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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ancient Egypt, Sacred Science, and Transatlantic Romanticism

  • Author(s): Redd, Marques Jerard
  • Advisor(s): Otter, Samuel
  • et al.

Ancient Egyptian culture has been a powerful influence on a major tradition of English literature that runs from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1596), one of whose major iconographic centers is the temple of Isis, to John Crowley's four-volume novel Ægypt (2007). My dissertation focuses on the Romantic period - the midpoint of this trajectory - because it is an extremely intense moment of this influence. In addition to the visions of Egypt presented in the Bible, Greco-Roman writers, and travel narratives, ancient Egypt reached American and British culture of the time through a variety of channels, such as (1) Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, which allowed a stream of Egyptian monuments to travel into Europe and America; (2) the deciphering of the hieroglyphics in 1822; (3) an Egyptian-inspired freemasonry, which wielded a major effect on political revolutions in the USA, France, and Haiti; and (4) revived interest in heterodox Alexandrian traditions such as alchemy, gnosticism, and hermeticism. These channels transmitted a mediated Egyptian "sacred science," which can be defined as a transdisciplinary form of knowledge that does not aim to study external objects or manipulate abstract signs and empirical processes, but rather strives to the catalyze the transformation and expansion of consciousness itself, with the final goal being the divinization of the human. This project explores the work of a series of canonical British and American Romantic figures most deeply engaged with this legacy of ancient Egypt. In interlinked chapters on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ode on Astronomy, Kubla Khan, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, I argue that Egyptian sacred science provided a conceptual foundation for spiritualized representations of, respectively, the natural world, the self, and deific powers (or "gods") that link these two domains and situate them within a network of larger cosmic dynamics.

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