You are here

Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt [and] Egyptian Archaeology

Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt [and] Egyptian Archaeology

Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. By Emily Teeter. Pp. xxiii + 226, figs. 80, plans 3, maps 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $28.99. ISBN 978-0-521-61300-2 (paper).

Egyptian Archaeology. Edited by Willeke Wendrich (Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology). Pp. xv + 292, figs. 38, tables 2. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England, and Malden, Mass. 2010. $41.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-4988-4 (paper).

Reviewed by

Teeter has written a lucid and welcome overview of Egyptian religion that will be of use to introductory students of Egyptology and religion, as well as of interest to lay readers. This well-organized volume, with a wealth of specific examples, puts forth a fairly direct thesis: the Egyptian worldview was pragmatic, practical, and flexible, based on observable phenomena in the natural world; this worldview led to religious practices that were widely accessible, involving a large part of the populace in both the ritual and economic aspects of religion; because of both its practicality and its accessibility, Egyptian religion was extremely long-lived. The chapters of the book fit together as a sustained argument for this thesis, moving from early chapters on temple personnel and practice through personal communication with the gods to funerary religion and magic. The final chapter, on the “monotheism” of the Amarna period, is an outlier that does not address Teeter’s central thesis.

The underlying points of Teeter’s thesis are not new, but she is extremely clear in making and supporting them. For a short book, the number of specific examples is noteworthy, and by and large Teeter has chosen excellent pieces of evidence, both textual and material, to make her points. The illustrations are also almost always of high quality and are integrated well into the text. Teeter is at her best when she is writing narrative. Narrative in books on Egyptian religion is quite common for describing myths about the creation of the universe, which is touched on only briefly in this book; it is rarer when used to illuminate the experience of lived religion, which Teeter does repeatedly. I particularly liked the chapter on festivals. Here Teeter uses three examples of festivals, each explained in depth in a narrative fashion, to illustrate one of the major ways in which gods and people interacted. The festivals she chooses are not entirely standard; for instance, she does not describe the Opet festival but does give us the Amenhotep I festival. This is all to the good. I wish there had been a bit more discussion at the end of how these three feasts serve to represent this whole category of practice, but this is a minor complaint; the descriptions are thorough, engaging, and illustrate both some common aspects of festivals and the ways in which each was unique. Also noteworthy is the discussion of funerals, down to the priests running to present the mummy with the recently severed leg of a calf “still stream[ing] blood and twitch[ing]” (141). Yet other places where narrative is used well is in discussions of the daily temple rituals and the practice of gods giving oracles. All these narratives are grounded by reference to a wealth of quotes and visual depictions; they are compelling in part because they are not fanciful.

The two areas I wish had been better developed in this book are changes across time and diversity of belief and/or practice at any given time. Before dealing with either, I should note that an approach that elides differences is the norm in books that deal with Egyptian religion as a single topic; my dissatisfaction on this front is therefore with the field generally, not this book in particular. Teeter implicitly disallows the importance of change over time from the very way she constructs her argument. In titling her first chapter “The Egyptian Mind,” she assumes that the Egyptian of 3000 B.C.E. and the Egyptian of 300 B.C.E. would have agreed with each other. I personally think that change is as notable as continuity in Egyptian religion; they are both present, and it would be fruitful to probe their relationships. Teeter does acknowledge changes in some instances, but this is almost always with regard to the time of our earliest or most abundant evidence, and it is rarely taken as indicative of real changes in belief or practice. In other cases, failure to note the period of some evidence avoids having to deal with issues of change. For instance, cippi are one of the main types of evidence cited in the (generally thoughtful and nuanced) chapter on magic, but nowhere is the reader told that this type of object is exclusively late. Surely there is much to probe here. Is the introduction of cippi, with their magical use of an image of a child-god, indicative of a change in belief? Emphasis? Practice? A combination of the above? We cannot even approach the question if our assumption from the start is that ancient Egyptian religion was constant over millennia. The notable exception to this assumption is the Amarna period, dealt with in the last chapter. But even here, Teeter does not exploit the full potential of this unquestionably anomalous period for the very notion of change in Egyptian religion.

Equally absent is any real discussion of diversity of belief or practice at any particular time. This is, of course, a perennially difficult question in Egypt, where the overwhelming majority of our evidence comes from the elite stratum, and where regional differences are underrepresented in the available evidence. Teeter cares about how religion operated in the nonelite world, and in repeatedly stressing how deep were the roots of temple economy in the countryside, she makes a strong case for the relevance of state religion to many if not most Egyptians. But saying that most Egyptians were in some sense tied to temples economically is not quite the same as saying that the religious practices of all Egyptians were the same. It is well and good to say that “equality before the gods is reinforced by texts that stated that it was proper behavior, not worldly goods, that determined a person’s fate before the gods” (198). While this may have been a legal ideal, it hardly determined the practice of, for instance, funerary religion, where it is evident that social status, not just moral status, could be maintained in the afterlife. Teeter acknowledges the difference between a legal ideal and lived experience with regard to the status of women; it would be interesting to see her tackle this issue in the context of other aspects of her discussion.

