Monday, February 21, 2011

What Research Has Yielded

As I prepare to write my first novel, I've spent a lot of time doing research. True, it's a fantasy novel. But one of the societies in my world, and the one this first tale is told of, is heavily based on Ancient Egyptian mythology and belief. Ancient Egypt has always been a passion of mine and deciding to use it as inspiration for my story has given me a wonderful opportunity to learn more about it.

I have quite a few books about Egyptian history and Egyptian gods on my shelf already, but I wanted to dig deeper for my story. I wanted to try and really understand how Egyptians thought. After a simple online search, I discovered books by Egyptologist Jan Assmann. I began with "Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt". And that was when I realized that I wasn't diving into a pool, I was diving into an ocean.

Egyptian thought and belief ended up being far more complex than I expected. We here in the enlightened 21st century like to look back on ancient peoples with smug superiority. "They believed in dozens of gods. Ha. Savages. If only they had science!" Even when we owe so much to the ancients who did, in fact, establish the foundations of the science we know today, the majority of people fall into the logical fallacy of assuming that since people a long time ago didn't have cell phones they were all stupid barbarians who didn't know anything and whose beliefs were all patently ridiculous superstitions.

I soon realized that everything I had learned so far about Egypt was the barest tip of the iceberg. It was what condescending but oh so enlightened modern people see when they look back on ancient history. And yet, it occurred to me as I read "The Mind of Egypt", Ancient Egypt was possibly the most stable civilization to have existed. Yes, it went through some periods of unrest. But whenever possible after the periods of unrest the society went back to doing things almost exactly as they had done it before. Small changes in philosophy and structure had little impact on the overall form of the Egyptian state and culture... for THOUSANDS of years. Even when Egypt was conquered, the conquerors generally adapted themselves to the Egyptian culture taking on the role of the Pharaoh and often taking to themselves Egyptian beliefs and worship. It took the Romans and the arrival of Christianity to finally bring about a major upheaval to the Egyptian way of life. That was after about 5500 years worth of Egyptian history (at least, that we have archeological evidence for).

What I'm saying here is that Egypt, as a culture and form of government, worked. Can you imagine American democracy being here in another 1000 years? I can't. People nowadays like to focus on how Egypt had an absolute monarch and so it must have been simply awful for the peasant class, oh, and SLAVERY! (Now you see the violence inherent in the system!) Though apparently all those people who worked on the pyramids and such weren't really slaves. True, they didn't have much choice in whether or not they built the pyramids, but they were paid. It was a job and they weren't owned. And if people had any idea how Egyptians viewed stone monuments, they wouldn't believe that the workers were unhappy with their jobs.

You see, religion was paramount to all Egyptians. Their beliefs in their gods and the afterlife were the center of their lives. Monuments and tombs were important to them. They were what was real, what lasted. There was a cultural striving toward immortality, and monuments that were built to last the ages were a part of that. (If only they could see now how well their work succeeded!) The Greeks considered the Egyptians the most pious of all peoples. Modern people think that the primitive Egyptians just looks at nature and invented gods for it. (That's who polytheism works, right?) But the Egyptian system of belief reveals remarkable complexity in its worldview from very early on. The "myth" of Isis and Osiris, for instance, is not really a story. (It was only told in story form later by the Greeks.) It's a series of vignettes that illustrate and explain how the Egyptians viewed death and salvation, their transition to the underworld and eternity.

When it comes down to it, Egyptians did not view the world in the same way modern western culture does. But I find the way they viewed the world to be simply fascinating. It's very different, unique. There are concepts in Egyptian thought that do not correspond to anything we know now. The most obvious example is the concept of soul. Western culture is based on the concept of body and soul, a duality of physical form and spirit form. But Egyptians had no such concept. There are texts that name up to 14 different aspects contained within a single person. The most foreign to our understanding is the ba, which seems to have both spiritual and physical properties. The ba was very important and mentioned in many texts. Many scholars translate it as soul, but this appears to be mostly for convenience. In reality it is simply a concept we can never quite understand because we don't think the way the Egyptians did.

What a perfect sandbox for a fantasy writer to play around in!

I plan to explore as well as I can those unique and fascinating aspects of Egyptian thought and belief, adapted to my fantasy world. I think in a genre that has been saturated by fantasy worlds based on European societies of various times, particularly the medieval, something new and different will be welcome. I hope so, anyway. I want to create an entertaining story experience, but I also want to challenge readers to think in ways they aren't used to. That is what I most love about history, the attempt to see the world from the point of view of another time and another people. And that's why I've decided to use various historical societies and their mythologies as my inspiration for my fantasy world.

Side Note after a long rambling post: One of the annoying aspects of reading Jan Assmann's books is that he's German and apparently multilingual. Most of the books in his bibliographies are written in German or French. I snapped up any texts he referenced which happen to be in English. One of the texts in the bibliography of "The Search for God in Ancient Egypt" that I requested from the library apparently happened to be a very rare expanded transcription of a lecture given by an eminent Egyptologist. Well, it seemed I had no hope of getting it, even though it's subject matter was exactly what I needed. Then last night my husband came home from work at the library with a surprise. He handed me a large envelope. Inside I found full photocopies of the entire text... sent from the Library of Congress! So now I have my very own copy of "Worship and Festivals in an Egyptian Temple" by H. W. Fairman. I can wait to delve into it. I feel so special.


  1. I've got a book by Jan Assmann too- they're definitely tomes, but full of great info. One of my hurdles writing historical fiction is trying to put a modern reader in that ancient mindset. You don't want to cross the line and alienate the reader, but do enough to show that Egyptians really did think differently than we do.

  2. I love Jan Assmann's books because he focuses on exactly what I need for my stories. I'm not writing historical fiction, so I don't need historical facts. He focuses on the meaning behind the texts, what they meant to the Egyptian people themselves. It's perfect for what I'm doing, using the Egyptian mindset and worldview to inspire a secondary world of my own creation.

    Which is good because I can't even imagine how much research must go into writing a novel actually set in Ancient Egypt! But I congratulate you on your goal of trying to introduce modern readers to the Egyptian mindset. It seems that not many historical fiction writers even attempt it, they prefer writing about characters with a modern mindset living in other times. I don't see the point, myself. I would love to read your book!

  3. I am so glad you are doing all that research for us so we can enjoy the interesting stuff without having to do the work or wade through the boring bits!

  4. Egyptology has always been a passion of mine. It was the first culture that I took interest in as a child and Egypt is still on the top of my list of places to see before I die.

    It's so refreshing to meet another mythologist! I've been delving into Greek myth for my WIP and it's so fascinating what you discover. You're so right when you say that what we "know" or what we think we know about an ancient culture is merely the tip of an iceberg.
    Best of luck in your research and thanks for the fascinating post!

    On a side note, I meant to ask you after reading one of your posts on high fantasy, have you ever read James A. Owens' books? They're listed under YA and the first is titled "Here There Be Dragons". I think you may enjoy them :D


  5. I was lucky enough to spend a summer in Egypt about 10 years ago and it was amazing. I'll have to see if I can get some of my pictures scanned to share here sometime. I got some great shots in Karnak.

    I've never heard of James A. Owens but I'll have to look him up. :)


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