Ancient Egypt continues to throw up one fabulous surprise after another.
Today my colleagues and I published our analysis of an intact Egyptian prehistoric body (from around 3700-3500 BC) that had been housed in a museum in Turin, Italy, since 1901. The results provide strong evidence that embalming was taking place 1,500 years earlier than previously accepted.
The dead man was previously assumed to have been naturally mummified by the desiccating action of the hot, dry desert sand. But now we know it was deliberately preserved.
Together with our previous research, this new information tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians – those living 1,500 or more years before the Pharaohs – already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, and practised a developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
Prior to this new study, our analysis of funerary wrappings from prehistoric bodies from sites in central Egypt proved that the ancient Egyptians who lived before the time of the pharaohs used some body preservation techniques.
Reports of pellets of resin in pouches with the bodies in early burials excavated at prehistoric sites at Badari and Mostagedda in Middle Egypt (c. 4500-3350 BC) had made me wonder whether they were already using resin in a rudimentary form of mummification.
Resin is an substance harvested from certain trees, particularly pine, and is a preservative component of embalming mixtures.
In our previous work we did not have whole bodies – only small fragments of linen in British museums. The pieces of fabric were the only surviving evidence the bodies had been wrapped, and had been donated by the excavators in the early 20th century in return for funding for excavation.
But we didn’t have any further samples to expand this work – until now.
Preparing for the afterlife
The central tenet of ancient Egyptian mummification was preservation of a perfect body so that it could enter into the afterlife as a complete entity. If a crocodile had bitten off a leg, a wooden prosthesis would be substituted.
The wrapped bodies at prehistoric sites generally had not come under intense scrutiny when excavated, because in the 19th and early 20th centuries interest was overwhelmingly in the artefacts. Furthermore, there had been no reason to believe that the prehistoric Egyptians were using any preservative balms on their dead.
Like the British, the Italians were conducting their own excavations to fill the Museo Egizio in Turin. Perhaps the best-known archaeologist is Ernesto Schiaparelli, director of the museum between 1895 and 1928.
Schiaparelli went on a number of missions to Egypt to excavate and purchase mummies and artefacts from antiquities dealers, including the prehistoric body in this current study (identified as “Turin S. 293, RCGE 16550”), bought between 1900 and 1901.
It is only one of 20 bodies of this period (c. 3600 BC) in international museums. Although there are few written records on the body’s provenance, Gebelein in Middle Egypt is the most probable source.
A recipe for preservation
In 2014, a research grant from Macquarie University afforded a unique opportunity to forensically examine this Turin mummy.
Working with an international team, we took minute samples of textile and skin for biochemical analysis, radiocarbon dating, textile analysis and DNA analysis of pathogenic bacteria.
The mummy had not undergone conservation in the museum which meant that contamination was minimal, making him an ideal subject for scientific investigation. The downside of not having been conserved and consolidated is that he is extremely fragile and damaged.
Chemical analysis of the residues on the textile wrappings from the torso and wrist using a technique known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry revealed the presence of a plant oil or animal fat, a sugar/gum, a conifer resin and an aromatic plant extract.
The resin and aromatic plant extracts are the two main antibacterial components that would have repelled insects and preserved the soft tissue underneath. Chemical signatures indicate gentle heating, so it was indeed a “recipe” that was probably applied by dipping the linen into the melted mixture and then wrapping.
Radiocarbon dating of linen – one sample each from the body and the basket of fragments accompanying the body – gave a date range of around 3700-3500 BC. Both samples shared the same early spinning technology observed in Egyptian linen between about 5000 BC and 3600 BC, when a momentous change in the direction of the spin took place.
No pathogenic DNA was detected by metagenomics, either because it had not survived the environmental conditions in Egypt or the museum (which until recently was not climate-controlled).
As a result, we do not know whether he died from an infectious disease. Furthermore, his extremely fragile state prevented him from being moved for X-ray analysis.
Together with our previous research, the information gleaned from this complete mummy tells us that the prehistoric Egyptians already had knowledge of the processes required to preserve the body, as well as an already developed religious belief system about the afterlife.
They had access to resins from the Eastern Mediterranean, suggesting long-distance trade. That similar components were used in the balms in burials 200 km apart, and indeed continued to be used in similar proportions by the pharaonic period embalmers when their skills were at their peak some 2,500 years later, shows the enduring nature of ancient Egyptian ingenuity.
But it wasn’t always this way. Between 1961 and 1972 McMurdo Station was home to Antarctica’s first and only portable nuclear reactor, known as PM-3A, or “Nukey Poo.” The little-known story of Nukey Poo offers a useful lens through which to examine two ways of valuing the far south: as a place to develop, or a place to protect.
By the late 1950s nuclear power was viewed with optimism, as an exciting new solution to both the world’s energy and social problems. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, designating Antarctica as a place for international scientific cooperation. Both the USA and USSR were original signatories, and both were concerned about the possible use of nuclear weapons in the far south.
The Antarctic Treaty therefore included freedom of inspection of all facilities, and stipulated “any nuclear explosions in Antarctica and the disposal there of radioactive waste material shall be prohibited”.
When Nukey Poo was built by the US Navy it was described by Admiral George Dufek as “a dramatic new era in man’s conquest of the remotest continent.”
While the early explorers set out with flags, pitting their bodies against the elements to claim new territory, nuclear technology represented a modern way for man to triumph over the hostile environment. PM-3A was seen as a trailblazer, and – if all went well – it was planned to be first of many installed in Antarctica.
Dufek also envisaged nuclear energy making possible a wide range of human activities in the far south. His imagined version of “Antarctica in the Year 2000” included nuclear-driven greenhouse crop production, geoengineering of the world’s weather, and mining ventures that helped broker world peace.
“Nukey Poo” began producing power for the McMurdo station in 1962, and was refuelled for the first time in 1964. A decade later, the optimism around the plant had faded. The 25-man team required to run the plant was expensive, while concerns over possible chloride stress corrosion emerged after the discovery of wet insulation during a routine inspection. Both costs and environmental impacts conspired to close the plant in September 1972.
This precipitated a major clean up that saw 12,000 tonnes of contaminated rock removed and shipped back to the USA through nuclear-free New Zealand. The clean up pre-dated Antarctica’s modern environmental protection regime by two decades, and required the development of new standards for soil contamination levels.
