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The Search for God in Ancient Egypt Paperback – February 15, 2001
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"Well researched, this is most definitely a serious book for scholars and students interested in the subject. Recommended reading for all."―Frankie's Review of Ancient Egypt
"What, for the ancient Egyptians, was the nature of the world's governing spirits' . . . With the evidence of ancient texts, Assmann considers Egyptian theology, . . . and cults and rites. . . . This deep, analytic book is of the greatest interest not only for specialists in matters Egyptian but also for comparative studies."―Antiquity, September 2001
"The Search for God in Ancient Egypt is an excellent example of how to write an interdisciplinary work. Egyptology is deeply rooted in the translation and interpretation of ancient texts. Assmann successfully combines the primary sources with current theories to present his view on religion, piety and theology of ancient Egypt. Such an approach works well, and while this book is not an introduction, it is highly recommended to scholars and non-specialists interested in the subject."―Monica Bontty, California State University at San Marcos. Bryn Mawr Classical Review, March 2002
"Very occasionally there will appear a book, vibrant with intellectual fervor, which challenges jaded ideas and as such I welcome with the greatest admiration Jan Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. At the outset I would urge readers to confront the complexity of the linguistic level of this book . . . because Assmann's total command of the ancient sources and his interpretative insights make joining him on his 'search' a unique experience."―George Hart. Egyptian Archaeology, Fall 2001
"A good survey of Egyptian mythology and hymnography. . . "―Steven M. Stannish, Miami University. History: Review of New Books
"What has made Assmann not only an eminent Egyptologist, but, in Germany, a public intellectual as well, is his sympathetic operation from within Egyptian texts coupled with a deep and detailed knowledge of Western intellectual history. . . . We are very fortunate to see his extraordinary scholarship appearing at last in English, and owe our thanks to . . . Cornell University Press and David Lorton, as well as, of course, to Assmann himself, for this excellent new opportunity."―Tom Hare, Princeton University, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12:2, October 2002
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The book, however, is translated from the German and is not intended for a popular audience. It is something of a slog to get through it. But if you are interested in the subject it is essential.
To arrive at the Egyptian 'narrow view,' Assmann distinguishes 'implicit theology' from 'explicit theology.' Implicit theology is his theory of how the Egyptians thought that he drives from interpreting texts. Explicit theology means whatever theory the Egyptian natives may have had, but the Egyptians 'never referred to [explicit theology] in practice.'
His 'implicit theology' is not 'reading into' the liturgies, but summarizing their consistent literary devices. An example of 'implicit theology' is the consistent progress in the ancient liturgies from names, to embodiments, to statues. Such consistent liturgies reveal civil, natural, and mythical levels of religion. Studying implicit theology in the liturgies over the 3,000 or so years of the dynastic periods reveals that polytheism played the particles to waves of monotheism.
A transition from localized polytheism to national monotheism occurred over the course of Egyptian history. During the transitions from Old to Middle to New Kingdoms, immanence in local cults of city gods transmuted to ruler god, primeval god, creator god, sun god, and to the ethical authority of personal devotion. The solar cult of the Amarna period, so often portrayed as Enlightenment, was a conservative repression that persecuted any personal experiences of the older religions of Ammon by interposing the royal couple between the Aten and people. The unexpected consequences of the persecution was the 'breakthrough' to the 'fourth dimension' of personal ethical consciousness, the same general development that describes the 'axial age,' the appearance everywhere of the historic religions at the end of the ancient world. Assmann's communicates the consistent beauty of the major hieroglyphic liturgies by demonstrating the logic of the litanies. Egyptian 'polytheism' was simply the symbolization of transcendence in immanence -- all the 'forms' (cheperu) of immanent experience are manifestations of searching for transcendent God. 'Search' in this context does not mean conscious theologizing.
The second part of the book describes the more explicit theology that was found in certain religious texts. Assmann argues that in the course of their history, mostly during the New Kingdom, the Egyptians who wrote these texts developed a fundamentally different conception of divinity, in which a single divine power governs and encompasses everything. Whereas the older ideas about gods focused on their continuous activities in maintaining the world, some New Kingdom texts emphasize how a god intervened in specific moments in history, adding a "historical dimension" to religious thought. The emphasis on divine intervention produced the dramatic growth of personal prayer and offerings to the gods during the New Kingdom. The conflict between this concept of divinity and traditional polytheism prompted Akhenaten's religious revolution, which rejected polytheism entirely. When Akhenaten's ideas were abandoned, Egyptian priests emphasized the notion that all the gods were aspects of the one unifying deity. During the New Kingdom the deity was most often equated with Amun, but it could apply to any other divinity, particularly after the New Kingdom.
Thus, this book argues that a monotheistic conception of divinity coexisted with Egyptian polytheism, countering Erik Hornung's argument in Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt that it didn't. Most scholars seem to side with Hornung, although James P. Allen's Genesis in Egypt and, following him, Richard H. Wilkinson's The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt put Assmann's argument in less grandiose terms. Really, both sides are on more solid ground than the extremes of the monotheism-versus-polytheism debate were in the 19th century, and the difference between their positions is now so small that the only way to determine which is right would be to read an ancient Egyptian priest's thoughts.
More significant than that debate are Assmann's remarks on the way to his conclusion, on all of the topics he discusses. They're worth reading, though not accepting uncritically, for anyone who wants to delve into the depths of Egyptian thought.