The Mummy: The Degradation of Culture

A popular debate in modern culture is the need for accurate representation of ethnic cultures in shows and movies. It is not unknown the lack of accurate representation and also potentially the distortion of certain culture’s beliefs in various film medias. This brings up the question: Can a show/film really influence an audiences’ perception of a culture that is generally not well known by most Americans in a negative way? This is an important question to examine since shows and films can potentially have an influence on how people perceives a certain culture. This only happens if the audience doesn’t have much prior knowledge on the culture that is being presented. But the current debate about representation has argued that films have been detrimental on how people view a different culture. This issue is especially predominant in representation of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures. Modern and past films have been shown to show those three general cultures with a negative perception. To answer this question – I will be using Karl Freund’s famous horror movie, The Mummy to explain that the film had a negative impact on the audience’s perception of Ancient Egyptian culture.
themummycover(This is the movie cover for The Mummy – image provided by IMDB) . 

Even before viewing the movie – I found it perplexing that the movie obviously belongs in the horror genre. This already foreshadows to the audience that the Ancient Egyptian culture that will be shown will be manipulated in some way to match the horror theme that Freund tries to create. The main catch title of the movie “It Comes to Life!” (A blatant reference to Mary Shelley’s famous monstrosity in her novel Frankenstein) also immediately sets the tone that the mummy will be causing some sort of destruction or terror in the movie. From how the movie has been advertised/presented sets the immediate tone that an important aspect of Ancient Egyptian culture will be distorted to match the horror genre that Freund desires.

In the beginning of the movie, the mummy Imhotep is brought to life when archaeologist, Sir Joseph Whemple’s assistant Ralph Norton reads a scroll that is a resurrection spell. The mummy Imhotep then escapes and goes into hiding for ten years in hopes to resurrect his lover: Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Though Imhotep causes no real problem in the beginning of the movie – it is not a real mystery for the audience to figure out that he will be the horrific monster. imhotepAlready in this first few minutes – we see a degradation of Imhotep’s true character and his achievements.

(Screenshot of Imhotep’s first movements post revitalization after the spell is read – image provided by Geek Tyrant)

In  history, Imhotep was in reality a successful and renowned architect and priest. He’s known to be the main architect for the first step pyramids in Saqqara. Also, he was reputable to be familiar with medicine and herbs. Imhotep is quite famous in Ancient Egyptian history and to be boiled down to a random mummy character is quite disappointing. For people who are not aware of Imhotep’s prestigious background in Ancient Egyptian history would not see him beyond a fictional monster. They could would fail to see that this character contributed a fundamental piece of Egyptian culture that archaeologists are fascinated by.  It’s insulting and inaccurate to his character and his achievements to be degraded as some monster who will horrify those later with his actions.

Later on in the movie – Imhotep (now under the pseudo name of Ardath Bey) reappears, leads the current archaeologists (Frank Whemple and Professor Pearson) to his lover’s tomb grounds. His true intentions of leading the two archaeologists there is to ensure that they will find her coffin so Imhotep can try to resurrect her. Imhotep then encounters character Helen Grosvenor – who he recognizes as the reincarnation of his dead lover. We see Imhotep use magic to kill others and lure Helen to him when Imhotep sees it the proper time to finally resurrect Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Imhotep’s few acts of killing others with magic sets the idea that magic in Ancient Egyptian culture was a negative and evil force in their culture.
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(Imhotep preparing to resurrect his lover by using her reincarnation Helen as the body she will inhabit. – image provided by Britannica)

Eventually Helen or Princess Ankh remembers their history and desires to stay dead. She then prays to the goddess Isis to stop Imhotep from killing her. Isis hears her prayers and zaps Imhotep to death, turning his mummified body to dust. Imhotep’s actions in the movie could make the audience perceive that magic in Ancient Egypt was used for only horrendous and quite frankly in Imhotep’s case, creepy purposes. Magic is known to be a huge part of the ancient culture. Ancient Egyptian culture was a highly religious society. Magic was not uncommon to be used. Magic was used by people to ensure protection against any kind of evil. It was seen as a helpful and protective force – not a vehicle for any kinds of evil. In texts, magic is only mentioned as being used by those seeking protection from the Gods. The distortion of the use of magic in the movie could affect how people see Ancient Egyptian culture. It affects how people see Ancient Egyptians as faithful, but logical people.  That their strong religious beliefs supported unmoral actions and decisions out of selfishness in the movie. But this was hardly the case in Ancient Egypt. They prided themselves on their strong morality. Morality could affect their time in the afterlife – and the thought of never reaching their idea of “Heaven” was frightening enough. So for this movie to show Egyptian magic being used for horrific purposes changes people’s perception of their intelligent and moral culture for the worse.  People would believe that Ancient Egyptians used magic for evil and also for petty, selfish reasons. This was hardly the case though.

