Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Birthdate of E.A. Wallis Budge

Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge was born on July 27, 1858. He began learning Assyrian at the age of 15, and the ancient Egyptian language at 25 (the year he began working for the British Museum).

He became a prolific author on subjects of ancient Egyptian texts, history and religion, publishing translations of and commentaries on the Papyrus of Ani (a seventy-eight foot long papyrus, a section of which -- the weighing of the heart scene -- is shown above) as well as many lesser-known works. Many of these are now available online, including some of his books on Egyptian hieroglyphics. While scholarship has progressed in some ways beyond his observations (which are now over a century old), it must be remembered that at the time Wallis Budge was working to advance the understanding of ancient Egypt, the unlocking of the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics by Champollion had only been accomplished four or five decades previously.

(The fact that Champollion's initial breakthrough did not take place until 1822, and that it took some time after that to piece together the entire system, even then imperfectly, is an important argument against the conventional theory that the Micmac writing system recorded by missionaries in the 1600s and 1700s was somehow invented by those Catholic priests based upon Egyptian hieroglyphics).

In his 1911 work, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, Wallis Budge argued that the Egyptian mythology was native to Africa and not a product of influence from Asia. The book is valuable as an insight into the kind of thinking that was common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which held that belief systems basically reflected the racial and environmental characteristics of the people of various areas, and that such beliefs would simply evolve among members of one area in different centuries, even without any cultural contact. For example, in his preface to that book, he argues against the possibility that ancient Egyptian beliefs could have survived in altered form in African peoples to this day, saying that "The power of the Egyptians reached no farther than the northern end of the 'Island' of Meroe, and it was not truly effective beyond Napata, the modern Merawi, near the foot of the Fourth Cataract" (xvii).

Instead of admitting to the possibility of any sort of cultural influence, Wallis Budge instead argues that "Modern Sudani beliefs are identical with those of ancient Egypt, because the Egyptians were Africans and the modern peoples of the Sudan are Africans. And making allowances for differences in natural circumstances and geographic location, ancient and modern Nilotic peoples give outward expression to their beliefs in the same way" (xvii).

This argument is typical of the kind of racial and/or geographical determinism that dominated much scholarly analysis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the sentences quoted above, Wallis Budge is actually arguing that African peoples who live in the Nile region will always evolve the same general religious beliefs, even if separated by centuries and with no contact or knowledge of one another. The connection between this kind of thinking and the Darwinism which had such an impact in the decades of the 1850s through the 1930s should be fairly clear: it is very much analogous to asserting that fish or birds in a certain type of environment will always evolve bills or fins which are shaped a certain way.

We have previously discussed the ways in which the beliefs that are prevalent at various periods of time can influence the analysis and the conclusions of scholars in that period, and that they can be almost transparent to those scholars at the time, and more obvious when we look back with the perspective of a century of history. The tenets of Darwinism clearly distorted analysis a hundred years ago, and in many ways continue to do so in conventional academia today (although in different ways than in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).

In spite of the ways in which we might often disagree with his conclusions, the work of Wallis Budge remains very valuable. He was a gifted writer who covered a tremendous amount of material, and therefore becomes a sort of familiar guide to the reader after a short period of time. It would be a shame to spurn his friendly companionship through the mysteries of ancient Egypt simply because he reached different conclusions.

Further, Wallis Budge often had perceptive insights, insights that might be more difficult for analysts of today to make due to the particular blind spots or biases of our own time. Just as in literature the weaknesses of a protagonist are often directly related to his strengths (think of most characters in Shakespeare, for example), the very fact that Wallis Budge came from a very different time than the one we inhabit today allowed him some perspective to see things that we today might overlook, even as it may have also led him to some conclusions which we today perceive to be naive.

One valuable insight, and one which he discusses in many of his works (including the book on Osiris and Egyptian beliefs in resurrection referenced above) is Wallis Budge's discussion of the tension between monotheistic and polytheistic expressions, which seem to peacefully coexist almost simultaneously in many Egyptian texts. We discussed this noteworthy topic in a previous post entitled "God and the gods." Wallis Budge has a similarly-titled chapter in his book discussing the Papyrus of Ani beginning at page 99 (which can be read online here).

E.A. Wallis Budge was a complicated figure, as well as an extremely intelligent and learned man, who rose to the pinnacle of scholarship in England in his time, from extremely humble beginnings. He should not be pigeonholed or dismissed as someone whose contributions have been eclipsed by the passage of time or the progress of modern academia (which in many ways can be criticized as being far more close-minded today and more susceptible to groupthink than scholarship of previous centuries).

On this his birthday, it is appropriate to consider the sizable contributions of this pioneering scholar and thinker, and to be grateful for his life spent in pursuit of the mysteries of antiquity.