Skywatchers, Shamans & Kings: Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power
(New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997) 364 pp., $27.95
One of the benefits of walking erect is the ability to look up. Most of us don’t appreciate how much time our ancestors spent looking at the stars—even more time than we spend watching TV—and we seldom consider how seriously they took their star-gazing. For ancient societies, the cosmos was a living mirror of our terrestrial realm, an ideal domain where godly players acted out every conceivable behavior pattern of the world below.
E.C. Krupp’s Skywatchers, Shamans & Kings invites readers to explore how and why the human condition has been influenced by heavenly images cast upon a celestial screen. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium in Los Angeles, has impressive credentials as a tour guide: For more than a generation he has been a leader in the interdisciplinary field of archaeoastronomy (the study of ancient astronomy). He has visited more than 1,300 ancient sites, and his text offers readers a lively, well-informed personal tour of many of these places.
Krupp relies heavily on material artifacts, particularly archaeological remains, to weave his tales of the acquisition of celestial power. Casting aside the usual, plodding, culture-by-culture analysis that marks many archaeoastronomy texts, he conducts his tour thematically. Virtually every page of Skywatchers features unexpectedly diverse cross-cultural comparisons: Marilyn Monroe is discussed alongside ancient Maya kings, and prehistoric totems are equated with 20th-century superheroes.
Krupp presents his eon-spanning, globe-hopping analysis in a lively, reportorial style that is easy to read. He also spices up his text with droll and amusing subtitles, sly pop-culture references and more than 150 photographs, most of them his own work. The result is an amazingly rich mix of ideas and materials.
Krupp starts off by asking a basic question: Why do most societies arrange their sacred geography around four directions? Such a design, he answers, is suggested in the very structure of our bodies as well as in the symmetry of celestial motion. To demonstrate the universality of four-way thinking, Krupp playfully compares the quadripartite directional symbolism of a painted Maya tomb with an art deco shrine in contemporary Hollywood. (The modern structure has glitzy statues of starlets at each of its cardinal points and a bust of Marilyn Monroe at the center—where, in a Maya tomb, the king slept off eternity.)
After laying out the basic components of sacred geography, Krupp moves on to the question of how different societies have tried to channel the sky’s power. Many ancient cultures relied on some sort of sacred shaman to divine the secrets of the universe. Part astronomer-astrologer and part psychologist, this shaman had to undertake rigorous spiritual journeys—such as a trip through the Cretan labyrinth—in an ongoing quest for celestial insight. Ultimately, the shaman’s skill lay in his ability to articulate a cosmic 053vision that anticipated both nature’s changing behavior and people’s reactions to it.
Krupp’s tour proceeds from the northwest Pacific coast to the highlands of Tibet, as he regales us with stories of how and where people say the world was created. He finds that the more complex a society is, the more closely mapped are its sources of cosmic power. The Mongol leader Khubilai Khan employed a laser-sharp astronomical model that fixed all cosmic order to a single point on the north celestial pole. In the highly developed empires of ancient China and Japan, every dynastic official had some symbolic counterpart in the circumpolar constellations.
Krupp’s text also addresses how many of our beliefs about the acquisition, dissemination and control of power emerge from what we witness in the natural world. In most ancient cultures, a ruler’s power and legitimacy were tied directly to beliefs about earth cycles and the changing of seasons. Krupp examines a dizzying array of ancient sites devoted to the cyclical, procreative powers of mother earth: He whisks us from Ice Age paintings and sacred caves to serpent-mouthed Maya temples and prehistoric megaliths. His persistent photo-documentation of womb- and vulva-shaped rock formations, however, may try the patience of even less prudish readers.
Of course, one of the problems of linking secular and religious authority to the rhythms of the natural world is that both human institutions and the physical universe undergo constant change. Krupp devotes considerable attention to the problem of interpreting cosmic signals under perpetually shifting conditions. He offers examples of how Chinese, Roman, Cheyenne and Egyptian astrologers modified their predictions in the face of changing circumstances. Their motives for deceiving their followers ranged from a desire to protect the state to crass self-interest. (Perhaps a distaste for deception explains Krupp’s openly negative view of astrology and all forms of contemporary western shamanism.)
