Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.27

Françoise Dunand, Christiane Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt. 3000 BCE to 395 CE. Originally published in French as Dieux et hommes en Egypt (Armand Colin, 2002). Translated by David Lorton.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2004.  Pp. 378.  ISBN 0-8014-4165-X.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Nadig, Historisches Institut der RWTH Aachen (
Word count: 2168 words

Gods and Men in Ancient Egypt offers a wide-ranging overview of all religions in ancient Egypt covering a period of nearly 3500 years until AD 395 and consists of two books: book I on pharaonic Egypt is by Christiane Zivie-Coche (hereafter Z.) and book II on Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt is by Francoise Dunand (hereafter D.). Both authors specialize in ancient Egyptian religion.

Book I contains five chapters on "The World of the Gods" and "The Living and the Dead". Chapter one (pp. 5-41) explains the Egyptian word for God, netjer, and its possible etymology, semantic range, and the relevant signs in Egyptian writing. Z. also clarifies a misunderstanding of past scholarship regarding "netjer" in autobiographical and wisdom texts, which, since it did not refer to a particular deity, was believed to confirm a monotheism based on the existence of a single, omnipotent god. Yet the netjer in autobiographical texts refers mostly to the local "god of the city", while in wisdom texts it might also point to the pharaoh. Further sections examine the figures of the divine, their icons, anthropomorphism and animality, god's bodies, divine substance, tripartition and the hidden god, and limits of divine power of a god, the basic genealogies and families of the gods and their relationship to numbers (triads, ogdoads and enneads). The uniqueness of the Amarna period is also mentioned, during which the term netjer was avoided in favour of the god's name Aten. Z. also gives some thought to the major stories about the gods. She cautions about the widely used Greek word "myth" and notes the relative lack of myths in Egyptian thought (p. 36).

The second chapter (pp. 42-70) covers the Egyptian ideas of the origins of the world and the universe and the various creation accounts. It starts with a thorough examination of Nun, the original primeval element before creation. Z. points out that, unlike the biblical creation, the Egyptian creation was not anthropocentric. The chapter closes with a careful analysis of two Egyptian words for "eternity", neheh and djed, which, however, do not coincide with our definition, but are linked instead to two different deities: neheh (Re = day and light) and djet (Osiris = night and the subterranean world of the duat) (pp. 69f.).

Chapter three, "The Gods on Earth" (pp. 71-104), is a study of the temples and the clergy. After a chronological survey of the evolution of temples from the Old Kingdom to the Ptolemaic Period, Z. gives an introduction to the name and origin of the word temple (hut-netjer = "mansion of the god"), the temple as an economic power and microcosm, the daily cult and solemn liturgies, as well as the grammar of the temple (drawing here primarily on Ptolemaic temples!). A major portion is on the clergy, its functions, duties and categories. Practically speaking, the priests were officiants, who performed the religious duties in place of the king.

Chapter four, "Of Men and Gods" (pp. 107-152), attempts to define personal piety. In the past terms like "popular" or "religion of the poor" have been applied to any religious practice other than the official or royal one. The author now suggests "personal piety" or "personal devotion" as preferable and turns to the means by which this was expressed within the framework of the official religion: the temples (to which private persons had very limited access), chapels and oratories, and festival processions. The latter two allowed the people to approach the gods with questions -- an oracular practice which was widespread from the New Kingdom until Roman times. A brief summary deals with magic (pp. 122-128) which for ordinary Egyptians was a means to contact the divine and ward off evil. Personal piety in the course of an individual's lifetime is explained in subchapters on birth, the giving of a name, death, domestic cult, dreams and oneiromancy. The rest of this chapter examines the modes of human-divine relationship (approaching the divine and prayer) and the conduct of life (ethics = the order Maat).

"Death Will Come" (Chapter five; pp. 153-191) is a very informative account of how the Egyptians dealt with death. Z. explains in detail the vocabulary for dying and death, the relevant euphemisms, the perceptions and causes of death, images of the dead, as well as the relationship between the living and the dead. While death is the ineluctable destiny of life, life had to be enjoyed fully, which is demonstrated with several quotations from the sources. Z. then outlines the preparations for death: mummification, mouth opening ritual, entombment, and the role of the tomb. Z. questions the widely held belief that a "democratization" in funeral practices had developed over the time and suggests "aristocratization" as a more suitable term, since wealth and status determined what tomb and funerary cult the deceased would receive (p. 175). A concise history of the codified autobiographies in the tombs of officials, as well as the various funerary texts from the Old Kingdom onward (Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Book of the Dead) close book I. Book II on Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt is in nine chapters. The first three concern "Religion and Power". Chapter one (pp. 197-205) offers a brief overview of the change of the politico-religious ideology of this period when the conquest of Alexander brought changes as a new society of Graeco-Macedonian immigrants began to run the country. Even though the new rulers made Greek the official language, they subsequently established a multicultural society which resulted in contacts and exchanges between the different cultures. The Egyptian clergy legitimized the rule of Alexander, and also backed his successors, the Ptolemies, who were depicted with all the traditional epithets as pharaohs in the temples. The same applied later to the Roman emperor, who as pharaoh had titles like those of the Ptolemies (p. 201). The concept of kingship also underwent a change, now representing two complementing ideologies: the pharaoh "as guarantor of the equilibrium of the world and the indispensable linchpin of society, and the Greek ideal of the king as incarnation of all virtues" (p. 203).

Chapter two outlines the "Reactions of the Priests"(pp. 206-213) and compares the situation of the clergy under Ptolemaic and Roman rule. In the Hellenistic period the clergy lost some of their economic independence and suffered a reduction in privileges while retaining a certain degree of "quasi autonomous administrative and financial status" (p. 210). Under the Romans, however, the priests lost their financial autonomy after the confiscation of the temple lands and concentrated more than before on "the closed world of the temples and on cultic activity" (p. 213).

