Thursday, 12 April 2012

Scarabbling About

                          Ptolemy V was the Egyptian ruler responsible for the Rosetta Stone (see yesterday’s post). He was known as Ptolemy V Epiphanes, which roughly means ‘Ptolemy the Manifest’. Epiphanes comes from the Greek (the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE), and replaced the Egyptian word for ‘manifesting’ or ‘transforming’ kepher – which in turn comes from (kh)pr or xpr – scarab.

In Egyptian mythology the Sun god Ra rolled across the sky each day, transforming both bodies and souls. In some accounts Ra was born every morning, then rolled by a scarab, growing until noon, and declining and dying as an old man as the sun went down, only to be reborn the following dawn. The god of the dawn, Khepri, was also the god of transformations. His symbol was the scarab, as the beetle, which lays its eggs in dung and dead bodies, also transforms and is reborn of itself.

This scarab came from the British Museum gift shop; I think I bought it in the early seventies. It’s made from resin, with some quite unconvincing Egyptian-looking script on the base.

This one I picked up in a charity shop, some time in the past ten years, and would have been no more than a couple of quid. It is also resin, and also has vaguely hieroglyphic script on the base. It makes a nice paperweight.

This is Anubis, one of the gods of the dead. Anubis, the jackal-headed, accompanied the souls of the dead in the Afterlife, taking them to the scale where the hearts were weighed against Ma’at (depicted as an ostrich feather), to decide if they were worthy enough to pass on into the Underworld. Anubis is black to represent rotting flesh and the black soil of the Nile, symbol, again, of rebirth. This tourist trinket is painted plaster, and is based on a statue found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. I need to restore the broken ear.

There is a lot of old tut written about the curse of Tutankhamun. The team excavating the tomb put the story about to keep robbers from plundering the site, but the story of the curse gained ground when the financier of the expedition, Lord Carnarvon, died from blood poisoning six weeks after the opening of the vault. Of the 58 people present when the sarcophagus was opened, only eight died in the following twelve years. Howard Carter, leader of the team, died in 1939 – seventeen years after the discovery. I have been trying, in vain, to find a newspaper report of the death of Richard Adamson, who was a British soldier and the principal guard of the site, who spent seven years sleeping in the crypt, and who was the last surviving member of the expedition. I think the story may well be apocryphal, but I remember seeing somewhere that, when Adamson died, aged 81, in 1982, some wag reported his passing with the headline, “Curse of Tutankhamun strikes again”.

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