Review of The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West

By Erik Hornung, translated by David Lorton
(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001)
229 pp., hardcover

Reviewed by Lee Irwin
Religious Studies
College of Charleston

This is an excellent survey for all esotericists and scholars interested in the role of Egypt in the development of western esoteric thought and practice. It is primarily a book about the history of the idea of "ancient esoteric Egypt" as distinct from the actual culture of pharaonic Egypt. Erik Hornung, who is professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and author of such works as Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many and Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, demonstrates the requisite expertise to trace the esoteric idea of Egypt through the labyrinthian history of western European conceptual imagination. While previous works in the area, specifically Iversen's The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (1961) and Assman's Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (1997), have addressed various attitudes toward Egypt around specific issues, Hornung's book is a survey of the history of "Egyptosophy" (his term) as conceptualized in various artistic, literary, and esoteric European traditions.

The book is organized chronologically, around the theme of Egyptian wisdom and hermetic lore, ranging from ancient Egyptian roots to classic Greek culture, through chapters on astrology, alchemy, gnosticism, hermeticism, and magic to chapters on the Medieval and Renaissance attitudes toward Egypt, to 17-18th century esoteric movements and fascination with hieroglyphics, to the various Freemason and Rosicrucian recastings, to German Romanticism, Theosophy, and 19th-20th century attitudes, including a look at the problem of Afrocentrism. His goal is to describe "an imaginary Egypt viewed as a profound source of all esoteric lore" (p. 3) -- a Hermetic idea he sees as only tangential to the actual culture and religion of historical Egypt. Hornung does anchor the Hermetic prespective in the 12th Dynasty (c. 1800 BCE), at the Temple of Thoth in Hermopolis, in the Book of Two Ways, as a true work of Egyptian wisdom on the afterlife. Thoth, the central figure of Egyptosophy, was a judge, a winged messenger god, scribe of the gods, and guardian of the Eye of Horus whose priests were authors of the famous sacred (esoteric) writings called the "Books of Thoth." By the Ptolemaic period, Thoth had become the primary Egyptian god of magic, incantations, and spells whose name must not be spoken.

It was also in this late period (c. 570) that Thoth was transformed by the Egyptian priests under Greek rule into Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice great") and after 240 BCE, a historic religion of Hermes can be traced. Hornung also points out that "esoteric" hieroglyphic language did in fact exist which invested normative hieroglyphic signs with diverse symbolic meanings, creating hieratic priestly codes (for example, the 73 signs for the name of Osiris). At this period also the "Egyptian mysteries" (of Osiris and Isis) were public (not secret) festival reenactments of sacred stories involving death, rebirth and an initiatic vision of the "midnight sun" as shown in many the Egyptian Books of the Netherworld. However, there are no initiatic texts for Egyptian religion, other than the Hellenistic Isis mysteries; thus, Hornung sees all initiatic ideas about Egypt as Egyptosophic creations based on Greek sources. Assman has described a Hermetic philosophy of a unitary cosmos "of a single god hidden in the multiplicity of things" (p. 17) whose name was secret, arising in Ramessid (New Kingdom) period, thus affirming the possibility of a transmission of an Egyptian "hermetic" philosophy into later Greek and European thinking.

As is well known, many of the famous Greeks attributed the highest degree of wisdom to the Egyptians and it is this praise more than anything else that established Egypt as the primordial source of esotericism. Hermes, as the Greco-Egyptian god, was compared by Diodorus (c. 50 BCE) to both Moses and Zoroaster, the three forming an esoteric, syncretic triad that would influence both Renaissance and later generations of European esotericists. Writers like Herodotus, Pliny, and Strabo all contributed to a construction of an "Egypt of the imagination" that has lasted to the present. The Romans regarded Egypt as a lure for exotic, exciting travel and exploration while also holding little receptivity to actual Egyptian religion that was then carried to Rome as a maginalized, poorly understood cult. According to Hornung, its was the Greco-Roman authors that created the myth of "Egyptosophy" as an ideal, imaginary cultural alternative to the dissatisfactions of contemporary Greco-Roman life. Egypt as the "source of all wisdom" and Thoth-Hermes as the "founder of religion" also offered an alternative to the Jewish and Christian worldviews developing in this same period. Egyptian heiroglyphs became a primeval, secret language of Hermes that predated the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, a theme taken up by Renaissance esotericists with great enthusiasm.

