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

GemmaAngel15 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…


References:

[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.

Musical Apes: Can Baboons Play the Harp?

GemmaAngel11 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.

 

References:

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

Japanese Performing Monkeys: Apes in Art & Culture

GemmaAngel8 October 2012

Suzanne Harvey #2by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

Apes in Art

For anyone interested in images of primates in the visual arts, Solly Zuckerman’s seminal book The Ape in Myth and Art is a must-read. Hidden in the back pages amidst the postscript is Ohara Koson’s print, Trained Monkey Looking at an Insect, somewhat inaccurately described as a “Chinese water colour of a monkey sniffing a flower, unknown artist.”  It is in fact a woodblock print of a trained Japanese macaque (a species better known for its preference for bathing in hot springs) looking at a bee, and can be viewed at the UCL Art Museum.  Koson is one of the best known artists of the Japanese Shin Hanga or ‘new prints’ movement, and 257 of his prints are listed by the Hanga Gallery. But what of the ape subject who appears in this portrait?

Whilst the pink face is natural, the pink waistcoat certainly is not. As he is described as trained, it seems likely that Koson’s monkey is part of the tradition of Sarumawashi, or monkey dancing, which has been a Japanese tradition for over a thousand years. The concept is so ingrained in society that there exists a single noun, 猿回し, meaning ‘showman who trains performing monkeys’.

Apes in Museums

Whilst these performing monkeys were trained to mimic human behaviours on stage, Koson’s print depicts a tethered, costumed animal following its urge to be inquisitive – a natural, rather than trained, ‘human’ quality. Do we need to train monkeys to demonstrate human-like traits? As various primate species have been shown to use such complex behaviours as deceit and manipulation, as well as the ability to learn, play and communicate, I would say no. Yet, when exploring the representations of primates in UCL museums and collections, anthropomorphism arises as a clear theme. There are of course many examples of primate specimens, including baboons and macaques, mounted to reflect their natural behaviour in the Grant Museum of Zoology, but the presence of primates in UCL museums isn’t limited to the zoological collections. As well as the Art Museum’s trained macaque, at the Petrie Museum, there are figurines of baboons playing harps, drinking beer and even performing gymnastics.

From images of performing monkeys, to figurines depicting physical feats monkeys could never achieve, each museum contains objects invaluable to researchers interested in social attitudes towards primates. These objects provoke unexpected and interesting questions: for instance, why might Ancient Egyptians have decorated their homes with beer-drinking baboons? Look out for my next post to find out why…