The Magic of Art and Writing in Ancient Egypt
Sponsored by Southwest Texas Archaeological Society (AIA - San Antonio)
Wednesday, April 6, 2011 - 7:30pm

Fiesta Room, Trinity University
One Trinity Place
San Antonio, TX 78212
United States

Dr. Lanny Bell, Brown University

Writing was literally an art in ancient Egypt; on the other hand, art was also, strictly speaking, hieroglyphic, in that images were employed not merely as decoration, but also as symbols intended to convey ideas.  Writing (text) and art (iconography) were intimately related: they were complementary, each explaining, illustrating, or generally elaborating the other.  Hieroglyphs are among the symbols used in works of art, and we need to study the grammar and vocabulary of this art to learn to “read” the iconography of scenes as surely as we would read a text.  The magical power of representations, as well as the spoken or written word, consisted in the fact that the outer form or appearance of an item determined its true being or reality; and the whole essence or nature of a thing was revealed in its name.  Control over an object or being might be achieved through the recitation of its name, as surely as by the imitation of its shape; conversely, the absolute destruction of the person or thing resulted from doing away with the name or image.  The most abstract cosmogony describes the Creation by Ptah through the Word or Utterance, expressed in the assigning and speaking of names.  The possession of a secret or hidden name was a means of preserving one’s identity and independence, as in the myth of Isis and the Secret Name of Re.  The power of representations, as well as the word, explains the phenomenon of defacements and replacements on monuments.  In historical contexts, the Egyptians observed that things change, but they always remain essentially the same.  They seem to have been particularly interested in the repetition of events, those that conformed to mythological prototypes, as established at the Beginning of Time—these were real.  Other occurrences that were random (i.e., unpredictable or unique)—those unusual, distinctive, or specific events with which we are particularly concerned on the 6:00 news or in our morning newspaper—these were unreal and were normally not worth recording or commemorating.  The Egyptians saw the course of history against a mythological background dominated by certain fundamental themes; actual events were particular instances of great movements or tendencies.  So the victor gets to write the history, and we must be extremely cautious about taking any report or representation too literally.

Dr. Bell is this year’s recipient of the AIA’s Helene J. Kantor Memorial Lectureship. 

Contact Information
Nicolle Hirschfeld


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