Monday, 18 October 2010

Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt

We occasionally get books in to review that don't fit with the remit of www.popularscience.co.uk, but are interesting in their own right. Most recent of these is Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley (see at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com). Archeology is arguably a science, and I've happily covered books about Egyptian proto-science on the site - but this is straightforwardly an introduction to the stories that supported ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, and as such probably belongs here instead.

I have to confess to being a sucker for anything about ancient Egypt. My parents took me to the Tutankhamen exhibition in London those many years ago (early 1970s) to queue all day to see those remarkable grave goods. (We were lucky - hundreds behind us never got in.) But up to now I've mostly concentrated on the architecture and archeology - Joyce Tyldesley gives us a chance to get into the minds of these remarkable people.

It's decidedly worrying when, up front, we hear there were as many as 1500 different deities to deal with, but any such worries are set aside by the fascinating journey we take in the book's introduction. We begin to get a feel for a very alien culture (to modern Western eyes). Not only was there no single myth covering anything from creation to the afterlife - so at least a handful of different gods were credited with the original creation - but different gods could merge and separate. Even their parts could become gods in their own right, with Re's eye regarded as a female god of some power when separated from his body.

Any particular god could have dozens of different aspects, both in appearance - from human, through human with an animal head to fully animal (one was even a brick with a female head) - and in their responsibilities. Of course, not everyone believed every myth, but with no central structure, the religious beliefs became an immensely rich and complex interwoven tapestry of possibility. In death, some humans either became gods or became integrated into gods, while others might live in a kind of paradise, while the common herd were often considered unworthy of an afterlife at all.

The slight disappointment for me - and it's not Dr Tyldesley's fault - is that after the superb and quite detailed introduction, the rest of the book is a bit of a let down. The introduction is so well written that when we get into the details of who the gods are and they myths surrounding them, things inevitably lose a bit of momentum. This doesn't mean there isn't much to find interest in. Some of the myths are pure soap operas, others a fascinating attempt to explain natural phenomena. But for those who haven't spent years studying the subject, it's hard not to start to lose track of a cast list of gods that makes the most epic drama seem like a one man show.

Don't let that put you off, though. If you have an interest in ancient Egypt, this book gives it a context that I've never had from reading about the archeological side alone. Some of the myths and legends may be hard going, but the book does what it says on the tin, it's worth it for the introduction alone, and is highly recommend if this is a subject of interest to you.

Available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
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