essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Egypt lives in everyone’s imagination as one of the most ancient of civilisations. Whether it be vanished glories buried in the sand, like those that inspired Shelley’s Ozymandias, or Hollywood hokum like the Mummy’s curse, most people have some idea of ancient Egypt. I thought it would be interesting to see where those ideas came from.
1. Buried in the sand
When pioneer photographers Maxime du Camp and Francis Frith sent home photographs from Egypt in the 1850s, this was the first Europe had seen of the remnants of Egyptian civilisation save the sketches of Napoleon’s archaeologists made in 1798. It was a picture of sculpture and sand, far from the restored, relocated and spotlighted antiquities tourists see today, and taken before official vandals had removed much of the limestone surfacing for newer buildings. Du Camp (1822-94) and his friend Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) travelled to Egypt in 1849. While Flaubert dreamed of a heroine he named Emma Bovary, Du Camp’s images of a civilisation drowned in sand gave rise to a vogue for the pleasure of ruins. The original impact of images such as those of Du Camp’s was a melancholy satisfaction at how much of ancient civilisations had been lost.
The images Francis Frith (1822-98) took in his many journeys in a then unexplored Africa during the period 1856-9 show a different aspect of the same subject. For Frith it was the eternal, unchanging survival of monuments from an unimaginably distant past that had significance. Egypt stood for unchanging values, in a nineteenth century Europe which was experiencing change in every possible way. So the first Egypt we discovered gave a mixed message. The pyramids, the Sphinx, the colossi of Rameses had somehow defied time. Yet it was obvious that much, indeed most, of the artifacts, and certainly the culture and way of life of ancient Egypt had been lost forever.
2. The story of Isis
The gods of ancient Egypt, the hawk, jackal and ibis headed, human bodied beings presented in a perspective showing them facing the viewer but with head and arms and feet in profile, are potent images. Some of the stories of gods that accompanied Egyptian religious rituals have survived, and have been an influence on many later religions. Most Egyptians were dependent on the rites and the images displayed with them to comprehend the truths of their religion, for they could not read. We have to accept that most of what has survived are part of funerary rites, and that there would have been much more to religion in ancient Egypt than we are aware of. Although we cannot recapture anything of the place these images and their associated rites had in Egyptian culture, we do know the stories, collected by writers such as Herodotus and Plutarch.
The grandson of mighty Re, the sun god, was Osiris. He reigned over a land that knew not illness nor death. It was a time of justice and of plenty, a golden age, the birth of civilisation. But the brother of Osiris, Set, god of the desert storms, became jealous of the power of Osiris and the esteem the gods felt for him. He tricked Osiris into entering a magic chest, locked him inside and threw the chest into the Nile. Not satisfied with this, Set opened the chest, and cut the body of Osiris into 14 pieces, which he concealed in 14 places spread over the length of the land of Egypt. This was how death entered the world, for Osiris was the first to die. His sister and wife, Isis, was a great magician, and among the most powerful of the gods. Mourning the death of her husband, Isis roamed the land of Egypt, and uncovered the parts of Osiris’ body that Set had concealed. Calling on the great god Anubis for help, Isis reassembled the body of Osiris, and gave him life again. Anubis had made this possible by embalming Osiris’ body, the first time this had been done. Newly risen to life by the power Isis had to resurrect, Osiris lay with Isis, and she conceived a son, whom she named Horus. But Osiris could not stay in the land of the living. The price of his renewed life was relegation to the land of the dead, over which he became king, and judge of all who died. Horus became the king of the land of Egypt, though he had many a struggle to endure with his uncle Set. Horus was the first of the Pharaohs, who ruled in Egypt for 3,000 years.
This story of a golden age, destroyed by an evil god, and restored by a god who died and was resurrected and who gave the power of new life to humankind, is a story which has reverberated down the ages. Originally the most powerful figure in the story was the resurrector god, Isis. Not only the god of magic, she became the god of fertility and new life, of motherhood, and a powerful intercessor with Osiris in the judgment of the dead. In so doing she absorbed the roles of other Egyptian gods, in a process called syncretisation, which showed a tendency towards the spread of monotheistic religious beliefs throughout the Graeco-Roman world and beyond it. Isis ruled as the great Queen of Heaven and giver of life throughout the Far East, in Alexandria and many other centres of Graeco-Roman culture, until the sixth century AD.
The influence her worship had on the growing religion of Christianity was immense, and can be seen in the cult of the Virgin Mary. Mary is mentioned only in passing in the earliest Christian writings, yet by the time the cult of Isis passed away, Mary was one of the major figures worshipped by Christians. So, strangely enough, it was Christianity which gave continued life and resonance to Isis, her images and her stories, and influenced how we see ancient Egypt.
