BMCR 2002.03.26

The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton

, The search for God in ancient Egypt. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. xi, 275 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801437865 $19.95.

The classic work, Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, originally written by Jan Assmann in 1984, is finally available in English. Once again, David Lorton has managed the difficult task of interpreting the complexity of the original German, while still retaining its integrity and eloquence.

The Search for God in Ancient Egypt is an excellent example of how to write an interdisciplinary work. Egyptology is deeply rooted in the translation and interpretation of ancient texts. Assmann successfully combines the primary sources with current theories to present his view on religion, piety and theology of ancient Egypt. Such an approach works well, and while this book is not an introduction, it is highly recommended to scholars and non-specialists interested in the subject.

The work gets off to a good start in Chapter One, “Religion: Divine Presence and Transcendence,” where the author establishes the topic of this work. The Egyptian concept of the “divine presence” is the theme of this volume. Here the reader is exposed to the paradox of the ancient culture. Although at first glance everything appears to be based on and determined by religion, Assmann demonstrates that a strict boundary was drawn before the sacred and the profane. As presented by the author, “the one” refers to religion in the wider sense (the realization of Maat) as well as in the narrower sense (contact with the divine). Since the work is not designed as an all-encompassing work, the book restricts itself to Gottesnähe, or nearness to god. Religion in the narrower sense of contact with the divine, i.e., satisfying the gods, is realized by three specific dimensions. These are the cultic, also referred to as “local” or “political,” the cosmic and the mythic dimension. All three aspects belong to what is defined as “implicit” theology, or theology that is not directly formulated. Implicit theology is presented in Chapters two to six, while Chapters seven to nine deal with explicit theology.

Chapter two introduces the reader to the local or cultic dimension and the roles that the gods and temples played in ancient Egyptian religion. Unlike Greece and Israel, deities were not encountered in daily life. Instead, the state replaced the divine presence with a symbolic presence. As the author shows, there was no single religious center in Egypt. Rather, a multitude of temples existed, each functioning as the symbol and image of the cosmos and accessible only by a distant relationship. Of particular significance is the connection to the cult statue. As defined by the author, cult was the installation or indwelling into cult images. This chapter emphasizes the implicit nature of Egyptian polytheism.

The cosmic dimension is the topic of the next chapter, which contains sections on Egyptian cosmography (theology), the course of the sun as a dramatic process, the cosmos and time, and the connection between the gods and the cosmos. Egyptians viewed their gods as not beyond nature but instead in nature and therefore as nature. Nature and the cosmos were perceived of as an active network of good, bad and ambivalent forces. Human activity was directed toward cult statues to avoid the malevolent. The concern with nature was directed at the cult of the sun god, who created and sustained the world for mankind through his light and movement. The notions of neheh and djet conclude chapter three.

Chapter four is devoted to the verbal or mythic dimension. In addition to the name formula (the akh-power of speech: transfiguration as sacramental interpretation), speech and personality, and language, meaning and action are presented in some detail. Speech enabled the divine realm to be approached, conceptualized and represented. Therefore speech was a dimension of the divine process.

The author focuses on myth in chapter five. He uses well-known texts (the Myth of the Heavenly Cow, the divine origin of the king, the Heliopolitan cosmogony and the Myth of Osiris) to demonstrate how Egyptian myths combine iconicity and narrativity to tell stories of the divine. Since myths are stories about deities, they are a form of contact with the divine. Myths also had an explanatory function by giving meaning to reality. Although myths are set in the past, they always refer to the present.

The first part concludes with a brief explanation of the history of implicit theology and the unity of the three dimensions.

The reader is introduced to explicit theology in chapter seven, “The Unity of Discourse.” While implicit theology pertains to the ideas, symbols and concepts embedded in the religious acts of a culture and its texts, explicit theology operates on a meta-level and reflects distance from religious activity. The author then details the historical conditions of its development, therefore allowing the reader to fully grasp this concept.

Chapter five explains theodicy and theology in the Middle Kingdom. Theodicy questions the justness of the divine. Here the author demonstrates how theological reflections came about as the result of a crisis following the collapse of the Old Kingdom. The god (in the singular) who created mankind and is thus accountable for it is called into question. In various literary and religious texts: “The Admonitions,” “Instructions for Merikare,” Coffin Text 1130 and 80, the author indicates how the notion of theodicy is explicitly formulated.

In chapter nine the concept of “god” is presented. The notion of a god (in the singular) began in the Middle Kingdom and culminated in what is known as personal piety, or nearness to god in the Rameside Period.

The book ends with a list of abbreviations, notes on chapters (allowing a quick and easy reference to major works cited), a bibliography and an index.

The Search for God in Ancient Egypt is an outstanding work, revealing the complexity and specifics of ancient Egyptian religion. It allows the reader to fully comprehend the implicit theology of polytheism and the explicit theology of the divine. This excellent translation will prove useful for years to come.