“Trust not too much in appearances”

I’ve been re-watching some of my favorite childhood movies – I think its a quarterlife crisis thing as graduation draws near – and one that I especially made a point to watch was “Prince of Egypt”. It was one of Dreamwork’s first animated films and is based off the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus out of Egypt.

Val Kilmer voices Moses and Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort) voices Ramses II. Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Helen Mirren, Martin Short, and Steve Martin also lend their voices. And you get to hear Ralph Fiennes, Martin Short, and Steve Martin sing. It’s pretty epic.

I always loved it as a child, but I recently realized I loved it for different purposes than were intended – being the story of the Exodus, a viewer is perhaps supposed to learn about the Bible, Moses, and the power of God in freeing his people from oppression.  And I will admit, the burning bush as sign of God’s power is a well-done scene and very cool… but I always loved the portrayal of the Egyptian gods more.  The Egyptian priests were far more suave than Moses or Aaron, especially with their jackal- and hawk-headed gods and their love of all things “cat”.  Not to mention, young Ramses II had a way cooler haircut.

As kid I thought the Egyptian gods might have really existed alongside the Christian God (though I surely wasn’t supposed to believe that from the Bible), and I always figured they actually had animal-heads. As a student who enjoys archaeology and mythology, I now question what the purpose of the animal-heads were and how literally they were meant to be taken.  Simply:

“Did the Egyptians actually belief their gods had animal heads?”

And the answer is not a simple one. Our understanding of Egyptian religion is lacking because we still can’t even read all of the hieroglyphics we have found. Furthermore, Egyptians considered it bad luck to write about the afterlife, religious practices, and ideas about evil, so for some topics we have no information at all.

Early Egyptologists may have believed the Egyptians had somewhat primitive ideas about religion and would have actually believed in the improbabilities of an animal-headed god. We in modern society tend to have an obsession with exotic cultures or mysterious traditions and do sometimes forget that our ancient ancestors were intelligent and capable of the same critical thinking we are, and their religion was highly organized and complex. And their religious leaders were well-educated scholars – the Dalai Lama is an incredibly well-educated man though admittedly his lifestyle, religion, or appearance can be seen as a bit “exotic” in Western culture.

The Egyptian gods are described as being “therianthropomorphic”, meaning partly human and partly animal. But representations varied widely – Anubis always has his jackal head, but Osiris is usually represented in human form. Osiris can also be represented by the “crook and the flail”, an “atef” crown, sometimes a bull (these animals were sacred to him), and even the color green (representing rebirth and fertility – understandable considering he is the king of the afterlife and fathered a son after his death). Since Osiris was a deity connected to several aspects of life and death, a mere single representation of him is neither an accurate nor fair way to demonstrate his power.

An ancient image of Osiris – note the green skin on the human form, and that he is wearing an Atef crown and holding a crossed Crook and Flail across his chest.

The famous Classicist and author Edith Hamilton wrote that the Egyptians deliberately made their gods unhuman to distance them from mortals, to make them more awe-inspiring and something to be feared. Indeed the Greeks saw the Egyptian gods as uncompanionable, mysterious, aloof, and beast-like, unlike their own gods who were human-formed with idealized beauty and very human personality traits.

And this may be slightly true, as the afterlife was seen by ancient Egyptians as being very hierarchical – gods were better than kings, who were better than elites, and at some points the possibility of a mere peasant going to the afterlife wasn’t even considered. Therefore, if the gods were meant to demonstrate their status above kings through imposing appearances, perhaps they were meant to appear aloof because they were in fact inhuman.

However, the Egyptians were sophisticated and methodical, and from their art we know they valued symbolism. Therefore it is possible that the images of gods were meant to be completely symbolic and not literal. If you have ever examined an Egyptian drawing, you will immediately notice that detail, size, perspective, and realism are absent – the information that the image projects is much more important. If pictures weren’t meant to be taken literal, we shouldn’t assume that because Horus is drawn as hawk-headed that Egyptians believed if they physically saw Horus in real life, he would have a beak.

