A magical Venice full of alchemists and stone lions, a looming Pharaoh-led army of necromanced mummies, mermaids, magic mirrors, hell being a real place? What’s not to love to about Kai Meyer‘s Dark Reflections Trilogy? …How about the continued portrayal of ancient Egypt as an evil, death-centric culture?
The Water Mirror follows Merle — a fairly generic orphan girl — apprenticed to Arcimboldo, a magic mirror-maker. The sort-of-renaissance level technology, magical Venice has been besieged for 30 years by a not-fully-described “Egyptian Empire.” The empire isn’t peopled by the living descendants of Ancient Egypt, but rather an army of necromanced corpses, led by a fiendish, resurrected Pharaoh and evil priests.
Now… I know this is just a story — some cool guy’s fictional, imaginative extrapolation of his own ideas about what the ancient Mediterranean could have been — but… I’m still a TEENSY bit annoyed that he villainized the Egyptians. Though Western society at large isn’t exactly “Christian” anymore, it is still heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian cultural values AND misconceptions that demonize Egypt — and this book is just one example. There is a hostility towards the spirit of this ancient civilization in books and movies that goes WAY beyond mummies and death — a sort of unconscious cultural inheritance. Before Stargate (don’t get me started on the Goa’uld), before Abbott and Costello… Egyptians were painted as mystically depraved from at least as far back as the Bible was written.
What I’d like to zero in on is a passage from Exodus. Moses and Aaron are sent to warn the Pharaoh of the consequences of not releasing the Hebrew people, in part by showing him miraculous signs:
“So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” (7:10-12)
There’s a whole series of these — sort of pissing contests between the power of the God of Moses and Aaron, and the magicians of Egypt — the former always winning, of course. It’s all about humbling those arrogant, elitist Egyptians and their “secret arts.” I have to say, when I first read this story… I couldn’t help but think: “But that means men could have that power, if they learned it. I want to know how they did it… I want to turn my staff into a serpent…” I understood the moral, of course, but that didn’t stop me from being fascinated. I admired Pharaoh’s magicians — I couldn’t help it.
It seems like Western society is afraid, has always been afraid, of what the Egyptians knew. And I’m not saying that they necessarily had magic powers, but they did have something — human ingenuity, and the will to use it? The engineering skills to make the pyramids; not to mention property rights for women and a profoundly intimate relationship with nature.
Which brings me back to Kai Meyer’s work. Venice is protected from the Egyptian mummy-army by a sort of water-spirit-deity, “The Flowing Queen.” I find this kind of ironic, given that Egyptian culture itself would have been much more open to a concept like this than patriarchal renaissance Venice — owing everything to the life-giving ebb and flow of the Nile.
Furthermore, if the Egyptians raised the dead — the rules for which can be found in Sir E.A. Wallis Budge‘s translation of the papyrus of Ani (aka the Book of the Dead) — for an army, said army would not have been composed of rotting corpses. Egyptians were fanatically obsessed with preventing rot and decay. Not only did they believe in a physical, material resurrection (not wanting to divorce themselves from their bodies — hey, another source of enmity between them and Western culture), they didn’t think it was wrong.
To get a sense of real Egyptian values, take this passage from Chapter 30 of the Papyrus of Ani:
“Let no one stand up against me when I bear testimony in the presence if the Lords of Things. Let it not be said against me and of that which I have done ‘He hath committed acts which are opposed to what is right and true,’ and let not charges be brought up against me in the presence of the Great God, the Lord of Amentet. Homage to thee, O my heart. Homage to thee, O my [body — literally “heart-case”]… Homage to you, O ye gods, who are masters of [your] beards… And behold, even though [my heart] be united to the earth, in the mighty innermost part thereof let me flourish (or remain) upon the earth and let me not die in Amentet, but become a spirit therein.”
There’s nothing unnatural about this, it just isn’t body-hating, earth-hating, or self-hating — like the vast majority of Western values are. It isn’t only fear of Egypt that has such an effect on the imaginations of readers… It’s also awe. The ancient Egyptians were kind of awesome.
Anyways. Yeah, so that Kai Meyer. I was still entertained, I guess fiction doesn’t always have to be a realistic depiction of culture… I need to read the other two books to get a better sense of his attitudes about what constitutes “Egyptianness.” Maybe the series won’t end up making it out to be inherently evil.