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TwtS 2018 – RECEPTION OF ANCIENT EGYPT’S MYTH, MAGIC AND MYSTICISM

July 4, 2018

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I am so glad it isn’t just me who automatically makes words out of initials, I’m even more pleased that where I admitted to making TwtS into TwitS organiser Nichola Tonks made it into, well, something else. I forgot to list that joy of TwtS – likeminded people, uncouth we may be but we haven’t lost our childlike sense of wonder (ok, infantile sniggering at rude words). I also forgot to mention cats, there were fewer cats at this year’s TwtS but Charlotte Coull and I did show each other photos of our cats, I’d just like to say ‘Charlotte, your fluffy cat is not a domestic cat, she’s either a miniature lynx or a wildcat. Fact.’

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By Peter Trimming – Yawning ‘Kendra’Uploaded by Mariomassone, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18462225

So, now I’ve cleared that up for Charlotte, let’s move on to the actual conference itself

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As you can see it began at a civilised hour giving me plenty of time to inhale coffee and get lost enjoy a pleasant walk around the campus. The University of Birmingham very kindly has plenty of maps, is it only me who thinks that in addition to the ‘you are here’ marker there should also be a ‘and you are facing in x direction’? It’s all well and good telling me that R16 is next to R15 but if you don’t know which direction you’re facing R16 could be any one of these ivy covered red brick buildings. Pft! Anyway, with the aid of the campus maps and an entirely unfounded confidence I not only found R16 I also directed some other people to where they might have wanted to be. As an aside, would you ask the person staring at the map where a particular building is? Or would you think ‘This person is obviously as lost as I am. I will go and ask someone who looks like they may have been here before’? I say, if you ask the person standing next to a map tracing routes with her finger and talking to herself then you have only yourself to blame when you discover yourself to be in completely the wrong part of the campus.

Ahem. After registration and receiving my name badge (sparkly green ink! Oh yes!) and drinking yet more coffee, the conference kicked off with the round table (less Arthurian and more a line of chairs but let’s not quibble) with Ellie DobsonElena Theodorakopoulos and Aidan Dodson answering questions about myth, truth and the pursuit of historical knowledge. The discussion began with what is meant by ‘superstition’ as opposed to ‘myth’ and how superstition is used as a pejorative term to dismiss marginal beliefs as opposed to core beliefs, be they myths or otherwise. This led on to how simply writing things down can give them a reality a concreteness that is hard to shift, hard to unpick and disprove. This point became a central theme of the discussion – if a myth has become a fact then how do we, as disbelievers, research it and unpick it? Aidan suggested that academics had to own up to their mistakes – retractions take up far less space and are given less prominence than the original theory. Elena also made the point that myths are often good stories whereas truth can be boring, however, she argued reception studies re-supply the interest by allowing people to find out how their beliefs came about. Ellie warned that there is a tension around debunking myths, funding comes from public bodies and if they lose interest – because of the truth being less interesting than the myth – then that can affect funding and so stereotypes will remain. There was then much discussion of  various examples of the tenacity of  stereotypes, particularly in the media: Aidan had tried to do a programme debunking the Armana myth but it coincided with the debate about the extra chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb and so the programme became focussed on that. Elena said Classics had the same problem – Catharine EdwardsMothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome had been an excellent feminist and balanced investigation of women in the Roman Empire but it was largely ignored.

At which point we got onto aliens and alien conspiracy theories, I have few notes from this part, probably because I was too busy trying to re-hinge my jaw. I’ve led a sheltered life I can tell you. Aside from reading Lest Darkness Fall by De Camp (and I still have a copy on my bookshelves) I’ve come across Von Däniken and Graham Hancock but I haven’t read any of their books and I hadn’t even heard of most of the names and programmes that were being discussed. How does everyone know about these things and I don’t? More importantly, what am I doing when other people have the time to catch up on these things and how can I stop doing them so I can join in the fun? Anyway, the important thing here is there are a lot of alien conspiracy theories in Egyptology, not so much in Classics, presumably, as Elena said, because the classical world is seen as too close to us, it is seen as part of our history and gets pulled into the modern. Although that view also leaves out the weird and unpleasant stuff of the classical world, the magic, witches, sacrifices and slaves. Whereas Egyptology and prehistory are not claimed as our heritage so can more easily be othered and the other can be aliened and enjoyed – particularly curses.

The downside of this othering is where we came in, the myths that are so hard to debunk and shift, however, the upside of this othering is that people are interested in the past. The consensus from the panel was that even if there is a great deal of bonkersness out there it can be used for good. Once people are interested then you have the opportunity to debunk their myths – preferably sensitively – and replace them with a different story. A different, interesting and accessible story. And work on the principle that the public is way more intelligent than television directors assume.

I see that once again I’ve done a rubbish job at succinctness. I’ll try again tomorrow I shall make it my mission to summarise the rest of Day 1 of TwtS. In one post. In less than 1,000 words. Stop laughing.

Julia

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