Margaret (pling) wrote,

  • Mood:
  • Music:

The Stephen Glanville Memorial Lecture

On Saturday we went to a lecture in Cambridge - every year there's a Stephen Glanville Memorial Lecture on Egyptology, given by some notable person in the field, organised by the Fitzwilliam Museum. Last year was pretty much the sort of thing I'd expected - a talk about Memphis (capital of Egypt in the Old Kingdom period) given by Jaromir Málek, which I remember less of than I'd like (wish I'd been actively updating LJ then!). This year's lecture was a little different, though. It was given by Maulana Karenga - who is indeed a notable name in the field of Egyptology, he has published on the concept of Maat (order) as seen in the literature of Ancient Egypt and is Professor of Africana Studies at California State University. However he is also (and I think more) known as a black rights activist, ethicist & thinker as described in the wikipedia page I linked to about him. I have to confess I'd never heard of him though.

The audience seemed to be divisible into two parts - (a predominantly white & academic looking) half (which includes me & J) who were there for the talk on Egypt, and (a predominantly black) half who were there to hear Karenga speak. It was reasonably easy to spot who was who, as those there for the man himself had almost all brought a copy of one (or more) of his books and when they came into the lecture theatre made a beeline for the front to greet him & get him to sign the book. But those there for the man were still interested in & educated about Egypt, that was clear from the questions at the end of the lecture.

ticket for the lecture

The title of the lecture was "The Maatian Ideal of Social Justice in Ancient Egypt: A Classical African Conception", and the main part of the talk looked at various texts that survive from ancient Egypt and what they say about what Maat meant to Egyptians. Maat means "order" or "rightness", and at its most basic level it is the state of the world when all is right & good - the ideal towards which Egyptians should strive. There are a lot of texts right throughout the history of Egypt which talk about how one should act in order to promote Maat - from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom to the Book of the Dead, and not just "religious" texts but also many writings from eminent people on correct behaviour. Karenga had synthesised from these writings seven essential principles of Maatian behaviour - I can't remember them all (and should possibly have been taking notes!) but they included things like "every human has an essential right to dignity irrespective of any social or biological status", "everyone has a right to the basic necessities of life". Maat also gave one a responsibility to those poorer or of lower status than oneself, and if you were in a position of authority you should strive to be transparent and fair in your decisions. Karenga was keen to stress that if you look at the historical record then often Egyptian society didn't live up to this ideal, but no society does always live up to all its ideals - it's still worth looking at what they hold as "perfection" as a way of gaining insight into their mindset.

Just as the audience were of two halves, so was the talk - there were two themes throughout it all, as important as each other and inextricably twined together. One was the Egyptology that I've already talked a little about, the other was the ethicist & activist part of his life-work - how can we apply this to the modern world & how we live our lives today. He stressed that he did not want to start a new religion, that no matter what your theology & beliefs are you can still hold yourself up to the essential questions of Maat - "have I spoken only truth?" "have I treated all humans with dignity?" etc - and answer them in your own way, your own language of faith even. And that this is something that Africa & Africans can bring to the discourse about ethics in global society - this ancient and African ethical system, that was an essential part of social justice in an African society for millenia and is still a relevant collection of concepts and principles today.

Another of the concepts he made a point of bringing out in his talk was that in ancient Egyptian there is a word that means both heart & mind, and this is an important synthesis. That if you live just by the mind you end up with a society where you can talk about "collateral damage" when people die, but just living by the heart is also bad. What you need is to both have passion and intellect, and to use them both in applying justice & ethics to your life and in wider society.

Karenga was a very charismatic speaker - and once he got going it was easy to see his enthusiasm for his subject, both the intellectual Egyptology side and the passionate activism side. He kept saying things like "I can't quote you anything from this I don't have the time, oh but I must just read you this bit ...". I think he could quite easily have talked for twice as long and not exhausted everything he wanted to say (and it would still have been an interesting talk, too). I'd quite like to read his book about Maat now (although unfortunately the library doesn't have it and it's 60 quid from amazon :o ). He also did a good job of speaking to both parts of his audience - although I think there wasn't much "meat" there for the Egyptologists in the room, J said he didn't learn much new and he's just an amateur so I imagine this was even more the case for the professionals. There were also a few (but not many) points in the talk where it was clear that I was not part of the "we" to whom he spoke (being white in a country where 92% of the population (as of 2001) is white means I've not often if ever been in the "other" category on race grounds, so that was a somewhat educational experience).
Tags: africa, egypt, ethics, history, talks
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.