“Why’d it have to be snakes?”

A common motif in Western literature and art is the representation of snakes as the embodiment of evil and deceit. We could ask ourselves, as Indiana Jones usually does on one of his adventures, “why’d it have to be snakes?” You would be hard-pressed to find a positive portrayal of a serpent in a film or book: In Harry Potter, Voldemort has a pet snake in which he places part of his soul and a dark wizard is identified by his ability to communicate with snakes. The long-running television show Dr. Who depicts a being of pure hatred that survives on fear as the giant snake Mara. In classic stories like the Jungle Book, Kaa the python is always up to something treacherous through use of hypnosis and deceit. And older still, is the famous example in the Book of Genesis, when a serpent seals Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden through cunning trickery.

Countless more examples abound, but why are serpents always linked to evil?  Why not sharks, spiders, lions, or bats, all of which tend to instill equal amounts of fear among people and yet don’t have the long-lasting associations with evil like that of snakes?  Most species of snake are not particularly vicious or dangerous, at least compared to any other animal that might be associated with evil, and yet it is always snakes.

Historically, snakes have always been a common symbolic motif, and in many early human cultures they did indeed represent evil.  Nearly all cosmogonies of early civilizations – origin myths that explained the creation of the world – depicted snakes as evil beings set on world destruction.

  • The story of Gilgamesh from early Mesopotamia told how a stole the plant that provides eternal youth, causing Gilgamesh to lose his immortality – a bit like the story of the garden of Eden, where immortality in the garden was lost due to the trickery of a serpent.
  • In Ancient Egypt, Apophis was the serpent that tried to stop the sun god Re from bringing forth morning and thus he had to be battled and conquered every night before the sun could rise again.

  • The Vikings believed that Jörmungandr was a serpent so large it could encircle the earth and bite its own tail. It was the serpentine arch-nemesis of Thor that would one day kill him and initiate Ragnarok by squeezing his tail and destroying the world.

And even when they aren’t screwing over all of mankind with plans to destroy the world, snakes are still up to mediocre bouts of evil – in Greek mythology the half-human monster Medusa, who could turn men to stone with a single glance, had snakes for hair. This probably fueled later medieval folklore that warned of a giant serpent called a basilisk, whose gaze rendered its victims dead.

The Basilisk has remained a popular mythical monster, starting in Ancient Greece and continuing on through the Dark Ages, and reappearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The Basilisk has remained a popular mythical monster, starting in Ancient Greece and continuing on through the Dark Ages, and famously reappearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Although the stealthy behavior and sometimes venomous bite of a snake is part of the natural, biological world, it still gives people reason to dislike them, and the way that they move and slither through grass unseen makes snakes a useful metaphor for a deceitful or sly person.  They flick their tongues in and out in a slightly sinister way, therefore having a “serpent’s tongue” makes one untrustworthy.  If there is a legitimate reason to fear or dislike something in the physical world, it makes it easier to transfer that fear into a symbol that could represent pure or supernatural evil, because people already have a negative connotation to it. 

But in non-Western cultures, snakes aren’t always evil, and sometimes were represented in a duality of good and evil – although Apophis opposed the sun god Re, a Uraeus was a cobra image atop the crown of an Egyptian king meant to protect him.  Serpents meant different things to different members of society and different societies as a whole.

The Caduceus of Greek Mythology was the “messenger” staff carried by Hermes and Iris and was wrapped with two winged snakes. In modern times it is sometimes confused with the Rod of Aesculapius – which only had one, un-winged snake. As the god of medicine and healing, Aesculapius and his followers worshiped snakes and products derived from them, especially venom, were thought to have medicinal properties in ancient times.

On the left is Hermes carrying the Caduceus, which has been adopted as a symbol of medicine in place of the Rod of Asclepius, who was the god of medicine and healing.

On the left is Hermes carrying the Caduceus and on the right is Aesculapius carrying the Rod of Aesculapius.  Although the Rod of Aesculapius was carried by the god of medicine and healing, the Caduceus is sometimes portrayed in modern times as a symbol of emergency and medical services.

