Assessing the impact of Hellenism on Egyptian culture, Jan Assmann (The Mind of Egypt) argues that “The Hellenistic project was not a bid to hellenize the east but to find forms of expression in which indigenous traditions could be made transparent and translatable. Hellenism provided local traditions with a common idiom that allowed for a newly sophisticated and flexible mode of self-expression” (424).

This was a challenge to Egyptian practice, who worried that “foreigners might act in a blasphemous way toward the gods, who, offended, might then turn away from Egypt” (396). So the writer of the late antique Corpus Hermeticum prohibited translation: “Leave this text untranslated, so that these secrets remain hidden from the Greeks and their irreverent, feeble, and orotund speech does not undermine the dignity and vigor of our language and the energy of the names. For the discourse of the Greeks, though outwardly impressive, is empty, and their philosophy is nothing but verbose noise” (396).

Greeks were translators. They saw belief in the gods as “supranational and intercultural,” and Herodotus was even willing to admit that the Greeks borrowed their gods from Egypt. They “had not difficult in recognizing their gods in the Egyptian deities” (396). They saw in polytheism an opportunity to set a “foundation or ‘interface’ for translation between cultures. In this framework, the religion of another people was the least alien things about them” (397).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart