Face to face with history
By Janna Silverstein
One of the things that strikes any visitor to Egypt is how the ancient and the modern exist cheek by jowl. When I visited in 1997, I witnessed a phenomenon I’ve experienced myself as the resident of a historic place, in my case, New York City: after a while the wonder of that history becomes simply a part of everyday life. Daily exposure means that it’s not especially wondrous after a while; it’s just a fact, like the historic church you pass by on your way to work (I’m thinking of Trinity Church in Manhattan) or the landscape-dominating volcano on the horizon (Mt. Rainier south of Seattle, where I live now).
When Aaron Rosenberg asked me if I might like to submit a story for the ReDeus universe, the first thing I thought of was that impression I had of Egypt. People go to their jobs as plumbers, grocers, bankers, and computer engineers, and they don’t think about the history that’s in the very air they breathe. I thought about how, ten years after 9/11, though people were marked by the trauma, life went on in New York City. People lived with the change, adjusted to it, and some adapted in resilient or even opportunistic ways. I decided that I wanted to write a more personal story about living in a world where deities had returned, inflicted trauma, but many lives went on only marginally touched by the event—until they couldn’t avoid it. I wanted to write about how one woman who didn’t believe in gods found herself with a husband who did, and how she got caught up in events that she couldn’t begin to understand. For Ellie and Kamal, the two protagonists in my story “In the House of Osiris,” it all hits at once, like a train hitting a wall.
Ancient Egypt and its rather astonishing pantheon has been an interest of mine since childhood. It’s a mythology that I know at least as well if not better than the Greek and Roman stories that most Western kids are exposed to through literature and history classes. Unlike those pantheons, ancient Egyptian mythology is filled with animal-headed gods who almost never intercede into common lives; they are remote, except at death, when no one can avoid one key encounter—entry into the afterlife. But the stories in the ReDeus universe are all about godly intervention into human life. I decided that I wanted to convey the strangeness of the Egyptian gods in the most intimate way possible, a close encounter that would change one character’s perspective irrevocably. The question then became, which god or gods might suit that purpose?
I decided that though he was primary in the Egyptian hierarchy in the New Kingdom period, Amun-Ra was too remote, too big to tackle. I decided instead to focus on the triangle of Osiris, Isis, and Set. The story of Osiris and Isis is one of love, death and resurrection; Isis is kind of a bad-ass, willing and determined to save her lover at any cost. Set is a god of chaos with violent tendencies. In my story, he’s the troublemaker. He’s not especially interested in consequences; I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word, so some of the history in the background of my story is rather open-ended. In a country that was successful in throwing off a strong man who governed with an iron fist for decades, throwing off powerful gods is a different story altogether. In a country where women still fight for their independence and equality, Isis the protector, the patron of maidens and mothers, would be a powerful symbol. The ancient story of Osiris’ murder and dismemberment at the hands of Set and his rescue by Isis becomes the pattern of Ellie and Kamal’s journey—with something of a modern twist about it.
Which brings me back to my original inspiration: this idea that living in a historic place becomes common with time and exposure. In the world of ReDeus, in Ellie and Kamal’s world, people can try to live as if history is just part of the scenery, unremarkable and unremarked. The trouble is that history will come and find you. And it will make you pay attention.
ReDeus: Beyond Borders will be available in print and digital formats in late May.