BMCR 2002.04.18

The Secret Lore of Egypt. Its Impact on the West. Transl. from the German by David Lorton

, The secret lore of Egypt : its impact on the West. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. viii, 229 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801438470. $29.95.

A translation of Hornung’s Das esoterische Aegypten (München, Beck, 1999), this book is not a work on Egypt but on images of Egypt in the Western world from Herodotus to Martin Bernal. One could also describe the book as a contribution to the study of western esotericism, a field of research that has begun to flourish of late. The book makes for delightful reading, even though (or, perhaps, because) one cannot be but utterly amazed about the degree of gullibility through the centuries as far as the secret wisdom of ancient Egypt is concerned. Hornung, himself renowned Egyptologist, deals with sources covering the time-span from the 5th century BCE to our own day, and he does so in a very competent way. With Herodotus, says Hornung, “there began the construction of a concept of Egypt that has taken on a life and a fascination of its own; it has become ever more unlike pharaonic Egypt, its model, and it has been a part of every esoteric movement down to this day” (190). The book has 19 short chapters of which the first eight deal with antiquity, one with the Middle Ages, and ten with the Renaissance and later periods.

The red thread that runs through all the chapters is the motif of what Hornung felicitously calls ‘Egyptosophy,’ that is, the mystification of anything Egyptian — hieroglyphs, pyramids, sphinxes, obelisks, Hermetica — so as to make all of it into sources of primeval wisdom of divine origin that is to be recovered. Of course, the figure of Thoth-Hermes looms large in much of the material. Hornung sketches the development of Thoth from originally a violent destructor to an exponent of wisdom and knowledge, which in Hellenistic-Roman times results in the figure of Hermes Trismegistos (in Egyptian, ‘thrice great’). This is also the period in which the hieroglyphs are increasingly being regarded not as a regular script but as a system of symbolic signs, intended to conceal rather than to publicize esoteric knowledge, a Greek theory that impeded the decipherment of this script until Champollion (1822). “The fact that they could not be read served only to increase the prestige of the hieroglyphs, for they were believed to embody the secret knowledge ascribed to the Egyptians” (13). I disagree with Hornung, however, when he says that the Egyptian Stoic philosopher, Chaeremon (1st cent. CE) did not yet explain hieroglyphs symbolically (12). In an essay on “The Secret Hieroglyphs in Ancient Literature” (in my Hellenism – Judaism – Christianity: Essays on Their Interaction [1994] 278-287; it escaped Hornung’s notice), I have demonstrated that Chaeremon does exactly that.

From Diodorus Siculus onward, in later antiquity, the theme that all wisdom sprang originally from Egypt became more and more widespread, not only in Iamblichus’ De mysteriis Aegyptiorum and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica. Many authors enrolled ever more of the great thinkers of Greece into the schools of Egypt and even transformed Homer into an Egyptian and the son of Hermes Trismegistus. Of course, there were countervoices, already in antiquity, but on the whole, as Hornung says, “there prevailed a reverence for the evidence of its ancient culture and for the age-old wisdom of its priests, and interest in the mystical Egypt increased from the first century C.E. on” (25). Aside from the mistaken interpretation of hieroglyphs, Hornung devotes chapters to astrology, alchemy, magic, gnosticism, Hermetism, the spread of the Egyptian cults outside Egypt, etc. When he says that early Christianity was deeply indebted to ancient Egypt (73), referring to images of afterlife (e.g., a fiery hell), he overlooks that such images had been mediated by Jewish (and Hellenistic) circles and are no proof of Egyptian influence.

The chapters in the second half of the book deal with the renaissance of Hermetism in the late Middle Ages, the impact of travels to Egypt by westerners in the 14th to 16th centuries, the towering figure of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), Goethe and Romanticism, the origins and strongly egyptianizing tendencies of the Rosicrucian movement, of Freemasonry, Theosophy (that had its roots in the ‘Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor’), Anthroposophy, etc. Hornung also deals with the lonely critical voices of scholars such as Casaubon and Meiners, who were by and large ignored in their time because most people preferred the muddleheaded occultism of Egyptianizers (such as Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner). And the end is not yet there. “Hermetic societies that draw on ancient Egypt continue to spring up like daisies” (181). The most amusing chapters are the two on the many varieties of pyramid mysticism in modern times and on the Afrocentric movement revivified by Martin Bernal in his Black Athena, which denies the Greeks all their originality. Here Hornung rightly lends support to the counterattack by scholars such as Mary Lefkowitz.

In spite of his critical attitude towards the occultist egyptianizers, Hornung cannot hide a certain degree of sympathy with some aspects of their enterprise. He therefore ends his book on the following note: “All Hermetism is by its very nature tolerant. Hermes Trismegistus is a god of harmony, of reconciliation and transformation, and he preaches no rigid dogma. He is thus an antidote to the fundamentalism that must be overcome if we desire to live in peace” (201).

The book contains many helpful illustrations of an ‘egyptomaniacal’ nature. There are no footnotes (although each chapter has a bibliography), with the result that several times one finds elements in the text that one would have preferred to see relegated to footnotes. But on the whole this is a very instructive and charming book that deserves a wide readership.