Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Butterflies | Fiction | Two Riders Were Approaching...

“I have given bread to the hungry man, and water to the thirsty man, and apparel to the naked man, and a boat to the shipwrecked mariner.”
The deceased gives good account of himself to the divine court, The Coffin Texts, 2150-1750 BC

“Charity’s a Christian virtue, y’know.”
Bill O’Reilly

I am in love. The moment I read the Ancient Egyptian funereal writings ‘The Coffin Texts’, I fell instantly in love with them.

Honestly – what a religion. My vague memories of being scared by the jackal-headed, monstrous figures in my Horrible Histories books have vanished entirely. The afterlife is presented as the kind of transcendental journey of the self that ought to fascinate anyone even vaguely interested in Hermeticism or in certain of Jung's theories.  And there’s an overwhelming sense of decency to the entire set-up. Evil men are not tormented for all eternity; they’re simply eaten, one time only, by a monster, and are annihilated as a result. Their punishment is not to have an afterlife (all right, so this part's debatable, but I'm taking the optimistic view). The deceased actually gets to defend his own nature before the gods, instead of being told what sort of a man he is; and, if he ascends into the Elysian Fields, rather than making him sing them hosannas to them for all of eternity, the gods will charitably dine with him, and converse with him as an equal. There is much mention of “cakes and ale.”

I’ll say it again – what a religion.

But for our purposes, there’s something that fascinates me still more. It seems the world was not created, in much of Egyptian mythology, by the Christ-like Osiris, or Ra, the sun-god (who does become annoyingly close to all-powerful in the later, and more famous Book of the Dead). It was Thoth, the ibis-headed writer-god, who scribbled down the spell that formed reality. And, furthermore, the Coffin Texts and its forebear, the Pyramid Texts, strongly imply that it is Thoth who causes every event in the gods’ lives to occur, by writing them down; it praises, him, for instance, for bringing about Osiris’ resurrection, rather than praising Osiris himself.

Thoth.  Ultimate Badass?

Now, I like Thoth. He’s also revered as the inventor of all arts and sciences, which suggests he probably wouldn’t get pissed at mankind for discovering fire or a system of morality. He’s my new favourite author, in fact. But this same preoccupation with the immense power of the word – and the fact that this power is in human hands - runs deep through all of the texts. All of the books themselves, most obviously, are spells of a sort; actings-out of the deceased’s journey through the afterlife. At one point, to enter the divine mansions, he must first recall the names of the very hinges of the entrance door – and the planks of wood over the floor refuse to let him pass until he’s given them the names of his feet, which are going to be passing over them.

This same concept of being able to defeat something, or gain its support, by knowing its True Name, has passed through a great deal of our literature since then, most notably becoming extremely popular in modern fantasy. But it has made me ponder something that’s probably a truism; did the Ancient Egyptians revere the power of words more, since their words were pictographic in their written form, and therefore already endowed with symbolic meaning, from the very beginning?
And this brings me on, of course, to the Rorschach butterfly.

We all know it. You could even argue it’s one of the most popular symbols of our time that isn’t associated with a brand; i.e., a symbol that’s endowed with its own meaning, and not meant to imprint a particular product or person in our minds. And, to grossly over-simplify, the idea of it is that the psychiatrist holds up the above picture (the first in a sequence of ten, that grows more complex), asks the subject what they see, and explain their interpretation. And so both the answer and the method of getting there may give clues about the subject’s state of mind.

Now, these images are very much in the public domain. And it’s been argued (quite reasonably) that only testers should have ever been allowed to see them, since subjects are now “primed”; we see a butterfly, or a bat, or a moth, because we’ve seen that symbol before, and we know that’s what it’s supposed to mean, and we want very much to get the ‘right’ answer. Perhaps students of the psyche should have taken a lesson from the Hermeticists or the authors of the Book of the Dead, who argued, “This book is indeed a very great mystery; and thou shalt never allow ignorant folk, or any person whatsoever to see it.” Elitist, perhaps, and that makes our post-modern blood boil, but if everyone knows the meaning of the magic word, it ceases to have value.

It’s the curse of the symbol, more potent than any Egyptian magic; how do we distil cultural baggage from the word, strip it of its existing symbolic meaning so that we can add our own? I’m fond of a technique that’s half-nicked from sources like the ancient tradition (very popular in Egypt, incidentally), of dismembering the corpse so that it can be put back together in the afterlife, of removing the earthly organs so that divine organs can be administered, and half-stolen from Sideshow Bob’s classic ‘rake’ joke. Repeat the word until it loses all meaning. Then repeat it some more, on your own terms, until it’s endowed with a new meaning, that belongs only to you. “I am Yesterday, and Today; and I have the power to be born a second time.”
Try it. It’s quite a spell.


  1. And speaking of removing cultural baggage, was anyone else moderately impressed with the BBC's updating of 'Sherlock'? Having Holmes being a textophile should never in a thousand years have worked as well as it did.

    Shame about the cut-price Anton Chigurh it had for a villain, though - and, by proxy, the last half-hour.

  2. 'Tenuous use of week's theme' could become one of our most common tags.