The imagery of a snake shedding its skin and emerging anew has also lead to its representations of rebirth, especially in Hindu cultures. During the festival days of Shravana, the “Nag panchami” involves snake worship in a quest for fame and knowledge. But a snake can also represent sexual desires and passions, both positive and negative, and could therefore contribute to an individuals downfall.

And remember Apophis, whom the Egyptians had to defeat every night? Though a figure of evil, he might not have been truly hated but instead seen as a power to be reckoned with and a necessary part of life. Good cannot triumph over evil if there is none to defeat and the ancient Egyptians valued a balance of good and evil, order and chaos, ma’at and isfet – the world is not balanced if there is no evil and an unbalanced world was seen as the true danger.

Likewise, in Norse belief, there was no avoiding Ragnarok – it was fated to happen, and Thor knew he would die to Jörmungandr long before it would happen.  So with this cultural perspective, the serpent may be seen as less of an agent of evil and more as an agent of fate, a messenger that acts to ensure the world carries on as it is meant to, whether this be good or bad for everyone involved.

The definitive imagery as serpents being fully evil didn’t really exist until Christianity came along. It is possible that the early ideas of the duality of snakes – both good and evil – is what sealed the future perceptions of snakes in a negative light. The early Church did not like dualities in ideas and early Christianity usually saw things as all good or all bad, with little middle ground. Dualities left too much open for interpretation by commoners, which was a disadvantage in a time when the Church was trying to spread quickly across cultures and into new territories.

Sadly, it was not uncommon for Christians to vilify the pagan beliefs that they did not adopt, making them wholly evil and therefore more straightforward to the common people. (Even the meanings of the words “vilify” and “villain” come from an early Christian attempt to associate the pagan French “vilain”, simply meaning a peasant farmhand, into something evil because they were, after all, pagan.) Snakes, which represented many ideas of both good and evil, came to be associated with devil worship, sorcery, and deceit because an individual could be deceived by an idea with more than one meaning.  Therefore, placing a serpent in the Garden of Eden as the ultimate downfall to mankind and as the form that Satan himself chooses when he tempts Eve, has created a permanent connection between serpents and “evil”, which has lasted for hundreds of years and still persists in Western culture today.

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“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.

“I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

In the opening song to one of my favorite musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye described the traditions of his hometown Anatevka:

“For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

I have always loved this part because it is a funny and honest explanation that even someone that values their religious traditions doesn’t always understand them. Many traditions in our culture don’t have solid explanations to their origins, and ones centering on religion are always the most interesting in my opinion.

For example, I never understood as a kid why I was forced to eat fish sticks on Fridays in public school because some kids couldn’t eat any other meat on Fridays. Later I learned that it was a Catholic tradition, but I still didn’t understand why it was so important.

So why do Catholics eat fish on Friday?

Fasting is required by the Code of Canon Law for anyone over the age of 14 and under the ago of 60. Ask any devout Catholic and they will explain that it is related to the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross: fasting provides a constant reminder of his death and allows an individual the opportunity to contemplate their faith and make reparation for their sins. As for the specific day, according to the Bible, Jesus died on a Friday and so this is the day that should commemorate his sacrifice. However, the specificity of only being allowed to eat fish is less clear.

Fish are linked to parables of Jesus several times in Christian stories, such as the loaves and the fishes, and one of the symbols associated with Christianity is the “Jesus Fish”:

However, the Bible does not specifically mention that people should eat fish on Fridays nor does it literally say that Catholics should fast on Fridays. This unclear source of information has lead to several fun myths regarding the “true” reason for the tradition.

1.   Training the Navy

I was told one myth during a tour of Sulgrave Manor in South Northamptonshire, the ancestral home of George Washington. According to our tour guide Cymon:

Queen Elizabeth I was worried about a potential war with Spain, which was highly feared for its impressive Armada. So she wanted to make the English navy better, and whats the best way to have a highly skilled navy? Have a highly skilled civilian sailor population.

Ensuring that the populous of England could only eat fish on Fridays kept the demand for work high in the fish market ensuring that they were always busy and kept in their prime, ready to answer the call for Queen and country should a war with Spain erupt.

So Elizabeth, who had already been sorting through some religious issues regarding the drastic shift from Catholicism to Protestantism by her father Henry VIII, simply added this in when no one was looking.

