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Tea with the Sphinx – part 2

July 6, 2018

After the roundtable we got started on the conference proper (well, after coffee – which had less effect than it might have had because it turned out I was mistakenly drinking decaff). There was a choice of session 19th Century Literature or Faith (sorry, but if I have an earworm then you have to have it too) I chose Literature: Haythem Bastawy presented his paper ‘Adam Bede: An Ancient Egyptian Genesis’. It’s years and years since I read Adam Bede so it was fascinating to revisit it with such an expert – Haythem argued that although the title Adam Bede references early chrisitianity (Adam the first man, Bede the 8th century historian) the book was written as a rebellion against Victorian religiosity after Elliot had lost her faith and she was drawing on ancient Egyptian motifs and religion to create a new Genesis story, a new beginning. For Elliot, according to Haythem, the origins of western culture lie in the East and the very first sentence of the prologue referencing an Egyptian sorcerer’s magic mirror provides the framework for a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve woven through with the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt.

Haytham was followed by Simon Magus who demonstrated that Rider Haggard is way more interesting than I’ve ever given him credit for – I was one of the many who have ignored his books on the grounds that they’re pro-colonialist anti-feminist nonsense. Now, obviously I’m predisposed to believe anyone who has a Welsh accent and would anyway be swayed by Simon’s many and varied qualifications, but he made an excellent case for Haggard’s other influences including the themes of good, evil, redemption, reincarnation and the esoteric quest for a hidden god. Using the terms* Egyptosophy, Mnemohistory and Metageography as anchors, Simon discussed how Haggard’s work – particularly Cleopatra and the character of Harmachis – reflected the ways in which Egyptology found its way into Victorian culture, and how Haggard, influenced by Wallis Budge, clearly asserted a christianised view of ancient Egyptian religion where Osiris is presented as Christ. There was much more to his paper than this – romanticism, agape, theosophy, cycles of time, sin and redemption, death and reincarnation, and I suggest you download and read this.

After lunch (and many cups of caffeinated coffee and tea) there was another choice Gender or Museums. I chose gender because Robin Diver was talking about children’s books and as you know I do love children’s books and the other speaker was our own Rosalind Janssen and I wasn’t going to miss the chance of hearing her.

So – Robin’s paper Morality, Sex and the Other compared anthologies of Egyptian and Greek myths for children. Greek myths have long been seen as perfect for a young audience [worrying, eh?] and although these stories are often brutal, that brutality is  often omitted or  diluted, ascribed to the gods or to natural consequences as with Icarus flying too close to the sun. Modern authors often critique the more unpalatable parts of the Classical Greek world (the position of women, slaves, sacrifices) but the remainder of the story is seen as useful for didactic purposes. Egyptian anthologies are a much later arrival on the children’s literature scene and, Robin argued using The Tale of Two Brothers as an example, they tend to far more brutal, gory, uncritical, unproblematic and unsympathetic. Robin’s view was that the Egyptian stories are seen as dealing with the other, as suggested in the roundtable, these are not western ancestors like the Greeks and so the stories, the characters have less investment.

I think Rosalind’s presentation is the first time I’ve been told at a conference what my expected learning outcomes are!


Rosalind is a great advocate of feminist theology which reads cross culturally and inter-textually and using (the feminist theologian) Nancy Bowen’s translation of Ezekiel 13:17-23, Rosalind argued that it is the bindings in this passage that are important. Building up her evidence from illustrations and writings, Rosalind demonstrated that the wristbands,  knotted kerchief and hair ties which could be loosened in childbirth to aid the delivery (sympathetic magic) all chimed with Bowen’s reading of Ezekiel and all suggested that prophetesses were often midwives. As midwives and prophetesses they dealt with the religious as well as the corporeal realm, whereas Ezekiel and the other – male – prophets saw themselves as having control over life and death these midwife prophetesses really did have that control. This would then explain why Ezekiel was so in awe of these women’s power and so upset by it. As you can imagine it was a convincing and entertaining presentation and she was right, by the end of it I could answer all the questions!20180629_150813_resized

