Giants among Men: Western Perspectives on Ancient Art in Gods of Egypt. Also: Lettuce.

Last week, in my post that touched on race in Ancient Egypt, I took a shot at the movie Gods of Egypt, because of its cast of white actors portraying Egyptian gods. I had never seen the movie, mostly because of this reason, but also because the trailer looked god awful!

 

So, I decided now would be a good time to see what it was all about, mostly to see if there would be anything of substance for me to talk about. Also, not insignificantly, it’s currently on HBO Go, so I didn’t have to pay for it.

Yeah. There’s a lot to talk about.

The movie is essentially a retelling of the myth of The Contendings of Horus and Set, which is told in full in the Papyrus Chester Beatty I, now in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. The story is also alluded to in other Egyptian texts. The papyrus dates to the reign of Rameses V, but some scholars suggest that earlier versions of the story may have existed up to 700 years earlier. In the movie, Horus is played by Nikolai Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister, and Set is played by Gerard Butler, King Leonidas himself.

In the papyrus, as in the movie, there is a great period of chaos after Osiris, god-king of Egypt, is murdered by his brother Set. Through this period of time, Osiris’ son, Horus, and Set are engaged in a prolonged conflict between one another as they try to attain the throne. In the movie version, this conflict has the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complete with the imminent onslaught of an apocalyptic being.

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Apophis, the “Lord of Chaos” who takes the form of a snake in Egyptian Mythology, devouring reality.

In the ancient version, Horus and Set engage in a series of personal struggles to convince the Ennead, the council of gods, who is worthy to rule. These competitions include physical contests as well as trickery. In one scene, Set has sex with Horus, intending to prove that Horus is too submissive to be king. Horus, however, catches Set’s semen in his hand and tosses it into a marsh, hiding the evidence. He then puts his own semen into a pot, and Isis takes it and puts it in Set’s lettuce, which Set eats.

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You’re never gonna think of lettuce the same way again.

When Set goes to the Ennead and claims his dominance over Horus, the council demands evidence, so Thoth, god of wisdom, calls out for the semen to answer him. Set’s answers from the marsh, and Horus’ emerged from the top of Set’s head as a golden sun disk. Horus is then proclaimed king.

Did they leave that out to avoid the R-rating? Or did they decide nobody would believe Jaime Lannister is a bottom? We may never know.

As a rule, when watching adaptations of ancient myths or history, I expect there to be considerable deviations from the source material. Particularly with myth, the supernatural, often psychedelic storylines don’t translate well to film, and as we already saw, they’re often too sexually explicit for the intended audience. So, I’m not going to get caught up in how the movie doesn’t stay true to the source material.

Instead, I want to talk about the influence Egyptian art has on the film. From the very beginning, Gods of Egypt gets the interpretation of Egyptian art wrong, and for no discernible reason. The narration, while showing fictional scenes in Egyptian style, describes the time when Osiris was king and the gods lived among humanity. The narrator points out that the gods were distinguishable from humans due to their size: the gods are larger than humans and we can see this in art.

This is, indeed, the way gods and humans were distinguished in real Egyptian art. The reason why is, nevertheless, not that the Egyptians believed that gods were physically larger than humans. Rather, the difference in size is intended to send a message regarding status. Pharaohs were also depicted as larger than other humans in art, not because they were larger in size, but because of their status.

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Tutankhamun really wasn’t this huge, I promise. We found his mummy!

Members of the nobility, like scribes and priests, were also sometimes depicted as larger than other Egyptians.

It’s a curious choice to misinterpret Egyptian art in this way in the movie, as it doesn’t really play a major part in the plot. I suspect it was a part of the world building aspect of movie-making, in which they are creating an alternative reality so that the film exists in its own world distinctly different from our own. Hopefully it was not a bad assumption on the part of the filmmakers, to interpret Egyptian art too literally.

It is not uncommon for people to interpret ancient art in ways that are not appropriate to the culture that made the art. As I mentioned in my post about the Venus of Willendorf in The Young Pope, art is often interpreted incorrectly by imposing Western values and conventions onto ancient objects. Art is a method by which people send messages visually, containing culturally-specific symbols and conventions that convey meaning. Western art, particularly when it draws from the art of Classical Greece and Rome, focuses on realism, and so when individuals are depicted as larger, they are meant to be interpreted as physically large.

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Laocoon and his sons. Laocoon is larger because he is an adult. Realism.

Egyptian art is less concerned with realistic representation than it is on representing the important features of the subjects while using conventions to convey a particular status or other meanings. Everyone has noticed the peculiar stance of Egyptians in paintings, with the legs and head in profile, and the torso in frontal view. Go ahead, try to stand like this:

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If you can get your arms to do that, pics or it didn’t happen.

 

Pretty uncomfortable, no?

That’s because Egyptians were representing the human body in a way that best represented the important elements they wanted to express in art. They didn’t care so much that the subjects were all shown from the same perspective.  Much of Egyptian art was made with the belief that depicting objects and people recreated those things in the Afterlife. Therefore, it was crucial to represent the important parts of those objects, which might have been obscured if they maintained strict adherence to perspective.

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For example: Here is a game board. You can see the individual spaces on the board, meaning that it is being shown from above, even though the perspective of the scene is from the side. If the board was shown from the side, it would be impossible to tell what kind of game it is. Furthermore, the pieces are shown from the side, though, in reality, they would be inside the individual squares. Depicting the game in this way allows the artist to depict that this is a senet game by the layout of spaces, and also shows the type of pieces being used, which would not be recognizable when shown from above like the board.

Expectations of realism in ancient art have led to crackpot theories about advanced technologies in ancient cultures and often fuels discussion of ancient aliens. That topic is too broad to cover in this blog post and will be saved for another time.

For now, let’s just realize that Egyptians didn’t actually walk like this:

 

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