The animal associations of power and magic were much more important than realism. It is likely that Anubis was shown with a jackal head not because it was believed that he was half dog but because the jackal was associated with cemeteries because they were scavengers and it was feared they might unearth buried corpses, and so the jackal was associated with the god who was associated with protection during burial, mummification, and the afterlife. Anubis’s jackal head is also an excellent example of the symbolic nature of the animal-headed deity because during mummification rites, priests would often don a jackal mask to emulate Anubis – but in no way was it believed this priest actually became Anubis.

Image taken from the "Book of the Dead', showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

Image taken from the “Book of the Dead’, showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

And Egyptians weren’t the only ones to do this – In classical Greek, it was believed Zeus often came to earth as a bull or swan, or disguised as a mortal (usually to seduce a maiden), but this wasn’t the actual likeness of Zeus himself. And how often is Jesus portrayed as a lamb, or the Holy Spirit as dove, even in modern society? Jesus is described as the “lamb of god”, but not because it is believed he is or ever was an actual lamb. Animal representations simply give us a more basic understanding about the nature of a deity.

This was especially important in Ancient Egypt, where the majority of people could not read. Hieroglyphs are complex and there are thousands of them to learn. It is much easier to represent the violent nature of the female demon Ammut (who eats the hearts of evil men) by showing her as having the body of a river beast like a hippopotamus rather than by describing her wrath in writing.

And another possibility to consider is that Egyptians might have accepted that they didn’t even know what their gods would look like. The gods are described as being able to hide themselves from mortals and even from other gods. Likewise, they could transform themselves and hide their true forms and secret names from mortals as well as each other, never looking the same to two different individuals. Egyptian religion therefore acknowledges there is no single concrete form a god can take, and even the idea of Egyptian bodies are multifaceted and complex – there are 5 aspects of a person, each with different appearances and functions.

So probably the safe answer is that we don’t really know what the Egyptians believed, and they might not have fully known either. But, they did not worry about actual representations – images of specific individuals and even their mummy death masks are never lifelike portraits but are instead idealized representations of what the perfect person or mummy might look like. And the fact that the gods could change their forms, even among each other, might imply there is no one specific way a god would look.


“Death shall come on swift wings to he who disturbs the peace of the King”

In a celebration of both procrastination and the fact that next semester I have enrolled in a class entitled “Ancient Egyptian Religion and Culture”, I decided to forego studying and do a little research on the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, just because.

A decent chunk of my childhood was spent reading about mythology and archaeology on the premise that I would one day discover the Loch Ness monster. While I’m not sure how that will pan out in the future, the curse of the tomb of Tutankhamen still interests me from a scientist’s point of view.

Tutankhamen was an Egyptian Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (if you are like me and have no idea what that means, it means he ruled around 1330s BCE). His name means “living image of Amun”, a deity whose cult worship he renewed during his reign. Tutankhamen is a famously short-lived pharaoh, living only to be about 18 or 19 years old. He was the product of a long line of royal familial incest and had a host of genetic abnormalities such as a short stature, overbite, cleft palate, and potentially scoliosis. He married a sister and they were never able to have children, probably again as a result of severe birth defects stemming from inbreeding. He didn’t do anything particularly great during his reign and died at a young age. Overall, he was a pretty unimportant and forgettable pharaoh. So forgettable in fact, that his tomb was forgotten about – which ironically led to his dramatic claim to fame centuries later.

Perhaps a reason why Tutankhamen has become one of the most widely known of the Egyptian pharaohs is the imagery of the treasures found within his burial chamber, such as his Death Mask, a popular image in the study of Ancient Egypt.

Perhaps a reason why Tutankhamen has become one of the most widely known of the Egyptian pharaohs is the popularity of the imagery of treasures found within his burial chamber, such as his golden Death Mask.

