Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 42.
Françoise Dunand and Christiane Zivie-Coche (tr. David Lorton), Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE. Ithaca, New York, and London: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xv + 378, incl. halftone illustrations, maps, a glossary, chronology, bibliographical references, and an index. ISBN 0- 8014-4165-X. US$45.00, UK£25.95.
Lincoln College, University of Oxford
As its title promises, Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE discusses how the people of (and in) ancient Egypt conceptualized their relationship with divinities throughout an enormous span of time. This English version of the French original is faithfully and well-translated, despite occasional awkward run-on sentences.[] The volume is '[w]ritten with nonspecialist readers in mind' (front jacket cover), although Book I in particular assumes one's affinity with pharaonic history and literature (for example, pp. 120, 127, and 177). The volume consists of two books, Book I (pp. 5-191) written by Zivie-Coche and Book II (pp. 197-341) by Dunand. The first book, Zivie-Coche explains, 'is concerned solely with pharaonic religion' and the second book 'covers the Hellenistic and Roman eras and the beginnings of Christianity' (p. xiv). The inclusion of the second book proves that this volume is distinct from traditional books on Egyptian religion, which ordinarily treat the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great as the end of Egyptian history in its most genuine form. Zivie-Coche and Dunand assert that the fourth century CE serves as a better closure to this ancient civilization than the fourth century BCE, because 'the properly pharaonic religion survived to the fourth century of our own era' (p. xv). Through these two books, the authors show quite successfully the continuity of Egyptian religion as a phenomenon well into the Common Era.
The preface opens rather philosophically, introducing Egyptian religion as 'a religion of books . . . not a Religion of the Book' (p. xii). Zivie-Coche contemplates the tautology (rather than theology) of Egyptian religion: 'the gods were what they were . . . It was a physical reality that imposed itself like day and night, something incapable of being called into question' (ibid). Without losing the flavor of the preface, Part I of Book I, 'The World of the Gods' (pp. 5-104), begins with the author's speculations as to how the ancient Egyptians might have understood their gods. Zivie-Coche discusses the several signs and words which are closely associated with the spiritual and supernatural world, the most obvious example being the netjer, an anonymous god, rather than God.[] Then Zivie-Coche deals with the anthropomorphism and 'animality' of the gods, the latter being one of the ways 'in which the Egyptians envisaged the presence of the divine in animal (p. 21). With many examples the author explains the significance of divine names, certain numbers, divine genealogies (different families of the gods), and the importance of myths. The Egyptians necessarily believed in the stories about their deities 'because they expressed the reality of the visible and the invisible world, . . . and because they were the metaphorical image that established a link between the real world and the imaginary' (p. 37). Zivie-Coche challenges her readers to view Egyptian religion as the ancients themselves understood it, commenting that the terms such as syncretism, pantheism, and henotheism 'correspond only approximately, or not at all' (p. 40). She believes that the fundamental characteristic of Egyptian religion is that 'there is no ontological difference between deities and humans. What distinguishes them is their relative share in the real and the imaginary' (ibid). In order to fully illustrate her point, Zivie-Coche spends the rest of Part I examining the history and the distant future of the divine sphere the ancients described in the different cosmogonies and beliefs of Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis, Thebes, and Esna, then combines them with the discussion of how the humans saw themselves fitting in this complex sphere of the divine. The temple made the communication between the divine and the human spheres possible, and therefore was regarded as 'the place where the divine was rooted and manifested itself directly and visibly on earth, its permanent receptacle and thus itself divine' (p. 83) even down to the era under the Roman rulers.
Part II of Book I, entitled 'The Living and the Dead' (pp. 107-91), shows 'evidence of personal piety by means of which each individual attempted to express his relationship with the divine by other means, ones that did not proceed through the machinery of the temple' (p. 108). This personal piety (which particularly flourished after the Amarna Period) was never in opposition to official dynastic rituals and cults; there existed no separation between the two, because 'each had a distinct role, and they were not interchangeable' (p. 109). Veneration of colossal statues of the rulers, pilgrimage to places of historical/mythical importance, festivals, oracular practices were some of the venues through which the Egyptians expressed their personal piety toward the divine. The clergy, even though it worked 'in the framework of the cult', also participated 'in the framework of [private] magic . . . to manipulate hostile forces that were also an integral part of cosmic reality' (pp. 122f.). Zivie-Coche writes that people had a direct relationship with the divine '[i]n magic, a double way based on the reality of the invisible world and the possibility of human intervention in that reality' (p. 128). One of the most important concepts in ancient Egypt was Maat, the word usually translated as 'truth', 'justice', or 'order', who was a goddess in her own right. The Egyptians strived 'to act according to Maat' while living (p. 149) and they imagined even the world after death would be ruled in accordance with this concept, which was the driving force in the divine sphere (pp. 180-183). Zivie-Coche's analysis on why there had never been any images of death, especially in this 'iconic civilization that constantly strove to make images . . . of invisible realities' (p. 157), is intriguing. In the course of cosmogony, 'death was created, like any other reality' (p. 158). Zivie-Coche stresses the fact that depicting death would have 'radically separated the world of the living from that of the dead', which would have been 'unbearable' to the Egyptians; death simply 'could not be depicted' (ibid). In her opinion, therefore, many ancient Egyptian accounts written on and about death and the Underworld (the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, the Book of the Dead, the Book of Two Ways, the Book of Qererets, etc.) are written not because the Egyptians reveled and glorified death. Rather, they strived to overcome the horrifying death by speculating about what is to come, 'to attempt to catch sight of and overcome the radical alterity of death' (p. 191).