After cake – which every good conference should have – and a technical hitch – which no conference can avoid – we had Michelle Hui Yee Low giving an interweb presentation Fiction Dressed in Facts – Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Now, not only have I never read any Rider Haggard, seen any alien conspiracy TV or read any of the truly fringe archaeologies, I have never played Assassin’s Creed. My gaming is limited to Nintendo DS, we have a PS4 but the gaming technology went beyond me a few years back and I’m never going to catch up. I never cared before, but Michelle’s paper has made me desperate to play Assassin’s Creed, only the discovery that has an 18 certificate is stopping me ordering it and spending the entire school summer holiday playing it with my son. It sounds excellent! There are zombie pharaohs! Quests! Battles! Revenge! Fencing! Fighting! Torture! No, hang on, I’ve gone into the Princess Bride again. Revenge is in Assasin’s Creed, as is Cleopatra and other (dead and alive) pharaohs. Michelle demonstrated that Ubisoft have really thought about the Egyptian origins of their fictional world and have classily dressed fiction as fact and noticeboards and comments suggest their product is leading gamers into further investigations of Egyptology. Michelle further argued that gaming allows interaction between Egyptology and the interested public,  the gamer can make decisions and immerse themselves instead of being a passive consumer. I don’t think I’m going to share that idea with my son!

The final session of Day 1 looked at Entertainment: Lizzie Glithero-West‘s paper The Conjuror’s Greatest Show – Belzoni and the Egyptian Hall discussed one of my favourite people in Egyptology and in particular his exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in 1821

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Placing the exhibition within its (international) political and economic context Lizzie argued the show coincided with a renaissance of interest in Egyptology and that Egypt itself (through the defeat of Napoleon’s savants there) became an integral part of British pride. Belzoni’s exhibition was a huge success, praised by journalists and visited by many, was this solely due to timing? Lizzie suggested that while the timing obviously helped it was also the hall itself that contributed to public interest by referencing ancient Egyptian motifs and stories


In addition Bullock had already established the hall as a successful location for a quasi Museum/exhibition, the space within was adaptable and appealing. However, it was Belzoni himself who was the key to the exhibition’s success, he was creative and reactive in his selling of Egypt to the British public by bringing real Egypt to London. In turn Belzoni and Bullock’s successes led to  an increased interest in Egyptian architectural motifs, the use of Egyptian themes by contemporary and later artists as well as stimulating scholarly research and excavation in Egypt – all of which ensured that Egyptomania continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Equally entertaining was the final paper of the day delivered by Ellie Dobson From the Albert Memorial to the Egyptian Hall: Bram Stoker in London. Now, I have a confession to make, not only have I not read The Jewel of Seven Stars, I have never read anything by Bram Stoker, not even Dracula. I need to up my reading game if I’m going to carry on having tea with the sphinx. Now, I’m fairly sure Ellie began by quoting Anthea in The Story of the Amulet talking about whether Pharaoh’s house would be like the Egyptian Court in the Crystal Palace and how this demonstrates the familiarity of ancient Egypt for early twentieth century readers and how Stoker knew his audience would understand his own references to ancient Egypt. But I could be wrong since I was as stunned as a kipper to realise here was a book I had read (in fact, I’ve read all the Psammead books and the Bastable family books and yes I am boasting because it shows I’ve read something). Anyway, tuning back in, it turns out Stoker knew Wallis Budge (did Budge spend all his time consorting with fiction writers?) Petrie and Alma Tadema as well as having many friends in the Order of the Golden Dawn, so he had a network of sources for the Egyptology and magic themes used in The Jewel. Not only would Stoker’s readers have knowledge of ancient Egypt, they would also have been very familiar with the cursed mummy and/or artefact trope, and, as Ellie pointed out the use of real locations in Stokers fantastical psychogeography would have reinforced that familiarity. We are given early warning of Stoker’s equation of London with Egypt when the narrator, Malcolm Ross, takes a route across London passing the Egyptian Hall and the Albert Memorial. With its Isis and Osiris decoration the Egyptian Hall signals elements of Stoker’s plot, just as the Africa Group on the Albert Memorial foreshadows Queen Tera’s power


In this hybrid London the Thames can be the Nile and Egypt leaks into London, just as London leaks into Egypt. By using real London geography Stoker ensured the novel’s fantastical aspects (and locations) were made believable to the reader.

And on that note I’m going to finish, Day 1 complete, way more than 1,000 words used (and I think I got more wordy towards the end there). Day 2 will have to wait until next week, there’s an even more shocking confession than my horror/adventure novel illiteracy coming – I’ve got this foreshadowing business sorted!

In the meantime, have a great weekend


*Don’t feel patronised by me adding links, they’re there for my benefit. Especially now I’ve discovered it’s mnemohistory not nemohistory – admittedly that mistake led me here, which was entertaining but not a lot of use for this blog post 🙂

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