Hollywood’s latest use and abuse of ancient Egyptian mythology
To paraphrase Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Gods of Egypt was a horrible movie…”
Directed by Alex Proyas, Gods of Egypt (2016) could have been a good, honest, solid action movie referencing ancient Egypt in the manner of Stargate or the more playful adventure flick The Mummy. Instead, the movie was over the top and bombastic. Rather than embracing its glorious campiness, the movie played it straight. At times the CGI special effects seemed uneven, and the scripted lines were predictable. We only met nine gods (Horus, Set, Hathor, Thoth, Anubis, Ra, Nephthys, Isis and Osiris). Unfortunately, the lack of a diverse cast and Proyas’s casting choices remain a mystery. Don’t get me wrong—I am a fan of Gerard Butler (who played Set), Geoffrey Rush (Ra) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Horus), but Proyas blatantly ignored the fact that Egypt is actually located in Africa with regard to his casting decisions.
The plot of the movie is fairly straightforward. Horus is about to be crowned king, but his evil uncle, Set, shows up with an invading army. Set kills Osiris, his brother and Horus’s father, and, rather inexplicably, easily defeats the other Egyptian gods. He becomes king, and Horus goes into self-imposed exile. Horus only comes out of this exile when a plucky, wise-cracking thief named Bek comes searching for the god in order to find a way to bring his ladylove back from the dead. Horus and Bek pair up to save the girl and wrest the throne from Set’s evil clutches.
Aside from the Egyptian gods turning into giant metal Transformer-esque beings, director Alex Proyas somehow managed to get some of the most basic attributes of the gods correct. While his attributions were competent, Proyas fell back on the typical tropes of Hollywood’s view of ancient Egypt: the exotic, animal-headed gods and the view that ancient Egypt was a mystical, unknown, magical culture. In reality, the gods were much more nuanced than was portrayed in this film, and ancient Egypt was a living, vibrant, human and very much Earthly culture. The movie combines ancient Egyptian mythology, Marvel’s Thor franchise, the buddy action-adventure genre, the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and the ancient Greek myth of the riddling Sphinx. Why use one mythological world when you can use at least three and mash them all together? And why, for the love of Sekhmet, did Set have a Scottish accent?
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, is a god associated with kingship (specifically, the living king), aspects of the solar cult, the sky, the horizon, the east, the winds and the sunrise. In the movie, he’s also about 12 feet tall and wears a rather fabulous leather kilt outfit with a coordinating eye patch.
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During his eponymous battle with Set, Horus loses one eye, not the two as he does in the movie. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Eye of Horus, or wadjet/udjet eye, is his left eye, which, in myth, represented the moon. The eye is eventually restored by Hathor, not a plucky thief. This eye is associated with healing as well as protection, strength and perfection. In the film, Set rips out both of Horus’s eyes, but we’re not really told his reasons except that they are the source of Horus’s divine power, which allows him to turn into a golden, metal flying humanoid-bird figure. These eyes are just the first in Set’s collection of trophies comprised of various divine body parts.
Proyas portrays Set as an evil god; however, in Egyptian mythology, Set is a little bit more complicated. He is the god associated with chaos, storms and bad weather, the desert and foreigners. He is the brother of Osiris, Isis and Nephthys, who is also Set’s wife, and the uncle to Horus. As a result of his reign as king, he also had a connection to Egyptian kingship. Set is an instigator of change. Additionally, as a god associated with foreigners, he is often associated with the Near Eastern goddesses Astarte and Anat (who are not a set of monster-cobra-riding assassins in mythology as they are portrayed in the film). Proyas rightly connects Set to the desert, and his use of Astarte and Anat was a subtle (and surprisingly correct) nod to their connection. It was moments like these that were aggravating. Someone appears to have done their homework, yet it wasn’t always consistent throughout the movie, as we have Set turning himself into some sort of Voltron-like being with his stolen items from fellow gods. Thankfully, Set is also quite stylish in his anachronistic pseudo-Roman leather armor.
Thoth is most famous for his association with knowledge and writing, but perhaps less known for his connection to the moon. He is often depicted as an ibis-headed god, but sometimes he may be depicted as a baboon. Thoth tends to carry around a stylus and papyrus to record events. Movie-Thoth was a relief with his sassy, dead-panned lines and academic outlook on life, but why was he so stiff? He seemed so uncomfortable with his lines that he made me squirm in my seat. Is that how Proyas views intelligent, academic-like individuals? As socially awkward, pedantic, pompous people who walk around inexplicably (and uncomfortably) holding their elbows behind their backs? I wasn’t entirely sure why he was dressed as Ptah, the creator god, but perhaps the costume department didn’t have any extra sets of anachronistic pseudo-Greek armor lying around.
