A Review of Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many by Erik Hornung
This work dealing with the nature of Egyptian religion is a watershed book in its field, which is ironically one of the reasons why I avoided reading it for so long. I had encountered so many other writings--both scholarly and not--that refer to Professor Hornung's book that I had gotten something of a preconception about what he actually said. That, and I had already read his work on Egyptian Books of the Afterlife and found it to be a bit dry. Now, however, I can say that Afterlife is simply not as compellingly written, or controversial, as Conceptions of God.
I'm going to split this review into two parts: the academic merits of the book, and then how it relates to Kemeticism.
Academically, this book is sound. Hornung starts by taking you through the history of Egyptology as a discipline and examining the biases with which scholars have tackled the subject of ancient religion. He then breaks down by parts what the aspects of deities were for the ancient Egyptians, and what they observed about deities in their own literature. He ends by offering some modern interpretations based on the factual evidence submitted. He always refers to archaeological record and frequently refers to publications by other scholars (most of whom are German, since Hornung himself is a German scholar; I used a German-English dictionary to decipher the titles of some of the works he cited). This might be a little daunting for the average reader, though. Don't read this book half-asleep or distracted, it's a university-level scholarly work and should be treated as such. If you're paying attention, though, he crafts some very excellent arguments and offers new ways of looking at archaeological record. I can see where his work has influenced other Egyptologists such as Dr. Rosalie David (who wrote Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt) and Dr. Gay Robins (Art of Ancient Egypt). I can also see where his work might be sometimes at odds with other scholars such as James Allen and Jan Assman. But, Hornung is above all a fair scholar. He does cite from dissenting authors where they have a point of agreeance.
My only cricitism is that he seems to 'drift' just a little in his last chapter, having two 'Excursus' sections--'excursus' being an academic way of saying "digression". He manages to bring the point back around, though it takes longer in the one about "The Problem of Logic". I felt that his point could have been made more concisely, but that might have been difficult given his writing style. When you work in doctoral-level academia for any real length of time, brevity seems to grow scarce.
Now to the issue of this book's influence on Kemeticism. This book is on the Kemetic Orthodoxy's 'recommended reading' list, and I can easily rattle off certain concepts from the book that are directly copied by them: for example, their statement that the number four is a 'Kemetic number of completion' makes an assertion out of Hornung's observation that the "number four does occur elsewhere in the Egyptian pantheon as a classificatory schema, evidently as a symbol of completeness or totality" (pp.220-221). The chapter on "Egyptian Terms for God" includes on pp. 45-46 a list of personal names from the Old Kingdom that incorporate the word ntr or a deity's name; I easily recognized four names right off the bat which are also the 'ordained' or 'divined' names of Kemetic Orthodox members. A search through their boards would probably yield several more from this same list. Less directly 'borrowed' but still highly evident are the Orthodoxy's use of references by Hornung in their own concepts of a divinely-ordained 'nisut' and the channelling of deities. Hornung cites twice in his book an instance recorded in Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahari of "a solemn and exalted moment when her divine-ness is manifest to the whole world, when her vow to the King of the Gods, Amun...is about to be fulfilled" (p.64), in which she "enters the role of a god" (p.134). The problem is that Hornung does not discuss the nature of Egyptian kings' divinity in depth due to space constraints, neither does he have the room to detail the possibility of divinity manifesting or "channeling" into an individual. The Kemetic Orthodoxy's assertions about these two topics are purely weak, unsupported extrapolations, as far as their citations of this book are concerned.
Their biggest problem, however, is that Hornung has completely negated one of their key concepts in the first two chapters of his book! The Kemetic Orthodoxy presents Egyptian religion as a 'monolatry', which is a term that was originated by German scholars and has been used in conjunction with Egyptology. Hornung discusses this in Chapter Seven of his book, "Classification and Articulation of the Pantheon". But the Orthodoxy's application of monolatry is fundamentally flawed; as Hornung explains in Chapters One and Two, early Egyptologists who were determined to prove that the ancient religion was actually a monotheism falsely interpreted the word ntr to mean not just any god, but The One God. Careful study of the language, which includes the examples of personal names mentioned above, proves that this interpretation of ntr is inaccurate. Furthermore, Hornung cites earlier scholars who also interpreted the Egyptian pantheon as simply various forms of an original godhead; compare his citation of Eberhard Otto, who said that Late-Period Egyptians "'experienced the multiple manifestations of deities as possible realizations of an anonymous divine power that lay behind them'" (p.29), with this statement from the House of Netjer FAQ: "a practitioner...when working with one particular Name of Netjer understands that Name to be one reflection of Netjer's abstract totality, sometimes referred to as the Self-Created One." Now read what Erik Hornung himself writes about such assertions:
"This is a grandiose, western-style perspective--but it has little in common with Egyptian ways of looking and thinking...It is fascinating to arrange the Egyptian pantheon in three dimensions and to make the One the vanishing point--but does there not lie behind such an exercise the old apologist's endeavor to render the Egyptian gods more credible to us?"
My advice to anyone interested in practicing Kemeticism is that yes, by all means, you should read this book. But read the book carefully, in its entirety, and set aside any preconceived ideas about the topic that you either held yourself, or had been given by others. I had to set aside my own reservations and biases because I knew this book was too important to avoid reading any longer; and once I had, honestly analyzing everything Hornung says in it, my understanding of the Egyptian gods and their worship was richer for having done so.