Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE.
Although much has been written about ancient Egyptian religion, there are few books devoted entirely to this important subject. Among these are S. Morenz, Egyptian Religion (Cornell Univ. Press, 1973); E. Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many (Cornell Univ. Press, 1982); S. Quirke, Ancient Egyptian Religion (British Museum, 1992); D. Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt (Princeton Univ. Press, 1998); D. Redford, ed., The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002); and G. Pinch, Egyptian Mythology (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004). The many works by Jan Assmann deal with specific issues in religion, and so are not included among these comprehensive works.
The excellent book under review approaches the topic in new ways. First, the authors focus on the "big ideas," leaving the reader with a good sense of how religion worked within the society. Second, the book covers the pharaonic period (Zivie-Coche), as well as the Ptolemaic, Roman, and early Christian eras (Dunand). Usually, these two major blocks of time are treated separately and as only tenuously related. But here the authors stress continuities, and also how beliefs changed over time, largely in response to "foreign," primarily Greco-Roman, cultural influence.
The first chapters lucidly outline fundamental aspects of thought and religion (the idea of the divine, the development of gods, the organization and appearance of deities, creation, cosmologies, cult activity, temples, and the role of officiates in the cult). Chapter four, "Of Men and Gods," deals with popular religion and personal piety. Zivie-Coche disputes the assertion that popular religion, also called "the religion of the poor" (i.e., cult enacted outside the temple), was a second and separate set of beliefs and practices, pointing out that both popular and royal religion have much in common: both called upon the same deities, both "drew their material from a common substrate" of beliefs, and both "operated within defined frameworks that were accepted by all." In the end, they were just "different vehicles" conveying the same belief system.
The author responds to the influential ideas of Jan Assmann, who has posited that the religion of the Ramesside Period (ca. 1100 B.C.) is dominated by a new sense of humility of man before god, and that in that time, salvation was granted by a capricious god, rather than being attained as a result of conducting oneself according to the traditional moral precepts. Assmann's conclusions are based upon a small number of penitential hymns which have strong resonance for those who wish to draw parallels between ancient Egypt and Christianity, especially the idea of predestination. Assmann traces this change to the Amarna experience (ca. 1350 B.C.) with its purported monotheism. Zivie-Coche considers Assmann's thesis to be too influenced by later Christian ideas, and she does not agree that the Amarna experience was the motivation for personal piety. She cites the deification of the Old Kingdom officials Heqaib and Hardjedef, around whom popular cults were established, as proof that piety was a longstanding element in Egyptian religion.
Another hot issue in the study of ancient Egyptian theology is the question of transcendence in the Late New Kingdom (ca. 1000 B.C.), essentially whether all other gods were gradually subsumed into Amun. Zivie-Coche returns to this issue repeatedly, viewing many of these reconstructions of the structure of Egyptian religion to be the result of scholars' "quasi-apologetic temptation to reveal a monotheism that always lay dormant under the polytheism." She ascribes assertions of transcendence and monotheism to analyses "whose roots lie less in religious reality than in the eye that scholars cast on it." She continually--and correctly--reminds us that one cannot possibly understand Egyptian beliefs if they are viewed through a Judaeo-Christian prism.
Dunand's contribution also exhibits clarity and fresh perspectives. She addresses how foreign kings were accommodated within the 3000-year-long tradition of divine kingship, and the reaction of the native priests to these new rulers. This is followed by a discussion of the creation of "new" gods (such as Serapis) and the spread of the Isis cult. She dismisses the idea that Egypt developed a "mixed culture" (a fusion of Egyptian and Greek) in the Ptolemaic Period. Rather, the two cultures existed side by side until the Roman era, when an "Egypto-Greek" culture, marked by the Hermetic tradition, developed. She cites how, in this later period, the forms of the gods (in particular the Nile, Osiris, Harpokrates, and Isis) were modified. In "Polytheisms and Monotheisms: From Coexistence to Conflict" she explores how the pagan Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cults co-existed, in spite of their differing world-views and conceptions of the divine. Conflict with early Jewish communities is ascribed not so much to monotheism versus polytheism, but to the Jews' "separatist attitude" and unwillingness to accord respect to the Egyptian gods. In contrast, evidence from Dush, Bagawat, and elsewhere indicates that initially Christians and pagans lived side by side, to the point where it was difficult to distinguish a Christian tomb from a pagan. Dunand suggests that the situation changed in the fourth century with inter-Christian strife, concluding that the "conflicts [between religious groups] always had a political dimension."
The final section, on "human behaviors" such as public participation in cult such as festivals, oracles, magic, and funerary beliefs, allows the reader to compare later and earlier practices.
The book concludes with a glossary of deities, a chronology that lists major kings and periods and significant developments in religion, followed by a brief bibliography keyed to chapters. The index might have been more complete. I found myself annotating it to ensure that I could relocate specific items of interest in the rich text.
In summary, this authoritative and comprehensive book is an important new addition to the literature of Egyptian religion that can--and should--be read by people in Egyptology, Near Eastern Civilizations, and the history of religions. It can also be savored by general readers. The text reflects deep considerations of the subject. It is elegantly written (and translated by Egyptologist David Lorton), and it has the great advantage of covering the entire chronological range of ancient Egyptian civilization. This is an excellent book that deserves to become a standard text.
THE ORIENTAL INSTITUTE
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|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2005|
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