This is an impressive study of the modern reader's relationship with the ancient Egyptians, in which Tom Hare considers the interactions that constitute our reading of a past culture. He takes the figure of the quintessentially Egyptian god Osiris as an image of the ancient Other that we face; the title, which so neatly expresses the idea of reconstructing ancient Egyptian, is reason enough to acquire the book.
The author's range is clear from a brief overview of the chapters. The first describes the "reverential slaughter" of Osiris and the movement of the Osiris myth from being a narrative about the dead king to a figuring of the subjective voice. The second chapter discusses hieroglyphs, concentrating on the figural aspects of the script, and the role of writing and representation in monuments. The third chapter turns to the phallus, which Hare handles with great style, as he considers the erotic aspects of representation and the phallocentric celebrations of Egyptian culture.
In the fourth chapter, he deals with numbers, and ranges from lists, through polytheism, a consideration of Egyptological analyses of the so-called "Memphite Theology" now in the British Museum, to a discussion of the "pathologies of monotheism" in the Amarna period. A final eloquent chapter on "post-Ancient Aegyptians" discusses how Osiris figures in the modern world.
Although Hare claims that his "discourse of Egypt must be fragmentary and dispersed", and is not "Egyptology of any professional pedigree", it is a highly informed and unified book. His control of the evidence is admirable, and he draws on his professional training in an academic discipline other than Egyptology to place the subject in a broader-than-usual postmodern intellectual framework; he continually offers fresh insights. In his concern with questions of reception he often draws on secondary sources and discussions to present clear assessments of earlier Egyptologists' intellectual allegiances, and the book appropriately concentrates on subject areas that often appeal to an Egyptophile audience.
Another book, of course, could have been written that attempted to privilege the ancient actor's perspectives over the modern. One could also, for example, have tried to contextualise the descriptions of creation through the creator's masturbation by assessing cultural attitudes to non-divine masturbation, and one could have considered more fully what social and iconographic conventions of decorum resulted in the "tactful" nature of the temple scene, which represents the god Amunre's union with "King" Hatshepsut's mother. But one cannot quibble with the aims or execution of such a wonderfully clever and thoughtful book as this. Hare is always stimulating and provocative, and is illuminating even when one might disagree with points of his arguments and evidence.
Even when in the midst of epistemological discussion, Hare's style is accessible: engaging and laid-back, witty and ludic (what other scholar has described an Egyptian god as an embarrassing "banana in our pocket"?). Reading this book encourages profound self-reflection about exactly what we do - and who we are - when we engage with ancient cultural artefacts. Hare concludes by noting that ancient Egypt "opens our minds to the unaccustomed and resurrects our bodies from the sepulchre of Idealism. In its antiquity it invites us to be something new". Yes, but only when it is presented with such intellect and flair.
Richard Parkinson is assistant keeper of Egyptian antiquities, British Museum.
Remembering Osiris: Number, Gender and the Word in Ancient Egyptian Represent ational Systems
Author - Tom Hare
ISBN - 0 8047 3178 0 and 3179 9
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £35.00 and £11.95
Pages - 322