Interview with Dr Garry Shaw by Andrea Byrnes. Published on Egyptological, Magazine, Edition 10, June 16th 2014
In March 2014, Dr Garry Shaw’s new book was published in hardback. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to Ancient Gods and Legends is Dr Shaw’s third sole-authored book, and his second aimed at the general public. An introductory guide to ancient Egypt’s myths, it does not duplicate existing books, offering instead a different way of approaching the central beliefs that made up Egypt’s formal religion.
In this interview Dr Shaw discusses both his book and future projects.
The questions were contributed by a number of readers, both from Egyptological and from Egyptological’s Facebook page, for which many thanks.
Dr Shaw, many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Egyptological. There has been a lot of interest in your book, and I welcome the opportunity to ask you some questions about it.
1) The first question that I would like to ask is perhaps the most obvious one. There are a lot of good books about ancient Egyptian mythology and religion aimed at the public available currently available. Authors like Richard Wilkinson, Rosalie David, Geraldine Pinch and Joyce Tyldesley spring immediately to mind, and there are a plethora of other books available that reproduce accounts of the main myths. When you decided to write “The Egyptian Myths”, what was it that you thought you were adding, that other books don’t already offer?
My aim was to immerse the reader in Egyptian mythology, and let it seep into their minds as an experience; I feel that most books on the market display a certain academic detachment from the myths themselves, with the writer intruding on the stories like a director speaking over a movie in a DVD commentary. To counter this, I wanted the story-telling aspect of the myths to remain intact, and to keep modern scholarly/analytical intrusion to a minimum. I wanted the reader to understand, from the myths themselves, the character of the gods and how their forces explained natural phenomena – I wanted to “show not tell”, as writers are often advised to do. I think this emphasis on “experiencing” the myths and the ancient mindset is what really sets my work apart from the books that precede it. Also, though many books cover afterlife beliefs, I didn’t know of any that presented the Duat in an understandable manner, or captured the essence of this complex afterlife realm. In the past, I’d often told students to think of the Book of the Dead as a travel guide to the afterlife, and this led me to think, why not just write these chapters using this approach? By presenting the Egyptian afterlife in a modern way using understandable terms, I again think I’m setting my book apart from those that came before.
2) You take the reader on a journey, through the three parts into which the book is divided, from creation via the living world, to the afterlife. This situates the reader in a framework within which the ancient Egyptian people themselves may have perceived their own lives and beliefs. Do you feel that from the perspective of such a long distance of time it is possible for the modern reader to perceive the beliefs of an ancient Egyptian individual as they might themselves have done?
When studying the past, you are always dealing with a terribly fragmented picture. From this point of view, we will never fully get to grips with what an ancient Egyptian would have believed at a particular point in history; then again, beliefs are so defined by individual personality, that it is impossible to truly understand another person’s beliefs even today. Even our own memories and accounts of our lives are never true representations of the past. The best we can do is to take the evidence at our disposal and make as faithful a simulation as possible. So, we can use what we know of Egypt’s myths to recreate a general “ancient Egyptian mindset”, which in turn allows us to see the world from their point of view. The idea that the blue sky is the underside of the vast ocean of Nun, for example, or that the wind is a manifestation of the god Shu, is a powerful insight into their understanding of the world. By immersing yourself in facts such as these, you can come close to perceiving the beliefs of an ancient Egyptian as an ancient Egyptian. Once you see the logic in why certain myths evolved, and what they explain, you become closer to the ancient belief system.
3) With so many books on the subject and publishers willing to invest in new approaches, it is obvious that people are particularly attracted to Egyptian mythology. Why do you think that is?
