Friday, May 30, 2014

Write like an Egyptian: words of the gods

The ancient Egyptians called hieroglyphs the words of the gods. Two god had a special connection with writing.

The least known is Seshat (Sashet, Sesheta), the female scribe. She was the goddess of writing, historical records, accounting and mathematics, measurement, and architecture. (All Egyptian gods are overachievers.) She assisted the pharaoh and kept a record of his life. She also recorded the time allotted to him by the gods for his stay on earth.

The most well-known was Djhuty (Thoth), an ibis-headed god. Some say he created himself through the power of language. He is the creator of magic, the inventor of writing, teacher of man, the messenger of the gods, the divine record-keeper, and mediator par-excellence. (See what I mean about over-achieving?) The Book of Djhuty contained all the knowledge in the universe. It was hidden at the bottom of the Nile and locked inside a series of boxes guarded by serpents. Egyptians believed the gods' knowledge is not meant for humans to possess. Not that several didn't try, most famously Setne Khaem-waset, the fourth son of Ramses the Great.

Djhuty is often associated with Isis as her mentor, friend, and the arbitrator between her and the other gods during the Contending of Horus and Seth. In this scene from Queen of Heka, Iset (Isis) meets Djhuty for the first time:

    An ibis emerged from the fog. With each step, the bird lengthened into a man. The long, webbed feet became well-muscled legs. White feathers molted into an elaborately pleated kilt. The transformation ended at the neck. When the bird’s beady eyes fixed on me, all the noise in the world stopped. 
    Heru spoke into the inhuman silence. “May I present the teacher of all teachers, Djhuty, Lord of Truth and Time.”

    The great god bowed. His beak opened like a black crescent moon in the white mist. “Hail, Iset wer-Heka, Mistress of the Throne.” 
    “I’m just Iset.” I giggled for the first time that day. Daily commerce with Heru clearly had not prepared me for the company of other gods.

    “You are the lady who will learn words of power,” Djhuty said.

    “From the Book of Djhuty?” The prospect chased away every dismal thought. All the priests longed to read the scroll filled with heka and mysteries not even Ra knew. I bounced up and down on my toes, almost taking flight.
    “Pain and tragedy come to any mortal who reads my book,” Djhuty said.
    “Pain and tragedy also come to those who do not read it.” My whole body practically vibrated with anticipation. Heru snickered.

    “My book is dangerous.” Djhuty directed an anxious look toward Heru.

    “My life is already dangerous.” I thought of Seti and Oso, and I wanted to shake him for making light of my predicament. I might have if he hadn’t put his cool hand on my forehead. My heartbeat slowed straight away, keeping time with the waves lapping our feet.
    "So it is.” 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

I am Livia. . . just not the Livia you think I am

We've all played the game. You can invite # historical figures to dinner. Who would you choose? Chances are good that Livia Drusilla, the second wife of Augustus Caesar (a marriage that lasted over 50 years), doesn't make the cut for most of us.

In popular history she was reviled as an ambitious schemer not above poisoning those who got in her way, and that was when history was being nice to her. For me, Siân Phillips sealed my impression of Livia as a woman of "glittering malice" in the popular BBC series, I, Claudius.

I am Livia by Phyllis Smith changes the equation. In Smith's well-written and well-researched novel that masquerades as a memoir, Livia is every smart girl who wants a place at the political table and is denied because of gender. That, of course, is not at odds with how history sees Livia. What is different is the probity with which Smith's Livia pursues her ambitions. Or as the aging Livia best puts it  in the opening paragraphs:
I wonder sometimes how I will be remembered. As mother of my country, as men call me to my face, or as a monster? I know the rumors none dare speak aloud. Some believe I am a murderess many times over. They envy me, and they hate my power. In Rome, a woman's power,  however circumspectly exercised, arouses revulsion. . . . .
Oh, I have transgressed. But not in the way they think. It is when I remember my youth that I find myself recoiling. Do I recoil when I think of him, my beloved? No. But I paid a price in my soul, for loving him.
Throughout the novel, Livia struggles with moral dilemmas. She wants to be a respectable Roman matron, but she is obsessed with a man (Augustus) not her husband. She ultimately sacrifices her children and family's good will to be with him. She wants to do good and sponsors civic works, but she is not above the scheming to get her own way or theatrical gestures. She agonizes over the long Roman civil wars and reluctantly embraces the notion that the Republic, a cherished dream of her beloved father, must end if Rome is to know peace. She grudgingly respects, Cleopatra, her arch-enemy and the other smart girl of her time. After the battle of Actium and Cleopatra's death, Livia wonders if what she wants is any different than what Cleopatra sought and if her own methods were any more noble.

For maybe the first time ever, readers catch a glimpse of the passion between Livia and Augustus, who often appears in fiction as rather a cold fish that nobody loves. From the moment they first lock eyes, these two are possessed. Livia rhapsodizes over Augustus's beauty, something unique in my reading experience where he is often described as sickly and less than manly. In return, Augustus wants her and wants her bad.

Like their more well-known passionate counterparts, Antony and Cleopatra, Livia and Augustus are one of history's original power couples. Some of the best scenes are a post-coital Livia and Augustus plotting to make Rome a better place and dealing with those who stand in their way. As Livia recounts her role in making Augustus great, we can relish how she tells the tale with equal parts modesty, intensity, and something akin to a conscience.

Ultimately, I found this book both enjoyable and satisfying in its portrayal of a woman who dared to be powerful in life and love.

