God’s Guards

That past informs the present in an oblique way. As religions continue to evolve they often depart from their original purposes. In preparation for my one surviving summer course, Ancient Near Eastern religions, I’ve been reviewing textbook choices. The procedure has reminded me of the unusual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. I have long contended that the environmental and social circumstances of a people determine the character of their religion. In Mesopotamia and the Levant, where rain is not always cooperative and impressive storms roll in, the gods often represent the awesome power of the atmosphere and the unpredictable will of the divine. In Egypt the fertility of the soil is assured by the regular flooding of the Nile. Rain does not play the same role in agriculture in such a system. Whereas the gods of the Mesopotamians are often stormy and violent, those of Egypt are generally peaceful and serene.

Egyptian religion developed independently of ancient Asia. Relatively isolated in the narrow strip of rich soil along the Nile and in the wave-dominated fan of the delta, Egypt reached an early cultural apex. Their religion emphasized the balance and continuity of life. Of course, it helps when your king is a god. This religion was based on the premise of an afterlife, the very fire-insurance that lends urgency to many Bible-thumpers today. Instead of believing the short, and often harsh life experienced by earth-bound mortals was the full picture, those placid eyes of stone pharaohs stare off toward a continued existence beyond that of life in the desert.

This tranquil religion did contain violent elements as well, but overall stability was valued and change unwelcome. Now as we see violence erupting in Egypt as the great ethical monotheistic religions clash for superiority, it is legitimate to wonder what has gone wrong. When did benevolent Ra become subject to the combating ideologies of Yahweh and Allah (who are, in terms of pedigree, the same deity)? Religion has become a tool in the utility belt of political power players. Since no one steps down willingly, the gods must duke it out. Even within Christianity, as is evident in America, multiple gods claim the title of creator and master. Perhaps it is the price of democracy. Otherwise we might experience the fact that even those pharaonic eyes did not always smile.

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Anubis Rising

As if reality weren’t haunting enough, I’ve been continuing my quest to find the scariest fiction book written. I’ve borrowed suggestions from others, but it seems that the fear factor is a decidedly personal thing. Nevertheless, the suggestions are often enlightening as well as provocative. I recently finished Dan Simmons’s A Winter Haunting. Simmons’s work had previously been unexplored by me, so this was a foray into the unknown. Of course, I read horror with an eye toward the sacred and I’m seldom disappointed. In A Winter Haunting the sacred appears in the form of Egyptian religion. Simmons makes very effective use of hellhounds, tracing them back to Anubis.

Now Anubis lays me down to sleep

The religion of ancient Egypt had a morbid preoccupation with death – or maybe it was just a healthy recognition that it is inevitably coming. Many of their gods eventually ended up patronizing the dead in some way. Andjety, Ptah, Min, Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Maat, and Thoth, as well as Anubis, regularly appear in the cult of the dead. And, of course, pyramids represented the stairway to heaven long before Page and Plant. Death and its psychological angst have been crucial to the development of religion from the beginning. The Egyptians honed it to a fine art.

Anubis was likely associated with the dead because of the scavenging of wild canines at shallow graves. Magic, a phenomenon anthropologists have difficulty distinguishing from religion, dictates that the source of the problem should be appropriated as its cure. To protect the dead, the scavenger of the dead transformed into Anubis. Simmons did his homework, for this transformation is well represented in A Winter Haunting. Without knowing this particular plot device, I had been reading about Egyptian funerary cult independently of the novel and this coincidence proved entertaining as well as informative. I won’t be sleeping with the lights on, though. The search continues.

Sobek to the Beginning

From some of my earliest reveries, Maine has been my favorite state. This strange feature had to have been gleaned from books since I never visited Maine until my early twenties. Since that time I’ve returned as frequently as possible; however, over a decade spent in Wisconsin made the trip somewhat daunting. So last night, still dealing with lingering intense emotions from the county fair, I decided to watch Lake Placid, the 1999 horro-comedy set in Maine. The movie is generally brainless escapism, and even the scenery is that of British Columbia rather than New England. It had been years since I’d seen the film, so I was surprised when Kelly Scott stated in defense of Hector Cyr that crocodiles were worshipped as gods by many ancient peoples, making them more prayed to than Jesus. This was, naturally, a healthy dose of celluloid hyperbole, yet it did bring to mind Sobek, the Egyptian deity mentioned by name in the film.

