I found myself drawn in by last week’s discussion of boats and the Nile, much more than I expected. Why? Because I, as an English major, can’t help but to immediately space out as my brain connects this tidbit of cultural relevance to every myth excerpt I’ve ever gotten my hands on. So, I would like to expand a little bit on our discussion of the Nile as a method of travel in order to elaborate on its cultural importance, from an English major’s point of view.
As we talked about last week, the Nile was essentially the only way it made sense to travel in ancient Egypt. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that the symbol of a boat came to signify travel as a concept, and that boats were placed in tombs so that the departed had a way of traveling to the afterlife. But the significance of the boat goes so much deeper than that.
The boat was present during creation: Ra and the other gods were on it when it was lifted from the primordial waters and the world was created. In addition to being the mode of travel to, from, and within the underworld for the gods, it is the only way for the dead to reach the underworld. It appears in countless myths (many more than I have been able to properly get hold of), always somehow in connection with divinity. Either it is being used by a god or the descendant of a god, or it belongs to a god or is being used in order for a task to be completed at the behest of a god. (The myths in question are in a book that is currently a hundred miles away at my parents’ house–I would be happy to post source information in the comments as soon as I am able to retrieve it).
I find this connection to divinity to be fascinating for a number of reasons. First, it more or less sets the boat up as a gift of the gods to humanity, which effectively attributes its glory as a technological innovation directly to the gods, rather than to people. Second, it aligns the boat with the concept of life. The gods stood on it when they came into being from the primordial waters, and it continued (and in many cases still continues today) to provide a way and means of maintaining life for the people. Funerary boats are more concerned with the next life, but still the principle remains.
Discovering ties between the boat and these concepts of life and divinity makes me even more curious. As an English major, I itch to re-read the myths all over again while keeping these things in mind so that I can detect any changes in meaning and re-analyze, and hopefully understand the culture a little better than before. At the same time, I wonder how these ideas played into everyday life on the banks of the Nile?