The Search for God in Ancient Egypt Paperback – 15 Feb 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
About the Author
Jan Assmann is Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at Heidelberg University. His books include The Search for God in Ancient Egypt and Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, both from Cornell.
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Assman spends a considerable time exploring the dual aspect of the divine in Egypt - on the one hand a culture believing in and devoted to many different gods, but on the other hand a sense that "the divine" could be referred to in the singular, not the plural. These twin themes are revealed in many different areas, such as temple practice, views of the cosmos, the power of individual speech, and the expectation of a real divine presence encountered by men and women.
Much of the focus towards the end of the book concerns the New Kingdom, and in particular the way that the specific religious views of Akhenaten both copied and diverged from traditional Egyptian practice. He sees this Amarna period as an interruption that threatened the development of religious thought rather than helping it, and some readers will part company from him here.
The book itself was written in 1984 in German, but this 2001 translation by David Lorton reads smoothly and naturally - it is in fact very easy to forget that it is a translation. Assman's detailed analysis and years of study of the field permeate the book and are clearly set out in this very readable text.
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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.
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