Monstrous Antiquities: 4

All right. It’s Friday night, I’ve got a glass of fancy gin I bought in a fit of prosperity, and I’ve got nine, count ’em, nine papers to get through tonight. Can I do it? Let’s find out!

Jasmine Day was also talking about mummies “as travelling companions,” but as she could not be present the paper was read by Tina Paphitis in a Jasmine Day costume. I am completely serious. She talked about the idea that the mummy represents some aspect of colonial guilt in horror fiction. A lot of this tied effectively into Ellie Dobson’s paper from the previous day. I enjoyed her montage of similarly-attired high priest characters from mummy films. Apparently it sometimes happened that mummies travelling on ships were blamed for storms or other bad happenings. I kind of liked the analogy she made between the high priest bringing the mummy to Britain or America and the image of people smuggling in a dirty bomb. Interestingly, vampires and Frankenstein could play the same monster-as-WMD role, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon could not.

Next up was George Richards, who was talking about Ancient Egypt in comics and cartoons: specifically, the Tintin adventure Cigars of the Pharaoh, Silver Age appearances of the Sphinx, and, my hand to god, Thundercats.

I got really wound during this talk because I was internally asking myself why Mumm-Ra was blue, and the only answer I could come up with was “Skeletor is blue,” and that’s a Fred Hoyle question, because it only punts the question back one: why was Skeletor blue? I asked Allison and she said “because he’s undead,” like that should somehow be obvious. Oh well.

And now, comics in which the Sphinx has death rays:

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If you have not read a lot of Silver Age Superman comics, by the way, you don’t know what you are missing. They are, how you say, hopping mentile.

The thing that occurred to me during this talk was that Metamorpho had an Egyptian-style origin, maybe the only Silver Age hero to do so. I like Metamorpho.

One comment I really appreciated here was that comic artists seem to really like Egypt, visually. The art is instantly recognisable, the style is distinctive and can be imitated, and Egyptian art is even comic-book-like in a way that, say, Roman art isn’t.

OK, next up: author James Goss talked about the theory and practice of eternal curses. Now, through no fault of his, a lot of this paper — or what I got out of it at least — was a little similar to Dobson and Day. At least the first half. The second half took off a bit more, although I have my doubts about one aspect of his analysis. He was reading out some curses found on actual tombs on Wikipedia and then comparing them to the complete text in order to show how they had been “sexed up” to bolster the case for curses — he called actual Egyptian curses “disappointingly tame.” I wasn’t convinced — one line of a curse he quoted is “further, I shall seize his neck like a bird.” That sounds bad. I do not want to have my neck seized like a bird. I mentioned this after the conference to one of the Egyptology types there and he said “oh yeah, the Egyptians loved seizing necks” or words to that effect.

I wondered if the dungeon trap didn’t come from the literary trope of mechanical traps in Egyptian tombs.

Then there was a break.

Right, next up was Joanna Paul, with “The city disinterred: confronting the uncanny at Pompeii”. I am not a classicist, but I did go recently to see the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibit and furthermore I chose an image from Pompeii as the cover for the volume of ARC I co-edited with Ali Klevnas. 

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So there was a lot of good stuff here, and I was particularly struck by the way the casts are displayed at Pompeii — right in the middle of houses or other rooms, sometimes apparently at random. At the British Museum they way they did it was to leave the casts right until the end, so that you walked through the “rooms” of the Roman house before coming face-to-face with the dead. It was interesting. In one way, it was much more shocking, because you experienced the bodies as people rather than curiosities, but in another way you could argue that it was sanitised, since the bodies are kept separated from the house.

There were a lot of interesting points in this talk. I was particularly fascinated by the point that there are very few Pompeii ghost stories. The dead there are very material — but the living can be kind of ethereal, as in the display that reproduces Julius Polybius and his family as holograms. Interesting. Veeeeeeery interesting. Obviously, as a burials guy, I was particularly interested in this point, but also just … you’re looking at a frozen image of the moment of someone’s agonising early death. As Michael Shaara might have put it, “a fellow needs some privacy at a time like that.”

