23 April 2013

The Magic of "The Anubis Gates"

Cover of the 1997 edition,
via Goodreads.
A few weeks ago, my Readings in the Genre: Fantasy Classics class at Seton Hill University recently completed a unit on Tim Powers' marvelously unique The Anubis Gates. Because I have difficulty even describing this book to other people, here's how Amazon.com Reviews describes it:
Author Tim Powers evokes 17th-century England with a combination of meticulously researched historic detail and imaginative flights in this sci-fi tale of time travel. [...] The colonization of Egypt by western European powers is the launch point for power plays and machinations. Steeping together in this time-warp stew are such characters as an unassuming Coleridge scholar, ancient gods, wizards, the Knights Templar, werewolves, and other quasi-mortals, all wrapped in the organizing fabric of Egyptian mythology. In the best of fantasy traditions, the reluctant heroes fight for survival against an evil that lurks beneath the surface of their everyday lives.
The book is really nothing like I've ever read before. I enjoyed it, but it's also loaded with a lot of detail, and it's not something you can speed-read by any means. A few of my classmates had trouble wading through some of it, especially the magic systems. Luckily enough, though, doing research for my own novel allowed me to recognize and understand why Tim Powers made the choices he did. Honestly, if it wasn't for what I learned while writing my own story, I wouldn't have been able to connect the dots so easily. Here's my class essay, word-for-word. My book response ended up being one of my most popular school posts, with a lot of supportive comments. My favorite:

We definitely need a like button. This is fantastic  Kristina. Powers should add this as an appendix to his book so that it can all make more sense. You explained beautifully the way all the magic works and how all the Egyptian (or almost Egyptian for the Roma) all tie together. You descriptions are clear and logical and really help me understand the book better. Well done!

Without further ado, let's talk about The Anubis Gates and its powerful magic.


I'm going to go into the magic systems for The Anubis Gates, because it touched me on a very personal level. My graduate thesis, The Name and the Key, deals with Roma myth and magic, as well as alchemy (in fact, some of  The Anubis Gates gave me a heart attack from unintentional similarities to my book). I've also visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art many times while growing up, and our favorite section was the Egyptian wing, which features The Temple of Dendur and pages from the Book of the Dead, among many, many, many other things. We were obsessed with Egypt when we were children so I feel like I've got a good grasp on that mythos.  And now onto the book!

A popular representation of the gypsy.
But does it truly represent the Roma?

French postcard,
La Femme avec un Tambourin, circa 1910
When it comes to the author's treatment of the Roma, I have mixed feelings about it. There are two stereotypes of the Roma--the bohemian, magical, mysterious gypsy, and on the other end of the spectrum, the gypsies who are criminal kings and thieves and murders. There never seems to be any middle ground between the two when it comes to the literary treatment of the Roma.

So, first things first: "Gypsy" is a misnomer for the Roma, who also consider it insulting to be referred to in such a way. It was mistakenly believed that the Roma came from Egypt, hence the creation of the word, "gypsies." (Think of it like Native Americans who are referred to as Indians when Columbus thought he crossed the Indian Ocean).  Research shows that the Roma most likely originated in India and Pakistan, based on certain genetic qualifiers, folk and religious beliefs,  and linguistic ties (many of their words connect to Sanskrit).

Now, Tim Powers wrote this in 1983, so it's not like genetics could've determined the origination of the Roma, but as early as 200 years ago, scholars already made the connection that the Roma came from the Indian subcontinent. So Powers should've known that the Roma culture would be based off of Indian culture rather than Egyptian.

But you can see why it's appealing to use the gypsies in the novel as 'Gyptians--that's making a theme come full circle, and it would explain why the gypsies would have anything to do with Dr. Romany and his plans. The Roma also have a reputation for being a superstitious and magical people, so that also works well for this book.

Some stuff I do know right off the bat--when the gypsies in Powers book flip in and out of their language, the words Powers uses is accurate. Even small details like hotchi-witchie (hedgehog) help round out the representation of their culture. And when magic is concerned, creatures like the yags also have ties to Roma language (yag means fire).

So here's the thing. Powers took some creative license with Roma culture in order to make clear ties to the Egyptian mythology. That's why I think Powers chose to use the misnomer "gypsy" and only refer to the Roma properly when explaining the origin of Dr. Romany's name. If Powers referred to his gypsies as Roma, then he'd have to do a true representation of that race, which means, no ties to Egypt. And since "gypsy" also refers to the stereotype of the Roma, he can have more creative license there, too. Shady underworld? Check. Actual magic? Check.

