On Being Photo-Bombed by a Camel… Plus Some Egyptian History and Mythology

Today, Peggy and I are beginning our series of blogs on our journey through Egypt up the Nile River on a riverboat with the UniWorld Cruise company. We hope you will join us. As always, all photos are taken by either Peggy or me unless otherwise noted.

Photo of camel photobombing a picture of the pyramids by photographer Curt Mekemson.
I was setting up a photo of the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure when a camel head suddenly appeared in my viewfinder. Was I being photo-bombed? I quickly snapped the picture. A free photo of a camel at Giza is not to be passed up. Note the emphasis on free. Camel drivers and camels are everywhere. You are welcome to the take their photos, have your photo taken with them, or even go for a ride. All for a substantial fee, of course. Not paying is frowned upon.

Visiting the pyramids of Egypt at Giza is like climbing into a time machine. The Pyramid of Khafre on the left was built around 2,570 BCE and the Pyramid of Menkaure on the right around 2510 BCE, which makes them both over 4500 years old! The beginning of Egyptian history is traced back even further, to 3100 BCE, over 5000 years ago.

The Sahara Desert and the Nile River kick-started the process. 10,000 years ago the Sahara Desert wasn’t. It was a huge savanna where wandering herders grazed their goats and cattle. It is now thought that some combination of climate change and overgrazing changed the savanna into the vast desert it is today. The herders needed somewhere to go and the Nile River was their best option. The river provided a continuous source of water for thirsty stock. Its annual floods assured that there would be rich soil for farming. Increasing population along the river led to the creation of villages and towns, eventually leading to cities, kingdoms and even empires in a time period that extended over 3,000 years.

We took this photo from our boat to capture the ducks flying over the Nile River, but it also serves to illustrate the contrast between the green of the river and the reddish-brown Sahara Desert beyond that stretches all the way west to the Atlantic Ocean.

The pyramids speak to more than ancient history and the engineering marvels. They reflect the ancient Egyptians’ deep belief in the afterlife, magic, and the numerous gods who impacted their lives from birth to death— and beyond. This belief in the afterlife (plus the pharaohs’ exploits and claimed relationship to the gods) dominated the temples, tombs and monuments we visited as we explored the area around Cairo, made our way up the Nile, and visited the city of Alexandria.

There are numerous myths about the gods and I’ll be relating several as I go though my posts on Egypt. I find them both fascinating and fun. One thing to note here is that most of them have several versions. Five thousand years is a long time to keep a story straight. For example, today I am going to tell about one of the great founding myths, that of Osiris and Isis. Like most great tales, it is filled with murder, mayhem, adventure, sex, twists, magic and even a bit of humor. That Osiris was killed by his brother, chopped into pieces, put back together, and became God of the Underworld where he sat in judgement of the dead is generally agreed upon. The details on how he was killed, managed to get Isis pregnant with Horus afterwards, and was put back together vary with the teller.

The version that I am writing about was originally told by Plutarch in the second century AD. I first read it in a book by Joseph Campbell, Transformation of Myth through Time, over 30 years ago. I like this version because it has a Cinderella aspect to it, i.e. if the coffin fits, wear it.

This story starts with the goddess of heaven, Nut, and the god of earth, Geb. The god of air, Shu, separates Nut from Geb. Night and day are created by the sun god, Ra, who sails across the sky in his boat during the day, is swallowed by Nut in the evening, journeys through her at night, and is born again in the morning through a somewhat natural birth.

Photo of Egyptian Goddess Nut taken by Curt Mekemson.
Nut the Goddess of the Sky is about to swallow Ra, the Sun God, in this photo we took in one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Night is about to begin. The symbols on Nut’s body represent stars. Hieroglyphs fill the space on the right, providing advice and spells to aid the pharaoh in getting through the dangerous underworld on his way to eternal life.

Nut and Geb get together and give birth to four children.  The older twins, Osiris and Isis, are born first, and, in the tradition of Egyptian gods and pharaohs, marry each other. Osiris, with the help of the clever Isis, replaces Ra as the king of Egypt and gets the throne. Seth and Nephthys are born next and and marry each other.  Now the fun begins. Osiris is the typical good son and represents order. Seth is the typical bad son and represents chaos. It’s Osiris that creates the trouble, however. One night he sleeps with Nephthys, claiming he thought it was Isis. (Joe Campbell notes that this isn’t paying attention to detail.) Whatever the reason, Seth doesn’t buy it. Would you? He vows to get even. 

He builds a beautiful (and undoubtably incredibly expensive) sarcophagus/coffin made out of gold that is exactly fit to Osiris’s size. He waits until a great party is going on and everyone has consumed large quantities of beer (the go-to drink of the time) before showing up with his golden sarcophagus. “Whoever fits can have it!” he declares. Naturally everyone is excited to try, but nobody fits. Except Osiris. He’s just beginning to enjoy his triumph when 42 of Set’s servants rush out, slam the lid closed, wrap iron bindings around it, and throw it in the Nile. 

