The multiple gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt fascinate scholars and the general public alike. Most Egyptologists receive occasional letters from people who are a little too enthusiastic about the subject. This fascination goes back to classical times, and existed during the Renaissance, when knowledge of the hieroglyphs had been lost for more than a millennium. In the modern world, the faith that most resembles that of the Egyptians is Hinduism, with its complexity and visual imagery allied to intellectual subtlety.
There are many books on Egyptian religion, but there is always room for one more. The Complete Gods and Goddesses is an elegant attempt to gather all the themes, and much of the data, into one volume. The central chapters list most of the known gods by visual categories, rather like a manual of wild flowers or military uniforms. If your god has a crocodile head, you will find him in the appropriate section, where he is distinguished from his many lookalikes. This works better with gods than goddesses since the latter are extremely difficult to tell apart unless their names are written next to them.
This analysis also cuts across the more complex gods, and for this reason it is preceded by a series of introductory essays that explores the underlying themes: solar imagery, funerary concepts and the old question of whether the Egyptians were monotheists, henotheists or polytheists. This problem is summarised well. The ground covered is impressive, and the treatment is truly encyclopaedic, although a few late-period names, such as the goddess Triphis, have been sacrificed to more recondite ones trawled from the Pyramid Texts and other funerary literature. There is useful space given to Nubian gods, such as Mandulis and Apedamak, who are often ignored in favour of their better-known rivals in the north.
Categories are always a minefield, but it is arguable that some divine names are merely personifications or euphemisms. Figures such as the goddess called The West or the god of the Great Sea are better seen as aspects of nature that are given their place within a pantheon of the known world: rather than being creators, they are parts of divine creation.
Similarly, an entry is given to someone known as "That soul (in whose house there is woe)". This is not a separate god but a circumlocution for Osiris, the lord of the dead and presider over burials. Religious language in all periods is full of allusions, comparisons and connotations, and part of the interpreter's job is to go beyond them and sift out what is secondary.
In a work of such range, errors are bound to creep in. The god Khentiamentiu was superseded at Abydos by Osiris, not the jackal Anubis; and Waset, the personification of the city of Thebes, is not the same as Wosret, the powerful one. The translation given in the final section of the late names of the Aten, the god of the heretic Akhenaten, cannot be right, although the topic is a notoriously difficult one. In the editorial captions, tomb scenes are ascribed to Horemheb and Tawosret, whereas they come from Ramesses I and Seti II. Such errors can, however, easily be corrected in future editions.
The glory of the book comes in its photographs, which are uniformly excellent and introduce the reader to a range of material from collections and monuments that are scarcely known. Ancient Egypt is visually one of the richest civilisations, and author and publisher are to be congratulated on a book that does justice to its variety.
John Ray is reader in Egyptology, Cambridge University.
The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt: Richard H. Wilkinson
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 256
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 500 05120 8