“In this exciting book Morrow argues that [The Pyramid Texts] are “the earliest body of written poetry and religious philosophy in the world.” She provides a radical new translation and a line by line exegesis, presenting an “unfolding series of poetic riddles,” each with layers of concealed meaning. The complex belief system that emerges suggests that elements of … the Abrahamic faiths could have their origin in ancient Egypt.”
-The New Yorker
“A new and exciting work of literature”
-The American Scholar
“Bringing a much needed poetic and visual sensitivity to the Pyramid Texts, Susan Brind Morrow shows that they are indeed deeply visual and poetic in their language, and she makes a compelling case that they need reinterpretation. The author’s deep knowledge of Egypt and affection for the land, along with her longtime immersion in Arabic, give The Dawning Moon of the Mind a remarkable range and immediacy.”
Leon Levy Director
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
New York University
“With a brilliant combination of literary criticism, cultural history, and linguistic expertise, Morrow (The Names of Things) provides a dazzling new translation of the hieroglyphs of the pyramid of Unis (built in 2323 B.C.E.) as well as a detailed and thoughtful guide to interpreting hieroglyphs and understanding the culture that produced them. Though others have translated the so-called Pyramid Texts, Morrow points out that they miss much of the poetry and meaning because they rely on Western notions of Egyptian religion and art… Most translations misinterpret the Pyramid Texts to be the stories of animals and gods, but Morrow’s translation and interpretation reveal them to be an examination of the ways in which humanity is deeply embedded in the cosmic.”
“With the skill of a scholar and the sensibility of a poet, Susan Brind Morrow opens the language of hieroglyphs”
FSG Work in Progress “A Process of Discovery Hieroglyphs and the Natural World”
Interview with Robert Thurman at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
The Spectator “The Writing on the Wall at Saqqara is Plain to See”
by Daniel Hahn
6 February 2016
The Silver Eye: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts
Susan Brind Morrow
Head of Zeus, pp.290, £20
When the Saqqara pyramids were opened in 1880, the chamber walls were found to be covered in hieroglyphic writings, and these texts have been a subject of discussion among Egyptologists ever since. What do they mean? What do they represent? What do they tell us about the religion or the cosmology or the worldview of a culture that can sometimes seem incomprehensibly far from our own?
Taking issue with the scholars that have come before her, Susan Brind Morrow uses this fascinating, challenging book to demonstrate her view that the message on the walls is poetic, timelessly meaningful and sophisticated. Part of her thesis involves simply stripping away the long-held assumption that there must be a mythology behind what is written, suggesting rather that what we’re seeing instead is poetic metaphor (that ‘silver eye’ of the title is the moon, of course). And sometimes, when you’ve cast aside your mythological obsessions, a literal reading might make more sense. Sometimes an owl is just an owl. This is a complex, dense, clever book, but it’s arguing a case for simplicity and clarity.
That’s not to say that the writing Brind Morrow analyses for us is itself unsophisticated; merely that a century of Egyptology has seen its interpretation overlaid with things that aren’t actually there, things that need to be peeled back to look afresh at what she argues is carefully structured poetry. The texts use all kinds of recognisable writerly techniques — there’s a mastery to them, an expertise — with puns and seemingly intentional ambiguities and double meanings (the image of a lion is also the word for a ‘gate’, giving each gate reference a little added dangerous thrill). They play on sound and sense, and on the double-duty whereby hieroglyphs represent simultaneously concrete and metaphorical things and sounds (that picture of an owl is an owl and all that an owl represents, but it’s also an ‘m’).
There’s no mythic narrative to connect it to, but there’s pleasingly complex metaphor. There’s onomatopoeia (wepwawet is the cry of the coyote, shu the word for air and wind), and there are riddles that depend on sounds or on the interrelation of the carefully arranged physical placing of the figures on the wall — riddles that might resolve into, for example, a star map.
Earlier misreadings are blamed on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Egyptian religious thought. Where Brind Morrow’s own reading is poetic and coherent, her predecessors’ have frequently been neither, as scholars have wrestled to make the hieroglyphs fit into their own distorted cultural expectations. She makes her clarity seem incontrovertible. ‘How’, she asks — after positing her quite uncomplicated explanation of a line – ‘can this simple image, with a kind of stately loveliness expressed by the simplicity of the hieroglyphs themselves, be misconstrued to mean the anus of a screeching baboon?’ It’s a reasonable question.
Alongside her exegesis of the texts, Brind Morrow also includes a full translation of her own. Where the commentary is a piece of detailed practical criticism, this is the work of a poet translating poetry. But translation, too, is interpretative and critical; translation, too, is a reading of, and a comment on, the thing that it is rendering to its new readers.
Personally, being inclined to matters linguistic, I enjoy parenthetical explanations of the uses of vowels, or of the workings of verbs (though you may find your pleasures elsewhere). The code-breaking aspect is satisfying, too. But it’s not a book for the faint-hearted. Brind Morrow’s intelligence is bracing, and entirely uncompromising. While lay readers may be flattered by the assumption that it’s surely as evident to us as it is to her, is a reviewer allowed to make an admission that — with the greatest of efforts — just occasionally he wasn’t able to understand the book under review, I wonder?
