Author Archives: austin49

Dragon Bones

I found myself fascinated recently by the concept of oracle bones, so I did a little research and found it so interesting that I couldn’t find it within myself to write a post on anything else.

The concept was not entirely foreign to me. I have had a great deal of exposure to something similar through anime/manga over the years, so the basics we already known to me. However, as is often the case with fictional portrayals, the facts weren’t quite accurate.

I was super relieved to find that they used animal bones, not human (which probably tells you just how out-there and inaccurate the stuff I had been reading was on this subject). The rest of popular anime-oriented myth follows these basics: the bones (human, and often recognizably leg, arm, or rib bones) are chanted over by a dark priest/priestess dressed in traditional flowing robes. The ceremony is elaborate, involves more chanting, occasionally requires the priest or priestess to slice a finger and dribble blood all over the place, and ends with casting the bones into the fire and examining the cracks. There is a milder variation, in which finger bones with symbols carved on them are used instead. This milder version is usually used by benign oracles, who chant over the bones, toss them, and then examine the patterns in which they fall and which symbols are facing up, in addition to which symbols land near each other. The questions addressed by such divination were often outcomes of battles, fates of key individuals, and the future of the world as a whole. I’m sure a lot could be said about what such portrayals say about the Japanese and how they perceive these traditions, but we’ll let that point rest here for the moment.

Let’s take a moment to compare this depiction with what we know to be reality: a divination using tortoise or ox bones, an absence of blood sacrifice, done by priests and later by kings themselves, regarding often arbitrary things like the weather and the harvest. No black magic. No half-demons lurking in the shadows and awaiting the answer. No fate-of-the-world stuff. Bones are done one at a time and may be reused. Chanting may or may not happen, but the questions and their answers are conveniently inscribed in the bones. Compared to the fictional representation, this variation seems to be more about asking the bones rather than asking a deity through the medium of the bones (although this is purely conjecture on my part).

I also found it interesting, during research, to discover that farmers in the 1800’s, upon finding these discarded oracle bones while working their fields, dubbed them “dragon bones” and proceeded to grind them up and use them as medicine. Obviously this didn’t help cure anybody (although a psych study or two might beg to differ). But I found it interesting that people could find a piece of their own history like that, falsely attribute its origin to an otherworldly being, and destroy it for the sake of medicine. I’m sure this is not the first time something like that has happened, over the course of the world and whatnot, but still I find it mind-blowing.

African Heritage

I came across an interesting article while browsing the other day. I freely admit that I am skeptical of the source–it’s on the library website as a scholarly source, but the obvious bias and skewing of information is a little sketchy. Regardless, the article does bring up a few interesting points that I would like to discuss. I know at least one of the other posts has addressed this in part already, but please bear with me.
Essentially, the article is written to draw our attention to the African origin and element of Ancient Egyptian culture. The author is more than a little upset about Egyptians being categorized as “caucasian” back in the day due to Europe’s ethnocentric way of looking at complex civilizations, and he gets a little bit carried away in bashing that concept. I’m not sure how much of his evidence and arguments are actually legitimate, since my own knowledge on the subject is rather sparse. Regardless, he does seem to be onto something.
There is truth in what he says about depictions of Egyptians (especially deities) being painted dark colors. I was always under the impression that it was a stylistic thing–but it is possible that it was meant as a representation of darker-skinned people. Why did I have this assumption that the dark colors were stylistic? I’ve seen pictures of these drawings. I live in a diverse age, where I encounter many people of varying skintones on a daily basis. Why then would I assume, upon seeing a drawing with people painted different colors, that this detail was merely stylistic?
The answer is neither new nor particularly attractive (and I’m sure, at this point, that you can guess where I’m going with this). We, as a part of Western society, recognize that Western society has said and done some pretty horrible things to and about other cultures. Nowadays, we generally try our best to avoid continuing that unfortunate tradition. However, when you have spent your entire life surrounded by Western culture, it becomes difficult to recognize and pick out the remaining subtle traces of stereotypical ethnocentric Western thought. We don’t mean to dismiss the Egyptians’ portrayal of themselves and their gods as dark-skinned people–simply put, we have difficulty (especially when ill-educated on the subject) coming to terms with the reality of the representation when it is so clouded by preconceptions we didn’t realize we had.
The article goes into depth about African identity and the African culture as the origin of complex civilization– I’m not going to go into depth on this, since I don’t know which parts should be taken with a grain of salt. I will say, however, that his argument brings up an intriguing question–Why would Western European states decide to recognize Egypt’s origin as Caucasian rather than African, even when given evidence to the contrary? Why did the concept of admitting the oldest and most advanced society they knew was of African origin gall them to the point where they felt they had no choice but to reject that concept? Truth be told, they should have expected Egypt to identify with other African states simply due to proximity and ease of travel between them (versus Europe, which is on the other side of the Mediterranean from them rather than simply upriver).

The article can be found by searching this information in the MSU library database:
Ancient Egypt: Africa’s stolen legacy
Saafu Khpera. New African 389 (Oct 2000): 18-25.

Boats

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?