Mythology, Cosmology, and Symbolism of Ancient Egypt, Part 2

Posted by Nikole Hollenitsch on Jan 30, 2018 1:57:21 PM

Mythology, Cosmology, and Symbolism of Ancient Egypt, Part 2 of 2: An Interview with Egyptologist, Dr. Edmund Meltzer A Guest Blog Post by Bonnie Bright, Ph.D. Access Part 1 here:

In his decades-long career as an Egyptologist, Dr. Edmund Meltzer has participated in archeological excavations in Egypt, translated hieroglyphic texts, published dozens of articles and books and taught worldwide. His major research areas include ancient Egyptian religion, language and texts, the history of Egyptology and the reception of ancient Egypt in the Classical and post-ancient world.

In Part 1 of this 2-part dialogue, Meltzer, who is currently teaching in the Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, shared some of his vast knowledge about Egyptian mythology and the role of certain deities, as well as offering scholarly perspectives on the concepts of ritual and magic. Here, in Part 2 of 2, he makes some compelling observations about the cultural traditions of ancient Egypt and how that cosmology impacts modern individuals today.

* * *

egyptian-symbols-mythology-ss_520864489.jpegBB: One of the most instantly recognizable features of ancient Egyptian culture is the hieroglyphic writing and the vast array of images in Egyptian art. Can you say something about the cultural effect of using a form of writing so strongly based on images and consisting of images?

EM: I’ll try to provide some basic orientation to this complex area. When we look at the physical world of ancient Egypt, there is hardly a surface or object of any size that couldn’t be covered by writing—from jewelry and amulets (which often are actual 3-dimensional hieroglyphs), to the walls and passages of tombs, to the surfaces of temples and living rock, as well as countless reams of papyrus documents and ostraca (stone and pottery flakes).

But bear in mind that the pervasiveness of Egyptian writing involves a paradox; despite its omnipresence, the great majority of people were illiterate. Many Egyptologists put the literacy rate for most periods at far below 5%, although it might have been considerably higher in certain specialized communities such as Deir el-Medina, the workmen’s village in Western Thebes that housed artisans who decorated the tombs (including inscriptions), as well as many scribal personnel and administrators.

Yet another paradox is that some symbols used as hieroglyphs were certainly recognizable to many people. For instance, they included forms and elements used in art and architecture, amulets very commonly worn by ordinary Egyptians, such as the ankh (the hieroglyph for “life”), and elements of iconography in the depiction of deities and kings. (For an in-depth treatment, I highly recommend Richard H. Wilkinson’s Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Egyptian Painting and Sculpture).

egypt-goddess-nut-night-sky-ss_39724228.jpgHowever, many of those who recognized these forms and their significance still could not read or write a text. This is because hieroglyphs, which appear to be pictorial, are not actually “picture writing.” That is, they do not convey a message through a series of images that gets paraphrased or strung together. Neither do they have to be connected with abstract elements supplied by the viewer. For example, you wouldn’t see a picture of a man, a ball and a wall suggesting, “The man kicked the ball over the wall.” Written in Egyptian, this sentence would represent all the words, including the verbs, prepositions, and most grammatical elements (prefixes and suffixes and other formatives), written with a sophisticated combination of signs being used phonetically; signs being used pictorially; or, sometimes, signs that are both simultaneously.

Egyptologists can even transcribe this phonetically, although, like the Semitic alphabets that are ultimately based on Egyptian writing, the vowels are not written and must be approximated or supplied by scholarly convention. Hieroglyphic writing is extremely adaptable and malleable, so that it often complements artistic images. People, animals, and actions in a scene are labeled with writings of the relevant words, for example.

A work of art can sometimes be read as a name or phrase or sentence. A statue of a boy king holding a particular plant and having a sun-disk on his head is a writing of the name “Ramessu” (sun-disk = “Ra” + child = “mes” + plant = “su”), the Egyptian form of the name more familiar in Greek as “Ramesses.” The pylon or monumental gateway of a temple is an architectural translation of the hieroglyph for “horizon,” because, as mentioned earlier, the temple is a microcosm. Hieroglyphs can even be seen in the landscape itself. Cyril Aldred has suggested that when the religious reformer Akhenaten founded his new capital city Akhetaten, “The Horizon of the Sun-Disk,” he chose a spot where the configuration of the cliffs resembled the hieroglyph for “horizon.”

As if all this weren’t enough, there is yet another major wrinkle to the writing picture (pun intended) in ancient Egypt. Most everyday, practical, and literary writing was not done in hieroglyphs at all, but in a cursive script called hieratic, which was faster and easier to write on papyrus with a reed pen.

Later, after about 700 BCE, a more shorthand script called demotic was developed. The visual dimension is still very much present in hieratic. Although there is a wide range of hieratic handwritings and styles, if you look at hieratic texts, quite frequently you’ll see flowers, animals and people kind of popping out at you off the page. And the visual aspect of signs is even sometimes highlighted in the very cursive demotic.

What are the cognitive ramifications of writing in an Egyptian type of script (or say, in Chinese script like my two bilingual and biliterate children, who went to school in China for six years when I was teaching at the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations in Changchun)? That’s something which linguists and psychologists study, and I am very interested in what they have to say, though I have not personally ventured into that particular thicket.

BB: I’m particularly struck by the fact that so many people were unable to read hieroglyphs; yet they were so pervasive in the culture. I don’t think this interview would be complete without briefly touching on Thoth, who is the god of knowledge, thought, and reason. He is credited with the creation of writing and the alphabet, including hieroglyphs, as well as medicine, magic, and Egypt’s civil and religious practices.

He is also said to have written the Book of the Dead, which you referred to near the beginning of this interview, and in the ritual of weighing of the heart against the feather of Truth, Thoth is the deity that recorded the result. Thoth is associated with the ibis, the baboon, and the moon—the origins of the latter dating back to Neolithic times. He was the first “scientist,” who seeded the beginnings of astronomy, astrology, science, and mathematics. In the cosmology, Thoth accompanies the gods on their daily journey in the solar barge, with Maat at his side—perhaps bringing the order needed to carry thought into the world.

As such, I’ve often wondered if Thoth may be seen as a bridge between ancient Egypt and the modern world. Our embrace of science, rational thought, and logical thinking is predominant in the modern, Western world—but seen as such, I can still believe that this particular bias in our culture still has its roots in deep spiritual foundations, such as those found in ancient Egypt.

I’m curious to know how you perceive that Thoth and other Egyptian deities offer something meaningful in today’s world—especially for Pacifica students and others who are interested in raising consciousness half a world away.

EM: I appreciate this opportunity to look at the reception of ancient Egypt and its religion from ancient through modern times. Thoth is indeed a central figure who provides a bridge between ancient Egypt and other civilizations and eras. For the Classical world, Thoth was Hermes or Hermes Trismegistos (Thrice-Greatest Hermes—the epithet “Thrice-Greatest” comes from the Egyptian repetitions of the adjective aa “great” after the name of Thoth), who was the key figure of an influential religious movement and whose reputation would surge again in the Renaissance.

For the most part, the Egyptian, Greek, and other ancient religions were not exclusivist; Egyptians didn’t call Greek gods “false” and vice versa—as cultural contact, travel, and empire building proceeded, they said “OK—we call him Thoth, you call him Hermes; we call him Amen-Re, you call him Zeus; we call her Hathor, you call her Aphrodite.” In this way, deities often achieved considerable popularity outside of their original home territory.

Hermes = Thoth became extremely popular as a sage, inventor of writing, culture hero, and author of a library of wisdom books known as the Hermetica or Corpus Hermeticum. How much of the Hermetica derives from Egypt is debated (though certainly some of it does—e.g., Howard Jackson on the tractate Kore Kosmou in Chronique d’Égypte 61 [1986] 116-135), but an Egyptian Book of Thoth written in demotic has fairly recently been published (of which an accessible translation is provided by Richard Jasnow and Karl-Theodor Zauzich, Conversations in the House of Life).

When the teaching of Greek was revived in Western Europe about the 14th Century, Greek texts such as the Hermetica became a major focus of study, giving rise to the movement of Renaissance Hermetists such as Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Giordano Bruno; Hermes Trismegistos was considered a historical sage and honored along with Moses (with whom he was sometimes identified), Plato, and others.

The question of how Thoth and other Egyptian deities can offer something meaningful in today’s world, to Pacifica students and others, is one that I want to address carefully, because as a teacher I studiously avoid “playing favorites” or being an advocate for any religion or persuasion. At the same time, I speak as one who has been strongly attracted to ancient Egypt from a very early age. Most essentially, I think that ancient Egypt and its religion, thought world, art, and writings, are an important part of our human heritage—all of which can be drawn upon to enrich our understanding, reflection, and insight.