This elaborate process ensured that the US did not violate the Antarctic Treaty by disposing of nuclear waste on the continent. It also foreshadowed a shift in environmental attitudes away from development and use, towards protection; the removal of so much as one pebble from the Antarctic without requisite permits is now prohibited.
Today, all that physically remains at the site of the PM-3A reactor is a missing hillside and a plaque. Nuclear power is no longer viewed with the optimism of the 1960s, thanks to disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.
When Admiral Dufek wrote in 1960 “Antarctica will be a fantastic land in the future” he had a very different vision in mind to the Antarctica we see today. Today, the far south is not a place to be improved upon with human innovation, so much as a place to be protected from our influence – including climate change.
The episode of Nukey Poo reveals the modern association between science and the Antarctic environment has not always been so. In demonstrating how Antarctica went from being seen as territory to conquer to a fragile environment, we are reminded that its protection cannot be taken for granted
Comets and meteors have fascinated the human race since they were first spotted in the night sky. But without science and space exploration to aid understanding of what these chunks of rock and ice are, ancient cultures often turned to myth and legend to explain them.
The Greeks and Romans believed that the appearance of comets, meteors and meteor showers were portentous. They were signs that something good or bad had happened or was about to happen. The arrival of a comet could herald the birth of a great figure, and some people have even argued that the star in the sky which the Persian Magi followed to Bethlehem to see the newborn Jesus was actually a comet.
In the spring of 44BC, a comet that appeared was interpreted as a sign of the deification of Julius Caesar, following his murder. Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (soon to be the Emperor Augustus) made much of the comet, which burned in the sky during the funerary games held for Caesar. This portentous event was frequently celebrated in the ancient sources. In his epic poem, the Aeneid, Virgil describes how “a star appeared in the daytime, and Augustus persuaded people to believe it was Caesar”.
Augustus celebrated the comet and the deification of his father on coins (it did help to be the son of a god when trying to rule the Roman Empire), and many examples survive today.
The Roman historian Cassius Dio referred to “comet stars” occurring in August 30BC. These are mentioned as among the portents witnessed after the death of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Experts are not entirely sure what it means when Dio uses the plural term “comet stars”, but some have connected this recorded event to the annual Perseid meteor shower.
Though it retains an ancient Greek name, we now know that the arrival of the Perseid meteor shower every August is actually the Earth’s orbit passing through debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet.
The meteor shower is named for the Perseidai (Περσείδαι), who were the sons of the ancient Greek hero Perseus. Perseus was a legendary figure with a fine family pedigree – he was the mythical son of Zeus and Argive princess Danaë (she of the golden rain). Perseus earned himself a constellation after a number of epic adventures across the Mediterranean and Near East that included the frequently illustrated murder of the Gorgon sister, Medusa.
Another of Perseus’s celebrated acts was the rescue of the princess Andromeda. Abandoned by her parents to placate a sea monster, the princess was found by Perseus on a rock by the ocean. He married her and they went on to have seven sons and two daughters. Sky watchers believed that the constellation Perseus, located just beside Andromeda in the night sky, was the origin of the shooting stars they could see every summer, and so the name Perseid stuck.
Tears and other traditions
In Christian tradition the Perseid meteor shower has long been connected to the martyrdom of St Lawrence. Laurentius was a deacon in the early church at Rome, martyred in the year 258AD, during the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian. The martyrdom supposedly took place on August 10, when the meteor shower was at its height, and so the shooting stars are equated to the saint’s tears.
Detailed records of astronomical events and sky watching can be found in historical texts from the Far East too. Ancient and medieval records from China, Korea and Japan have all been found to contain detailed accounts of meteor showers. Sometimes these different sources can be correlated, which has allowed astronomers to track, for example, the impact of Halley’s comet on ancient societies both east and west. These sources have also been used to find the first recorded observation of the Perseid meteor shower as a specific event, in Han Chinese records of 36AD.
Though the myths and legends may make one think that ancient civilisations had little scientific understanding of what meteors, comets and asteroids could be, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The early astronomers of the Near East, those who created the Babylonian and Egyptian calendars, and astronomical data were – by far – the most advanced in antiquity. And a recent study of ancient cuneiform texts has proven that the Babylonian ability to track comets, planetary movements and sky events as far back as the first millennium BC involved a much more complex geometry than had been previously believed.
It’s 50 years since the anthropologist WEH Stanner gave the 1968 Boyer Lectures — a watershed moment for Australian history. Stanner argued that Australia’s sense of its past, its very collective memory, had been built on a state of forgetting, which couldn’t “be explained by absent mindedness”:
It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
His lectures profoundly influenced historians partly because of the image he captured: for a practice based on documentation, archiving and storytelling, silence is a compelling idea. And a whole-scale silence — a “cult of forgetfulness”, no less —indicated a bold re-imagining of a national historiography on Stanner’s part.
As Stanner insisted, this sort of silence was no “absent-mindedness”: the occlusion of Aboriginal people from Australian history wasn’t inevitable.
In the wake of his lectures, influential Australian historians conceived of their own historical awakening in these same terms. In an autobiographical essay historian Marilyn Lake described the prevailing historical view in her small rural town: “Growing up in the former colony of Tasmania we did our fair share of forgetting”. And in his evocative memoir, Why Weren’t We Told? Henry Reynolds famously pondered that shift away from silence as people endeavoured to write in Indigenous perspectives from the 1970s onwards.
It’s a common refrain. I remember my dad describing how he also “hadn’t been told” about Australia’s Aboriginal history when Reynolds’ book came out. And a colleague and friend recently recounted visiting Myall Creek as part of a Sunday school picnic in the 1980s: no-one mentioned its dark history as the site of an infamous Aboriginal massacre in 1838.
Yet the move from “great Australian silence” to historical “truth-telling” isn’t quite as clear cut as Stanner’s description might suggest. “Too often it is taken to imply a kind of historiographical periodisation where there was no Aboriginal history before Stanner’s own lecture and an end to the silence after it”, writes Ann Curthoys. Yet that doesn’t capture the whole picture: “there was neither complete silence before 1968, nor was it completely ended afterwards”.
While we now have important interventions into Aboriginal history that amplify Australia’s uncomfortable past, such as Lyndall Ryan’s massacre map and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, those reverberations continue to cause anxiety.
The Statement from the Heart called for a “truth-telling about our history” but still awaits bipartisan support; meanwhile, online commentary in response to the release of Ryan’s massacre database shows the persistence of historical refusal in Australia.