Mythology provides a window into ancient Egyptian psychology. Many people see the pyramids and tombs, and perhaps the treasures of Tutankhamun, and are wowed by the sheer impressiveness of it all, but afterwards, once the spectacle is over, they want to know why such wonderful things were created. They begin to ask, who were the ancient Egyptians? What were they like? Mythology provides this insight, it allows us into their world and provides a personal context to much of what we see in museums and at archaeological sites. At the same time, it removes the Egyptians from a characterless, generic label – “the ancient Egyptians” – and re-introduces their personality. Suddenly we glimpse their hopes and fears, their similarities to us, and differences. What drove them and what were they afraid of. I think that modern people wish to understand the ancient Egyptians, and mythology provides an avenue of exploration.
4) In Part 1 the deities come across as very human, even with their remarkable powers. They certainly seem to be afflicted with what we recognize as the worst human flaws: they “squabble, fight, murder, form relationships and can die of old age.” Do you think that even people could identify with the gods so well precisely because they were sometimes recognizably flawed in such a human way?
Absolutely, I think that people could relate to the gods because they were effectively just like them, personality wise. At the heart of mythology is explanation, and once you start explaining the cosmos through the acts of powerful beings, you immediately overlay human behaviour and emotions. The actions of these forces require a reason – be that love, anger, loneliness, for example – and from there, the forces become increasingly “human”. If the gods lacked such emotions, they would feel distant and impersonal. Over time, the basic myths are told and retold, and if spoken as entertainment, they are going to be embroidered with drama, which typically derives from unpleasant behaviour or things going wrong; at this point, you’re adding flaws to the gods, and simultaneously making their actions more understandable.
5) Some of the creation myths and many of the deities are conceptually complex, but you tackle them head-on, explaining them very clearly. This raises the book far above the level of some introductory texts. Who was your target audience when you decided to take an approach that not merely describes but also explains some of the concepts behind ancient Egyptian mythology?
This might sound unusual, but my approach to writing a textbook is much the same as a novelist approaching a novel: it must have a narrative flow that makes the reader want to keep reading, with information withheld or deployed at just the right moments to achieve and maintain that flow; this requires a well thought out structure. With this book, it meant disentangling the modern analytical intrusions from the myths, something that other books on Egyptian myths tend not to do. Here, as much as possible, I wanted the myths to speak for themselves up front; so, to explain the myth of Osiris, I didn’t feel the reader needed to know every fact about that god in the early chapters (where his temples are, when he is first attested etc.), as this would distract from the immersion and flow, and could easily be mentioned at a more natural moment. This also meant that I could dedicate more space to simply retelling the myths in as compelling and entertaining a way as possible. By the time the reader reaches the middle section of the book, dedicated to the ancient Egyptians’ contemporary world, the gods and their roles should already be understood, their diverse characters having already been expressed through the ancient tales; in this manner you as modern reader approach them from an ancient point of view, rather than a purely academic one. Afterwards, moving on to their “real-world” impacts as forces in daily life seems like a natural progression. This approach meant that I could aim for quite a wide audience – people with only a passing knowledge of the ancient Egyptians should be able to pick up the book and easily make their way through it, learning everything they need to know to follow “the plot” as they progress, and hopefully wanting to read it from end to end. At the same time, students of Egyptology should be able to find it helpful for their work because of the detail, and it could even be useful to experienced Egyptologists, who might want to refresh their knowledge.
6) You say that you “have taken the mythic fragments, sometimes from different time periods, and created a coherent narrative.” Looking beyond the book for a moment, do you have a sense that there were significant differences in the way in which myths were understood and represented over time?
Certainly myths changed over time, and were adapted according to location, but I think it’s also important to remember that there was no single correct version of a myth; on the whole, this was an oral tradition, which meant that the basic plot points could be expanded and embroidered at will by the storyteller. The overall specifics of the story were less important than the ultimate explanation; this meant that the Egyptian myths were incredibly mutable, and could be adapted depending on audience, location, and time. What is interesting is that, overall, the general mythic explanation for an event or phenomena can be quite similar throughout Egyptian history. For example, the general notion of how creation occurred is reasonably standard – there is a vast ocean, within which a god awakens or conceives of creation. The first gods are then created and the first mound of earth emerges from the waters, leading to the first sunrise. The specific details, actors and focus might change, but the overall conception remains the same.