Hornung then discusses Egyptian astrology, alchemy, gnosticism and hermeticism as related to the Greco-Roman period. These are certainly interesting chapters and he makes a number of memorable observations. In Egyptian astrology he notes, there was no belief in the influence of the planets or in their alignments (unlike Mesopotamia); the 36 decans (ten day periods, each with a constellation) were associated with good and bad fates (shai) and with various parts of the body (a Hermetic idea); the zodiac was not adopted until the Ptolemaic period; the earliest know Egyptian horoscope (a Greek concept) is dated to 38 BCE (compared to 410 BCE in Mesopotamia) and the oldest is dated 478 CE. On Egyptian alchemy, Hornung notes that Zosimos of Panopolis (Akhmim, Egypt) was an Egyptian who united teachings of Hermes with those of Zoroaster and wrote in Greek. Alchemists like Bolos of Mendes claimed he was instructed in "an Egyptian temple." Yet all early alchemical texts are in Greek while no Egyptian texts on alchemy have been found. Some connection with Egyptian cultic preparation of sacred implements at the temple of Dendara ("House of Gold") under the god Hermes suggests alchemical activity, but only in the Ptolemaic period is there a recognizable Egyptian alchemy. Arab sources also describe alchemy as a "science of the temple" referring to Egypt. However, Arab connections of minerals and salts with planetary influence is strictly non-Egyptian. Hornung points out many tantalizing alchemical parallels with Egyptian texts (including the art of embalming), all deserving careful consideration.

The chapter on Gnosticism, however, is brief and dismissive. The author shows little familiarity with contemporary writings on the subject that make many (possibly spurious or accurate) Egyptian connections. He does show that gnostic texts demonstrate a minimal use of Egyptian symbols (like the Uroboros) but rejects the idea of "humanity fallen into the material world" as a strictly non-Egyptian belief (though many Gnostic texts offer alternative scenarios). Overall, he sees gnostic cosmology as thoroughly non-Egyptian but also shows a lack of familiarity with the gnostic text corpus, nor does he discuss the Nag Hammadi collection or many other such texts found in Egypt. For me, this was the weakest chapter. The chapter on Hermeticism is also brief but more substantive. He discusses the connection between Imhotep and Asclepius as hermetic deities having Egyptian roots in the Middle Kingdom. Clearly, the Corpus Hermeticum (claiming to be the "Books of Thoth"), are primary texts in western esotericism; but they receive only the briefest consideration, being in Hornung's view, primarily Greek creations. The chapter on magic is also brief, focused on the Greek Magical Papyri texts whose origins he attributes to the New Kingdom medical and magical protection texts. He also discusses Egyptian aspects of necromancy, angel magic, Jesus Anubis (who descends to the underworld), and sorcery.

The remainder of the book is primarily historical, a period by period review of the impact of Greco-Roman classical writings on Egypt that provided a basis for European "reimagining" of Egypt as the seat of all wisdom and esoteric traditions. Popularized in the Roman world by the spread of the Isis-Osiris cult, including the worship of Hermes-Anubis, and reinforced by an "oriental exoticism," the architecture and symbolism of Egypt spread over the Mediterranean. A myth was created that the sacred texts of Thoth were buried (c. 200 CE) in the unknown tomb of Alexander the Great, thus "Egyptian wisdom" became a secret, underground lore. With the rise of Christianity, Egyptian lore became anathema and many hermetic-magic texts were burned. In 391 the Christian emperor Theodosius forbid the practice of "all pagan cults" and the Serapium in Alexandria was closed. Slowly the curtain lowers over historical Greco-Egypt and rises on an imaginary, esoteric Egypt that lasts until the present.

