wtf

Tutmania!

Fascination with King Tut swept the nation, from a Batman villain to Steve Martin’s hit Saturday Night Live song.

A pop art take on King' Tut’s legendary funerary mask

A pop art take on King' Tut’s legendary funerary mask

Tutmania, which swept the West upon discovery of the Boy King’s tomb in 1922, experienced a resurgence when King Tut’s riches toured the United States in ’76. Due to fear of hijacking, the precious artifacts traveled in secrecy aboard the U.S.S. Sylvania, where they were stored amidst boxes of refrigerated hamburger patties.

An illustrated French newspaper depicts the discovery of Tutankhamun’s treasure-laden tomb, which sat undisturbed by 3,500 years

An illustrated French newspaper depicts the discovery of Tutankhamun’s treasure-laden tomb, which sat undisturbed by 3,500 years

Even a brand of lemons was named after the Boy King

Even a brand of lemons was named after the Boy King

Candy, Cross Stitch and Kitsch

The commoditization of the U.S.’s fascination with this pharaoh has included everything from Tut-branded California lemons (circa the 1940s) to unlicensed kitsch — including T-shirts with a pair of strategically placed golden burial masks proclaiming, “Keep Your Hands Off My Tuts!” (from the 70s). 

Tutmania invaded many aspects of American life, showing up on kitschy T-shirts like this one

Tutmania invaded many aspects of American life, showing up on kitschy T-shirts like this one

There was even a softbound book of needlepoint patterns, which the creator, Robert Horace Ross, based upon the touring Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition. 

Who wouldn’t want a needlepoint of King Tut’s golden mask?

Who wouldn’t want a needlepoint of King Tut’s golden mask?

Novelty candies for kids included Yummy Mummies — artificially flavored hard candy sticks, similar in size to a tongue depressor and manufactured by the makers of Fun Dip. In the U.K., Terry’s Pyramint, the forgotten ’80s sibling of the Chocolate Orange, was packaged in a pyramid-shaped box. Inside was a dark chocolate pyramid with a hollow center filled with mint fondant similar in consistency to a Cadbury Creme Egg. 

The tubby  Batman  villain King Tut was obviously delusional

The tubby Batman villain King Tut was obviously delusional

Holy Cheesy Appropriation, Batman!

King Tut even made an appearance on the lighthearted 1960s TV series, Batman. Portrayed by the portly actor Victor Buono, the over-the-top villainous character of King Tut was invented for the small screen, making its first appearance in ’66 on a two-episode story arc, “The Curse of Tut/The Pharaoh’s in a Rut.”

A King Tut  Batman  Lego figurine

A King Tut Batman Lego figurine

More high camp than the gritty realism of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s feature film take on the Dark Knight, Tut’s alter ego was a well-mannered professor of Egyptology named William Omaha McElroy. Knocked unconscious during a student riot at Yale, McElroy awakens, believing himself to be a diabolical King Tut. His appearance was announced by a ram-headed statue, mistakenly referred to as a sphinx. The villainous Tut takes up residence in an Egyptian exhibit in the Gotham City Museum, complete with a harem of comely women.

Fisticuffs ensue, various comic book KAPOWs, BOOMs and BOFFs appear on screen, and the episode ends with a literal cliffhanger: a kidnapped Bruce Wayne exiting the rear door of an ambulance (strapped to a gurney no less) before the vehicle drives off a 300-foot cliff. 

The character obviously has some lasting appeal: It made an appearance in The Lego Batman Movie.

Steve Martin performed a silly song about King Tut on  Saturday Night Live  — which went on to become a Top 20 hit!

Steve Martin performed a silly song about King Tut on Saturday Night Live — which went on to become a Top 20 hit!

A Wild and Crazy Songwriter

In 1978, comedian Steve Martin wrote and debuted an elaborate sketch on Saturday Night Live accompanied by his song “King Tut” satirizing the fascination with the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition.

The show’s creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels pulled out all the stops, and it was one of the most expensive sketches performed on SNL. Martin, dressed in psuedo-Egyptian costume, sang and danced, turning his head and arms in opposite directions in imitation of Ancient Egyptian paintings.

Even though I was only 9 years old at the time, I can still remember the verse, “Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, King Tut.” A classic moment from the skit featured musician Lou Marini emerging from a sarcophagus in gold face paint to perform a raucous saxophone solo with Martin placing a blender at his feet as an offering. Not long after, the single, cleverly credited to Steve Martin and the Toot Uncommons, reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and went on to sell more than a million copies.

The renovated Tut statue at the Oriental Institute in Chicago

The renovated Tut statue at the Oriental Institute in Chicago

King Tut Goes Highbrow

A towering 17-foot-tall statue of King Tutankhamun can be seen in the Egyptian Hall of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum. One of a pair, the likeness was discovered during the institute’s excavation efforts at Medinet Habu from 1926 to 1931. The better-preserved statue remained in Egypt, while the other was gifted to the institute. 

Taking casts from the more complete twin statue, the institute’s talented restorer, Donato Bastiani, made the statue whole again. The inscription carved on the back pillar of the statue shows evidence of having been appropriated by Horemheb, the penultimate ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty. However, the facial features of the figure strongly resemble other representations of Tutankhamun, suggesting that it was originally commissioned for him. Traces of the name of Tut’s successor Ay can be seen under the cartouche of Horemheb, indicating that the statue was usurped not once but twice. –Duke

The Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb

The botched recovery and vandalism of Tutankhamun’s mummy (including its erection!) — and a connection to Downton Abbey.

Everyone ogles over the treasures of King Tut’s tomb — but few know how messy the recovery of the mummy was

Everyone ogles over the treasures of King Tut’s tomb — but few know how messy the recovery of the mummy was

Ancient Egypt’s most famous and recognizable pharaoh in the modern world was still a teenager when he died, and his nickname, King Tut, has become a household name. 

When Howard Carter discovered and unsealed Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and revealed its extraordinary contents, he sparked a global interest in archaeology and Ancient Egypt the likes of which had never before been seen. 

It took his team eight years to catalog and remove all of the ancient artifacts within the relatively small tomb. One can only begin to imagine the wealth of relics entombed within the larger royal sepulchres surrounding Tutankhamun’s, prior to being plundered over the centuries. 

New technologies and conservation continue to yield information about his treasures almost a century later. 

Carter (right) must have been dying of impatience while he awaited the arrival of Lord Carnarvon to begin excavating the tomb he found!

Carter (right) must have been dying of impatience while he awaited the arrival of Lord Carnarvon to begin excavating the tomb he found!

When Carnarvon Met Carter

George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was the patron who footed the bill for the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He was also the lord of Highclere Castle, the impressive estate where Downton Abbey is filmed. And like the fictional Lord Grantham, Carnarvon married into money. 

Is that Downton Abbey? Sort of — the show is set in the real-life Highclere Castle, once home to Lord Carnarvon, who paid for the search for and excavation of Tut’s tomb

Is that Downton Abbey? Sort of — the show is set in the real-life Highclere Castle, once home to Lord Carnarvon, who paid for the search for and excavation of Tut’s tomb

He liked fast horses and even faster cars. A near-fatal automobile accident in 1903 (he was reportedly going a whopping 30 mph or so) left him in chronic pain, and his physician advised the restoring influence of a warmer climate. So he and Lady Carnarvon often spent their winters in Cairo, buying antiquities for their collection and sparking his passion for Egyptology. 

