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Erik Hornung (1933-2022)

The world of Egyptology and a much wider intellectual and popular public mourn the passing of Erik Hornung, one of the leading Egyptologists of the 20th century. Born in Riga, Latvia, on January 28, 1933, Hornung studied at the universities of Göttingen and Tübingen, earning his doctorate from Tübingen in 1956 and his Habilitation at the University of Münster in 1963. A professor of Egyptology at the University of Basel from 1967-1998, Hornung died in Basel on July 11, 2022, at the age of 89.

In his book “The Secret Lore of Egypt”, Hornung emphasizes that for a poet like Rainer Maria Rilke, the deities of Egypt continued to be valid in our modern times, quoting from a 1922 poem: “May none of the gods perish. We need them all; each and every of them. May each hold true for us, each configured image”. This quote from Rilke encapsulates a leitmotif of Hornung’s lifelong devotion to the study of ancient Egypt – to demonstrate both the ancient meaning and the continued contemporary relevance of Egyptian religious concepts. In the concluding paragraph of Hornung’s 1971 study Der Eine und die Vielen: Ägyptische Gottesvorstellungen (English Conceptions of God in ancient Egypt: The One and the Many), Rilke’s original plea returns as a firm declaration – the gods embrace a universal truth which is why we today cannot dispense with them as we attempt to comprehend the world and humanity.

It was in the 1960s, at the age of 30, when Hornung embarked on the signature project of his career, the systematic compilation and synoptic edition of the underworld books preserved in the royal tombs of the New Kingdom in the Valley of the Kings. The first comprehensive publication and translation of the Amduat (Das Amduat. Die Schrift des Verborgenen Raumes, 3 parts, 1963-7), in conjunction with a seminal study on the chronology of the New Kingdom (Untersuchungen zur Chronologie und Geschichte des Neuen Reiches, 1964) established Hornung instantly as a leading scholar of a new generation of post-war Egyptologists, followed by his appointment as full professor and head of the institute of Egyptology at the University of Basel, at the age of just 34 years. The Basel Institute would, to the end of his career, remain his academic home, a home where he enjoyed the dedicated support of his work by Elisabeth Staehelin as well as other members of the department and his students.

Hornung’s other home was certainly the Valley of the Kings, the “Place of Truth”. The project on the underworld books entailed three decades of intense work devoted to specific text editions (Amduat, Book of Gates, Book of the Adoring of Re in the West) and the publication of several tombs in the valley (Horemheb, 1971; Ramses IV and VII, 1990; Seti I, 1991). Comprehensive translations of all underworld books (Ägyptische Unterweltsbücher, 1972, 41992; English 1999; French 2007), of the Book of the Dead (Das Totenbuch der Ägypter, 1979, 21990), of specific texts (Der ägyptische Mythos von der Himmelskuh, 1982, 31997;) as well as introductory surveys of the underworld books (Altägyptische Jenseitsbücher. Ein einführender Überblick, 1997; English 2005) made these once arcane texts accessible to scholars in Egyptology and neighbouring disciplines, as well as a wider global public. Hornung was open to different approaches to these texts and their motifs, including psychoanalytical interpretations; he collaborated intensely with Jungian psychologists, in an attempt to make these texts speak to a modern audience.

Hornung was eager to popularize Egyptian religion for a wider public; he published popular books on the Valley of the Kings (1982, 61999; English 1990; Italian 2004), the underworld guides and the sun’s nocturnal journey (several titles in German and English, between 2002 and 2014). Hornung was also a driving force behind major exhibitions focused on ancient Egypt and the Valley of the Kings (to mention only the Basel exhibitions on the tomb of Seti I in 1991 and 2018 and the US exhibition of a facsimile of the tomb of Thutmose III in 2005).

Hornung’s pivotal work on Egyptian religion, which soon became a standard text for religious scholars and a primer for students of Egyptology, was Der Eine und die Vielen: Ägyptische Gottesvorstellungen (1971; fully revised and enlarged 6th edition, 2005; 72011), published in English as Conceptions of God in ancient Egypt: The One and the Many; also in French, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and Hungarian). It also reflects Hornung’s belief that the concurrent presence of different concepts in Egyptian religious thought reflects a polyvalent logic superior to the modern binary one. A more popular presentation of Egyptian thought for a wider audience would be, in the late 1980s, Geist der Pharaonenzeit (1989, 21990 and re-editions) which again reaffirmed Hornung’s status as one of the most widely translated and read authors in the field (English Idea Into Image, 1992; also translations into Arabic, Italian 2002 and French). Hornung analyzed the ‘monotheistic exception’ of his Conceptions book in his later essay on Akhenaten, which again was very popular (Echnaton. Die Religion des Lichtes; 1995; translated into Italian and English). He also published several collections of Egyptian literature for a wider audience (1978, 1990, 1996).

Hornung also vindicated the study of the esoteric reception of ancient Egypt, a long-standing trajectory of engagement with Egypt that was combated by Egyptology far into the 20th century. Testament to this interest is Das esoterische Ägypten (1999, translated into English as The Secret Lore of Egypt. Its Impact on the West, as well as into French, Czech and Italian). Both Hornung’s study on the Conceptions of God (a response to Siegfried Morenz’ 1960 Ägyptische Religion) and his interest in esoteric Egypt (cf. Siegfried Morenz, Die Begegnung Europas mit Ägypten, 1969) attest to the important influence Siegfried Morenz (who taught in Basel 1961-66) exercised on Hornung – and whose legacy Hornung carried forward in new ways. He coined the term ‘Egyptosophy’ to emphasize that the esoteric reception of ancient Egypt between antiquity and the present is often nurtured by a deep philosophical interest in what ancient Egypt can contribute to the human condition, and that this reception deserves serious attention.

In this context, mention must be made of the central role that Hornung assumed, for many decades, at another ‘Place of Truth’, the Monte Verità in Ascona – as a committed speaker and co-organizer (in their renewed form, from 1989 onward) of the Eranos conferences, an annual forum of intellectuals from different fields who would explore spiritual and humanistic topics in a broad and interdisciplinary manner. He also co-edited many of the Eranos volumes between 1993 and 2015. Within Egyptology, Hornung recognized early the need to provide the increasingly vast discipline with introductory textbooks; both his Einführung in die Ägyptologie (1967, 41993; translated into Spanish in 2000) and his Grundzüge der ägyptischen Geschichte (1965; 62008; also in French, English, Spanish and Turkish translation) were indispensable tools for many decades. Hornung exhibited a universal knowledge and comprehension of the field which, beyond the accomplishements listed above, is also reflected in seminal studies on amulets (Skarabäen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen, 1976; with E. Staehelin), the ritual nature of Egyptian kingship (Geschichte als Fest, 1966; Studien zum Sedfest, 1974; Neue Studien zum Sedfest, 2006, with E. Staehelin), or chronology (such as the co-edited 2006 volume, Ancient Egyptian Chronology). Worth recalling in this regards is the fact that Hornung studied astronomy before turning to Egyptology, an interest visible in early astronomical articles, his 1956 doctoral thesis Nacht und Finsternis im Weltbild der Alten Ägypter and throughout his later engagement with the Books of the Underworld.

The concluding remarks shall be Hornung’s own who concluded his preface to Andreas Schweizer’s The Sungod’s Journey through the Netherworld. Reading the Ancient Egyptian Amduat (2010)with these words: “The netherworld into which we descend underlies our own world. Creative energies of dreadful intensity are active there, and only death, to which all must surrender, makes us truly alive by offering us regeneration from the depths.”

Thomas Schneider (University of British Columbia, Vancouver)