Built To Last

Those pyramids sure are sturdy.  The other day I was reading something from a biblical literalist that was discussing the pyramids.  The great pyramid of Khufu and its companions in Giza were built between about 2590 and 2505 BCE.  They’ve been around a long time.  Somewhat later this author casually mentioned Noah’s flood.  It had never occurred to me before, but since Archbishop Ussher dated the creation of the world at 4004 (and so it appears in the Scofield Reference Bible), the flood took place in 2348 BCE.  Now this flood was so catastrophic that it carved out the Grand Canyon and buried all those dinosaur bones that would eventually become fossils.  It was more than a little inconvenient, and terribly disruptive.  Except the pyramids had been around for well over a hundred years by that point.  It’s a wonder they weren’t harmed.

Such inconsistencies populate much of literalist literature.  When the Bible is the full measure of science and history and all human knowledge, there’s bound to be some issues, given that it was written at a specific time and place.  You see, the pyramids aren’t even held together with mortar.  These are loose stones we’re talking about, under great pressure.  The “Bent Pyramid,” at Dahshur, changed its angle at half-way up.  A physicist calculated that if they’d continued at the original angle, the weight of all that stone would’ve caused it to act like liquid, flowing like water.  Best repent and rethink your plan.  But these monuments were built to withstand world-wide floods!  And the mummies weren’t even mildewed.  If only Jericho’s walls had been so well built.

From WikiCommons

Maybe that’s why so many modern myths about the pyramids developed.  This sacred shape somewhere between a square and a triangle is said to have unusual properties.  I’ve read that if you put a dull razor (whatever that is) underneath a pyramid shape when you go to bed at night you’ll awaken to find it sharpened.  Made of wire, that shape on your head will not only prevent aliens from reading your thoughts, but will boost the power of your psyche as well.  The funny thing about the Bible is that it never mentions the pyramids at all.  Joseph spent a bit of time there and his descendants stayed for centuries.  Nobody bothered to note those wonders of the ancient world.  Since we’re literalists, though, that gives us a way out.  If the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids they might not exist at all.  Problem solved.

Camera Obscura

There’s a certain etiquette to being on the bus. There has to be, when you pack fifty strangers together for an hour and shake gently. The seats on New Jersey Transit are somewhat intimate and it’s rare to make it through the journey without somehow touching the person next to you—elbows, knees, hips, or general body mass—worlds collide. I’ve mentioned before that not many people read old-fashioned books on the bus, but one of those unspoken rules of etiquette is that you don’t look at a stranger’s book. I’ve benefitted from that any number of times myself. People think odd things about you when you’re reading a book about religion in a public space. Not odd enough thoughts to earn you a seat alone, but still.

I was reading a book about an ancient Near Eastern religion the other day. For me it’s an occupational hazard. Those of us who have studied this stuff for a living keep on cranking out the books and somebody has to read them. Amid all the blue light from all the devices I often feel like I should be in a museum myself. It was with great surprise then, that my eye wandered onto the book next to me that day. I really couldn’t help it, you see. The woman who sat next to me and was using her cell phone to shed light on her book (the overhead lights don’t always work). She went to make a phone call but forgot to turn off the light so that it hit me right in the eye. Realizing her faux pas, she quickly turned it off, but my attention had been caught. In the book in front of her was a picture of the Narmer Palette. Narmer was the king who united ancient Egypt, according to the lore, and this stone ornament was the commemoration of his achievement. Anyone who’s studied ancient Near Eastern history would instantly recognize it. What were the chances? Two people sitting on a bus, reading actual books, both about the ancient Near East?


Bus etiquette, as I understand it, doesn’t allow me to ask a stranger, “What’re you reading?” It’s kind of a personal question, really. I’ve been doing this commute for going on five years now. The number of books next to me has been negligible. But one related to the very topic I was reading about? Was this one of those “if you see something, say something” things? Instead I practiced custody of the eyes and went back to my own book. Then the other unthinkable: she talked to me. “Do you know where,” she began—“ancient Egypt!” I thought. But then she asked where a certain restaurant was. I apologized. I never pay attention to the businesses along the highway. I’ve always got a book to read. I thought about asking her about the book. She had, after all, breeched the dam of silence. Instead I turned back to my own book and didn’t notice when the bus reached a restaurant whose name I didn’t even know. That’s what etiquette demands.

Pharaohs of Stonehenge

Stonehenge on Easter Sunday is a remarkably popular place. Tourists from all over the world crowd the pathway around those ancient stones as if they hide some arcane secret in their tumbled, massive form. Stonehenge may be the most iconic location in Britain, surpassing even such modern structures as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Far pre-dating the art of writing, the purpose and nature of Stonehenge involve considerable speculation, but given the unquestionably costly years of labor required to plan, dig, transport, and align the monument, it stands to reason that it must have been religious in nature. One of the standard—perhaps even hackneyed—critiques of archaeological interpretation proves true in this case: if you can find no sensible reason for it, it must be religious.

The main phase of Stonehenge, the one that incorporates the iconic monoliths instantly recognizable today, came under construction some six hundred years after the pyramids of Egypt. In the case of the latter we know their language and we know the motivation behind the structures. More than just buildings to demonstrate the power of the king, they were celestially aligned portals to the afterlife. Although the Egyptians had no word for religion, the pyramids were as religious as the great temples that would soon surpass them in the energy consumption of the empire. In England of the time, we know no names, nor even an accurate assessment of the “nationality” of the inhabitants. Even nations, as we know them, did not yet exist. The builders of Stonehenge surely had something close to our concept of religion in mind. Otherwise, like the great cathedrals of millennia later, it would have been simply a waste of time and resources.

