Dangerous Days in Ancient Egypt

When I was young I used to love Horrible Histories. I always used to borrow them from the local library.

When they started Horrible Histories were an attack on the conservative values of tradition and ignorance. Even at that late stage, in my younger days, the shades of Victorian historiography were still present in children’s non-fiction. History books still tended to tell the stories of heroes (often, but always, white men) or Whig versions of the progress of societies to a western ideal. It might be extreme to say that Horrible Histories changed all that, but they did have an impact beyond children’s writing.

Dangerous Days in Ancient Egypt is an attempt by author Terry Deary to replicate his successes with Horrible Histories and crack the adult market. Good luck to him. It is unclear why he wants to crack the adult market, when it’s not as buoyant as the children’s market and several adults call themselves “young adults” in order to read his works for younger readers, but fair play.

 

Dangerous Days in Ancient Egypt follows the broad outlines of Ancient Egyptian history from the pre-dynastic period to Cleopatra. It’s a conversational, fast paced book. The jokes are stacked up, sometimes a little too much but that is, perhaps, the charm.

The book tells a history not just of ancient Egypt but also the western study of Ancient Egypt. Unlike some popular historians, Deary foregrounds topical questions on historiography. The colonialist and racist ideology of some early practitioners is explicitly examined and condemned. The book discusses the appropriation of ancient artefacts and the reality behind early excavations. Most refreshingly of all, Deary tells what might be a new history of Egypt for some of his readers without the over excitement of Dan Brown. The real conspiracy behind the study of Ancient Egypt is not that aliens designed the pyramids but that early archaeology was predicated on racist lines.

 

This is a well researched and well considered book.

Like earlier Horrible Histories books Dangerous Days in Ancient Egypt follows the periodisation of Egyptian history by ruler and dynastic house. This of course follows the Egyptian writer Manentho, who is not mentioned.

Deary is less interested in the rulers than the “little people”. The problem is that much of what we know about Ancient Egypt comes from sources which need examining and placing in content before they can begin to be used to write history. Dangerous Days in Ancient Egypt contains several quotes or tales (in boxes) which aren’t referenced. It’s not always clear what is a paraphrase and what is a quote and it’s not always easy to began unpicking how valuable these sources are.

Small errors abound. For example, in discussing the Isiac myth Deary repeats what we know from Plutarch without crediting him (and without explaining the difficulties of using a 2nd century CE philosophic author for a 2,000 year old myth). Most tellingly Deary tells how Isis found every bit from Osiris’ body except his male member. He then goes on to joke about how Isis could conceive Horus without this “one part”. Yet Pluatch’s version states that Isis fashioned a phallus for Osiris to procreate with. The myth of Isis and Osiris is transgressive and rewards a queer reading. It is unclear why Deary didn’t mention this part of the myth when he discusses ithyphallic gods and statues elsewhere.

 

It is hard to not compare Dangerous Days in Ancient Egypt with earlier Horrible Histories titles.

It has less violence and slime than I remember and more sex. The real difference is the lack of cartoons. Martin Brown’s cartoons were both funny and fascinating to examine. He fitted a lot of detail into his images.

The old joke is that adult books don’t have pictures, but I have never understood this. Well considered bookart will always add to the text. That is why Dickens is still printed with illustrations. Ancient Egypt is synonymous for its visual iconography. This book needs art.

 

To sum up, Dangerous Days is a good read but a closer attention to texts and more cartoons would make this worthy of a high 2:1. It’s too broad to really get stuck in. If the series is a goer, then books focusing in on particular sub topics such as Akhenaten, Cleopatra, Awful Archaeologists would be well worth a read.

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