But even when it’s at its hardest, demanding re-reading and re-reading, The Silver Eye is a book filled with poetic pleasures and intellectual stimulation. The rewards of revelation come slowly, and they need to be earned. As Brind Morrow writes, describing the experience of reading the hieroglyphs: ‘Repetition draws the mind into an evolution of meaning, as though turning the object in the light.’
The Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage
“With this landmark book … Morrow gives us a different translation, upending more than a century of scholarly analysis…
The Pyramid Texts are in fact the oldest astronomical text in existence.”
Dr. Clifford Cunningham
National Institute of Astronomy
Ian Dreiblatt, responding to Sunday’s CBC interview
“Susan Brind Morrow, poet, translator, erstwhile Guggenheim Fellow, and dyed-in-the-wool Egyptophile, in an interview with the CBC’s Mary Hynes this weekend, discussed her work translating the collection of early Egyptian writing known as the Pyramid Texts. Dating from the third millennium BCE, the Pyramid Texts were a gathering of nearly 800 poetic “utterances” that Egyptian scribes of the Old Kingdom chiseled into tomb walls and royal sarcophagi. They’ve often been described as protective spells and mythological scenes, but, as Morrow has noted, the English translations that have been available are generally pretty bizarre, and periodically nonsensical. They do little to share with us the truth of Egyptian thought and poetry. We read them without really remembering the time, so to speak.
For an instructive example, take this scene, from writing carved into thetomb of the fifth-dynasty pharaoh Unis, which Morrow first quotes in the translation of James P. Allen:
Pull back, Baboon’s penis! Open sky’s door! You sealed door, open a path for Unis on the blast of heat where the gods scoop water. Horus’ glide path TWICE… Unis becomes a screeching howling baboon…
You know, like you do.
Addressing the total perplexity a poem beginning “Pull back, Baboon’s penis!” might reasonably engender, Morrow notes early in her recent bookThe Dawning Moon of the Mind that, in this English translation,
two foreign ideas are being superimposed on the Egyptian original. The first is that the writing is primitive. The second is that it contains a myth. The English does not track because the translator is following this preconception rather than the actual hieroglyphs, and the translation does not make sense because the myth is not there.
In Morrow’s reading, the baboon in question is the constellation Orion, and the penis, in a kind of inverse euphemism, is his sword, so that the opening lines can be understood as meaning something closer to “The sword of Orion opens the doors of the sky.” She also understands the “blast of heat” to be more properly a “blast of fire” (that is, daybreak), “the gods” to be more properly “the holy ones” (that is, the stars), and “Horus,” the falcon-headed god who plays a central role in much Egyptian mythology, to be here more properly just “the falcon” (that is, in this case, Sirius, the brightest star in the Egyptian sky). In all, Morrow translates the passage:
The sword of Orion opens the doors of the sky.
Before the doors close again the gate to the path
Over the fire, beneath the holy ones as they grow dark
As a falcon flies as a falcon flies, may Unis rise into this fire
Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark.
In Egypt, Sirius rises (“a falcon flies”) at dawn (“before the doors close again”) when summer is at its height — just as the Nile begins its annual flood, the key natural event signaling rebirth in the Ancient Egyptian imagination. So Morrow reads this as a poetic passage that ultimately means something like, “May the soul of the dead king rise into the sky like the brightest star at the moment of the world’s rebirth.” Which, indeed, is a lot more beautiful, and a lot less inane, than shouting “Pull back, Baboon’s penis!” at a funeral.
Morrow describes the texts as offering, in her reading, “a very radiant vision of human life as being part of the universe.”
The interview is surely worth a listen, especially for anyone enthralled by the mysteries of ancient poetry and the art of translation. And as we’ve recently written, more recent Egyptian literature, written under conditions that present difficulties and subtleties of their own, can pose a serious challenge to translators as well.
We sometimes tend to think of translators as people with the simple job of extracting essential content from one language and repackaging it in another. But the truth is that good translators often begin their work by venturing deep into the mysterious heart of the pyramid, and sometimes what they carry out is treasure. At its best, translation enables a reader from one culture to fleetingly partake of another, a reminder that being human places us squarely in the middle of an incredible, ongoing experiment in meaning-making. And we get an impoverished version of what this can be when a careful constellation of words in one language is re-configured as a mere baboon penis in another. More can happen. For its ace exemplification of this, Morrow’s work is a wonder.”
The Turning Sky: Discovering the Pyramid Texts
Lapham’s Quarterly Discovery Issue March 2017
“When you discover gold or an ocean, you know what you’re looking at and that you have found something worth having or knowing. The same is not true when ancient texts are discovered, for the process of interpretation, and ultimately realizing what something is and is worth, can take a long time. In the “realms of gold,” of books written in the distant past, discovery lies in figuring out the translation. This is a dangerous subject, for books written in dead languages are far from dead. Ancient religious texts have enormous power. Even the most obscure sacred texts and images are involved in the brutalities of geopolitics. Verses written over a thousand years ago underlie territorial claims, the treatment and rights of women, the uses of water, and other key issues that define the lives of millions. The interpretation, and misinterpretation, of religious writing and iconography from the past is the cause of much of the violence in the world. At Bamiyan, where the Taliban dynamited fourth- and fifth-century statues of the Buddha, and Palmyra, where ISIS has destroyed ancient temples, religious relics are the target of violence as well. To destroy sacred artifacts and books is to destroy a culture. Sometimes a more subtle process of destruction can occur, as when the misunderstanding of another culture misrepresents what is written in the original.” Read more