Next up, Gabe Moshenska talked about M.R. James and his excavations at Bury Abbey. Gabe delivered this in costume also, in this case dressed as a spook or possibly phantasm. This he tied in to “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad,” a story that gave me the whimwhams one late and lonely night in Cambridge about 11 years ago.

For all that James was basically an “antiquarian fusser,” he did do some field work — on a dig in Cyprus in 1887-8, and at the chapter house Bury in 1902-3. There wasn’t much of this excavation published, sadly, but Gabe pointed out some ways that it could have served as an influence on two of his stories, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and the aforementioned “Oh Whistle.” Gabe pointed out the way in which the latter story is also an attempt to take the sheet-ghost and make it scary. That actually never occurred to me at the time, which I think indicates that it succeeded. One other interesting thing he pointed out was that although James himself was a medievalist, his monsters are usually more modern than his field would suggest. “You need familiarity for horror.”

Closing out the session was Caterina Minnitti, talking about the presentation of ancient Egypt in video games. Now, when you do something like this, you sometimes wind up just cataloguing the obvious absurdities, and there was a certain amount of that. Take a look at this guy, for instance:

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Crocodile with a laser on his head! That’s both magnificent and idiotic at the same time.

Now, that’s obviously in a game that has strong magical elements (Age of Mythology). But one that that she pointed out that I thought was very interesting was that even in games that are ostensibly mainly historical, Egypt is where the weird shit is located. “Orientalism is alive and well in video games,” she said, but also pointed out that in many ways this was an idea with roots that stretch right back into the period being discussed. For example, she quoted Herodotus as saying that Egypt had “the most wonders.” Greece and Rome are, you know, political, military, economic, and Egypt always winds up being somehow mystical. There are certain nations that we tend to have a habit of thinking of as particularly spiritual — I’m thinking Tibet here, or even India in general — and I guess this was the case for Egypt.

But seriously, video games! At this point I was seeing Aegypt everywhere. I think there’s going to be a post on the Skyrim thing next week.

So then it was lunch. Am I gonna go for it? Yes I am.

Coming back, we led off with Katy Soar on “There’s something about Nodens: statues and survivals in the works of Arthur Machen.” This was mainly about The Great God Pan and “The White People,” and it was interesting. Apparently the identification of Nodens as “Lord of the Abyss” is so much bullshit, but of course that’s what Machen was working with. And it’s interesting that Machen’s notion of survival seems to be that the civilised veneer of the present is just a skin on a past that’s horrible, whereas the Lovecraftian vision is that the past outwardly seems noble and empowering but is a lie.

And of course survivals as a concept were a thing in the anthropology of the time. Spiritualism is also into the idea of collapsing time in the same way — they’re both concepts that involve confronting the past in the present.

Also, there is squishiness. Helen Vaughn’s body should be firm and permanent, but it’s weird and fluid. There’s a similar tentacley image in “The Novel of the Black Seal.”

Nearly there! Right, next up, Nigel Tallis talked about folk horror, which it turns out is completely a thing. Now, not being British, I missed a lot of the shows to which he was referring, but I believe that Children of the Stones is up there in the trinity of things that scared the piss out of Britons d’un certain age, together with Threads and Ghostwatch. He also referred to his talk as “Nigel Kneale appreciation,” which is fair enough. I also have respect for anyone who says “most folk songs are Georgian pop music.” He also talked about the idea that people really don’t like hearing that their archaeology is uncertain, to which I can only say “nailed it.” But archaeologists have to be unafraid to say “I don’t know.” This is another difference between archaeology and fringe stuff, I guess?