Krupp’s whirlwind pilgrimage to cosmic sacred places concludes with a long discussion of symbols that “advertise” cosmic power. He examines an assortment of power symbols including shamans’ costumes, mural paintings from a Maya ruin and modern-day superhero action figures—like Superman and Captain Marvel—whose very apparel offers clues to their sources of power.
The last item on Krupp’s tour is the greatest of all power symbols, the pyramid. Krupp reviews a host of competing theories about the celestial orientation of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Then he takes up the varied role of astronomy in Cahokia’s Monks Mound in Illinois, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the temples of ancient Mesoamerica. While not all scholars will agree that the expansion of the pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan was propelled by astronomy, or that Chichén Itzá’s Pyramid of Kukulcan is a monument dedicated to some ancient astronomical “super New Year,” the bottom line rings clear: Pyramids the world over are cosmic mountains, conduits of power drawn down from the heavens.
As a species we are, and always have been, “upwardly mobile” (to quote the title of the last chapter of Skywatchers). We frail humans are forever striving to harness new sources of power by tuning in to a continuously changing cosmos. When we do manage to achieve some fleeting celestial insight, we covet and sacralize our knowledge, like the imagined first protector of fire. Unable to control the cosmos, Krupp argues, we invent rich astronomical ideologies. Concluding on a troubling note, he asks: What ideology of power can we create in today’s society? How are we to interpret the social, philosophical and scientific significance of the powerful, sometimes cataclysmic, phenomena we witness through the Hubble Space telescope? What tangible belief system can spring from a culture suspicious of all forms of authority and bedeviled by the relativistic, out-of-control, crap-shoot universe of Einstein and Darwin?
A staunch empiricist, Krupp stops short of answering these epistemological questions. Instead, he leaves it to the individual reader to come up with his or her own cosmic philosophy. Those who sign up for this lively tour will find themselves well informed.
The Mummy in Ancient Egypt
Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1998) 352 pp., $45.00
Few ancient artifacts are as instantly recognizable as the Egyptian mummy. For centuries, these most characteristic of Egyptian remains have elicited fascination, fear, revulsion and sometimes pity in the general public. They have played leading roles in everything from scholarly treatises to museum exhibitions and Hollywood horror movies.
Yet mummies are still surprisingly misunderstood, and serious studies of Egyptian funerary equipment are rare. With the notable exception of A.J. Spencer’s Death in Ancient Egypt (Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1982), there have been no serious comprehensive texts on mummies for the general reader.
With The Mummy in Ancient 054Egypt, Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson seek to address the needs of both specialists and non-specialists for a thorough and up-to-date analysis of what they term the Egyptian “burial complex.” This complex includes not only the mummies themselves, but also their wrappings, amulets, jewelry, masks, coffins, sarcophagi, canopic equipment (jars in which internal organs were preserved) and tombs.
Mummification—like most Egyptian burial rites—stemmed from the Egyptians’ desire to reaffirm the life of the deceased and to promote his or her continual rebirth in the afterlife.a In being mummified, the dead person was transformed into a manifestation of Egypt’s principal funerary deity, Osiris, who was himself mummified after being killed and dismembered by his brother and rival, Seth. Spells, prayers and other funeral texts eased this process of transformation, guiding the deceased on a perilous journey that culminated in judgment and eternal salvation. Mummification and its associated rites also provided a means by which mourners could celebrate the life of a departed loved one and provide for a continuing relationship through the maintenance of mortuary cults.
One of the highlights of Ikram and Dodson’s book is their engaging, sometimes sad, often humorous, account of the discovery of mummies. It begins with a description of tomb violations committed by the ancient Egyptians themselves. Drawing on upon ancient sources, Ikram and Dodson recount the trial of several 20th Dynasty (1200–1085 B.C.E.) tomb robbers. The thieves testify to having entered royal tombs, stripping gold and silver ornaments from the mummies of a king and queen, and setting fire to the bodies. Ikram and Dodson then go on to describe the wholesale destruction of mummies that has continued ever since. As far back as medieval times, mummies were pulverized for “mumia,” a powder believed to cure abscesses, fractures, epilepsy, ulcers, poisons, pulmonary bleeding and a litany of other ailments. Mumia production continued into the Victorian era and was often accompanied by the manufacture of fake mummies. In 16th-century Alexandria, for example, unscrupulous traders even sold off the “mummified” body parts of recently deceased criminals.
