What was understood about the gods, goddesses, spirits, and demons in ancient Egypt depended to a great extent on what was being explained or taught and by whom, when, and where. What was formally written down was also governed by fear of accidentally unleashing negative magical forces. Moreover, the ancient Egyptians exhibited a remarkable flexibility of thought on divine and magical matters, and apparently had no trouble at all simultaneously holding entirely contradictory ideas – which make the concept of defining an ‘Egyptian mythology’, in comparison to, say, Greek or Roman mythology – even more difficult. It is not accidental that the most complete version of an Egyptian myth to have come down to us – that of Isis and Osiris – was written by a Greek (Plutarch).
Presumably for these reasons, and as the full title indicates, Egyptian Mythology: A Traveller’s Guide from Aswan to Alexandria concentrates mainly on ‘where’ – following an imagined northward path of a modern traveller from the temple of Philae in the south to the ruins of the Serapeum in the north.
Egyptian Mythology is highly readable and contains sprinklings of wit that relieve some of the more complex passages. Fifty-eight blue-tinted images of the various sites – mostly 19th-century prints – add to the general appeal and give an idea of what the first European explorers found awaiting them along the Nile. A particular strength is that, where possible, the author has used the specific texts about the exploits of the relevant gods and goddesses as they are carved on the walls of their temples, together with (often fragmentary) material from ancient Egyptian papyri. A question arises, however: who is the book for?
Although Egyptian Mythology explains many specific terms and concepts, others go unexplained and some preliminary knowledge of ancient Egyptian history and religion is certainly useful. A glossary and a readable map would have been beneficial. Further, while the book covers the temples and sites in the vicinity of Aswan, on both banks of the Nile at Luxor, and the Giza pyramids, the majority of temples and sites mentioned here – including Dendera, Abydos, Memphis, Heliopolis, Bubastis, Pi-Rameses, and even Alexandria – are unlikely to be seen by the first-time visitor to Egypt.
In any case, and intentionally, the description of what can be seen at the various sites is cursory at best, and would be no substitute for a more general guide relating to the physical rather than the divine world.
Egyptian Mythology will appeal most to the seasoned Egyptophile, and it will be a welcome addition to the library of many armchair travellers. While travelling in Egypt, the book would be most-usefully carried as an e-book, and it is to be hoped that Thames & Hudson will consider making one available.
Review by Nigel Fletcher-Jones.
Egyptian Mythology: A Traveller’s Guide from Aswan to Alexandria, Garry J Shaw, Thames & Hudson, £14.99, Hardback, ISBN 978-0500252284.