I think that we have something to learn from the ancient Egyptian concept of Maat and the elements of balance and reconciliation, and the prevalence, at least as an ideal, of what we might term the rule of law (which even the king had a responsibility to uphold, and which was even thought to hold sway in the underworld). In the area of rational thought, I think we have something to learn, including humility, from studying things like the very impressive clinical observation and clear thinking of the trauma cases of the Edwin Smith Medical Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text, named after the expatriate American who bought it in 1862, one side of which contains the oldest known treatise on trauma. This document describes 48 cases of fractures, dislocations, and other traumatic injuries, including two cases of tumors or cysts. My colleague, Gonzalo Sanchez, MD, and I published a new edition of the Edwin Smith Medical Papyrus several years ago.

Turning again to the realm of religion and world view, I think we can learn from the dynamics of transformation and renewal, and the seemingly open-ended transformative potential of the system itself. As far as the gods and goddesses are concerned, I have learned from those who work in a depth psychology mode that they offer very clear examples of archetypes which can illuminate the human mind and have healing potential.

There are ancient Egyptian revivalist religious groups, as well as followers of ancient Egyptian religion with no group affiliation (such as Omm Sety, whom I’ll mention next). In terms of my own focus in Egyptology, one thing which I particularly enjoy is the elegant structure of the ancient Egyptian language, and I think the expression of many hymns and prayers as well as other texts is remarkably beautiful and powerful.

egypt-ancient-meets-modern-ss_666797164.jpgBB: In spite of the incredible beauty and power of the legacy of ancient Egypt, modern Egypt has had its share of political and socio-economic distress. Is there any way in which the modern culture is impacted and able to benefit from its powerful ancient history? How does the cosmology, history, or mythology play out or impact modern generations in Egypt?

EM: That brings us finally to the impact of ancient on modern Egypt. Of course, the religious identity and national language of modern Egypt are different from ancient times, but ancient Egypt is still present in various ways. There are many folk customs and technologies, ways that houses are built in the villages, how pottery kilns are constructed, etc., that have persisted from ancient times. Some of this has been written about by a celebrated and unusual personality, Omm Sety (Dorothy Louise Eady), who was born in England, but lived in Egypt for most of her life. She worked for the Antiquities Department and was deeply devoted to the ancient Egyptian deities.

I can’t resist a reminiscence here. In 1977, when I was in Egypt working with Professor Donald Redford on the Akhenaten Temple Project, he took his entire team to Abydos to visit Omm Sety. As a dedicated worshiper of the traditional Egyptian deities, she was no fan of Akhenaten (an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty who ruled for 17 years and attempted to shift the culture away from Egypt's traditional religion); she greeted Don by saying, “You’re working on that S. O. B.!”

Meanwhile, the patron Muslim saint of Luxor is Abu el-Haggag, whose mosque is within Luxor temple, and who has a festival in which a boat is carried, recalling the sacred bark of Amun in ancient times. The tomb of the Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul (1859-1927) is a building of ancient Egyptian design. The Egyptian Egyptologist Okasha El-Daly has emphasized that medieval Arab scholars were extremely interested in ancient Egypt (Egyptology: The Missing Millennium).

The Coptic Christian community in Egypt emphasizes a connection with the ancient Egyptians. In a lecture at the School of Theology in Claremont, CA, in 1989, the Coptic Pope, HH Shenouda III, expressed respect for ancient Egyptian spirituality and contributions to culture, while pointing out that contemporary Coptic art draws on ancient Egyptian motifs.

Notably, when I taught in Claremont, one of my students was the priest of a Coptic parish in the Los Angeles area. The months of the Coptic calendar preserve the ancient Egyptian month-names (which are the names of earlier Egyptian festivals, including the Thoth, Hathor, and Opet festivals and the Festival of the Valley). Coptic, still used in the Coptic Church liturgy (though no longer a spoken vernacular), is the most recent stage of the ancient Egyptian language. Arabic, though not descended from ancient Egyptian, is also a member of the Afroasiatic language family, and Egyptian Arabic has absorbed a number of words from the older Egyptian language. Egyptian Egyptologists have been engaging in comparative linguistic and literary studies highlighting commonalities between the two languages and their modes of expression. How will all of this impact present-day Egypt? I don’t think I can presume to say, but we are very interested to see it unfold.

