There are so many books available on ancient Egyptian mythology and religion, especially introductions written for beginners, that it can sometimes seem that they’re more numerous than grains of sand in the Egyptian desert. Trying to sift through them all to determine which ones are the most worthy of spending your hard-earned money on can be a daunting task. In the hopes of helping people to skip over the bad, mediocre, unreliable, or outdated books on the subject and get right to the good stuff, I’ve compiled this list of the 10 best books on ancient Egyptian mythology and religion (last updated March 2017).
This list is primarily, but by no means exclusively, for beginners with little or no familiarity with ancient Egyptian mythology and religion. #1, #2, and #3 are introductory books on ancient Egyptian mythology and religion for adults, and #4 and #5 are introductions for kids. #7, #8, #9, and #10, however, go well beyond the basics and delve deeper into more specialized topics – ancient Egyptian theology, views on death and the afterlife, intellectual history, etc. As such, they’ll be a great delight for those at a more intermediate or advanced level, and/or those who want to jump right into those more specialized areas. No books on this list assume any prior knowledge of ancient Egypt, so even though some are more consciously designed to be introductions to the topic than others, you could theoretically start with any of them.
The order of the books in this list runs roughly from the most newbie-friendly to the most advanced. The lower-numbered books aren’t necessarily better than the higher-numbered ones, but the lower-numbered ones are more accessible.
If you find this list to be helpful enough that you decide to buy one or more of the books listed here, the best way you can say “thank you” is to buy whatever you decide to buy through the Amazon.com links provided at the end of each book’s description. When you do, I automatically get a small commission on your purchase with no extra cost or hassle for you whatsoever.
1. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson
Richard H. Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt is an introduction to ancient Egyptian mythology and religion that, as the title implies, has a particular focus on the remarkable gods and goddesses, which is what draws many people to learn about this topic in the first place.
The first several chapters give an overview of the history and character of ancient Egyptian mythology and religion, including its mythological stories, institutions, popular devotion, views on the nature of the divine, and much more. The information in these chapters is all fairly basic, but it’s covered exceptionally well and is exactly what most people would want in a summary of this length.
The real centerpiece of the book, however, and the section that occupies by far the majority of its space, is the grand “Catalogue of Deities.” This vast chapter (about 170 pages long) is something of an encyclopedia with sections on virtually any and all ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, from the most significant to the most obscure. Each entry is divided into three sections: Mythology, Iconography, and Worship.
Wilkinson presents all of this in very clear, simple, and jargon-free prose that should be perfectly comprehensible to any layperson. It’s extremely newbie-friendly.
One of the great highlights of The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt is the staggering number of beautiful, color photographs of ancient statues, paintings, carvings, and other such artifacts that depict the Egyptian deities. These adorn almost every page, and make an already inspiring and vibrant topic much more so. In addition to providing visual examples of much of what the text discusses, they awaken a sense of wonder and awe in the reader. Click here to view or buy The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 29% from its list price.
2. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch
Geraldine Pinch’s Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt is another great introduction to ancient Egyptian mythology and religion. Much like Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, its structure consists of a few chapters that provide a general introduction to the topic, followed by an extensive “encyclopedia” with alphabetized entries.
However, Pinch’s book has some key differences in emphasis when compared to Wilkinson’s. Whereas Wilkinson’s focus is mostly on the deities, with everything else structured around that central concern, Pinch explores other aspects of the topic in more depth (and the gods in proportionately less depth). In the introductory chapters, Pinch devotes considerably more space to the history of ancient Egypt and to that civilization’s view of time. Discussions of the narratives of Egyptian mythology occur in that section. Pinch’s encyclopedia covers much more than just the gods – symbols, places, concepts, etc. – but, accordingly, covers fewer deities.
Pinch’s book also includes photos, but far fewer than Wilkinson’s, and they’re all in black and white. The writing style is similarly nontechnical and easy to understand, which makes this book, again like Wilkinson’s, very newbie-friendly. Click here to view or buy Egyptian Mythology at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 37% from its list price.
3. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt by Jan Assmann
Jan Assmann’s The Search for God in Ancient Egypt is another one of the best introductions to ancient Egyptian mythology and religion on the market today.
The Search for God in Ancient Egypt differs from the introductory books offered by Wilkinson (#1 above) and Pinch (#2 above) in that it presents ancient Egyptian mythology and religion as a worldview, with an emphasis on the conceptual themes that defined it. Whereas Wilkinson and Pinch give lots of details about individual deities, symbols, and such, and are fundamentally arranged as encyclopedias, Assmann here offers much more of the big picture and less compartmentalized detail.