The “great Australian silence” is also historically a little more complex. I’m writing a history of history-making in Australia and have been struck by the detailed interest in Aboriginal life as well as the often graphic accounts of frontier violence in works from the early and mid-19th century. For want of colonial history “texts”, I’ve also been reading travelogues and emigrant’s guides. While these books and pamphlets are largely observational, they also frequently present historical narratives and interpretation.
Many of them didn’t hold back in their tales from the colonial frontier, cataloguing extensive episodes of violent conflict between Aboriginal people and colonialists.
Have a look at this description of the 1838 Myall Creek massacre from Godfrey Charles Mundy in his travelogue, Our Australian Antipodes, published in 1852:
[The perpetrators,] with the exception of a child or two; and having bound them together with thongs, fired into the mass until the entire tribe, 27 in number, were killed or mortally wounded. The white savages then chopped in pieces their victims, and threw them, some yet living, on a large fire; a detachment of the stockmen remaining for several days on the spot to complete the destruction of the bodies.
It is graphic historical writing.
The horror of Mundy’s Myall Creek account is paradoxically eclipsed by the chilling official silence he observes after most attacks:
Reprisals [against Aboriginal people] are undertaken on a large scale – a scale that either never reaches the ears of the Government, which is bound to protect alike the white and the black subject; or, if it reaches them at all, finds them conveniently deaf.
James Demark’s Adventures in Australia Fifty Years Ago, from 1893, similarly reports a structural and deliberate deafness in response to the violent, eerie echoes across the frontier: “The settlers retaliated in their own way”, he writes, and “there were no Government regulations to check these irregular proceedings”.
Even self-described histories, such as those by James Bonwick and John West, explicitly link frontier violence with Australia’s colonisation. West’s History of Tasmania, first published in 1852, even uses the terms “black hunts” and “black war” to describe the first 50 years of Van Diemen’s Land. West was an abolitionist, and a tone of historical injustice inflects his writing about the Tasmanian Aborigines in volume two.
Take this excerpt, where he relates the perverse logic of colonial expansion:
It was better that the blacks should die, than that they should stain the settler’s heath with the blood of his children.
And this one, where he mourns the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal society in only two generations:
At length the secret comes out: the tribe which welcomed the first settler with shouts and dancing, or at worst looked on with indifference, has ceased to live.
Bonwick’s 1870 history of Tasmania is similarly full of sentiment. In a tone curiously analogous to Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech 120 years later, Bonwick offers this lament on the effects of colonisation on Tasmania’s Aboriginal people:
We came upon them as evil genii, and blasted them with the breath of our presence. We broke up their home circles. We arrested their laughing corrobory. We turned their song into weeping, and their mirth to sadness.
Bonwick also reveals the ease with which colonial discourse accounted for murder. During his time in Tasmania, Bonwick writes, he had heard several people explain that “they thought no more of shooting a Black than bringing down a bird”. He went on: “Indeed, in those distant times, it was common enough to hear men talk of the number of black crows they had destroyed”.
Those recollections of euphemistic colonial vernacular hint at some of Bonwick’s method as a historian. In the introduction to his history and in an 1895 talk to the Royal Colonial Institute in London, he gives a more detailed explanation of that approach.
It was not a hunt through blue books [government records], that provided the source material for his research, he explains. Rather, it was conversation and hearsay, from sly-grog sellers, ex-bushrangers and colonial gentry alike, that furnish his historical narrative.
How else could you write about hunting crows?
Alongside those histories was a humanitarian public discourse that anguished over frontier violence. Media commentary, public debates and lectures, as well as letters to the editor from the frontier that related specific episodes of violence, are explored in detail by Henry Reynolds in This Whispering in Our Hearts.
Likewise, poetry such as The Aboriginal Mother (1838) by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop reveals a form of popular and creative history-making in response to colonisation that can be seen in the work of writers such as Judith Wright and Eleanor Dark a century later.
So why was that reverberation replaced with euphemism and omission? Partly the silence was a fear of punishment, as Bain Attwood argues in a recent essay on historical denial.
Especially after the successful prosecution of the Myall Creek massacre perpetrators, colonial frontlines and allegiances became a little murkier. “There were good reasons to be silent,” historian Tom Griffiths has similarly insisted.
Mundy’s 1852 account of his “ramble” through the antipodes confirms Attwood and Griffiths’ explanation, and reveals how stories quietly murmured along the frontier provided a catalogue of violence.
“Dreadful tales of cold-blooded carnage have found their way into print, or are whispered about in the provinces,” he writes. And
although there be Crown land commissioners, police magistrates, and settlers of mark, who deny, qualify, or ignore these wholesale massacres of the black population, there can be no real doubt their extirpation from the land is rapidly going on.
It wasn’t simply a case of an uncomfortable frontier that came to characterise the silence Stanner identified in his Boyer lectures, however.
The historians Stanner named in his lectures (such as M. Barnard Eldershaw, Hartley Grattan, Max Crawford and Brian Fitzpatrick) were largely silent on Aboriginal policy and history in their mid-20th century histories — despite being written after the 1930s, a decade which Stanner notes for its influence in shapeshifting on Aboriginal policy.
Yet this form of history writing had begun in the late 19th century. At a time when Australian nationhood and national identity were being formed around Federation, the historical discipline was moving into a particular form of narrative writing oriented towards (non-Indigenous) Australian exceptionalism based on democratic and economic progress.
As Australia’s national consciousness emerged, it required a historical consciousness of its own origin. Education departments commissioned history texts and universities appointed history professors. As history became increasingly professionalised “blue books” and official archives were in; hearsay and poetry out.
So what did disciplinary “silence” look like in Australia? It saw History (with a capital “H”) arriving with colonisation: “She alone of all the continents has no history”, proclaimed journalist Flora Shaw in a presentation about Australia to the Royal Colonial Institute in London in 1894.
She offers the introductory chapter of a new history and bases her claim to the attention of the world upon the future which she is shaping for herself.
Lorenzo Veracini has described that settler-colonial vision of the Australian continent as a sort of historia nullius, where “Australian history” only existed thanks to the selective creation and curation by colonial historians.
For Australian historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the silence of pre-and post-contact Indigenous experience occurred because it existed outside the Whiggish historical narrative of imperial progress. “The federation of (white) Australia and the birth of ‘national’ historical consciousness thus represent … a moment of disciplinary origin”, historian Leigh Boucher asserts.
