Egypt: Lost Civilizations
Christina Riggs
Reaktion
216pp, 46 illustrations, 31 in colour
Hardback, £15

Pharaonic Egypt fascinated the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it continues to fascinate us today, but the nature of the fascination changes. The Greeks and Romans looked back to Egypt for philosophy and science. We look to Egypt for aesthetic inspiration, and to ponder the technical mysteries of pyramid-building. Christina Riggs' Egypt is one of Reaktion Books' accessible and informative Lost Civilizations guides. It is, however, much more than a chronological survey of ancient Egypt; it is also an elegant and intriguing thematic interpretation of that civilisation's grip on our imagination ever since.

Riggs begins her narrative in Sigmund Freud's consulting-room. Freud, Riggs writes, had 'a lifelong passion for archaeology'. His observations on the memory and perception of ancient Rome remain indispensable to cultural historians. On his desk, stood more than three dozen statuettes from different ancient cultures, many of them bronze or carved stone images of Egyptian gods, like the baboon of Thoth, a god of wisdom, writing and record-keeping, who wrote down the results of the Weighing of the Heart, which decided the eternal fate of the deceased. Freud's housekeeper recorded that he often stroked the smooth head of the stone baboon, like a pet.

Freud theorised about repression and forgetting. Why, Riggs asks, have modern Western societies striven to remember ancient Egypt? Why does an Egyptian obelisk stand in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where the guillotine once stood? Why is the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas so-named , and shaped like a pyramid? From Las Vegas, Riggs returns to the source, the temple of Thoth at el-Ashmunein, the ancient Hermopolis, on the western bank of the River Nile. We tend to think of Hermes as the messenger of the Greek gods, but in antiquity he was also a god of 'language, writing and learning'. When Greek speakers traded and settled around the eastern Mediterranean, they drew comparisons between the Olympian pantheon and the local gods. The Egyptian Aset and Wesir are still better known under their Greek sobriquets, Isis and Osiris. It made both 'linguistic and theological sense' to identify Hermes with Thoth.

Like the names of Isis and Osiris, this fusing of Egyptian and Greek imagery would retain a powerful influence, and not just through the transmission of Egyptian religion to the Greek and Roman worlds. Through time Thoth/Hermes came to symbolise 'the totality of what was known about the mysteries of the cosmos and of human nature – what we would now be likely to refer to as science and philosophy'. For the Renaissance scholars who laid the foundations of Western science and philosophy, the legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus – the 'thrice-great' appellation is a translation of the Egyptian 'wer wer wer' – represented the source and goal of their labours. This is why, in 1488, Giovanni di Stefano included the figure of Hermes Trismegistus (this time modelled after one of the last Byzantine emperors) in the decorated floor of the Cathedral of St Catherine in Siena. It is why the ideal of secret Egyptian knowledge – the word 'hermetic' derives from the allegedly secret transmission of the purported 'Hermetic tradition' – features strongly in recent New Age thought. It is also why Sigmund Freud, the author of Moses and Monotheism, surrounded himself with Egyptian objects, and patted his stone baboon as Thoth, himself, might have done.

This is only one of the fascinating tales in Riggs' weaving of ancient Egypt's language, religion, hydrology, art and politics with the visions of its would-be heirs and conquerors. There is 'no definitive ancient Egypt', she concludes, for 'wherever we look for the lost civilization of the Egyptians, we cannot help but find ourselves'.
Dominic Green

 

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