7) You make the point that there were geographical differences between beliefs in the areas of Egypt. Is it possible that as well as representing alternative but compatible views on life, they could also act as differentiators between populations in the way that city emblems, regional accents, architectural styles and food preferences can be today?
Yes, I think so. The ancient Egyptians seem to have been quite proud of their home town and province, and so I think preserving local traditions would be an extra marker of differentiation. People also worshipped their own town god, which would set a person apart from others he might meet during his career or travels, highlighting his origins. Town myths were used to explain certain rituals conducted at the temple, or to explain features in the landscape; a red mineral, found in the 18th Nome of Upper Egypt, for example, was explained as blood-stained stone, left from a time when Anubis beheaded the followers of Seth on a mountain in the region. Interestingly, whilst emphasising local individuality, due to the general similarities between the myths, and the way in which characters/gods could be swapped and changed, the myths also highlight cultural unity.
8) Your previous books have been about royalty and your book on mythology derives much of its information from religious contexts. To what extent do you think that farmers and craftsmen, (beyond the specialised villages like Deir el Medina), shared these beliefs or knew the core myths?
It is unfortunate that so little evidence for non-elites in Egyptian society has survived, as this seriously limits what we can say about the beliefs of much of society. Nevertheless, I think the general content of the core myths and the overall belief system would have been consistent across society. Folk tales and myths are entertainment, as well as explanations, and, if entertaining enough, can easily spread far and wide. The use of Sekhmet amulets to ward off disease was quite widespread, for example, and so it is probable that the wearer would know some of the goddess’ mythology. I think the general conception of the world would also have been widespread – that the sky is an ocean, that the ground is a manifestation of Geb, that the wind is Shu; as an explanation for everyday phenomena, I can see this being widely known, irrespective of position in society. Also, it seems that most of Egypt’s population approached deities that would have the most impact on their lives; so, they appealed to gods who could help them with fertility, child-birth, health, agriculture etc. Shrines dedicated to Hathor were dotted around the country, and gave people a venue to pray for fertility. This all shows a general familiarity with the gods evidenced at the elite level in the major temples, and potentially a knowledge of the core myths.
9) The Egyptian afterlife offered the potential of a life after death, and in many ways it looks like an idealized version of the life that wealthy Egyptians lived. At the same time, there is a lot of conflict, tests, trials and obstacles. Although most books tackling the afterlife see the Egyptian afterlife as a joyous place, it is also possible to argue that it was full of risks and danger and that the spells to ward off difficulties reflect fear of, as well as hope for the afterlife. How do you see it?
Yes, I think some authors focus heavily on the Field of Reeds, and portray it as a form of Egyptian heaven. This is not really true, and omits much of what makes the Egyptian conception of the afterlife interesting. The ancient Egyptians saw the created world as composed of land, sky and Duat, with the Duat (on the whole) only being accessible to the dead and divinities (who share similar qualities). The Duat is a pretty terrifying place, full of demons that either wish to harm you or to tempt you away from your maat-like behaviour. It is littered with caverns, mounds and gates, and guarded by dangerous creatures. As in the living realm, in the Duat you used magic to ward off threats, and to manipulate the normally uncontrollable and unpredictable world. This danger exists because the “afterlife realm” is just another part of the created world, and just like the realm of the living, can be full of danger, setbacks, and problems, as well as joys. Once a person had successfully navigated the trials of the Duat, and had passed judgement, he was effectively left to his own devices. As an akh, or transfigured spirit, he had free movement to go anywhere in the created world, not just the Field of Reeds.
10) To what extent does our knowledge of the details of specific myths date from Graeco-Roman sources?
