Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Religion In The Ancient Mediterranean World: Part 1

Great Courses:  Religion In The Ancient Mediterranean World:  Part 1, taught by Professor Glenn S. Holland

It is a bit too early in the course of this sprawling and epic four-part course to determine what I think about the series as a whole.  So far, at least, my impressions are mixed.  On the positive side, the professor shows an obvious interest in aspects of wisdom literature and issues of Creation that I find intriguing [1].  On the negative side, the instructor appears to share a common view of the scholar as a critic of religion rather than a student of it, has an evolutionary view of religious development, and has an unfortunate interest in the sacred feminine that bodes ill for future lectures.  So, this seems like a mixed sort of presentation that nonetheless does provide at least some interesting discussion about the religions of the ancient near east, a subject I find of considerable interest.  Whether or not listening to these 24 hours will be time well spent is something I will have to discover through the course of the various lectures, as it appears finely balanced on the scales as weighed against a feather, I suppose.

The twelve lectures, at a half hour apiece, are largely devoted in this part of the course to the history of Egyptian religion.  The author begins by discussing ancient religious cultures and their traits (1) and also attempts a somewhat rambling definition of religion (2) before moving into a discussion of early prehistoric religion (3) and the religion of the neolithic area (4).  This discussion is marked by some speculations and questions about the importance of material culture in the absence of textual evidence.  After this the author moves to Egypt as a unique religious culture (5), discusses the creation stories of Egypt and their meaning (6), and moves to a complex look at the Egyptian pantheon (7) and the Egyptian myths of kingship that separated a view of kingship as eternal and lasting while recognizing the frailty and mortal aspect of individual Pharaohs (8).  The course then closes with a look at Egyptian myths of the underworld (9), a look at the power and role of goddesses and the sacred feminine in Egyptian religion (10), as well as the thorny issue of Egyptian popular religion (11) and the intriguing beginnings of wisdom literature as elite and scribal views of prudential wisdom (12).  With this the professor’s discussion of Egyptian religion appears to be at its end.

What does one get out of these lectures?  For one, it is easy to see that Egyptian mythology is particularly difficult to disentangle for several reasons.  For one, there is a great deal of regionalism in Egyptian religion where different areas had different myths that were only imperfectly brought together.  For another, there was a strong lack of coherence between the worldview of Egyptian religion over time and some rather serious divides between popular and official religion that makes it difficult to understand the fullness of Egyptian religion even if one wants to.  Likewise, from this course one can gain at least a few insights into why Egyptian religion is considered to be so important, namely the way that contemporary religious scholars are interested in questions of popular devotion as well as appreciation of feminine aspects of religion and the way that polytheistic religion offers a great opportunity for people to insert themselves as authorities in the area of religion without having to accept the authority of the religious tradition that they are studying.  Overall, I have to say that Egyptian religion itself is not an area of particular interest except insofar as it influenced other cultures in which I have greater personal interest.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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