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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.51
Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt. History and Meaning in the Time of the
Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2003. Pp. 513; ills. ISBN 0-674-01211-9. $18.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Sheldon Lee Gosline, Hieratic Font Project, Northeast Normal University,
Changchun, China (gosline@hotmail.com)
Word count: 1438 words
Originally published in 1996 under the title gypten. Eine Sinngeschichte, The Mind of Egypt is
both an intellectual history of ancient Egypt and an exploration in which "the course of events forms
the backdrop and the discourses generating and reflecting meaning occupy the front of the stage."
As such, The Mind of Egypt by Jan Assmann, director of the Egyptological Institute of Heidelberg
University, sets out upon the impossible task of elucidating how ancient Egyptians collectively
thought over a history that spanned five millennia without a central thesis, as such, but by examining
a fascinating array of both well-known and obscure material. The translation from German by
Andrew Jenkins is excellent, and, although the book is difficult reading, as was the original, it is
destined to appear in specialized Egyptology course reading lists for years to come, and will appeal
to the field's academic professionals and dedicated Egyptophiles. A major attraction in any
publication on ancient Egypt is absent: good photographs of the culture's spectacular artistic legacy
(there are only thirteen line drawings, four low quality halftones, and one map). There is also no
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complete bibliography. Student will be please to find endnotes, an index, a basic chronology, and a
key for Egyptian gods.
Assmann's approach reflects more about current scholarly interests in cultural templates and
societal patterns than about the actual ways in which individual Egyptians reasoned about any
particular situation. It is more about history and how history is made and interpreted than it is about
Egypt in particular. Not since J.H. Breasted's Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient
Egypt (1912) has there been such a systematic attempt to explore the evolution of Egyptian thought,
and like Breasted's work was in its time, this recent effort by Assmann is heavily colored by
contemporary theories and the author's unique paradigms.
The rate of change in our own modern world is so profound, especially in countries such as
Germany, the United States, or even modern China, that it is tempting to view ancient civilizations
as having been static. This inaccurate perception is especially tempting for a culture such as Egypt,
which valued continuity and preserved ways of doing things from generation to generation.
Egyptians sanctioned any actual change by stating that continuity was being preserved or an older,
and therefore better item or way of doing things was being restored. While Breasted viewed this
continuity as a trap that eventually led to entropy and stagnation, Assmann looks back longingly to
the ancient Egyptians sense of continuity and purpose, with the eye of a modern hurried by an ever
changing language of the new. His preoccupation with theory may trouble readers accustomed to a
more narrative presentation and his concept of "Cosmotheism" and introduction of terminology like
"Cosmohermeneutics" complicate things unnecessarily. While Assmann's views concerning the
development of the Egyptian concept of the divine as a unified being with many aspects is well
articulated in his other works, most clearly in The One And The Many, it is a stretch to ascribe this
working hypothesis concerning how the Egyptians viewed divinity to being the Egyptian mindset.
Also, Assmann presents the stability of royal kingship as the template for the Egyptian's stable
social code. In this interpretation, the proverbial tail is wagging the dog. It appears that Assmann is
buying too much into their royal propaganda without being sufficiently critical of his source texts.
These inscriptions were inscribed, after all, to convince the average member of society that the
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pharaoh ruled by divine authority and could not be questioned by mere mortals. This was the status
quo for rulers until Charles I of England was beheaded, on January 30, 1649. From ancient Egypt,
we can see preserved evidence at times that the common "man on the street" was fed up with what
an ancient Egyptian ruler was doing, but it is rare. Examples include graffiti at Deir el-Bahri, and
Deir el-Medina. In the first site, graffiti depict the ruler in an unflattering manner, and at the later site
there was even a worker's strike by the artisans entrusted with the job of preparing the pharaoh's
final resting place. The end of the world did not happen in either place because the ruler lacked
support of the ruled. Likewise, Assmann indicated that the Intermediate Periods were gloomy, while
in fact the wealth and status of provincial tombs increased during these times of decentralization.
Again, it appears that Assmann has bought into the royal propaganda of pharaohs who could
command and build huge monuments that have lasted until now. For all we know, most Egyptians
found working for a divine ruler like Djoser, Snofru, Cheops, Chephren, Mentuhotep, Thutmosis, or
Rameses to be much more "gloomy" than working for a local village boss, who might have even
been a relative. We should not forget that someone had to build those lovely monuments that
proclaimed how the universe revolved around a particular ruler, and it was certainly not the person
for whom the monument was made who sweated and toiled to make that monument. It was a lot of
other people, who would have probably enjoyed doing something else much more, even if it meant
that Egyptologists now would have a harder time figuring out what that particular ruler had "done".
These observations aside, The Mind of Egypt presents an unprecedented account of Egyptian
perspectives, ideals, values, belief systems, praxis, and aspirations. Assmann is perhaps most
convincing when he explores the meaning of the Egyptian past for the ancients themselves in what
he calls "the hidden face of history". For them, the historic chronicle of pharaohs and dynasties
began with the recognition that humans, not gods or demigods, controlled earthly affairs. This record
was recorded and passed down to a Greek audience by Manetho. Drawing on a range of literary,
archaeological, and iconographic sources, Assmann presents plausible decodings for a world of
unparalleled complexity. He would have us believe that Egyptian culture, long before others,
possessed an extraordinary degree of awareness and self-reflection. That the ancient Egyptians
were culturally complex cannot be disputed, but the problem is in assuming that other cultures,
ancient or modern, are not as complex as Egypt simply because evidence of that complexity has not
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been preserved or is not easily understood by the observer. Most strikingly, Assmann focuses on
the meaningful world of ancient Egypt -- multiple notions of time, structures of immortality, and
commitment to social justice and human fellowship. These are all universal issues, found in every
human social group. Take for example the discussion of linear and cyclical time. Ancient Egyptians
were certainly not unique in observing a cyclical pattern of the seasons, nor the linear passage of
generations. We should not credit them with exceptional powers of reason for such observations,
nor with unique abilities to express an understanding of these abstract concepts in concrete
symbols. In a way, Assmann acknowledges this by pointing out that without the survival of Egyptian
literary, biographical, and religious inscriptions, "we would not know how this civilization saw itself,
how it set itself off from its neighbors, what central values it cherished, what social and religious
norms it developed..." Many ancient peoples made similar observations and found other ways to
express those observations. But, in most cases we have no clear records from those other peoples.
As with many social aspects, the Egyptians found particularly creative ways to express these
concepts, which itself is the collective expression of the Egyptian "mind" as opposed to a "mind"
trained in some other socio-cultural iconographic paradigm. Moving through successive periods of
Egyptian civilization, from beginnings in the fifth millennium BCE, until the rise of Christianity 4,500
years later, Assmann traces the crucial roles of pharaohs, priests, and an imperial bureaucracy. He
also explores the ideal relationship of man to divine forces, thereby explaining monumental
architecture and ritual celebrations.
This work is a tantalizing multi-layered study of an ancient civilization, which provides much insight
into what Jan Assmann himself thinks about ancient Egypt, and it may also open new directions for
historical investigations of the Egyptian psyche itself, but The Mind of Egypt is not the final word on
the subject how, why, or what Egyptians thought, either individually or collectively. This book is the
educated view of just one European Egyptologist concerning the fluid, vast, distinct, and still mostly
unrevealed Egyptian mentality. This reviewer must therefore agree with the Swiss historian Jacob
Burckhardt a century and a half ago, "Writing a history of the development of the ancient Egyptian
mind is an impossibility." The book is yet to be written to tell us how any Egyptian mind reasons:
ancient or modern.
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