- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

Few monuments have had such a lasting effect on the imagination as the pyramids along the Nile, or the great Sphinx, which to the ancient Greeks represented all that remained mysterious to them about ancient Egypt, its grandeur, its complex religion, its uncanny ability to exist outside of ordinary time. The Greeks supposed that hieroglyphics were symbols, each representing an idea. They saw Egyptian rituals and supposed them to be initiation rites, like their own "mysteries."
In the 18th century the Freemasons used Greek and Roman reconstructions of Egyptian "mystery rites" as the foundation for ceremonies. They had no way of knowing that the Egypt they had taken such pains to "revive" was in fact not authentic, but an imaginary reconstruction, based on misinterpretations and speculations of Greek and Roman travelers. It was not until after 1822, when hieroglyphics were deciphered by the French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion, that scholars began to be able to learn about the ancient Egyptians from the ancient Egyptians themselves.
Since then the patient work of many scholars has revealed that Egyptian religion and theology is much richer and much more complex than the Greeks had supposed. In Greek religion, a clear division was made between the lives of gods and men, and the souls of humans after death could look forward only to shadowy, insubstantial existence. But the Egyptians saw the world very differently. The great king could represent and embody a god, or vice versa. What one did in this life mattered, because one would be judged by the gods after death, and rewarded for having lived a just life, not just for what glory one might have won during one's lifetime.
A human being would spend much of his or her life preparing for death and the life hereafter. It was unthinkable not to have planned one's tomb or memorial, and the outward forms of bodies were preserved by bandaging and desiccation. The dead person could be spoken of as Osiris, the god who died and was brought back to life again. Income from estates was used to maintain both the living and the cults of the dead.
It is by no means easy for anyone raised in a monotheistic tradition to get a basic understanding of Egyptian thought. Before we can begin to do so, we must overcome our objections to "idolatry," and try to think about death in positive way, as a transition to a new life, and opening to new possibilities. In "The Mind of Egypt: History and the Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs," Egyptologist Jan Assmann shows us that we must begin to think of history and time not in linear terms, but as recurrences of cycles. For the ancient Egyptians, the past was recreated in the present, and it was from the past that what happened in current time acquired its lasting meaning.
A pharaoh did not seek to conquer particular individuals, but sought to impose order upon chaos; what mattered was not who one was but what one represented. Memory and myth are more important than a mere recital of facts. A Greek historian would describe the reactions and achievements of individuals, and give credit, wherever possible, to the accomplishments of the enemy. An Egyptian account of a battle offers the pharaoh's action of his victory, and describes his actions in mythic and general terms. A father will give his son general advice about life, which could be understood and followed through many generations by other fathers and other sons.
Because it was important to see oneself in terms of what happened in the past, traditions in literature, architecture, art varied relatively little over a long period of time. Radical change was interpreted as a sign of chaos. Europeans have had particular respect for the religious reforms imposed by the pharaoh Akhenaten during his rule (1352-1338 B.C.). Akhenaten tried to create a new religion that emphasized the importance and omniscience of one deity, the sun-god Aten. But after his death, his successors reestablished the old beliefs and sought to erase every trace of his memory.
The traditional religion was always polytheistic. Gods could manifest themselves in many forms, as other gods, as humans, and as animals. Egyptians would not touch the food that the Greeks ate because they thought the Greeks treated animals with disrespect. In 410 B.C. they destroyed a Jewish temple because the Jews sacrificed a lamb for Passover, and lambs were sacred to the Ram-god Khnum.
Even when kings from Nubia or Kush replaced the native rulers, they sought to reaffirm the old religious traditions, and to justify the reunification of Upper and Lower Egypt through the rule of the creator god Ptah. The text they turned to, or perhaps even rewrote for the purpose, now known as the Memphite theology, is by no means easy to interpret. As Mr. Assmann sees it, the text is an account of creation by the Word, though it differs from the Biblical account of creation in many ways, not least in that Ptah's first action is to create all the other gods.
Mr. Assmann considers it significant that at the same time Ptah also creates hieroglyphics, the system of writing, so that all that is, and the writing that represents all that is, come into being simultaneously. As the author sees it, this conjunction of ideas and their images "expresses a primal, pretheoretical Platonism." By that he does not mean that Plato (or any other Greek) knew about the Memphite theology, or was dependent upon or borrowed or stole Egyptian ideas.
Rather, what the text of the Memphite theology shows is that the Egyptians, like all peoples, were capable of profound and complex thought. They chose to express their ideas by talking about the actions of the gods, while the Greeks, including Plato and his followers, developed an abstract, non-theological terminology to describe being and causation.
Whenever possible, Mr. Assmann helps us to understand the unique characteristics of Egyptian thought by comparing the texts he discusses to the Greek and Hebrew sources with which we are more familiar. To his credit, he does so without making any of the mentalities he describes seem inherently superior to any others; instead he seeks to make them all seem immediate and accessible. He quotes extensively from Egyptian texts in translation, and provides needed commentary. He sets his discussion into a general historical framework, but in order to follow the details of the discussion readers will need to have at least a general background in ancient studies.
Nonetheless, anyone who reads the book will come away with a deeper appreciation of what it meant to be an ancient Egyptian, and will regard with respect what at first might have seemed merely irrational or incomprehensible.

Mary Lefkowitz , the Andrew W. Mellon Professor at Wellesley College, is the author of "Not Out of Africa" and co-editor of "Black Athena Revisited."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide