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“The Search for God in Ancient Egypt” by Jan Assmann, Book Review Example

Pages: 7

Words: 2006

Book Review

In “The Search for God in Ancient Egypt” written in 1984 by one of the most well-known Egyptologists Jan Assman, the author takes on a complex goal of researching the essence of what is known as Egyptian theology. The book is a classic historical work indeed. It was initially written and published in German, and consequently translated in English giving the non-German reading audience the chance to finally read Assmann’s revolutionary theories for themselves, – the one version we presently observe.

The book is split into two parts: the first one being “The Dimensions of Divine Presence: The Implicit Theology of Egyptian Polytheism” and the second one being “Explicit Theology: The Development of Theological Discourse”. First section is dealing with implicit theology which is notions and actions connected with gods. Implicit theology relates to the ideas, symbols and concepts rooted in the religious activities of a particular culture and its writings. The first section is arranged as the sequence of issues that the author believes to be three dimensions of Egyptian religion. These are the local or cultic dimension, the dimension of the cosmos (the visible elements), and the mythic dimension (related to speech and to divine names). Does not only Assmann analyze the ancient texts, but also suggests his own understanding of how religious beliefs and traditions are reflected by specific architectural details typical for Egyptian temples.

The second section refers to Egyptian explicit theology that is concerned about the notion of a single god. Tracing the alterations in the nature of explicit theology from its ancestors in the Middle Kingdom through the New Kingdom, Assmann makes his ‘historico-analytical perspective’ obvious. The author claims that explicit theology experienced a phased evolution during the New Kingdom. The phases suggested by Assmann are: the pre-Amarna ‘new solar theology’; Amarna period itself; the post-Amarna rise of ‘personal piety’. The examination offered here has strongly influenced more recent studies on Egyptian culture.

In the first chapter, “Religion: Divine Presence and Transcendence,” Assmann sets the topic of his research. He proposes the readers to familiarize with his frame of reference, sketches out the range of subjects that his research deals with, and names the technical terminology he is using in the book. The casual readers might be scared away by the complicatedness of the very introduction, yet the author has to lay the basis for further sections of the book, and to present conceptions necessary for appropriate understanding of the proposed investigation. The subjects he introduces and that are going to be dealt with through the whole of the book are: the distinctions between religious practice and theological conversation; the pressure between the beliefs in a god versus multiple gods; and the vital role performed by the Amarna period in altering Egyptian religion. The major subject of this section is “divine presence”. The author claims that religion is the narrower sense of getting in touch with the divine, for example satisfying the gods.

The second chapter presents the readers with local or cultic dimension, analyzing the influence that gods and temples had on ancient Egyptian religion. As Assmann shows, deities were not come across in everyday life. The divine presence was removed by the symbolic presence performed by the state. According to the author, there was no particular religious midpoint in Egypt. There were numerous temples instead that were operating as representations of cosmos, emphasizing its being too distant to reach. This chapter highlights the implicit nature of Egyptian polytheism.

The third chapter focuses on the matter of cosmic dimension. The author tells about Egyptian cosmography, presents the sun route as a dramatic process, refers to the concepts of cosmos, time, and the relation between the cosmos and the gods. Assmann shows that instead of treating gods as something away from nature, Egyptians thought them to represent nature, or to be in nature. They believed that good, bad and ambivalent forces are composed into complex system presented by nature and cosmos. To prevent malevolence of any kind human beings aimed their deeds at worshipping cult statues. They assumed that the world as it was, was created and maintained by the light and movement of the sun god, the cult of whom was dealing with concern about nature.

The fourth chapter focuses on to the verbal or mythic dimension. The author defines the speech as a method of getting closer to the divine powers. As a result Assman concludes that speech was a dimension of the divine process. Chapter five is devoted to myth. The author presents the reader with the famous writings such as the Myth of the Heavenly Cow, the divine origin of the king, the Heliopolitan cosmogony and the Myth of Osiris, in order to reveal how the myths tell stories about divine power complementing each other, turning into some sort of narrative iconicity. He assumes that for myths are stories telling about gods, they appear to be a form of contact with the divine. Assman claims that even though myths are usually telling about past, they are in fact refer to the present, and thus perform an explanatory function, proposing some meaning to reality.

The second section of the book starts with chapter seven where the reader is for the first time presented with the concept of explicit theology. According to the author explicit theology functions on a meta-level and reproduce distance from religious action. In the chapter Assmann as well gives details to the description of the history of the conception’s development. Chapter eight explains theodicy and theology in the Middle Kingdom. Assmann shows how the falling down of the Old Kingdom had resulted in crisis which eventually provoked the appearance of theological reflections. The author states that theodicy arouses the questions of justness of divine power. He then refers to religious texts pointing out the idea of theodicy being explicitly formulated. Finally, chapter nine deals with the concept of god.

