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Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2003
This book is at the top of many lists for those wishing to study ancinet Egyptian religion in-depth. Upon reading it, I can see why! This book explores what exactly the ancient Egyptians thought god(s) were, how the gods reacted to humans, and how humans reacted to the gods. Given the unique and often confusing nature of the concept "ntr" or god, this book is very useful indeed.
It is extermely detailed, (though admittedly dry,) and leaves the reader with a good idea of what the Egyptian Gods were like and how they developed throughout the millenia. The beginning also nicely addresses the erroneous notion that the Egyptians were really monotheists from the start, and that only the ignorant common people held polythistic beliefs; a Victorian bias that taints the studies of many ancient cultures. Horning clearly has a great deal of respect for the ancient Egyptian religion, and as a Kemetic pagan, I really appreciate that this book exists in English.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 1999
Hornung is a top scholar in the field of Egyptology, yet he manages to avoid the condescending tone that many scholars fall victim to. John Baines' translation is precise and engaging, while a useful glossary is included at the back. For both the interested reader, and the serious scholar of ancient Egyptian religion, this would be the place to start. Basic concepts are discussed, such as the concept of god itself, the oft-perplexing issue of names & combinations of gods, depictions of gods, and the interaction between the living and divine.
Hornung's book "Idea into Image", a collection of lectures, is also highly recommended, but I think it is now difficult to find. It deserves to be reprinted too!
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2009
This work dealing with the nature of Egyptian religion is a watershed book in its field, which is ironically one of the reasons why I avoided reading it for so long. I had encountered so many other writings--both scholarly and not--that refer to Professor Hornung's book that I had gotten something of a preconception about what he actually said. That, and I had already read his work on Egyptian Books of the Afterlife and found it to be a bit dry. Now, however, I can say that Afterlife is simply not as compellingly written, or controversial, as Conceptions of God.
I'm going to split this review into two parts: the academic merits of the book, and then how it relates to Kemeticism.
Academically, this book is sound. Hornung starts by taking you through the history of Egyptology as a discipline and examining the biases with which scholars have tackled the subject of ancient religion. He then breaks down by parts what the aspects of deities were for the ancient Egyptians, and what they observed about deities in their own literature. He ends by offering some modern interpretations based on the factual evidence submitted. He always refers to archaeological record and frequently refers to publications by other scholars (most of whom are German, since Hornung himself is a German scholar; I used a German-English dictionary to decipher the titles of some of the works he cited). This might be a little daunting for the average reader, though. Don't read this book half-asleep or distracted, it's a university-level scholarly work and should be treated as such. If you're paying attention, though, he crafts some very excellent arguments and offers new ways of looking at archaeological record. I can see where his work has influenced other Egyptologists such as Dr. Rosalie David (who wrote Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt) and Dr. Gay Robins (Art of Ancient Egypt). I can also see where his work might be sometimes at odds with other scholars such as James Allen and Jan Assman. But, Hornung is above all a fair scholar. He does cite from dissenting authors where they have a point of agreeance.
My only cricitism is that he seems to 'drift' just a little in his last chapter, having two 'Excursus' sections--'excursus' being an academic way of saying "digression". He manages to bring the point back around, though it takes longer in the one about "The Problem of Logic". I felt that his point could have been made more concisely, but that might have been difficult given his writing style. When you work in doctoral-level academia for any real length of time, brevity seems to grow scarce.
Now to the issue of this book's influence on Kemeticism. This book is on the Kemetic Orthodoxy's 'recommended reading' list, and I can easily rattle off certain concepts from the book that are directly copied by them: for example, their statement that the number four is a 'Kemetic number of completion' makes an assertion out of Hornung's observation that the "number four does occur elsewhere in the Egyptian pantheon as a classificatory schema, evidently as a symbol of completeness or totality" (pp.220-221). The chapter on "Egyptian Terms for God" includes on pp. 45-46 a list of personal names from the Old Kingdom that incorporate the word ntr or a deity's name; I easily recognized four names right off the bat which are also the 'ordained' or 'divined' names of Kemetic Orthodox members. A search through their boards would probably yield several more from this same list. Less directly 'borrowed' but still highly evident are the Orthodoxy's use of references by Hornung in their own concepts of a divinely-ordained 'nisut' and the channelling of deities. Hornung cites twice in his book an instance recorded in Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahari of "a solemn and exalted moment when her divine-ness is manifest to the whole world, when her vow to the King of the Gods, Amun...is about to be fulfilled" (p.64), in which she "enters the role of a god" (p.134). The problem is that Hornung does not discuss the nature of Egyptian kings' divinity in depth due to space constraints, neither does he have the room to detail the possibility of divinity manifesting or "channeling" into an individual. The Kemetic Orthodoxy's assertions about these two topics are purely weak, unsupported extrapolations, as far as their citations of this book are concerned.
