BMCR 2004.06.51

The Mind of Egypt. History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins

, The mind of Egypt : history and meaning in the time of the Pharaohs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. ix, 513 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm. ISBN 0674012119 $18.95 (pb).

Originally published in 1996 under the title Ägypten. Eine Sinngeschichte, The Mind of Egypt is both an intellectual history of ancient Egypt and an exploration in which “the course of events forms the backdrop and the discourses generating and reflecting meaning occupy the front of the stage.” As such, The Mind of Egypt by Jan Assmann, director of the Egyptological Institute of Heidelberg University, sets out upon the impossible task of elucidating how ancient Egyptians collectively thought over a history that spanned five millennia without a central thesis, as such, but by examining a fascinating array of both well-known and obscure material. The translation from German by Andrew Jenkins is excellent, and, although the book is difficult reading, as was the original, it is destined to appear in specialized Egyptology course reading lists for years to come, and will appeal to the field’s academic professionals and dedicated Egyptophiles. A major attraction in any publication on ancient Egypt is absent: good photographs of the culture’s spectacular artistic legacy (there are only thirteen line drawings, four low quality halftones, and one map). There is also no complete bibliography. Student will be please to find endnotes, an index, a basic chronology, and a key for Egyptian gods.

Assmann’s approach reflects more about current scholarly interests in cultural templates and societal patterns than about the actual ways in which individual Egyptians reasoned about any particular situation. It is more about history and how history is made and interpreted than it is about Egypt in particular. Not since J.H. Breasted’s Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (1912) has there been such a systematic attempt to explore the evolution of Egyptian thought, and like Breasted’s work was in its time, this recent effort by Assmann is heavily colored by contemporary theories and the author’s unique paradigms.

The rate of change in our own modern world is so profound, especially in countries such as Germany, the United States, or even modern China, that it is tempting to view ancient civilizations as having been static. This inaccurate perception is especially tempting for a culture such as Egypt, which valued continuity and preserved ways of doing things from generation to generation. Egyptians sanctioned any actual change by stating that continuity was being preserved or an older, and therefore better item or way of doing things was being restored. While Breasted viewed this continuity as a trap that eventually led to entropy and stagnation, Assmann looks back longingly to the ancient Egyptians sense of continuity and purpose, with the eye of a modern hurried by an ever changing language of the new. His preoccupation with theory may trouble readers accustomed to a more narrative presentation and his concept of “Cosmotheism” and introduction of terminology like “Cosmohermeneutics” complicate things unnecessarily. While Assmann’s views concerning the development of the Egyptian concept of the divine as a unified being with many aspects is well articulated in his other works, most clearly in The One And The Many, it is a stretch to ascribe this working hypothesis concerning how the Egyptians viewed divinity to being the Egyptian mindset.

Also, Assmann presents the stability of royal kingship as the template for the Egyptian’s stable social code. In this interpretation, the proverbial tail is wagging the dog. It appears that Assmann is buying too much into their royal propaganda without being sufficiently critical of his source texts. These inscriptions were inscribed, after all, to convince the average member of society that the pharaoh ruled by divine authority and could not be questioned by mere mortals. This was the status quo for rulers until Charles I of England was beheaded, on January 30, 1649. From ancient Egypt, we can see preserved evidence at times that the common “man on the street” was fed up with what an ancient Egyptian ruler was doing, but it is rare. Examples include graffiti at Deir el-Bahri, and Deir el-Medina. In the first site, graffiti depict the ruler in an unflattering manner, and at the later site there was even a worker’s strike by the artisans entrusted with the job of preparing the pharaoh’s final resting place. The end of the world did not happen in either place because the ruler lacked support of the ruled. Likewise, Assmann indicated that the Intermediate Periods were gloomy, while in fact the wealth and status of provincial tombs increased during these times of decentralization. Again, it appears that Assmann has bought into the royal propaganda of pharaohs who could command and build huge monuments that have lasted until now. For all we know, most Egyptians found working for a divine ruler like Djoser, Snofru, Cheops, Chephren, Mentuhotep, Thutmosis, or Rameses to be much more “gloomy” than working for a local village boss, who might have even been a relative. We should not forget that someone had to build those lovely monuments that proclaimed how the universe revolved around a particular ruler, and it was certainly not the person for whom the monument was made who sweated and toiled to make that monument. It was a lot of other people, who would have probably enjoyed doing something else much more, even if it meant that Egyptologists now would have a harder time figuring out what that particular ruler had “done”.

These observations aside, The Mind of Egypt presents an unprecedented account of Egyptian perspectives, ideals, values, belief systems, praxis, and aspirations. Assmann is perhaps most convincing when he explores the meaning of the Egyptian past for the ancients themselves in what he calls “the hidden face of history”. For them, the historic chronicle of pharaohs and dynasties began with the recognition that humans, not gods or demigods, controlled earthly affairs. This record was recorded and passed down to a Greek audience by Manetho. Drawing on a range of literary, archaeological, and iconographic sources, Assmann presents plausible decodings for a world of unparalleled complexity. He would have us believe that Egyptian culture, long before others, possessed an extraordinary degree of awareness and self-reflection. That the ancient Egyptians were culturally complex cannot be disputed, but the problem is in assuming that other cultures, ancient or modern, are not as complex as Egypt simply because evidence of that complexity has not been preserved or is not easily understood by the observer. Most strikingly, Assmann focuses on the meaningful world of ancient Egypt — multiple notions of time, structures of immortality, and commitment to social justice and human fellowship. These are all universal issues, found in every human social group. Take for example the discussion of linear and cyclical time. Ancient Egyptians were certainly not unique in observing a cyclical pattern of the seasons, nor the linear passage of generations. We should not credit them with exceptional powers of reason for such observations, nor with unique abilities to express an understanding of these abstract concepts in concrete symbols. In a way, Assmann acknowledges this by pointing out that without the survival of Egyptian literary, biographical, and religious inscriptions, “we would not know how this civilization saw itself, how it set itself off from its neighbors, what central values it cherished, what social and religious norms it developed…” Many ancient peoples made similar observations and found other ways to express those observations. But, in most cases we have no clear records from those other peoples. As with many social aspects, the Egyptians found particularly creative ways to express these concepts, which itself is the collective expression of the Egyptian “mind” as opposed to a “mind” trained in some other socio-cultural iconographic paradigm. Moving through successive periods of Egyptian civilization, from beginnings in the fifth millennium BCE, until the rise of Christianity 4,500 years later, Assmann traces the crucial roles of pharaohs, priests, and an imperial bureaucracy. He also explores the ideal relationship of man to divine forces, thereby explaining monumental architecture and ritual celebrations.

This work is a tantalizing multi-layered study of an ancient civilization, which provides much insight into what Jan Assmann himself thinks about ancient Egypt, and it may also open new directions for historical investigations of the Egyptian psyche itself, but The Mind of Egypt is not the final word on the subject how, why, or what Egyptians thought, either individually or collectively. This book is the educated view of just one European Egyptologist concerning the fluid, vast, distinct, and still mostly unrevealed Egyptian mentality. This reviewer must therefore agree with the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt a century and a half ago, “Writing a history of the development of the ancient Egyptian mind is an impossibility.” The book is yet to be written to tell us how any Egyptian mind reasons: ancient or modern.