Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (John Ray)

Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, by Joyce Tyldesley, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 400 pages

In the city of Sais in the Nile Delta there was once a goddess called Neith. She was a virgin, who gave birth of her own accord to the sun god. A few hundred miles south the same goddess was worshipped in another temple. This time she was married to a god with a ram’s head who moulded mankind on his potter’s wheel. Further south still, the potter god reappears, but now married to an entirely different goddess. The pair have a daughter who wears ostrich feathers on her head and has a pet gazelle. The gods of Ancient Egypt can shift their identity in ways that are quite confusing.

We think we know the gods of Greece and Rome, but the gods and goddesses of Egypt are much harder to pin down. The best known myth from Egypt is the story of Osiris and Isis. This is familiar to us but mainly because an account survives in the pages of the Greek author Plutarch, who wrote two and a half millennia after the pyramids. From the Egyptian texts themselves, we have only hints and allusions. Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt takes on the job of weaving a narrative out of these allusions, and the result is an enjoyable book by a skilled author.

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