In reality, there is absolutely no evidence nor references to this theory anywhere, so I’ve always been curious as to where our supposedly ex-history professor guide came up with this story.

2.   The Pope’s secret profits

Another myth involves a secret pact between the Pope and the leaders of the fishing industry. The Pope decreed that Catholics could only eat fish on Fridays so they could both profit from an increase in fish sales. While this is also probably not the case, there is no denying that the fishing industry did greatly profit from this rule.

3.  The importance of the Fishing Industry

Another myth centering on fishing seems even less likely: when Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England, the eating of fish became political – it implied a support of the Catholic Pope.

Fish sales supposedly declined and the fishing industry was hurt, which in turn hurt tax income and the trading industry. This was such a problem that fast days were instated by law to reverse the problems.

Unfortunately, the problem with this myth is that fish are already associated with Catholic traditions before the reinstatement of a fasting law.  So the law may have helped continue the tradition, but it by no means explains its origin.

So what is the real truth?

Sadly, it is likely that it did not involve a political ploy or religious scandal. It also is not the result of a literal translation of the Bible. More likely it is the result of a mistranslation of the Bible:

First off, technically, it is only the eating of warmblooded animals that is off limits, so fish technically are edible on Fridays.

The way the word “meat” is translated from Latin, it implies something that is “bloody” flesh, from the word caro – but fish meat is not considered bloody or really considered flesh by any definition, so perhaps it was assumed that fish simply did not count in the fasting rules.

Or, because Catholics were expected to abstain from “special foods” on Fridays in order to be reminded of Christ’s sacrifices, it is plausible that fish wasn’t really considered a special food and thus not applicable to the ban. This is likely because fish was such an integral part of the diet of the time that it wasn’t banned because it simply couldn’t be omitted from the diet.

So in all reality, the Friday Fish Fry is probably due to a translation based on the culture of the Medieval era, which turned into a tradition that Catholics still honor to keep their faith. If only the Pope had made a secret agreement with the fishing industry, it would have made the story so much more interesting.

“Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme of things not found within recorded time”

Working off the theme of my past post, a defense of anthropology, I was wondering if there was a similar argument for the merits of studying archaeology and mythology, and as it turns out, a poem written in 1931 did all my work for me.

I am a huge fan of mythology and the more you know, the more you realize how much mythology has influenced culture, art, and literature. The study of classical mythology has been considered a necessary part of any education for hundreds of years, so much so that students were not admitted to many of the higher universities without the ability to read classical writings. For admittance to Harvard, students were required to be able to read and write Latin all the way until the 1950s, and even later for admittance to Oxford or Cambridge.

Mythology has always played a strong role in our basic understanding of literature and religion, even in modern writings. References from classical literature and mythology are found everywhere. So studying mythology can be important to understand the greater concepts in our world around us.

And there is a term used to imply the importance of studying mythology, mythopoiea (myth-uh-pee-uh), which stems from a poem of the same name emphasizing the importance of mythology in our culture. “Mythopoeia” was written by J.R.R. Tolkien after a meeting of the literary group known as “The Inklings”. They were a group of authors and professors at Oxford during the 1930s and 40s, and they valued fiction writing, especially the use of fantasy as way to demonstrate ethical values and Christian morals.

Members of the Inklings included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and a variety of other literary figures of Oxford in the '30s and '40s.

Members of the Inklings included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and a variety of other literary figures of Oxford in the ’30s and ’40s.

The Inklings met at this bar in Oxford to discuss their work.  They sometimes referred to it as "The Bird and Baby", and the pints served up here probably helped inspire their writing...

The Inklings met at this pub in Oxford to discuss their work. They sometimes referred to it as “The Bird and Baby”, and the pints served up here probably helped inspire their writing…

Supposedly, C.S. Lewis had said that he didn’t find value in myths because they were not true, and though “lies breathed through silver”, they were lies nonetheless. He later came to write the Chronicles of Narnia, a mythopoeic narrative with abstract allegories to Christianity, possibly as a result of his viewpoint being changed by Tolkien’s arguments.

Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, obviously found value in the reading and writing of myths and after this conversation with Lewis wrote Mythopoeia as a response. The poem, whose title means “myth-making”, defended mythology as a literary art that demonstrates fundamental truths of life. Tolkien argued that you cannot restrict your search for knowledge in the purely material world and that you must also seek truth and understanding in symbolism.

The poem is a narrative where the philomythos (myth-lover) speaks to the misomythos (myth-hater) about the value of mythology. The poem explains that the universe is a mystery and there is no way for an individual to understand everything in God’s plan. However, we have a sense and so we try to define our own world with mythology to help us comprehend the bigger issues in life. The act of creating the spiritual stories and retelling of the truths helps disclose these truths to others.

That humans retell the stories they are told and remake them to fit their own ideals and beliefs is an important part of the idea of Mythopoeia, and demonstrates the importance of it. Joseph Campbell claimed that “without relevant mythology, society cannot function well and happily”. Therefore, we need mythology to help us comprehend the things in our life which otherwise would overwhelm us with questions and wonder in our own world.

“To the one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless
even though ‘lies breathed through silver'”

PHILOMYTHUS TO MISOMYTHUS

-Mythopoeia, 1931
-J.R.R. Tolkien

“Starbucks represents something beyond a cup of coffee”

In keeping with the theme of logo mythology (see my post about Godiva), I have always loved the Starbucks logo and am annoyed that they are constantly “modernizing” it, taking away all the imagery it represents. The original logo, back in 1985 when Starbucks first started, was this:

Starbucks Logo, 1985

From the FAQ page of Starbucks.com, they say they “wanted to capture the seafaring tradition of early coffee traders”. And they did so rather well, with the twin-tailed mermaid. However, the symbolism associated with them is perhaps more controversial than Starbucks, as a national corporate company, would like, which is probably why it keeps getting simplified.

A twin-tailed mermaid, sometimes called a Melusine or a siren, and is commonly portrayed as being half-serpent/fish and half-human. They are a symbol of transformation (specifically relating to alchemy) and also symbols of unity that link earth and water, and body and soul. They could be evil, like the sirens of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their deaths, or simply a feminine spirit of fresh or ocean waters that bestow love on humans.  In mythology the are commonly represented in a very similar manner to the original Starbucks logo:

A depiction of a twin-tailed mermaid in a Medieval Bestiary (a book of stories and Images relating to animals that were real and perceived-real)

A depiction of a twin-tailed mermaid in a Medieval Bestiary (a book of stories and images relating to animals that were real or perceived as real)

The most common story involving a twin-tailed mermaid is that of Melusine, a beautiful woman who turned into a serpent from the waist down while bathing. Her suitor, a variety of different men depending on the source, met her at a magical enchanted fountain in the middle of the woods (an innocent maiden alone at an enchanted spot in the forest should always always always raise a red flag, but apparently he didn’t think it was that strange). She agreed to marry him under the condition that he never disturb her on Saturdays when she bathed. He agrees to her wishes and they get married and live happily ever after.

For a while anyway, but eventually he gets curious and suspicious of what she does alone and sneaks a peek, only to see her in her serpentine form. He is horrified and she is angered by his betrayal, so she turns into a full-on dragon in a fit of rage and she leaves him in a fury. Basically, moral of the story is: there is a monster inside every woman. Even though it was his mistrust and disobedience that caused the whole incident, it was a sexist medieval metaphor for the duality of female nature and the malevolent forces that could reside in all women.

Twin-tailed mermaids also represent fertility in most cultures they are found in, which is what the Starbucks logo most closely resembles – the bare breasts and the two tails spread apart say “come hither” in a very obvious way. This logo has actually sparked controversy in the past, which may be why Starbucks seems to be systematically censoring their logo, first covering the breasts with hair, cropping out the view of the navel, and then omitting the images of the tails.  Now it has become so cropped that it is hardly noticeable as a mermaid:

Starbucks Logo, 2012

So if you take anything away from this, I hope you have learned two things:

  1. Starbuck’s logo is that of a creature that lures people to their doom with sweet music, just as their coffee lures me in to waste my money every time I need a caffeine high.
  2. Starbucks should stop changing their logo because the old one is super cool and full of interesting history and sexy symbolism.

