Egyptian Afterlife

The day after Maurice Sendak died, Google’s doodle celebrated Howard Carter’s 138th birthday. Although Howard Carter’s name may not immediately ring a bell, his work still affects all of us in the western world in profound ways. An inspiration for both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, Carter is best remembering for discovering the intact tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. This discovery generated a neo-Egyptian revival in western culture, notable in the Art Deco movement and the Egyptianizing architecture it inspired. As Google’s doodle shows, we are still reaching back to ancient Egypt to find some kind of meaning for ourselves today. In a world of gadgets and hi-tech baubles, we still cast an envious eye towards the dwellers along the Nile.

It is difficult to assess why the Egyptians are so enduring. They were, after all, polytheists and occupied a country that is now part of the “Middle East.” It is, however, a mystique that they held even in antiquity. Raiders and invaders who came to Egypt ended up trying to walk like the Egyptians rather than attempting to force them to follow foreign ways. The ideal in ancient Egypt was a stable cosmos. In a perfect world Egypt would be an island of calm and tranquility. For this they had their strong kings to thank, and they spared little expense to build him tombs that would remain the largest buildings on earth until Eiffel began to tinker with steel.

Perhaps the characteristic we most admire about the Egyptians is their unshaken confidence. Assured that they were in the favor of the gods, they took that assurance to the grave. Even as the neighboring Israelites still confined the dead to a gloomy underworld, the Egyptians were constructing an afterlife that would keep the good times rolling as long as time itself survived. A great deal of effort was expended on the pampering of the dead. Funnily enough, in our Christianized nation the confidence of divine pleasure only seems to be enacted in the limiting of the rights of others. And when it is all over, the righteous still fear death. Google has an almost unlimited choice of inspirations for its doodles, but Howard Carter seems especially appropriate on a day when we remember those who are willing to go to dangerous places where the wild things might lurk yet.

Who’s Your Mummy?

Yet another paternity suit appears in the news as promiscuous fathers try to slink off into the pages of history. This time, however, the kid is famous and his father will bask in reflected glory. Scientists in Egypt have been doing DNA tests on King Tutankhamun, “King Tut,” to determine the father of this most famous of pharaohs. Nor is this an idle bit of trivia, since it may rightfully be claimed that American interest in ancient Egypt was born with the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922. Art Deco styles began to emulate ancient Egypt, and even skyscrapers in Manhattan incorporated pharaonic stylings. If it weren’t for Tut’s wealth, this experiment wouldn’t garner any public interest at all.

Tut's famous visage from Wikipedia Commons

In a classic case of ancient meets modern, the paltry wealth of Tutankhamun’s burial dazzled American imaginations. Here was a guy who matched the American dream – young, exceptionally wealthy (by even today’s standards), and powerful. Not just a metaphorical god, but a literal one as well. And yet his kingdom was troubled. Was it his father (Amenhotep IV, aka Akhenaten) who launched Egypt into turmoil with an unwanted religious revolution? The state reacted strongly, foundering under this uniformity of a religion that many couldn’t accept. Young Tut was forced to recant, if he hadn’t already rejected the reforms of his predecessor, back to the “old time religion” of eternal Egypt.

We may not know for sure who his father was, but King Tut remains a symbol of the power of religion. Ancient and modern believers alike ascribe strongly to their perceptions of the true religion. No one knowingly accepts a false religion. The truth claims of religions are sometimes mutually exclusive. What seems to have brought about the collapse of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt was the insistence on a religion not widely accepted, but enforced by the government. Considering the religious outlook of the James Dobsons, Pat Robertsons and Sarah Palins of our own political landscape, such a collapse becomes comprehensible. Religion must be allowed its freedom to be sincere. Those who believe only because forced to do so will soon place their own child king on the throne, regardless of whom his father might have been.