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Christopher I. Lehrich
- Publié sur Amazon.com
If you are interested in the European reception of Egypt, this is an essential starting-point. If, on the other hand, you are interested in ancient Egypt as it actually was, you will find this book extremely elusive and difficult to grasp.
Iversen, an Egyptologist of some note, first wrote this book in 1961, but it has been added to the Bollingen Mythos collection from Princeton, which also publishes people like Jean Seznec, Erwin Panofsky, etc. I have not compared editions, but so far as I can tell the only difference between this and the original edition is the addition of a brief preface discussing the work of such scholars as Frances Yates.
Okay, on to the book itself. In short, Iversen wants to discuss how European thinkers (before Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics at the start of the 19th C) thought about hieroglyphs, how they misinterpreted them conceptually, and how as a result they constructed a vast and erroneous mythology of what Egypt really was and what wisdom it could impart to the wise seeker.
The story is now relatively well-known, largely as a result of this book. Since Europeans did not realize that hieroglyphs are primarily phonetic, they assumed that their meaning was based entirely upon a connection between the pictures and the objects they represented graphically. Since it was hard to make sense of any actual inscriptions based upon this theory, European thinkers developed elaborate theories about the allegorical significance of hieroglyphs, such that a picture of a snake eating its tail might allegorically represent the infinity of time and space, and hence the universe.
If the story I have just sketched sounds boring to you, don't buy this book. If, on the other hand, you think this is nifty --- or you already knew this but want the details --- this book is for you.
Iversen begins with an introduction to hieroglyphics as they really were, then goes on to a chronological story of reception and attempts at decryption. Along the way, we pick up a great number of really interesting people and ideas, because Egyptomania was a constant theme in (especially) Renaissance iconography and intellectual history. We get bits of some famous books and some obscure ones, raving madness and serious scholarly analysis, and everything in between.
One can hardly summarize the varieties of mis-decipherments in Renaissance European Egyptomania, but Iversen manages to cover a huge amount of ground in a relatively few pages. My only criticism is an unfair one: he doesn't know (or care) about cultural linguistic perceptions, and as such he tends to group all of these would-be decipherments into a kind of history of folly. Nevertheless, he is willing to take it all relatively seriously, considering that he thinks it's silly.
The result is a book which is charming and scholarly at once. Unfortunately, it is somewhat densely written, probably because English is not Iversen's native tongue. On the up side, there are a lot of pictures of hieroglyphs and, more interestingly, things described as hieroglyphs which bear little obvious relationship to the ones inscribed in Egypt. It's a fascinating tour of an important and still somewhat neglected field, and suitable for the general educated reader as well as for the specialist; indeed, the specialist may find it a bit sparse on detailed information, although the notes and apparatus are certainly satisfactory.
This book is somewhat dated, of course, but remains the seminal work in this odd corner of intellectual or cultural history. If you find the description here interesting, you will probably enjoy the book.