Ancient Egypt has a strong, interesting, and intelligent culture. To have important characters such as Imhotep be placed as some scary mummy undermines his actual historical intelligence and achievements. This would also make Ancient Egyptians seem as scary and frightening people.  It also creates the perception that Egyptian culture is “weird”, or “creepy”, or “horrifying” because their practices and their means of religion are used for evil matters as shown in the movie. Their proud culture should not have been degraded to produce some famous horror movie – Ancient Eygptians are much more complex and moral than the movie would make them out to be. The Mummy provides evidence to the complex question of: “Do movies change how people choose to see various cultures?” The answer would be yes just with this one movie.

Sources: The Mummy (IMDB) and The Mummy (Wikipedia)

A Consequence of Malevolence Is Finally Known

Last weekend, my class had the opportunity to go to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose to observe some artifacts and displays.

On our tour there, this painting/carving  in the side of the exterior of the museum wall interested me the most.

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Weighing of the Heart Ceremony depicted with Ammit posted on top of the scales 

The concept of the Gods using the Weighing of the Heart ceremony to judge how virtuous/moral a heart was in their mortal lifetime is not new. After being in class for a while, it was already known that the ceremony was the standard judge of whom got to have a peaceful afterlife and those who didn’t.

It was explained that the weighing of the heart ceremony was more in-depth than I had previously known. Weighing a heart did not come as easy as just placing a heart onto the scale and comparing it to the weight of the feather. Hearts that became heavier than a feather were doomed to the consequences of the underworld since it meant that the heart was not virtuous and did not deserve to be among the Gods.

There had to be a series of questions the Gods asked and they had to answer with no’s, or be honest with their answer. Every time their answer was a “yes” to their questions, or a dishonest answer, the heart would get heavier. Once the heart became heavier than Ma’at’s feather, Ammit (the demon sitting atop the scales) would then eat the heart, signifying that the person’s soul would never be at rest.

Ammit’s participation in the weighing of the heart ceremony intrigued me the most. Rarely is this female demon mentioned in the texts we have read thus far concerning with life after death. Egyptians were known to be fearful in their mortal life span of committing horrendous/malevolent acts because they needed to ensure a peaceful life in death. But Ammit comes to light as another reason one should be fearful of ensuring their hearts were pure and benevolent.Surprisingly enough, her form also is enough to drive fear into the people. Her crocodile mouth, lion head, and hippo body – she is truly one of the intimidating deities someone would have hoped not to encounter after death.

She represents not only a demon who could just eat someone’s heart, but also assurance that they would never reach their desired final destination.

Ammit provides an explanation or more detailed insight on what would happen to a person who was deemed unfit to live peacefully in death. Previously in class there was not much text or a discussion, just a general thought that there would be suffering for those who were to receive it. Learning about Ammit finally provided an answer for the unanswered question of what would happen to those who couldn’t pass the Gods’ test of morality.

A Political Move or the Turn Against the Gods?

The Valley of the Kings, a sacred area in Egypt, hosts the burial site of a numerous amount of Pharaohs who have passed on. The Valley was infamous for being known as the common Pharaoh resting place, but also for the numerous tomb robberies that occurred in the 20th dynasty.

valleyofthekingValley of the Kings: Tomb Locations – Athena Pub

The tomb robberies from a shallow view represent the Egyptian dynasty crashing and burning. The 20th dynasty was failing, politically and economically. Such crises as Mieroop stated created, “civil wars, robberies of tombs and temples, embezzlement of state resources, and other crimes ” (pg 240). Heinous acts of crime during political dysfunction are not uncommon in any society.

