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The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West.

by Erik Hornung, translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, New York and London, Cornell University Press, 2001. viii, 229 pp. $29.95 U.S. U.S. (cloth).

In countless ways that most people remain barely aware of, an artificially constructed--but nonetheless powerful--image of ancient Egypt pervades modern life in the Western world. Symbols, stories, and traditions from an Egypt that the public thinks is authentic are everywhere, featuring in cultural offerings as diverse as the poetry of Rilke, movies like Tomb Raider and The Mummy, stories by Poe and Hesse, daily horoscopes, Agatha Christie thrillers, operas by Mozart; Mickey Mouse's incarnation as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and more.

This imaginary Egypt is the subject of Erik Hornung's The Secret Lore of Egypt. Emeritus professor of Egyptology at the University of Basel, Hornung concentrates in this volume on what he terms "Egyptosophy." Whereas Egyptology consists of the academically precise examination of Egyptian history and culture, Egyptosophy, as Hornung defines it, involves "the study of an imaginary Egypt viewed as the profound source of all esoteric lore. This Egypt is a timeless idea bearing only a loose relationship to the historical reality" (p. 3). Hornung provides a wide-ranging survey of the manifold ways in which distorted and poorly-informed visions and perceptions of a magical "Egypt" have affected the cultural outlook of the west, from the days of Herodotus to the present.

Hornung's topic is fascinating, and because it cuts across so many centuries, few readers will fail to find something in Secret Lore to interest them. Hornung deserves credit for the ambitious nature of his study, both in terms of chronology and concept. To attempt to cover such a broad period takes a measure of daring (although one of the book's flaws is its failure to do so satisfactorily). Even more daring is Hornung's willingness to write from an academic point of view about topics that make many scholars uncomfortable: esoterica and occult traditions. Overall, Secret Lore is a valuable contribution to the fields of Egyptology and ancient history, but also--and perhaps even more so--to the study of Western philosophy, religion, and intellectual history. However, Hornung overreaches himself somewhat. He packs too much into a comparatively slim volume. Moreover, he demands from his readers a great deal of specialized knowledge.

Secret Lore begins with a discussion of how the Western perception of Egypt as a land of magic and mystery emerged among the ancient Greeks. Hornung details how, through a process of syncretic fusion, Greek perceptions of the god Thoth and various Egyptian sages took shape in the pantheistic figure of Hermes Trismegistus, who, over the centuries, would come to be viewed by dozens of esoteric traditions as the source of all learning. Hornung takes care to show that this syncretism was bi-directional, with Egypt borrowing from the Greeks ideas and images that would later be rediscovered as "Egyptian" in origin. Hellenic perceptions of Egypt were also ahistorical, with various concepts and motifs indiscriminately taken from vastly different eras of Egyptian history, then treated as simply "Egyptian."

Of course, after the Greeks identified this half-real, half-mythic Egypt as the origin of all hidden lore and wisdom, the cultures following them did the same. With each turn in the history of the west, "Egyptian" esoterica played a role in forming its cultural and intellectual canon--or at least its underside. Hornung proceeds from the Hellenistic and Roman eras to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Romantic period, the later nineteenth century, and the modern age, touching on Hermetism, gnosis, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Theosophy, public enthusiasm for pyramids and mummies, the Tarot, Afrocentric history, and a wealth of other topics.

There is much for any reader to learn here. Moreover, Hornung does a service by lending his considerable erudition and academic respectability to the scholarly study of esoteric traditions. Certainly, since the appearance of Edward Said's Orientalism, there is nothing new about stating that constructed visions of the "East" have played a key role in western intellectual and cultural life. But sober, academically exacting attempts to deal with modern mysticism and the occult as an important part of that intellectual and cultural life are comparatively recent. Hornung's work helps to further this line of inquiry.

Still, there are flaws. Hornung provides no footnotes, and his bibliography is quite slender (moreover, many of the sources cited are German, making the bibliography unhelpful to the general reader). The most serious failing is that Hornung emphasizes breadth at the expense of depth. Secret Lore covers so many topics in such a short space that no specialist is likely to be satisfied by the coverage of what he or she knows best. Conversely, even though the book seems to be designed as a survey, it is densely argued and requires more specialized expertise than a general reader is likely to have.

Nonetheless, Secret Lore is a worthwhile addition to any academic library. Specialists and graduate students interested in Egypt, classics, the phenomenon of orientalism, or the study of esoterica and the occult will find Hornung's latest work to be valuable.
John McCannon
University of Saskatchewan
COPYRIGHT 2002 Canadian Journal of History
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Author:McCannon, John
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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