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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Emperor and the Eye of Horus

North Africa, sometime in the first half of the 6th-century. A contingent of horsemen clatters westward across the ochre wastes, the hooves of their mounts breaking the hard crust of surface sand. They approach an isolated [1]oasis, a settlement nestling among a green sea of date palms overlooking a lake, and dominated by a single building on a rocky knoll: their intended destination. They dismount below the knoll, ascend the path to the building and stride inside, confident in the authority vested in them by their emperor. Those at worship inside are forced out, the building is annexed, and its votive fires are quenched forever.

On a mission from the emperor..
This minor incident, one of many of its kind repeated across the empire, nevertheless resonates with a heavy significance. The building is the very last of the temples of Ammon: the only place where the gods of Dynastic Egypt are still actively worshipped. Its forced closure on the orders of Justinian, the Holy Roman Emperor, brings to a definitive end over 3,000 years of a religion which has been among the most enduring and stable of the Ancient World. In terms of an [2]end to a religion and its passing into myth, it is therefore not a natural death, but one which has been terminated by the historical forces which oppose it.

The two foreign empires in Egypt which preceded Justinian’s own – the Greek and the Roman – both attempted to accommodate and absorb Egyptian beliefs. During the dynasty of the Ptolemy’s, the best-known of whom was the famed Cleopatra, the Greeks developed such crossover deities as Isis-Aphrodite and the ram-horned Zeus-Ammon.

The Romans also concocted their own curious hybrid deities. Anubis, jackal-headed guide of the underworld, would be fitted out in the garb of a Roman commander, and Isis, queen of the Egyptian pantheon, would be dressed as an aristocratic Roman lady, although still holding the sistrum – the jingling temple rattle – that was her distinctive symbol. In spite of these changes, it was perhaps an easier and even a logical transition, for all three of these empires were polytheistic, worshipping many gods, and the forces which these gods reflected could be recognised across beliefs.

The Roman Isis.
Justinian’s decision to close the temple might have been driven rather more by political astuteness than by fervent belief: he sought through such a gesture to appease the Christian Copts in North Africa, to demonstrate that he and they were ‘on the same side’. But it is also true that he was vigorously determined to Christianize his own empire. His subjects were given a stark choice: convert, or face exile or death. The Christianization of the early Holy Roman Empire was to prove as ruthless in its expediency as it would be in the following centuries in Europe under such monarchs as [3]Charlemagne. That the West rushed gratefully to embrace Christ is a historical fantasy. The iron will of a succession of men in positions of power, both secular and of the Church, is what history reveals.

The Greek goddess Eileithyia was the patroness of fertility and childbirth. Seen here against the backdrop of the Eileithyia cave in Crete, the aid of the goddess was called upon both by would-be mothers to grant fertility and to aid in a safe delivery. Caves have a long association with the womb of the earth mother.
But these old gods are, it seems, more resilient than the will of earthly emperors. The historian Bettany Hughes, while on Crete, reports encountering in an underground [4]cavern known as the Eileithyia Cave, votive offerings left to a goddess of fertility: a continuous use of the site spanning some five millennia. We might be living in the Christian era and date our calendar from the [5]birth of Christ, but the very days of our [6]week are named for Roman and Teutonic gods. When we wish our architecture to convey a civilized respectability, our role models are the marble edifices of pagan Grecian temples.

Names may change, but heroes endure across millennia. Perseus triumphantly holds the severed head of Medusa aloft, Theseus drags the slain Minotaur from the Labyrinth, Batman crouches darkly above Gotham City and a techno-armoured Iron Man does his palm-of-power thing.
And we might consign semi-divine heroes and their glorious deeds to a long-vanished antiquity, but we still nurture an apparent need for them. It’s just that instead of Perseus, Theseus, Hercules and Jason, we now call them Superman, Spiderman, Batman and Iron Man – and Thor has even resurfaced, still with his hammer and his original name intact.

The proportions might have drifted away from the original, but the Eye of Horus is still going strong in the form of tattoo designs, T-shirt symbols and other readily-available merchandise.
So did Justinian succeed in shutting down those Egyptian gods? Look around on the Web and you’ll find various sites dedicated to Isis and even to Sekhmet. And I do mean ‘dedicated’. These sites are not merely informational, but portals of worship, sincere in their intent. Eyes of Horus are now freely available to purchase as pendants, key rings, T-shirts, even as tattoos: take your pick. Whether you believe or not that gods are an invention of mortals, it seems that it is not up to mortals to decide when their time is up. Fifteen centuries after Justinian thought to close it, the eye of Horus is apparently still wide open and watchful.

