Gods of Egypt, an action film dressed in the garb of Egyptian mythology, debuted this weekend, becoming the latest example of the practice known as “whitewashing” for which Hollywood film productions have become known. Aside from being insulting, the film aggressively flattens the myths and figures its story draws from, creating a by-the-numbers CGI-fest that loses the character quirks, as well as the resonance that Egyptian myths have with the circumstances of our modern age.
So here are three myths (well, two myths and one story) that are WAY more fun and meaningful than Gods of Egypt.
1. God Creates Man, Man Defies God, God Creates Unstoppable Killing Machine
Ancient Egypt’s creation myth starts out like most of humanity’s assembled creation myths: There is darkness, then a being with will is born from that darkness and begins to create reality. Eventually, mankind shows up.
In this case, the darkness (Nun) is the over-arching but “passive” god that births the first “active” god Ra, who is the being that creates all the other gods, the earth, mankind, and beer. (Not even kidding about that last one. Ra creates a special area specifically for the creation of beer.) Ra gets really excited about creating mankind, kind of like how writers get really excited when they finish a story or a novel, and decides he’s going to take the form of man and rule over Egypt as the first Pharaoh. This goes well for a few thousand years, until mankind becomes used to his presence and starts misbehaving.
Instead of making the Nile or the sands beyond swallow mankind, he takes a guarded approach and asks Nun and the assembled pantheon what he should do. Their response: Create a killing machine in the form of a woman and make her so powerful that no god can stop her.
Sekhmet loves killing people. She is livin’ the dream, livin’ her best life. Predictably, this puts Ra, Egypt, and the gods at a crisis point: How can they stop Sekhmet when she has grown too powerful to be halted by the gods?
The solution is awesome. Ra figures out which area Sekhmet is going to hit next and FLOODS IT WITH BEER that he has dyed to appear as blood. Sekhmet gets there, figures that she must have killed everyone there already, and drinks the bloodbeer to celebrate. Turns out, Sekhmet is a happy drunk, and goes a whole day without killing anyone, which makes her realize that heyyyyy, theeese guysh…these…yeah all th’people with the screaming ‘n the tiny legsh them!…these guysh ain’t so bad! I mean…I like ’em…they should likesh each other they’re all s’cute tgether…
Sekhmet then becomes Hathor, god of love and desire, and mankind gets to live. Thanks to beer.
2. God Makes It Impossible to Have Kids. Solution? Knock Earth Out of Its Orbit.
The great creator Ra is an interesting fellow, merciful yet paranoid, immortal yet subject to the ravages of age. At one point he has a vision that the progeny of his daughter Nut (pronounced “noot”) will be the one who finally dethrones him as the Pharaoh. He’s a decrepit coot by this point, so instead of accepting change as inevitable, he curses Nut so “that she should not be able to bear any child upon any day in the year.”
As we know, telling people when and how they can have children works out super well all the time always. Nut is devoted to nullifying Ra’s bullshit curse and goes to Thoth, the thrice-great god of wisdom, who she knows has a huge, huge crush on her. Thoth is all, “I CAN FIX THIS AND ALSO I MADE YOU A MIXTAPE NO PRESSURE BUT DEFINITELY LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU’VE LISTENED TO IT.” and comes up with a plan. And, actually, all twitterpatin’ aside, his plan is pretty clever. If Nut can’t have kids any day of the year then, he figures, just change the parameters of a year! Make some days that exist outside of a year. You know…like Leap Day!
During this time of gods and myth in Egypt, a year is 360 days, so Thoth puts on his Neil deGrasse Tyson gloves–because we definitely got a bad-ass here–and figures out a way for the moon to tug the Earth into a new orbit that will add 5 days to the year. The moon, it turns out, is a guy by the name of Khonsu and he does not like doing things differently than the way he’s always done them. Thoth knows this, but fortunately, Thoth also knows that Khonsu has a serious gambling problem, and promptly sends Khonsu spiraling into debt through endless games of Texas Hold ‘Em (well, “draughts,” but hey). In the myth, Thoth wins the moon’s light from Khonsu, enough to add five days to the year, but regardless of how you frame the story, the fact remains that Khonsu owes Thoth big time, and can only balance those scales by adding days to the year.