Carnarvon only lived five months after being a part of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

Carnarvon only lived five months after being a part of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

In 1907, Lord Carnavon was introduced to a driven and stubborn young archaeologist named Howard Carter by French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, who was the director general of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. 

From the very beginnings of their association, Carter wanted to excavate the Theban necropolis of the Valley of the Kings (modern-day Luxor) in search of the elusive tomb of a minor 18th Dynasty pharaoh, first known through a small faience cup inscribed with the king’s name that was found by American Egyptologist Theodore Davis in 1905. 

Permission to excavate in the valley was granted to Carnarvon in 1914 but didn’t commence until 1917 due to World War I. After four relatively fruitless seasons, and with the final resting place of Tutankhamun undiscovered, Carnarvon was ready to put an end to Carter’s search. Were it not for Carter’s insistence to continue for one more season, the tomb might never have been found. 


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The Boy King became the most famous pharaoh of Ancient Egypt when Carter discovered his unplundered tomb in the 1920s.

Was the tomb cursed?
What’s it like to visit today?

EXPLORE King Tut’s Tomb


Talk about a 12-step program! These stairs were the first evidence of the wonders that lay within this untouched tomb

Talk about a 12-step program! These stairs were the first evidence of the wonders that lay within this untouched tomb

On the morning of November 1, 1922, the top of a sunken staircase was revealed. By the following afternoon, 12 steps had been cleared. Carter ordered his men to refill the staircase and sent off the now-famous telegram to Carnavon, who was in England at the time: 

At last I have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.

The earl’s death, five months after the tomb was opened, purportedly from a mosquito bite, is the stuff of legends and is regarded by some as evidence of the curse of the pharaoh. 

Be careful, Carter and Co.! The poor mummy of King Tut was horribly mangled during its removal process

Be careful, Carter and Co.! The poor mummy of King Tut was horribly mangled during its removal process

Off With His Head!

It wasn’t until 1925 that Tut’s mummy was finally revealed. The bands of linen cloth that covered the king from head to feet had been saturated by copious amounts of unguents and resins, leaving his desiccated skin the color and texture of nori seaweed. Perhaps it was thought that by making the boy king appear as Osiris, the god of the afterlife, the transgressions of his heretic father, Akhenaten, who foisted monotheism upon the unwilling population, would be forgiven. 

Whoops! Carter and his team accidentally decapitated the Boy King when they took off the funerary mask

Whoops! Carter and his team accidentally decapitated the Boy King when they took off the funerary mask

Over time these resins changed into a hardened black substance, acting as a glue and adhering his body to the coffin. Carter and his anatomist, Douglas Derry, had to chisel the king's remains out in pieces. Tut’s mummy was unceremoniously decapitated by Carter and his team when its golden death mask was removed. 

On the wall to the right, Tut is shown with his ka, or embodied soul, worshipping Osiris, the mummified god of the afterlife

On the wall to the right, Tut is shown with his ka, or embodied soul, worshipping Osiris, the mummified god of the afterlife

The Osiris Connection: A Boner of Contention

Beneath their swaddling, Tutankhamun's mortal remains had more than a few unusual features. According to Carter’s notes, a conical form, composed of linen bandages, was found atop the king’s head, its shape resembling the feathered, bowling pin-shaped atef crown of Osiris. 

Also noted by Carter was that Tut’s mummy had a woody. The royal penis was embalmed and preserved in an upright nearly 90-degree angle, perhaps symbolically evoking Osiris’ fertility and regenerative powers. 

Photographed after unwrapping by Harry Burton, Tut’s member was reported missing in 1968, when British scientist Ronald Harrison took a series of X-rays of the mummy. His royal endowment sprung up on a CT scan in 2006, hidden in the sand surrounding the king’s remains.

The consensus among Egyptologists was that additional damage to Tutankhamun’s mummy was done by looters sometime after Carter had finished clearing the tomb of its contents in 1932 — most likely during World War II and again in 1968. Both ears were missing, and the eyes had been pushed in. The standing theory is that the looters had bribed the Valley of the Kings guards to let them in, steal the remaining jewelry left in the tomb, and “blinded” and “deafened” the mummy to keep it from coming after them.  

The famous funerary mask of King Tut seems to help prove that Nefertiti did indeed become pharaoh

The famous funerary mask of King Tut seems to help prove that Nefertiti did indeed become pharaoh

A Recycled Mask From Nefertiti 

Interestingly, the most iconic of Tutankhamun’s treasures, his golden death mask, seems to have originally been intended for his stepmother, Nefertiti. 

The face, ears and beard of the beautifully wrought mask were modeled separately to represent the young king as Osiris. Research has revealed that one of the cartouche inscriptions found inside the mask was reinscribed in antiquity with Tutankhamun’s name imposed over the previous, partially erased cartouche of Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, the official name used by Nefertiti after she became co-pharaoh of Egypt. This has led some to believe that, like Hatshepsut, Ancient Egyptians attempted to edit out a woman’s rule as king. 

Can you imagine how freaked out the museum staff must have been when they broke off King Tut’s funerary mask beard?!

Can you imagine how freaked out the museum staff must have been when they broke off King Tut’s funerary mask beard?!

The Broken Beard 

In August 2014, the elongated braided beard attached to that iconic funerary mask accidentally snapped off while staff at the Egyptain Museum in Cairo were replacing a lightbulb in its glass display case. A sloppy attempt to hastily reattach the beard with epoxy followed, further damaging the treasured 3,300-year-old mask. This iconic item was taken off display to be restored by a team of German specialists. The resinous glue was carefully removed and the beard reattached with beeswax, an adhesive used in antiquity. 

This 1925 photo by Harry Burton shows that Tut’s beard had broken off previously

This 1925 photo by Harry Burton shows that Tut’s beard had broken off previously

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the beard had been separated from the mask, though. Photographs taken of the artifact in 1925 by Burton are of a beardless Tut, and it apparently wasn’t reattached until the 1940s. 

The scarab on this necklace was created by a meteorite crash!

The scarab on this necklace was created by a meteorite crash!

Jewelry That’s Literally Out of This World 

Among the incredible objects discovered in Tut’s tomb was a protective scarab pendant featuring a rare chartreuse yellow gemstone originally identified as chalcedony by Carter. However, modern researchers determined that it’s not a stone at all but a type of extraterrestrial glass created by a meteorite that crashed into the silica-rich sands of the Grand Sand Sea millions of years ago. Known as Libyan desert glass, this material was valued by the Ancient Egyptians as having celestial origins. –Duke

The Mummified Animals of Ancient Egypt

4 reasons Egyptian animal mummies were created — and what the mummification process involved. (Spoiler alert: Think turpentine enemas.)

One wing of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo contains animal mummies like this baboon

One wing of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo contains animal mummies like this baboon

When they hear the word “mummy,” most people think of the bad horror movies of the past that starred a reanimated corpse wrapped in what looks like toilet paper. Those of us who have visited Egypt have been lucky (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to have seen rooms full of the dark-skinned, twisted, desiccated remains of the ancient pharaohs.

But humans weren’t the only ones who were mummified by the Ancient Egyptians: Animal mummies were produced from about 800 BCE to 400 CE. This included all sorts of creatures, from cats and dogs to bulls, crocodiles, birds and more. They even mummified hippos!

The animal’s butt was then plugged with a “linen tampon” until all internal organs had softened and would flow out when uncorked.

There were four types of animal mummies in Ancient Egypt:

1. Food for the deceased in the hereafter

Leg of goat or duck breast, anyone?

Ancient Egyptians expected (or at least hoped for) an afterlife much like their time on Earth. They wanted to play with their toys, ride chariots, go hunting and perform other activities they enjoyed while alive. And that of course included eating. So the mummified remains of animals found in some tombs were there to provide sustenance in the next world. 

Ancient Egyptians wanted their pet kitties to be with them in the afterlife, so they were mummified and put into their tombs (let’s hope they were at least allowed to live out their natural lives)

Ancient Egyptians wanted their pet kitties to be with them in the afterlife, so they were mummified and put into their tombs (let’s hope they were at least allowed to live out their natural lives)

2. Pets of the deceased

It’s not clear if these pets were killed or allowed to live out their natural lives. But who doesn’t want to play with their pet gazelle or dog in the afterlife? I know my version of heaven would include my cats, Co-Co, Norman and Bowzer, all lounging with me while I watch new episodes of Gilmore Girls and Jane the Virgin

Part of Egypt was home to a cult that worshiped (and mummified) bulls

Part of Egypt was home to a cult that worshiped (and mummified) bulls

3. Cult animals

Some animals were thought to house the spirit of a god during its life. Bull cults were particularly popular, but other animals joined the minor pantheon. People could predict the height of the Nile flood based on where crocodiles built their nests. Baboons were associated with Ra, the sun god, because every morning they face the east and raise a racket, which Ancient Egyptians believed helped the sun rise. And ibises, now extinct since the 19th century, with their crescent moon-shaped beaks, were connected to the god of wisdom, Thoth, who bears an ibis head. 

This falcon mummy was a cult animal or an offering to a deity like Horus

This falcon mummy was a cult animal or an offering to a deity like Horus

4. Votive offerings 

This is similar to a candle lit in a church — only it’s an offering of something like a desiccated corpse of a crocodile instead.

Votive offerings weren’t considered divine — they were simply offerings to the gods. It strikes me as a bit odd that you’d offer up a dried-up dead cat to honor the feline-headed Bast, for instance. It seems she might take offense, but I’m assuming she didn’t. The Egyptian gods are an odd bunch. 

Animal votive offerings packed prayers with an added punch. The animals were believed to gain access to the realm of the afterlife to carry pleas to the gods.

And they were a big biz. Massive amounts of animal mummies have been unearthed at Saqqara (8 million dog mummies alone!). That was just one of many sites throughout the country where votive animal mummies were discovered. In fact, it’s thought that up to 70 million animals were turned into votive offerings throughout the Egyptian Empire. 

This votive offering contains dog bones

This votive offering contains dog bones

I don’t like this idea, but researchers think that many of the animals were killed to meet the demand of pilgrims seeking favors from the gods. In fact, millions of animals were victims of breeding farms, raised for the sole purpose of being killed and mummified. I suppose it’s not much different from factory farms or what happens to alligators in New Orleans, where their heads are piled high in every souvenir shop. And something tells me the rabbit once attached to the foot I had as a good luck charm as a kid didn’t die of natural causes. 

The ibis is now extinct, but the long-billed bird was associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom

The ibis is now extinct, but the long-billed bird was associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom

Researchers from the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester in England used X-rays and CT scans to examine over 800 Ancient Egyptian animal mummy votive offerings. They found that one-third contained actual mummies of birds, cats, crocodiles and other animals. Another third had only partial remains. And the final third had no animal remains at all: They were linen wrappings stuffed with mud, sticks, eggshells, feathers and herbs.

At first, these offerings were thought to be fakes meant to dupe unsuspecting pilgrims. But the resin and contents found within were different for each type of animal and were actually quite expensive at the time. So the buyers might have been aware that they weren’t getting actual mummies and were OK with that. After all, they still had something of great value — but less expensive than a proper mummy — to offer to the gods.

Below the arches, you can see a variety of animal mummies in this illustration by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a well-known archaeologist

Below the arches, you can see a variety of animal mummies in this illustration by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a well-known archaeologist

How Animals Were Mummified

The discovery of sacred bull remains have allowed scientists to figure out how Ancient Egyptians mummified animals. (It’s gruesome but surprisingly similar to what they did to humans who couldn’t afford the royal treatment.)


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Known as Buchis bulls, the holy animals were the center of a cult in Armant, a town south of Luxor. They were associated with Montu, a falcon-headed god of war, and represented strength and fertility.

Turpentine enemas and linen butt plugs were involved in the time-consuming process to make a bull mummy

Turpentine enemas and linen butt plugs were involved in the time-consuming process to make a bull mummy

To mummify one of these beasts, they probably first inserted turpentine or juniper oil into the anus or, ahem, a nearby orifice. Archaeologists have found enemas, douches and vaginal retractors at the excavation site. The animal’s butt was then plugged with what the sign at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo called a “linen tampon” until all internal organs had softened and would flow out when uncorked.

The animal was then packed in natron (hydrous native sodium carbonate — a fancy way to say that it’s a salt). This naturally occurring preservative worked wonders in drying out corpses. Large animals were laid in natron for 40 days (just like humans).

The Buchis bulls were arranged in the position of a sphinx — not natural for the animals, so they had to cut the leg tendons to avoid breaking any bones. 

Animal mummies were ceremonially wrapped in linen, then coated in a resin to help preserve and protect them from disintegration and bug infiltration. This time-consuming and expensive method resulted in a mummy as good as that of any human. –Wally


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Pharaoh Hatshepsut

14 ways this powerful Ancient Egyptian woman used genderbending to become a female pharaoh, as revealed in Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King.

Everyone knows all about Cleopatra, the clever seductress of two powerful Roman men who ruled over Ancient Egypt.

But without her forebear Hatshepsut, there might never have been a Cleopatra. Surely Cleopatra looked upon the woman who rose to the upper echelon of power as a true inspiration.

What made Hatshepsut’s success all the more remarkable was how unprecedented it was. Sadly, for the most part, feminism hasn’t progressed beyond the traditional patriarchy over the past few millennia. Case in point, the United States has yet to elect a woman as president.

In the ancient world, having a woman at the top of the political pyramid was practically unheard of. Patriarchal systems ruled the day, and royal wives, sisters, and daughters served as members of the king’s harem or as important priestesses in his temples, not as political leaders. Throughout the Mediterranean and northwest Asia, female leadership was perceived with suspicion, if not outright aversion.

–Kara Cooney, “The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt”


LEARN 9 FASCINATING FACTS about Hatshepsut’s early life here.


In terms of the ancient world, Hatshepset truly was a remarkable woman. As our guide Mamduh mused, “They should make a movie about her — maybe many movies.”

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

“History records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power — without assassinations or coups — during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut,” writes Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King.

During her prosperous reign, gold, cedar, ebony and other goods flowed through Egypt, and the temples, shrines and obelisks raised in her name were so impressive that later pharaohs endeavored to be buried nearby, creating the Valley of the Kings.

Incidentally, we have French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion to thank for rediscovering the first hints of Hatshepset’s existence in 1928 — apparently, deciphering the Rosetta Stone wasn’t enough of a claim to fame. 

Even Hatshepsut must have felt that her cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time.

So how exactly did Hatshepsut move beyond being a queen regent to divine ruler? I do wonder how she viewed herself — could she be the first trans leader in history?


The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

1. There was actually a female king of Egypt before Hatshepsut.

Just like Cleopatra, Hatshepsut had a role model from the past. Sobeknefru, daughter of Pharaoh Amenemhat III of the Twelfth Dynasty, ruled Egypt around 1800 BCE — about three centuries before Hatshepsut was born.

2. There wasn’t even a proper word for queen — so Sobeknefru blended masculine and feminine iconography.

The queens of Ancient Egypt were known as hemt neswt, or wife of the king — “a title with no implications of rule or power in its own right, only a description of a woman’s connection to the king as husband,” Cooney writes. To truly be seen as the ultimate ruler of the country, Sobeknefru had to take on the masculine title of “king.”

“Clothing was more problematic,” Cooney continues, “and Sobeknefru depicted herself wearing not only the masculine headdress of kingship but also the male royal kilt over the dress garments of a royal wife.”


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THE FIRST FEMALE KING OF EGYPT, Sobeknefru, was named for the crocodile god, Sobek.

Learn more about his worship from our post on the temple of Kom Ombo.


3. A title shift on Hatshepsut’s monuments at Karnak might be the first clue of her massive ambitions.

A few years before she even became king, Hatshepsut dropped the title of God’s Wife, opting instead for the title of King’s Eldest Daughter. While the role of high priestess was one of the most powerful in Ancient Egypt, the adoption of this new title set the stage for a legitimate claim to the throne. 

“Some Egyptologists see this rejiggering of her personal relationships as the crux of her power grab, a shift that moved her from a queen’s role to an heir’s, as the rightful offspring of Thutmose I and one who could make a heritable claim to the throne despite her female gender,” Cooney writes.

4. Like Sobeknefru before her, Hatshepsut reinvented her image as a nonbinary gender. 

Another section at Karnak, the most massive temple complex of the day, in the royal city of Thebes, present-day Luxor, depicts Hatshepsut in men’s garments along with women’s.

The block “shows Hatshepsut wearing the gown of a queen on her body but the crown of a king upon her head,” Cooney writes. “The atef crown — a fabulous and extravagant amalgamation of ram’s horns and tall double plumes — was depicted atop her short masculine wig, probably to the shock of the craftsmen in charge of cutting the decoration. It was a confusing image for the Egyptian viewer to digest: a female king performing royal duties, offering jars of wine directly to the god, and all before any official coronation.”

5. She also took on a throne name, a privilege reserved for kings — again, before she was even crowned.

In the text on the same monument at Karnak, Hatshepsut called herself the One of the Sedge and of the Bee, which is translated as King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

What’s more, she introduced a throne name, Maatkare, The Soul of Re Is Truth. This act was “inconceivable,” according to Cooney. “Hatshepsut was transforming her role into a strange hybrid of rule ordained before it had officially happened,” she writes.

Part of her throne name is the goddess of truth and justice, “implying that at the heart of the sun god’s power was a feminine entity, Ma’at, the source that was believed to keep the cosmos straight and true,” Cooney writes, continuing, “Hatshepsut’s throne name communicated to her people that her kingship was undoubtedly feminine, and that feminine justice was necessary to maintain life with proper order, judgment, and continuance.”

6. About nine years into Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut was crowned pharaoh — meaning there were two kings simultaneously on the throne.

When Hatshepsut was about 24 years old, in 1478 BCE, “the impossible happened,” as Cooney states. Thutmose III might have been a child, but he was still officially the king. Yet Hatshepsut, that wonderful feminist icon, decided to stop being the queen regent and that she would share the throne with her young nephew.

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

7. Hatshepsut’s coronation was an elaborate affair that was, apparently, attended by the gods themselves.

The coronation took place in the temple complex of Karnak over the course of several days. If we’re to believe Hatshepsut, her dead-but-deified father, Thutmose I, was the first to place the crown upon her head. The cow-headed goddess Hathor was also present, shouting a greeting and giving her a big hug. And the chief god, Amen-Re (also spelled Amun-Ra), “personally placed the double crown upon Hatshepsut’s head and invested her with the crook and flail of kingship, saying that he created her specifically to rule over his holy lands, to rebuild his temples and to perform ritual activity for him,” Cooney writes.

What better way for Hatshepsut to be seen as a legitimate monarch than by having received the blessings of the gods? She really wanted to hammer home the supposed events of her coronation day — she had images of the gods crowning her chiseled into the major house of worship of the time, Karnak, as well as her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari.


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SEE THE WONDROUS ARCHITECTURE of Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — and learn more about this surprisingly modern-looking structure.


8. Upon being crowned, Hatshepsut changed her birth name — yet another instance of gender ambiguity.

Hatshepsut added Khenemetenamen to the front of her name, “which, although unpronounceable for most of us,” Cooney writes, “essentially meant ‘Hatshepsut, United with Amen,’ communicating that her spirit had mingled with the very mind of the god Amen through a divine communion.” 

Interestingly, she kept a feminine ending as part of the construction of that mouthful of a name. “There was no subterfuge about her femininity in her new royal names, but her womanly core was now linked with a masculine god through her kingship,” Cooney adds.

9. Hatshepsut’s royal names didn’t hide the fact that she was a woman. She was out to change the very perception of a king.

Egyptian kings liked to prove how macho they were, choosing names like Ka-ankht, Strong Bull. Hatshepsut’s Horus name was Useret-kau, Powerful of Ka Spirits, tying herself not to physical (and sexual) prowess, but to the mysterious might of the spirits of the dead. 

Like her new birth name, Hatshepsut used the feminine -t ending. “She and her priests knew her limitations as a woman and seemed interested in flexibility rather than deceit,” Cooney explains. “She became king in name and title, but she knew that she could not transform into a king’s masculine body. She couldn’t impregnate a harem of women with any divine seed. There was no need for her royal names to point out those deficiencies or to lie about her true nature. Instead, she and her priests focused on how her femininity could coalesce with and complement masculine powers.”

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

10. Hatshepsut immediately upgraded her existing iconography once she became pharaoh.

All of the images of her as queen under Thutmose III were altered to show her as the senior king of a co-regency. “No longer would she be depicted as subordinate to Thutmose III,” Cooney writes. “Every sacred space in Egypt was changed, especially in the cultic centers of power, where an image translated into reality and to write or depict something was to make it come into existence.”

11. The color of Hatshepsut’s skin in her statuary demonstrated her progression from female to male. 

Females in Ancient Egyptian art were shown with yellow skin, while males were red ochre. It’s thought that women were inside more often (weaving in the harem, one supposes) and didn’t get as tanned as the manly men out on military expeditions and the like. While Hatshepsut’s early statues stuck with the traditional yellow skin tone, later depictions, such as the ones showing her as Osiris, the god of rebirth at her funerary temple, are of an orange hue — a strangely androgynous colorization that must have baffled people at the time. By the end of her reign, Hatshepsut had adopted the red skin associated with males.

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

12. In addition to skin color, Hatshepsut’s statues started taking on more and more male characteristics.

Early on, Hatshepsut’s genderbending positioned her as truly androgynous. On a lifesize statue from her funerary temple, she has a woman’s facial features, graceful shoulders and small, pert breasts — but she’s shirtless and wearing a king’s kilt. Even Hatshepsut must have felt that this cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time. It was placed in the innermost chambers of her temple, away from the public, where only the most elite would ever see it. This drastic hybrid sexuality was never replicated.

Eventually, Hatshepsut’s statues had broader shoulders, and her breasts became the firm pecs of an idealized young man.

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

13. Hieroglyphic text went back and forth between referring to Hatshepsut as a female and as a male.

Sometimes she was “she;” sometimes she was “he.” On occasion, she was the Son of Ra, the sun god; more often she was referred to as the Daughter of Ra. Once in a while, she was called the “good god,” but most of the time — even accompanying a masculinized image of her — she was the “good goddess.”

14. Like many a pharaoh, Hatshepsut told a story of her divine birth.

The combo god Amun-Ra is said to have visited her mother in her bedchamber. “She awoke because of the fragrance of the god,” the text reads. I’m sure a bit more happened than this, but Hatshepsut chose to depict the moment as her mom and Amun-Ra sitting across from each other, hands touching, gazing sweetly into each other’s eyes.

This avant-garde woman rose to the highest political rank in a society over 3,000 years ago. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that after her death, her successor tried his very best to wipe all references to his aunt being king from the face of the planet. –Wally

9 Fascinating Facts About the Early Life of Hatshepsut

From her role as queen to Thutmose II, God’s Wife, God’s Hand and queen regent to Thutmose III, here’s how Hatshepsut started her legendary career.

Hatshepsut isn’t a household name, but she should be! This wildly successful woman rose through the ranks of power in Ancient Egypt

Hatshepsut isn’t a household name, but she should be! This wildly successful woman rose through the ranks of power in Ancient Egypt

It’s a shame more people don’t know about Hatshepsut, one of the greatest rulers of Ancient Egypt. She was born around 1500 BCE, a princess destined to marry the next pharaoh.

“Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right,” quips Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Every morning, Hatshepsut, as the God’s Hand, would rub the statue’s phallus until she felt it orgasm.

Here are some fascinating facts I learned about this proto-feminist from Cooney’s book:


1. The role of the God’s Wife was one of the most powerful roles in Ancient Egypt.

As high priestess and “spouse” of the creator god Amun (aka Amen), Hatshepsut would have access to the most holy part of the Karnak Temple in Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Inside the sanctuary, where the god’s statue was kept, Hatshepsut would strip off her linen robe while the high priest offered milk (for Amun was reborn as an infant each day) and then bloody strips of meat as the deity grew in strength.

The chief god at the time, Amun, here seen merged with the one-armed, one-legged deity Min, needed to be given “a helping hand” every morning, and this was one of Hatshepsut’s duties

The chief god at the time, Amun, here seen merged with the one-armed, one-legged deity Min, needed to be given “a helping hand” every morning, and this was one of Hatshepsut’s duties

2. The high priestess was also the God’s Hand — meaning she had to jerk off the statue every morning. 

God’s Hand, indeed! Hatshepsut was responsible for the rebirth of Amun each dawn. “Reverently, she took his phallus into her palm, allowing him to re-create himself through his own release,” Cooney writes.

While the sacred instrument called the sistrum rattled, the God’s Hand would rub the statue’s phallus until she felt it orgasm.

The Nile flooding, as seen in this photo from the 1890s

The Nile flooding, as seen in this photo from the 1890s

3. If the God’s Hand didn’t give a daily handjob to Amun, Ancient Egyptians believed the world would end.

What exactly did they think would happen? “The Nile would cease to flood its banks every year,” Cooney writes, “leaving no life-giving silt and mud in which to farm. The sun would fail to rise in the east every morning, depriving the crops of life-giving rays.”

Amun was often depicted as having the head of a ram

Amun was often depicted as having the head of a ram

4. Hatshepsut might have been as young as 9 when she played the role of sexual consort to the god Amun.

While that makes us cringe in the modern day, Ancient Egyptians didn’t shield their children from sex. 

“There were no religious strictures about the sinful nature of sex in the ancient world,” Cooney writes. “With no societal qualms about premarital sex or images of gods masturbating, and with many extended Egyptian families living in one-room homes with no protection of privacy, sex was simply more visible, even to a young child of the royal nursery.”

With the average person only living into their 30s, people started procreating once they hit puberty. “A short life expectancy meant that people grew up faster and started sexual activity younger than we would think appropriate or even ethical,” Cooney adds.

Thutmose II, Hatshepsut’s half-brother and husband, suffered from lesions, pustules and an enlarged heart

Thutmose II, Hatshepsut’s half-brother and husband, suffered from lesions, pustules and an enlarged heart

5. Hatshepsut married her younger brother, Thutmose II — incest was no big deal in Ancient Egypt. 

In fact, the first gods themselves were pairs of brothers and sisters who procreated down the generations to Osiris and his sister Isis, who gave birth to Horus, embodied by the pharaoh.

And so, at the age of 12 or 13, Hatshepsut became the King’s Great Wife to her half-brother. By keeping it all in the family, fathers avoided having to pay dowries, they could keep a dynasty tightly knit, and the royal family would be emulating the very gods themselves.

6. Thutmose II was a sickly young man.

In fact, the king was a complete mess: “If the identification of the mummy of Thutmose II is to be believed,” Cooney writes, “the boy was never in good health. His skin was covered with lesions and raised pustules. He had an enlarged heart, which meant he probably suffered with arrhythmias and shortness of breath.”

Thutmose III was only a toddler when he became pharaoh, so Hatshepsut reigned as his regent

Thutmose III was only a toddler when he became pharaoh, so Hatshepsut reigned as his regent

7. When a pharaoh died but his successor was too young, the queen stepped in as regent to rule until the king came of age.

In this case, Thutmose III, who was born of a secondary wife, Isis, was only 2 years old when his father passed away, a toddler drooling and pooping his days away in the royal palace. And so Hatshepsut, widow of the previous pharaoh, stepped into the power vacuum.

It might seem strange to give so much power to a woman in an ancient kingdom — especially given that Hatshepsut would have only been 16 after her husband’s short reign. But, as Cooney points out, “It was a wise and safe practice, as even the most narcissistic mother was unlikely to betray her own son, cause his murder, or otherwise conspire against him.”

