ElAnt v7n1 - Reviews - The Search for God in Ancient Egypt

February 2003 Volume 7, Number 1

The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, Jan Assmann. Translated by David Lorton. 1st English-edition, with revisions and additions. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 0801487293. Pp. xi, 275.

Reviewed by Kasia Szpakowska
Department of Classics and Ancient History,
University of Wales Swansea

In 1984 Jan Assmann undertook the ambitious task of investigating the nature of Egyptian theology in his book Ägypten: Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur. The current book is a masterful translation of that seminal study originally published in German. The original publication has so influenced studies on ancient Egyptian religion that many of his models have been integrated into more recent scholarship. At times it is dense, the concepts are certainly complex, and it does require some background in Egyptian history and texts, as Asmann relies heavily on the many hymns and prayers which he himself translated and analysed. While it is not a beginner's book, it should be read by anyone seriously interested in Egyptian religion or the study of religions in general.

One of the distinctive aspects of this book is that it is not a study of mythology, Egyptian deities, cultic practices, nor a wide-ranging overview of Egyptian religion. From the first chapter Assmann makes it clear that his intent is to focus specifically on the Egyptian concept of and dialogue with the 'divine presence' at a societal level (theology) and on an individual level (piety) -- two concepts that he considers to be at the core of Egyptian religion. He takes a "historico-analytical perspective that occupies an external standpoint vis-à-vis the religion to be described" (p.7). This acknowledgment of the importance of the "historical dimension" (p.18) is a welcome relief from works which present aspects of Egyptian culture as monolithic and unchanging.

In the first chapter Assmann provides his frame of reference, outlines the scope of his study, and defines the technical terminology which he will be using. Casual readers may be put off by these complexities but they are critical for understanding and laying the groundwork for later sections. He introduces here themes that will manifest themselves throughout the book: the tension between the belief in a god versus multiple gods, the difference between religious practice and theological discourse, and the critical role played by the Amarna period in transforming Egyptian religion.

The book is then divided into two sections. Part I is concerned with implicit theology (ideas and activities connected with gods) and is organized according to what Assmann argues are the three dimensions of Egyptian religion: the local or cultic dimension, the dimension of the cosmos (the visible elements), and the mythic dimension (related to speech and to divine names). Along with textual analyses, Assmann also presents the reader with his insights concerning the architectural layouts of temples as reflections of the religious beliefs of the time.

In Part II Assmann presents an overview of the Egyptian explicit theology which deals with issues related to the concept of a single god. His 'historico-analytical perspective' is apparent here, as he traces the changing nature of explicit theology from its precursors in the Middle Kingdom through the New Kingdom. He argues that explicit theology developed in three phases during the New Kingdom: the first phase is the pre-Amarna 'new solar theology,' the second occurs in the Amarna period itself, and the third consists of the post-Amarna rise of 'personal piety,' a phenomenon which for Assmann is confined to the Ramesside Age. The analyses presented here profoundly influenced later studies on Egyptian culture, whether they have been unquestioningly accepted, or by provoking challenge.

Assmann argues that the eighteenth dynasty New Solar Theology was transformed by the Amarna religion into a new theology in the Ramesside age, a time that he suggests is 'perhaps the most significant turning point in all of Egyptian intellectual history' (p.222). It is clear that Assmann is here interested in the concerns of the intellectual literate elite of Egypt, and not necessarily the view of the less visible population. And it is in the Ramesside period that these Egyptians reached what Assmann considers the peak in Egyptian theological discourse: the development of a transcendent god combined with the reemergence of the fourth dimension-divine will. He emphasizes that this new theology was not a backlash against the concept of Amarna religion, but of the prosecution that accompanied it. He describes how uncomfortable life was for the common man, but he rests his case on a single hymn, which would not have been written by a common man, but by a priest of Amun during the reign of Smenkhare. Yet, in the workman's village of Amarna itself, excavations have revealed the presence of non-Atenist amulets and figurines attesting to at least the continued worship of household deities.

There are also problems in attributing personal piety to the Ramesside age alone. Assmann notes that two themes are typical of personal piety, that is the public expression of both confession (usually of one's guilt because of some sort of transgression), and of the personal experience of divine power. But that seems to be an example of circular reasoning: selecting phraseology indicative of the Ramesside period, and defining personal piety on the basis of those phrases as found in hymns and religious texts. Personal piety may have found other means of expression in earlier time periods, such as theophoric names, scarab formulae, and even in early Eighteenth Dynasty prayers.

The bibliography at the end is selective and well chosen, with the works thematically arranged in a useful manner. For example, the bibliography for Chapter 2 includes the heading of 'Temples,' which is further subdivided into 'as economic enterprises' and 'as architectural concept.' It would perhaps have been useful to include a reference glossary, for Assmann's redefining of certain common words such as 'icon' or 'constellation' can be potentially confusing to the reader.

The great benefit of Assmann's work is not in providing a model for Egyptian religious thought that should be accepted unquestioningly, but for inspiring the reader to question preconceptions and to stimulate a dialogue. This book was the foundation for numerous other works and is therefore central to the study of Ancient Egyptian religion, and indeed relevant to the study of ancient religions in general. Thanks to David Lorton's masterful translation the non-German reading audience finally has the opportunity to read Assmann's groundbreaking theories for themselves.

Tracy Gilmore