(Review) Reliable and Readable Scholarship on Ancient Egypt: A Bibliography by Hearth Moon Rising

Re-Osiris, Wikimedia Commons
Re-Osiris, Wikimedia Commons

Most modern Witchcraft and Paganism draws significantly on ancient Egyptian religion, which is only natural since ancient Egypt has had such a profound influence on European culture. Although the general public is not so well informed, most Witches and Pagans are hip to the fact that, in addition to living on the African continent, ancient Egyptians were dark skinned and had African features. Aside from how this invalidates white supremacist notions, however, many of those drawing on ancient Egyptian culture have not considered the implications of this. Ancient Egyptians were ethnically distinct from Indo-European, Old European, and Semitic groups. They were African, sharing a cultural pre-history with the rest of northeastern Africa. This means that when looking at Egyptian goddesses or Egyptian medicine or Egyptian spells, acquiring a basic knowledge of Egyptian perspective is important.

This is easier said than done. When the student begins studying ancient Egypt, she is at first bewildered by the magnitude of written material. If she is intrepid enough to delve into the morass, she quickly becomes disappointed by the dearth of real information. She begins to feel like she’s reading the same book over and over again, despite continuing academic research and immense popular interest. Today’s Egyptologists are more interested in cataloging treasure, exploring royal bloodlines, and debating technical engineering issues than in answering the questions of worshipers, spiritual feminists, and students of metaphysics. Books written for a less academic audience also suffer from numerous biases. Often it is difficult for the spiritual seeker to know whether desired information is simply unavailable or whether it is considered inconsequential by those with access to it.

There is of course a whole body of oracles, New Age books, occult manuals, grimoires, and metaphysical keys which address at least some of these questions. I do not dispute the validity of channeled information, but we do need to differentiate hard evidence, plausible conjecture, and psychic insight. Only with a factual foundation can we evaluate the authenticity of received wisdom.

All of this not to say that there isn’t some good information available; only that there’s a considerable amount of wheat and chaff to sort through. With this in mind, I have compiled a list of six well-sourced books written by women that I believe will help Witches, Pagans, and Goddessians in their quest to understand ancient Egyptian thought.

Hathor, Wikimedia Commons
Hathor, Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Egypt, edited by David P. Silverman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
This anthology has an excellent chapter on “Women in Egypt” by Gay Robins, who has also written a book on the subject. The whole compilation is recommended; not just the chapters by women. There is information on agriculture, medicine, mathematics, ritual, funerary practices, art, architecture, politics, and many other things. The color pictures are helpful and the material is well presented. This is a popular book, still in print, that I found at my local library. A good place to begin.

Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt, by Rosalie David. London: Penguin Books, 2002.
This is a political history with a focus on dynastic perspective. It is painfully boring, so much so that reading it I felt like I was back in social work graduate school. I’ve included it for those who want a chronological historical picture, and if you can get through it you’ll have the background to understand about any other book on ancient Egypt. There is a good chapter on pre-dynastic history. There are also maps, drawings, and black-and-white photos. Supplemental material includes a decent timeline, a glossary of kings, a glossary of deities, a glossary of Egyptology jargon, selected ritual narrative, and a list of archeological sites. It is thoroughly indexed and you may want it simply as a reference.

Understanding Hieroglyphs: A Complete Introductory Guide, by Hilary Wilson. London: Brockhampton Press, 1993. Is it complete or introductory? It’s introductory, but that’s all we really need for an overview. Understanding the logic of the language is an invaluable insight into a culture, and this is a good primer. You won’t be able to read a manuscript with this—it’s not a key or a dictionary—but you will get some information that will carry over into other areas, and you’ll pay more attention to the writing on pictures.

Egyptian Food and Drink, by Hilary Wilson. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Egyptology, 2001.
Food is another key ingredient of culture. This book is not on par with Jean Bottero’s wonderful account of Mesopotamian cooking, The Oldest Cuisine in the World, but it is interesting and short, with a lot of black-and-white pictures and an index.

Ankh Sun, Wikimedia Commons
Ankh Sun, Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt, by Geraldine Pinch. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002.
I refer to this book more than any other on ancient Egypt. It’s the best overview of Egyptian religion I’ve found, and it is easy to locate information in it. I usually use this as a starting point when I’m researching something, because it will guide me to the relevant original mythological texts, which I can usually find on the Internet. I also like this book because it doesn’t gloss over the importance of animals in Egyptian religion, which for some reason British Egyptologists tend to do. (The French are much better about this.) In addition to discussing animals in relation to specific deities, there are general entries for various animals, such as crocodiles, snakes, birds, cattle, cats, and hippos.

The Great Goddesses of Egypt, by Barbara S. Lesko. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

I’ve saved the best for last. Rather than cataloguing all the Egyptian goddesses as you might expect, this book explores the major ones—Nut, Hathor, Isis, Neith, Mut, Sekhmet, Bast—in great detail. Myth, magic, and ritual are discussed along with the role of women in religion. It is an engaging, fascinating text, and probably exactly what you’re looking for. My only caveat is not to rely on this book alone, because you do need a broader background. The material may seem dense to some, but that’s the nature of the subject.

If you are planning to do your reading entirely through the public library (or even if you’re not), I would not overlook picture books from the children’s section. The pictures will tell you as much, maybe more, than any old Egyptologist, and these books, while written on a juvenile level, often offer more interesting material.

Hearth Moon Rising is the author of Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestess. http://invokinganimalmagic.com. She blogs at http://hearthmoonblog.com

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