Monday, August 16, 2010

Theological analysis of Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids (The Discworld Series, book 7)


Jewish date:  6 ’Elul 5770 (Parashath Ki-Theṣe’).

Today’s holidays:  Nag Panchami (Hinduism), Feast Day of Stephen of Hungary (Roman Catholicism), Solarinite Day (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy causes of the day:  “Take Action: Tell President Obama: Make Our Food Safe NOW!”, “GOP: Stop Punishing the Unemployed - The Petition Site”, and “Save the Internet: Take Action!:  Dear Chairman Genachowski: Don't Let Google Be Evil”.

Note:  My trip to Israel begins tomorrow afternoon.  Expect posting disruptions and (YHWH willing) cool pictures of places in Israel.

PyramidsTopic 1:  Theological analysis of Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids (The Discworld Series, book 7):


Pyramids is aptly titled, as pyramids really are one of main focuses of this book in two of their aspects.  The first aspect of pyramids is their being the tombs of dead kings, in this case of the Discworld kingdom of Djelibeybi, which corresponds with ancient Egypt.  Djelibeybi has a very extensive necropolis of the pyramids and monuments of all its previous rulers.  In each of the pyramids lies the mummy of a ruler, the later ones preserved in something close to Egyptian fashion:  with the brain and internal organs removed and pickled in jars and the empty body embalmed.  Laying the mummy in its pyramid, along with models of the necessities of life, is supposed to give it a good afterlife.  The other aspect of pyramids which shows up melded with the first aspect is the New Age concept that pyramids have occult powers, including the (flakey) idea that pyramids can sharpen razor blades.  The pyramids of Djelibeybi are nothing so trivial; their pyramids are magical devices which can stop the flow of time (or at least some “arrows of time”) and flare off accumulated new time from the top periodically in something akin to lightning.  The original point of pyramids is to stop time therein so that the entombed king never dies.  Real mummification is a later development.

Other aspects of ancient Egyptian religion are reflected in Djelibeybi.  The inhabitants are polytheists, worshipping various animal-headed gods.  Notably the sky is a goddess, and much emphasis is placed on the Sun and its movements across the sky.  The king is considered a living god, sacred in his person, and somehow responsible for making the Sun rise each day.  There is also a priesthood, headed by the high priest Dios.  “Dios” is a rather strange name for a priest, meaning “god” in Spanish, but it fits his character.  He has been around for as long as anyone can remember, is opposed to changing anything ever, and effectively rules Djelibeybi with a proverbial iron hand, even creatively interpreting the commands of the king to mean what he wants them to mean.

Curiously, the Djelibeybi religion is intrinsically inconsistent.  Now, it is common enough for real people to have not thought things through enough or not to know enough and thus to not realize that some of their beliefs are in conflict.  However, there are blatant inconsistencies in the Djelibeybi religion which even fairly dull people can recognize are contradictions.  E.g., it is not possible for the Sun to be rolled across the sky by a giant dung beetle and to be a boat and to be a hole in the sky and to be a flaming ball of gas orbiting the Disc.  What usually happens in real religions is that when conflicting beliefs are noted, some way is found to harmonize them.  E.g., conflicting beliefs may be things which are possibly true, or they may each be in some aspect true.  However, occasionally there are individuals who are not that wise and thus embrace contradiction.

All of this interacts to create the two major problems of the plot.  The easy one to understand is that the new king, Teppicymon XXVIII (“Teppic” for short), is highly displeased with Dios effectively countermanding his orders, including ordering the execution of the handmaiden Ptraci for refusing to voluntarily be buried with the old king and Teppic’s father Teppicymon XXVII.  Despite Teppic being a recent graduate of the school of the Assassin’s Guild, he has enough of a conscience to try to work against Dios underhandedly and effectively become an outlaw in his own kingdom in order to save Ptraci.  (To be fair, members of the Assassin’s Guild are supposed to kill only for large sums of money, and Dios is not paying Teppic anything.  And, yes, killing only for money is a rather strange concept of morality.  On the other hand, the Discworld pokes fun at a lot of the really nutty things that real people do and believe.  In our world, we have the no less bizarre notion of regulating warfare, which in turn is perverted by failing to apply the standards in anything resembling a fair manner.  But I digress.)

The other major problem is wholly due to the construction of the pyramid of Teppicymon XXVII.  This is the largest pyramid ever constructed in Djelibeybi, and with its construction come bizarre magical effects.  Pyramids, as noted, have magical effects on time, and effects are felt even before the pyramid is finished.  The Ptacslup clan who build it and their workers are frequently “looped back”, so they may be effectively present in multiple places at the same time, enabling them to do the job in a matter of days.  Flaring begins before the capstone can be put into place, and when two of the Ptacslups try to hurriedly manhandle it into place, all of Djelibeybi is rotated 90° through another dimension away from the rest of the Discworld, effectively isolating it.  (The effect is done in a way which shows that Pratchett really has not quite gotten the hang of four-dimensional geometry, but since this Divine Misconceptions and not Scientific Misconceptions or Mathematical Misconceptions, I will let it slide.)

