Friday, 24 December 2010

The Dune Universe: extended or not?

For the last few months I have been absorbed by writer Frank Herbert's ultimate creation, the universe he describes in his Dune novels. Completely the opposite of the future vision of Star Trek, "Dune" is a violent, cruel and sometimes vicious worldview, in which the long term survival of the human race is described against probably its worst enemy, humanity itself.
Now Herbert himself wrote six novels set in this universe, thereby spanning several thousand years of fictional history. These works are rather philosophical in nature as Herbert explores his political, social and cultural ideas. That, as well as his brilliant command of language makes them quite a difficult read: very much worth the effort, but one really has to make that effort.

At the time of his death, rumours had it there existed an ouline for a seventh, all-concluding novel. As the final novel, Chapterhouse: Dune, ended with a tantalizing "cliffhanger", most fans were despairing whether they would ever find out what Herbert's idea of the conclusion would be.

But since Chapterhouse, a lot has happened and is still happening. Very much in the same vein as what happened to J.R.R. Tolkien and his vast heritage of unpublished works, Frank's son Brian has taken over his father's legacy and is producing new Dune novels, together with co-author Kevin Anderson. First, a trilogy which formed a prelude to "Dune" itself, telling the life stories of its main characters from the three main families in that book, Atreides, Harkonnen and Corrino. Then a truly audacious effort with another trilogy which told the story of the Butlerian Jihad, the war against the thinking machines several thousand years before "Dune". And then came the long-awaited seventh and concluding book, published in two volumes : Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune. And currently, more stories are pouring out, which are set in the various time periods between Frank Herberts original novels.

Now the father is not the son, and there is a very marked difference between both. The original "Dune" novels are mostly philosophical, meaning that there is comparatively little action and lots of talk and thoughts. They are written in a very economical language, not a word too much! With the new material, it is exactly the other way around: mostly action and little room for philosophical deliberations and mind games. Storytelling, in short, and with a mixed end result. I do like the Butlerian Jihad trilogy, as this introduces some really memorable characters, creatures like Erasmus, the Titan Agamemnon, genius Norma Cenva, and Selim Wormrider. But I do admit, I am rather disappointed in the Hunters/Sandworms story: too farfetched, too inconsistent and as far as I am concerned as uncalled for as for instance the finale of Star Trek:  Enterprise, which I despise. The other books are more of the same: lots of stories set on the various worlds that make up the Dune universe. Quite a nice read and often quite an interesting story as well.

So, extended or not? I am inclined to say "Yes!". But I wish both writers had left Dune's finale alone. As far as I am concerned, Reverend Mother Sheeana, Duncan Idaho and Scytale the last Tleilaxu Master are still wandering the universe in their no-ship, and I have no idea who "Marty" or "Daniel" really are...

Monday, 13 December 2010

Egyptology: A Beginner's story..

Since my vacation in Egypt what was slumbering has come to full fruition: I have developped an overwhelming interest in anything Egyptian. So, currently I have started to feed that interest with a beginning study of “Egyptology”. Wikipedia describes Egyptology as “the study of ancient Egyptian history, language, literature, religion, and art from the 5th millennium BC until the end of its native religious practices in the AD 4th century”. A rather forbidding topic due to its sheer vastness.
Those that know me are aware that I have a more than passing interest in languages and linguistics. It should therefore come as no surprise that I have embarked on a study to enable me to actually read (and understand) at least some of the ancient Egyptian texts in the original. And that means first and foremost: learning how to read the hieroglyphic script.

Fortunately, there are some quite good books that can help you on your way. There's “How to Read Egyptian Hieropglyphs” by Mark Collier for starters: a book that not only gives you the basics of the hierglyphic script but also a beginners guide to the Egyptian language itself. Quite a good study book, in fact, and I use that diligently. There's however the problem of memorizing all those signs and little drawings that -to us at least- lack any systematic correspondence between the actual sounds and their meaning. As an example: different bird signs often distinguished only by little details may have vastly different meanings or sound values.