In chapter three the author presents a thorough analysis of the new god Sarapis and his Greek and Egyptian background (pp. 214-221). Relying on papyri and inscriptions D. sees Sarapis as based on an old Memphite deity, "one already known to the Greeks who settled in that region", who now received a new, purely Greek image and a Hellenized version of his Egyptian name (Osor-Hapi). D. assumes that the origin of this cult lies in a deliberate undertaking by theologians in the entourage of Ptolemy I.

"The Religious Universe" is the subject of the next three chapters. Chapter four takes a look at the vitality of the traditional religion (pp. 225-239). The development of the sanctuaries of Dendara, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae, as well as local temples, is summarized, and the increase in theological activity and the cult of Isis and Osiris are investigated.

Chapter five offers a synthesis of "New Gods and Cults" in Egypt (pp. 240-266). The Greek gods and cults are the theme of the first part. From an early time, as we can note from Herodotus, the Greeks equated their own gods with those of Egypt (e.g., Dionysos = Osiris, Zeus = Amun, etc.); in contrast, equivalencies between Roman and Egyptian deities were comparatively rare. The only new cult in Roman times, that of Antinoos, Hadrian's deified favorite, is only briefly mentioned (p. 247). Another new religious component was the royal cult of the Greek type which emerged after 280 BC. This cult was manifested by eponymous priests of royal appointment. The main aim of this cult was to secure the loyalty of the Greek subjects, but it also took hold in the Egyptian temples in which statues of the rulers were placed to be worshipped along with the gods. D. incorrectly states that the royal cult disappeared after the Roman conquest (250). This is true for the dynastic cult, but some Ptolemaic cults lasted for the next three centuries.1 This paragraph unfortunately lacks some depth and one wishes the author had gone into more detail. For example, there is no mention of the numerous eponymous cults in the city of Ptolemais. Later, the Imperial cult constituted a form of continuity, even though it was no longer organized by the state but by the municipalities. A third section covers Judaism in Egypt. Jewish settlements are attested from the early sixth century, and there were even temples at Elephantine in the fifth century BC and at Leontopolis two hundred years later. The origins of the Greek Bible (Septuagint), Judeo-Hellenistic literature, the impact of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria, and the conflict of Jews with non-Jews are discussed here. The next subchapter gives a brief account of the origins and spread of Christianity, touching on the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi, the persecution by the Roman emperors, the doctrinal conflicts within the church, and monachism (pp. 259-266).

Chapter six (pp. 267-281) examines problems and controversies. D. considers the two opposites, polytheism(s) and monotheism(s), which developed from coexistence into conflict. There were no tensions between the polytheistic religions, as the Greeks and to a lesser extent the Romans had no problem tolerating or participating in one of the many cults of hybrid gods of the Egyptian pantheon. And while Jewish monotheism caused no problems, Christianity apparently conflicted with the older religions, including Judaism.

The last three chapters are on human behavior. Chapter seven, "The World of the Temples and its Activities" (pp. 285-298), gives an overview of official liturgies. It begins with an example of a Greek festival, the Ptolemaieia, founded by Ptolemy II around 280 BC to commemorate his late parents, which gained a high status in the Greek world and took place every four years. This event is contrasted with an Egyptian festival, the "festival of the uplifting of the sky and the creation of the potter's wheel" at Esna, whose various ceremonies and rituals, including the "mystery of the royal birth", are described in detail by D. Another subchapter offers some insights into the daily life of the Ptolemaic temple of Sobnebtunis at Tebtunis in the Faiyum.

The eighth chapter, "From 'Learned' Religion to 'Popular' Religion" (pp. 299-318), is on the "private religious practice" outside the temples. After a brief summary of private practices, D. turns to a form of consecration, seclusion in temples (katoche). A famous example known from papyri is Ptolemaios, son of Glaukias, in the reign of Ptolemy VI. Unlike a case of asylum, which was only temporary, the katochos stayed in a temple compound for a very long time. The remainder of this chapter is on the practice of oracles and magic. It is very interesting to note that, when Christianity became the dominant religion, the people went for answers to the "holy men", the monks and ascetics, in the desert.

Chapter nine (pp. 319-338) deals with funerary beliefs and rituals. Its starts with the Egyptian and Greek perceptions of the hereafter before assessing the continuity of pagan funerary rituals in Christian customs. In fact, many components remained basically the same. Even the ankh was equated with the cross by the Copts.

The book ends with a glossary of gods and goddesses, four maps and three pages of chronology. A selection of literature is listed in the bibliography according to the individual chapters; the glossary also contains some basic bibliographical references.

There are very few footnotes in the text (especially in book I), which mostly refer to translated sources. The extreme paucity of notes makes it difficult to trace the authors' conclusions to secondary literature and is in fact an annoying feature as all too often one is left wondering where to look further. The book contains several superficialities that cannot be commented on here in detail. The spelling of some classical names is slightly unconventional: Ptolemaia instead of Ptolemaieia, Callixenes instead of Callixeinus / Callixeinos / Kallixeinos, and Lagides instead of Lagids. It might have enriched chapter three of book I if some space had been given to the temple archives found at the pyramids of Abusir (5th Dynasty). No mention of them is made, even though these papyri convey enough information to enable us to see how the cult at the mortuary temples in the Old Kingdom was organized and maintained.

Nevertheless, Gods and Men is a very inspiring introduction to the religions of ancient Egypt, though the paucity of references prevents it from being the ultimate handbook.


1.   For a summary see G. Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire (London/New York: Routledge, 2001), 310.

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