Now, remember that on the Discworld belief changes reality.  While Djelibeybi is part of the Discworld, the beliefs of everyone on the Discworld go into creating reality.  But after the isolation, the belief system of the Djelibeybi religion takes over, unimpeded by the beliefs of other people.  But the Djelibeybi religion is inconsistent, which contradicts a principle that most of us take for granted:  reality is always self-consistent.  As much of the Djelibeybi belief system as possible is manifested, but the result in chaotic.  All of the sudden, gods who are supposed to be fulfilling the same function are fighting each other, including multiple Sun gods fighting over the Sun so that it gets tossed all over the sky.  Even worse, these gods are fairly stupid and ignore humans, causing a lot of damage wherever they go.  This is not what the gods are supposed to be like, suggesting that a lot of people in Djelibeybi, while believing in their gods’ existence, give little thought to their gods having minds and personalities or caring about humans; instead, they are just indefinite, uncaring powers.  All this is a shock for the priests, especially Dios.  Dios invented these gods and the entire religion of Djelibeybi in the first place, and he is at a loss at what to do.

A much stronger belief is in the afterlife for kings.  Now, in the Discworld people survive after death in according to their beliefs, so it should be no surprise that Teppicymon XXVII survives as a ghost to watch his mummification in grisly detail.  After the isolation of Djelibeybi, however, the belief in the mummy as the physical form of the deceased king took hold, and his mummified remains become his actual physical form.  Teppicymon XXVII quickly realizes that what has happened to him is probably happening to every other mummy in Djelibeybi.  He enlists two embalmers, and the three of them set out to free the other mummies.  Indeed, every pyramid contains an active mummy, many expressing a hatred for pyramids.  (You just try lying in a casket for 1,000 years.  You would probably hate it, too.)  But there is one exception to this rule:  one small, extremely primitive pyramid.  This pyramid is empty, and enough aspects of time run backwards in it for a lit torch to unburn.  (The amount of fuel increases rather than decreases.)

The plot resolves with three different groups converging:  1) the mummies and the embalmers, 2) the priests, who really have no idea how to handle the situation, but are still determined to do something anyway, and 3) Teppic.  Teppic, with the help of the mummies, manages to get his father’s pyramid capped, causing a huge flare.  Besides a lot of pyrotechnics, most of the pyramids are destroyed, the mummies fall into water and are dissolved (thus sparing them the horrors of eternal life), Dios disappears, the gods of Djelibeybi disappear, and Djelibeybi drops back into the Discworld.  Teppic abdicates in favor of Ptraci, who it turns out is his half-sister.  But then, at their last scene together, Ptraci demands that he not leave and ends up snogging him.  (I know:  EW!)  I am well aware that the ancient Egyptian royalty (and gods) had a thing for incest, but I am left wishing for something other than historical accuracy on this point and hope this pairing does not recur later in the series.  We also learn what happens to Dios:  he is blown right back to the beginning of Djelibeybi history, to found the kingdom.  His life history is circular, without beginning or end, and he never ages, due to his pyramid.  Appropriately, the symbol on his staff is the ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail and thus a kind of circle.

Also:  All rulers of Djelibeybi have a dream about seven fat cows and seven thin cows.  This should be familiar to anyone with a decent knowledge of Genesis as one of the two dreams of Par‘oh (Pharaoh) interpreted by Yosef (Joseph), though in that dream no cows were doing anything silly (unless one considers cannibalism silly).  Descriptions of Djelibeybi as “a land flowing with milk and honey” are less appropriate, since that description normally applies to Israel; it is only applied to Egypt once, by Jews dissatisfied with life in the Desert.

Also:  Djelibeybi lies between two powers, Ephebe and Tsort.  Once Djelibeybi disappears, these two countries decide to go to war, more out of principle rather than any real cause.  However, they base their tactics on what happened in a previous era, and both sides build giant wooden horses, which their soldiers hide in.  (Shades of the Trojan War.)  Fortunately, Djelibeybi reappears before anything actually happens.

Also, and finally:  I am well aware what the name “Djelibeybi” plays on.  I have seen more than enough Doctor Who to know that.

Next up:  Probably The White Goddess by Robert Graves.  This work is famous for having influenced the Neopagan movement and infamous for historical inaccuracy.  Though I have a ways to go in it, I am so far dissatisfied with the quality of its scholarship to the point that I am likely to title the review “I spit on Robert Graves”.  (Thanks to Barry for devising that title, intended for a nonexistent movie.)

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor: “Puff, the Kosher Dragon”.  This is a song which goes at least far back as my childhood.  There is also an audio version (RealPlayer required).  And, for the record, dragons are not suitable for food according to Jewish law; Puff is kasher in the sense of eating kasher food and being Torah-observant.


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