Erik Iversen describes the powerful effect of the “myth of Egypt,” particularly Egyptian hieroglyphs, on European literature, art, religion, and philosophy. This is the story of a creative misunderstanding: an erroneous interpretation of the traditions of ancient Egypt became a rich source of inspiration for Europeans from ancient times through the medieval and Renaissance periods to the Baroque era. The misguided notion that hieroglyphs were allegorical, and that they constituted a sacred writing of ideas, exerted a dynamic influence in almost all fields of intellectual and artistic endeavor, as did conceptions of Egypt as the venerable home of true wisdom and of occult and mystic knowledge. The Baroque Piazza Navona in Rome, for instance, is only one of the many great public spaces that center on an Egyptian obelisk and an attempt to read its mysterious signs.
Iversen begins by discussing the nature of Egyptian writing. Then he explains, in detail and with apposite illustrations and quotations, the ways in which Europeans tried to understand and use the hieroglyphs. A final chapter sets Jean Franí_ois Champollion’s decipherment of the hieroglyphs into a vividly reconstructed historical context.
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