Several theories have been proposed about how he died – murder, a gangrenous leg injury, sickle-cell disease, and simply general bad health have all been proposed. No matter the true cause of death, we can assume he probably died somewhat unexpectedly because he was buried in a smaller-than-normal tomb for someone of his status – meaning his intended tomb probably was not complete or he was buried in another tomb not meant for him. (And his body is still there by the way, though most of the other treasures have been removed for a variety of museum exhibits around the world). His lack of fame meant this tomb was forgotten about pretty quickly, aided by a purge of his name and image during the wars and civil unrest that followed his reign. And it remained unknown until his burial chamber was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron George Herbert, also known as the Lord Carnarvon.

Howard Carter and an assistant on his team examine the mummy’s sarcophagus.

The tomb, found in the Valley of the Kings, became instantly famous because it was the most complete tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh ever found – though it had been robbed twice, the actual burial chamber was untouched. The excavation proceeded slowly at first, until the diggers found a sealed room that held the promise of still containing its original treasures. Carter made a small hole in the wall to peer into the sealed room and Carnarvon famously asked him “can you see anything?” and Carter replied “yes, wonderful things”.

A reproduction of the state of the burial chamber, upon discovery by Howard Carter in 1922.

A reproduction of the state of the burial chamber, upon discovery by Howard Carter in 1922.

The opening of the tomb led to instant international fame for Carter and the Lord Carnarvon, and also supposedly set upon them the “Curse of the Pharaohs”, the famous curse that threatens any person, no matter grave-robber or well-intending archaeologist, who disturbs the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. And after the opening of the tomb and revealing the sarcophagus, there were a series of strange events and deaths surrounding the individuals who were present:

  1. Carter’s canary was eaten by a cobra, the symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, very soon after the discovery of the tomb.
  2. Carter also reported seeing jackals, symbolic guardians of the dead, for the first time after working in the desert for 35 years (but there are few sources that confirm this statement)
  3. Lord Carnarvon died strangely as the result of an infected mosquito bite, then his dog died, then all the lights in Cairo supposedly went out (I’m hard-pressed to believe the last of these occurrences, but it makes for an interesting story nonetheless). There was also a report that the cut on his face was in the same location as a lesion that was on the face of the boy king’s mummified remains.
  4. Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid died of a mysterious illness after completing x-ray analysis on the mummy of Tutankhamen.

All in all, the death of 8+ people associated with the excavation was attributed to an ancient curse of the pharaohs.

However, contrary to popular belief, there was never actually a written curse surrounding Tutankhamen’s tomb. Though it was not uncommon for tombs or sarcophagi to be protected by curses engrave upon them, this myth was propagated by journalists of the time, who probably succeeded in selling more copies of their newspapers to the mystified and curious masses than they would have with straight fact-reporting. Though Carter and his team obviously benefited from the increased public interest in mummies and archaeology, he despised the superstitious stories.

Recent statistical analysis of the age and cause of death of those involved in the excavation reveals that there was no statistical anomaly regarding the deaths – of the 58 people who entered the tomb, only 8 died within the first 12 years, not an unexpected outcome considering the ages of the individuals and the state of healthcare systems of the time.

So, perhaps somewhat anticlimactically, the Pharaoh’s curse seems to be proven nonexistent – at least regarding any supernatural explanation. There may still be some scientific merit to a “curse” however, in that tombs are by their nature full of dead things potentially carrying diseases. Ancient offerings of food and the presence of bat feces, called guano, could promote the growth of harmful mold and fungi, which could be dangerous to anyone inhaling the air. Unopened tombs also tend to have a build-up of ammonia, formaldehyde, and other noxious gases from centuries of un-ventilated decomposition. And tombs may have remains of pathogenic bacteria, especially strains that modern immune systems are not prepared to battle.

Bobby traps aren't needed when bats, bacteria, and noxious gases await the careless archaeologist.

Bobby traps aren’t needed when bats, bacteria, and noxious gases await the careless archaeologist.