Our understanding of the Osiris myth has certainly been influenced by classical authors, and it is true that much of our information about Egypt’s myths derives from the later periods of Egyptian history, but we can at least check this information against the more fragmentary snippets that we have from earlier phases to see if there are similarities. The Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts each provide us with insights into earlier beliefs and myths, while the New Kingdom Book of the Dead and royal afterlife “books” all give us tremendous detail about the afterlife, as well as certain myths. That much of our specific detail comes from Late Period and Graeco-Roman sources is purely a matter of more evidence from those times surviving.
11) Do you see a clear distinction between belief in deities and the role of magic in everyday life?
I think this becomes clearer when we see Egypt’s gods as manifestations of particular invisible forces, which we today translate as gods, demons, or ghosts. These forces were responsible for the environment, for people falling sick, for good and bad fortune (for example), all phenomena normally beyond human control, unless magic was used. Magic was given to mankind by the gods to manipulate fate. People used words of power, amulets and rituals to influence forces beyond their control, and could even consult Lector Priests – specialists learned in magic – who could intervene on their behalf. Such individuals were so powerful that they spoke as if they were the gods – for example, stating “I am Horus” or “I am Thoth” – which could indicate that the priests were believed to be absorbing the force of the god invoked, perhaps as a form of possession. In this manner, the belief in deities and the role of magic was interlinked: deities were the invisible forces that impacted on people’s lives, and magic was a means of influencing those same forces.
12) There are a lot of excerpts from ancient Egyptian documents. Were you able to find these in translation or did you have to go to the sources yourself?
On the whole, the sources are available in translation, normally in English, French or German. Some have been published many times, some are more obscure or have only appeared in translation recently. If using another person’s translation, I would always check it against the original ancient source to ensure its quality.
13) You must have done a lot of thinking about the role of myths and their value in the past. Why do you think that myths were so important to people?
I think it’s easy to forget today just how spectacularly confusing, beautiful and wondrous the world actually is. Thanks to modern science, so much is understood, or at least grasped, that this sense of wonder can easily be ignored. But in the ancient world, there was no such knowledge. People in all cultures across time have always wanted to explain the world, whether to better grasp its cosmic mechanics or to simply to ask “Why did this happen to me?”. Myths develop as explanations for phenomena, and by providing an explanation, they create a sense of understanding, which in turn, makes the world feel a little less random, impersonal and scary. Myths offer reassurance that there is a reason for why something is happening, whether it is good or bad, often by relating the event to similar events in the mythic past; there is comfort in precedent. At the same time, myths provide a way to look at reality, they act as a form of filter for information, giving it structure and allowing it to make sense. This provides a sense of security and control, making us feel a little less adrift, alone on an endlessly changeable and unpredictable ocean.
14) Do you have any views on what aspects of ancient Egyptian mythology made their way into Coptic belief?
I’m afraid that my research into Egyptian mythology only extended as far as the Graeco-Roman Period, but it is certainly something I’d like to look into in future.
15) There is a good index at the back of the book, so although the emphasis is on a narrative journey from beginning of time to the end of life, the book can also be used as a reference tool. Was that your intention?
Yes, I’d wanted the book to be read from start to finish, rather than dipped in and out of as a reference book. To make it more useful to students, however, I wanted the index to be as detailed as possible. An earlier draft of the book also included endnotes for each chapter, for those who wanted to explore further, but due to a lack of space, these had to be omitted; otherwise, it would have meant cutting content from the main chapters. If readers have questions about specific sources, I’d be quite happy to let them know.
16) “The Egyptian Myths” is attractively packaged in turquoise and gold. The contents echo the colouring of the cover, with black text and images in greyscale and pale turquoise, rather than greyscale and white, with no photographs in colour. Did you have anything to do with the production of the book and do you think that the unusual colouring of the images works well?
