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.
In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.
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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Where are the Black People? Stop making these movies about Ancient Egypt with all White casts! You come off as liars: misrepresenting history, as you have done for over 2000 years.
Hey, the movie seemed to take a bit of a twist toward the story of atlantis, which is where Egypt got most of its stories, the character Thoth was the prophet Enoch. Yes he could shift and alter, he was a prophet ranked higher than arcs. So yeah, he had some powers. He didnt just sit around and pray all day. Just some ideas to open up things. Set, Seth, whatever you want to call him originated as the first in the lineage of Adam, not Adam and Eve. So he was a good person. Anyway, just some ideas. For more accurate story telling on a true Ph. D level crack out the original Kj bible. See how much vocab you have to look up. The book of Jeremiah may interest you if you like Game of thrones. Peace!
It was a good movie. I watched it three times in 3 days and I’m no fan of those type of movies.
Lighten up folks – It’s just a movie!
As knowledgeable as the writer of this article Maybe, I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone like that to write a bad review for a movie because of its in accuracy, when they have no idea why those choices were made.
Begging pardon a second time; I’ve conflated the Exodus movie, which received the subsidy and which Scott directed, with the present one. I’ll shut up now.
Director Ridley Scott, not Scott Ridley; pardon my error.
Nice review. In The Guardian (13 Nov 2015), Scott Ridley justified his casting decisions as necessary for Spanish government tax subsidies which helped finance production. We don’t excuse neglect of Papyrus Chester Beatty I, the divine picnic on a Nile flood-bar, Isis’ deception in gaining ferry passage to this island, where she spears the submerged hippopotami Set and Horus (although you wonder why Isis couldn’t have flown to the island if she turns herself into a bird once there). The original is simply too brief for a movie; that 19-century Egyptian mania, alongside a few bare male torsos, is also what young movie goers want. Hopefully viewers become curious and turn to sources like Erik Hornung to discover those animal heads were really hieroglyphs, identifying the gods in a visually stylish way.
No, Alex, the events didn’t happen, but the Egyptian myths did exist and deserved to be accurately protrayed. That’s the thing about Hollywood that irritates me: making things up for dramatic effect when the real thing is so much more dramatic. Also, tacking on obviously Hollywood endings when it’s not necessary or accurate (“Argo” being just one example).
Dennis B: The author never stated that the portrayed actors needed to be a the darkest skinned African. But you have to at least agree that having an Egyptian God portrayed as a white male with a Scottish accent is a bit off. That’d be comparable to casting Asian actors to portray the Vikings.
Or at least a used copy of the DVD. 🙂
Dennis B: You are partially correct. The ancient Egyptians portrayed their southerly neighbors, the Nubians, as literally black. They portrayed themselves in varying shades of brown.
I live in a small town and only pay $7 for the 3D show which greatly enhances my satisfaction. It was an exciting movie and part of the fun was picking apart the expected laughable errors, tantamount to Ant Man and Wasp Man battling it out on a Thomas the Train set. (Last weeks movie).
It was much more satisfying reading this review, thank you Beth Ann.
Thanks for the heads up. I suppose it is being unnecessarily fussy, but it does bother me to watch a movie, say, set in the Bronze Age, yet everyone is running around with steel armor and weapons, looking more Roman than anything else. Or the makers of the movie just can’t resist the politically correct urge to throw in a fearless, butt-kicking female hero. Better to watch serious documentaries if one wants to see the ancient world.
After years of watching Hollywood prefer Artistic License to actual facts, everyone should understand that a movie is in itself a bias view of who every directs and acts in it. Nothing more.
This is called Diversion, entertainment and art. If it was titled Egyptian God’s 101, that might be a problem.
Dennis B.: if I could give thumbs-up to your post, I would give it several. All of your observations were spot-on. Bottom line: this is purely a pop-corn flick (and it never sold itself as anything more than that), not a National Geographic docudrama.
The previews of this film were enough to convince me not to see it. This review confirms and reinforces my initial impressions. At least the review was enjoyable even if the movie wouldn’t be!
Really bad art, especially plays and movies, often provides entertainment in the form of reviews and commentary that are far more entertaining than the original event. This appears to be one of those cases. I thoroughly enjoyed the review, and I’m glad I stayed away from the film.
Seriously, it’s a shame Hollywood doesn’t make more use of the stories in myths, (and real historical events), told essentially straight. (Or as straight as rather incoherent ancient texts allow.) There’s room for some innovation in film. (The Illiad contains most of the narrative techniques we know today.)
Good Grief! This is FICTIONAL and ENTERTAINMENT folks! If you wanted an educational movie, go watch a documentary on the subject. As for the insinuation that the cast should have all been black because Egypt in the African continent, go look at the paintings done by ACTUAL Ancient Egyptians; they weren’t all black Africans. In fact the black pharaohs were during the time Egypt had been conquered by the Nubians.
I’ve read a lot of movie reviews in my life. I think this is probably the best one I’ve ever read. These are always the types of things I wonder about when I see movies that have any “historical” substance. Thank you Dr. Judas for writing and BAR for publishing.
I grew up fascinated with the stories. It would have been really great to have them retold correctly. Goodness knows there is enough advenure, twists and turns etc, that acuracy would have made for a better movie. The fantastic graphics available now would have been better used on proper story telling.
Not to change the subject( sorry) what ever happened to the so called discovery of the text in maybe gospel of mark ,discovered in a Egyptian mask. Hiddened inside of it.. It’s been to long??. This being supposedly the earliest ( maybe) found. Please give s update. Knowing bar will be on top of it. Thank yoiB