BMCR 2005.07.71

Gods and Men in Egypt. 3000 BCE to 395 CE. Originally published by Armand Colin, 2002. Translated from the French by David Lorton

, , Gods and men in Egypt : 3000 BCE to 395 CE. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. xv, 378 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 080144165X $25.95 (pb).

Gods and Men in Egypt is two books in one, rather than one book written by two authors. One of the principal objectives of the project is to efface the boundary that exists between “pharaonic” and Graeco-Roman Egypt in the treatment of Egyptian religion, by emphasizing not only the survival of “pharaonic” religion well into late antiquity, but also the presence of Judaism and Christianity in the larger religious mosaic of Graeco-Roman Egypt. To that end, Book I, by Christiane Zivie-Coche, bears the title “Pharaonic Egypt,” and Book II, by Françoise Dunand, “Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.”

The two books do not run parallel thematically in a strict sense, with Book I displaying a greater involvement in the conceptual building blocks of Egyptian religion at large, and Book II reflecting a more distinct historical framework in outlining the developments in the religious landscape of Graeco-Roman Egypt. From this standpoint, Book I is more ambitious in scope and denser in texture, perhaps a bit incongruent with its counterpart, which has a more manageable agenda. Despite the difference in focus between the two books, an overall interest and expertise in matters Graeco-Roman on the part of the authors shines through the entire work, even in Book I, in which cross-references between “pharaonic” and Graeco-Roman Egypt, as well as exhortations as to the methodological necessity to study the two together, abound. Even this factor, nevertheless, does not quite establish the full degree of integration that would dispel from the reader the sense that one has here two books appended to one another.

The work starts with a preface by Zivie-Coche, replete with methodological precautions that in a nutshell strikes the tune for Book I to follow. The preface is a good summary of some of the problems that stand in the way of a healthy study of ancient religion, with special emphasis on the pitfalls of a “western” perspective, or “mental ethnocentrism,” as well as on the shortcomings of an inevitable degree of subjectivity in the interpretation of the religion of a culture, which, despite its plethora of written records, is by no means transparent. What we still lack, argues Zivie-Coche, is the “hidden part,” the “orality,” that would have supplemented the allusive and mnemonic nature of the written word.

Zivie-Coche seems determined not to delve into the discussion of monotheism versus polytheism in her part of the work, even though she does assert that the debate over this question, including “transcendence,” is still not settled among the leading Egyptologists of our time. She is not pessimistic, however, regarding prospects for a more multi-dimensional perception of Egyptian religion, and she credits both “religious anthropology” and “structuralism” for helping identify and establish the “common substrate” in which all aspects of Egyptian religion find their source.

Overall, Zivie-Coche’s Book I carefully avoids many cans of worms and clichés associated with Egyptian religion, but one cannot help wondering if “sterilization” makes matters and questions over-clinical. We certainly miss here the “educated” speculation and an essay-like quality that characterize some of the works of Jan Assmann and Erik Hornung, though this is clearly intentional, and Zivie-Coche’s statement that Egyptologists through time may have added something of their own to ancient reality does have a sobering effect.

Throughout Book I, Zivie-Coche often signals the difficulty of finding equivalents to aspects of Egyptian religion in more familiar territory, such as Christianity, or other ancient religions, such as Greek, but one again cannot help feeling that some of this cautiousness is a bit rigid. Discussions of many complex and at times thorny matters of Egyptian religion are often surprisingly brief, and transitions between themes sometimes seem rather impatient and abrupt. In general, questioning and critique take the upper hand over a consistent and focused discourse in select matters that the author herself might construct, which, again, may be deliberate.

Zivie-Coche’s Book I comprises two main segments, “Part I. The World of the Gods” and “Part II. The Living and the Dead.” In three separate chapters, Part I deals with gods, cosmogonies, and cult and ritual. In the first chapter, Zivie-Coche discusses the nature and substance of the Egyptian gods, emphasizing the idea that for the Egyptians the gods were phenomenological and almost physical realities, immanent in the universe, while they essentially belonged to an “imaginary” realm. This use of the word “imaginary” in relation to the gods as well as to certain other religious and cosmological concepts runs throughout Zivie-Coche’s part of the book, and the word seems to be a crucial designation under which many phenomena are subsumed. Therefore, it would have helped greatly to provide a clear definition of it as a rubric at the beginning, especially in the English translation. Perhaps the French equivalent of the term would come across as much more nuanced to its native scholarly audience. In its literal sense in English, the dichotomy “real versus imaginary” runs the risk of being inadequate in articulating such a complex theological system as that of the Egyptians’, especially, as the author herself stresses time and again, one in which the physicality and immanence of the gods were beyond mere metaphor.

Among the matters discussed by Zivie-Coche in the first chapter of Part I are representations and manifestations of the gods, be they ideograms, statues, or animal-human combinations; cautions against the erroneous belief in the precedence of zoomorphism to anthropomorphism; and the nature of the elaborate network of classification and signification in which the Egyptian gods were represented. What emerges from this rather brief treatment of such themes is again how the problem of representation, especially the rationale behind the zoomorphic formulations, of the Egyptian gods still remains more or less unresolved.

The second chapter of Part I presents a basic review of the main cosmogonies and creation myths of Egyptian religion, such as the Memphite, Heliopolitan, and Hermopolitan. What is perhaps of greatest originality in this section is Zivie-Coche’s discussion of the concepts Nun and the First Occasion, often dubbed, erroneously according to the author, the “primordial ocean” and the “Golden Age” respectively.

Let us forget about the primordial ocean, suggests Zivie-Coche, especially in a sense that might evoke the circular Greek Okeanos, and she defines Nun as “an unformed and dark mass, for light had not yet been created, in which divine beings or dead people who had achieved divine status could circulate.” She further states that Nun was neither being nor nothingness, and that it was the locale where matter was already present and “waiting to be coagulated to a point where the dry contrasted with the unformed matter.” Despite this apt definition of Nun as a kind of “benign chaos”, and regardless of whether or not one may compare it to the Greek Okeanos or the Mesopotamian Apsu, the clear aquatic and “pure” quality of Nun is not highlighted enough by Zivie-Coche in her main definition of this entity, even though its relationship to the Nile is mentioned in passing, and a sentence much later in the book refers to “the pure water that sprang from the Nun.”

The author’s definition of the First Occasion is also structurally similar to that provided for Nun: “It indeed marked an absolute rupture between the before, when there was something but nothing happened, and the after, when the process of creation was definitely set in motion.” Zivie-Coche also brings clarification to what is often summarily presented in literature as an Egyptian preoccupation with “maintaining cosmos against chaos,” especially in discussions of temple symbolism. She stresses that, rather than “order” in any vague and general sense, what needed to be maintained, especially as embodied by the Egyptian temple, was specifically the ceaseless repetition of the First Occasion, whose preservation beyond its original occurrence “was subject to the risk of failure.”

Under a subtitle, “The Temptation of the Golden Age,” however, Zivie-Coche strongly cautions against the perception of the Egyptian First Occasion as a form of “Golden Age” or “lost paradise,” asserting that even though the First Occasion needed to be rehearsed constantly for the cosmos to function, it was not per se a source of nostalgia. Further, the author suggests that whatever trace of a notion of a “Golden Age” is indeed detectable in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt was in great likelihood the result of “external influence.” Zivie-Coche hence concludes that the notion of a “Golden Age” was altogether absent in the ancient Egyptian tradition. It is important to note, however, that symptoms of a vanished “Golden Age” are not just a lost paradise, Eve’s Apple, or Pandora’s Box. One even more important hallmark of such a notion is the presence of gods on earth, or an unproblematic mingling of “gods and men.” Since traces of both of these exist in ancient Egyptian sources, as also noted by the author but not discussed extensively, one wonders if the absence in the Egyptian tradition of a perfect one-to-one match to more popular conceptions of a “Golden Age” is enough to infer that such a notion was altogether alien to ancient Egyptian thought, especially since yearning for “better times” is also a theme that occurs in Egyptian wisdom literature.

After this condensed discussion of gods and cosmogonies, the third and final chapter of Part I focuses attention on the terrestrial abodes of the gods, the temples. There is much information of interest here including the Egyptian builders’ attitudes toward enlarging ancient temples such as Karnak, the shift in emphasis from the royal to the divine in the monumental architecture of the Old Kingdom through the New Kingdom, and the nature and function of temple decoration. What is somewhat questionable is the abrupt transition from a chapter on the gods to one on a variety of architectural matters that are not at all supplemented with illustrations. In other words, while the effort to incorporate a discussion of architecture and architectural decoration in a work on Egyptian religion is admirable, the topic is so vast and so demanding in terms of scholarly presentation that the limited room and format allocated to it here do not do it full justice, and the rationale behind why certain aspects are dealt with while others are not remains unclear. A similar problem also applies to Book II by Dunand, where a brief survey of the sanctuaries of Graeco-Roman Egypt contains passages describing architectural aspects of these monuments without visual aids, save for a plan of the complex on Philae, which again makes the effectiveness and necessity of such an undertaking dubious.