In his 1916 Short History of Australia, Ernest Scott described “vast tracts of fertile country which had never rung under the hoof of a horse and where the bleat of a sheep had never been heard.” In these texts, silence is counterposed against the ringing of axes and “industry”.
Scott writes that Australia “begins with a blank space of the map, and ends with the record of a new name on the map, that of Anzac”. It’s worth dissecting this quote here, to unpack that form of history writing: the inevitability of historical progress and national formation is telling.
We shouldn’t assume that this early national history writing was completely silent on Indigenous matters: Coghlan and Ewing’s 1902 Progress of Australasia in the Nineteenth Century described the “invasion” of parts of southern Australia by the colonists, and related in some detail the colonial massacre of Aboriginal people at Risden Cove in Tasmania; and Scott’s 1916 short history included ghastly and violent accounts of murder on the colonial frontier, as well as the deliberate planting of arsenic in flour destined for Aboriginal people.
Nevertheless, Stanner gave voice to an emergent idea about silence that understands history as a method that changes over time and place, rather than an objective interpretation of the past. It reminds me of what narrative psychologist Jerome Bruner explains as the “coherence” we “impose” on the past, to “make it into history”.
In other words, the 1930s histories that Stanner identified in his Boyer lectures exist in a historical structure where Indigenous perspectives have been locked out. As Stanner himself articulated,
We have been able for so long to disremember the Aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.
Still a work-in-progress
Stanner’s point raises an important question: if “History” itself is tied to the process of colonisation, can it accommodate perspectives outside its colonial apparatus? Stanner sensed that history would overcome its own silences, but doing so would require major methodological shifts, such as the incorporation of Aboriginal Studies and oral history:
In Aboriginal Australia there is an oral history which is providing these people with a coherent principal of explanation … It has a directness and a candour which cut like a knife through most of what we say and write.
His predictions played out, and such approaches, applied by Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians such as Hobbles Danyari, Heather Goodall, Peter Read, Paddy Roe and Deborah Bird Rose overturned Aboriginal historiography in Australia.
The murmurings have since turned into a groundswell: Indigenous histories have become increasingly prominent and Indigenous perspectives are now mandated across school curricula. Conspicuous public and political debates over Australian history are further indication of how this counter narrative has become a significant historical lens.
“I hardly think that what I have called ‘the great Australian silence’ will survive the research that is now in course”, Stanner anticipated. And to a large degree, he was right — a substantial historical revision has taken place in Australia.
If anything, that change has accelerated since Stanner’s death in 1981. Yet in university history departments, Indigenous historians still remain vastly underrepresented.
Indigenous perspectives have increasingly informed, critiqued and revised historical approaches. But Indigenous histories are often relegated to “memoir”, “story”, “family history”, “narratives of place” or “political protest”, rather than acknowledged as part of a disciplinary practice.
And with the possible exception of oral history and pre-history/deep time, there is still a marked absence of Indigenous historiography in Australia’s historical “canon”.
We may have developed new critical approaches, and a growing understanding of the genealogy of historical “silence”. Yet the meaning and the consequences of that understanding are still a work in progress.
Review: A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia by Michael Atherton
In his recent book, A Coveted Possession, Michael Atherton traces the history of the piano in Australia. The book’s cover seems almost intent on giving the story away, informing us that its pages chart the instrument’s “rise and fall”.
As Atherton, an emeritus professor from Western Sydney University, explains, the story of the piano in Australia begins with the First Fleet, namely a small instrument brought from England on the Sirius in 1788, by George Worgan. A short preliminary chapter sets out the prior development of the instrument, from the “plucked” action of the older harpsichord to the felt-covered hammers used in later pianos. This information will be useful for readers with little background knowledge.
Yet, as the author reminds us, the piano has been more than a musical instrument or a finely crafted piece of furniture; he refers to it as “a machine that conveyed socially constructed meanings”. In this regard, the book is rich in subtext. Two dominant undercurrents emerge: that the possession of a piano (and the skill to play it) signified status; and that the Australian “cultural cringe” led to preferences for foreign-made instruments.
The first piano believed to have been built in Australia dated from 1834 and was constructed by an English emigrant named John Benham. As Atherton tells us, native timbers proved highly adaptable to piano manufacture, both in terms of their outer casework and, more importantly, the soundboard within.
An example of a Benham piano is housed in the archives of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It’s one of many instruments stored in the shed-like building next to the main exhibition spaces, which are rarely viewed by anybody, let alone heard. If ever there was a counter-argument for keeping the Powerhouse where it is and opening satellite venues such as at Parramatta so as to allow for the greater display of items, surely this is one.
Atherton provides a brief but concise history of the early builders of pianos in Australia, before moving to the more substantial manufacturers, Jabez Carnegie, Octavius Beale and Hugo Wertheim. For a period, it was a burgeoning and profitable business, complementing the homegrown production and sale of printed music, and the promotion of local virtuoso performers, such as Percy Grainger.
Yet lasting success proved elusive. As a pianist, I have promoted modern Australian pianos in concerts and recordings, and, sadly, Atherton’s pages detailing the decline of Beale’s factory in Sydney’s Annandale and Wertheim’s in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond were almost predictable. Those who profited from importing instruments from overseas (sometimes with quite inferior products) argued powerfully to remove tariffs and, aligned with the interruption of the second world war, “market forces” ultimately brought about the industry’s demise.
Changes in entertainment technologies – such as the development of the radio and the gramophone – also played their part in that process. But despite the decline in the popularity of the “goanna” (rhyming slang for the instrument), Atherton is highly informative when recounting its role as a social healer. Many pianos were donated to so-called “Cheer-Up Huts”, where they were played to boost the spirits of those returning injured from war.
Particularly fascinating is the story of the “Changi” piano, an instrument that brought happiness to countless POWs. It is now housed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Other instruments made it as far as battle front lines where, as Atherton observes, their playing represented order among the “anarchic, chaotic and destructive sounds of war”.
Atherton can write with an enthralling sense of narrative, which is perhaps most evident in the final part of the book. Here he recounts the role of pianos in various post-modern creative projects.
Noting his own participation in what could be termed “pianofortecide”, these endeavours involved the ritualistic destruction and burning of old and unwanted instruments, all in the name of art. Aptly, the chapter is titled “Where do old pianos go to die?”. It provides a sobering, realistic glimpse of the fate of pianos that were once treated with love, care and respect. More often than not old pianos are dumped unceremoniously at the tip.