Let's hop on over to alchemy, then. This isn't mentioned directly in the novel very often, but it does have a presence in the book.  In the opening magic spell, where Fikee tries to bring Anubis to life but it backfires (notice how Fikee howls at the moon like a jackal, which is the head of Anubis), some of the writing on the magic tools aren't just hieroglyphics, but they are alchemical symbols as well, though there isn't much detail as to what they are, exactly.

The Tabula Smaragdina
Alchemy engraving by Matthäus Merian, 1618
Alchemy did lay some of the foundations of today's modern science. Alchemical symbols did reference actual substances, like silver, gold, salt, mercury, and sulfur, but also the elements earth, air, fire, and water. And the alchemical processes (sublimation, calcination, etc.) have symbols attributed to the planets. If you've ever heard the phrase As Above, So Below, it's another way of referring to the principle of the All and the One. So things like space, time, the universe, whatever…all of it is connected. Which could account for the union of magic and science in The Anubis Gates, since alchemy also consists of magic and science. It's also a magical connection to time travel employed in the book, since alchemy is a system of patterns and repetition--the time gaps are part of a pattern, for example, and since time is simply a part of the All and One, technically anything could be possible.

And how does alchemy tie into Egypt? The basic fundamental principles of alchemy (including As Above, So Below), the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, and the secret of transmutation, were inscribed on the Emerald Tablet (Tabula Smaragdina), which is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, or the Thrice-Great Hermes. Hermes Trismegistus is another representation of the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth holds in his hand the ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life, and the goal of the alchemist was eternal life through the creation of the Philosopher's Stone.

Elixir da Longa Vida Alquimia
The Elixir of Life, from
 J.D. Mylius' Anatomia Auri, 1628
Another thing tied to alchemy are homunculi, which is what Powers refers to as the Spoonsize Boys. Homunculus, meaning "little human," refers to an artificially-made human being. Often they were considered to be tiny, but the term evolved to become an equivalent to any artificial human (like a Golem). Paracelsus, one of the greatest contributors to alchemy, believed that homunculi existed in human sperm, and to harvest the homunculi to become a live being, it had to live in a state of incubation (in a flask, for example) and undergo the "putrefaction" stage of the alchemical process…as well as being fed human blood. Then the homunculus could be brought to life.

If you notice now, the similarity of the creation of the homunculus also matches the creation of the ka in The Anubis Gates. I tried to look up the term "paut," which is the book's name of the substance before it becomes a homunculus or ka, and the only thing that remotely works for that word choice is that it's a Scottish word meaning "to rise and walk around slowly." Other than that, paut doesn't seem to be a real word or alchemical concoction.

Ka statue of Hor Awriba
from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo
Since we know what a homunculus is already, let's tie it to the "ka." Ka were depicted on many of the mummy caskets and funerary art when Egyptians died and were entombed. The Ka reflects a mirror image of the deceased person, but it refers to the life essence or soul within a human being. If the Ka left the body, then the human died. It was believed that the Ka was made from the breath of the Gods, given to a person right at the time of birth so they could have a soul.

In The Anubis Gates, the ka is really a homunculus, but because the ka is a spiritual double of a human being, it would account for the creation of a homunculus that looked exactly like its blood source.

Other random tie-ins to the Roma or Egypt or alchemy:

Werewolf.  The inclusion of the werewolf plot may seem totally random, but if you remember, the curse to bring Anubis to life fired back on Fikee. Anubis is a jackal, or dog. And since he's called Dog-Face Joe as opposed to the Wolfman, we can assume Fikee's appearance takes after the jackal more than it does a wolf. So that's the tie to Egypt. The tie to the Roma? The curse of the werewolf has been attributed to gypsies forever (thanks, Hollywood!). And lastly, the link to alchemy? Transmutation.
Elementals. I already mentioned the "yag" which was the Roma word for fire, and Powers used this as the name for the Fire Elementals. It's later confirmed that there are other Elementals as well. Hermes Trismegistus named the four elements in the Kore Kasmou. If you recall, Hermes Trismegistus is the Egyptian god Thoth. Hermes Trismegistus originated the principles of alchemy. And centuries later, one of the fathers of alchemy, Paracelsus, developed the idea of an Elemental Being: the Gnome (Earth), the Salamander (Fire), the Sylph (Air), and Undine (Water).

My thesis relies heavily on Roma culture and alchemy for its own magic system, which is why I thought I'd share with you what I've learned from researching it for my own novel. It may seem random at first, but The Anubis Gates magic system is very cleverly interconnected.

So, this is pretty amazing:

Why I'm floored--the director is Ruth Pe Palileo of Current Theatrics, and she's referring to the cast of The Anubis Gates World Stage Premiere, which debuted the stage adaptation of The Anubis Gates in London for August 2014. WOW!

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