End of story, right. A solid gold coffin can hardly be expected to float. Except it does. Osiris is a god, after all. In fact, it floats all the way to Syria where it lands and a tree grows around it. And what a sweet smelling tree it is. So sweet that the local king decides he wants to use it for a pillar in a castle he is building. Meanwhile, Isis, in deep mourning, is searching the world over for Osiris. She ends up in Syria where she stops for a drink at the community well and hears the story of the sweet smelling pillar from maids who work at the castle. “Aha, Osiris!” she thinks. She also learns that the king has a new son who needs a nursemaid. She applies for and gets the job. 

Isis really likes the baby, nurses it from her finger, and decides to make it immortal  by throwing it in the fire each night to burn away its mortality. While this is going on, she assumes the form of a swallow and flies around the pillar, twittering mournfully.  One night the queen comes in on this scene and discovers her baby has been thrown in the fire and the nursemaid has become a twittering bird. Needless to say, she gets a little excited and screams. Isis immediately morphs back into herself, saves the baby, explains what she was doing, and asks the king if she can have the pillar. “Of course,” he says. (My thought is that he wanted to get the baby-burning goddess out of his life as quickly as possible.)

Isis gets a barge, loads the sarcophagus and heads home. Feeling lonely on the way, she opens the coffin, finds a quite dead Osiris, and climbs on in what seems to be a bit of Necrofilia. I’m not sure how it works, but she becomes pregnant (god thing again). Another version, which I like better, has her turning back into a swallow, flying over the coffin and being impregnated by magic. Immaculate conception is a common theme of Egyptian mythology. One myth I came across has the sphinx being born as the son of the lion goddess Sekhmeth after she is impregnated by a moonbeam from the Moon God. Explain that one to your husband. The Ankh, Egypt’s well known symbol of life and immortality, is also problematic when it comes to immaculate conceptions as well.

Having an ankh blown or shoved up your nose by a god was a great gift of life and immortality, highly desired by the pharaohs. Down around a woman’s midsection, it might have something other than a nose on its mind and be on its way to making a baby. It was known for making some women ankh-ious. (Sorry, my bad.)

Back home in Egypt, Seth has assumed the throne and will not be glad to have Osiris back, dead or alive. So Isis heads into a papyrus swamp where she hides out and gives birth to Osiris’s second son, Horus. Nephthys has already give birth to his first son, Anubis. 

All goes well until Seth follows a boar he is hunting into the papyrus swamp and finds the dead Osiris. Infuriated, he tears Osiris into 15 pieces and scatters them throughout Egypt. Once again, poor Isis sets out to get her dead husband back. Anubis, who is a Jackal in his animal form, and Nephthys help in the search. They can only find 14 pieces. Osiris is missing his genitals. A fish has eaten them.

They stitch Osiris back together with the parts they have and Anubis embalms Osiris, turning him into a mummy. Meanwhile, Horus grows up and goes to war with Seth to avenge his father. In a horrendous battle, Horus loses one of his eyes while Seth loses a testicle. Not quite reciprocal justice (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth), but close. Seth also loses the battle, however.  Horus takes the throne and order is restored to Egypt while Seth is banned to the desert. Horus’s eye is magically restored and comes to symbolize making things whole and healing.  It even brings life back to Osiris, who becomes god of the underworld.

People admire a sculpture of Annubis at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The sculpture was found guarding the tomb of King Tut. Egyptians considered Annubis’s animal form to be that of a jackal because of his close association with the dead. Jackals were known to hang out around cemeteries, probably hoping to dig up a free handout. Heh.
Peggy and I brought home this tapestry featuring the Eye of Horus from Egypt. Nekhbet, the goddess of vultures, is shown on the right. Wadjet, the coba goddess is shown on the left. All three were frequently depicted in ancient Egypt. Not a bad trio. Nekhbet and Wadjet protected pharaohs and the Eye of Horus could heal them.

My next post on Egypt, two weeks from now, will feature more history, mythology, and photos of ancient Egyptian sites from around Cairo. Next Monday Peggy and I will take you on a drive through Custer State Park, South Dakota that will focus on some rather unusual and magnificent stone sculptures.

39 thoughts on “On Being Photo-Bombed by a Camel… Plus Some Egyptian History and Mythology

  1. Being too old for “dank memes”, I was wandering in the meadows of WordPress, mourning the ancient times when humor had a depth to it; and chanced upon a sense of humor that is a perfect fit for me. I am going to wear it by clicking the follow button right away. Many thanks for all the snorts that came by as I read your post!