Wiltshire Downs on the Salisbury Plains is studded with ancient locations of significance. On the near horizon, among the eternal green of the English countryside, are dozens of barrows where people of unknown significance are buried. In that respect Stonehenge is emblematic of the individual struggle for eternal recognition. The name Menkaure stirs instant recognition among few. His pyramids stand as eternal monuments to a decidedly faded greatness. Stonehenge and its environs hold the remains of unknown numbers of unknown nationality bearing unknown names. It symbolizes the fate of us all. Yet on Easter, many believers in resurrection crowd in and gaze in awe at a pagan monument to human striving that no one truly understands.

Oh, Eye

As a frequent user of dictionary.com, I note the daily blog-post headlines as I look up my various words throughout the day. Yesterday’s article promised to be a good fit into this blog as well: “Why are zero and the letter ‘O’ both circles? The answer involves both science and mysticism.” The title is a bit wordy, but this is a dictionary site, after all. Each semester I briefly encapsulate the history of writing for my students. Since the Bible is a written document, it stands to reason that its origins reside within the sphere of writing. Many letters of our alphabet are pictographic in origin. Often as the initial letters of a word beginning with their sound, our letter-forms are mostly borrowed from the Greeks, who, in turn, borrowed most of them from the Phoenicians. The pictographic origins of all current ciphers in the alphabet are not known, but some have stories behind them. O is one such letter. As the article explains, O derives from the Semitic letter Ayin, a consonant that has no regular English equivalent. My late doctoral advisor at Edinburgh, Professor J. C. L. Gibson, delighted in saying it was the sound a camel made when overloaded. I have never forgotten how he rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue while trying to replicate it. The shape seems to derive from ayin’s original meaning of “eye.”

The zero is more metaphysical. As the article at dictionary.com states, its premiere was attended by philosophical and religious arguments. The concept of nothingness still disturbs many people, and its early history was filled with debates about the divine implications of nothing. (Some things never change.) How could such an abstraction fit into a divinely planned and ordained world? Does it not imply that God left a few cracks in the joinery? Debate as they might, eventually the utility of zero was forced upon human thinkers. Its shape, apparently, derived from either the sun or the moon, but not the eye.

In ancient Egypt, however, possibly where the round ayin shape originated, the sun and moon were sometimes equated with the eyes of Horus. Horus is a benevolent god, overseeing the fortunes of the king, and thereby the nation. His wounded eye, damaged in his combat with Seth, has the power to heal as it cycles through its stages as the moon. His solar eye, necessary for life, can be harsh and unblinking. Today O is the fourth most used letter in our alphabet. It has its origins among the powers attributed to eyes in the ancient world. Perhaps if we learn the art of truly seeing, along with Horus, we might discover how to bring peace to those who gave us the gift of writing.

Somebody's eyes

My Animal, It’s a God!

Preparing to enter the Egyptian segment of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, I always have to shift gears to their unique portrayal of the gods. Unlike the Sumerians, who preferred an anthropomorphic divine world, the Egyptians reveled in theriomorphic and Mischwesen deities. Almost earning the title of ancient hippies, the Egyptians felt a deep connection between the world and their gods – as well as living by the mantra “life, health, peace.” Their connection to the earth resulted in gods in animal form or human bodies with animal heads. Having read several attempted explanations, it still comes down to the fact that we don’t know why Egyptians mixed the divine and the animalistic.

Egypt was a culture that bloomed in harsh surroundings. Whether they fully realized it or not, their civilization was survival on the very brink of inhabitable space. Surrounded by desert, much of ancient Egypt was just that thin stretch of land within the fertilizing reach of the Nile’s flood zone. Beyond that, in the “red land,” few survived. Yet the desert is not completely barren. Animals better adapted to heat and aridity survive there. The Egyptians had an appreciation for the divine attributes of animals that are in some way more clever than humans. It is the nature of divinity to be more than human.

The Egyptian ideal of life in harmony with a fragile environment is one that the world could stand to relearn. Instead of proclaiming superiority over mere animals, they recognized that animals know some things that people have not yet learned. How better to display the mysterious power of the gods than to utilize the mystique of the animal world? Sure, a human with a beetle for a head may seem more like a horror-film gone awry than religion, but when the superiority of the scarab is realized, religion will naturally follow.

Sex and the Single God

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class we have been discussing Egypt. Students have been giving their deity reports and have been shuffling their feet in an embarrassed way when they have to discuss some of the gods’ various sexual activities. I have to assure them that this is not “dirty talk” or pornography — it is simply a pre-Victorian way of looking at the world. Understanding of the mechanics of conception and fertilization, involving, as they do, microscopic gametes, has only fairly recently emerged. Ancient people knew that sex led to kids, but they didn’t know how. When you can’t explain it, pass it along to the gods and forget about it!

Ancient Egypt is often where this disjunction appears most clearly. Various gods in a constellation of creation myths (Atum, Ptah, with others probably standing in line) onanistically generated the matter that makes up either other gods who reproduce sexually or the very stuff of the universe itself. This explanation of the world was not profane or vulgar; indeed, it was the very sacred act that brought all of this into existence.

When we look judgmentally on earlier religions we are condemning our own ancestors. It has become abundantly clear in recent years that ancient religions freely borrowed from each other and developed their own distinctive traditions without wholesale rejection of the earlier cultures they knew. It has even been suggested the Psalm 8 might reflect this very form of creation as an echo in the Hebrew Bible! So instead of looking nervously at our feet, or trying to find a big stone to throw at the heathen while our eyes are down there, it is best to recall that religions grow out of unions and parturitions of other religions. Unless they are created single-handedly — and this is what originates the concern in the first place.

Atum teaches Horemheb the facts of life

Atum teaches Horemheb the facts of life