Rich in tradition yet also cloaked in mystery, the culture of ancient Egypt or Kemet endured for nearly 3,000 years. The longest continually documented civilization in human history (excluding oral traditions), with magnificent monuments still attesting to its greatness, the mysteries of ancient Egypt have fascinated mankind for millennia.
But Egyptology is a vast subject, and can include studies of both ancient and contemporary Egypt. An investigation into Egyptian culture can therefore span the entire history of the country, from its Pre-Dynastic period ca. 5000 BCE to present. However, what is generally considered ancient Egyptian culture proper begins with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt as recorded on the Narmer Palette (Fig. 1), ca. 3050 BCE.
The Narmer Palette shown in Fig. 1 is a key and crucial artifact, not only for documenting the unification of Upper & Lower Egypt, but it also provides a very early record of canonical elements that recur in Egyptian iconography, dating back almost 5,000 years! For instance, the organization of images into upper and lower registers, sizing and positioning of elements indicating relative importance are standard features in Egyptian iconography. In addition, the imagery of the falcon bird, cow and bull imagery are all recurrent motifs and each is associated with various ntrw (powers, gods). Other repeated themes include pharaoh smiting enemies, the crowns of Upper & Lower Egypt, standards being carried, and fantastical creatures. Furthermore, all of these images and themes possess multiple layers of meaning within the ideology of the Two Lands (another name for Upper & Lower Egypt).
A unified Egypt ushered in the Early Dynastic period, then was followed by the dynasties of the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, and extended through the end of the Late Period ca. 332 BCE with intermediate periods in-between.
Yet even though ancient Egyptian culture proper ends in the Late Period, under Greek Ptolemaic rule Egyptian pharaonic traditions were continued for another few centuries until that period ended ca. 30 BCE. One example of the perpetuation of Egyptian kingly culture and customs under Greek rulership, was the all-important task of monument building dedicated to the gods. The island temples of Philae (Fig. 2) at Aswan present an excellent example of such continuity, with structures evident from the Late Period down through the Greco-Roman rule. Using traditional iconography, a carved relief depicts a Greek Ptolemaic pharaoh making an offering to the seated goddess in the canonical Egyptian style. (Fig. 3). Thus the Greeks were a vital link in retaining and continuing key elements of the legacy of Egyptian culture in various ways.
Ancient Egyptian culture thereby covers an enormous span of approximately three millennia. And while numerous changes occurred over the few thousand-year duration of this nation, its cultural legacy is one of a remarkably consistent worldview and holistic philosophy that endures. The expression of this ideology is articulated, echoed, and altered in syncretistic ways, with repeated core elements and ideas combined and recombined over and over again throughout their texts, art, and architecture.
In addition to the tremendous span of time involved, traditional Egyptology itself is by its very nature interdisciplinary, and incorporates a vast assortment of subjects all of which help us with building a more complete understanding of this ancient culture. Egyptological research generally includes archaeological, geographical, agricultural, political, anthropological, cultural exchange and trade, religious and cosmological data, myth, art & architecture, as well as Egyptian history mentioned in the annals of other cultures. In addition, other less developed approaches can also shed light and fresh insights into the beliefs and ideology of this ancient culture.
Psychological & Mythic Approaches to Egyptology
The overlapping areas of psychological and mythological theory can also reveal layers of meaning within Egyptological symbolism not accessed through a general historic overview of facts. For instance, analyzing certain Egyptian texts and recurrent imagery from the lens of a psychological or mythological approach offers another method of uncovering layers of meaning, which can contribute to a fuller understanding of texts and symbolism involved.
Both Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s theories on the universal language of myth reveal recurrent archetypal themes which transcend cultural boundaries, despite the uniqueness or particularity of specific cultural expressions or historic periods. The recognition of such universal themes (which also relies upon anthropological research), has contributed much to modern understanding of the symbol-making function of the psyche. Jung’s work was also heavily influenced by the symbolism of alchemy, and some link the etymology of ‘alchemy’ back to ancient Egypt or Kemet, from the Arabic word al-kimia (of Kem) although scholars are not in agreement on this. Nevertheless, the ancient Egyptians were masters of the art of symbolic communication, as evidenced by abundant material culture, texts as well as embedded within the very structure of the language itself.
Within Egyptology itself, Henri Frankfort’s Ancient Egyptian Religion, evaluates the myth-making tendencies of ancient thought which proceeds from a “multiplicity of approaches” rather than a strict linear mode of logic, and is manifest across myriad expressions of Egyptian culture. Eric Hornung further builds on this perspective in his book The One & the Many mentioned below. The recognition of this ancient methodology is also part and parcel of understanding The Ancient Art of Holistic Thinking.
A Philosophical Approach to Egyptology
But one scholarly approach which is sorely underrepresented in academia, yet slowly beginning to emerge is the study of Egyptian philosophy. Egyptian ideology has typically been evaluated within a religious and mythic context, with various wisdom and literary texts assessed under these rubrics. Within these categories, arguments have been put forth regarding monotheism, polytheism or a combination of the two in henotheism. Yet when analyzed within a philosophical context, an underlying holistic paradigm clearly emerges, revealing a worldview that integrates the variegated elements of Egyptian culture into a beautifully complex and complete intricately woven network.
While formal philosophical inquiry in western culture is historically associated with Greek thought, in my own research, I have found that a comparative approach to certain philosophies of both Egypt & Greece yields new insights that complement each, opens a philosophical dialogue between them, and together they build a more complex, amalgamated model of holism found to reverberate across the ages.
The brand new book on philosophies of Holism in Ancient Egypt & Greece, follows traditional scholarly requirements, as it was written to satisfy university standards at the graduate level within mainstream academia.
Within ancient Greek culture I have elected to evaluate Platonic and Presocratic philosophies, as well as the school of Pythagorean thought. In addition to mathematics, Pythagorean philosophy is associated with esoteric, mystical and symbolic elements and is typically excluded from mainstream university topics. I chose to incorporate Pythagorean philosophy as I found it presents a vital conceptual link which helps to bridge the transition between the texts and methodologies of later Platonic and earlier Egyptian thought. Furthermore, according to the ancient philosopher Iamblichus (ca. 3rd-4th c. CE), Pythagoras (of Ionian/Greek) descent is reputed to have spent more than two decades studying in Egypt.
In this regard my own approach to holism in ancient Egypt utilizes traditional, scholarly methods to analyze ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophy, yet also incorporates less common, eclectic elements and sources.