ElAnt v7n1 - Reviews - The Secret Lore of Egypt. Its Impact on the West

February 2003 Volume 7, Number 1

The Secret Lore of Egypt. Its Impact on the West , Erik Hornung. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8014-3847-0. Pp. viii + 229. $29.95.

Reviewed by Anthony Spalinger
University of Auckland, New Zealand

Again Prof. Erik Hornung and the Egyptologist-translator David Lorton have teamed with the University Press of Cornell. The first of Ithaca's regular Egyptological literature was Hornung's Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt, translated by John Baines. It appeared in 1982.

The latest book is not directed to professionals but rather to the great number of interested men and women whose orientation may be categorized as esoteric or even spiritual. Prof. Hornung has devoted his life to unraveling many of ancient Egypt's religious "mysteries"; and he was a frequent contributor during the 1970s and 1980s to the Eranos conferences held in Ascona, Switzerland. His focus continues to be the various aspects of Pharaonic religious thought, whether monotheism, the concept of "god", time, aspects of hell, and the like. Within Egyptological circles but also beyond, Hornung has provided us with excellent copies of the New Kingdom religious "books" (e.g., the Amduat and the Litany to the Sun) as well as superb translations and commentaries.

Here he begins by deploring the chasm that has come to pass between practicing Egyptologists and religious enthusiasts, whose quarrels he refuses to retrace, as this serves no aim except of a partisan one. Nonetheless, the reader should be forewarned that the author is not a novice seeking the solutions to life through a mystical path of presumed (but false) interpretations of ancient Egypt. His goal is simple and straightforward. It is, in fact, presented in a disarming yet rigorous fashion.

The presentation is basically historical, but each chapter deals with a separate theme. He commences with a healthy appreciation of the problems of humankind in its search for hidden wisdom, denied to all but a select few. Hornung examines "mystical" interpretations one by one, taking a forbearing approach to the myriad false but always interesting notions. It is not his purpose to expose charlatans. He proceeds from the Classical views of Egypt to the popularity of mysticism and Hermes Trimegistus. Out of the Renaissance developed Neo-Platonism and expansive rediscoveries. The Baroque Era in Continental Europe facilitated many a perspicacious and overly clever mind in researching the secret hermetical lore of Egypt. Famous individuals, it must be admitted, went on these quests: Mozart and the Masons, Dürer, Lessing, Beethoven, Athanasius Kircher, Kepler, Jacques Louis David, and Thomas Mann side by side with Bram Stoker, Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, Aleister Crowley, Joseph Smith, and, to be somewhat ironic, Augustus' daughter Julia. I was impressed that Hornung ferreted out the relatively rare and out-of-the-way work by Jurgis Baltrusaitis ( La Quête d'Isis , Paris, 1967). I had thought that I was the only Egyptologist who was familiar with this volume. Yes, there is a cast of thousands, not even counting the two major Cecil B. De Mille films set in Egypt. Egyptomania commences in the Ptolemaic Era if not earlier, for there is always the amusing Herodotus, a true devourer of gossip, gullible and simplistic.

The Greeks were enamored of Egypt, seeking, as later travelers did, the presumed arcane lore of the Nile. Theosophists and alchemists alike turned their attention to this land, hoping to find in the writings some key to the divine, some gateway to immortality.

Egyptologists, Hornung among them, reject these assumptions and presumptions. And like Champollion, Hornung reads the texts. It is doubtful if any of the well meaning pilgrims mentioned in this work could understand the hieroglyphic script. Hence, I found the open-minded and fair approach of the author wonderful in its liberalism and broad in its outlook. If there are criticisms of the various personages Hornung encountered in his time traveling, then I overlooked them. At most, the exclamation marks within parentheses here and there testify to a somewhat amused analysis on his part with regard to these copious productions of the human mind.

But this book may also be read as a history of the fascination all of us cherish. The connection of ancient Egypt to the cultures of the West has never been broken. Whatever misunderstandings, misapprehensions, and crackpot ideas well-meaning laypersons derive from their perceptions of this age-old culture, the attraction, nonetheless, is there; the impetus to self-discovery, however, can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Many will find the detailed bibliographies supplementing each chapter to be mines of information. I was struck by the extensive literature that Hornung has read. The scope of his source material is as far ranging as his subject. Certainly, this work will provide an impetus to future historiographical studies of the concept of Egypt to the outsider. It complements Jan Assmann's recent Moses the Egyptian (Harvard University Press, 1997), although the orientation is quite different.

I recommend this well-written volume to anyone seriously interested in what Egypt ever meant and presently means to the whole world. As to the veracity of these attempts to scour the Nile Valley for its presumed secrets, it is best to let the writers and mystics speak for themselves. Were their trips worth the effort? That is for others to say. Hornung wisely concludes by noting the rise in new millennialist hopes and fears among us. His tolerant attitude has much to recommend itself. Bigotry is alien to Hermetism.