The ancient Egyptians venerated many animals as possessors of god-like qualities. Crocodiles, naturally dangerous to humans as well as to many large mammals, would suggest themselves as a form of divinity. Sobek was never a major focus of the Egyptian collective of gods, yet the mummified remains of crocodiles and the striking iconography of the deity attest his cult. The ancient Egyptians had no way of knowing that the crocodile had withstood the pressures of evolution for millions of years, a striking example of a body plan and lifestyle requiring no improvement. Few creatures have the staying power of the crocodile, an animal capable of feats more incredible than the fabricated beast in Lake Placid.

While Jesus has nothing to fear from crocodile worship (or, apparently, the Beatles), religion grasps, even unwittingly, to the unchanging. In a culture shifting so rapidly that our eyes barely have time to focus before something completely novel is thrust before them, the stable image of the crocodile may still serve as a useful symbol of something our religious forebears knew that we should continue to recollect. Stability is worthy of admiration. In a bizarre way, throwing Maine together with crocodiles may be an antidote for melancholy, but only in the right environmental conditions.

The Power of Pyramids

One of the benefits of teaching is the constant refreshment of ideas presented by students to air out the stuffy closets in minds that tend to close around academic orthodoxies. Each field of studies has its sacred shrines not to be disturbed, and none more so than the field of religious studies. That’s why I appreciate the openness of student minds. This summer I was introduced to the alleged Bosnian pyramid that I posted about some months back. Having reviewed the statements of both archaeologists and geologists it is easy to see how what looks like a pyramid might not be a pyramid at all. Some experts even theorize that the pyramids of Egypt took their inspiration from the shape of a natural desert mountain.

Wikipedia's photo of the "Bosnian Pyramid"

As we were winding up our classroom discussion of Egyptian mortuary cult and its awe-inspiring pyramids, another student asked me if I had heard of the Okinawa pyramids. I hadn’t. Back in my student days I recall a professor entering my Egyptian Religion course after having just read a book on the mystical power of pyramids wherein the author claimed that dull razors placed under a small-scale pyramid would come out sharpened the next morning and other such nonsense. We all had a good laugh and got onto the serious business of comprehending the fascinating world of Ptah and Atum. When I first heard the phrase “Okinawa Pyramids” I had to fight down the immediate flash of embarrassment of unrestrained academic laughter should I be found even considering such a proposal.

I have always, however, listened to those willing to ask about even the most anomalous incidents of history. Two years back I had a student share the “helicopter hieroglyphs” of ancient Egypt with me, despite a fully understandable reading of signs that can look like a helicopter to the uninitiated. The Okinawa Pyramids, however, were different. As the student whipped out his laptop and pulled the images up from the internet, I was intrigued. These were not pyramids, but rather monolithic blocks 60–100 feet below the surface of the ocean near Japan. My amateur study of geology has taught me that many species of rock naturally have squared fractures along various planes and facets, but the number of offset angles and the profusion of the squared edges forced my mind open just a bit. What is more striking yet is that there is no Wikipedia article on this formation at all, despite its discovery in the 1980s. Most intriguing of all is that the complex seems to have sunk at the end of the last ice age, thus predating even the pyramids of Egypt. Even the stepped pyramid of Djoser.

Is there evidence of a pre-civilization civilization under the coastal waters of Japan? I am not qualified to decide. I feel safe in saying that whatever is there is not a pyramid, but I am impressed by the photos and the relative silence about them even on the web. Since the best photos are copyright protected, I’ll provide a link for anyone wishing to creak open a dusty mind-closet and wonder about the implications.