So, to make a long story short (perhaps a bit late), it is entirely probable that there were dangers awaiting archaeologists entering the ancient tombs – but this affliction did not come from supernatural curses, but rather biological threats to the respiratory and immune systems of the workers. Which is maybe not quite as glamorous or dramatic, but equally exciting for researchers seeking answers to seemingly impossible questions.

“Art is the signature of civilizations”

The other day I came across a photo that I was so utterly convinced was a fake that I spent about an hour of precious homework time (well, precious procrastination time) researching it. Here is the photo:

But as it turns out, it wasn’t fake and was actually from the EISP – Easter Island Statue Project (check it out!).  Did anyone else know that nearly all of the Easter Island statues have bodies? Because I definitely didn’t and am a little ashamed of that. So after all this research, I figured I might as well waste more time and make a post about it too.

Easter Island, located in a volcanic hotspot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is so named because it was discovered on Easter Sunday in 1722 by a Dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen. In the native language, the island is actually called Rapa Nui. The island is most famous for the “Easter Island Heads”, or more accurately called Moai.

Moai are human figures carved from stone and date back to sometime between 1250 CE and 1500 CE. Note that I said figures, not just heads, because most of the statues actually have bodies – but for some reason they are usually buried up to their shoulders. This is a major misconception for a lot of people I think, because the most common representation of these statues are heads lined along the coast, on large stone platforms called ahu.

(Like this)

Another misconception stems from the fact that most images of the Moai are like those of the statues above – a few statues lined up in a very epic and monumental fashion. However, there are nearly 900 of these statues scattered throughout the island. Most are still located in the quarry where they were carved and only about a quarter of them have actually been moved to other locations (mostly along the coast facing inward toward the island).

  • The tallest statue is named Paro – it is 33 feet high and weighs in at 82 tons!
  • But another statue would have towered over this one if it was completed – if finished to the standard design ratio of the Moai, it would have weighed 270 tons!

It is still unknown how the statues were transported from the quarry to their final positions. The leading hypothesis from scholars is that they were pulled along rollers or sleds by human power. Though this is the best explanation so far, it still seems unlikely because of the sheer amount of people that would have been required for this feat – the weigh of some statues suggests hundreds of people would have been needed to complete this epic feat. My personal belief as to the source of the power needed to move these mammoth statues? Aliens.

I had a hard time imagining how these might have been carved in an ancient quarry – here’s the answer.

Another debatable question about the Moai is the reason for their production. The general consensus is that they were carved as part of ancestor worship, and these giant statues represent important people in the tribe. This theory works well given the large proportions of the heads of the Moai and the fact that culture of the ancient islanders exemplified the persona as being centered in the head.

So that’s that, I guess I will get back to homework now.  Or napping….

What’s Coming Soon:

As a senior “Wolverine” at the University of Michigan, I feel like this post is obligatory before I graduate…

“Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes”

If you all haven’t figured this out yet, you soon will learn that I’m a huge nerd of ancient history, symbolism and etymology – so much so that I would relish an opportunity to fall into the plot-line of some “Indiana Jones” or “Da Vinci Code” story and set out to save the world from evil-doers by solving ridiculously abstract and far-fetched historical puzzles. So it always riles up the archaeologist and anthropologist in me just a little bit when some fact from the past is misunderstood by modern culture.

Note: I’m the first to admit that the Da Vinci Code is horribly historically inaccurate and Indiana Jones isn’t exactly culturally accurate either, but they are fun so let’s just go with it.

Anyway, the Da Vinci Code starts off with Professor Landon giving a lecture about the origin of religious symbols, and I was reminded of this scene the other day while in my Archaeology class about Pompeii.  Our professor was showing us examples of Roman mosaics that look like this:

Yes folks, that infamous equilateral cross with 4 arms bent at right angles that is almost universally recognized nowadays and associated with Nazi Germany and all its horrors. Someone behind me asked why the Romans would use a swastika as a decorative symbol because clearly the only image that sprang to her mind was the corrupted one meant to suggest hate.