The role of queen regent was enacted often during the Eighteenth Dynasty: “Young kings were so common during this time period that, according to the calculations of one Egyptologist, women had ruled Egypt informally and unrecognized for almost half of the seventy years before the reign of Thutmose III, an astounding feat given Egypt’s patriarchal systems of power,” Cooney writes.

8. There’s a good chance that Hatshepsut had numerous lovers, though she never again married.

We know not only how open Ancient Egyptians were when it came to sex but also how tied up sex was with their religion. So it’s fair to assume that Hatshepsut could and probably did find her pleasure wherever she desired. 

“Given her position of power and her lack of a husband, she could have had relationships with any number of officials, young or old, male or female,” Cooney argues. “Why would we expect Hatshepsut to have embraced celibacy when she was the person to whom all looked for favor?”

A carving on an obelisk at Karnak shows Hatshepsut kneeling below the great god Amun

A carving on an obelisk at Karnak shows Hatshepsut kneeling below the great god Amun

9. Within five years of her regency, Hatshepsut no longer held the position of God’s Wife.

We’re not sure why she gave up the position as high priestess (and lover of the great god Amun) or who succeeded her in the role — though it’s thought that she bequeathed it to her daughter, in the hopes that she would follow Hatshepsut’s ambitious career trajectory.

“Hatshepsut was in her early twenties,” Cooney says, “and strange as it may seem to us, she was probably too old to act as the sexual exciter of the god anymore.”

The loss of this powerful title could very well be what spurred the queen regent to grab more authority — and eventually become king. –Wally

Ancient Egypt’s Mummification Process Explained

What went into canopic jars, how was the body dried out, what organs were the most important — and what got thrown away?

The mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses I as seen in the Luxor Museum. (You can’t take photos of the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo)

The mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses I as seen in the Luxor Museum. (You can’t take photos of the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo)

As a kid, I was fascinated with Ancient Egypt. I grew up in the state of New York, and my dad would take me to the Buffalo Museum of Science to visit the room that held a few mummies and artifacts. It was the late 1970s, and treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun had captured the imagination of the American public as they traveled to museums across the United States. I would check out as many books on the subject as I could from our local library, and when my elementary school library received the book Mummies Made in Egypt by Aliki Brandenberg, I begged my mother to ask if they could order an extra copy for me. I was lucky enough to have parents who indulged my creative side, and a kind librarian who agreed to this request.

Recently, memories of this richly illustrated book came flooding back to me as Wally and I wandered the second-floor galleries of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The hall contains wood and glass display cabinets filled with a dizzying collection of elaborately decorated ancient coffins, mummies, amulets to protect the dead, and shabti, magical statuettes of servants that would come alive to perform duties for the deceased in the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians believed that death was a temporary transition — a concept deeply embedded in their daily lives. Every night, the sun god Ra made his passage to the underworld, disappearing with the setting sun in the west, and emerging reborn the following morning in the east. The goddess Isis wept for her dead husband Osiris, and new life sprouted from the fertile banks along the River Nile. To Egyptians, as long as this natural order existed, a smooth passage beyond the trials of the underworld could be attained.

The creepy, dried-up feet of Ramesses I. The mummy was part of a small museum collection in Niagara Falls, Canada before being returned to Egypt in 2003

The creepy, dried-up feet of Ramesses I. The mummy was part of a small museum collection in Niagara Falls, Canada before being returned to Egypt in 2003

Mummy Dearest

However, eternal life was only possible if the individual’s corpse remained intact. Great care was taken to preserve the appearance of the physical body, which was essential to ensure that the deceased’s soul would recognize and return to it in the next plane of existence. If the body decayed, the soul would, too. The most costly method to ensure this was a multi-stage process known as mummification, typically reserved for royalty and nobles.

Priests wore masks of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, during the mummification process

Priests wore masks of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, during the mummification process

First, the body was moved to a temporary funeral pavilion, undressed, ritually cleansed and anointed with myrrh. After this had been completed, mortuary priests wearing jackal masks to evoke Anubis, the god of mummification, removed all internal organs — with the exception of the heart — through a small incision in the left side of the abdomen. The brain was thought to be useless; it was pulverized and extracted through the nose using a long metal hook. But the heart was considered to be the key to the afterlife and revealed evidence of the deceased’s true character.

Various organs were kept in canopic jars like these

Various organs were kept in canopic jars like these

Canopic Jars

Organs considered vital in the afterlife by the Ancient Egyptians were reserved, washed, desiccated, wrapped in linen and placed inside four containers known as canopic jars. Each vessel held a different organ and were shaped to represent the four children of Horus, a deity connected to the pharaohs:

  • Falcon-headed Qebehsenuef held the intestines.

  • Human-headed Imsety held the liver.

  • Baboon-headed Hapy held the lungs.

  • Jackal-headed Duamutef held the stomach.

To turn a corpse into a mummy, it was packed with salt and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanted bed so all the fluids would drain

To turn a corpse into a mummy, it was packed with salt and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanted bed so all the fluids would drain

The Mummification Process

One of the most important materials required for mummification was natron salt, a mixture that occurred naturally in Egypt. It was packed over and inside the body’s internal cavities and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanting bed. This removed any remaining bodily liquid and saponified fatty tissues, meaning they were essentially turned into soap. After this process was complete, the natron was removed, and the shrunken, desiccated body was once again bathed and dried. A coniferous resin was applied to the deceased’s skin, preventing bacterial growth and decay.

The body was then wrapped in linen, and various amulets were placed about the body to protect and sustain it in the life beyond. A scarab amulet inscribed with a spell from the funerary text the Book of the Dead was asked not to testify against the deceased. It was placed between the layers of linen wrappings over the heart. The neck and chest were important areas and played a specific protective and strengthening role. The wrapping process itself lasted approximately 15 days. The linen strips were soaked in balm and resin, which gave the skin a blackened appearance resembling pitch.

The sheathed, mummified body of the pharaoh was placed within a set of coffins, shaped to resemble the human form, and nested like Russian matryoshka dolls. The innermost coffin was considered the most sacred and represented the deceased in their divine form.

During the New Kingdom period, a procession took place where the bereaved, coffin, canopic jars and an assemblage of funerary furnishings were placed on a sled and pulled by oxen to the necropolis. Once these items arrived outside the tomb entrance, a ritual called the opening of the mouth ceremony was performed to allow the deceased to see, hear, breathe, eat and speak in the afterlife.

A group of wailing women from the tomb of the royal vizier Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles in Thebes (modern-day Luxor)

A group of wailing women from the tomb of the royal vizier Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles in Thebes (modern-day Luxor)

The innermost coffin had a depiction of the dead so their soul would know what body to return to

The innermost coffin had a depiction of the dead so their soul would know what body to return to

The coffin was brought to the burial chamber and enclosed within a large rectangular sarcophagus made of stone, with protective deities and hieroglyphics pertaining to its inhabitant chiseled into its surface.

