Of Mummies and Memes

I remember watching the Mummy, the movie with Brenden Fraser and Rachel Weisz, was probably the first time in my life that I was exposed to Egypt. The movie was my favorite thing, and I watched it an unholy number of times. I sat transfixed by the magic and majesty; mummies, ancient curses, Gods, the books of life and death. Now, after reading the Hassan’s article “Egypt in the Memory of the World,” I have started to think critically about the positive and negative affects of egypotmemes in popular culture.

On one hand, popular culture representations of Ancient Egypt are extremely untrue and focus on fantastical pieces of “history.” Flipping through the history channel, I remember once coming to a program about ancient aliens and a man was arguing how the pyramids were actually built by aliens. He argued that ancient cultures did not have the technological capabilities of building the pyramids, so therefore it must have been extra terrestrial beings who the Egyptians would later translate into the Gods. From a historical standpoint these stories are ridiculous. Popular culture and representations are driven by the need for entertainment…often in place of the larger truth. The materials we learned in class about the importance of the Nile river and the flood patterns are rarely, if ever, a center of popular culture, despite it’s importance. Instead programs about mummies, curses, the plagues of Egypt, and controversial figures like Cleopatra are the center of attention. In the end, that is what sells. Of course, the consequence of this select information is that Egypt is dramatized and often misunderstood.

Despite all of this, egyptomemes have a positive impact in that they increase people’s interest in discovering more about Egyptian history. Without the popular culture representations of mummies and treasure, Egypt may not have as many people interested in uncovering the truth.

2 thoughts on “Of Mummies and Memes

  1. I think halllau9 brings up an interesting (and debatable) point – that egyptomemes in popular culture increase the population’s desire to learn more about ancient Egypt. The Otherness and exotic way that pharaonic Egypt are portrayed increase their “magic” and “mystique” rather than in a way that promotes cross-cultural interest and understanding.

    On the other hand, it’s clear that popular writings from Classical times on influenced Europe’s interest in Egypt. On the other other hand, this interest led to the widespread looting of antiquities and treasures from ancient Egyptian monuments, temples and tombs. But if Europeans hadn’t found the Rosetta stone, would modern Egyptians have been interested enough in their own history to describe and excavate the thousands of sites that Europeans have looked at?
    It’s a debate without a clear answer, with more questions than answers. I’m still debating with myself, too!

  2. I have to admit that I also have a deep and abiding love for The Mummy as one of my favorite childhood movies. I tend to see the positives of the Hollywood portrayals more than the negatives. I think scholars have the responsibility to study Ancient Egypt accurately and with as little bias as possible. However, I think that is an awfully high standard to have for the general public.

    To me, it is the job of academia to weed out biases and seek the truth when it comes to the past and how people lived their lives. That is not the job of someone who isn’t trained to look for these things. A high level of integrity is necessary for an archaeologist or an Egyptologist to change the landscape of academia, and that is how it should be. That level of precision shouldn’t be asked of a family having a movie night in their pajamas. Everyone has their own expertise, and Egypt isn’t going to be that expertise for most people; everyone has an area of ignorance.

    I see it as a positive thing that the mysteries of Ancient Egypt spark people’s imagination today, so many years later, and serve as creative inspiration. Also, these mainstream interpretations of Ancient Egypt are firmly lodged in our culture today for better or for worse. Our classic corps of Halloween monsters includes werewolves, vampires, and mummies.

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