Wayne Stuart and Ron Overs have both, in their own ways, worked in recent years to establish locally made piano businesses, although their efforts seem somewhat in vain. Atherton, who has advocated strongly for Stuart’s instruments, asks some pointed questions:
Has Stuart been given a short life as a piano builder because most concert pianists do not wish to move out of their comfort zone? Have conventional sounds, conservatism in music and economics, and also, possibly, Australian tall poppy syndrome damaged the longevity of the piano, not to mention the ongoing vested interests and monopolies courted by local organisations and promoters?
The same could be asked of the never-ending stream of imported pianists who perform with our major orchestras on a weekly basis, while the wealth of talented Australian artists is fairly much ignored!
At times, A Coveted Possession is marred by insufficient attention in the proof-reading stage. And it feels as if the researcher’s bullet-point notes have been fleshed out rather casually in early chapters recounting historical developments, where a deeper sense of narrative would have satisfied more.
But for those who are interested in the history of the piano in Australia (and music in general), the book has much to offer. Despite the foretelling of the instrument’s demise on the cover, Atherton’s book ends on a high note: “The ‘goanna’ will still be sounding at the end of the century.”
What can we possibly learn from the archaeological study of a World War I battle tank? Quite a lot, it turns out, when the attention is devoted to a rare German-built A7V Sturmpanzerwagen tank known as Mephisto.
The tank was originally collected as a war trophy by a Queensland based battalion in July 1918, brought to Brisbane the following year and now held by Queensland Museum. One hundred years to the month since its recovery, it is the last of its kind in the world.
On close inspection it is clear that this metallic monster is in far from pristine condition and covered in battle damage. Mephisto saw a lot of action during the battle for Villers-Bretonneux in northern France a century ago.
Investigation of war relic
The story of the tank is now told in a new publication, Mephisto: Technology, War and Remembrance, that recounts its history and technological development, and places it in the context of the so-called “War to end all wars”.
Together with our colleagues, we have attempted to reconstruct something of Mephisto’s role in its final battle.
To make sense of various gunshot and shrapnel impacts, the Queensland Police and Ballistic Bomb Blast Unit and the Defence Science & Technology Group (DSTG) provided their technical skills to help explain the damage to the tank.
It became clear that a large amount of small arms fire was thrown at the vehicle in an attempt to halt its advance. There is evidence of very close-quarter fighting, with several attempts to disable the vehicle.
The QP Ballistics team identified a .303 armour piercing round wedged in the armour next to a machine gun port. It seems that a soldier was attempting to disable one of Mephisto’s eight machine guns by shooting its water jacket.
A series of well-aimed, short machine gun bursts were fired at one of the tank’s exhaust ports. Much of the damage occurred on the left side of the tank which from reconnaissance photos taken after the battle show the position of the allied trenches located parallel to the tank.
There is also evidence of a larger-calibre weapon that was brought into use against the tank, perhaps a French 37mm weapon, which simply ricocheted off Mephisto’s thick armour.
Further research is required to clarify the exact meaning of the use of this larger-calibre weapon. Initial work by DSTG has reconstructed the angle the tank rested in when it finally became stuck when it ran into a shell crater.
Close combat with a tank
Very close fighting was associated with the vehicle, and the battle damage reveals something of the terror that the defending English soldiers must have endured on the morning of April 24, 1918.
The destruction of the vehicle was revealed by QP bomb blast experts. Two different explosions were recorded in the twisted armour of the forward compartment of the tank.
Historical evidence has suggested that the German crew set off a charge to disable their vehicle, but the primary impact appears to have burst through the roof, the force bending the heavy steel support beams downward.
This blast created something of a chain reaction, and would have generated a temperature of between 3,000℃ and 4,000℃. It initiated a further explosion by igniting any munitions still within the tank.
The perfect impression of one of Mephisto’s own 57mm shells is blasted through the floor plating next to the main forward gun.
In turn, this projectile hit the ground beneath Mephisto, sending shrapnel back up through the plating on the underside of the tank. This generated several impacts in the metal directed back inside the forward compartment.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that a fusillade of small arms fire was hurled at Mephisto as it trundled, at speeds never more than 6–8mph (9-13kmh), towards the Allied positions at Villers-Bretonneux and Monument Wood.
As much of the damage is recorded on the left side of the tank it is probable that most of the impacts occurred during this final assault and not at its previous action at St Quentin. The tank sat for three months in No Man’s Land and continued to receive small arms and shrapnel damage while it was disabled.
A lasting legacy of war
A study such as this by no means rewrites our understanding of the conflict, but as the sole surviving A7V, this battered artefact does provide unique insights into the events that took place on the battlefields of Europe 100 years ago.
Investigating artefacts in this manner transforms them. They become something more than just a curious object from the past, and indeed can emerge as an important, silent witness to historic events.
A tangible object such as Mephisto, in trying to make sense of the battle damage to the vehicle, transcends the insights revealed in the pages of written history.
It highlights the horror of trench warfare and provides first-hand accounts of how the British infantry tried to stop an enemy tank.
Mephisto is a rare and important example of developing military technology in the early 20th century. As the last surviving German tank from the First World War it will once again be on display at Queensland Museum from November 11, 2018.
Underpants. We tend not to talk about them but they are a fact of life (unless you go commando). Briefs have a fascinating history and are now being transformed by technology, with high-performance undies that claim to do everything from filtering flatulence to emitting soothing vibrations.
The first type of underpant was the loincloth worn by ancient Egyptians. Known as a schenti, it was made from woven materials, commonly cotton and flax, kept in place with a belt. The lower classes and slaves were almost naked, so technically this loincloth was often “outerwear”. But Egyptian art from 1189 BC to 1077 BC in the Valley of the Queens shows pharaohs wearing sheer outer garments, rendering the loincloth a type of underpant.
In Europe, during the Middle Ages (500-1500 AD), underwear consisted of a shirt made of fine linen or cotton for both men and women. A form of underpant returned during the 15th and 16th centuries, when men’s leg-hose were bifurcated (split in two).
To provide extra protection for the male genitalia, a padded codpiece was added. The codpiece also served as a symbol of sexual energy, designed to enhance rather than conceal the genital area.
The arrival of drawers
In the early to mid 19th century, both men and women wore bifurcated drawers with separate legs – a loose type of knee-length trousers suspended from the waist. This simple style of underpant made relieving oneself more manageable, especially if several layers of petticoats or breeches were worn.
