Monthly Archives: July 2013

Worshipping the Sun


A little note during our intense New York heat wave:  it’s much hotter in other parts of the world.  At least one man, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, would have felt quite content with our 100 degree days.

Akhenaten ruled Egypt for seventeen of the most contentious years in Egyptian history (1351-1334 BCE).  He decided to throw out the gods of Egypt, especially the popular god Amun-Re, in favor of the Aten.  The Aten is the disc of the sun, and Akhenaten initiated a program which demanded the worship of this sole god.  It was, arguably, the first time in history that someone undertook such radical, unprompted change.

Akhenaten’s appearance reflected these changes:  exaggerated features which have been explained as medical conditions or simply as having East African features, ambiguous gender, and poses which do not occur earlier in royal art, such as the very human act of kissing his daughter.   Amarna art celebrates exaggeration while also exploring realism in age, human behavior, and body size:  his wife, Nefertiti, can look gloriously beautiful but also aged, women now have heavy legs and hips, his mother, Tiya, is filled with expressive attitude.

But his images of the Aten are always simply the disc of the sun.  Court artists from his new capital, Akhenaten (now known as Amarna) depict him worshiping it or allowing its rays to reach down on him while holding the ankh, the sign for life.   The plurality and multiplicity of divinity is now One:  the sole god, the god who protects Akhenaten, the royal family and the land.  One sizzling hot sun.

Akhenaten’s program didn’t last.   Egypt moves back to its ancestral religion and relegates the Aten to what it was before Akhenaten’s radical movement.  A pharaoh who may or may not have been Akhenaten’s son (Tutankamum) becomes well known for his tomb, and nothing more.  A new dynasty far more recognizable by name (the family of Ramses the Great) will take over Egypt.  Egyptians will attempt to erase Akhenaten’s memory from the earth:  images smashed, texts destroyed, names erased from the record, and the town of Akhenaten razed.

One thing that remains is a poem found in the tomb of one of the Amarna officials, a man named Ay.  Inscribed on its walls in an area far hotter than New York is an ancient praise to the sun, Akhenaten’s Aten.  Read it in today’s intense heat, and remember:  the blazing sun was once worshiped:

You rise beautiful from the horizon on heaven,
living disk, origin of life.
You are arisen from the horizon,
you have filled every land with your beauty.
You are fine, great, radiant, lofty over and above every land.
Your rays bind the lands to the limit of all you have made,
you are the sun, you have reached their limits.
You bind them (for) your beloved son.
You are distant, but your rays are on earth,
You are in their sight, but your movements are hidden.

You rest in the western horizon, and the land is in darkness in the manner of death,
sleepers in chambers, heads covered,
no eye can see its other.
Anything of theirs can be taken from under their heads, they would not know.
Every lion goes out from its den,
every snake bites.
Darkness envelops, the land is in silence, their creator is resting in his horizon.
At daybreak, arisen from the horizon, shining as the disk in day,
you remove the darkness, you grant your rays,
and the two lands are in festival,
awakened and standing on their feet.
You have raised them up, their bodies cleansed, clothing on,
their arms are in adoration at your sunrise.

The entire land carries out its tasks,
every herd rests in its pastures,
trees and plants are sprouting,
birds flying up from their nests,
their wings in adoration for your spirit.
Every flock frolics afoot,
all that fly up and alight,
they live when you have shone for them.
Boats sail north and south too,
every road is opened at your sunrise,
and the fish on the river leap at the sight of you
Your rays penetrate the Great Green.

You who cause the sperm to grow in women,
who turns seed into people,
who causes the son to live in the womb of his mother,
who silences him in stopping him crying.
Nurse in the womb, who gives breath to cause all he has made to live,
when he goes down from the womb to breathe on the day of his birth,
you open his mouth in form,
you make his needs.
When the chick in the egg speaks in the shell,
you give it breath within to cause it to live,
you have made him, he is complete, to break out from the egg,
and he emerges from the egg to speak to his completion,
and walks on his legs, going out from it.

How numerous are your works, though hidden from sight.
Unique god, there is none beside him.
You mould the earth to your wish, you and you alone.
All people, herds and flocks,
All on earth that walk on legs,
All on high that fly with their wings.
And on the foreign lands of Khar and Kush, the land of Egypt
You place every man in his place,
you make what they need,
so that everyone has his food,
his lifespan counted.

Tongues are separated in speech, and forms too –
Their skins are made different,
for you make foreign lands different.

You make a Flood in the underworld, and bring it at your desire
to cause the populace to live, as you made them for you,
lord of all they labour over,
the lord of every land.
Shine for them, O disk of day, great of dignity.
All distant lands, you make them live,
you place a Flood in the sky, to descend for them,
to make waves over the mountains like the Great Green,
to water their fields with their settlements.
How effective they are, your plans, O lord of eternity!
A Flood in the sky for foreigners, for the flocks of every land that go on foot,
and a Flood to come from the underworld for Egypt,
your rays nursing every meadow,
you shine and they live and grow for you.
You make the seasons to nurture all you mae,
winter to cool them,
heat so they may taste you.

You have made the far sky to shine in it,
to see what you make, while you are far, and shining in your form as living disk.
risen, shining, distant, near,
you make millions of forms from yourself, lone one,
cities, towns,. fields, the road of rivers,
every eye sees you in their entry,
you are the disk of day, master of your move,
of the existence of every form,
you create … alone, what you have made.