I found another book equally valuable: “Ancient Egyptian Calligraphy A Beginner's Guide to Writing Hieroglyphs” by Henry George Fischer. This step by step guide teaches you how to actually write acceptable representations of many common hieroglyphs. The best way for me to memorize all these signs is to actually write them over and over again by transcribing words. Actual Egyptian words if I can get them, but transcribing a large number of 'nonsense syllables' will also work nicely. I actually wrote a little computer program that provides me with these nonsense syllables and words by selecting the Egyptian consonants at random and combining them into “words”. Endless exercise material!

And if this is about writing, what about reading? That's when the Internet comes into play. There's a lot of hieroglyphic material simply available. Just collect it, print it and start transcribing.

Now this is all the "boring" phase. The excitement comes when all of a sudden you make out a familiar name or a familiar word in the hieroglyphic texts. So far I have mastered the 24 single consonant signs, and as Egyptian also uses a set of 2- or 3-consonants signs, as well as pictograms (the image denotes the word intended) and something called 'determinatives', the vocabulary I can 'read' is still quite modest. There is still a lot to learn and practice, and I haven't even started on the actual grammar and language yet. But it is fun to do, and it brings me evne more in touch with a civilization whose culture has profoundly affected me. I'll keep y'all informed!

These hieroglyphic texts were made using the JSesh hieroglyph editor, and they say (freely transcribed): Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Egyptian snowy Holland

It is just a few weeks ago, but today I decide to relive some of my Egyptian experiences and went to the exhibition 'Egyptian Magic' which is hosted by the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in my birthplace, Leiden. I had heard a lot of good things about this special exhibition and as a student of the Western Mystery Tradition -which has considerable roots in the ancient Egyptian civilization- I felt this to be an almost obligatory 'field trip'. Well, I was not disappointed at all!

What first struck me was the quality of the presentation and the accompanying texts. It is all too easy nowadays to take the moral high ground and even ridicule the belief in a magical universe, but that was not what I saw here. Instead, the Egyptian worldview was carefully laid out from which the beliefs as well as the practice of magic ultimately stem. The message conveyed here was that magic in those days was not something for the selected few or for some 'weirdos' :-) , but was a fully integrated part of the Egyptians' everyday life.

That immediately led to my first  discovery here. Though it is obvious there should  have been a more or less extensive 'folk magic' in those days, that is usually not something you come across when studying the ancient mysteries. Those are 'high magics', dealing with what happened in the temples and surrounding the great myths and mysteries of the Gods. But this exhibition also showed how everyday Egyptions experienced the magical universe that they lived in. A world dominated by protective deities such as Bes, who almost literally was asked to protect a bewildering arrray of furniture and items. A world also of prayers, charms, spells, curses, amulets and papyrus letters to the deceased.

The exhibition is full of highlights and intriguing imagery, and it raises a lot of questions. Why is the god Horus sometimes depicted as a crocodile with a falcon's head? Having stood at the double temple to Horus and crocodile god Sobek in Kom Ombo, how exactly did these two separate deities merge to such an extent? Why is on one papyrus the snake demon Apophis depicted as standing on legs? Why is the protector god Tutu shown as standing in the Nut position? What is the meaning -if any- of a very long 'secret god name' which seems like it's made up of Greek, Hebrew and Babylonian elements? What was the use of a socalled 'Nun bowl' (which was one of my favorite items there, as Nun (i.e. the First Waters) is such a primordial deity)? And there's a lot more....

I also particularly liked the link that was made with the present day world. Egyptian magic is not dead, it is still an object of study and devotion for many esoteric groups worldwide (including my own). This is also highlighted by this exhibition, with material on loan from the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica and an interesting movie which showed the relationship between Sufism, Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism and ancient Egyptian magic, as well as some very intriguing influences into Judaism and Christianity. Even the Mormons seem to claim an ancestry going back to ancient Egypt!

I'd highly recommend this exhibition, which is open till March 13th. Prepare to be amazed and inspired! An don't forget to see the standard exhibition on ancient Egypt!

Left: a Nun Bowl (not the one on display in Leiden!) and Right: an amulet shaped as a papyrus column.