The overall style of the book was decided on by the production team at Thames and Hudson. I did provide the picture researcher with a list of suggested images, and worked with the production team to decide which were most suitable, and later, which should be discarded/moved etc. I had little input over the cover, other than to say that I was very pleased with the designs. I feel the approach, with the high quality paper and tinted images, evokes the style and quality of publishing common in the Victorian era and early 20th-century, when books where cherished as objects of beauty in themselves, and less as disposable pastimes. On a side note, I’m also pleased that they designers didn’t decide to make the cover entirely yellow or gold, as this would have been a bit of a cliché for an Egyptology book!
17) When do you expect “The Egyptian Myths” to come out in paperback?
Sadly, I’m currently unaware of any plans for a paperback edition. It is, however, available as an E-book, through iTunes and on Amazon (for example).
18) What do you hope that people are going to take away from your book?
My main intention was to introduce readers to another way of seeing the world. If someone finishes the book and looks at the sky, and can quite easily understand why someone in the past might have looked at that same blue expanse and seen the vast underside of an infinite ocean, or if they can understand why certain amulets might be useful to carry to ward off dangerous invisible forces, then my approach has worked – my retelling of the myths has helped them to see the world from another perspective; in this way, they are now closer to the ancient Egyptians than before. By entering this ancient mindset, many unusual aspects of Egyptian culture suddenly join up and make sense; you can understand the reasoning behind many of their actions. Secondarily, I also hope that people will finish the book, and see that ancient Egyptian mythology is just as vibrant and entertaining as the mythology of other cultures! When people think “mythology” they tend to jump straight to the Greeks and Romans, perhaps we can change that!
19) A smiley question to finish the conversation about “The Egyptian Myths” – which is your favourite myth, if you have one, and why?
I’m a big fan of the myth often referred to as The Destruction of Mankind, but entitled “Beer Saves the World” in my book. This is the myth in which Re discovers that mankind are planning a rebellion against him, and so decides to send out Hathor as his angry Eye to wipe them out. Seeing Hathor’s bloodthirsty rage and violence, however, Re quickly changes his mind and takes pity on humanity. Realizing that he has to put a stop to the carnage, he commands the High Priest of Re to grind up a red mineral and mix it with seven thousand jars of beer. During the night, the red beer is poured into the field where Hathor (now in the overtly violent form of Sekhmet) is sleeping. When she awakes the next morning she believes herself to be surrounded by blood, which she quickly drinks. Now drunk, she passes out and quickly forgets about her anger towards mankind. I like this myth because I think whoever first told it had clearly experienced the effects of one too many drinks!
20) Could you tell us something about your upcoming plans and projects?
I’m currently working on my next book, which will focus on Egyptian warfare, trade and diplomacy. Because the notion that Egypt existed in isolation, though obviously incorrect, is still quite prevalent, I wanted to explain, in an entertaining and readable manner, about Egypt’s interactions with the wider world, and in particular present the evidence for Egyptians living in foreign countries and foreigners living in Egypt. At the same time, I’m currently developing (and will eventually teach) online Egyptology courses for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. There are other books planned too, but we’ll see which ideas come to fruition!
Our sincere thanks to you for taking the time to answer our questions. We wish you all the best with future projects.
Dr Garry Shaw
Dr Garry J. Shaw earned his doctorate from the University of Liverpool, U.K.. He has taught at the American University in Cairo and the Egypt Exploration Society, and is currently developing online Egyptology courses for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. He is also the Managing Editor of Al Rawi: Egypt’s Heritage Review and writes on North African and Middle Eastern heritage news for The Art Newspaper.
Dr Garry J. Shaw’s book “The Ancient Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” came out in March 2014, published by Thames and Hudson (ISBN 978-0-500-25198-0, 224 pages). It is available from most online book retailers. This is his third sole-authored book. His previous titles are Royal Authority in Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty and The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign.
To find out more about Dr Shaw see his website at http://garryshawegypt.blogspot.co.uk where you will find articles, news items and information about his upcoming lectures.