Many tourists and collectors and even some well-intentioned Egyptologists were guilty at one time or another of destroying mummies and other valuable archaeological evidence. The early history of “scientific” Egyptology was characterized by a constant struggle to limit illicit digging and trading. Unfortunately, museums and collectors who intended to preserve ancient material often found themselves inadvertently encouraging the very practices that antiquities authorities sought to curb. Many officials and archaeologists maintained relationships with tomb robbers like the members of the Abd-el-Rassul family, who became famous for leading researchers to finds, only to return and rob the very same sites later.
Although mummies have been unwrapped and autopsied since early in the last century, real breakthroughs in pathology and physical anthropology have occurred only in the last 50 years. Ikram, who has conducted extensive scientific research on both human and animal mummies in Cairo, provides lucid descriptions of the latest scientific techniques. She clearly explains the potential uses of CAT scans and DNA tests in studying ancient Egyptian health, diet, disease and mummification techniques. She also traces the historical development of mummification and gives a detailed technical description 055of the mummification process.
The full 70-day mummification process described by Herodotus—in which the mummy’s internal organs were removed by incision and its brain was pulled out through the nasal passages, after which the body was desiccated with natron (a “divine salt” composed of sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulphate and sodium chloride)—will be familiar to many readers. What may be more surprising is how much mummification techniques actually varied throughout ancient Egyptian history.
In the Old Kingdom (2663–2195 B.C.E.), for example, Egyptians soaked the outer wrappings of the body in plaster so the mummy would resemble a “statue” of the deceased. By the New Kingdom (1549–1069 B.C.E), although techniques for the preservation of the corpse had been perfected, no attempt was made to treat the finished mummy so as to resemble an individual; instead a mask or other face covering was used. The Third Intermediate Period (1064–1038 B.C.E.) witnessed what Ikram terms “the acme of the embalmer’s art,” in which undertakers sought to make the body itself appear lifelike by stuffing the corpse, adding hair and using makeup. (The results of such efforts varied from highly impressive to downright horrific!)
Amid all the archaeological and iconographical detail about burial rites, Dodson and Ikram’s book also offers intriguing fragments of evidence about the Egyptians themselves, particularly their limitations. We learn that they were plagued with poor health—that kings and commoners alike suffered from arthritis, dental problems, arteriosclerosis and a variety of parasites. X-rays and autopsies have revealed that Egyptian mortuary practitioners were far from infallible: Some mummies have clearly been mislabeled, damaged and hastily repaired, and even occasionally robbed, during the wrapping process.
Despite their firm belief in a complex afterlife, the Egyptians often considered the practical and financial aspects of funeral preparations. Most mummy wrappings were made from the deceased’s own linens, and even kings were not beyond appropriating and recycling previously-owned funerary equipment. While priests and necropolis officials of the Third Intermediate Period took great pains to rebury pharaohs whose tombs had been despoiled, their own kings were being interred in sarcophagi from plundered tombs. This penchant for recycling once-sacred objects is closely paralleled in Egyptian royal building practices—kings very frequently dismantled or appropriated to themselves their predecessors’ temples and effects with no apparent fear of divine reprisal.
Overall, Ikram and Dodson have provided a much needed contribution to the existing literature on Egyptian mummies and burial practices. The authors have gleaned material from a wide variety of sources, both ancient and modern, and presented it cogently. Their many plans, maps, and charts supplement the text superbly. Both the inherently fascinating subject matter of this book and its thoughtful presentation make The Mummy in Ancient Egypt a must read for anyone interested in the study of Egyptian burial practices.
Skywatchers, Shamans & Kings: Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power