But an interesting fact about Swastikas is that they have only very recently taken on that horrible symbolism of death, racism, communism, and suffering. Centuries before Hitler, the swastika meant something very different and in some cultures today, still means what it was intended to mean: prosperity and well-being.

The word swastika comes from a Sanskrit word “svastika” meaning “being good” or “having well-being”. It has in the past implied purity, fortune, and luck to different cultures around the world.

Representations of the image are found throughout history in the art and culture of Ancient Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, early Christianity, Byzantium, and other cultures throughout Europe. It has been found in Mayan and Incan artwork and some native North American tribes as well. It is also seen in Chinese and Japanese art and figures prominently in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. And in all cases, it is a symbol of good luck and good fortune.

The meaning of the symbol began to change when it was adopted by the Aryan people – ancient settlers of Iran and India, who believed themselves to be a pure and superior race. It was this connotation that the Nazi party admired about the symbol, as they felt it accurately represented their own ideals about a pure race. So when they were in the market for a symbol to solidly portray their party, the swastika became the candidate of choice. There is evidence that Hitler himself stressed over the perfect representation of the swastika and how it would look on flags and banners, and sadly this image is the one that most strongly comes to mind when people view swastika today.

What’s coming soon:

I promise this is a really cool one!  So look for it soon!

“Myth is an attempt to narrate the whole human experience”

Hi again! So the other night I refused to study for exams anymore and ran out of friends with whom to play Super Smash Brothers (Melee!), so I somehow ended up on Science Daily going through their awesome articles, then transitioned to Wikipedia, learned something new, and thought I would share.

Being the rabid fan of Indiana Jones that I am, and archaeology and mythology in general, I have always loved learning about the more abstract bits of history.  The really cool stuff that was potentially the result of aliens (not the stuff I am learning in my Classical Archaeology class right now that involves the statistical analysis of Pompeian housing structures and whatnot).  And I’ve always been a sucker for the borderline impossible things like Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster (Nessie exists, I know it!), Crystal Skulls, and Atlantis.  And while Atlantis is in all likelihood nothing more than a bedtime story made up by Plato and never taken seriously until semi-modern-day archaeologists decided to start looking for it, there may be a scientific basis for a lost city underwater.  And it just so happens that Helike, Greece may be this inspiration.

Helike was a thriving Greek city, one of the largest in Achaea, and an important port city in Ancient Greece.  That is, until it completely disappeared, literally overnight, during 373 BCE.  Like the city of Atlantis, it was swallowed by an earthquake that caused a massive tsunami to flood the city and wipe it from the face of the earth.  And like Atlantis, it was thought to be a myth of ancient lore – that is, until Helike was discovered in 2001 by archaeologists.

The myth is that Helike was punished for its disobedience by the wrathful Poseidon.  Poseidon was the patron god of the city and he was angry that they potentially dishonored Ionian (Greek) colonists of Asia.  Ironically he is the same patron deity as Atlantis’ and, perhaps more ironically, he is the god of earthquakes and of the sea.

What I found most interesting about this story is that the city wasn’t lost right away, and there  are reports of people sailing to the city to look for survivors, and later to try to salvage statues and stone.  It also became a sort of tourist hot spot for ancient Greek and Roman travelers.  Strabo and Ovid, among others, were known to have sailed over the city, whose deteriorating walls and statues could be seen through the waters above.

Due to the similarities between the events at Helike and the story of Atlantis, historians have proposed that this city may have been some of the inspiration for Plato’s references to the lost city of Atlantis.  Slowly, as silt built up and began to cover the city, it was lost to memory until it was rediscovered by the research efforts of Dora Katsonopoulou and her research team.  They have painstakingly uncovered remnants of the city walls during the dry season (hence why in the picture above there isn’t actually any water visible) and every summer continue to make advancements in their research.

So there you have it, all you Atlantis-believers out there.  Don’t give up hope, Helike-believers were victorious in the end and you may be too!  (But probably not, so accept that Atlantis most likely didn’t exist)

What’s coming soon:

Whoa, this is kinda weird right?  Curious yet?