The plan TOTALLY WORKS and Nut goes a little baby-crazy with her extra five days, having a kid on each single day: first Osiris, then Horus, then Set, then Isis, then finally Nephthys. Osiris ends up taking the throne from Ra, thanks to Isis’ hard work, fulfilling the vision. But that’s not all! Nut’s enthusiasm has created a bonus prophecy and it turns out that Set is destined to destroy everything. CLIFFHANGER.
3. A Prince Attempts to Avert his Fated Death, But a Real-Life Explosion (!!) Eliminates the Ending Forever
Ancient Egypt’s empire reigned, contracting and growing in cycles, for millennia, so not all of its stories have to do with its originating gods. A particularly enduring tale is that of “The Doomed Prince,” which starts out pretty predictably, but turns into a weird metafictional monster by the end.
As the story goes: An Egyptian officer prays for a son, and gets it, but with the caveat that this “prince” is doomed to die “by the crocodile, or by the serpent, or by the dog.” Presumably, this is why Egypt is so into cats.
The officer shuts his son away in the mountains, where ne’er there dwell a crocodile or serpent, but the kid still sees a dog, and promptly wants his dad to get him a puppy. Instead of just crossing his arms and asking “And who’s going to take care of it?” like every parent ever, the officer spins this whole insane story about how the prince is cursed to die by, uh…::dad looks around room hurriedly::…a dog! Or…::dad sees Florida Gators foam hat::…a crocodile! Or…::dad sees power cord of electric tea kettle dangling off of the counter::…a serpent! The prince, of course, doesn’t really buy into it and the dad gets him a dog.
There’s a second act after this where the prince climbs a mansion and marries a far-off princess and it gets a little “Romeo & Juliet”-ish, except it ends happily with the couple ensconced in their own lands. BUT THEN the prince’s wife finds out about the curse and insists that the prince kill his beloved dog. “How about no, and we go traveling instead?” the prince responds, and the wife says, “Okay, but I’m going to kill every snake and crocodile we come across, okay?” The story makes it seem like this is where events were supposed go all along, and that the prince’s wife is his actually his fated champion against these animals, which are the prince’s other, false, “fates.” It’s a neat idea, on the whole. As the story continues, she remains unsuccessful in getting rid of the dog, but does kill a serpent that comes after her husband, the prince. Then the prince encounters a crocodile who tricks him into fighting a water spirit, but the dog protects the prince and…
Then a 19th century gunpowder factory in the English countryside explodes and damages the house that the papyrus was being kept in, eliminating the ending. Current thought is that the end is actually happy, with the prince overcoming or at least coming to peace with his fate, since this was a common motif in stories of that age in Egypt. But is this really what history prescribes?
The author’s intent may have given “The Doomed Prince” a happy ending, but circumstance also eliminated that ending, and in doing so, brought the fable of the prince into the modern era. Now you, yes you, can concoct the ending to this story, one begun long ago in Ancient Egypt. Imagine people far into the future doing that after, let’s say, nanobots accidentally consume the last remaining copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. At that point, who’s to say how the story ends? And who’s to say that this far future generation isn’t within their right to craft their ending anew?
Stories are always a reflection of the time in which they are written, and Ancient Egypt’s fables and myths are no different. And though their stories are rooted in the concerns and curiosities of their time (crocs and snakes, apparently) the nature of stories is such that we are free to retell their stories in the present day through our own worldview. Unfortunately, as Gods of Egypt shows, our worldview is sometimes one almost entirely devoid of color and nuance. And that’s no fun.
If you want to keep exploring Egyptian myths, there’s a nice short collection of them online here. Keep reading! The ancients really knew how to create drama.