Friday, May 21, 2010

Connecting Past and Present

Rick Riordan has zeroed in on my two favorite topics when I was in school: Greek myths (with his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) and ancient Egypt (with the launch of his Kane Chronicles series earlier this month, The Red Pyramid).

In Mrs. Hecker’s seventh-grade English class I remember really locking onto the Greek myths. I had always been fascinated by them, but there’s something about the Greek gods that speaks to that point of embarkation into puberty. Perhaps it’s the adolescent behavior of many of them. Anyway, I guess you could say I never really stopped focusing on Greek mythology because I did my senior thesis in college on James Joyce’s Ulysses (which also led me back to Homer’s The Odyssey).

Some of you are likely too young to remember when the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb first traveled around the country. Again, I believe I was in junior high when King Tut came through Chicago, a mere 3-hour drive from Kalamazoo, my hometown. For the first time, all the things I’d read about and the photos I’d seen in National Geographic were sitting there in front of me in three dimensions. That made an enormous impression on me. But what I hadn’t known before reading Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles was the depth of influence of what was called The House of Life--the ancient school of Egyptian magic.

The House of Life earned its name because the practicing magicians were healers (through the spells they cast), and they also staved off curses and thus protected Egypt's Pharaohs. For all of us who believe that words and books can create entire worlds and spark new philosophies, there’s a precedent for that in the House of Life as well. The ancient Egyptians believed that hieroglyphs themselves created magic. As Rick Riordan put it in a recent interview:

“The ancient Egyptians considered all writing magic. They had to be careful: if they created the word ‘cat,’ they had to deface it slightly, because they believed they could create a cat. The idea was that the ultimate form of magic was to speak and the world began. You see that influence in the Gospel of John: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ All these ancient cultures dovetail, and they were all forming and evolving at the same time.”

It’s both awe-inspiring and humbling to think about how far-reaching our roots go. To think of America, almost two-and-a-half centuries old, with seeds planted half a world away and thousands of years old makes the planet seem a bit smaller, doesn’t it? Like Carter and Sadie, the sibling protagonists of Riordan’s new series, we begin to see portals to the past all over the place.

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