Monthly Archives: March 2015
One of the things I appreciate greatly about Mesopotamian mythology is the humor. It’s not just the things that sound funny to us today, from far outside the culture, that tickle me. There are some of those, to be sure, as there are with any mythology. When Ishtar issues her zombie threat at the gates of hell, declaring she will raise up the dead to devour the living unless she is allowed to pass through, Americans giggle because we think zombies are hilarious. Mesopotamians were chuckling because when Ishtar issues this blackmail she has not yet been to hell (she’s trying to get in!) and has no power there. It is an empty threat. Also, even if the scenario she describes were something she would do (it isn’t), it’s a bit of overkill.
Sometimes we understand right away what the Mesopotamians were laughing at, such as when the god Enki gives Inanna all the accoutrements of civilization while he is in a drunken expansive mood, then gets an a dudgeon when he sobers up and realizes all his stuff is missing. Other times it takes some familiarity with ancient cultures to catch the humor. In the Gilgamesh myth the hero Enkidu takes the haunch of the bull he has just killed, to Ishtar’s outrage, and he throws it at the goddess. The haunch was considered the choicest part of the animal, and when a bull was sacrificed this was the part that was ritually offered to the deity. Here, instead of offering the haunch with humble obeisance, the hero is deliberately offending the goddess by throwing it at her. No doubt there are a lot of inside jokes in these stories that we don’t have the background to catch.
Sometimes the stories don’t convey humor so much as wry irony. This is the case with the story of how the fly came to pester humankind, or how Gilgamesh lost his herb of immortality.
I will be teaching an online class in another month where we well discuss these myths, particularly the one about Inanna’s descent into the underworld. Reading materials and instructions for joining the live sessions will be available April 26, and the first live session will be Sunday, May 3. Sessions will last for about an hour and meet every other week until July 26. The class will be taught through Mago Academy, and information for signing up can be found at this website.
I wanted to post a nice flower picture for my Spring Equinox entry this year, but alas not even a snowdrop is blooming. The subtle signs of spring are welcome but not eye-catching. I doubt anyone wants to see a picture of snow fleas, who aren’t really discernible anyway except by their movement. Similarly, the increasing flow of water can only be expressed over time. There are brown bare patches of earth in the fields, but mud is not the best part of the thaw, and anyway these patches will be covered once again in the snowstorm this weekend.
The most startling shift for me at the equinox is an audible one: the winter birds begin making their presence felt. They have not been completely silent during the dark months, to be sure, but now their calls are louder, more frequent, and much more varied. Blue Jays, ravens, chickadees, doves, and woodpeckers are most prominent. The migrating birds have not yet appeared, but soon the cacophony of Canada Geese will be overhead and then the huge chorus will begin, going on all day and all night, with insects and frogs adding to the fracas. I can’t wait. Whoever said the country is quiet? Only in the winter, and I am beginning to hear the sounds of spring.
From my forthcoming book:
The crocodile is an appropriate mother deity not only for her position as apex predator (and thus ruler) of the Nile, but for her maternal instincts. Crocodiles are more like their bird cousins than other reptiles in taking responsibility for their young. Mothers do not feed while they are nesting, and they guard their eggs continually except for brief periods when temperatures rise so high that they must enter the water to cool off. Nile crocodiles prefer colonial nesting, although predation by humans discourages this behavior. Eggs are buried in sand, and babies squeak as they are hatching. As soon as the mother hears the squeaks, she uncovers the eggs and carries the babies in her mouth to the water. During their first months of life, juveniles seek out and receive protection from adults, usually but not necessarily the mother.
If you’re wondering who Wenut is (and most people are), this is the name of the Egyptian hare goddess.
The Egyptians had a hare goddess?
Yes, her name is also spelled Wenet, if that clarifies things for you.
Wenut is considered an obscure goddess, and she gets little or no mention in my library of books on ancient Egypt, not even the books on animals or goddesses. Yet I have seen a fair number of leporids in Egyptian art, usually presented without explication. In some cases I am not sure that I’m really looking at a hare, because the desert foxes also have long ears, and the Jungle Cat is sometimes drawn with exaggerated ears to distinguish it from the Libyan Wildcat. Yet Egyptian drawing conventions are so standardized that I’m confident that most of these long-eared creatures are hares.
One explanation for the ubiquity of the hare is that it is the hieroglyph for a common verb or sound. For example, Hilary Wilson in Understanding Hieroglyphs writes that the symbol for the hare corresponds to the sound wen and is the verb for “being.” To me this explanation begs the question. Why would the hare correspond to a common verb if it were unimportant?
Furthermore, one of the provinces in northern Egypt was called Hare, and the city of Hermopolis within this province had a hare as its emblem. Hermopolis had the main temple to Wenut.
The litmus test for whether an animal (or anything else) had religious importance in Egypt is its presence in funerary materials, and here, too, the hare does not disappoint. Hares appear as votive offerings, and are mentioned in funerary texts as well as illustrations accompanying those texts. Spell 17 of The Book of the Dead says the “Swallower of Myriads” lives in the Lake of Wenut. There are other references to Wenut in the Book of the Dead and the Coffin Texts. Wenut is not prominent in funerary literature, to be sure, but neither is she trivial.
Meditating on Wenut, whose name means “the swift one,” is a reflection on the meaning of obscurity, for hares with their genius for camouflage have a tendency to hide in plain sight. Understanding Egyptian mysteries requires extraordinary perspicacity, because what is important is not so much hidden as overlooked.
March is a March Hare
Monday, March 9, 2015
7:00 Eastern Time (Daylight Savings)
Webinar will be recorded
Dunn, Jimmy. “El-Ashmuneim (Ancient Hermopolis)” in Tour Egypt. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/hermopolis.htm
Germond, Philippe. An Egyptian Bestiary: Animals in Life and Religion in the Land of the Pharaohs. Barbara Mellor, trans. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Iles, Linda. “Wenet the Swift One” in Mirror of Isis vol. 5, Samhain 2010. http://mirrorofisis.freeyellow.com/id599.htmlGoulet Jr., Ogden, et al, trans. The Egyptian Book of the Dead rev. ed. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015.
Lesko, Barbara. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Wilson, Hilary. Understanding Hierogyphs: A Complete Introductory Guide. London: Brockhampton Press, 1993.