On Facebook this week Graham Hancock praised a new book called The Dawning Moon of the Mind for challenging the academic consensus on Egyptian religious development by revealing a sophisticated philosophy behind the ancient Pyramid Texts. I don’t think anyone ever doubted that the Pyramid Texts reflect sophisticated religious development, but according to author Susan Brind Morrow, a poet from upstate New York who studied Egyptology in college and once worked in archaeology, Egyptologists understand the Pyramid Texts all wrong.
Morrow claims that Egyptologists wrongly view the Pyramid Texts as being mythological in nature and devoted to aiding the Pharaoh in the afterlife. She claims that Egyptologists view the Egyptians as primitive and superstitious and are too consumed with “Western” views to truly understand their poetry and real meaning. Instead, she believes that by correctly retranslating the texts she can reveal that they are actually a description of the stars, an account of natural phenomena, and the origin point for many later faith traditions.
“These are not magic spells at all,” Morrow said in a Huffington Post interview. “These are poetic verses constructed just like poetry today, sophisticated and filled with word play and puns.”
To illustrate how different Morrow’s translation is from previous versions, here is Utterance 313 (or 218 in more recent numbering) from Unis’s Pyramid Texts in the 1952 translation of Samuel A. B. Mercer at top, the 2005 translation of James P. Allen in the middle, and Morrow on the bottom. (Note that Mercer gave a generic name, N., in place of Unis’s specific name.)
The next passage, Utterance 314 (or Allen’s 219), traditionally translated as referring to an actual ox, she reads as a description of the constellation Taurus.
As you can see, Morrow has decided that the gods are not actually gods because she has become convinced that the Egyptians were not originally polytheist idolaters, and therefore the gods were originally the forces of nature. Consequently, she has turned the gods into stars, under her belief that the sky was the first object of worship.
There is no evidence that the Egyptians recognized modern constellations in the time of Unas, and it’s strange that Morrow’s view of Egyptian religion is very similar to what the medieval Arabs imagined ancient Egyptian religion to be like. For example, here is the Akhbar al-zaman speaking of the treasures of the pyramids placed within them by Surid, the king sometimes identified as a mythologized version of Khufu:
Into the eastern pyramid, he transported the idols of the stars, representations of the heavens, wonders built by his ancestors, incense to offer to the idols, books containing the history of ancient Egypt, an account of the lives of the kings and the dates of all the events that had transpired, still other books comprising a proclamation of all that would happen in Egypt until the end of time, with a description of the paths of the fixed stars and their influence at every moment. (my trans.)
This is more or less Morrow’s vision of the Pyramid Texts, and it’s no surprise that other scholars who work professionally on the texts consider her version to be amateurish and false.
“It is a translator’s job to be as faithful to the original as possible while using words and constructions that make sense to modern readers. Ms. Morrow has not done that,” Egyptologist and Pyramid Texts translator James P. Allen told the Huffington Post. “Her ‘translation’ is basically a poet’s impression of what she thinks the texts should say, and not a reflection of what they actually say.”
After skimming through her translation and comparing it to those of other translators, I have a feeling that Allen is right, despite Morrow’s claims that we shouldn’t see the texts as mysterious or archaic but as vivid depictions of nature. However, Morrow may have a point that too literal a translation may miss some of the more subtle aspects of the texts, or even shortchange the cosmic layer of meaning in the Pyramid Texts. Since I cannot read hieroglyphics, I have no way to judge the specific words translated, but I find it difficult to think that all previous translators misunderstood most of the nouns in the texts.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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