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The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs Hardcover – April 12, 2002
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"Writing a history of the development of the ancient Egyptian mind," wrote the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt a century and a half ago, is "an impossibility." Today, observes Jan Assmann, we know "infinitely more about Egypt" than did the scholars of Burckhardt's day. But, even so, the ancient Egyptian mind continues to elude us.
Turning to what he calls "the hidden face of history," Assmann explores the meaning of the Egyptian past to the ancients themselves. For them, history, that chronicle of pharaohs and empires, began with the recognition that humans, not gods or demigods, controlled earthly affairs. From the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the time of the Ptolemy dynasty, the idea of the state was central to Egyptians' view of themselves in the world. With this centralized power, Assmann argues, grew other ideas, such as the notion that the stone of the pyramids was "an eternalized form of the body" and that our short time on earth was "something more akin to a dream than to reality." Full of learned discussions on such matters as the origins and development of hieroglyphic writing and the evolution of funereal architecture, Assmann's book offers a fascinating view of ancient history, and of ancient ways of thinking. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Originally published in 1996, this 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." In other words, here's a book about history and how it's made and interpreted as much as it is about Egypt. Assmann's dense and scholarly tome draws on a wide variety of sources, from literature and archeology to iconography, to trace a portrait of Egyptian civilization from 5000 B.C.E. to the beginnings of Christianity. It has no central thesis, as such, but examines a fascinating array of material, some of it well known (Piye's victory stele) and some of it more obscure (a wide variety of hymns and literary lamentations). The translation is by and large excellent, and yet the book is still rather difficult to wade through. The author's preoccupation with theory may trouble readers who are accustomed to a more narrative presentation; his application of the concept of Cosmotheism is traditional, for example, and so the introduction of terminology like Cosmohermeneutics seems to complicate things unnecessarily. Assmann (Moses the Egyptian; The Search for God in Ancient Egypt) is a distinguished Egyptologist, and this book will appeal greatly to the field's academics and professionals, as well as seriously dedicated Egyptophiles. Unfortunately, one of the major attractions in any publication on ancient Egypt is absent good photographs of the culture's spectacular legacy in art (there are only eight illustrations). There are, however, endnotes, a basic chronology, and a useful key to the Egyptian gods.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
Most importantly he shows what the Egyptian state really stood for as opposed to the false images found in Old Testament propaganda that mispresents Eqypt as an oppressive slave state. "The Egyptian state." he says, "is the implementation of a legal order that precludes the natural supremacy of the strong and opens up prospects for the weak (the 'widows' and 'orphans') that otherwise would not exist."
Unlike many who think that the revolution initiated by Akhenaten perished with him, Assmann presents evidence that its main principles survived in other religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well in secular venues from Greek philosophy "to the universalist formulas of oun own age as embodied in the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg."
It is possible that many of the ideas of "Christianity" were originally formulated by the Egyptians.
Today we know more about the Ancient Egyptians than ever before so we should "attempt to enter into a dialogue with the newly readable messages of ancient Egyptian culture and thus to reestablish them as an integral part of our cultural memory."
I have only skimmed the surface of this important book. Anyone who wants to understand ancient Egypt must read this book."
According to Assman, life for the ancient Egyptian was a fellowship, a connectedness. This connectedness was maintained by harmony and justice (ma'at) a key organizing principle that can perhaps be regarded as the Egyptian version of Tao or perhaps the Navajo idea of `hozho'. Harmony makes community possible and is synonymous with law, security and order set by a centralized state. The failure to realize this interconnection of life results in loneliness and death. Maat is ensured by the State: all common, shared things, depend on the state: language, knowledge, and memory.
The Egyptian state was founded on an unshakable faith in the immortality of the soul and the prospect of future judgment. Interestingly, these ideas are also central to Christianity, but not the Old Testament (a tribal document devoid of the concept of life after death or notions such as kindness, or lovingness).
The Egyptians identified covetousness, greed, as the source of all evil. Keeping greed in check required constant effort. The great countergod of the E. pantheon, Seth is:
"He who is content with separation and hates fraternization;
he who only supports himself on his [own] heart among the gods"
very modern, this guy Seth. Would feel very comfortable in Wal-Mart or NYSE. Or the blood diamond merchants of Antwerp. There is great sophistication in using language and thinking in Middle Kingdom, when we observe a universal political education, indoctrination and propaganda. Religion itself required a great mnemonic effort on the part of the pharaoh and the priests; including ritual practices that we might call magic, as thoughts and dreams were very real to E. - so real, that evil in the sphere of language and imagination is given greater prominence than bad deeds; figurines found in pots made of burnt clay had inscribed curses against:
"All bad words, all bad speech, all bad imprecation,
all bad thoughts, all bad plotting
all bad battle, all bad plans, all bad things,
all bad dreams, all bad sleep."
Assmann emphasizes that human equality is a fundamental principle of Egyptian society. Unlike the Vedic Indians with their castes, and the Greeks with their free citizens and slaves, the Egyptians did not see existing differences between rich and poor, strong and weak, as part of the creation... "I have made each man the same as his neighbor", says Amon Ra, the sun god. The king is advised to `appoint his officials solely on the criterion of ability'. Inequality was seen as a product of covetousness, the "greed of the heart". Hardheartedness, selfishness and megalomania were universally condemned. These differences are traced back to the "heart" -to human free will. In fact, the idea of a "heart-guided individual"is central the Middle Kingdom.
Assman is ever so careful to evade a (self-imposed) 'hermeneutical trap', avoiding any temptation to actually 'feel' what Egyptians themselves might have felt or experienced. Conequently, while the book has many fascinating pages, it lacks a certain depth that could only come from the author's 'tuning in' into phenomenology of subjects he has devoted his life to studying.
Anyway, I liked the chapters on the two Transitional Periods, and the descriptions of the Hyksos (who, according to Assman were related to the Jews), the Nubians and even references from the Greeks; what I missed was more information of the Assyrian and Persian conquest and more information about the Egyptian religion. Here are "Instructions for King Merikare":
"Beware of unjust punishment.
Kill not, for that cannot be useful to you.
Punish with beatings and prison:
By this the land will be well founded. [...]
Kill no one whose spiritual strength is known to you
With whom you have sung scriptures
Who has read in the book of trial and can walk freely in the sacred space.
For the soul returns to the place it knows.
No magic can hold it back
It reaches him who gives it water.