3. An ancient Egyptian story
Much of what we know of ancient Egypt is to do with death, funerary rites, tombs and the afterlife. Our picture is biased by the kinds of evidence that have survived to modern times. But there was a lot more to Egyptian life than the Book of the Dead and the Pyramids. Retrieved by generations of archaeologists are fragments of another kind of literature. Magic incantations and spells, hymns – and stories. The stories have been collected by Gaston Maspero and are available here Tales of Ancient Egypt.
Here is an excerpt from the Tale of King Khufu and the Magicians.
Thus, on a day when His Majesty had gone to the temple of Ptah, lord of Ankhutaûi, and when His Majesty paid a visit to the house of the scribe, chief lector, Ubaû-anir, with his suite, the wife of the first lector Ubaû-anir beheld a vassal among those that were behind the king: from the hour that she beheld him, she no longer knew in what part of the world she was. She sent to him her serving-maid who was near her, to say to him,“Come,that we may lie together for the space of an hour; put on thy festival garments.” She caused a coffer full of fine garments to be carried to him, and he came with the serving-maid to the place where she was. And when the days had passed after this, as the chief lector Ubaû-anir had a kiosque at the lake of Ubaû-anir, the vassal said to the wife of Ubaû-anir: “There is the kiosque at the lake of Ubaû-anir; if it pleases thee we will have a short time there.” Then the wife of Ubaû-anir sent word to the major-domo who had charge of the lake, “Cause the kiosque which is at the lake to be made ready.” It was done as she had said, and she stayed there, drinking with the vassal until the sun set. And when the evening was come,he went down to the lake to bathe and the serving-maid was with him, and the major-domo knew what was occurring between the vassal and the wife of Ubaû-anir. And when the land was lightened and it was the second day, the major-domo went to seek the chief lector,Ubaû-anir, and told him these things that the vassal had done in the kiosque with his wife. When the chief lector, Ubaû-anir, knew these things that had happened in his kiosque, he said to the major-domo “Bring me my ebony casket adorned with electrum that contains my book of magic.” When the major-domo had brought it, he modelled a crocodile in wax, seven inches long, he recited over it that which he recited from his book of magic; he said to it: “When that vassal comes to bathe in my lake, then drag him to the bottom of the water.” He gave the crocodile to the major-domo and said to him,“As soon as the vassal shall have gone down into the lake, according to his custom of every day, throw the wax crocodile into it behind him.” The major-domo therefore went away and he took the wax crocodile with him. The wife of Ubaû-anir sent to the major-domo who had charge of the lake, and she said to him, “Cause the kiosque that is at the edge of the lake to be made ready, for behold, I come there to sojourn.” When it was the time of evening the vassal went according to his custom of every day, and the major-domo threw the wax crocodile into the water behind him; the crocodile changed into a crocodile of seven cubits; he seized the vassal, he dragged him under the water. The first lector, Ubaû-anir, presented himself before him, and said to him,“May it please Thy Majesty to come and see the marvel that has occurred in the time of Thy Majesty in the matter of a vassal.” His Majesty therefore went with the chief lector, Ubaû-anir. Ubaû-anir said to the crocodile, “Bring the vassal out of the water.” The crocodile came forth and brought the vassal out of the water. The first lector, Ubaû-anir, said,“Let him stop,” and he conjured him, he caused him to stop in front of the king. Then His Majesty,the King of Upper and of Lower Egypt, Nabka, true of voice, said, “I pray you! this crocodile is terrifying.” Ubaû-anir stooped,he seized the crocodile, and it became in his hands only a crocodile of wax.The first lector, Ubaû-anir, related to His Majesty the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nabka, true of voice, that which the vassal had done in the house with his wife. His Majesty said to the crocodile, “Take thou that which is thine.” The crocodile seized the vassal, plunged to the bottom of the lake, and it is not known further what became of the vassal and of it. His Majesty the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nabka, true of voice,caused the wife of Ubaû-anir to be taken to the north side of the palace; she was burnt and her ashes thrown into the river. Behold this is the marvel that happened in the time of thy father, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nabka, true of voice, and is one of those performed by the first lector, Ubaû-anir.” His Majesty the King Khufuî, true of voice, said therefore, “Let there be presented to His Majesty the King, Nabka, true of voice, an offering of a thousand loaves, a hundred jugs of beer, an ox, two bowls of incense, and also let a flat cake, a quart of beer, a bowl of incense be given for the first lector, Ubaû-anir, for I have beheld the proof of his learning.” And that was done which His Majesty commanded.
