Egyptian Semiotics

Two passages from J. M. Roberts’ The New Penguin History of the World that I enjoyed reading; firstly – on the lack of philosophical rigour in ancient Egypt;

Yet the creative quality of Egyptian civilization seems, in the end, strangely to miscarry. Colossal resources of labour are massed under the direction of men who, by the standards of any age, must have been outstanding civil servants, and the end is the creation of the greatest tombstones the world has ever seen. Craftsmanship of exquisite quality is employed, and its masterpieces are grave-goods. A highly literate élite, utilizing a complex and subtle language and a material of unsurpassed convenience, uses them copiously, but has no philosophical or religious idea comparable to those of Greek or Jew to give the world. It is difficult not to sense an ultimate sterility, a nothingness, at the heart of this glittering tour de force.

And secondly, on ancient Egyptian semiotics;

Another distinction lacking to ancient Egypt was the one most of us make automatically between the name and the thing. For the ancient Egyptian, the name was the thing; the real object we separate from its designation was identical with it. So might be other images. The Egyptians lived in symbolism as fishes do in water, taking it for granted, and we have to break through the assumptions of a profoundly unsymbolic culture to understand them.

Here is a nice followup to the previous passage, from Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Ideas That Changed The World;

What did the Egyptians mean when they said their king was a god? He could bear the name and exercise the functions of many gods, so there was no exact identity-overlap with any one of them. A possible aid to understanding is the habit of making images and erecting shrines as places of opportunity for the gods to make themselves manifest. The image “was” the god only when the god inhabited the image. The Pharaoh could provide a similar function.


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