Closed crotched underpants for women (pantalettes) emerged in the mid to late 19th century. In 1882, dress reformer Dr Gustave Jaeger argued that wearing natural woollen fibres next to the skin would help disperse bodily poisons by allowing the skin to breathe. He also felt the elasticised qualities of knitted garments were more likely to promote exercise.
Also in the 19th century, the popularity of long-legged trousers for men led to a change in men’s underpants, with hose (long johns) extending to the ankle. These were made of silk for the wealthy and flannel, or later wool, for the masses.
For women in the early 1900s, getting dressed involved multiple layers of undergarments including chemise and drawers followed by a constrictive corset. During the first world war more women undertook physical labour in factories, mines and farms, and thus needed utilitarian garments. The silhouette of outerwear such as loose trousers and boiler suits paved the way for knickers, which women began wearing from around 1916. From the 1920s, the corset was gradually replaced by less restrictive elasticated versions such as the girdle and “step-ins” gradually replaced the corset.
Latex, a rubber yarn introduced in 1930, allowed stretch undergarments to become more figure-hugging. These eventually evolved into underpant styles similar to those worn today. In 1938, after the invention of the synthetic fibre nylon, lightweight easy-to-launder underwear started to appear.
Shorter, crotch-length underpants or trunks for men appeared after 1945. In 1959, a new man-made elastomeric fibre called Lycra™ was invented. Combined with cotton or nylon, it was strong, stretchable and recovered well. The result was more body-conscious underpants for men and women.
In the more permissive 1960s, underpants became briefer for both sexes and the Y-front was largely eliminated from men’s undies. By the 1970s, underpants were virtually seamless. (The thong, or G-string, I would argue, is hard to define as an underpant – its chief popularity seems to be that it offers wearers an invisible pant line.)
With advancements in fibre technologies and knitting manufacturing, underpants today can be as unassuming as a pair of Aussie Bonds briefs, or high-tech with the inclusion of haptic communication.
For instance, Sydney-born, NY-based company Wearable-X has teamed with condom manufacturer Durex to create interactive underwear called Fundawear. Fundawear has a “vibrating touch” that can be transferred from anywhere in the world through a smartphone app. The underwear contains actuators (which are similar to the devices that make smart phones vibrate). Couples wearing it converse via the app, transferring sensations to each other’s undergarments.
Meanwhile, brands Modibodi and Thinx have developed reusable underpants for women menstruating or experiencing incontinence. Manufactured from bamboo, merino wool and microfibre fabrics, the breathable and moisture-wicking layers draw fluids away from the body, securing them in a waterproof outer layer. The fabric technology allows the underpants to be rinsed in cold water, machine-washed and, once dry, ready for reuse. Since launching in 2014, Modibodi has become an Australian market leader for reusable period underwear.
UK brand Shreddies has even developed “flatulence-filtering” underwear for men and women using carbon-absorbing cloth. According to its website, the underwear uses “the same activated carbon material used in chemical warfare suits”. Which is good to know.
Medical underwear for postoperative and postnatal patients is also widely available in Western hospitals providing infection control and wound care.
Advances in material manufacturing, additive fabric coatings and body-centred smart textile applications have the ability to monitor patient physiological conditions and offer personalised care and direct user feedback to medical specialists. Researchers at the University of California have developed a textile-based, printable electrochemical sensor, which has the capacity to be used for a variety of medical and safety applications. The flexible textile sensors, for example, when printed onto the elastic waistband of underpants, can recognise chemical substances secreting from the skin.
Science is adding functions to underwear that could scarcely have been envisaged 50 years ago. The loincloth has come a long way.
However, divorce may not be the price for success, but a remnant of our convict past. Attitudes and ideas outlive generations, meaning misfortunes for successful women could be a symptom of history.
The ‘Oscar curse’: success and divorce
The “Oscar curse” refers to the fact that for a woman winning an Academy Award, it likely means getting a divorce. The same is not true for men. This curse affects other successful women, such as female politicians after they win an election.
In a recent paper, Marianne Bertrand and her co-authors showed, in a representative sample of Americans, that when women started making even just a little bit more money than their husbands, divorce was likely to follow. Women who have the potential to make more money than their husbands, due to their level of education for example, are less likely to be married. When these women do marry, they “act wife” by reducing their hours in the workplace – and their income as a result – and by doing more housework.
Similarly, in Australia, just 60% of men and women disagree with the statement “it is not good for a relationship if the woman earns more than the man”. There is no noticeable difference between men and women, and responses have hardly changed since the HILDA survey first measured these attitudes in 2005. This raises the questions of where such norms come from and why they are so persistent.
Convicts and conservative attitudes
We may have to turn to our past for answers. In a forthcoming paper, for the Review of Economic Studies, Rose Khattar and I show that Australia’s convict past still exercises a strong and pervasive influence on gender norms, marriage and work in the country today.
It is not the presence of convicts that matters, but the drastic distortion in the ratio of men to women that came with it. Convict men outnumbered convict women by roughly six to one. These numbers were even more skewed at the start of settlement. Convicts were joined by free migrants, especially in the second half of the 19th century, whose numbers also skewed heavily male. The ratio of men to women was consistently skewed in favour of males in Australia until the start of the first world war.
We show that in areas of Australia that were more male-biased in the past, people are more likely to hold conservative attitudes towards gender-respective roles at home and in the workplace. In those areas, women today are less likely to work. When they do work, they work fewer hours and are more likely to work part-time rather than full-time.
Probably as a consequence of more conservative attitudes and fewer hours worked, women are less likely to progress to high-ranking occupations. As shown in the graph below, relationships in which women earn more money than their husbands are a rare thing. This is true overall in Australia, but particularly so in areas where the ratio of convict men to convict women was above the median.
In the vast majority of marriages, the husband makes more money than his wife. As shown by Figure 2, as soon a woman’s income starts to exceed a man’s, the likelihood of a relationship – either by divorce or by not getting married in the first place – drops significantly.
This drop is much higher (more than 22%) in areas that were more male-biased in the past (left panel), compared with areas that were more balanced (less than 6% more men) (right panel).
Convicts and the marriage market
While women in areas that were more male-biased do less paid work, they also enjoy more hours of leisure time than women in other parts of the country. Women today in areas that were more male-biased in the past work fewer hours in the workplace, but do not do more at home. Instead, they enjoy more free time.
