When I first heard the premise of the new documentary series Out of Egypt, airing later this month, I was intrigued: an Egyptologist uses her knowledge of that country’s ancient history to try to draw connections between that civilization and other civilizations, including our modern world today. In the process, she’d come to some conclusions about just what it means to be human.
Pretty ambitious stuff for a TV program, even one on the Discovery Channel.
Then I previewed the first two episodes of the show (which we’ll be reviewing soon) and discovered it pretty much delivers.
Better still, I got a chance to sit down and talk to the host, Egyptologist Kara Cooney, quizzing her on the eternal appeal of Ancient Egypt, the “truth” about magic and ritual, and even the deep-seated reasons why many of us find science fiction and fantasy so compelling.
I interview a lot of people in my job as editor of this website, but very few of these conversations turn out to be as interesting or as far-ranging as this one:
TheTorchOnline: Explain to me our fascination with Ancient Egypt.
Kara Cooney: Oh, there’s a lot behind it. I’ve had to think about this a lot. I give talks on Egypt all the time. My poor Byzantine friends, they never get asked, because no one knows what Byzantine is!
I was one of the curators for the King Tut exhibit, and when people are pounding down your doors, you have to ask yourself, “What hell is going on?”
I have a three-part answer. One, it doesn’t hurt that everything’s made of gold. We value that, we understand it.
Number two, if I showed you an ancient wall relief, you would immediately understand that it was, for example, a cat. It’s instantly recognizable. The ancient Egyptians understood how to communicate through images better than anybody. Just enough enough information so you know what’s going on, but leave you wanting more.
TTO: Even language, hieroglyphs, the language of pictures.
KC: Even the language! “Oh, I can see that that’s a sandal and that’ s a dog and that’s a face, but what does it all mean?” It intrigues people, because people want to know more.
And it has for centuries. The ancient Romans wanted to know what was going on, the ancient Greeks wanted to know what was going on! People have always been fascinated by this.
Then the third reason: the ancient Egyptians aggressively and systematically dealt with the problem of death. And in our culture, we systemically deny the existence of death. We’re all about youth and beauty.
TTO: Now I thought that was a misconception we had, that the Egyptians were obsessed with death. I thought that’s what we assumed, because pyramids and tombs are all that’s left for us to see.
KC: You will read that in many coffee table books, but I disagree with that. Ask a different Egyptologist, and you’ll get a different answer. A lot of people say the Egyptians weren’t obsessed with death, they were obsessed with the continuation of life.
But the Egyptians understood that their lives would not continue in the way that it did on this earth. It was never like this life. They knew that death was not life. It’s not so simple as a continuation of life.
TTO: But why is that appealing? You’d think if they were obsessed with death, then that’s something we’d turn away from, since we’re so afraid of it.
KC: You would! And yet when I work in museums, I’ve seen people go up to these cases full of death human flesh and mash their faces up against it and get as close as they can.
Death is something that all humanity has to deal with, and it’s a hole in our modern-day culture.
TTO: So this is a safe way to look at death?
CK: It’s looking at death through a glass case. That’s what I think it is.
I think the Ancient Egyptians, because of their obsession with surviving life and going on to something else, I think we’re intrigued by that, we want a part of that. But I don’t think we know it.
TTO: In your show, you spend a lot of time talking about ritual and “magic.” But it seems to me the ancient world wouldn’t really think of magic as “magic.” If magic is just part of the way they see the world, it’s not “supernatural,” right?
KC: They did make a separation in a way. It’s arbitrary, you’re right, but magic is religious or ritual activity that has a concrete wish, desire, or conclusion at the end. So if I wanted you to fall in love with me, I would create a potion or walk around you three times to do some magical incantation that had a concrete benefit. Something that happened at the end.
Religion or spirituality doesn’t need a concrete benefit, something that happens — it can just be something you do make you feel better about the death of your loved one. So even the Egyptians did had a separate word for magic.