In Book I Zivie-Coche discusses many topics in Egyptian religion not so much in chronological order but by concepts, while pointing out the continuation of major ideology and minor changes over time. The figures are very well labeled and Zivie-Coche excels at referring to many renowned Egyptologists when presenting interesting theories (she usually expands on what these authorities have argued in the past), although sometimes she does not give full information. For example, without giving any individual examples, Zivie-Coche writes regarding scenes of daily life depicted on the tomb walls: '[t]here has been much scholarly discussion of the meaning of these tomb representations, which have been interpreted in various ways' (p. 173, cf. p. 169). Even though there is a useful bibliography for each chapter at the end of the volume, it would have been nice to see cited works on these topics, especially when Zivie-Coche decides to mention many scholars' names elsewhere (for example, pp. 57, 68, 110, 122, 149, 161, 173, etc). Zivie-Coche occasionally writes that 'we' must try to understand the Egyptian ways of thinking. For instance, she advises us to try to understand the different categorical arrangement of the world in many different cosmogonies in Egypt, 'even if we do not always grasp their arrangement, which was different from ours' (p. 57). The readers get weary of these mentions of 'we' and 'our way', because the author seems to assume that 'we' all share the Judeo- Christian tradition without clarifying her assumption (see also pp. 59 and 63). The pronoun 'we' is better used in Book II by Dunand: '[a]s for the notion of superstition, it is also equivocal. This is a handy term, used by a dominant religion (in our culture, usually Christianity) to discredit its rivals . . . ' (pp. 299f.). Zivie-Coche, who insists that 'we' must understand Egyptian religion as the Egyptians understood it, and that 'our' terms are not applicable for the Egyptian understandings of the dead and the divine, somewhat carelessly calls Anubis 'the leader of souls' (p. 181) even after carefully explaining the Egyptian concepts of ba and ka.
The second book of the volume, written by Dunand, begins with a statement that over the course of three and a half millennia, 'the religious system of ancient Egypt' 'experienced changes, modifications that nevertheless did not deeply alter it' (p. 197). Part I of Book II (pp. 197-221) briefly discusses the history of Egypt under Hellenistic and Roman rulers, who found that treating the traditional religious system with respect was recommendable, '[b]ecause Egyptian religion sacralized power' (p. 202). The ideology of offering Maat to the gods and receiving from them the right to rule the land essentially remained the same under the house of Ptolemy. The Romans needed less political propaganda (and did not challenge much of the religious ideas in Egypt) because 'the center of power was no longer in Egypt' (p. 205). Signs of tension between the new foreign rulers and the traditional clergy did not appear until the beginning of the second century BCE, and even this tension was 'apparently limited to certain local circles' and more concerned with political rather than religious issues (p. 210). Temples maintained their 'relatively privileged position', and even though they lost their economic power in the Roman Period, 'they remained the refuge and the 'conservatory' of religious and cultural traditions' (pp. 212, 213).
Part II of Book II (pp. 225-81) deals with monumental constructions built 'to testify to the benevolence of kings and emperors toward Egyptian religion, from Ptolemy I down to Decius in the middle of the third century' (p. 225). Dunand writes about the colossal temples at Dendara, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae. In addition, the author draws the readers' attention to the much smaller local sanctuaries (such as the ones at Oxyrhynchus) that were local centers in Egyptian society. As in old times, 'scribes continued to copy old texts' in both kinds of temples, but many of them also carried out new theological activities 'that entailed reflection on myths and on the nature of the gods and goddesses' (p. 234). The most well known example of this theological adventure is the evolution in the characteristics of Isis and Osiris; with new interpretations of their myths they gained new domains of power while maintaining traditional roles that were set already in the Old Kingdom (also see pp. 271f). There was an installation of the cult of Sarapis and Graeco-Roman gods came to be worshipped in Egypt (pp. 214f, 241f), but the major Egyptian divinities continued to be as important as they had been, and were sometimes associated with their parallels in Greek mythology (for example, Horus with Apollo, Ptah with Hephaistos, and Hathor with Aphrodite). Dunand is of the opinion that the Lagides were 'obliged to have recourse to religious ideology as an instrument of consolidating their power in the minds of both Greeks and Egyptians' more so than the Romans, who were more preoccupied with 'holding' Egypt and 'effectively assuring its exploitation than with gaining the loyalty of its inhabitants by virtue of politico-religious propaganda' (p. 252). With large Jewish settlements present, Hellenistic Egypt saw the birth of the Septuagint in the third century BCE. From the third to the fourth century CE, Christianity (especially Christian gnosticism) flourished in Egypt, out of which rose the Coptic Church. Monachism in Egyptian Christianity spread widely in the fourth century CE, and the first monastic community was found at Tabenneis in 323CE (pp. 259f.). In Dunand's opinion, 'curiously, the antagonism that grew between Jews and Egyptians, as well as between Judaeo-Aramaeans and Greeks, does not seem to have had a fundamentally religious basis' (p. 278); they were rather socio- political in nature.