    • Thanks for snorting and following my blog. Snorts are good! The world can use many more of them. I jumped over to your blog and read about the pigeon decorated love letter. Funny. I’m hitting the follow button as well. –Curt

      • Gee! Thank you for the visit, my good Sir, and I appreciate the follow! Glad you found the fertilized letter funny. It is by the will of one of our 33 million gods and goddesses (I am a Hindu), that only the pigeons in my life are real, the letter is fiction, and my love life non-existant.
        I don’t worry at all about the latter since our ancient folks too have been getting moon-beamed to pregnancy since much earlier, and some just by a “loving gaze”. – Ajanta

      • Those gods can be tricky. And pigeons can be messengers in many ways. I once quit a job when I was looking for a sign as to whether I should stay and a pigeon let go on my head. I figured that the gods had give me a clear message. That’s nothing to compare with getting pregnant by a moon beam, however. 🙂

  2. When I see structures like these, plus aqueducts, huge baths, etc. They were created thousands of years ago, we should be far more advanced by now, don’t you think?

  3. Oh yeah! Loved this. I chuckled my way through it, vaguely remembering bits and pieces from when I wrote a much abbreviated version in a blog post a few years back. Such fun.
    I did note that it’s not just the ancient Egyptians who like the theme of immaculate conception.
    I love all the different creation stories – so imaginative.

    • Thanks, Alison. 🙂
      Joseph Campbell did a great job of relating Egyptian and other myths to Christianity… like the virgin birth, Isis and the child Horus to Mary and the baby Jesus, and the one most fun to me, eating fish on Friday related to what the fish did to Osiris. 🙂

  4. I loved the story you told, and learned so much! I didn’t know I could get accidentally impregnated by a moonbeam, and I also didn’t know I could make my baby immortal by throwing them into the fire each night to burn away their mortality. Sorry, Kellen! I want to know what happened to the fish who ate testicles of a god. Nice Dad Joke, too, I would have been ankhious as well. The photo-bombing camel is too awesome. What a great photo. It’s exactly what you were imagining when you snapped the shot – perfect!

    • Mythology is just plain fun, Crystal, when it isn’t being gory. (It can be fun then, too) There is no doubt that the Egyptians had a sense of humor about their gods, as well as taking them seriously. I’d like to know how they knew it was a fish. 🙂 I’d have bet on one of the crocodiles that were always feasting on unwary Egyptians that came too near the Nile.
      I’d predict more dad jokes as we go along. I’m sure that Dave will throw in his two-bits worth as well. He’s a punny guy.
      The camel, serendipity. 🙂 Thanks for adding to the post!

  5. It took me three reads at increasingly slow speeds to get all those details in the story sorted out! One of the most obvious connections is to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish — order out of chaos — that underlies the first chapters of Genesis. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Babylonian myths, but almost all of this was new to me — and fascinating.

    I love the photo of the birds in flight over the Nile. It reminded me of flying from Dakar to the Canary Islands. Our route took us right along the edge of the Sahara: all sand on one side, and all water on the other. As for the Sahara generally rather than Egypt in particular, and as an entry in my on-going ‘there’s always a song’ suggestions, how about this remake of Sting and Cheb Mami’s “Desert Rose”?

    • Right you are, Linda, about the connection between Babylonian and Egyptian Mythology. There was a lot of flow back and forth between the great mythologies of the mideast, leading right up into Biblical times. 🙂
      And now onto Desert Rose…

  6. You two must take better notes than Carol and I!! Thanks for the info and well written blog. We are sailing into Ceylon and we’ll make it ashore shortly. Looking forward to all the episodes!

    • I’m being a bit envious right now, Steve, as you and Carol sail for your next exotic location and Peggy and I are sitting here in Virginia. Sigh.
      Peggy and I will be on the road again in June, however, continuing our exploration of North America,
      As for taking notes, it’s more like research, research, research to back up our photos and what Sabaa told us on the scene. (I wish I would have had a tape recorder for that.)
      Next up is Hathor the cow goddess and Ramses II. I’m fascinated with Hathor.

  7. I love the camel, Curt! Glad you got a shot and a great one! But your story and the photos are amazing. So much to process and learn, and the time you take to compile it all is appreciated. I look forward to more…

    • Thanks, Lauren. I love that the camel chose to stick its head into my photo. I took several more shots of the full camel after that. Camels are one of those wonderful, ‘put together by a committee,’ beasts.
      There is so much material, my challenge is how to make it manageable, interesting and hopefully fun with a bit of education thrown in. Next up is the cow goddess who alternates between being a cow and a beautiful sensual woman, plus lots in between. Like a sycamore tree. 🙂
      I’ll also introduce Ramses II, Egypt’s most powerful and egotistical pharaoh.

  8. What a wild story, Curt. I was mesmerized even though it was all over the place. 🙂 How fascinating. I love learning about the ancient world and its civilizations, and this is an old one. It’s wonderful that so much of it has been preserved and studied. Beautiful photos too. I’m looking forward to the series. 🙂

  9. That was a wild tale, humorously told – loved it! (At first glance, I thought Nut, the Goddess of the Sky, was a bubble gum fan!) I also admired the photo of the ducks flying over the Nile and the sand – beautiful.

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