Finally, the outer door of the tomb was sealed and imprinted with royal insignia. The finality of this action was mitigated by the belief that the king had now entered the realm of the underworld and could begin his (or her) journey beyond death. –Duke

The Island of the Dead Dolls – La Isla de las Muñecas

How to visit this haunted Mexico City tourist attraction on the Xochimilco canals, and the tragic ghost story of a little girl’s spirit and the strange offerings to appease her.

Rent one of the colorfully painted canal boats on Xochimilco and make a stop at this strange attraction

Rent one of the colorfully painted canal boats on Xochimilco and make a stop at this strange attraction

She was just lying there on the sidewalk, scuffed up and abandoned, behind the massive Uptown Theatre. We knew we had to save her. So Duke and I picked up the dirty baby doll and took her home.

We knew that our sad little toy had a larger destiny: She’d become an offering to the ghost said to inhabit the Island of the Dead Dolls, or la Isla de las Muñecas, on our trip to Mexico City.

Everywhere you look, dolls fill your vision, like a nightmare come to life.

Most have been stripped of their clothing. Dirt and black mold cover their naked lifeless bodies, as if they’ve contracted some sinister plague.
Can’t you totally imagine this guy coming to life?!

Can’t you totally imagine this guy coming to life?!

Dolls lay damaged on the ground, like casualties of some horrific catastrophe

Dolls lay damaged on the ground, like casualties of some horrific catastrophe

These dolls have been nailed to a tree, creating a macabre tableau

These dolls have been nailed to a tree, creating a macabre tableau

The Legend of the Island of the Dead Dolls

Along the canals of Xochimilco (pronounced So-chee-meel-ko), a young girl drowned under mysterious circumstances. One day a man named Don Julián Santana Barrera left his wife and child, and moved into a tiny cabin on one of the small islands between the canals of Xochimilco to live out his life as a hermit.

Shortly thereafter, he made a gruesome discovery that would haunt him for the rest of his life: He found a girl floating face-down in the water. But, try as he might, he was unable to revive her.

Not long after, he saw a doll bobbing along nearby. He fished it out and tied it to a tree as a way of showing respect to the spirit of the drowned girl.

Off with her head!

Off with her head!

A fence with various offerings. Note Captain Sandro in the background

A fence with various offerings. Note Captain Sandro in the background

It didn’t work, though. The girl’s ghost haunted Julián. In an effort to appease this restless wraith, he continued to hang more and more dolls, now joined by mangy stuffed animals, plastic dinosaurs, action figures and even a likeness of Santa Claus. The offerings hang from branches, wires and fences, while others have been cruelly nailed right into tree trunks. A couple lay face-down in the dirt, as if they perished mid-crawl, trying to escape the horrors of la Isla de las Muñecas. Over time, the entire island became a bizarre shrine dedicated to this lost soul.

Fifty years later, in 2001, Julián drowned — in the exact spot where he had found the little girl’s body. Was it an accident? Did he commit suicide? Or did the little girl’s ghost finally claim her victim?

Dolls of all shapes and sizes hang in offering to the restless spirit

Dolls of all shapes and sizes hang in offering to the restless spirit

Ghost Hunters

The Island of the Dead Dolls is just the type of creepy, quirky destination that appeals to our warped sensibilities. We knew that we wanted to take a boat out on the Xochimilco canals, but once we saw pictures of the dolls loosely dangling from branches on la Isla de las Muñecas, that became my number-one priority.

Duke’s only pretending to be scared — he loved the Island of the Dead Dolls

Duke’s only pretending to be scared — he loved the Island of the Dead Dolls

Locals say that the dolls have lured them to the island. They swear they’ve seen the chubby limbs of the dolls move on their own, that the heads, with their dead, unseeing eyes, will turn slowly toward you. They even say that they’ve heard the dolls whisper to each other, momentarily possessed by the spirit of the doomed little girl. It’s easy to imagine the dolls coming to life at night and causing mischief.

I placed our doll on the steering wheel of a toy car. Looks like she’s in good company

I placed our doll on the steering wheel of a toy car. Looks like she’s in good company

Our Offering to the Ghost

While we were on the canals, I had a one-track mind: I wanted to make sure we’d get to see the Island of the Dead Dolls. Our boat captain, Sandro, consented and took us to the haunted isle. I grabbed the doll we had brought and scrambled off the boat onto the small jut of land.

No Pasar means Do Not Enter. As if!

No Pasar means Do Not Enter. As if!

Purposefully ignoring the “No Pasar” sign, we walked past a life-size doll that might or might not be Pee-wee Herman, its neck bent at a sickenly unnatural angle, as if it had been snapped. He hangs there at the base of the path, like a gruesome warning of the dangers ahead.

Is that Pee-wee Herman (with a snapped neck), greeting you to this creepy island?

Is that Pee-wee Herman (with a snapped neck), greeting you to this creepy island?

Everywhere you look, dolls fill your vision, like a nightmare come to life. Most have been stripped of their clothing. Dirt and black mold cover their naked lifeless bodies, as if they’ve contracted some sinister plague.

Disgustingly dirty dolls dangle from branches and wires all over the small isle

Disgustingly dirty dolls dangle from branches and wires all over the small isle

The island is steep and narrow, and we had to be careful not to lose our footing and topple into the canal. Duke and I wandered around, snapping photo after photo while our boat captain got stoned in a nearby field. It’s such a bizarre setting — you can’t really imagine it until you experience it firsthand. Dolls are creepy enough on their own. But they’re downright terrifying when you see a bunch of them, deformed, dirty, missing hair, limbs or heads after being exposed to the elements for decades.

How many dolls does it take to appease a little girl’s ghost?!

How many dolls does it take to appease a little girl’s ghost?!

A doll hangs, missing its head, its skin a grayish hue from years of sun and rain. Another’s eye has popped out. One has been defaced, with an arcane symbol scrawled upon its forehead and a dark smudge over one of its unblinking eyes.

We wouldn’t be surprised if this dolly was used in Satanic rituals

We wouldn’t be surprised if this dolly was used in Satanic rituals

Underneath a bower constructed of wood and dried leaves, I found a large red toy car with a giant dead-eyed, bloated Holly Hobby type doll behind the wheel. I decided this would be the new home for our dolly. I placed her on top of the steering wheel and offered her as a companion to appease the girl’s ghost.

Say hi to “la negrita en el carro” from Chicago when you visit the island

Say hi to “la negrita en el carro” from Chicago when you visit the island

Out front of the island, a couple offered quesadillas for sale. We got the impression that they stationed themselves there every day to catch the tourists. The man called out something to our driver, who in turn translated the query: Did we leave a doll on the island?

My first instinct was to lie, not sure that adding to the collection was encouraged. But I found myself saying, “Si.” I was relieved when this response delighted everybody. The questions came in a frenzy: Where’s the doll we left? Where are we from? Are we sure we didn’t want more quesadillas?

After I pointed out our offering, Captain Sandro exclaimed, “Es la negrita en el carro.” (“It’s the little black girl in the car.”)

He informed us that there are only two foreign dolls on the island: one from Argentina, and now ours, from Chicago. Duke and I beamed at each other. We hope we’ve become part of the legend of the Island of the Dead Dolls.