TTO: Was there still a sense that what they were doing was supernatural, in that it was different from the natural?
KC: Now they’re you’re right on, because in the ancient world and in many Third World countries today, they don’t have such a separation between their daily life and their beliefs. Everything went together. When you’re baking your loaf of bread, that bread comes from the gods. In Ancient Egypt, that’s Orsiris who gave you that bread. You’re eating Orsiris. Where do you think the Christians got that one? But anyway…
The separation between daily activities and fervent religious belief, there was no disconnect, and there was very little doubt. There wasn’t any existential doubt — “Where are we going? What’s is it all about?” All the stuff that we’ve done to ourselves in the last two or three hundred years, since Enlightenment. So to speak!
TTO: So you just said something intriguing, that much of these beliefs still live on in the Third World.
KC: I think it’s very easy in the United States to look at fervent religious belief as primitive, and to denigrate it. And yet, they’re watching the Discovery Channel. When they see people with fervent religious beliefs, they’re almost jealously trying to consume it themselves. This is part of our our psyche, our humanity that we don’t have anymore. Which is why I think fundamentalism is making a huge comeback. It’s filling a hole.
And science fiction and fantasy, it’s not just entertainment. People are really seriously attached to this material in an emotional way. People are looking to the ancestors to fill that gap, and everyone has their own solution to it. So I think we’re a little ambivalent about it. On one hand, we look at it and say, “Oh, those primitive people,” but on the other hand, we have our lucky penny or we read our horoscope, or whatever we do.
TTO: Is that an essential component of magic: belief? If you believe it, does it work?
KC: Maybe. Placebo effect?
TTO: Well, maybe that’s the explanation we’d give it.
KC: I think that even if you don’t get the outcome you intend, I think the magical ritual has a healing effect almost every time. If you feel it’s helpful to you, yes.
I have a friend who’s a Wiccan. I may not believe that [the god] Diana is somehow going to change my life. I actually don’t believe the gods would intercede on my puny behalf, that’s not part of my belief system. But to watch my friend and his friends participate in that, I think is very meaningful. We’re trying to plug those holes, fill those gaps.
TTO: I completely agree with what you said before that for a lot people, these stories are their religion. In many ways, that’s true for me.
KC: You’re touching on a nerve here which is really interesting. People often assume I believe in the ancient Egypt religion — they assume I worship Osiris as a god, because I’m so passionate about these Egyptian beliefs. I don’t, but I don’t judge people that do. It’s fine. Why is that different from believing Jesus? Religious freedom is very important.
I can be incredibly interested about it, and passionate, and yet I don’t need go there myself. I have a different belief system.
TTO: Speaking about Egypt, for your point-of-view as an Egyptologist, what are some of the most infuriating inaccuracies?
CK: There are a lot of them, and I think people are starting to get sick of these kinds of things.
The biggest one out there is the aliens-built-the-pyramids [theory]. It’s inherently racist, this idea that these “primitive” people couldn’t have built the pyramids, because they’re too stupid and they don’t know how, that they needed the aliens to come down from on high to tell these people who are always in Third World countries, who always have dark skin. I mean, come on.
This incenses every Egyptologist I know. We do have a detached view, but we’re also protective of the ancient people, and there’s no reason to make this claim. There are much more compelling reasons for why the pyramids were build, and when. It’s interesting enough just in human terms.
I get all angry about the alien theory, but then I remember Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World, and I remember people like stories. It’s not just that they like them, they need stories. When they see something like a pyramid in Mexico or Egypt, they get a little freaked out. And if they don’t have a story to help them explain it, I think they feel like they’re shaky ground.
TTO: But as you’ve pointed out, that tells us more about the people who believe that, their racism and their limited world-view, than it does about Egypt.
KC: People like simple explanations. They don’t like the hard explanations.
Kara’s show Out of Egypt airs Mondays at 9 PM on the Discovery Channel starting August 24th.
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