Assmann argues that religion of Egypt had been implicit and developed from the past traditions before the later short-term theological monotheistic revolution of Amarna. Assmann’s point here is that it was in no way of an advanced theology, it was established on the basis of Egyptian people’s acquired knowledge. The revolution of religion of Sun Disk eventually failed, but it didn’t stop being influential concerning Egyptian religion in general. According to the author Akhenaton’s followers made attempts to go back to the beliefs of their descendants trying to provide it with theological support.

Once being published, Assmann’s study has influenced studies on ancient Egyptian religion. The original publication proposed several models of research that were accepted as truly efficient and have eventually been included into latest studies. The amount of researched facts and assumptions in book is rather solid, presenting conceptions and ideas that are no doubt complicated, being difficult to understand for those who don’t have at least some sort of background in the history of Egypt and writings of ancient times. The author suggests his own translation and examination of Egyptian prayers and hymns, which are certainly interesting to read, yet are still too complex for general public’s understanding. Except for the difficulties provoked by book’s being written in an academic language, containing a lot of scientific information and allusions to scientific facts and evidences, Assmann’s work is definitely something worth reading for those interested in Egyptian religion as well as in the general studies of history of religion.

In his book Jan Assmann presents his views on ancient Egyptian religion. The author claims that even though Egyptian hieroglyphs have been deciphered almost two centuries ago, representatives of modern world are still far from comprehending the fascinating highly spiritual culture of ancient Egypt. What intrigues us about ancient world we still do not understand, which is a great pity to those who consider modern culture to be a resounding of antique religious and cultural traditions. The author claims that if “culture is memory” indeed, than we need to make the greatest use possible of “sources of great antiquity and variety” we own today in order to renew the connections with the culture of ancient times (Assmann ix).

In the Jan Assmann’s study one can observe how the author develops differentiated set of predetermined limits in order to control the comparison of various religions on the basis of the one developed in Egypt. In his book Assmann sets as a goal to smooth the progress of making distinctions between Egyptian culture and religion, and eventually that of thinking over culture and religion as over general concepts. He directs his research to those interested in the discussed issue, in particular to “historians, students and sociologists of religion, theologians, ethnologists, cultural anthropologists – and especially to readers to whom religion and culture mean something, even without immediate professional reasons” (Assmann x).

What makes the present book an indeed curious piece of writing is the issues the author is making focus on. Instead of traditional research of Egyptian mythology, its deities and cultic practices, Assmann is mostly concerned about Egyptian perception of ‘divine presence’ both in society and on individual level, and on how the dialogue with divinity is presented in Egyptian culture. “The Search for God in Ancient Egypt” is not an extensive outline of what Egyptian religion constitutes, Assmann’s major intention is to specify and research concepts he believes to lie at the heart of Egyptian culture, which are theology and piety.  Assmann is particularly concerned about making a distinction between the “implicit” theology of Egyptian polytheism and the “explicit” theology that is dealing with investigating the essence of the divine. In his observation of polytheism and mythology the author concentrates on aspects of ritual, the universe, and myth. His observation of explicit theology considers theodicy and the particular aspects of Amarna religion.

He applies a “historico-analytical perspective that occupies an external standpoint vis-à-vis the religion to be described” (Assmann 7). This recognition of the significance of the “historical dimension” (Assmann 18) is a distinctive and quite welcomed feature of the present work that distinguish it from those works that describe characteristics of Egyptian culture as monolithic and monotonous.

Jan Assmann’s work is extremely interesting and informative. It provide great amount of knowledge, containing necessary explanations and curious assumptions. As a historical work it is one of a great interest for those who are intrigued by the grandeur of Egyptian culture. Book’s specific benefit lies in the way it rouses reader’s enthusiasm resulting in questioning preconceptions. The text does not only provide readers with model for Egyptian religious thought, it stimulates a dialogue.

The book has eventually become the basis for the number of various historical works. To some extent it has become fundamental to the study of Ancient Egyptian religion, as well as to the general study of ancient religions. I believe that his book is a great example of an interdisciplinary work. Involving analysis of numerous texts of ancient Egypt and systematically referring to comparative religion, theology, anthropology, and semiotic analysis, interpretations presented by the author expose the difficulty of Egyptian thinking in a way that is fresh and innovative.

By bringing together original sources such as ancient texts, their translations and interpretations in particular, and modern theories and views of religion, Assmann creates a brilliant piece of historical investigation. In my opinion this particular approach works in the most successful way. Through the whole of the book the reader observes the revealed contradiction of which the ancient culture is full. Even though at first glance the whole investigation seems to be founded and agreed on by religion, the author makes it obvious that an accurate border line was drawn before the sacred and the irreligious.

“The Search for God in Ancient Egypt” is an excellent work, exposing the complexity and distinctive features of the ancient Egyptian religion. It has allowed me to better understand the implicit theology of polytheism and the explicit theology of the divine. I believe that the book will turn out to be helpful and valuable as a source of historical knowledge and research methods for years to come.

Works Cited

Assmann, Jan. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton, Cornell University Press, 2001.

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