Ancient Egyptian Religion on the Silver Screen: Modern Anxieties about Race, Ethnicity, and Religion

by Caroline T. Schroeder


1. I would like to thank the anonymous readers who reviewed this essay for their thoughtful and helpful comments. This essay was researched and written before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although it does not address the specific geo-political events surrounding the recent American military involvement in Iraq, I hope it engages readers interested in some of the broader questions about religion, politics, and representation in popular culture that have arisen as a result of recent events.

2. The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund (Universal Pictures, 1932).

3. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978; repr. with a new afterword, 1994) 6-7.

4. Said, Orientalism, 205.

5. It would in fact be easy to debunk the misrepresentations of ancient Egyptian religion in some of the films. For example, my students often point out that although Horus and Anubis are two of Ra's evil henchmen in Stargate, the ancient Egyptians did not believe these two gods to be malevolent, and they probably did not even think of these deities as incredibly frightening, or as vindictive against the Egyptian people (as they are portrayed in the film). However, examining the ideological implications of cinematic representations of ancient Egyptian religion (rather than exposing and correcting misrepresentations) is the focus of this essay.

6. As Said notes, the construction of a race as an inherently subject race is an essential aspect of Orientalism: "...[T]he Orientals were viewed in a framework constructed out of biological determinism and moral-political admonishment....Since the Oriental was a member of a subject race, he had to be subjected: it was that simple." Said, Orientalism, 207. Homi K. Bhabha frames this point in the following way: "The objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction." Bhabha, "The Other Question: Stereotype, discrimination and the discourse of colonialism" in Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1994) 70.

7. Bhabha, "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817," in Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 112, 114.

8. Carol Siri Johnson makes a parallel argument about the film's portrayal of gender and sexuality. Johnson reads the majority of the film as "ostensibly a reification of the colonial British hegemony" viewed through the lens of sexuality, in which the film depicts the dangers of female sexuality that must be suppressed by male authority. Johnson argues, however, that the film in the end subverts its own message "by taking the power from those in whom it is usually invested and giving it to a female goddess figure instead." Johnson, "The Limbs of Osiris: Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and Hollywood's The Mummy," Melus, 17:4 (1991/92) 105-15. While I find this reading of The Mummy provocative, I ultimately disagree, and would argue instead that Isis represents the triumph of a submissive construction of femininity, in that Isis' actions serve to position Helen back into her "traditional," submissive position as beloved and wife.

9. Stargate, directed by Roland Emmerich (MGM, 1994).

10. Floyd D. Cheung, "Imagining Danger, Imagining Nation: Postcolonial Discourse in Rising Sun and Stargate," Jouvert 2 (1998); electronic publication:, accessed Dec 28 2000. Cheung's article provides a thoughtful examination of the historical and cultural context of the production of Stargate as well as an analysis of the discourses of race, colonialism, and primitivism in the film.

11. The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille (Paramount Pictures, 1956)

12. Only two years before the release of the film, Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade had ended with his censure by the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, in 1954, the Supreme Court issued the monumental Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to sit in the Negro section of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This social and historical context is well-documented by film reviewers and film theorists. See Ilana Pardes, "Moses Goes Down to Hollywood: Miracles and Special Effects," Semeia 74 (1996) 19; Peter T. Chattaway, "Lights, Camera, Plagues!: Moses in the Movies," Bible Review 15 (1999) 34-41; Steven R. Weisman, "Splendid, Stubborn, Adorable Moses Returns," New York Times, 7 April 1998, A 26.

13. On the universalization of the Hebrew Bible in epic film, particularly DeMille's Ten Commandments, see B. Babington and P. W. Evans, Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema. (Manchester: Manchester University 14. The framing of Prince of Egypt as, at least in part, a story of Moses' identity crisis is noted in Dan Goldblatt, Michael Lerner, and Laura Geller, "Prince of Egypt - Three Perspectives," Tikkun.

14. (1999) 8-10.

15. Jonathon Boyarin outlines and critiques both "sides" of the "Said-Walzer" debate in "Reading Exodus into History," New Literary History, 23 (1992) 528-33. See also William D. Hart, Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 1-16. While Hart is more sympathetic with Said than with Walzer, he points to some of the shortcomings in Said's insistence on secularity as a way of resolving religious difference. Said, a Columbia University professor, also inspired controversy at Columbia when he was caught throwing rocks at Israeli military officers. See Erik Lords, "Columbia U. Says Academic Freedom Protects Professor's Rock-Throwing," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 November 2000, A16. In dominant contemporary American discourse, the "other" to the "Judeo-Christian" self is often Islam. As Jonathon Boyarin has argued, interpretations of the Exodus narrative formed important ideological elements to American and European colonial projects in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. See Boyarin, "Reading Exodus," 534-38. Although the Exodus narrative was not usually invoked in the early twentieth-century formation of Zionism, it has been used since the 1940's as a narrative that ultimately polarizes Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. (Boyarin, "Exodus," 528, 538-43.)

16. Recent examples of this disturbing anti-semitism are easily found. With respect to Prince of Egypt, see William E. H. Meyer, Jr., "An American 'Precedent'? Propaganda in American Movies: The Case of the Hollywood Jews," Literature/Film Quarterly 27:4 (1999) 271-81. For another perspective, see Philip Yancey, "What the Prince of Egypt Won't Tell You," Christianity Today 42:14 (1998) 88.

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