Egyptian Myths and Legends

Week 2: Ancient Near East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

The readings for this week cover both the high mythology of ancient Egypt, and also popular tales and legends. This entire range of Egyptian culture exerted a great influence on other cultures in the Mediterranean: Egyptian gods and goddesses were worshipped in many other lands, and the tales and legends of Egypt were repeated and adapted and adopted by the ancient Israelites, the Greeks, and the Romans, among many others.

Yet even though the stories of the Egyptian gods and goddesses were widely known in the ancient world, you are probably much more familiar with the stories of the Greek gods, like Zeus and Hera and Apollo, etc. Although we all have a sense of the pyramids and of Egypt being "old," we do not pay much attention to the myths and legends of ancient Egypt. It was very different for the ancient Greeks and Romans who were in awe of Egyptian culture. They were very much aware of the story of Isis, her husband Osiris and her son Horus, for example, since the goddess Isis was worshipped throughout the Mediterranean world. It is thus not surprising that the iconographic representation of Isis and her infant child had a significant influence on early Christian art and its representation of Mary and the infant Jesus.

Egypt was also a subject that fascinated European scholars during the Renaissance. As these scholars rediscovered ancient Greek culture, they also shared the enthusiasm of the ancient Greeks for Egyptian culture and the influence that Egyptian culture had on the Greek and Roman civilizations. But beginning in the late 18th and the 19th century, the cultural legacy of ancient Egypt was overridden by European colonial ambitions (Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798).

As Egypt was increasingly seen as a colonial subject to European power, scholars ceased to promote Egyptian culture with the same enthusiasm. Since modern Egypt was viewed as the cultural inferior to European civilization, ancient Egypt was pushed to the side. The Greeks were more and more viewed as unique and original, and their debts to Egyptian culture were discounted by classical scholars. If you are interested in this fascinating reversal in the scholarly fortunes of Egypt, check out Martin Bernal's Black Athena, which contains several chapters at the end of the book which focus precisely on the anti-Egyptian prejudices of modern European scholarship.

The stories and myths in this week's readings come from different periods in Egyptian history, and you can find many websites online that will walk you through the broad divisions of Egyptian history as it evolved over thousands of years. In general terms, Egyptian history is marked by the following divisions:

Subsequently, Egypt was ruled by Greek kings following Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE. These Greek kings are called the "Ptolemies" after Ptolemy I, who declared himself king of Egypt in 305 BCE. Cleopatra, who was born in 69 BCE, was a descendent of Ptolemy, and she ruled Egypt until she was defeated by the Roman forces of Augustus Caesar in 31 BCE. Egypt was then under the rule of the Roman empire.

Over the thousands of years, Egyptian religion and ritual grew and changed - with literally thousands of gods and goddesses - but there is a core cast of characters with whom you should be familiar before beginning this week's reading:

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM