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Archive for the 'Case #3: Understanding The Other' Category

I have sung and praised the sun disc, I have joined the baboons

By Gemma Angel, on 15 April 2013

Suzanne Harvey #2  by Suzanne Harvey






What links the evolution of language to the collection of baboon figurines at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology? I have previously speculated on the reasons why Ancient Egyptians might create figures of baboons performing acrobatics, playing the harp and even drinking beer. After months of sporadic research and conversations with museum visitors on the subject, I have finally chosen a favourite theory (without a hint of bias) that just happens to link directly to my own research on baboon communication.

Monkey with beer potThis post was inspired by an essay entitled Some Remarks on the Mysterious Language of the Baboons, [1] which mentions this quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Chapter 100:

I have sung and praised the sun disc, I have joined the baboons.

The reason that Egyptians considered baboons to be sacred is actually quite straightforward. When baboons wake in the morning, like many primates (humans included), they tend to stretch and produce vocalisations. To some, the pose baboons adopt while stretching – sometimes raising their front legs in the air – resembles worship. As they stretch more often at sunrise, this action together with their ‘chattering’ noises when moving from sleeping sites, was interpreted as singing and dancing to praise the Sun-god, Ra. [2]


Caption for baboon chatterThis only explains the role of language in making baboons sacred. Of several Gods to whom they are sacred, the deity who links baboons unequivocally with language is Thoth. Thoth is often depicted as a baboon scribe who not only spoke and wrote, but who actually gave the gift of language to the Egyptians, rather than simply understanding it. [3]

The voice of the baboon is the voice of God

This title might seem a somewhat unusual interpretation of the famous vox populi, vox Dei maxim, but it is in fact the Ancient Egyptian variation on this theme. Their belief was that whoever understood the language of the baboons had access to religious knowledge that was usually hidden. This is very good news indeed for modern primatologists – though I’ve yet to decipher any religious revelations while analysing baboon vocalisations! I can however dispute the Greek author Aelianus’s assertion that baboon language is “utterly incomprehensible to ordinary human beings”. [4]

ThothThoth’s significance in language and wisdom suggests that my earlier supposition – that baboons playing harps and drinking beer was not linked to religion due to the absence of sober, worshipful poses – was in fact erroneous. It seems that Egyptians were motivated to experiment with baboons, trying to train them to perform feats such as playing the harp, to reveal the link to Thoth hidden within them.

A range of baboon statuettes are currently on display as part of the Foreign Bodies exhibition in UCL’s North Cloisters. They represent a unique interpretation of other species that are nevertheless similar to our own, and a fascinating insight into how a distant culture defined themselves in relation to other primates – believing themselves to be inferior to baboons in terms of both holiness and wisdom. Ancient Egyptians recognised the human-like intelligence, ability to communicate and dexterity of baboons that we are equally fascinated by today, albeit from an evolutionary science perspective, rather than a religious sensibility. The quest to discover the inner Thoth continues…


[1] H. Te Velde: ‘Some Remarks on the Mysterious Language of the Baboons,‘ in Kamstra, J. H., Milde, H. & Wagtendonk, K. (eds). Funerary Symbols and Religion. (1988), J.H. Kok: Kampen.

[2] G. Pinch: Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. (2004), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Hans Kummer:  In Quest of the Sacred Baboon. (1995), Chichester: Princeton University Press.

[4] H. Te Velde, (1988), p.134.

The Other Minotaur

By Gemma Angel, on 25 February 2013

Tzu-i Liaoby Tzu-i Liao






The much celebrated production of The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House [1] by Harrison Birtwistle and David Garsent drew the curtains in applause in January this year. The reworking of the ancient myth of the Minotaur – half-bull, half-man – presents new dimensions not only of theatre but also of the concept of “foreign bodies“. In classical Greek representations the Minotaur is a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man [2], or as Ovid writes, “part man and part bull.”[3] Since his father Minos, King of Crete, provoked Poseidon the sea god, his mother Pasiphae is cursed to fall in love with a foreign white bull, and made Daedalus produce a cow costume in order to seduce the beautiful bull. The Minotaur is thus born of this species barrier-crossing union, and kept deep inside the labyrinth so that his strange shape and conduct would not “harm” others. Later Theseus, a foreign hero from Athens, came to Crete and won the heart of the princess Ariadne, with whose help he manages to kill the abominable monster and find his way out of the labyrinth.

minotaur theseus

While traditional depictions of the myth usually focus on the triumph of Theseus, the Birtwistle production invites the audience to reflect upon the boundary between the human and non-human animal. John Tomlinson, who plays the Minotaur, wears a bull-shaped mask which is semi-transparent and allows the audience not just to hear the Minotaur’s heartbreaking lows, but also to see the facial expressions of the human within the bull. The Minotaur is not presented as “half-bull, half-man,” but rather as a human being trapped within the terrifyingly foreign body of a beast. He feels the endless walls and the hostility around him; he sees and understands that people fear his strange looks; he desires the young and healthy bodies of virgins; he dreams of the being able to speak up for himself in human language – like all humans do. To what extent he comprehends the duality of his physical nature is not clear. Yet it is evident that when he dreams he is capable of and eager to express himself like all others, and what he talks about, again and again, is how his body stands like the walls of labyrinth between him and the others and thus keeps him from a normal human life. In many ways the mythic figure is presented as a person victimized due to his monstrous appearance and incapacity to of behave and communicate like everyone else. Of course, the myth gives no clue whether the Minotaur could have been a “normal” human being had he been treated like a normal child instead of being imprisoned in the maze. Birtwistle’s production urges us to look through the Minotaur’s intimidating physicality and feel his very human sorrow and hatred.

Gehörnter_Gott,_EnkomiAnother interesting interpretation of Birtwistle’s production is the  pronounced parallel between the Minotaur and Theseus. While both are foreigners and extraordinary in their different ways, one is hidden away and feared, and the other is loved and praised. Minotaur the monster is born from the union of the lustful Cretan Queen and a sacred bull from abroad [4]; Theseus the hero obtains the tool he needs to escape from the labyrinth after seducing the Cretan princess Ariadne, and is himself the son of Poseidon. The most obvious parallel occurs in the solos of Pasiphae and Ariadne, performed before and during their seduction of the sacred bull and Theseus respectively. The score was similar and the same motif is used in both scenes: Both of the Cretan women dance and sing near the cow costume Pasiphae wore when the Minotaur was conceived, caressing the body of the cow and yearning for the touch of the foreigner. The costume becomes a symbol not only of the (strange yet exotic) physical nature of the foreign male, but also the instrument which shapes the fate of the two foreign male bodies. Birtwistle’s production thus plays with conceptions of the foreign, not only dressing both men in almost an OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAidentical way (both wear loose trousers only, with the exception of the Minotaur’s mask), but also amplifying the duality of their bodies and their fates.

The theme of foreign bodies runs through many ancient myths, as well as being a significant force in the socio-political environment from which these stories emerge (our upcoming exhibition demonstrates just how complex this realisation can be!). Birtwistle’s production elaborates on this concept, repeatedly asking his audience how one should face and understand a foreign body in the community. Keeping the Minotaur hidden away in the labyrinth is perhaps not the best  solution anymore. Perhaps the question we should be asking is this: is the Minotaur inherently “Minotaur the monster”? Or can we find a Theseus hidden within the Minotaur?

[2] As seen in the Minotaur myron in National Archaeological Museum in Athens; the Attic red-figure kylix from Etruscan Vulci; or the bronze Horned God from Enkomi, Cyprus.

[3] Ars Amatoria 2.24.

[4] Ovid seems to hint that the bull is actually a god in disguise: “[T]he bull’s form disguised the god, Pasiphae, my mother, a victim of the deluded bull, brought forth in travail her reproach and burden” (Heroides 4.53) – which extends the parallel further.


Musical Apes: Can Baboons Play the Harp?

By Gemma Angel, on 11 February 2013

Suzanne Harvey #2  by Suzanne Harvey






Excuse me, is that baboon playing a harp?

This is a question that I long to be asked when I’m working at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. Whilst there are many examples of baboon figurines in the collection, my favourites have always been the selection from Amarna, in which the animals are shown performing acrobatics, drinking beer and playing the harp. Baboons appear throughout Egyptian mythology, and the majority of the figurines at the Petrie and elsewhere depict baboons sitting in a realistic manner, rather than performing any elaborate tricks. These figurines are often found at burial sites. Hapi, an Egyptian God of the underworld, is depicted with the head of a Hamadryas baboon and is said to protect the lungs of the deceased.[1] For this reason, it is common to find the baboon head of Hapi as a lid of canopic jars containing lungs. So, if baboons are typically viewed as sacred animals used in funerary reliquary, why is that baboon playing a harp?

Monkeys of several species were kept as pets in Ancient Egypt, so it is possible that they were trained to perform tricks. Having studied olive baboon infant tantrums, I know from experience that they are athletic animals who are often keen to throw themselves around – but acrobatics seems a stretch, and whilst I’m sure they could be trained to pluck harp strings, I doubt it would be easy listening. Since my own biological and behavioural approach does little but rule out possibilities, there must be another explanation for the existence of these unusual figurines. The Petrie Museum attracts a lot of visitors who are either professional Egyptologists or well-read enthusiasts of the subject. So, in my first ever research engager micro crowd-sourcing exercise, I’ve compiled some of their theories here:


1. The figurines were crafted at a time when the Pharaoh Akhenaten brought in monotheism, demanding that his subjects worship only one God, the Sun God. Therefore, worship of the baboon God was forbidden, and these less serious depictions of baboons may have become fashionable – Suggested by a retired German doctor who researches the beginnings of monotheism in ancient cultures as a hobby.

2. They are part of a culture of fantastical animal stories used for entertainment, and would have been high status decorations in a wealthy household – Suggested by an American Professor of art, interested in representations of animals in Egypt.

3. As baboons, particularly alpha males, could be seen as the reincarnation of dead ancestors in the form of the baboon deity Babi (not to be confused with the baboon-headed deity, Hapi…) the statues may show baboons engaged in activities that dead relatives enjoyed – Suggested by a UCL masters student studying ancient writing.

Any or all of these theories may be relevant, but overall, it seems that perspectives from art, theology and graphology lead to more interesting interpretations of this object than my own biological anthropology approach. For anyone interested in cross-disciplinary or multiple interpretations of museum objects, our upcoming exhibition Foreign Bodies will be on display in UCL’s North Cloisters, with additional featured objects in all 3 of the UCL Museums from March 18th – featuring (amongst others) my favourite baboon harpist.



[1] Hans Kummer: In Quest of the Sacred Baboon. (1995), Chichester: Princeton University Press.