Like many other people I suspect, I’ve been watching American Gods. I’m not familiar with the Neil Gaiman book on which the series is based, but I’m intrigued by the plot's mixture of different cultures’ mythologies.
I grew up reading D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths (first published in 1961), so much so that the family paperback copy literally fell to pieces. Last year I bought a new copy - flicking through the pages was like visiting old friends.
Having now spent years researching the history of archaeology, I’m familiar with some but by no means all of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. But my current focus on popular archaeology publishing has revealed a few books that were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make the British reading public more familiar with ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses and the stories associated with them.
One of the early 20th century authors I’ve come across is James Baikie. This Scottish vicar wrote fairly regularly for the publishers Adam & Charles Black on various topics both archaeological and scientific (he was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society). His Wonder Tales of the Ancient World is a retelling in English of ancient Egyptian stories and legends recorded in papyri. It appeared in time for the Christmas in December 1915, priced at six shillings, and was marketed as the ideal gift for children.
Baikie's aim in writing Wonder Tales was to animate Egypt for his readers. Otherwise, he declared, Egypt would be “mainly interesting for old stones and old bones.” His first chapter set out the source of the stories for readers; he explained the system of writing in hieroglyphic and hieratic, and the use of papyrus reed rolls, which thousands of years after they were created were recovered by archaeologists and looters.
He drew on the works of archaeologists for the text, referencing among others Flinders Petrie’s popular Egyptian Tales books, which Methuen had published in chronological volumes in the 1890s. Egyptian Tales featured illustrations by the artist Tristram Ellis, who had spent time in Egypt gathering material to inform his work.
Wonder Tales is divided into three parts: Tales of the Wizards, Tales of Travel and Adventure and Legends of the Gods. Each part begins with a short explanation giving a bit of context to the stories that follow. The introductory text to the Legends of the Gods section offers an explanation for the complexity of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Following that are five legends, featuring a host of gods and goddesses: Ra, Nut, Hathor, Thoth, Isis, Horus, Khonsu. Some of the stories are linked back to archaeologists – after “How Isis Stole the Great Name of Ra”, for example, Baikie includes an anecdote from Flinders Petrie’s Sinai expedition.
There are twelve coloured illustrations in Wonder Tales – the work of Baikie’s wife Constance N. Baikie (nee Turner Smith). They are rather splendid - I wish there were more of them. I’d love to find out more about Constance Baikie as an artist but she is proving to be fairly elusive in the historical record (so far). However, as she provided the illustrations for many of James Baikie’s books she had quite a prolific output.
It would be great to see these Egyptian gods and goddesses more often in popular culture today.* Perhaps a revamp of Baikie’s Wonder Tales would be in order. Any takers?
Baikie, J. 1914. Wonder Tales of the Ancient World. London: A. & C. Black.
Petrie, W. M. F. Egyptian Tales Translated from the Papyri. First Series. London: Methuen.
Petrie, W. M. F. Egyptian Tales Translated from the Papyri. Second Series. London: Methuen.
The Times. 1931. Dr James Baikie. 7 February.
*Hamish Steele’s graphic novel Pantheon is a recent re-telling of some ancient Egyptian legends. The 2016 film Gods of Egypt, although introducing some of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, was justifiably criticised on many points.