Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Ushabtis I have Known
We're moving our way through Story of the World: Ancient Times right now, which means that we're reading about places like Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt, tracing our way somewhat lightly through battles with kings and pharaohs and warring tribes, dynasties on their way up, dynasties on their way down, and lots of folk tales, with the odd Amazing Discovery (Silk! the Wheel! Copper!) thrown in for good measure. My kids love history. I love history. It's engrossing, it's full of intrigue, it can be funny, and (for me, anyhow) it shows how little we differ from people of old: we worry about similar things, we want our basic comforts, we think about how the world will be after we're dead, and we pursue the things that interest us.
I like the similarities in each area we study, too. One of the most striking things for me has been the proximity of river to settlement. Babylon had the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Egypt had the Nile, India had the Indus, and China had the Yellow River Valley. It's an obvious essential - fresh water - but I like the symmetry all the same. The pantheon of gods was similar, too: gods of harvest, gods of rain, gods of birth and death, gods of protection. All the variables Out There before the days of meteorologists, obstetricians, supermarkets and deep freezes. It reminded me of an incident at the end of our last read aloud: Little House on the Prairie (a lesson in self sufficiency if there ever was one), when the Ingalls family had to move from their homestead because of Indian Land Allotment issues. They ride off into the sunset and come across a couple who have had their horses stolen by rustlers. The couple are sitting dejectedly by their horseless wagon, and despite the entreaties of the Ingalls' they refuse to budge. As the Ingalls ride away, Pa remarks to Ma that the couple were silly to be without what he considered to be essentials of the homesteader: chains for the horses (so no one could rustle them in the night) and a big dog (ditto). They had no business wandering around out there, in his mind, without the necessary items for their own survival.
Sometimes I get mixed up with my gods and monsters, but the kids, never. Today I quizzed them on some of the stuff we've studied so far, asking questions like What does the word canopic refer to? What organ didn't go into one? or Who was Sobek? or What was the symbol for protection, said to come from Horus? And finally, What were ushabtis for? At this, the kids all scrambled for our handy dandy diorama, a cereal box we converted last week to an ancient Egyptian tomb, inspired by Egyptian Reno World (Wednesdays at 8 on HGTVBC). It's full of ushabtis, or clay figures Egyptian craftsmen made for the tombs of the pharaohs, there as workers to till the fields in the afterlife so that the pharaoh never need work. The idea of an eternal slave really caught the imagination of Max, who, at age 10, is deeply feeling his position as Cleaner of the Downstairs Bathroom. So when we decided to build a diorama, I asked him to make the ushabtis, and he did this with enormous zest, no doubt channeling his own frustrated ambitions into these small statues ("clean the bathroom for me!" "Don't forget the breakfast dishes!"). I tell him a little hard work never killed anyone, but I don't think he's convinced. He's remembering Little House in his own way.