Zivie-Coche’s Part II, “The Living and the Dead,” brings “men” to the scene to a greater extent and explores the points of contact between the human and the divine, be they cult, worship, or “magic.” The first of the two chapters that make up this part stresses the artificiality of the division royal versus popular religion, indicating that these were not two religions “side by side, ignorant of one another,” but rather two associated facets of the same tradition, a caution adopted by Dunand’s Book II as well. A similar statement is made regarding “magic,” namely that “magic” is not simply a phenomenon that belongs to personal or popular religion since it also characterizes many aspects of the royal or state religion ranging from the Pyramid Texts to the cult conducted in the temples. “In both cases,” writes Zivie-Coche, “the officiant or magician sought to intervene in the functioning of a world subject to invisible forces and, to cite Philippe Derchain’s apt phrase, to ‘tame the imaginary’.” Within this chapter’s framework, the discussion of such a complex topic as “magic” is again a bit abridged. The discussion, of undisputed quality, would have been much more effective with a more in-depth clarification as to what exactly “magic” entails and what different manifestations of this phenomenon one can talk about before it can be used as an umbrella-term that encompasses both the collective and the popular.

Zivie-Coche’s final chapter, “Death Will Come,” is perhaps the best in Book I. Among many other themes addressed is again a caution against the cliché that the “Egyptians were eaten away by a pathological preoccupation with death, and that, if during their lifetimes, they spent so much energy on building tombs for eternity, it was because their post mortem condition was more important than the life that preceded it.” In order to arrive at a more nuanced assessment of the picture, Zivie-Coche proposes greater attention to the “anthropology of death.” While the Egyptians clearly attempted to battle death through an “immoderate effort,” notes Zivie-Coche, “life was no vale of tears, an obligatory though unattractive place of passage leading to another, better life.”

Touching upon the Egyptian preoccupation to preserve the dead body, the author also states that the body was no simple receptacle of the soul, “as Christianity would make it out to be,” but that “it was one of the components of a complex ensemble,” in which she also aptly includes the statue. This chapter is overall a rare down-to-earth juxtaposition of basic human concerns with death, which hardly would have changed through the ages, and the complex mortuary tradition of the Egyptians, which is as esoteric as their conception and representation of the gods.

Dunand’s Book II, “Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” is more historical than theoretical in approach. It comprises three parts, “Religion and Power,” on politics, priesthoods and legitimacy; “The Religious Universe,” on sanctuaries, theology, Greek religion, Christianity, and Judaism; and “Human Behaviors,” on liturgy, festivals, “private” religion, “magic” and funerary matters, among other things. Part I, perhaps the most effective and impressive portion of Dunand’s book, highlights the legitimizing and “sacralizing” power of the traditional Egyptian clergy who in a way functioned as the “insurance” of “Egyptianism,” even when the rulers were non-Egyptians. Dunand points out that from the Ptolemaic period on, two ideologies were at work in Egypt that did not compete with one another, the native Egyptian ideology of the king as the maintainer of the cosmic order, and the Greek ideal of the king as an “incarnation of all virtues,” a quality manifest in certain epithets belonging to Ptolemaic rulers such as Soter, Euergetes, or Epiphanes. One in fact wonders if these two ideologies were not after all cognate along an Egyptian — Ancient Near Eastern axis, without necessarily being of a single origin, especially when one considers the ease in which the quasi-divine aura established around Alexander the Great dovetailed with Egyptian royal ideology during the first encounter between Egypt and Hellenism in its imperial guise. One might even think in this connection about the Roman ruler or emperor cult, certainly more at home in the East than in the West, a dimension Dunand does not explore, even in the separate section in Part II with the title “Royal and Imperial Cult.”

In her Part I, Dunand primarily traces the history of the relations between Egyptian priesthoods and the Ptolemaic and Roman rulers and concludes that in the Ptolemaic period, even though the Egyptian clergy maintained their autonomy as an intellectually and financially privileged elite, they were not thoroughly alienated from the ruling dynasties and that there were significant cross-overs between the clergy and the bureaucracy in the positions that were held. Dunand indicates how the important financial and spiritual autonomy of the Egyptian clergy was diminished in the Roman period, resulting in the greater introversion of the temples.

