Tag Archives: pyramids

Big Dreams


The giants are back! Or at least they were here. According to the internet, and we know that that never lies. Every now and again a story breaks that some discovery of giants has been found in some archaeological or paleontological context. A little poking around, maybe a visit to Snopes, and I go home disappointed. It’s the Cardiff Giant all over again. Still, the stories are fun. A friend sent me a piece from Ancient Code entitled “A GIANT footprint has been discovered in China.” The pictures look impressive until we get to the one where the footprint is as large as a fully grown man. We are back in the land of modern myth.

The idea of an era of giants is strangely compelling. The Bible isn’t the only ancient document to suggest this scenario. In fact, Holy Writ seems to have borrowed the idea. Fast forward just over a millennium and Geoffrey of Monmouth will tell us there were giants in Britain before the more civilized genus of our own arrived and treated the giants to a Brexit. Such tales permeate history with the fanciful period of really big guys from the past. We’re not half the men we used to be. Literally. Just don’t look too close at the Photoshopped evidence. We live in a world where “Photoshopped” is actually a word. A world where visual evidence is like a cow plop. It’s there, but what you want to make of it is up to you. I was never a big newspaper reader, but at least you knew if a reputable rag paid to have millions of copies printed the story had a good chance of being true. I wish there had been giants. Reading the news today, we seem very petty indeed.

Any number of explanations have been proffered for why ancients believed in giants. Perhaps they found fossilized dinosaur or mammoth bones. Admit it, except for to a biologist, a femur looks pretty much the same whether it comes from a giant reptile or a moderate-sided primate. Economics of scale. Or look at those Egyptian pyramids. Sure looks like they had a hand from a really big brother. But in our strangely less and more gullible age, lingering doubts remain. The Bible says there were giants on the earth in those days. The mechanics of gods mating with human women are blamed, no matter which laws of physics have to be broken. For the literalists way down along the Paluxy River in Texas we were walking with dinosaurs back in the day. Too bad no fossilized cameras have yet been discovered.

Burden of Democracy

Speaking of revisionist history, I see that I’m negligent on updating my Egyptology. In a year when you need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the sheer number of GOP presidential wannabes, I had to ask my wife who Ben Carson was. She sent me a story explaining how the league of presidential dreamers believes that the pyramids were ancient Egyptian grain silos. His reason for believing this has nothing to do with archaeology or with history and everything to do with the Bible. Now, other presidents of too recent memory have had strange biblical beliefs as well. And that raises the intractable question of how you run a democracy with religious freedom. Some people like to claim religious belief is a matter of choice, but that is rarely true. At a young age we are programmed to accept what our parents or guardians tell us is true. Studies of the brain suggest that once wired for concepts of how God works, the circuitry is difficult to displace. In a country where most people can’t tell a Seventh-Day Adventist from an eight-hour clock, they may be surprised that a brain scientist might believe the pyramids were built to biblical specifications.

From WikiCommons

From WikiCommons

The Adventists are a literalist sect. And they are not the only ones who believe the pyramids have something to do with Joseph and the biblical famine that set the stage for the exodus. It is an idea I encountered as a child, and I didn’t even have a denomination to call my own. Religious belief can be, and often is, completely separate from rationality. Some very intelligent people are biblical literalists. The real problem is that the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids at all, but then most Americans know as much about the Bible as they know about Seventh-Day Adventists. If people actually knew how much incentive George W. Bush had to start Armageddon, the turn of the millennium would have been far more tense than it was. And that’s saying something.

In our democracy, we want freedom of religion, but we don’t want to be bothered with the details of what a religion teaches. Like many, I was shocked by the headlines of a potential president grossly misunderstanding history, but as soon as I learned Carson is an Adventist everything clicked into place. I would suggest that it is a moral responsibility in a democracy to learn something about religion. We like to think we can fudge on that part of the homework. If we want the freedom of having anyone capable of becoming president, we need to learn something about a human being’s deepest motivations. No matter how much reporters and skeptics want to laugh and scorn, religion makes many decisions for by far the largest majority of people on the planet. The thought that a democracy can thrive without learning what truly motivates its leaders, I would suggest, is the most naive position of all.

