Assmann's text is a penetrating, diachronic treatise on the nature and evolution of Egyptian religion. Mustering a huge range of texts and drawing on...moreAssmann's text is a penetrating, diachronic treatise on the nature and evolution of Egyptian religion. Mustering a huge range of texts and drawing on a variety of critical approaches, Assmann extracts and elucidates the "structure" of Egyptian religion, terming it an "implicit theology", consolidating it and using it to trace the development of Egyptian religious thought (as presented in discursive texts on theodicy and theology - "explicit theology") over two millennia, from the Middle Kingdom right through to the Graeco-Roman Period and Christian Egypt.
Assmann is a PHENOMENAL scholar and his analysis of the texts are superbly illuminating. In the second half of the book, especially, his pioneering work on cultural memory allows him to combine a distanced, objective approach to the material with an empathetic envisioning of the Egyptian experience. This only enriches his argument and brings one much closer to actually thinking like an Egyptian, or at least understanding and feeling their concerns.
The book gets rather difficult at times and contains a lot of technical terms, many self-coined, but they do help to clarify concepts that may be otherwise impossible to put into words. I suppose that's an inevitable result of trying to understand a culture so vastly distant from our own. Nevertheless, Assmann's background in comparative religion allows him to bring out striking parallels between the seemingly alien theology and religion of ancient Egypt and more familiar monotheistic/Abrahamic traditions, not least in his side-by-side comparison of the Great Hymn to the Aten and Psalm 104.
Some sections could use a bit of reorganisation - some sections looped back on themselves, while others charged headlong into ideas that only made sense later on in the book after other concepts had been covered. Finally, some points could be fleshed out a bit more - Assmann sometimes throws out words like "evidently" to make a point seem stronger or more substantiated that it really is! Whatever it is, what shines through is a sharpness, unceasing rapidity and brilliance of thought, and pure enthusiasm for the subject at hand - Assmann lets his thoughts mingle and explode before he pieces them back together to formulate a much deeper understanding. It is possible to argue that there are marks of "theory-ladenness", where Assmann builds his text to fit a preexisting argument, but I prefer to see the text's constant echoes and "foreshadowing" of itself as marks of an extraordinarily agile mind - one that has already considered the issues and devised the argument, and has only to transfer it to paper as fast as it can (which is never fast enough!).
This is undoubtedly a very dense book and took me a long time to get through (I had to re-read many parts and cross-refer to earlier sections all the time), but is massive in its historical frame of reference, unrivalled in its originality, searingly incisive in the theory it propounds, and immensely useful to anyone interested in theology, religion, mythology and the dynamic cross-feeding between them and human society - whether in general or specifically Egyptian.(less)