We suggest this is a holdover from an era in which the marriage market for women among Australia’s European population was imbalanced in favour of women. Given potential female marriage partners were in short supply, women in those areas may have had more negotiating power in the home and used it to enjoy more free time and work less, especially given that the labour market was not very favourable to women in 19th-century Australia.
Such behaviours and attitudes were then transmitted from parents to children, and persist until today.
It is also important to note that these behaviours and attitudes are related only to gender roles at home and in the workplace: we did not find any evidence of elevated misogyny in areas that were more male-biased in the past.
Effects of biased sex ratios, which persist well after sex ratios have returned to their natural level, matter for places with lopsided gender ratios.
There are an estimated 100 million missing women in the world today, for instance, mostly in China and India, as a result of sex-selective abortions and inferior nutrition and care for girls and women. As Australia proves, the consequences of unbalanced societies can last for decades to come, for better or worse.
Ten previously forgotten Aboriginal names for 19th century sites and suburbs of Melbourne have been recently unearthed at the Melbourne Museum. These include the names for Fitzroy (Ngár-go), Richmond (Quo-yung), Collingwood (Yálla-birr-ang) and Brunswick (Bulleke-bek).
These names were in a cache of notes made by Alfred William Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate. His jottings appear to be records of conversations he had sometime between 1897 and 1901 with William Barak, ngurungaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, the traditional owners of what is now northern Melbourne, and Dick Richards, Barak’s fellow Kulin countryman. (The Kulin was an alliance of Aboriginal nations in central Victoria.)
Howitt’s palm-sized, leather bound notebooks, written in his barely legible hand, were not precise or verbatim records of these conversations but aides to memory. Held in the museum since the 1950s as a small part of his extensive collection, they are difficult to decipher and require expert scholarship to decode. Throughout one notebook we can see that Howitt has jotted down Aboriginal names, mostly in the Woiwurrung language once spoken in the Melbourne area, corresponding to landmarks and municipalities that arose in Melbourne town during Barak’s lifetime. (He lived from around 1824 to 1903).
Although there is no accompanying map, these names identify landmarks and perhaps sites of Ancestral stories on land owned by Barak’s clan and beyond. They add some 10 new locality names and further tantalising details to what is already known from other publications.
Fitzroy, for example, the first suburb of Melbourne gazetted in 1839 and the first municipality beyond the Melbourne borders, is listed in Howitt’s notebook as Ngár-go, meaning “high ground”. Although a Woiwurrung name for the Fitzroy area has not been noted before, the records of colonist Daniel Bunce include “N’gorack”, a similar term to describe a “mountain, peak or hill”.
The suburb of Brunswick corresponds to Bulleke bek, a term that appears to include the suffix “bik” meaning “ground/country/place”, although Howitt’s English gloss for this name is difficult to decipher. His handwriting is so tiny and rushed that he appears to have either written “flat country with scattered trees” or “flat country where scott’s work”.
The boundaries of European suburbs or municipalities did not, of course, correspond with the pre-existing Aboriginal conceptions of place. We have to acknowledge that we do not exactly know what Barak and Richards were referring to when they provided Howitt with these terms. Did they refer to areas within a particular clan boundary (usually called an “estate” in anthropological parlance) or were they the names of very specific sites; perhaps a tree, a rock, a bend in the river or a hill? The truth is that in the absence of more precise geospatial information we will never know.
These names do nevertheless add further details to an alternative vision of Australia’s fastest growing metropolis. Some names describe land use or vegetation that have in most cases been eradicated, others are suggestive of ancestral stories.
The term for Collingwood Flat, Yalla-birr-ang, for example, is described as “a very old name” that means “the wooden point of a reed spear”. This may reference the place in a story where an Ancestor fashioned a spear point, or fixed one. To complicate things, though, a very similar term, yallanēbirong, was listed by an earlier ethnographer not as a place name, but as a word for “blanket”.
Indigenous words, phrases and place names have been taken up and used in mainstream Australia since colonisation, but often with a limited appreciation of their nuance or complexity. Universities, for example, are eagerly adopting Indigenous names to furnish their meeting rooms and public spaces. Some local councils are keen to source Indigenous names for new parks, river ways and streets.
And while the recuperation of this material is essential for recognising and acknowledging Indigenous presence (deep into the past and ongoing), interpreting this material is not straight-forward, as linguistic and anthropological literature has shown, especially when it comes from scant archival material.
The Woiwurrung name for “Cathedral”, “Geeburr” in Howitt’s notes is especially intriguing and difficult to decipher. It may refer to the site of one of the two Melbourne Cathedrals that were completed just prior to these conversations taking place. St. Pauls was largely finished in 1891, while St Patricks, situated on the high ground identified as Ngár-go (though further east than the borders of Fitzroy), was consecrated a little later in 1897.
Or, perhaps “Geeburr” is a generic reference to a place recognised as “sacred” by Aboriginal people and not a specific place name at all? The only other name referring to a building rather than a place is the “S.P. Office”, presumably meaning the office of the Superintendent of Police, which Howitt records as “Turrák-gullia arm”.
Place names throw up many linguistic issues that we need to consider in our analysis. Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which could easily confuse European scribes.
Take the name for the River Yarra. In 1876, Robert Brough Smyth recorded the Woiwurrung name for the river as “Birr-arrung”, but failed to tell us from whom or when it was collected. Most Melburnians will now recognise this in the name for the large green-space located nearby to Federation square, Birrarung Marr.
However many years earlier, Rev William Thomas made a sketch map of Aboriginal names for the rivers and creeks in the Yarra valley. He wrote “Yarra Yarra or Paarran” next to the outline of the course of the river. Melbourne still uses a derivative of this word, Prahran, for one of its suburbs, although it is not beside the river.
Edward M. Curr, in his 1887 book The Australian Race, recorded the name for the river as Bay-ray-rung. In fact these four words, Birrarrung, Paarran, Bay-ray-rung and Prahran, are different spellings of the same word. The original word included sounds we can’t write in English, and we cannot be sure of the original pronunciation (as there are no audio recordings of fluent speakers of the Kulin languages). We can at least say though, that this was a place name associated with the river, perhaps related to the word for “mist” or “fog”, that was elsewhere recorded as “boorroong” or “boorr-arrang”.
