Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Sun! The Sun! Ra, Ra, Ra!


You know those things that seem like a good idea at the time? “I’ll do a set about the sun” I said. “ The research will be easy” I said. “There’s Amaterazu from Japan, Apollo from Greece, Ra from Egypt, I’ll just read up on them, find one or two more, job done!” I said.

With a legendary character, say Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, there is a natural starting point with their birth and an obvious chronological order for the events of their life to unfold in, providing a generally consistent narrative thread. Their story mostly is presented as just that, all neatly packaged up in one place from beginning to end and helpfully titled with their name.

The problem with the Sun is that its birth is not the beginning of its own story but merely a passing event in the great story of creation from which the teller swiftly moves on. Other parts of their development are often tied in to the workings of the cosmos in a similar way and are found amongst the stories of their parents, creators or siblings. Sun goddesses are particularly beset with pushy Moon gods, usually their brother or husband, or both. This means that the Sun’s story is often scattered, like the shards of a broken pot in an archaeological site, through the episodes of a mythology.

In several countries their mythology is only preserved in a corpus of songs or poems which never actually tell the story as it was, but only allude to a now forgotten narrative in deliberately obscure ways. Here it goes beyond archaeology and becomes detective work. One is no longer trying to assemble fragments of broken pot but solve a mystery… using a cryptic crossword in a foreign language.

Even where scholars have gone before and collated the disparate elements it isn’t always easy going. Each author has their foibles. One will try to illustrate every deity by comparison to their Greek counterpart, another to the Egyptians, yet another with chapter and verse references to the bible. None of these are useful unless you have studied the mythology they are clearly obsessed with in as much detail as they have. In addition their various anecdotes, comparisons and academic diversions, though fascinating to the casual reader, have the same effect to the storyteller as if the ceramics expert, having glued the pot back together, smashed it up again and handed it to the historian in a bag full of other random bits of pot from completely different digs.

It should be simpler in Egypt. Ra is the creator of all things as well as being the sun and there is only one sun isn’t there? Maybe, but there would appear to be more than one spirit of the fiery orb. Horus also lays claim to the title, as does Osiris. Hathor, Sekhmet and Bast are just three of the goddesses that go by the name “The Eye Of Ra” which makes them the sun too. It seems that most cities or areas had their own divine wrangler of the heavenly yellow orb and to avoid (or settle) conflict a fair number of them were absorbed in to the official versions of how things were. The end result of this is that Hathor, Horus and several others work with Ra as specialists in a sprawling department of solar affairs. There are so many of them that they dispense with the traditional chariot and use a barge to get across the sky. Horus and Sekhmet handle security while Osiris takes over completely for the night shift as they make their way through an underworld full of giant snakes hell bent on having them as hot, hydrogen flavoured snacks. Poor Ra. “I’ll create a world” he said, “I’ll be the sun” he said. I expect it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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Filed under Sun, Sun goddesses and gods, Uncategorized

The Ultimate Reboot


A few years ago I remember people worrying about Tamagotchis and similar digital pets. The concern was that, since a creature could be re-animated following it’s virtual death, children would develop a false understanding of the finality of pets or relatives actually expiring in physical reality. To anyone who has glanced even briefly at the belief systems of humanity regarding our inevitable passing on, it is quite obvious that that particular black barge sailed a very long time ago.


Pretty much all religions and cultures assume that death is only a temporary state and is followed by a continued or re-established existence of one form or another. In the Philippines a large percentage of funerary practices serve to prevent the spirits of the dead from following you home. Despite this, it is the custom to place the deceased in their coffin without shoes so when they do start wandering around your house they don’t make too much noise.

The ancient Egyptians were famously obsessed with Life 2.0. They believed everyone would re-animate in their pre-used body. It would appear that this belief came from the tendency of corpses, buried in shallow, sandy graves, to dry out and naturally mummify. Later, when rich people started building cool, stone tombs, they found that more elaborate means were necessary to preserve the cadaver. Many interments were accompanied by a little statue, about 60-80 cm (2 and a bit feet) tall. This was a failsafe. If the original body was damaged then the “Ka”, or soul could not re-enter and would have to find a replacement vessel. Presumably the Fields of Yalu (the Egyptian hereafter) were filled with these back up bodies since the artificial mummification practices involved removing the internal organs and putting them in jars. It’s hard to see how having your brain liquified and pulled out through your nose wouldn’t qualify as damage. Ironically the poor, unable to afford tombs, were still getting their whole, un-eviscerated bodies naturally preserved for them in the desert sands, so it would mainly be the rich who were rebooting in the afterlife as short, wooden people.

Unlike the Greeks, whose Elysian Fields are an eternal sunny picnic with your loved ones, an unprepared Ancient Egyptian would find themselves working for their after living. Much like earthly life, Life EternalTM required food, shelter and constant toil on public works. As with most negative aspects of extinction there was a work around. Amongst the various tools, crockery, foodstuffs, jewellery and clothing that one obviously needed to take on the not-so-final journey, many people, rich and poor, were buried with a bag or box of tiny figurines called “Shabti Dolls”. These models, ranging from coarse plaster about 5cm tall to finely carved stone around 45cm in height, could be sent to answer the call whenever there was work to be done, allowing an immortality of leisure to whoever brought them.

When life is generally considered to not only carry on after death but be improved by it, I have to wonder why we put so much effort into staying alive. Thinking about it though, the Egyptian afterlife must be very stressful: walking down the street with posh, child-sized mannequins trying to boss you around whilst having to avoid stepping on all the fragile, miniature labourers trotting about their business (or indeed, someone else’s business). What if there is only one afterlife and we all end up in the same place? Imagine arriving in the Great Beyond with bare feet while two dimensional virtual pets keep winking in and out of existence amongst a moving carpet of fragile Egyptian micro workers tooled up with scythes and chisels!

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Filed under Afterlife, Underworld