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By Richard H Wilkinson, published by Thames & Hudson at £24.95. 256pp. HBk. ISBN: 0-500-05120-8

As I’ve noted before when reviewing “complete” books of something or other, claiming a book as “complete” is a rather dangerous thing to do since it’s almost inevitable that some aspect of the subject, no matter how minor, is omitted and where does that leave a “complete” book? And given that Egypt seems to have had as many deities of one sort or another as it has grains of sand it’s an especially dangerous claim to make of a book about Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Wilkinson, fortunately, takes a thematic approach to his subject. The inevitable catalogue of deities which one would expect to be at the core of his book is divided into types or classes such as mammalian deities, avian deities, invertebrate and insect deities and so on, which allows him to survey the entire gamut of the types of gods and goddesses the Egyptians worshipped without turning his book into little more than a list of individual deities but saying little about any of them, although the longest chapters are, inevitably, on male and female anthropomorphic deities respectively. The approach means that he can select a representative sample of the various types of deity, including both the well-known and the relatively obscure, in a format which covers their individual mythology, iconography and the evidence for their worship, except in the cases of the really obscure, such as Ba-Pef, a minor underworld deity mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, who merit a summary paragraph. As an approach to a vast topic, this categorisation is an attractive and successful and encourages much browsing of the book.

But it’s not just a catalogue of deities. Wilkinson begins by examining what (little) we know about Egypt’s deities both before and at the very beginning of Egyptian civilisation and discussing just how difficult interpretation of this little is. What were the distant origins of well-known deities of “classical” Egypt such as Osiris and Ptah, with their complex mythologies and widespread cults? How did the earliest sense of the sacred in pre-dynastic Egypt evolve into the sophisticated cults and practices we see growing and changing through the dynastic period? These are important questions because, contrary to popular (pagan) belief, Egyptian religion was not static; indeed, it changed and evolved throughout the course of Egyptian history and civilisation, and this process of evolution had its roots in the very early stages of the culture.

In his introductory chapters, the author also considers the relationships between humans and the divine and between the gods and the cosmos over which they ruled, the nature of popular religion and piety as distinct from the well-documented ‘state’ or official cults and the origins and background to and influence of Egypt’s brief flirtation with monotheism. Here he explores the various cosmological views and models which developed in different cult centres and centred on specific deities, as exemplified by the contradictory creation myths which eventually collided and managed to co-exist. Cosmic wank or breath of life? Take your pick.

In addition to all else one can say about this book, it is superbly and lavishly illustrated with almost 340 illustrations of which over 130 are in colour, including photographs of tomb-paintings, statues, temples, stelae, carved stone friezes and other artefacts, and line drawings of various deities and scenes, presumably worked up from paintings and similar too poorly preserved or too eroded to be successfully photographed.

This may be one of the few “complete” books of anything which can claim to live up to its title as it’s difficult to think of anything the vast majority of readers would want to know about the subject which isn’t covered and covered well by the author. As such, it can more than justify its price and the space it would take up on your bookshelf. If you buy one reference book on Egyptian deities, this is a very strong contender indeed.