Gnostic Agnostic

ACU-Stuckrad-WesternEsotericism-COVER.indd Hidden knowledge is sweet. Belief in it is very old. Kocku von Stuckrad’s Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge offers its own kind of hidden knowledge—well, it’s not so much hidden as it is simply ignored—that even science owes a debt of gratitude to the draw of the esoteric. We are trained to treat such “New Age” ideas with contempt from our tender years, and we are assured that the light of reason has dispelled the gloom of occluded wisdom. Von Stuckrad, however, clearly demonstrates that the desire to explain our world streams from the same font as the belief that a larger, if hidden, reality lies behind what our senses perceive. Such ideas originate in antiquity and continue in various forms up to the present. The impetus to explain it all shows in Galileo’s belief in astrology as well as astronomy and Newton’s fascination with alchemy as well as calculus. Great minds have always been willing to be stretched.

In more recent, and self-assured, days vocal spokes-folk have declared a single way of knowing, and it is empirical and imperial all at the same time. That which cannot be explained rationally cannot be explained at all. Still, our experience of life often suggests otherwise. Sometimes it feels as if science overuses the coincidence excuse, and maybe there is something more going on. The esoteric, without fail, has been assigned to the category of religious thought because, in the current paradigm, the only real opponent to science is religion. If it’s irrational, it must be religious.

Ironically, von Stuckrad’s research demonstrates that the culture that led us to science, in many ways, has its basis in esoteric beliefs. That gnawing suspicion that not everything is explained by numbers and experiments has been with us since the days of Gobekli Tepe, the pyramids, and Stonehenge. Each of these monuments (and many others besides) were astounding feats of engineering—and engineering is applied science—while all being profoundly religious. Science in the service of the unknown. Such complexity need not be considered naive; even scientists can be subject to religious ways of thinking. Von Stuckrad does not advocate esotericism in his book; he merely documents it and treats it non-judgmentally. There is perhaps a hidden lesson here for all of us as well. Instead of declaring a single heavyweight champion of all the world, perhaps true wisdom lies in being fully human with all its complexity and contradictions.

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.

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.

Everlasting Life

From WikiCommons

In the 27th century BCE, the Egyptians began building pyramids. These monuments, testaments to the belief in an afterlife for the king, are among the most easily recognizable structures in the world. Shaped to reflect the primordial mound that first emerged from the watery mass that existed before the world, the pyramid was more than a tomb. Pyramids were the key to everlasting life. In the Old Kingdom of Egypt this was limited to the king, but since the king represented Egypt nobody seemed to mind too much. Inside the pyramids were spells and incantations to help the king make it through to the next world. His success in this venture was of national importance.

During later periods of Egyptian religion, notably during the breakdown in centralized authority during the First Intermediate Period, the idea of an afterlife became democratized. Citizens who could never aspire to kingship desired an afterlife as well. The official theology of the day bent to the will of the masses and allowed a “ba” or, very loosely considered “soul,” to be assigned to each person. Those who could afford mummification and a Book of the Dead could make it to the afterlife as well. The preserve of the royalty had been breached, and the afterlife was open to all. Interestingly, the Israelites, many centuries later, did not seem to accept this idea. It is only very late in the Hebrew Bible before we get inklings that an afterlife was being anticipated. Living la vida Torah was reward enough.

It seems almost impossible in today’s world of religion for eternal consequences to realize that the original monotheistic religion was largely unconcerned with the afterlife. Once the idea caught on, however, there was no turning back. What is the motivation for religious belief if an eternal reward is lacking? Metaphorical pyramids continue to be erected. Would monotheistic religion still exist if it returned to its original outlook? Would politicians, television stars, and sports players give God the glory if it all ended at death? It hardly seems likely. Once a pyramid has been constructed, it is almost impossible to take it apart again.