Addressing the underrepresentation of synchronic and diachronic diversity in the scholarship of ancient Egypt is one of the stated aims of Egyptian Archaeology, edited by Wendrich. This volume, in the series Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology, consists of a series introduction, a volume introduction, 13 chapters written by different experts in the field, and an epilogue. The book is not and does not strive to be a comprehensive introduction to Egyptian archaeology that will present an overview of the field or give students a little bit of knowledge about all the main issues and types of material culture. It is, however, a series of extremely thought-provoking essays structured around well-conceived questions that are currently generating interesting archaeological work both in the field and in the library. Without exception, the authors are at the forefront of the field in the areas they specifically address.

The essays are arranged in roughly chronological order. The chapters are quite different in approach. Some provide more or less comprehensive overviews of the dominant themes, types of evidence, and questions pertaining to specific time periods. Good examples of this type of chapter are Köhler’s on state formation and Wilson’s on the Late Period (confusingly titled simply “Consolidation, Innovation, and Renaissance,” with no specific reference to the period it treats). Four chapters, by Schneider, Wilfong, Grajetzki, and Wendrich take a diachronic approach to issues pertaining to identity (foreigners, gender, class, and individuality, respectively). The chapter by Hassan deals with the intellectual and cultural reception of ancient Egypt in the West and in Egypt itself and calls on scholars to ground future work within an interdisciplinary and ethically responsible framework. Jeffreys writes a chapter on landscape and is the author who most directly addresses issues of regional diversity. Many chapters treat only a specific aspect of a given period: “Worship Without Writing” (Hendrickx, Huyge, and Wendrich), “Kingship and Legitimation” (Richards), and “Changes in the Afterlife” (Taylor). All of these would, again, benefit from temporal indicators in their titles. Hendrickx, Huyge, and Wendrich really mean “before writing,” not simply “without it,” since they are discussing prehistory. Richards deals exclusively with the Old Kingdom, and Taylor with the Third Intermediate Period.

Chapters that take a fairly narrow look at a particular aspect of a given period are often enhanced by in-depth discussion of recent excavation by the authors themselves, and these chapters function most usefully as new scholarship in addition to synthesis. Notable examples are Lehner’s use of Giza in discussing Old Kingdom villages and Wegner’s discussion of Abydos to illustrate Middle Kingdom royal uses of tradition and innovation. Both authors give a wealth of detail about their own particular excavations but successfully incorporate them into bigger discussions about important issues, which they also back up with other evidence. In these cases, as with many of the essays here, I am left wanting an entire book on the topic rather than simply a chapter.

The approach of and audience for Wendrich’s book are somewhat different than that for Teeter’s Egyptian Religion. As noted above, one of the main goals of this book is to address issues of regional and other differences at any given time, as well as changes in pharaonic culture over time. This is laid out in the introduction, and the individual authors never lose sight of this goal. There are, however, ways in which change across time is ill-served by the format of the book. Because it is multiauthored and because most chapters treat fairly narrow topics, many themes that could be traced diachronically are present only occasionally. For instance, we get no chance to observe the arc of changes in burial practice, which is only treated in depth in the discussion of the Third Intermediate Period. That change occurred is always made clear, and the importance of being alert to it and discarding the trope of “eternal Egypt” is argued for with great success. But what those changes were is not made as clear; though in fairness, such specifics cannot be dealt with systematically in a book of this nature and scope.

The intended audiences for Egyptian Archaeology are students and scholars. It is an important book for both groups, and I agree with the series editors’ claim that “usable teaching texts need not lack ambition” (xiii)—this book is ambitious, and it belongs in the university. However, because it is not comprehensive and because it does not give background on the terminology or chronology of Egyptology, it is not an ideal place to start for most students. I fully intend to use this book in the classroom, but I will not use it alone, and I will probably not use more than the occasional chapter in introductory courses. That said, for anyone with some prior background in Egyptology, this is a must-read. And for anyone with prior background in archaeology but not Egypt, this will also be extremely rewarding. For such readers, I would recommend simultaneously dipping into the classic Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt (J. Baines and J. Malek [New York 2000]) for a crash introduction to Egyptian chronology and geography.

Finally, I hope this volume will put to bed the oft-repeated but long-inaccurate notion that Egyptian archaeology exists in a vacuum, out of touch with broader trends in archaeological theory and practice. Even in the introduction to this book, the editor feels the need to defend the work presented both to Egyptologists who think texts can tell us all we need to know and to archaeologists who write off the study of Egypt’s material culture as untheorized and therefore ignorable. Does either group really exist any longer? If so, I think we can stop being defensive. The next time the old canard of atheoretical and irrelevant Egyptian archaeology is broached, I intend to laugh and say, “Have you picked up Wendrich?”

Laurel Bestock
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island 02912

Book Review of Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt, by Emily Teeter, and Egyptian Archaeology, edited by Willeke Wendrich

Reviewed by Laurel Bestock

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Bestock

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.