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Hornung was born in Riga, Latvia in 1933 and gained his PH.D. at the University of Tübingen in 1956. He was Professor of Egyptology at the University of Basel from 1967 to 1998. His main research field has been funerary literature, the Valley of the Kings in particular. He published the first edition of the Book of Amduat in three volumes between 1963 and 1967. J. Gwyn Griffiths described Hornung as the foremost authority in such literature. His book Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt, The One and the Many has become his best-known work, in which he concludes, whilst acknowledging previous work by Henri Frankfort and his "multiplicity of approaches" and John A. Wilson's "complementary" treatment of Egyptian modes of thought, that "Anyone who takes history seriously will not accept a single method as definitive; the same should be true of anyone who takes belief seriously". Hornung became Vice-President of the Society of the Friends of the Royal Tombs of Egypt in 1988. His books have been published in German, but many have been translated into English.
In his 2007 book, Water into Wine, Canadian author Tom Harpur, a proponent of the Christ myth theory and a believer in the similarities between Jesus and Horus, quoted Hornung's last book, The Secret Lore of Egypt and its Impact on the West (2001):
Notwithstanding its superficial rejection of everything pagan, early Christianity was deeply indebted to ancient Egypt.... the Christian slayer of the dragon [St.George] had its model in the triumph of Horus over Seth ... The miraculous birth of Jesus could be viewed as analogous to that of Horus, who Isis conceived posthumously from Osiris, and Mary was closely connected with Isis by many other shared characteristics.