Thus, there aren’t individual sections on Osiris, Hathor, Anubis, etc. Rather, Osiris, Hathor, Anubis, etc. are mentioned along the way as they fit into and exemplify ideas and themes such as the immanence and transcendence of divinity, polytheism and monotheism, the relationship between a representation of a deity and his or her presence or essence, the nature and power of language, the mythological stories and their meanings, etc.
Due to that conceptual or philosophical focus, this book may be less accessible for some people than Wilkinson’s or Pinch’s. Assmann’s writing style is very comprehensible and engaging – you can really feel his passion for the topic – but since most people are more interested in isolated “facts” than the ideas that contextualize them and give them meaning, I’ve listed this one as #3.
For those who really want to understand ancient Egyptian mythology and religion as the ancient Egyptians themselves did, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt is the introduction I would recommend the most highly. Click here to view or buy The Search for God in Ancient Egypt at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 33% from its list price.
4. Treasury of Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Monsters, and Mortals by Donna Jo Napoli
Now we come to the introductory books on Egyptian mythology for kids.
Donna Jo Napoli’s Treasury of Egyptian Mythology, published by National Geographic Kids, is one of two books that I would recommend the mostly highly for children. Napoli’s highly evocative retellings of the stories of Egyptian mythology are infused with a sense of wonder that’s very, well, childlike. She embellishes upon the often bare-bones structure of the original tales with charming descriptions of the characters’ feelings, motivations, etc. (She also refrains from mentioning the more lurid elements of ancient Egyptian mythology that some parents might find objectionable.)
To top it all off, Treasury of Egyptian Mythology is lovingly and beautifully illustrated by Christina Balit. Just about every page features some dazzling image that accompanies the text and gives children something to fire their imaginations that much more.
Its recommended age range is 8-12, and I suspect that children younger than that might also greatly enjoy it. Click here to view or buy Treasury of Egyptian Mythology at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 62% from its list price.
5. Tales of Ancient Egypt by Roger Lancelyn Green
Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of Ancient Egypt is the second introduction to ancient Egyptian mythology for kids that I would recommend. Like Donna Jo Napoli’s Treasury of Egyptian Mythology, Green’s book presents Egyptian mythology in a way that’s accessible and enchanting for children. But where Napoli tends toward the charming and cute, Green evokes a sense of genuine awe. His retellings are probably closer to the way that an ancient Egyptian parent might have told these stories to his or her own child. (Like Napoli, however, Green leaves out the lurid content in the originals that some parents might not want in their children’s reading material.)
Because of that difference, as well as the greater amount of factual, historical material that Green includes, Tales of Ancient Egypt is probably better-suited to a somewhat older audience than Treasury of Egyptian Mythology. Even though both books are advertized as being for ages 8-12, I can see readers younger than that really enjoying Napoli, and I can see readers older than that really enjoying Green. Similarly, some 12-year-olds would likely find Napoli to be beneath them, while Green might go over the heads of some 8-year-olds.
Which of these two books is better for your child really comes down to his or her age and preferences. Click here to view or buy Tales of Ancient Egypt at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 16% from its list price.
6. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day translated by Raymond Faulkner and Ogden Goelet
Back to the books for adults.
The famous Egyptian Book of the Dead, also known as the Book of Going Forth by Day, is one of the most important primary sources for the study of ancient Egyptian mythology and religion, and by far the one of greatest interest to the lay reader.
It’s the crowning achievement of ancient Egyptian spiritual literature. Considering the competition for that title – the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, the Instruction for Merikare, the Dispute between a Man and His Ba, and others – that’s saying quite a bit.
This particular edition includes full-color pictures of the original pages of the Papyrus of Ani, the definitive, best-preserved version of the Book of the Dead. Alongside these lavishly-presented paintings and hieroglyphs is an English translation by Raymond Faulkner and Ogden Goelet, who provide a refreshingly modern, readable translation. In addition, scholarly introductory material introduces the book and its importance. All of this makes this edition of the Book of the Dead the best on the market today. Click here to view or buy The Egyptian Book of the Dead at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 31% from its list price.