During the European Medieval period, Egypt became legendary, a place of refuge for Mary and Joseph, a theme pervasive in Medieval religious art. The Egyptian Coptic Christian church claimed that the Holy Family stayed at the site of one of its most famous monasteries, where Jesus learned Egyptian magic. Augustine discusses Hermes as a wise man and "a master of many arts." The alchemist Albertus Magnus recognized Hermes as the leading authority on astrology. Jewish Kabbalah attributed its symbolism to Jewish esotericism in Alexandria, Egypt and its number symbolism as having Egyptian roots by linking Moses with ancient Egyptosophy. Hornung also points out Egyptian motifs in the Grail legend, borrowed from alchemy and Isiatic symbols. However, the real impetus to Egyptosophy occurs primarily in the Renaissance and the opening of the Platonic Academy in Florence. Hornung gives a very good overview of the impact "imaginary Egypt" on Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and other Renaissance authors, who all assumed that Greek wisdom originated with the Egyptian priests and the Chaldean (Zoroastrian) magi.

Thus the reader is given a tour of the birth of European "hermeticism" through Ficino's translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and through the creation of many hieroglphic books (like Horapollo's Heiroglyphika). This imaginary symbolism is then spread to emblems, architecture, monuments, and other rich secret texts, all linked to "imaginary Egypt." Hornung also reviews the 17th century works of Kircher, Spencer, and Cudsworth as contributing to Egyptosophy (and to the birth of contemproary Egyptology) even though Casaubon and Conring had both attacked and dismissed the Corpus Hermeticum as a fake, claiming that there was no such person as Hermes and the writings of the Corpus were the corrupt creation of a dominating Egyptian priest class (shades of the Protestant revolt!). Nevertheless, Kircher and others invested enormous energy in constructing unique forms of Egyptosophy, attributing esoteric meanings and philosophies to Egypt based on randomly scattered hieroglyphic inscriptions (invented by Hermes according to Kircher), Greek classical writings, and very active imaginations.

Hornung then tracks the Egyptosophy of the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons which mixed the alchemy of Paracelsus with (Egyptian) Kabbalah, Renaissance Hermeticism, and "Egyptian mysteries." Hornung sees the literary traditions of the Rosicrucians as borrowing heavily from the general popularity of esoteric Egyptian motifs then in circulation. Later Rosicrucian societies like the American AMORC founded by Harvey Lewis is heavily dependent on Egyptian symbolism and "esoterica" based in imagined Egyptosophic mystery traditions. Freemasons also track back to the Temple of Jerusalem, esoterically influenced by secret Egyptian building lore. Masonic tradition is rich in Egyptian motifs and Moses is regarded as a Grand Master of ancient Egypt. Degrees of initiation were modeled on an Egyptosophic ideas concerning the rites of the ancient priest classes. Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo) founded an Egyptian Masonry, the "Rite de la Haute Maçonnerie Egyptienne," in 1784, based, he claimed, on a "secret knowledge learned in the subterranean vaults of the Egyptian pyramids" (p. 121) and from underground priests in the city of Medina. Hornung then goes on to discuss the Egyptian influences in Goethe, Mozart, Herder, and many other German romantic authors and poets.

The closing chapters deal with the Theosophical Society and Anthroposophy. He discusses the pre-Theosophical formation of the 1875 "Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor" and the Egyptosophic occultism of Helena Blavatsky, showing her creative imagining of Egypt berfore her turn to the east and to occultism Buddhism, granted to her by invisible masters. Rudolph Steiner also borrowed from and recreated an esoteric Egypt under lectures entitled "Agyptische Mythen und Mysterien" drawing on Blavatsky and his own intuitive insights. Steiner claimed that all modern culture is nothing more than a "recollection of ancient Egypt" and that Isis (Maria-Isis) and Osiris are great guiding spirits of our age, particularly the Sophianic Isis. References to the "wisdom of Hermes" permeate his lectures. Hornung concludes with an overview chapter on the impact and influence of "pyramidology" and mummies (including novels and films) in the 20th century and a summary of recent Afrocentric theories of Egypt which he sees as offering a valuable perspective on ethnicity but one that is from his point of view, extreme and ideological. In closing he discusses briefly Egyptosophy in the works of Herman Hesse, Rainer Marie Rilke, and Thomas Mann. Each chapter has a subject bibliography based on his discussion and referencing primary sources in the area, in itself a valuable reference work, especially for German literature on Egypt and esotericism.