BB: As this enlightening dialogue comes to a close, I reflect on the alchemical mandate, “As above, so below,” and I am increasingly conscious of how it held true for the ancient Egyptians. In their landscape, image was not static, but rather an agentic force—alive, dynamic, and active. In ancient Egyptian language, the word “sculptor” translated as “He who keeps alive”[6], pointing to the sacred lifeforce with which objects were endowed. The animated spirit of the deity literally entered the statue, making it an earthly incarnation of the divine that could be petitioned directly. A statue was born and not made: it did not represent the form of the god but gave him form instead. Temples were designed to be microcosms of the larger universe in which the visible and invisible met, where “obelisks pierced the heavens” and the landscape was a manifestation of divine order and harmony.[7]

egypt-sphinx-pyramid-light-ethereal_339275300.jpgThis opportunity to engage in thoughtful exchange with Dr. Edmund Meltzer, in his passion and commitment to Egyptology and related aspects of language, cosmology, spirituality, and mythology, has been transformational for me. I find myself more willing to open to the possibilities of an animated universe in which each of these aspects confer new possibilities for enlightenment and understanding, especially when we are willing to open to the wisdom inherent in these ancient truths that have somehow survived, and which have a deeply personal and cultural effect moving forward. How fortunate for students of the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica, and for all of us who can benefit from his prolific scholarship and his willingness to share.

End Notes

[6] See L. Meskell, 2004, Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt, pp. 89 and 91. New York: Berg.

[7] Read a depth psychological perspective,“Psyche and Soma: A Jungian Inquiry into the Symbolic Landscape of Ancient Egypt” by Bonnie Bright, Ph.D., at www.academia.edu


Edmund Meltzer, Ph.D.Edmund-Meltzer-fxsm2.jpg grew up in New York City, where he fell in love with Ancient Egypt and opera. He attended the Universities of Chicago (BA, Near Eastern Languages) and Toronto (MA, PhD, Near Eastern Studies), the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (public school teacher certification, German-Spanish-ESL) and several field schools in American archaeology.

Dr. Meltzer has worked in Egypt as a site supervisor on the Akhenaten Temple Project–East Karnak Excavation, ARCE Fellow and tour lecturer. He has taught at the University of Toronto as a graduate student, the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, The Claremont Graduate School (where he was Associate Chair of the Religion Department), the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations in China, and the Wisconsin public schools, and he currently teaches Egyptian Mythology at Pacifica. He also taught an online course on the ancient Egyptian religion at Glyphdoctors.com.

He is a Board member of the Toronto-based Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities and an editor of its peer-reviewed journal; he has been active in the Society since the early 1970s. His major research areas include ancient Egyptian religion, language and texts, the history of Egyptology and the reception of ancient Egypt in the Classical and post-ancient world.

His work has appeared in many journals and edited volumes; publications include The Edwin Smith Papyrus (with Dr. Gonzalo Sanchez, MD) and contributions to Terence DuQuesne, et al., The Salakhana Trove: Votive Stelae and Other Objects from Asyut; Thomas Schneider, et al., Egyptology from the First World War to the Third Reich; several recent works in religious studies edited by J. Harold Ellens including Explaining Evil, The Destructive Power of Religion, and Text and Community; James Goehring, ed., The Crosby-Schøyen Codex; Marvin Meyer, ed., Ancient Christian Magic; Donald B. Redford, et al., The Akhenaten Temple Project Vol. 2; W. C. Watt, ed., Writing Systems and Cognition; Paul A. Kolers, et al., Processing of Visible Language 2; The Anchor Bible Dictionary; and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Dr. Meltzer has lectured widely and is a frequent presenter at the American Research Center in Egypt, the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, and other meetings. He also loves cats and is thrilled to be teaching at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

bonnie_bright.jpgBonnie Bright, Ph.D., earned her doctorate in Pacifica’s Depth Psychology program. She is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, a free online community for everyone interested in depth psychologies, and of DepthList.com, a free-to-search database of Jungian and depth psychology-oriented practitioners. She is also the creator and executive editor of Depth Insights, a semi-annual scholarly journal and regularly produces audio and video interviews on depth psychological topics. Bright has completed 2-year certifications in Archetypal Pattern Analysis via the Assisi Institute, in Indigenous African Spiritual Technologies with West African elder Malidoma Somé, and she has been extensively involved in Holotropic Breathwork™ and the Enneagram. She had the distinct pleasure of traveling to Egypt a few years ago during her time at Pacifica to better understand its culture and mythology, and treasures the journey as one of the most profound she has taken.

Topics: Mythology, cosmology, symbolism, symbol, ancient egypt