“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.

“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.

“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'”


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

“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:


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.

“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?