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  • Writer's pictureChristine Skolnik

Ancient Egyptian Liberal Arts and Sciences

“Ancient Egypt has a really curious relationship with a lot of paranormal beliefs and practices both because of the kind of Platonic Orientalism afforded to them in the Renaissance and the ancient world—everything Egyptian has been synonymous with mysterious power/knowledge—and a lot of scholars just steer clear lest we get caught up in an episode of Ancient Aliens without realizing it. At the same time, as [the Peter Flegel] article points out, ancient Egyptian religion and philosophy actually was super influential in ways that remain obscured.”

--Timothy Grieve-Carlson

I’ve been researching Ancient Egyptian arts and sciences for a little over a year, while working on an essay collection about sun symbols and ecology. On one hand, I’m repeatedly surprised by how little I learned about Ancient Egyptian culture in school. Though I studied Greek architecture, mythology, philosophy, and rhetoric (as an undergrad and grad student), I learned very little about the immediate Egyptian predecessors to all of the above. On the other hand, I often feel as if I am succumbing to a kind of Egyptomania adjacent to Orientalism and stereotypical views of Egypt as a magical rather than rational culture. The history of Ancient Egypt may be far more significant than most of us understand, and not at all what we imagine

In a 2018 Philosophy Now article titled “Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots?” Peter Flegel describes the continuity between late Egyptian and early Greek culture, and a rich period of cultural exchange around the seventh century BCE. Particularly compelling is an argument (he cites) that Egyptian metaphysics was influential on Plato’s Theory of Forms, even though we tend to see one discourse as mythical and the other as rational.

I remain in thrall to Egypt but have some concerns about discussing Ancient Egypt in this context. As Paracultures co-contributor Timothy Grieve-Carlson so astutely and cleverly expressed in a recent online conversation, “a lot of scholars just steer clear lest we get caught up in an episode of Ancient Aliens without realizing it.” Though Tim’s comment is more general and subtle than a mere critique of alien visitor theories, I find those theories awkward because of the underlying assumption that Ancient Egyptians weren’t capable of solving engineering problems that mystify contemporary scientists and architects. In other words, they reinforce myths about Western civilization and progress which are problematic in more ways than I can articulate here.

A wonderfully illustrative example of such a prejudice is the story of Giuseppe Ferlini who raided Ancient Nubian pyramids (at Meroe, in present-day Sudan) in the 1830s. He destroyed some of the largest, intact pyramids because he had no real respect for the culture, but expected to gain financially from the plunder. The artifacts are now in permanent museum collections in Berlin and Munich and are also displayed in travelling exhibits. However vital archeological “documentation” was lost through the demolition process and the site remains in shambles. (See end notes for more about the Nubian pyramids.)

Among other reasons I’m cautious writing about Ancient Egypt are the tacit assumptions underlying competing theories about Egypt and race. A common debate in the field is whether Egyptian pharaohs were 'Black' or 'Caucasian.' (The answer is likely both/and . . . to the degree that we can even define race.) While I understand the question may be interesting in itself (and the answers valuable), this line of inquiry also feeds into contemporary myths about racial identity. I’m wary of affirming ethnocentric and nationalist assumptions that underlie all myths of cultural supremacy.

It may just be the flip side of the coin, but I imagine a futuristic perspective as an antidote to Western history. Chadwick Boseman said that Black Panther was real in the sense that it gave expression to the history of African art, science, and architecture. I’d also like to imagine the vision is real in the sense of remembering the future of continental Africa or a more conscious integration of African culture with “Western.” I want to know a lot more about AfroFuturism for example.

At the risk of trading in stereotypes, and returning to origins, I’m intrigued by fractal geometry in traditional African architecture and urban planning, and the degree to which it may represent ecological thinking. If anything could help us survive our karma, an ecological mindset that perceives and expresses immanent connections between human society and nature seems like a good candidate. So too, a more complex understanding of human relationships. Something (at the very least) more intelligent and rational than the zero-sum game of these American dark ages.

More about Nubian pyramids:

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Oct 14, 2020

CS Note: Not sure this (below) is accurate after reading a response to the contrary. However, the Online Etymological Dictionary says the word "sophis" is of unknown origin, which supports the position below more than the counterargument that it's an IE word. "Anyone? Anyone?"

From an ongoing discussion of the Flegel article:

Asar Imhotep

African Philosophy  


'What I find interesting is that there is not even a mention that the word sophos/sophia is not a Greek word and has no Indo-European etymology. It is Egyptian, and comes from…

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