“What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”

In a lecture regarding Egyptian tombs the other day, my professor mentioned how some kings were so afraid of graverobbers disrupting their tombs – thus making their afterlife more difficult or even impossible – that they had booby traps built. What he meant by this was secret doors or unbalanced rocks that may fall. Of course, what was in my imagination was more like Indiana Jones, with spikes that pop up through the floors, pressure plates that trigger poisonous darts, or a giant rolling rock ready to crush you should you disturb the tomb the of the sacred king. That is until my professor made a point to abruptly stop his lecture to add “NOT like in Indiana Jones”.

Apparently, he gets that sort of question a lot, along with questions about whether or not aliens helped build the pyramids and if there really is a curse of the mummy of Tutankhamen (no and no). He says the crazies asking him these questions are merely one of the “perks” of being an Egyptologist with a publicly accessible university email address.

And I hate to admit that I’ve gotten caught in a class discussion before with a faulty assumption I made after watching “The Mummy” – that the Egyptian Book of the Dead was a standard text that was so special that only a few copies existed. In reality it was actually called “The Book of Coming Forth by Day” and copies were buried with most elites in a practice that lasted over 1,700 years, and the content of each varied greatly based on the individual it was buried with.

This error made me wonder how much damage these myths about archaeology do to the art of science. It never seemed like a big deal to me: as a kid I was fascinated by characters like Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain. And though they are horribly inaccurate, I credit movies like “The Mummy”, “Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and “Braveheart” with my early interest in anthropology, archaeology, and history.

Admittedly, I had to relearn many of the “facts” I learned from so-called historical movies, but nevertheless popular culture made me interested enough in a topic to learn the real facts behind it. So, is historical inaccuracy okay if it increases the public interest and awareness in a topic such as archaeology or history?

I guess that answer depends a lot on the story being told. For example, the Disney movie “Hercules” is infamous for its inaccuracies when it comes to the Greek traditions of Herakles – my favorite being that Zeus was such a man-whore that he fathered Herakles with another woman, not Hera. But, the Greeks had so many different versions of their own stories, that it wouldn’t seem that big of a deal to make inaccuracies now when the original myths were equally inconsistent.

But, what about a movie like Gladiator? It is meant to give an idea of life in Roman times and all of its characters are named after real people. Except none of them are represented accurately – Maximus of Hispana lived over 200 years before the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and Commodus certainly did not murder his father. So, do we damage the history and memory of these individuals by mixing their stories with fable and vilifying them without just cause? It seems a little unfair to the dead who are unable to defend their images in the face of popular culture.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these issues is when misconceptions arise about entire cultures, that still may exist. My mind jumps to the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”: Indy is in Peru searching for a golden fertility idol, and ends up being chased by the “Hovitos” tribe who bow down before the idol and engage in mindless killing at the order of Indy’s archenemy “Belloq”. Except the Hovitos never existed and are dramaticized and loosely based on the “Chachapoyas” of Peru, while the artifact is actually a representation of the Aztec goddess “Tlazolteotl”.  This picking and choosing and combining of interesting imagery from various cultures is a common theme in films and seems to do a disservice to a culture of which only some traditions and values are worth retelling.

Or the ending of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, where Indy learns that a group of aliens, which ancient peoples around the world worshiped, actually built pyramids and other major ancient monuments. As my professor pointed out:

“the belief that aliens helped the Egyptians build the pyramids is less crazy than it is a sheer insult to the engineering skills and intellect of the Egyptians, because you are basically claiming that they couldn’t have done it on their own”.

But, it is also arguable that the creative arts of film and literature should be given a bit of poetic license on a historical matter, because history is never clear-cut and unambiguous. One could argue that we never know how the true events played out because “history is written by the victors”. And many people simply want to know how to feel about a historical event in a black & white way – basically, was a person good or bad? Was an event positive or negative? And films do a good job of presenting history in this sense, in a fun and entertaining way that leaves the viewer with a clearly defined idea of what they just witnessed and how they should feel about it.

That being said, maybe the best way to look at a blockbuster film is with interest, a grain of salt, and a desire to learn the real facts. Visual imagery is a great way to spark interest, but one should never claim to have any real knowledge on the matter if their facts come from Hollywood.

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One thought on ““What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”

  1. A good post with some excellent points.

    Many people don’t distinguish fictional anthro from actual research. And when they do, they often have only a Tylor-esque view of anthropology–theory that’s 150 years old. This is changing, but slowly.

    Movies function as a mythology for most people, doing no more than giving some broad ideas in a highly palatable format. But the average person is exposed to much greater cultural variation than ever before. “We have met the ‘other’ and he is our next-door neighbor, our colleague, our mailman.”

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