Review of Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David. Published by Penguin in 2002


This book, while different from what I had been expecting, was a well written and insightful read. It focuses on the development of the Ancient Egyptian belief system chronologically, focusing on the historical events that affected who and how Egyptians worshipped. While I was expecting an in-depth look at the religious practices themselves, it was fascinating to watch as local deities became national gods according to what was occurring politically. While the prose is engaging and David obviously knows what she is talking about, I’m not sure if someone who didn’t have a basic understanding of Ancient Egyptian history already would be able to fully enjoy this book.

The book offers a number of interesting theories such that the concept of the Pharaoh being a god on Earth was developed in order to balance the power of the priests, after some of the gods became universal. Many of the changes in Egyptian beliefs reflected the struggle between the priests and the Egyptians although she disagrees that Akhenaten’s attempts to unite the religion under one god was a political move to undercut the power of the priests. Instead, she argues that Akhenaten truly believed in Aten and any political fall out was only a secondary consideration. I have always found Akhenaten to be a fascinating pharaoh and that was the one of the most interesting part of the book for me.

The second most important part was the analysis on the Cult around Osiris. David argues that Osiris became popular because he offered salvation to every day Egyptians. This contrasted sharply with the old beliefs that said only the royal family would find salvation in the afterlife. This seems strangely similar to the concept of Jesus Christ offering salvation to everyone, instead of a special people. The Osiris cult was created during a difficult period of Egyptian history and seemed to have been an attempt to placate the suffering people.

Overall, it was a fascinating read that gave a quick, but concise look at how the Egyptian religion changed based on historical pressure.

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