The exhibition which ends soon is solid and accessible without being quite as exciting as the name suggests. The museum tends to use a lot of its standing collection to ‘fill-out’ any gaps or inadequacies in the actual finds. This is ok but it does mean some of the exhibition feels a little familiar if you’ve been going to the museum for years. Nonetheless one always reinforces and adds to the knowledge one has. I haven’t been thinking much about ancient Egypt for a while so it was nice to revitalise some of the mythology and especially to try and expand knowledge on the pantheon and various stories attached to the gods.
In terms of ‘ancient’ Egypt of course this Ptolemaic period is of course the later period (New Kingdom) when the Egyptians where effectively part of the Greek diaspora. And this is what I first latched onto, that just as general Ptolemy (friend and successor in Egypt of Alexander the Great of Macedon) had made very specific connections and associations between the Egyptian and the Greek gods, so I could ‘access’ the Egyptian pantheon if I learnt which Greek God had been associated with which Egyptian God. So, for example, the creator god Amun was partnered with Zeus, Thoth with Hermes, Khonsu with Herakles and so on.
If you know your Greek gods this very much helps you to get a grip on the Egyptian gods, as of course was Ptolemy’s intention at the time. The most central interconnection and the most interesting for me was between Osiris and Dionysus (or Bacchus for the Romans) both of whom, in the myths told of them, are dismembered (and reassembled) Dionysus by the Titans (with Zeus recreating him) and Osiris by his brother Set (with Isis his sister-wife and Nephthys Set’s wife finding the bits of Osiris’ body and reassembling him!). Both Osiris and Dionysus are associated with grain too and other traits are made to ‘fit’ as with the rest of the gods.
The primary god introduced by Ptolemy to unite Greek and Egyptian however was Serapis whose image has always been a bit vague in my mind and which this exhibition has (I hope) helped make clearer. Serapis is a bearded fellow with a pot on his head so he is easy to spot. The ‘pot’ is actually a grain measure or Kalanthos and Serapis was big in Alexandria where his main temple or Serapeum was. The reason he’s hard to pin down, I read in the exhibition, is because he combines the attributes of no less than four of the Greek gods Hades/Zeus/Dionysus/Asklepius.
Head dress was something which highlighted itself for me actually in the exhibition, so you know the Egyptian head-cloth that goes tight across the forehead and hangs is large folds either side of the head of Pharaohs? It’s called a Nemes. How do you identify Isis? Well she tends to had thin horns with a disc in-between, Amun has two long oblong feathers on his head etc. All this iconography reminded me of how when I was in Spain I learnt a lot about Christian iconography in paintings of all periods and how it opens up ones appreciation of the art.
Without knowing it most of us know what Osiris, Isis, Horus etc. look like, we just have not begun to label the images with have of Egyptian iconography. We have all looked many times at ancient Egyptian images but they tend to merge into a general image. Believe me when you make the conscious effort to label and separate the images it’s amazing how one begins to ‘see’ differently.
The stories and myths are equally important. For instance, I bet most people know that image of an ‘eye’ in Egyptian iconography. This is the Eye of Horus or the Wedjet. The eye of Horus was gouged out by Set (after Set had cut up Osiris and was out to kill Osiris’ son Horus) but later restored and represents healing and restoration. If you connect the image with the story it becomes more powerful. Indeed it is this connection which is often the whole purpose in the first place, it is the language of art as it were, symbol, icon, image combining with the cultural story or myth that exudes and expands meaning. As ever I would recommend reading Jung on such things, on doesn’t have to give oneself over to the belief in religious metaphysics to recognise the power and significance of such related images.
Words (and their component parts, letters) were literally magical for the Egyptians and they were born, again quite literally from images, images which came from nature but also imagination. The god Taweret instance was part hippo, part croc, with a bit of lion thrown in, certainly not a ‘natural’ creature. Another thing the exhibition mentioned was how the classical Greek historians Herodotus and Strabo etc were not very keen on how the Egyptians incorporated animals into their religion, perhaps because these Greeks had in religious and cultural terms developed a very anthropomorphic perspective on purity and perfection.
My day took a curious turn after the exhibition because I went to The Orwell Lecture 2016 given by Ian Hislop at the Cruciform Building, University College London (which appropriately was the building – formally a hospital - Orwell both married and died in). Hislop gave as you’d expect an entertaining but as he himself admitted not very deeply theoretical lecture on free speech. What was curious was the contrast with my day up to that point which had been all about thoughts on religion and ancient iconography. I was suddenly thrust into the secular world and its intense interest in the events of NOW. I don’t draw any conclusions from this except that we have many levels and layers to our lives and psychology.
One final and minor connection I made between the sacred and the secular during the exhibition was in the (headless and footless) statue of Queen Arsinoe II. For sheer beauty I thought this statue the most beautiful object in the exhibition (and I think someone else must have too because I saw afterwards that the flyer for the exhibition had the statue on its reverse side). This statue combined I think both the Greek love of the real human body and Egyptian sacred iconography. This sensuous body has one leg stepping forward as all the statues of the Pharaohs and their queens tend to. In addition the folds of her clothing are tied with an Isis knot which indicates her mortal body’s association with the immortal goddess. But the striking thing is that in this hybrid of two ancient cultures we seem to see inklings of modernity. The real body is just slightly stylised while the grey-green granodiorite seems to capture or hold the now; it is clothed in the past but trembles expressive complications of a modern life. The whole exhibition is in a strange way was symbolized in this statue for me: the syncretic nature of the lost cities and their inhabitants, with their beliefs in animal gods and deified humanity, with intimations of how we, or rather they, might change in the future.
I recently had a poem published in the Orwell society’s journal and recognized ‘my’ editor Masha Kemp sitting a couple of rows back. I collared her afterwards and chatted to her about her new biography in Russian on Orwell and she introduced me to George Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair and Quentin Kopp whose father Georges Kopp was with Orwell in Spain. The ensuing conversations were much about distant father’s and their son’s reactions. It took both Richard and Quentin sometime to realise quite how famous their fathers were. Quentin said, for instance, when he was fifteen he was reading ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and turned to his mother and said ‘There’s someone called Georges Kopp in here’ and she replied, to a surprised Quentin ‘Oh yes, that’s your father’. As Quentin said people didn’t spill the beans about their private life (or public life come to that) all that easily back then. I certainly found the same with my own father, who never told me, until I was in my forties, that I had a great-uncle John Dalgleish, who had been a journalist on national newspapers and written two books. Which given my life-long interest in writing and writers rather left me flabbergasted that he’d never deigned it worthy of mention!
It was odd and very ordinary to meet the sons of two famous men. Orwell especially in a way has been part of my personal pantheon since I was a teenager. To meet his son reminded me of the notion of six degrees of separation. I was standing speaking to the son of one of my literary gods, it was strange, curious, sentimentally meaningful and then again meant nothing very much at all because you always have to meet people as people if you know what I mean. You have to converse and interact with them, not some ethereal connection they give you with the past. So my day was full of the secular and the sacred and they oddly over lapped in my mind.
Just to return to the image of the sea which I began with I bought a book by Kathleen Raine, for the train on the way home, which is all about how William Blake was deeply connected with esoteric tradition rather than being simply a ‘one-off’ genius who created his own personal iconography (as had formally been suggested). As Raine makes clear in the first chapter for Blake and the ancients, the sea was often a symbol of matter because it was in eternal flux. For me yesterday I was standing on the shores of representation, mostly on the island of imagination, religion, symbol and icon but every now and again touched and pulled back into the waters of ‘the real’ and matters of fact.