But the tomb robberies must mean more than just as an act of crime. Looking more specifically into what the tomb robberies meant, we have to examine the relationship between the Pharaoh and the people. The relationship between the Pharaoh and his subjects was to be considered a peaceful relationship. Maybe rarely do people actually hear of many rebellions in the time of the Ancient Egyptians. So the fact that it became popular for civilians to break into tombs and steal valuables is surprising. But why would pillaging numerous Pharaohs’ tombs be so shocking?

Their is only one answer to that question: their passion in religious beliefs.

Egyptian society, historically, has been prevalent on following the religion and upholding morality and righteousness. Their religious beliefs often reference the nature of the afterlife. In a vague explanation, being moral was the best way to ensure the best fate in the afterlife. One of the prominent ways to show morality was to emphasize the dedication to the Pharaoh. If this was the case originally, and people began ruining tombs, it must have meant the significance on following religious beliefs did not matter anymore. This brings us to our question:

Was religion something that could survive a time of severe political and economic instability? Did religion even matter anymore to the people?

The sacrilege of the tombs could be the defining point of when people turned their backs on religion. Defiling and robbing the tomb of a Pharaoh was an outrageous act to even consider. It was a rare occurrence due to the relationship of the people and the Pharaoh. The Pharaohs were commonly represented as divinities, and held extreme religious importance – they served as the mortal representation of a God. So to disrespect a Pharaoh, was to disrespect a god as well. Robbing the Pharaoh’s tomb meant more than just robbing the Pharaoh, but meant robbing and offending the gods as well. This type of crime could only be committed by people who did not fear the afterlife and what was waiting for them post death.

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Ruins of mummies in the Valley of the Kings – livescience

But there cannot be a denial that heists occurred a few times since, “grave goods deposited in tombs naturally invited attempts at looting…From prehistoric times on tombs had been robbed” (Mieroop, pg 245). But those were done more-so in times where there wasn’t desperation, just pure greed and selfishness. The 20th dynasty people seemed to throw out any sense of morality or fear they had towards the Gods when everything fell to chaos. The “lack of food…[and]…collapse of royal authority” (Mieroop, pg 240) caused desperation to settle in the people.

In the picture above and the picture below:

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Torn apart mummy remains at Valley of the Kings – FoxNews

Brings the cold reality of the desperation the people felt in this disastrous period of famine and poverty. Tearing apart the mummy bodies seems extreme, and signifies these series of burglaries were not normal. The civilians are tearing up bodies of the Pharaohs, showing lack or care that they’re dealing with people who were believed to be Gods.

In a time of extreme hunger and rare chance of survival since there was no real government system to support them, religion cannot and could not last in the people. Religion prospered mostly with the Egyptians because rarely in history were their periods of disastrous times such as these, except the known Intermediate periods. Having beliefs and being moral could only be taken seriously by the Egyptians when most of their worries were ensuring they would not be afflicted with something, or have a destitute afterlife.

But religion cannot provide comfort for the people whose physical needs overcome their emotional needs and beliefs. The chaotic times called for cruel measures – a time where every individual had to battle to get the basic necessities to live. Logically, it only made sense for them that an area where they could find something of great value, was in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Jewels and treasures are extremely and especially enticing when in times of economic distraught. Distraught and fear had overcome the Egyptians at that time, causing abandonment of religion and their devotion to the Gods. They probably felt as if the Gods could not provide much for them anyways, they could not fix the broken government or the crises happening. All faith had been lost.

Though the Valley of the King tomb robberies might seem as a move of political retaliation against the government that had failed in providing for them, it also signified them turning against religion. They changed the past culture of what it meant to be devoted to the Gods. Devotion to religion had been an unbreakable bond. It seems strange that such an important aspect of every Egyptian’s life was somehow shunned when everything shattered. The Valley of the King tomb robberies proves that religion to the Egyptians can survive only when the people’s well-being is not threatened by the people who represent divinity and the Gods.

Sources: Mieroop, Marc Van De. A History of Ancient Egypt. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.

 

 

The Best Judge: Morality

Morality as a determinant of how one’s fate in the afterlife is not a new revelation in modern culture. The necessity of being genuine and being kind was extremely ingrained in the religious culture of Ancient Egyptians. But why does morality count beyond being known as a good person for the Ancient Egyptians? Acts of integrity in a technical sense do not really matter after someone has passed. Yet, in Egyptian culture, how ethical one acted in their mortal life span – usually indicated their fate in the afterlife. The idea of a comfortable life after death was an idea that every Egyptian wanted for themselves when they passed. The only way to achieve that? Ethics – and being remembered as an ethical person.