Part III of Book II (pp. 285-341) begins with a discussion of the festivals celebrated at newly constructed temples in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, many of which were 'strongly rooted in the religious tradition' of Egypt (p. 294). One can speculate from the written records that, as in more ancient times, most medium-sized temples 'must have functioned as the center of local life' (p. 297). Dunand then moves on to write about private religious practices, such as prayers to and veneration of divine statues, owning amulets, magic, and oracular exercises in Graeco-Roman Egypt. She observes that '[t]here was no gulf between the world of the temples and that of the laity' (p. 306), just as Zivie-Coche did regarding pharaonic Egypt. As for beliefs in the afterlife, the powerful images already established in the pharaonic Egypt 'continued to fill the Egyptian religious imagination down to a very late period' (p. 320), although some alteration in representing the dead and divine accessories appeared (for example, Anubis was shown with a large key hanging from his neck from the second century CE., p. 320). Some Greek funerary inscriptions at cemeteries in Alexandria (many with Egyptian decorative elements) do not indicate any 'belief in immortality or the possibility of a happy life beyond the tomb' (p. 324), and yet 'the dominant vision remained the more optimistic and serene Egyptian vision of the hereafter, which represented, whatever its dangers and terrors, a promise of life' (p. 325). In her conclusion, Dunand states that Egypt experienced a 'nonconflictual coexistence' of different beliefs until the end of the fourth century CE (p. 339). Indeed many religions coexisted quite peacefully in accordance with, or not challenging, the traditional Egyptian religious ideology until 'the confrontation of the religions occurred, the great turning point of the years 391-392' when militant Christians attacked many sanctuaries and holy images (p. 340).
The figures in Book II are as well labeled as those of Book I. In contrast to Book I, however, Book II is very history-oriented. It is sufficient as a textbook on the history of religions in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Dunand has a tendency to overuse inverted commas with words such as 'pagan', 'borrow', 'Christianized' (p. 231), 'clientele', 'aspect', 'systems' (p. 236), and so on. These will surely make her readers wonder with what sort of overtone these words are used. If she is determined to use inverted commas, they should be followed by some sort of explanation as to why she decided to do so. A good example of where explanation would be needed is the following: '[d]eprived in good part of social 'recognition' (see Book II, chapter 5), the priests nonetheless continued to play as essential role on the symbolic level . . . ' (p. 235).
The fact that the authors divided Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE into two separate books is not particularly true to their wish to regard Egyptian history down to the fourth century CE as one coherent whole. Book I reads like a book on religious ideology in Egypt, assuming the readers' knowledge of pharaonic Egypt and virtually ignoring historical details, whereas Book II is essentially a book on the history of Egyptian religion. What works well in this volume, however, is that because Book I concentrates on the various religious concepts and rituals of Egypt down to Hellenistic Period, Book II is able to demonstrate their impact on Greek, Jewish, and Christian religion, without forgetting to allude to the exchanges that occurred among these religions. The readers are sure to become familiar with the authorities on many aspects of the scholarship of Egyptian religion. The volume is full of information already discussed in books published in the past, and it functions more or less as concise digest of famous scholars' views on Egyptian. Zivie-Coche and Dunand's work, though not without its weaknesses, serves as a thorough introduction to Egyptian religion, complete with a glossary, maps, and a chronology chart. More importantly, it effectively shows that the coherence of authentic Egyptian philosophy and religion did indeed survive until late fourth century CE.[]
[] Here is an example: '[t]he next step was the institution by Ptolemy II Philadelphos, probably in 280 BCE, of a cult in honor of his deceased parents, Ptolemy I and Berenike, which included the Ptolemaia festival, of which a description by Callixenes has been preserved' (p. 248).
[] As Zivie-Coche reminds her readers, works by several renowned Egyptologists have already discussed this matter. See Erik Hornung (tr. John Baines), Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many (Ithaca, New York 1982) and Georges Posener Enseignement loyaliste (Geneva 1976).
[] Some minor errors need to be addressed. The syntax of the second sentence of the section 'Diachrony and Synchrony' leaves somewhat to be desired: "[i]n fact, this should not surprise: when we . . . ' (p. xiv). The second half of p. 137 after 'Re . . . was the one 'who hears the entreaties of the one to cries out to him'' needs to read 'the one who cries out to him'. Fourth line of the third paragraph on p. 265 reads: 'Egyptians peasants', but should read 'Egyptian peasants'. The third line on p. 332: '[t]his was not a matter of a few living representatives of a god, as had as had earlier been the case . . . ' includes a duplication.