7. The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion edited by Donald B. Redford
Much like Richard Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt or Geraldine Pinch’s Egyptian Mythology, The Ancient Gods Speak is a series of articles on various key topics in ancient Egyptian mythology and religion, arranged in alphabetical order as something of an encyclopedia.
However, unlike Wilkinson’s or Pinch’s works, The Ancient Gods Speak is thoroughly academic. If you can’t stand academic writing, this book is definitely not for you. However, it’s still written for a lay audience, albeit probably a better-educated and/or more intellectual one than those other encyclopedia-esque introductory books. And the tradeoff for that lessened accessibility is, of course, greater scholarly rigor.
Each article in The Ancient Gods Speak is written by an expert on that particular aspect of ancient Egyptian mythology and religion. Covered topics range from gods and goddesses to concepts (“afterlife,” “akh,” “paradise,” etc.) to elements of religious practice – in short, virtually the whole scope of the field.
While I can’t recommend The Ancient Gods Speak as a standalone introduction to ancient Egyptian mythology and religion, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who’s serious about studying these topics in any particular degree of depth. As a reference source, it’s unparalleled for its quality and convenience. Click here to view or buy The Ancient Gods Speak at Amazon.com.
8. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many by Erik Hornung
Erik Hornung’s Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many is widely considered to be the standard book on ancient Egyptian theology, and with very good reason.
If you’re already familiar with the seemingly bizarre and fantastic gods and goddesses worshiped by the ancient Egyptians and want to understand how the ancient Egyptians themselves viewed divinity as such, or if you’re coming to the study of ancient Egyptian religion from a chiefly theological perspective from the outset, then this is the book to read.
Hornung discusses the words the ancient Egyptians used for divinity and what they can tell us, the practice of fusing two or more deities together into one, the gods as upholders of the cosmos and enemies of chaos, the relationship between the gods and humanity, polytheism and monotheism (as the title implies), and much more. Personally, I was especially intrigued by his discussion of the great physicist Niels Bohr’s concept of “complementarity” in relation to the Egyptian gods and goddesses.
Most of the books on this list cite Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt all over the place. Find out what all the buzz is about. Click here to view or buy Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt at Amazon.com.
9. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs by Jan Assmann
Jan Assmann’s The Mind of Egypt takes up the ambitious task of presenting an intellectual history (or “history of ideas”) of ancient Egypt – that is, it describes the ideas through which the ancient Egyptians perceived their world, and how those ideas and perceptions changed over time. And it succeeds brilliantly. What else would you expect from the author of The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (#3 above)?
Assmann covers ancient Egyptian views on good and evil, time, justice, political institutions (especially the pharaoh), the afterlife, monumental architecture like the Pyramids, burial customs such as mummification, the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds, the relationship between the sacred and history, the character and destiny of the Egyptian people and state, and more – as well as how views on all of those topics changed over the several millennia of ancient Egyptian civilization. Additionally, it gives historical overviews of the time periods in question, so that you can see how historical events and changing perceptions of the world went hand in hand. Yes, it really does cover that much ground, and does so in a refreshingly accessible and nontechnical writing style. As with The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, Assmann’s passion for the topic is as palpable as his unrivaled mastery of it.
The Mind of Egypt lives up to its title by enabling one to see the world of ancient Egypt as the ancient Egyptians themselves saw it, and to think in the same terms in which they would have thought. After reading this book, you’ll never see ancient Egypt – and maybe even your own world – the same. Click here to view or buy The Mind of Egypt at Amazon.com.
10. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt by Jan Assmann
The ancient Egyptians were perhaps more preoccupied with mortality than any other human society, past or present, and have left behind an extraordinarily rich and mysterious body of texts and artifacts that give clues about their views on death and the afterlife. Virtually everything in ancient Egypt, from mummies to pyramids to theology, had to do with death and immortality in some way or another.
As with Assmann’s The Mind of Egypt (#9 above), the scope and ambition of this book are extremely impressive. It discusses the many different things that death meant to the ancient Egyptians, from hopeless isolation to continued social connectivity to dismemberment to an ascent to the blissful Field of Reeds to cyclical rebirth. Funerary rites are also discussed at length and in great detail. And as with Assmann’s other books, the writing is clear, jargon-free, and should be perfectly comprehensible to the lay reader.
If this is one of the aspects of ancient Egypt that interests you the most, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt is a book you should definitely consider buying. It’s the foremost book on this topic out there right now. Nothing else even comes close. Click here to view or buy Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt at Amazon.com.
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