developed. The final concern of the author is to evaluate how Egyptian mortuary ideas influenced other views (Mesopotamian, Hebrew, Greek).

The following are minor corrections and suggestions:

pp. 19-20: The list of earlier works and models on the subject should include the recent Grab und Totenkult im Alien Agypten, ed. H. Guksch, E. Hofmann, and M. Bommas (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2003).

p. 78: The author's indication of lack of evidence for shamanism, prophecies, or mysticism in Egypt prior to the Graeco-Roman period should include references about this discussion: E. E Wente, JNES 41 (1982): 161-79: J. Assmann, in Das Fest und das Heilige: Religiose Kontrapunkte zur All-tagswelt, ed. J. Assmann (Gutersloh, 1991), 105-22; and "Ocular Desire in a Time of Darkness: Urban Festivals and Divine Visibility in Ancient Egypt," Jahrbuch fiir religiose Anthropologie, Torat ha-adam 1 (1994): 13-29.

p. 97: "When the deceased united with his ba, it was not body and soul that were united, it was the deceased himself and his alter ego"; replace "ba" with "ka."

p. 114: In the description of funeral scenes, Assmann does not refer to the Old Kingdom reliefs with scenes of mourners in the estate (d.t) of the deceased (also p. 299, n.1).

p. 168: In the discussion of Nut as the protective goddess of the coffin, some Old Kingdom evidence might be added, such as PT 360, in which the access into the sarcophagus chamber of the king receives the name of "the Gate of Nut."

p. 249: Replace PT 539 in "liturgy B" with PT 593 (cf. p. 457, n. 30).

pp. 274-75, n. 47: The CT spells of liturgies CT, 1 and CT.2 do not agree with the numbers in Assmann's Totenliturgien. On p. 278, however, CT.2 spells (CT 44-61) are correct.

p. 416: Cf. "She'ol" with "Sheol" on p. 10. Both terms are inconsistently used passim.

p. 422, n. 28: Assmann indicates that his Totenliturgien is "in preparation," but this work had already been published at the time of this translation.

Assmann's work provokes much thought and discussion on the meaning and significance of the mortuary, textual, and architectural evidence. Archaeological data is not included in the discussion. however. (3) On the other hand, his erudition concerning the textual culture has produced an impressive analytical apparatus and notes that will benefit scholars and students of Near Eastern studies, as well as stimulate cross-cultural research on the subject matter. The present volume is already to be numbered among the standard works on religious and mortuary belief in ancient Egypt.

(1.) H. Kees, Totenglanben und Jenseitsvorstellungen tier alten Agypter (1926; 2nd ed., Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1956) has been the only systematic study on the subject until the publication of the present work.

(2.) See Assmann's detailed study of the "transfigurations" (Verklarungen): "Egyptian Mortuary Liturgies," in Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim, ed. S. I. Groll (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1990), 1-45; likewise, the same author has published two of his three volumes on the principal mortuary liturgies from the Middle and New Kingdoms: Altagyptische Totenliturgien, Band 1: Totenliturgien in den Sargtexten des Mittleren Reiches (Heidelberg: Universititsverlag Winter, 2002), and Band 2: Totenliturgien und Totenspruche in Grabinschriften des Neuen Reiches (Heidelberg: Universiraisvcrlag Winter, 2005).

(3.) On the same subject, but focused on the archaeological evidence, see A. J. Spencer, Death in Ancient Egypt (New York: Penguin Books, 1982); and J. H. Taylor, Death and the. Afterlife in Ancient Egypt (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 2001).


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Author:Morales, Antonio J.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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