So how does the concept of being virtuous and death intertwine in Egyptian culture and beliefs? The first part of answering that question comes with understanding how death works in their religion. The Egyptians had a belief that death was not the end of their life. They believed, “life after death was not significantly different from life itself; existence was simply transferred to another, more remote realm” (Teeter pg.120). But how did they continue “living” in the realms of the afterlife? The concept of rebirth also took on a major role in a successful life in death. This is also where the necessity of moral conduct in an Egyptian’s mortal life span also became apparent with death as well. In order to live normally after death, they needed to be reborn in the afterlife, and only, “those who lived their life morally would be reborn. Rebirth was contingent on how one conducted one’s life…” (Teeter pg. 120). Since the judges of moral conduct were the Gods – their method for weighing morality in someone was the weighing of the heart ceremony. In the ceremony, they weighed the deceased person’s heart to the weight of a feather. Those who had lived righteously and ethically had a heart that weighed less then a feather, and were allowed to be reborn. Without living morally, there would be no guarantee of a happy and easy afterlife. There seems to be an almost karma like effect in place when it comes to morality in Egyptian culture. Those who lived morally would only receive the benefits of rebirth post death, and those who committed evil deeds would be scorned in the end and left to suffer. Since death was not a simple means to an end, it was important to ensure the best life possible after exiting the mortal realm.

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Weighing of the Heart Ceremony: Egyptian-Scarabs

Another important procedure that’s a part of the funerary culture is giving offerings to those who are deceased. The concept of living morally also comes into effect on how often the person will be given offerings. Offerings are important because death is seen as another plane of existence for the Egyptians. In this other realm of existence, they are still subjected to the needs of essentials that they needed as humans to live. This is one of the ways that made it seem like those who had passes on were still “inhabiting” the Earth. But how did Pharaohs and the like persuade people to bring them offerings constantly? They couldn’t rely on the fact that people would remember to be dedicated enough to constantly keep bringing necessities. They had to rely on their moral deeds they had committed in their lifetime before they passed. Those who could afford it – had their tombs/tombstones or stelaes engraved with their achievements to remind visitors of their accomplishments and how moral the deceased person had been in their life span. Having achievements engraved all over free areas of their tombs were not uncommon, in “Literature of Ancient Egypt” by William Kelly Simpson – there are inscriptions from the stelaes of two prominent figures in Ancient Egypt: Weni and Harkhuf. There is not a shortage of the “good deeds” they performed in their life span. General themes or virtous actions in stelaes of prominent figures included feeding the poor, clothing the poor, preaching the word of the Gods, showing respect for the Pharaoh, having a close and trusting relationship with the Pharaoh, and etc. It was not uncommon for those to list the specifics and details of their relationship with the Pharaoh. Having a good afterlife was not only about making the Gods believe you deserved it – but ensuring the Pharaoh believed the same as well. The Pharaoh was thought as a godly presence as well, and those who he “brought” with him to the afterlife also would be reborn. Morality meant the means of proof for those who wished to be reborn. Even though the stelaes only provide an extremely narrow point of view, they desired to remind Egypt that their actions made them a worthy person of not only rebirth, but worthy enough for offerings.

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A stelae with a funerary inscription: Global Egyptian Museum

Preservation was a critical notion in the funeral process for the Ancient Egyptians. Their bodies would be preserved, organs were preserved, and just as important: their actions they committed in their living years. Egyptians required their bodies to be preserved in order to receive offerings. The importance of requiring preservation of their moral actions stems from the need of recognition by everyone. It needed to be absolutely transparent of how “moral” one was in their lifetime in order to achieve a comfortable afterlife. The treatment one would receive post death was generally believed to be proportionate to how many people believed they were morally righteous. Morality was the true deciding factor used to judge people with in order to see if they were deserving of a prosperous afterlife as they had wished. Wanting the best afterlife was equivalent to the wants for a generally enjoyable life – and the only way to ensure that was showing how someone conducted their life in a virtuous and compassionate way.

 

References:

Simpson, William Kelly., and Robert Kriech Ritner. The Literature of Ancient Egypt an Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003. Print.

Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.

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