You are in my heart, there is none other who knows you
beside your son Neferkheperura-sole-one-of-Ra.
You instruct him in your plans, in your strength.
The land comes into being by your action, as you make them,
and when you have shone, they live,
when you rest, they die.
You are lifetime, in your body,
people live by you.
Eyes are on your beauty until you set.
All work is stopped when you set on the west;
shine, and strengthen (all for) the king.
Motion is in every leg, since you founded the earth,
you raise them for your son who come from your body,
the king who lives on Right, lord of the two lands,
son of Ra who lives on Right, lord of Risings,
Akhenaten, great in his lifespan,
and the great king’s wife whom he loves, lady of the two lands,
Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, eternally alive.

(translation of Miriam Lichtheim)

One Hundred and Fifty Years Later

ImageOne hundred and fifty years ago, a good deal of Manhattan was under siege.  The New York Draft Riots were in their second day.   New Yorkers would have locked themselves in their houses, worried that the events of yesterday would continue. 

Those events involved the burning of significant parts of Manhattan, the destruction of the Colored Orphans Asylum, the murder of about 100 innocent black people, and the attack on the homes of both wealthy and anti-slavery New Yorkers.  Mobs of mostly Irish men were protesting the draft, and standing against the threat that the newly freed slaves would bring to their jobs.   They did not want to die for a black man’s freedom, so they killed them in New York streets.

Last night, it rained in New York.  The rain also fell on the first night of the Draft Riots, but the rage continued.  Most of the North was celebrating the Union victory at Gettysburg.  In New York, the veterans of Gettysburg came to put down the riot.  It took weeks, perhaps even decades, to heal the city.

In Florida, families would have been mourning their dead from Gettysburg.  They may have questioned the North as well:  how self righteous of the North to say that the South mistreats its black people when they hunt them down and lynch them in New York!  To burn down an orphan’s asylum showed a deep lack of respect for life, and the slave — even as property — was much better respected…or so they may have thought. 

It is one hundred and fifty years later, and New Yorkers are gathering to mourn a young black man killed in Florida’s streets, as the man who took his life was found “not guilty”.   Just as those black New Yorkers were doing nothing but walking around one hundred and fifty years ago in the wrong place at the wrong time, Trayvon Martin was walking around and doing nothing, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

We will never know exactly what happened on the night Trayvon Martin was killed, but I would like to think that those black men murdered on New York’s streets one hundred and fifty years ago may have thought that, riding on the victory of Gettysburg, we would see a restored Union based on freedom and basic human rights.  And this Union would include Florida, and in Florida, or in any state for that matter, a black man could live without fear. 

They must have thought it would be better one hundred and fifty years later.


The Rebel Yell

The Rebel Yell


It was psychologically overwhelming to hear the Rebel Yell on the battlefield.  Here is a wonderful clip showing Civil War veterans remembering the call to battle! Click link

Why We’re Not Studying the Civil War


Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the battle which turned the tide of the Civil War…or the War Between the States.  Here, in New York City, there is no feeling that the war ever happened.  We sent our troops to fight for the Union, and many of them marched on New York a few weeks after Gettysburg to put down our Draft Riots.  Most of what stood during the Draft Riots of 1863 is no longer standing, including the entire neighborhood of Five Points.   Incidentally, I bet that most New Yorkers don’t even know about the Draft Riots unless they watched the movie Gangs of New York.

Most Americans don’t know the details of the Civil War.  They know it happened, that the South lost, that slavery is bad, and that Lincoln was President and was assassinated sometime around the Civil War..maybe during?  maybe after?  Southerners still like to wave Confederate flags, this we hear in the news.  The Civil War was the war which defined the United States of America.  This is the war which we are still, in many cases, fighting.  Why don’t we study it more intensely?  Here are some thoughts:

– We are still passionately concerned about the rights of the states versus a centralized government.  The Civil War, like no other event before, brought these concerns to the table.  That the concerns turned into secession is a frightening reality to face, and one best kept in remote history.  We like to think that history does not repeat itself, so it’s better not to teach it.

-The South seceded and the South was armed.  Soldiers brought their own guns and Bowie knives to the field.  We laugh about this up North.  We also make statements about gun control which anger Southerners, and we mock Southerners who are arming themselves for the next Civil War.

-Southerners do this because the war never ended for them.  One still feels the reverberations of Sherman’s march in the South, and Southerners still feel the sting of having been invaded.  To walk in the south is to walk through the Civil War, where every town has its remembered heroes and open fields were once battle grounds.  For many, history should be facts to be repeated, and not living realities.

-Paula Dean.  We have not learned the parameters of respect.  And considering that those genteel Yankees set a targeted fire to a Colored Orphanage during the Draft Riots, we also had our issues with respect up here.

– This is a complex war.  Robert E. Lee opposed slavery yet led the South.  Abraham Lincoln did not want to end slavery initially. We like very clear answers, not complexity which may, gods forbid, result in discussion and not ready test answers.  This type of thinking may pull down a  hero or two and expose them as complex human beings.

-We have class issues.  During the drafts, the poor were pulled in to fight, whereas the rich could buy their way out. Divisions of class were very evident to the soldiers, just as divisions of class are very evident today.

-Americans, both Yankee and Rebel, have an affinity for showing the atrocities of other nations but not the atrocities committed here.  American slavery was one of the most brutal systems of slavery the world has ever seen. Nat Turner massacred white men, women, and children because he felt that a bloody revolt was the necessary path.  John Brown also felt this way.  He and his followers pulled slavery-supporting men from their beds, leaving their wives and children to find their murdered bodies in the morning on the lawn.  Sherman’s march was total war:  a scorched earth terror campaign.  Terrorist acts were quite common on both sides.

So, think about Bloody July this year and all those who died 150 years ago.  I’m willing to assert that every soldier who served felt that no one would forget the Civil War, regardless of whether they lived or died.  It would be “one for the history books” ….books which no longer exist, at least in most New York City Public Schools.