Their biggest problem, however, is that Hornung has completely negated one of their key concepts in the first two chapters of his book! The Kemetic Orthodoxy presents Egyptian religion as a 'monolatry', which is a term that was originated by German scholars and has been used in conjunction with Egyptology. Hornung discusses this in Chapter Seven of his book, "Classification and Articulation of the Pantheon". But the Orthodoxy's application of monolatry is fundamentally flawed; as Hornung explains in Chapters One and Two, early Egyptologists who were determined to prove that the ancient religion was actually a monotheism falsely interpreted the word ntr to mean not just any god, but The One God. Careful study of the language, which includes the examples of personal names mentioned above, proves that this interpretation of ntr is inaccurate. Furthermore, Hornung cites earlier scholars who also interpreted the Egyptian pantheon as simply various forms of an original godhead; compare his citation of Eberhard Otto, who said that Late-Period Egyptians "'experienced the multiple manifestations of deities as possible realizations of an anonymous divine power that lay behind them'" (p.29), with this statement from the House of Netjer FAQ: "a practitioner...when working with one particular Name of Netjer understands that Name to be one reflection of Netjer's abstract totality, sometimes referred to as the Self-Created One." Now read what Erik Hornung himself writes about such assertions:
"This is a grandiose, western-style perspective--but it has little in common with Egyptian ways of looking and thinking...It is fascinating to arrange the Egyptian pantheon in three dimensions and to make the One the vanishing point--but does there not lie behind such an exercise the old apologist's endeavor to render the Egyptian gods more credible to us?"
My advice to anyone interested in practicing Kemeticism is that yes, by all means, you should read this book. But read the book carefully, in its entirety, and set aside any preconceived ideas about the topic that you either held yourself, or had been given by others. I had to set aside my own reservations and biases because I knew this book was too important to avoid reading any longer; and once I had, honestly analyzing everything Hornung says in it, my understanding of the Egyptian gods and their worship was richer for having done so.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2000
In this book, the author introduces the basic concepts of the gods. He first defines the terminology for the word 'god' and then explains the names of the Ancient Egyptian gods as well as their characteristics. He provides an excellent historical overview of the gods. A useful glossary of gods is included, along with a great bibliography for further reading. It is a recommended necessary reading for those studying Ancient Egyptian religion.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Several books have eloquently discussed the monotheism of central African groups, but this book clearly espouses the polytheism of the Ancient Egyptians, building upon work by Frankfort, and specifically refuting monotheistic interpretaions advanced by, for instance, Morenz and Budge. If you come to this book with an open mind you will find it truly exhilating, a demonstration why the mind-set of polytheism is necessary for the understanding of modern quantum mechanics. Henri Frankfort's "Ancient Egyptian Religion: an Interpretation" provides additional exposition and explanation. While this last book is out of print, libraries have it.
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on October 16, 2014
The original German edition was one of the seminal books in the study of Egyptian religion. Hornung examined how the Egyptian gods were depicted, what they were named, their ties to particular places, how they were born and died, how they were combined with each other, and how their characteristics contrasted with Akhenaten's sole god, the Aten. Building on Henri Frankfort's views of the "multiplicity of approaches" in Egyptian religious belief, said that the surreal complexity of Egyptian theology makes sense as an illustration of a subject humans cannot fully grasp. Along the way, he made the final break with the school of thought that dominated studies of Egyptian religion in the mid-20th century, where contradictory beliefs were treated as the product of political conflicts. He also pointed out that many scholars' desire to find monotheism in Egyptian religion was based on their unspoken assumption that monotheism is superior. Scholars have disagreed with some of Hornung's assertions (most notably Jan Assmann, who reopened the monotheism debate), but to a large extent they all build on his work. It's not exactly easy reading, but the style is fairly straightforward, and I actually find the concluding chapter rather stirring.
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on June 11, 2012
If you want a thorough exposition on all of the issues you will need to consider when thinking about Egptian Gods, or God in general, this is an excellent work. Honing is admirable in discussing and critiquing many perspectives, and the last sections of summary are worth it alone. However I sense at times he is a bit sneaky in how he presents evidence so as to favor his views. For example, he excludes pantheism, and never links ntr and nature, both of which are strongly implied by the characteristics of the Egyptin Gods and Goddesses. Nonetheless the points he does make are strong and refreshingly critical- it is clear he has thought more extensively than average.
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on February 19, 2015
Hornung gives a thorough review of the vast and disparate literature interpreting the ancient Egyptian religion as polytheistic or henotheistic, monotheistic or syncretic, or some combination or evolution of those labels. He meticulously examines the primary sources for evidence supporting one or another theory. For anyone trying to understand the curious and often bizarre representations of the gods in ancient Egypt and their seemingly endless reconfiguration and re-presentation, Hornung offers a solid foundation for intelligent observation and reflection.
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on August 21, 2014
Hornung is a genius author about ancient Egyptian spirituality and religion. Offering his expert insight backed up by mountains of well indexed and cited data, this is a necessary guide for those who have gone beyond the superficial new age musings based on Budge and want to really get into the religious and spiritual heads of the ancient Egyptian
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7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 1998
This is a book that is a must-read for anyone interested in knowing how the Ancient Egyptians thought. Highly recommended, and good to go through with a pen (to highlight sections) and an open mind. This is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one for the true Egyptophile.
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