The more commonly known name “Yarra” however came from surveyor John Helder Wedge, who upon asking a Wathawurrung speaker from the Geelong area what the cascading waters on a lower section of the river were called, exclaimed “Yanna Yanna”, meaning “it flows”. Wedge’s mishearing and misunderstanding became the accepted name of Melbourne’s iconic waterway.
Howitt’s scrambled notes conjure the difficulties of precolonial interaction and cross-cultural understanding in early Melbourne but they also highlight the challenges of post-colonial recognition and adjustment. The faint echoes of the conversations between Richards, Barak and Howitt resonate from the 19th century as the citizens of present day Melbourne wrestle with our colonial heritage.
This research is part of a large multi-institutional project on colonial records involving Aboriginal communities, historians, linguists and anthropologists, led by Deakin University in partnership with Melbourne Museum.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri Council for their assistance in preparing this article. Permission for access and use of any cultural information, language, and place names within this article must be obtained by written approval from the Wurundjeri Council.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
It was a well-kept secret among historians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. Historians wanted to keep the activity low-key because it did not support their idealised view of the Greeks and Romans. Today, however, magic is a legitimate area of scholarly enquiry, providing insights into ancient belief systems as well as cultural and social practices.
While magic was discouraged and sometimes even punished in antiquity, it thrived all the same. Authorities publicly condemned it, but tended to ignore its powerful hold.
Erotic spells were a popular form of magic. Professional magic practitioners charged fees for writing erotic charms, making enchanted dolls (sometimes called poppets), and even directing curses against rivals in love.
Magic is widely attested in archaeological evidence, spell books and literature from both Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Middle East. The Greek Magical Papyri, for example, from Graeco-Roman Egypt, is a large collection of papyri listing spells for many purposes. The collection was compiled from sources dating from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, and includes numerous spells of attraction.
Some spells involve making dolls, which were intended to represent the object of desire (usually a woman who was either unaware or resistant to a would-be admirer). Instructions specified how an erotic doll should be made, what words should be said over it, and where it should be deposited.
Such an object is a form of sympathetic magic; a type of enchantment that operates along the principle of “like affects like”. When enacting sympathetic magic with a doll, the spell-caster believes that whatever action is performed on it – be it physical or psychic – will be transferred to the human it represents.
The best preserved and most notorious magical doll from antiquity, the so-called “Louvre Doll” (4th century AD), depicts a naked female in kneeling position, bound, and pierced with 13 needles. Fashioned from unbaked clay, the doll was found in a terracotta vase in Egypt. The accompanying spell, inscribed on a lead tablet, records the woman’s name as Ptolemais and the man who made the spell, or commissioned a magician to do so, as Sarapammon.
Violent, brutal language
The spells that accompanied such dolls and, indeed, the spells from antiquity on all manner of topics, were not mild in the language and imagery employed. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse. In the spell that comes with the Louvre Doll, the language is both frightening and repellent in a modern context. For example, one part of the spell directed at Ptolemais reads:
Do not allow her to eat, drink, hold out, venture out, or find sleep …
Another part reads:
Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she no longer scorns me …
Such language is hardly indicative of any emotion pertaining to love, or even attraction. Especially when combined with the doll, the spell may strike a modern reader as obsessive (perhaps reminiscent of a stalker or online troll) and even misogynistic. Indeed, rather than seeking love, the intention behind the spell suggests seeking control and domination. Such were the gender and sexual dynamics of antiquity.
But in a masculine world, in which competition in all aspects of life was intense, and the goal of victory was paramount, violent language was typical in spells pertaining to anything from success in a court case to the rigging of a chariot race. Indeed, one theory suggests that the more ferocious the words, the more powerful and effective the spell.
Most ancient evidence attests to men as both professional magical practitioners and their clients. There was a need to be literate to perform most magic (most women were not educated) and to be accessible to clients (most women were not free to receive visitors or have a business). However, some women also engaged in erotic magic (although the sources on this are relatively scarce).
In ancient Athens, for example, a woman was taken to court on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. The trial was recorded in a speech delivered on behalf of the prosecution (dated around 419 BC). It includes the woman’s defence, which stated that she did not intend to poison her husband but to administer a love philtre to reinvigorate the marriage.
The speech, entitled Against the Stepmother for Poisoning by Antiphon, clearly reveals that the Athenians practised and believed in love potions and may suggest that this more subtle form of erotic magic (compared to the casting of spells and the making of enchanted dolls) was the preserve of women.
Desire between women
Within the multiplicity of spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, two deal specifically with female same sex desire. In one of these, a woman by the name of Herais attempts to magically entreat a woman by the name of Serapis. In this spell, dated to the second century AD, the gods Anubis and Hermes are called upon to bring Serapis to Herais and to bind Serapis to her.
In the second spell, dated to the third or fourth century AD, a woman called Sophia seeks out a woman by the name of Gorgonia. This spell, written on a lead tablet, is aggressive in tone; for example:
Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit, with love for Sophia …
Gods and goddesses were regularly summoned in magic. In the spell to attract Serapis, for example, Anubis is included based on his role as the god of the secrets of Egyptian magic. Hermes, a Greek god, was often included because as a messenger god, he was a useful choice in spells that sought contact with someone.
The tendency to combine gods from several cultures was not uncommon in ancient magic, indicative of its eclectic nature and perhaps a form of hedging one’s bets (if one religion’s god won’t listen, one from another belief system may).
Deities with erotic connections were also inscribed on gems to induce attraction. The Greek god of eroticism, Eros was a popular figure to depict on a gemstone, which could then be fashioned into a piece of jewellery.
The numerous erotic spells in antiquity – from potions to dolls to enchanted gems and rituals – not only provide information about magic in the ancient Mediterranean world, but the intricacies and cultural conventions around sexuality and gender.
The rigid system of clearly demarcated gender roles of active (male) and passive (female) partners, based on a patriarchy that championed dominance and success at all costs, underpinned the same societies’ magical practices. Yet it is important to note that even in magic featuring people of the same sex, aggressive language is employed because of the conventions that underlined ancient spells.
Still magic remains, in part, a mystery when it comes to erotic practice and conventions. The two same-sex spells from the Greek Magical Papyri, for example, attest to the reality of erotic desire among ancient women, but do not shed light on whether this type of sexuality was condoned in Roman Egypt. Perhaps such desires were not socially approved; hence the recourse to magic. Perhaps the desires of Sarapammon for Ptolemais were also outside the bounds of acceptability, which led him to the surreptitious and desperate world of magic.