Oh, and that dinner party? I think a Women Who Dared in the Ancient World might be the ultimate girl's night. My guest list: Livia, Cleopatra, Hypatia (philospher, mathematician, and astronmer), Hatsheput (the first female Pharoah), Nefertiti, Helen of Troy, Cassandra the prophetresss of Troy, and the goddesses Isis, Hera, and  Ishtar

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What's in a hat? A lot if you're an Egyptian goddess

I've gone on record (at least on Facebook):


I was looking for a hat that combined steampunk as well as Egyptian elements for a banquet I attended.  This one was SO perfect!

Alas, it cost $500, and my budget did not allow for such sublime wonderfulness.
After some near frantic searching on eBay and other places, I decided to make a hat. The one you see to your left. It cost a lot less than $500. I received a lot of compliments. At the end of day, I was left with one overriding question.

Question: "What's in a hat, anyway?"
Answer: A lot if you are an Egyptian goddess.

Consider these two.

They look a lot alike. Both women
  • Are kneeling in front of hieroglyphics.  
  • Have wings. 
  • Have black hair, parted over their shoulders. 
  • Have nearly identical faces. 
  • Wear headbands. 
The difference: one wears a feather on her head, and one wears something like a chair. (Hint: it's really a throne.) We know them by their hats.

Ma'at always wears a feather, which she uses when she weighs the heart of a dead soul. The name Isis means The Throne, so she wears her name.

In this statue of Tutankhamen, Isis carries the young Pharaoh. Notice his body is in the shape of  the throne as he becomes the hat Isis wears. Tutankhamen came to the throne during a turbulent period in Egyptian history, right after Akhenaten tried to get rid of all the old gods. By showing Isis carrying Tutankhamen and making him her crown, the artist is sayingTutankhamen returned to traditional religion, and the gods recognize him as the rightful king.

As the Goddess of 10,000 Names, Isis wore many different hats. She became one of the supreme goddesses of Egypt, so she took on many aspects of other goddesses, just as she assumed the wings of Ma'at. In the following crown, she blends her throne headdress, with a solar disk and cow horns that itypically belongs to the goddess Hathor, all on top of the traditional vulture crown of an Egyptian queen. I'm sure there's a kitchen sink in there somewhere.

What would your hat be if you were an Egyptian goddess?

Monday, May 12, 2014

YA romantic suspense via Neil Gaiman's American Gods (with Isis and Osiris content)

First, let's set the boundaries. . . .

I read almost anything about ancient Egypt and everything that even remotely touches on Isis and Osiris. I call it research for my own novel.       :-)

That being said, I'm remarkably picky. A whiff of a camel plodding by the Pyramids or a description of those tombs baking in the sand under the hot Egyptian sun as cool and shady (ok, they ARE shady), and you've lost me. And need I mention there are so many ways to go horribly wrong with Egyptian mythology?

That being said, Kiersten White's The Chaos of Stars just delighted me!

Like Gaiman's American Gods, it satisfies our prurient interest on what happens to the protagonists of the world's first great love story (Isis and Osiris) 6000 after the fact. From the POV of a teenage girl who just happens to be one of their many human offspring. All born to keep their worship alive. Kiersten White had me at hello!

Because really, how do you cope when the Great Mother is your mother? Set alternately in Abydos, Egypt and San Diego, CA, Isadora, their human daughter struggles with life, love, the modern world, and ancient enemies in a way that kept me turning the pages into the wee hours of the morning.

White's mythological research is top-notch. I had no quibble with her using the stereotype of Isis as the interfering Mother and the usual depiction of Osiris as the feckless Father. What teenager doesn't think of her parents like that, and it worked for the character arc of this novel. I didn't figure out the bad guy until the very end, which always pleases me. There was a "surprise" twist about the love interest that wasn't that surprising, but it gave me hope this novel actually might be the beginning of a series.

I highly recommend this book.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Happy Mother's Day to the Great Mother

Before Princess Diana, Joan of Arc, Mary of Nazareth, or Cleopatra, there was Isis — goddess, lover, healer, mistress of magic, patriot, queen, and mother.

She was the mother of Horus, the god of Kings. Every pharoah of Egypt claimed her as their divine mother, which made her the Motherof Egypt itself. She is often depicted nursing Horus. There is a wide belief that this image served as inspiration for the classic Christian portait of the Madonna and Child.

What did it mean to be the Mother of the God of Kings, who was also known as Horus the Avenger and Lord Horizon?

I tried to imagine how Isis (Iset) reacted when Horus (Heru) informs her about her future motherhood in this snippet from Queen of Heka.

          “I’ve searched a thousand lifetimes for you.” The cocky grin disappeared. “I was there the day you were born, and I knew right away you’d be my mother, Iset wer-Heka.”  
          Iset wer-Heka. Iset great of magic. The epithet perplexed me, but not nearly so much as the idea of mothering a god. That was a million times more frightening than marrying Seti. Maybe if I didn’t acknowledge it.
           “Stop calling me wer-Heka. I have no magic.”
          “Don’t you feel it in your veins?” He peered into my eyes. “Remember when you grabbed my hand in Abydos? You pulled me here. I had no choice; your heka demanded it. Visions are heka. Your talent with herbs is heka. Even this moment is heka; you willed it so.”
. . .
          I asked the easiest question. The one I hoped might liberate me from his expectations. “Why do you need a mother? You’re a god.”
          “I want to know what it’s like to be human,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know. It’s like you wanting to be an ordinary girl.”
          My chest felt like it was caving in. I was pretty sure no one ever uttered mother of a god and ordinary girl in the same breath. My unruly tongue snatched another thought from the babble in my head. “I suppose you already selected your father.”
          His grin lit the cabin. “Sobek offered. He sometimes comes with me when I watch you.”
          “Sobek? Lord of the Crocodiles?” Really? Someone worse than Seti wanted to marry me? This was getting worse with every answer.
          Heru nodded cheerfully. I made a sound halfway between a squawk and whimper.