[1] The incident which opens this post is briefly recounted in chapter 5 of Tom Holland’s book below. The author does not specify at which oasis the temple was located, but taking into account the location, setting and time frame, I’m assuming it to be the oasis of Siwa, then known as Ammon-Ra, now in Egypt but then a part of Libya, and it is this setting which my post describes.

Siwa has a remarkable-enough history. As a sacred site its use apparently stretches back many millennia. In the 4th-century BCE a Persian army of fifty thousand men were dispatched to commandeer the oasis. They never arrived. Having become lost among the dunes, the entire army perished in the North African desert. The Greek historian Herodotus, whose writings provide us with this incident, was thought to have been exaggerating, but the remains of this ill-fated army have recently been discovered. In the 2nd-century BCE, having conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria, Alexander the Great visited the temple to consult the oracle there. Apparently as a result of this visit he henceforth believed in his own divinity, and that his mission of conquest was graced with divine will. To mark both his visit to the temple and his newly-acquired divinity, the megalomaniac conqueror thereafter had himself portrayed with ram horns (below left), elevating himself to the status of the god Zeus-Ammon (below right).

Following the forced closure of the temple, the settlement declined and its location was lost for some thousand years, only to be rediscovered in the 18th-century. Today its inhabitants live among the ruins (below), with most of the neighboring houses being occupied by the ghosts of history.

[2] Please see my post All Things Must Pass for more about the passing of religions into history.

[3] Please see note [5] of my post John Calvin's Tough Love for more about Charlemagne.

[4] Described in chapter 12 of Bettany Hughes’ book below. I myself remember visiting a Neolithic barrow in Denmark in which pagan offerings have been regularly left over a period of some ten millennia. Standing there in the semi-subterranean darkness of the burial chamber, surrounded by cold granite and with the musty compacted Danish soil underfoot, the line to my own ancestors felt like a very direct one indeed.

[5] No two historical sources agree on the actual year. As to the date: December 25th is actually the celebratory day of the sun god (often thought to be the day of the god Mithras, although this is not historically supported), the date being purloined by the early Church fathers, just as churches were built upon the foundations of the pagan temples which they had destroyed.

[6] Saturn’s Day, Sun Day, Moon Day, Tyr’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day.

Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword –The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Little, Brown, 2012. Few authors who write about history convey the great sweep of empire-changing events as vividly as Tom Holland. And few authors dig so deep and so fearlessly in their attempts to discover the historical truth behind the birth of the world religions (in this case, Islam) that are with us today. Since this title's publication Tom Holland has been forced to disappear as a Web presence - yet another indication of the way in which one religion's inability to shoulder criticism of any kind points only more tellingly to what are perhaps discomforting historical truths.    

Bettany Hughes: Helen of Troy – Goddess, Princess, Whore. Pimlico for Random House, 2005. Few books which I have read make the stuff of history as tangible as this one. It is at one and the same time a grand overview of the subject and an intimate portrait, both of Helen (insofar as that is possible for a figure who straddles both myth and history), and of the distant time in which she lived. In Bettany Hughes' title Helen also emerges as a mirror who reflects back to itself each successive age which has portrayed her in its own different way. We discover something about ourselves and our own time through the way in which we regard Helen, and through the way in which she is depicted by artists and writers both past and present.

Isis-Aphrodite and Zeus-Ammon: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Other Isis-Aphrodite statuettes from Christies Antiques. 2nd-century Roman Isis: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (sistrum from the statue of the Roman Isis in the Capitoline Museum, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen). Eye of Horus tattoo from Lilz-eu-tattoo. Inlaid eye of Horus from the tomb of Tutankhamen, Cairo Museum. Renaissance statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini in the Logia del Lanzi, Florence, from a photo by Paolo del Reggio. Kylix of Theseus with the slain Minotaur in the National Archaeological Museum, Salamanca, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Batman painted by Scott Hampton, from Batman: Night Cries, by Archie Goodwin and Scott Hampton, published by DC Comics Inc. 1992. Bat logo © Warner Bros, Legendary Pictures. Iron Man © Paramount Pictures, Marvel Enterprises. Alexander coin: British Museum. Zeus-Ammon coin: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo of present-day Siwa Oasis by Heksamarre. On a Mission from the Emperor painted for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved.

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