Although nothing is known of the period when this tale, or series of tales, was first composed, it could easily reflect an oral tradition of 2000 BC or earlier. It seems to reflect the world of The Thousand Nights and One Night, which is derived, so scholars, believe, from Indian originals.
4. 12 novels about ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt has inspired writers from Apuleius from Algeria in 180, author of The Golden Ass with its famous salute to Isis, to Roger Zelazny, whose 1969 fantasy Creatures of Light and Darkness featured the Egyptian gods as main characters. The subject has attracted women writers in particular, who often write about female characters about whom nothing is known historically, or famous queens such as Hapshepsut or Cleopatra. The gamut of historical reliability runs from the meticulously researched, and the inspired, through to the mere pretense for writing a romance or adventure story. These 12 are selected from others’ lists: I have only read three of them, and summarise reviewers’ opinions of the rest from amazon.com.
1877 Georg Ebers, Uarda: A Romance of Ancient Egypt
A novel about a daughter of Ramses II. Ebers was an Egyptologist who wrote fiction to interest readers in the discoveries that were being made by archaeologists in his lifetime, including his own. Reviewed on Amazon as ‘faction’, but entertaining.
1937 Joan Grant, Winged Pharaoh
Sekhetra becomes a ‘winged pharaoh’, both priestess and ruler, in the First Dynasty. Grant wrote novels that recalled her former reincarnations. Whether you believe this claim or not, her books are astonishingly vivid recreations of ancient times. This was her first novel.
1949 Mika Waltari, Sinuhe the Egyptian
About a young Egyptian man who rises to become royal physician for Akhenaten. Reviewed as one of the greatest of historians and one of the greatest of novelists, his book as one of the best historical fictions ever written. A best seller which has remained in print since first publication.
1971 William Golding, The Scorpion God
A novella about an ancient Egyptian ruler in the time before the pharaohs. Golding is one of the masters of English prose, and the most imaginative novelist of the 20th century. Not a story so much as an unsettling incursion into readers’ preconceptions of antiquity.
1976 Allen Drury, A God Against the Gods
About Akhenaten, the pharaoh who adopted monotheism, and his wife Nefertiti. Idiosyncratic, well researched and well written, it has divided readers in its interpretation of this pharaoh, and should be read in conjunction with other views of the period such as Waltari’s.
1977 Pauline Gedge, Child of the Morning
About Hatshepsut, the woman pharaoh who ruled Egypt in the fifteenth century B.C. This is a full fledged novel, with a relationship at its core unknown to history. While the historical detail is well researched, it is not the main point of the story.
1983 Norman Mailer, Ancient Evenings
Probably the most learned book on ancient Egypt I’ve ever read, this novel tries and largely succeeds in presenting its story from a contemporary viewpoint (most historical novels are in some way anachronistic). This is a sustained effort of creative imagination which doesn’t hesitate to be obscure, offensive and mystical, all at the same time, in the belief that just possibly this was ‘the way it was’.
1989 Moyra Caldecott, Hatshepsut: Daughter of Amun
Ancient Egypt 3500 years ago – a land ruled by the all-powerful female king, Hatshepsut. The book divides readers, and is reviewed as either too factual, or too fantastical. Caldecott writes commercial fiction for the market, and the book will appeal to those who like SF.
1995 Christian Jacq, Ramses: The Son of the Light
About the youth of Ramses II, Egypt’s greatest pharaoh. This was a best seller and led to four further books in the series. It’s actually a historical fantasy about a character called Ramses who lives in a place called ancient Egypt. Entertaining, but it won’t tell you anything much about the time and place it’s set in.
1996 Judith Tarr, King and Goddess
About Hatshepsut, the eighteenth dynasty female pharaoh of Egypt. This is a soap opera set in ancient Egypt, and an entertaining one. It’s not profound, doesn’t tell you anything about human nature, doesn’t bring the past to life, but it’s well written and well constructed, and passes the time agreeably.
1998 Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth
About the pharoah who attempted to introduce monotheism to ancient Egypt. One of the greatest of Egyptian novelists gives Akhenaten the Citizen Kane treatment. The idea is not to tell us the facts, but to get us thinking about what might have happened in Amarna in terms that do no violence to our knowledge of human nature. Bound to fail, but in an interesting way.
2008 Michelle Moran, Nefertiti
About the beautiful chief wife of the fourteenth century B.C. pharaoh Akhenaten. This is an historical romance in the Mills and Boon style. Women readers will probably like it more than male ones, for it tells the story from an exclusively female perspective.
