A lecture hall in north central Florida isn’t a cinch to be a popular sanctuary at the height of summer, but for six sweltering weeks, CLA 3160 was the longest, most excellent educational concert on the planet.
The first day of class, our teacher’s clip-on lapel microphone was busted. Screaming the unpronounceable monikers of ancient metropoli over 200 students’ chatter is never an option for timid classics professors.
After a few tedious minutes of watching the teacher’s assistant fiddle with the equipment, the prof picked up the antiquated hand-held microphone and apologized for the delay. Sixty seconds later, the TA fixed the lapel mic and all was roses. “I would have liked to use the other microphone,” Prof. Wagman said, “because it makes me feel like a rockstar.”
Imagine that statement in a thick Greek-Italian accent, a glossal combination that comes out sounding like a passable Bela Lugosi impression, despite Wagman’s obvious lack of Transylvanian experiences. It took a few days for my ears to cut through the exotic tone and actually understand (almost) every word he uttered, but deciphering his quirky patois was it’s own reward. Plus, my grade depended upon it.
Having spent too many high school world history classes listening to Leonard Nimoy narrate Discovery Channel documentaries about pyramids and various pharaohs, I was more than excited to delve deeper with Wagman’s instruction.
Lesson one: How to get to Egypt. “In case you don’t know, we are here,” he said as he pointed to Florida on a big world map projected on the screen at the front of the room. “If you swim across the Atlantic and pass Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, you’ll eventually take a right at the Nile Delta and you are in Egypt!” Thank you, Captain Obvious.
Soon enough, to my relief, he began revealing details about everyday life around the Nile that the documentaries left out. “The ancient Egyptians (which came out “oncient A-gyptians”) grew a lot of lettuce because they believed it to be an aphrodisiac,” he said. “And the rats were so big that they used dogs to hunt them.” And New Yorkers think they have it bad.
Wagman promised that every Friday would be dedicated to hieroglyphics. The first word we learned was “brother” and the second was “kiss” since only one symbol separated the two different meanings. “The nose glyph is the determinative for the word ‘kiss’ because the A-gyptians kissed like Eskimos,” he explained. “But they were not fools, the also kissed like we do.” Later, as part of a quiz, one sentence we had to decipher translated into “The lord loves the ladies.”
Our next discussion focussed on early pre-dynastic culture, the dates on the artifacts of which are determined through the appearance of certain styles of pottery. “This method of dating was developed by Sir W.M.. Flinders Petrie,” the prof said. “He liked to live in a tomb where he worked and he often excavated in his underwear.” Archaeologists can be a cheeky bunch.
One day, Wagman presented the class with the kind of material most of us were already familiar with: mummy movies. After displaying some cheeseball old school monster movie posters and screening the trailer for The Mummy Returns, Wagman said, “As you can see, Egyptology is where it’s at.” There really was a Scorpion King, but I’m pretty sure the Egyptian gods never had The Rock in mind.
Wagman spent half a class showing off his vacation photos from when he visited the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. He told us about hiking with donkeys and camels and everything else I dream of doing when I grow up.
After reading as much of The Iliad as I deemed essential and visualizing the slew of wonky Greek gods flying around and meddling with fate and history, I didn’t think theology could get any weirder. Then Wagman told us the legend behind mummification.
Osiris, god of the underworld, had a mischievous brother, Seth. Seth was the kind of guy who would loosen the screws on your chariot’s axle and then laugh at the resulting crash. One time, Seth invited Osiris over for dinner and showed off his awesome new sarcophagus. He asked Osiris to climb in and give it a try, but as soon as he obliged, Seth locked him in and tried to bury him alive.
Seth eventually managed to cut Osiris into thousands of tiny pieces (thus explaining why Egyptian priests dissected mummies) and threw them into the Nile. Isis (Osiris’ wife and goddess of justice), who was less than amused, spent a long time gathering up all the pieces and eventually “sewed” Osiris back up with magic. After that, Osiris decided surface life was no good, so he retired to the underworld, where he watches over the proper passage of deceased pharaohs to this day.
“That Osiris,” Wagman said, “He’s a good god, but kind of dumb.”
The coolest lesson Wagman taught me was to pay attention to Zahi Hawass. He’s the enthusiastic white-haired Egyptian guy you see on all those National Geographic documentaries. He’s the curator of the Giza pyramids and has compiled several fascinating coffee-table books on Egypt’s treasures. He recently gave King Tut an MRI and it seems like he digs up a new mummy every month. Prof. Hawass is the Elvis of Egyptology.
The day I turned on a new pyramid documentary (this time narrated by Omar Sharif!) and didn’t learn anything new, I said to myself, “You’re the biggest nerd who ever lived.” Then I thought of my professor and realized I’ve got a long way to go. But I’m working on it.