Folk horror in a lot of ways is kind of a village-green version of Machen, in that it’s the idea that you have these folk customs that link you to the past, but that at heart they turn out to be completely vile and evil. The bucolic turns out to be horrific. Interestingly, though, two of the big examples, The Wicker Man and the Doctor Who story The Daemons, both involve folk customs that are actually fake, with some other person manipulating the yokels to their own ends.

And with a rush of breath we come to the last one. That’s Tina Paphitis again, this time in her own words. She was talking about “Horrors of the past: barrows and barrow-lore in fantastic fiction,” and of course if we’re talking about barrows in fantastic fiction we’re talking about Tolkien. Who knew a thing or two about literary barrows himself, of course. Barrows have a long folkloric history, and they’re actually one of the few areas where we know a little bit about how early medieval people encountered earlier barrows, naming them after heroes and considering them to be both very important and maybe a leetle threatening. In fact, there’s a good barrow bit in one of Cornwell’s Arthur books, harking back to Saturday morning.

She also talked about a Grant Allen story from 1892, in which a dude encounters some ghosts of prehistoric people, and it includes a section so baller I must quote it:

They were savages, yet they were ghosts. The two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilised experience seemed at once combined in them.

OK, no, I’m not letting that one go without further elaboration. The two greatest enemies of civilisation are barbarism and ghosts? Really? The guys with the epaulettes are sitting around their maps going “but gentlemen — what if we face an enemy that is both barbarian and ghost?” And they say nothing but swallow hard and reach with trembling fingers for the brandy.

Apparently, the Stonehenge audio guide leads you around the circle widdershins. There you go, Changeling scenario writers. Gave you that one for free.

OK, that’s it for the papers. Tomorrow, time permitting, some kind of retrospective on the whole thing. Then I’m at a wedding on Sunday, and Monday is, of course, Movie Monday. lway

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Monstrous Antiquities: 4

Mummy portraits are sad and lovely

This summer, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary by (among other things) going to the Pompeii exhibit at the British Museum, which I recommend seeing if you haven’t. While there we also picked up a little book on some of their mummy portraits. 

Now, these aren’t the mummies you’re probably thinking of, with the impassive gold faces and whatnot. These portraits are from the Roman period, and they’re much more naturalistic, very much in the Greco-Roman idiom. This sort of thing fascinates me — it’s an example of a way in which both Hellenistic cultural elements and much older traditional Egyptian ones are blending to create a distinct new thing. I love that stuff. 

Some of these portraits are hauntingly personal: 

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That’s from the Er-Rubayat site, and it’s … I don’t know about you, but I find it kind of chilling and uplifting at the same time. But actually this portrait is not really typical of the Er-Rubayat portraits, it’s much more the type of thing that you find at Hawara, another mummy site with similar portraits — so much so that some scholars think a family from Philadelphia (the community served by the Er-Rubayat cemetery) may have called in an artist from Arsinoe (the community served by Hawara). The portraits attached to the Er-Rubayat mummies are much more like … well, like these: 

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I think it’s the middle one that gets me the most. You can tell it’s of a specific person rather than an idealised formula, someone who was known and cared for and missed and whose legacy is that art scholars talk about how crude her portrait is compared to the pretty girl at the top of the page. I know it’s wrong to project modern emotions onto the past blah blah _blah_ but remember what I said about using the bullshit you have to hand to cope with the worst feeling you’ll ever have? This is the thought that keeps coming back to me, the Roman-Egyptian equivalent of some humiliating conversation in a funeral director’s office where you have to try to make whatever coins you happen to have match this godawful grief and just pile the bitter indignity of being poor on top of the kick in the heart of losing someone you love. 

But what the hell do I know? Maybe they thought that was a _bitchin’_ mummy portrait. Maybe that was just what they wanted. Maybe that wasn’t their artistic tradition. The hand holding the flower looks like some older Egyptian representations of hands; maybe it was just customarily rustic. I like to think so. 

Whatever; tomorrow I’m going to make fun of Tony Curtis’s underpants. 

Mummy portraits are sad and lovely