The picture we get from reading these books is in many cases far from any accurate picture of what life was like in ancient Egypt. It’s probable we can never get any such picture from a work of fiction. We don’t actually know that Rameses II was a great warrior, that Akhenaten wanted to introduce monotheism, that Hatshepsut was an usurper: these are scholars’ surmises based on limited evidence. Romance and adventure writers in particular seem to me to write the same story again and again, with any one period being interchangeable with another (which doesn’t stop the books from being enjoyable). But a course of such reading does give one the idea that ancient Egypt was populated mainly by noble born young girls who eventually became queens, evil priests who plotted against pharaohs, great warrior kings, and lots of magic. Let’s not forget the 99% who worked in the fields or on the public works, the many skilled artisans whose work still delights us, the merchants who travelled throughout the far east for rare commodities, the diplomats who negotiated with foreign powers, the story tellers, and all the many characters in ancient Egypt who never seem to be written about in works of fiction.
If fiction doesn’t give a too accurate picture of ancient Egypt, what idea to we get from other popular arts? Karl Freund’s 1932 classic The Mummy starred Boris Karloff and Zita Johann. It gets its effect by using the idea of reincarnation to achieve a ‘return of the living dead’ kind of menace, and throws in a Scroll of Thoth which can bring the dead to life. Although this is really what the ancient Egyptians believed might happen, should they be embalmed properly, escape depredations by tomb robbers, and survive the judgment before Osiris, the idea that a lot of ancient Egyptians might leave their coffins equipped with eternal life is the last thing we’d want. Karloff does a good job of being weird and menacing.
The Mummy’s curse was a newspaper stunt to publicise stories about Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The survival of the mummy was vital to each Egyptian’s hope for immortality, and rituals, images and provisions left by relatives tried to ensure this survival. But virtually every tomb was ransacked by robbers in ancient times and the mummies usually destroyed in the process. The tomb robbers were committing sacrilege, and would have incurred a terrible curse. But of course there is no evidence this curse has lasted to modern times. The financier of Carter’s expedition, Lord Carnarvon, did die the year after the tomb had been opened (he had been ill for the previous 20 years). But most of the people associated with the discovery, including Carter himself, died of old age.
These ideas are based on knowledge of ancient Egyptian beliefs. The Egyptians wanted to live forever, and took steps to ensure this. But a look at a mummy tells us that they got it horribly wrong. Nevertheless we share the same desire, and there is a kind of horrified fascination in the way we look on ancient funerary rites.
The ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation, and many who advocate such views today, from followers of the Theosophists to Lobsang Rampa, refer to these Egyptian beliefs. However there is little accurate presentation of what Egyptians really thought on the subject, even if some do quote from the Book of the Dead (quoted out of context, passages from this can be very misleading), and the subject extends to include those who believe aliens from some remote galaxy are sending mystic knowledge to enlightened ones here on earth.
The pyramids have fascinated all who have seen them for thousands of years. As we are currently a technological civilisation, we tend to be more fascinated with the engineering achievement, though there is no shortage of beliefs that the pyramids are more than tombs. Built for astronomical observations, aids to help the pharaoh travel to distant galaxies after death, energy focusing devices and many other beliefs proliferate. Again, there is little accurate presentation of what ancient Egyptians believed in these theories.
The simple fact that the pyramids have survived for so long should not be taken out of context. The pyramids were originally surfaced with limestone, and would have appeared white, smooth, and with ornaments of gold on the surface as well. They were surrounded by extensive temple complexes, and the surrounding areas also housed a vast population of priests offering continuing rites, and working men who supplied themselves and priests with food cultivated nearby. There were structures like the pharaoh’s boat, a life sized vessel beside his funerary temple, on which he travelled to the next life. The pyramids were the focus of what were small towns. Theories that ignore these facts are to be considered only for their entertainment value.
The history of Egypt
It is remarkable how little we know of ancient Egyptian history, beliefs, and way of life. The pyramids, the mummies, the Book of the Dead and other ancient works, myths transmitted by later Greek writers, all give a very fragmented story. The ‘history’ generally accepted by scholars is based on a book written in 250 BC in Greek by an Egyptian priest called Manetho. Manetho’s book has not survived, but several epitomes have. We have no idea how accurate a historian he was, and he well may have made up some of his accounts, as several other ancient historians did. Manetho apparently introduced the idea of dynasties in order to group together pharaohs he considered related in some way. He mentions many of whom we have no other record. Other historical evidence used by scholars is based on surviving inscriptions, the equivalent of government proclamations, and which served a propaganda purpose, not a recording of fact.
So ancient Egypt is still a mystery, a hotbed for monomania, superstition and horror stories. The sphinx looks on with his enigmatic smile at all our theories. He’ll probably still be there after our present civilisation reaches the auto-destruct stage.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.