The European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries is widely associated with the rise of dual concepts of the Deity: the God of the philosophers and the God of the fathers, or natural and revealed religions, with the first associated with reason and the second with faith. Contrary to some beliefs, however, the concept of natural religion did not suddenly evolve during the Enlightenment, but had parallels in antiquity.
We often assume that knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture was unknown in the centuries that followed, partly because the ability to read hieroglyphs seems to have declined even in Egypt as late as the 5th century. But the ancient Greeks, for example, knew Egypt and wrote about it. Indeed, their accounts (notably those of Herodotus, based on travels around 450BC) cannot be overlooked, because not only did many Greeks express admiration for Egyptian culture but they also were fascinated by it.
The ancient Egyptians, as the eminent German Egyptologist Jan Assmann discusses here, viewed their religion as a dual one, both popular and for the elite. It comprised both an official religion, an outer face, as it were, and a secretive, privileged, mysterious religion, access to which was confined to the few. It should be remembered, too, that although the Greeks were unversed in the Egyptian language and unable to read hieroglyphs, there were many Egyptians who knew Greek: they could read Egyptian characters. Ancient Greek writings probably contain far more relevant information gathered from Greek-speaking Egyptians than has been generally accepted, and much of that literature percolated down the centuries.
Although we associate the 18th century with the rationality of the Enlightenment, it was also the age of esoteric “secret” societies, notably Freemasonry. Underground Egyptian tomb chambers, highly decorated with hieroglyphs and stylised scenes from real life on earth and the afterlife, were thought of not as places of entombment, but as rooms where esoteric mysteries had been performed in labyrinthine caves under pyramids. Matters were further complicated by the writings of Abbé Jean Terrasson (1670-1750), whose prolix Séthos, Histoire ou Vie Tirée des Monumens Anecdotes de l’Ancienne Égypte (1731), supposedly translated from a Greek manuscript, was often cited as though it were a standard work on Egyptian matters. Its descriptions of trials by fire, water, earth and air subsequently recurred in many places, not least in The Magic Flute, that wonderful Singspiel by Mozart and Schikaneder, with an exotic fairy-tale exterior containing an esoteric mystery play injected with a strong infusion of Viennese Freemasonry.
The dualism of The Magic Flute – which Assmann here calls an “opera duplex” – has infuriated and puzzled, but it makes perfect sense when considered as an expression of sublime truth contrasted with superstition, a religio duplex, in fact. Architectural expressions of Terrasson-inspired routes, initiations, mysteries and so on included the extraordinary “descent to the catacombs” in the Mniejszy Palace, Warsaw, by the Saxon architect Simon Gottlieb Zug, and it should be remembered that in the later decades of the 18th century, the upper echelons of Polish society (and other countries) were convinced Freemasons. The idea that man owed allegiance to a universal rational “natural” religion was inconvenient to entrenched institutions, and that allegiance was expressed in countless ways by the Enlightenment’s interpretations, and indeed reinventions, of ancient Egyptian religion. Mozart’s Thamos, King of Egypt and The Magic Flute are but two such manifestations; Séthos was another, as were various subsequent outbreaks of Egyptomania.
Assmann is well placed to write such a book, and Religio Duplex is an interesting read covering a wide range of topics of various kinds, not least those concerned with belief and with public and private ritual. However, there are surprising lacunae in the bibliography, and the passage on The Magic Flute is brief, possibly because he published a tome on the subject in 2005. Students of the Enlightenment and of the nature of religion should read this volume.
Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion
By Jan Assmann, translated by Robert Savage
Polity, 224pp, £55.00, £17.99 and £11.99
ISBN 9780745668420, 668437 and 681498 (e-book)
Published 7 February 2014