Magazine article The Spectator

'The Silver Eye: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts', by Susan Brind Morrow - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Silver Eye: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts', by Susan Brind Morrow - Review

Article excerpt

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. …

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