For more on Hollywood movies, read “Excruciating Exodus Movie Exudes Errors,” “Rock Giants in Noah” and “Blending into One: The ‘Left Behind’ Movie, the Book of Revelation and the Rapture.”
The ship of Ra is an example of a moment where Proyas captured something deeper in ancient Egyptian mythology. It demonstrated what could have been for this movie. Proyas’s story of Ra wasn’t perfect, but I was rather impressed by Geoffrey Rush’s scenes. And, to be honest, they were probably the most enjoyable of the non-action scenes. The Egyptian myths explain the sun’s movement in many ways. Sometimes the sun is the scarab beetle god Khepre, pushing the solar disk across the sky like a giant dung ball; other times, it is Ra sailing across the sky in his solar barque. At night, Ra has to sail through the netherworld and fight off demons, monsters and the serpent Apophis, who symbolizes evil and chaos. Set, in the myths, is a protector of Ra and is often depicted standing at the prow of Ra’s boat skewering Apophis.
Movie-Ra sails across the sky in a rather fabulous alien spacecraft that tows the sun, which trails behind it on a flimsy rope (Egyptology aside, wouldn’t that cause some serious drag on the solar ship?). The ancient Egyptians believed the known world was bound by a river; in the movie, Proyas interprets this concept as a flat disk.
In his universe, Ra (and his trailing sun) sailed over the edge of the world and under it, and while it was rather clumsily done visually, I appreciated the attempt. In the movie, Ra has to battle the demon alone. And while the eternal battle between Ra and Apophis is part of ancient Egyptian mythology, the appearance of the giant spiceworm—erm, evil serpent—was so derivative that my friend whispered in my ear, “He who controls the spice, controls the universe!”
The movie sets were overblown and bombastic and looked like the love child of Asgard and the Las Vegas Luxor Hotel and Casino. While lovely to look at, it was not in any way accurate. In some aspects, Proyas’s vision worked only because it echoed the Egyptian revival style paintings by 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century painters and opera set designers. Rather like those Egyptian revival artists, Proyas simply translated ancient Egyptian architecture into modern forms. By doing so, he successfully perpetuates the Hollywood anachronistic view of ancient Egyptian architecture and motifs. He rather lazily used the same kingly titles and names over and over again as pure decoration without seeming to understand their meaning, such as Tutankhamun’s throne name, Nebkheperure, on Ra’s spaceship. Ironically, Osiris’s name is literally written all over Set’s obelisk. Surely, Proyas could have had some intern to look up Set’s name in hieroglyphs on Wikipedia.
I’m continually baffled by Hollywood’s insistence on deliberately creating inaccurate stories from ancient history. The film, for all of its laziness in its representation of ancient Egyptian mythology, religious beliefs and society (after all, Proyas admitted that he wasn’t concerned with accuracy in this film1), managed to capture a few subtleties of Egyptian mythology. I don’t know if the fleeting moments of random accuracy were by accident or by design. Proyas demonstrated what could have been for his movie, and very small glimpses of potential brilliance shone through. Although I walked into the movie expecting very little accuracy, I didn’t anticipate the lack of fulfillment that I felt by its missed opportunities via casting choices, scripted lines and the special effects. Yet its unintentional campiness and energetic action scenes may seduce me into buying the DVD when the price is right.
Beth Ann Judas holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Her focus at Penn was on Egypt (Middle and New Kingdoms) and Bronze Age Greece. Beth Ann’s main research lies in the study of interconnections between Middle and New Kingdom Egypt and the Bronze Age Aegean, which resulted in her Ph.D. dissertation, “Late Bronze Age Aegean Ceramics in the Nile Valley: An Analysis of Idea and Practice in the Archaeological Record.” She has excavated in Chile, Italy, Greece, eastern Crete and Egypt. She currently researches the Keftiu (Bronze Age Aegeans) in New Kingdom Egypt. Follow her on Twitter @keftiugal.
1. As Proyas told Forbes, “[T]he world of Gods of Egypt never really existed. It is inspired by Egyptian mythology, but it makes no attempt at historical accuracy because that would be pointless—none of the events in the movie ever really happened.” See Don Groves, “‘The Gods of Egypt’: Alex Proyas Grapples with a Size Issue in Fantasy Adventure,” Forbes, December 15, 2015.
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