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spacefaring dino
ann_leckie
Sometimes, when I'm reading old, translated stuff--I mean, really old, not just a hundred years but a couple of thousand--I run across moments when something rings really true or real. And usually I just go, "Huh, cool." But sometimes they make me scratch my head a bit.

Right now I'm reading translated Egyptian stuff. And one of the things I read recently was Egyptian Tales Translated from the Papyri. There's a story in there that's set at the time of Khufu (as in the great pyramid of) but was pretty obviously written a good deal later. We don't have all of it, but it starts out, Pharaoh wants to hear stories of magic, and various people step up and oblige. They're all set in Khufu's past, but one of Pharaoh's sons says he's got one that's amazing and the magician is still alive! Khufu is impressed enough to summon this magician, who, it's said, can restore the dead to life.

"Wherefore is it, Dedi, that I have not yet seen thee?"

And Dedi answered, "He who is called it is that comes; the king (life, wealth, and health) calls me, and behold I come,"

And his majesty said, "Is it true, that which men say, that thou canst restore the head which is smitten off?"

And Dedi replied, "Truly, I know that, O king (life, wealth, and health), my lord."

And his majesty said, "Let one bring me a prisoner who is in prison, that his punishment may be fulfilled."

And Dedi said, "Let it not be a man, O king, my lord; behold we do not even thus to our cattle." And a duck was brought unto him, and its head was cut off. And the duck was laid on the west side of the hall, and its head on the east side of the hall. And Dedi spake his magic speech. And the duck fluttered along the ground, and its head came likewise; and when it had come part to part the duck stood and quacked. And they brought likewise a goose before him, and he did even so unto it. His majesty caused an ox to be brought, and its head cast on the ground. And Dedi spake his magic speech. And the ox stood upright behind him, and followed him with his halter trailing on the ground.


That "Wherefore is it" exchange at the beginning I could have cut off, but I find it amusing. "Why haven't I seen you before?" asks the king, and Dedi says, as politely as possible, "Well, you never asked for me until now!"

But the head scratchy thing is the business with the duck. Pharaoh, quite understandably, suggests using a condemned man for the experiment. Dedi refuses. Not humans! His reason convinces Pharaoh, but it doesn't really make sense if Dedi is actually bringing things back to life.

This is the moment where this scene suddenly rang true to me--Dedi is a fake. That duck and pig and ox really died--they had to for the trick. Kill a duck and who knows one duck from another? Dedi has a confederate somewhere who's assisting him with his stage magic, but the whole thing will be over if he tries to substitute one recognizable human being for another. This is glaringly obvious.

But this isn't a story about stage magic. This is a story about real magic. Dedi is the genuine article. So why didn't the scribe who wrote this either let Dedi resurrect a human being, or give him some better excuse, since really the only point of the show for Pharaoh was to convince everyone that Dedi was the real deal?

Of course, the "real" magicians of ancient Egypt were actually stage magicians, frauds one and all. I wonder if the scribe was drawing on their own experience of seeing magic, and maybe not realizing the significance of "No, no, I wouldn't treat any human being that way. How about this duck?"

For me it has the odd effect of taking something that's obviously a fictional episode in an obviously fictional story and suddenly making it seem real--a literally true, yes-that's-exactly-what-happened, snapshot of an actual moment.

I especially love coming across something that, even in the original language, strikes me as completely contemporary, such as the "Why haven't I seen you before?" exchange above.

In particular, I remember reading Aristophanes' play The Wasps in Greek class, which begins with two slaves having a conversation:
"How can you fall asleep on the job? Don't you know what kind of a monster we've got imprisoned here?"

"Of course I know what kind of a monster we've got imprisoned here."

"O.K. You know what kind of a monster we've got imprisoned here, and I know what kind of a monster we've got imprisoned here, but [assuredly gesturing to the audience] all these people don't know what kind of a monster we've got imprisoned here!"

I read that and about fell over. Self-reflexive acknowledging the audience in the awkward exposition scene for comedic effect is at least 2,500 years old! Seriously, if I did that gag in a translated production today, the critics would lambast me for adding cheap jokes.

Hah! Nothing new under the sun, like the bitter old preacher said.

Reading Aristophanes is odd! It's like half jokes that you could imagine in a sitcom today, and half incomprehensible ones*, with IIRC a sprinkling of fart and poop jokes. (Been a while since I read him, I'm going to have to put some in my to read pile.)

The one I recall most vividly is a character inviting others over to supper saying, "Come over to my place and...I'll shut the door in your face!" with a footnote saying this sort of "expect one thing but instead the person says something else" was a really common kind of joke at the time and the audience would have wet themselves over it, and there's me sitting there thinking, "I guess you had to be there."

Fart and poop jokes are always reliable. Catullus makes them, too, and he's supposedly a serious poet.

To quote Scott Kurtz, "Farts are art."

I had to read over that second line twice after reading your explanation before I got that the guy was saying "You never called for me before."

Having complete faith in your work... buuuuut, not wanting to risk an actual human. I can identify with that! "I believe in this wholeheartedly!--so long as there's nothing at stake."

Perhaps it hurts? Cutting off someone's head and then putting is back on must be horribly painful. And Dedi probably knows that, since he's done it before. Perhaps it's important in the story to note that Dedi is a good person who doesn't want to harm others?

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