“There’s nothing unclassy about being naked, if it’s appropriate”

It’s that most magical time of the year when those that work in offices for people much richer than themselves often cash in on holiday gifts such as boxes of holiday candy. Professors especially just seem to know how much a small gift of food means to the starving undergraduates working as lab techs in their research labs, and my previous lab boss would always hang microbiology-themed Christmas stockings in the hallways of our building. They usually had things like candy canes and the most recent copy of journal articles we were supposed to read, and always a mini box of Godiva. It was a good job, the Godiva made up for spending the rest of the year in a gross-smelling laboratory growing plague with hazardous chemicals (which don’t get me wrong, is pretty freaking cool).

Godiva Chocolates

Not to be a typical chocolate-obsessed girl, but I really love Godiva. Although, I think I love their logo as much as I love their chocolate. Companies sometimes pick interesting images for their logos (I could talk forever about Starbuck’s logo), but I really love Godiva’s and here’s why:

Godiva

Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who lived in the middle of the 11th century. Godiva is an latinization of her real name, which was either Godgifu or Godyfu, meaning “gift of God”. She was married to Lord Leofric, and together they were one of the most powerful noble families in the area, controlling all the land in Coventry, England.

Her and her husband were well-known for giving large sums of land, money, and jewels to religious causes as far away as London. She was perhaps the driving force in these donations, as her name is specifically credited with the founding a monastery near Coventry.

However, the thing that she is most famous for and what most people would know her for are not these acts of goodwill, but rather riding a horse naked through the streets of Coventry. Admittedly this is much more interesting, however it also probably didn’t even happen.

The myth goes like this:

Her husband was mercilessly taxing the peasants of their lands, and she repeatedly begged him to reduce taxes. He repeatedly refused, until he became so fed up with her pleas that he rashly proposed that if she would ride naked through the streets at midday, he would reduce the taxes. He thought this would stop her demands once and for all, but much to his surprise she agreed to his terms. She stripped naked, having nothing but her long hair to cover her body, and rode through the streets escorted only by two of her attendants (or two knights, depending on the version of the myth). Everyone in Coventry stayed inside and closed their shutters, lest they accidentally see her, out of respect for her sacrifices made for the peasants (or they were asked to remain inside out of a royal decree, once again, depending on the version of the myth). In the end she won the feud with her husband and he was forced to lower taxes.

Painting of Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1898.  Now in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, England.

Painting of Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1898. Now in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, England.

However, as cool as this myth is, there are several reasons it probably didn’t really happen:

  • Lady Godiva died in the 11th century but this story doesn’t appear before the 13th century, though there are numerous  other mentions of her generosity toward the church. If the story really did happen, it probably would have been mentioned more in the 200 years directly after her death.
  • Looking back at the records of the time, there were no taxes directly enforced on the people of Coventry during the 11th century, only a tax on horses, so Lady Godiva couldn’t have been riding to repeal a tax that didn’t exist.
  • Anglo-Saxon laws regarding royalty also worked a little differently – Lady Godiva was not excluded from the power over her kingdom like females were of the later ages, so she could have repealed the law herself if she so chose (especially because the power over Coventry was inherited from her family). However, if the myth were written later in a time when females had no governing power, it might be automatically assumed that Lady Godiva had no political power during her time either.

Another part of this story didn’t appear until the 17th century. Remember how everyone shut their blinds out of respect for Lady Godiva?  Well there was one guy who didn’t. A tailor named Tom decided to sneak a peek at the passing Lady and upon seeing her was immediately struck blind (or dead, either by divine retribution or a loyal peasant community punishing his disloyalty towards their lady. Once again, the myths are all different). His voyeurism was forever immortalized in the nickname “peeping Tom”.
This leads us to the fourth fault in the myth:

  • Tom. This is definitely not an Anglo-Saxon name and it is highly unlikely that Leofric and Godiva ever had a subject named Tom, which means this part of the myth was definitely made up, especially since it appeared so late in the history of the story.

Yet, despite all the flaws with this myth, it remains the most commonly thing known about Lady Godiva and her flawless image has been immortalized in paintings, sculptures, and yes, even the logo for a famous chocolate company. How does a myth with so little evidence remain so well-known? I’m just guessing the nakedness and the voyeurism has something to do with it.

“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.