Dunand closes her Part I with a discussion of the “new god” Sarapis, an original contribution of the Lagides to Egyptian religion, notwithstanding their “liberal” and tolerant religious policy with regard to the traditional religion. Dunand points out how Sarapis was represented in a thoroughly Greek manner iconographically, while conceptually he was related to the Apis Bull of Memphis and as a god of the dead had much in common with Osiris. Dunand concludes that Sarapis was in a way the protector god of the new dynasty in Egypt and the new capital city, Alexandria, with his influence and importance continuing into the Roman period.

Dunand starts her Part II with a chapter on the “vitality of the traditional Egyptian religion” during the Graeco-Roman period, giving an overview of the major sanctuaries of Graeco-Roman Egypt, Dendara, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae, and emphasizing how the priestly activity contained in them consisted of the elaboration of new syntheses in addition to copying and preserving the old. The chapter further addresses the continuing importance of Osiris and Isis in the Graeco-Roman period, especially the growing influence of Isis, who had by then become the “incarnation par excellence of the maternal function,” with cults outside Egypt in the Roman period as well.

After this emphasis on traditional Egyptian religion in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, the following chapter focuses on Greek gods and cults, the royal and the imperial cult, Judaism, and Christianity. Of great interest is the author’s point regarding the ingrained conceptual parallels between certain Greek and Egyptian gods that long predate the conquest of Egypt, mentioned by Herodotus and clearly not invented by him, as the author indicates. Some of the correspondences mentioned include: Zeus = Amun, Hephaistos = Ptah, Aphrodite = Hathor, Demeter = Isis, Hermes = Thoth, and Typhon = Seth. In this connection, Dunand also draws attention to the presence of Greek mercenaries in Egypt as early as the sixth century BCE.

The sections on Judaism and Christianity are informative and handy. Among the topics addressed are the creation of a new current in Judaism in dialogue with “Greek culture in the Alexandrian milieu,” the spread of Christianity in the pagan community of Egypt, the “gnostic library” of Nag Hammadi, the Alexandrian church, Arianism, and asceticism.

One particular point of ambiguity here is Dunand’s take on the question of “cultural mingling” as far as Egyptian and Greek cultures are concerned. The author seems to fluctuate between asserting that the two cultures coexisted without producing a “mixed civilization” and drawing attention to how the two were not at all divorced from one another and how Egyptians and Greeks were familiar with one another’s languages, gods, and religions. Even though the latter statement does not entail an argument for a “mixed civilization,” certain examples, also dealt with by the author, are evidence for a degree of synthesis that certainly goes beyond mere coexistence with only superficial cross-overs, such as the god Sarapis, and the Corpus Hermeticum, which the author herself refers to as a product of “Egypto-Greek” culture. Outside the Greek axis, the Nag Hammadi library speaks to a version of Christianity, albeit suppressed, that is unique to the multi-cultural milieu of Egypt. In other words, if the author indeed intended to take a stance in what seems to be a dichotomy or even a debate, she should have clarified her position with greater consistency or nuanced the whole picture a bit differently.

Dunand’s Part III, “Human Behaviors,” is the counterpart of Zivie-Coche’s Part II, “The Living and the Dead,” in that it focuses on liturgies, consisting of case studies of Greek and Egyptian festivals; again we find the dichotomy of “learned” versus “popular” religion, with its cautions against associating “magic” with “non-learned” religion, and “funerary beliefs and rituals” in an Egyptian as well as Greek and Christian context.

As is clear from the foregoing, Gods and Men in Egypt encompasses a wide range of topics and themes and reflects its authors’ erudition and up-to-date command of their fields. The work overall, however, is somewhere between a reference book and a collaborative essay on aspects of ancient Egyptian religion and in this respect is somewhat ambiguous in the audience it targets. The blurb on the book cover indicates that Gods and Men in Egypt was written “with non-specialist readers in mind,” but the general reader might find the book rather opaque, while the specialist might consider its scholarly apparatus too limited to accommodate the dense and vast terrain it proposes to cover. The greatest merits of the book are Zivie-Coche’s thought-provoking challenges to the established ways to approach traditional Egyptian religion, and Dunand’s contextual overview of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt that synchronizes the Egyptian, Greek, Judaic, Christian, Gnostic, and Hermetic.