This man and his wife sell snacks by la Isla de las Muñecas

This man and his wife sell snacks by la Isla de las Muñecas

Wally thinks he saw a ghost!

Wally thinks he saw a ghost!

How to Get to la Isla de las Muñecas

There is apparently more than one of these creepy islands. We were told the original island is about a four-hour round trip if you leave from Embarcadero Cuemanco or Embarcadero Fernando Celada.

Be careful of the plants — and one-eyed dollies!

Be careful of the plants — and one-eyed dollies!

Luckily, there’s another version of the island that’s much closer if you hire a boat at Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas. Be sure to mention the island before you make a commitment to a particular captain.

And consider bringing a doll to help keep the spirit of the little girl at peace. –Wally

Dolls are creepy enough on their own. But they’re downright terrifying when you see a bunch of them, deformed, dirty, missing hair, limbs or heads after being exposed to the elements for decades.
Don’t pass by the Island of the Dead Dolls — if creepy attractions are your thing!

Don’t pass by the Island of the Dead Dolls — if creepy attractions are your thing!

Island of the Dead Dolls
La Isla de la Muñecas
Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco
16036 Mexico City, CDMX
Mexico

The Creepy Witch’s Market at Mercado Sonora

Head to the back left corner to enter a world of magic potions, Santeria, brujeria, voodoo dolls and Santa Muerte.

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

Ever since Duke and I stumbled upon a witch’s market in a corner of the souk in Marrakech, Morocco, we’ve been addicted.

What’s a witch’s market, you ask? It’s sort of like a farmer’s market — only with a lot less local produce and more skulls and potions. Filled as they are with often disturbing items, witchcraft markets appeal to our warped sensibilities.

Our Uber dropped us off at the sprawling Mercado Sonora in Mexico City in front of a line of yellow awnings. At first we wondered if we would even be able to find the section that contained the witch’s market. Stall after stall stretched out before us, filled with brightly colored, super-sized stuffed animals like those you hope your honey will win for you at a carnival. Some stalls had lights swirling like a discotheque and housed banners and other decorations that screamed, “¡Feliz Cumpliaños!” Women sat under large cutouts of Disney princesses, Mickey Mouse and superheroes. Piñatas hung from the ceiling. Men tried to tempt us with rows of technicolor candies.

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

As we wandered toward the far right-hand corner of the massive market, we started noticing a disturbing trend: This was where live animals were sold. We witnessed a young boy dump a cardboard box of full of puppies onto the floor and hastily put them into a cage near crates packed with birds, lizards, cats, rabbits and goats.

I stopped to take a picture of a cage full of mangy-looking puppies, but a man wagged his finger at me, saying, “No fotos” in a stern voice.

“I’m not surprised,” Duke mumbled. “He doesn’t want documentation of how inhumane this is.”

It really was quite depressing. So we were relieved when, as we moved to the left, still at the back of the market, we noticed a life-size skeleton wearing a wedding dress, a string of pearls around its neck and a tiara atop its skull.

We knew we were in the right place. We had found the witch’s market.

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

Santa Muerte and Santería

The figure we happened upon is Santa Muerte, the goddess of death, a popular figure in Mexico. The stall took up a corner space, more of a small boutique. We looked around, seeing strings of beads, skeletons carved from bone (Duke still regrets not having bought one), candles in glass containers and a stone head with cowry shells for its eyes and mouth. I called Duke over. This last item was just the type of unexpected and slightly disturbing thing that he would love. We of course purchased it, for 100 pesos, or $5.

By the way, at markets in Mexico City, unlike those in Southeast Asia or Morocco, for instance, you’re not expected to bargain. The prices are set, but that’s OK, as you’ll find that most of them are quite reasonable.

The man who ran the stall was friendly, and grabbed a pen and paper when I asked him to write down what the head is called.

“Elegua,” he scribbled. I later found out he’s the god of beginnings and endings in Santería. He’s a bit of a trickster, which explains why I was so drawn to him.

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

We made our way through the labyrinth of stalls, surprised that they didn’t connect in any sort of logical manner. You would wind through a narrow space and then find yourself at a dead end, having to backtrack. The market was pretty crowded when we were there on a Sunday morning — “These are all the naughty people who should be in church,” I told Duke — and there was still a bit of jostling in the corridors as people stopped to look at goods or tried to pass by. Every now and then, a vendor would appear, carrying a stack of large boxes, and you’d have to press yourself against the wall to let them pass. It wasn’t long before Duke was feeling claustrophobic.

But I wasn’t done exploring this weird and wonderful market.

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

Brujeria Meets Catholicism

What’s strange about brujeria, or Mexican witchcraft, is that it exists alongside Catholic beliefs. Whereas the mere whiff of something witchy prompts Christians in the United States to scream, “Satan,” Mexicans are much more sanguine. In the heart of the witch’s market, you’ll find statues of saints and baby Jesus dolls, Virgins of Guadalupe and crucifixes galore right next to the scythe-wielding Santa Muerte, looking like the Grim Reaper’s soulmate.

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

As we wandered down a narrow corridor, something caught my attention: what was obviously a Barbie doll, entirely covered in red ribbon with a few nails stuck into it. The vendor told me it was a voodoo doll, but an expensive one, he said, apologetically. You see, it cost 100 pesos, or a whopping $5. He showed me a package of smaller, cheaply made dolls, pointing out how much more affordable they were. But I had to have the other one, of course.

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

At stalls in the witchcraft market, creepy dolls hung on the wall, some with their eyes and mouths sewn shut. One that immediately appealed to me had its face painted half red, half black. Sage smoke from a burning smudge stick filled the dark corridor, making me a little lightheaded. The vendor appeared intimidating — an intense young man with long hair, numerous piercings, tattoos down his arms and triangular studs in his earlobes. But he turned out to be friendly and wrote down the name of the god represented by the red-and-blacked-faced doll: Lucero Mundo, or Star of the World. He’s a deity from Palo, a Santería-like religion that originated in Cuba amongst descendants from the Congo. A god of the crossroads, Lucero witnesses everything, and without his consent, no spiritual power will flow.

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Potions and Notions

Brightly colored bottles and boxes promised the solution to any problem. Got a crush? Spray some Ven a Mi (Come to Me). Want a successful small business? Spritz some Llama Cliente (Call Customers).

I’m not sure if you’re supposed to drink these potions, but I wouldn’t put those toxic-looking, neon-colored bottles to my lips no matter how desperate I was.

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

“I was thinking there’d be more desiccated animals,” Duke sighed. These are the types of things that disappoint us. But then, as if he had conjured it by sheer willpower, we almost walked right into some sort of flayed ball of fur, which looked more like a cross between roadkill and beef jerky. It was hardly recognizable as having once been a small animal. We have a taxidermied squirrel climbing our wall, a dried-out bat in our living room and a desiccated chameleon inside our glass-topped coffee table. But this macabre monstrosity was too much, even for us. –Wally

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Mercado Sonora and the Witch’s Market
Fray Servando Teresa de Mier 419
Merced Balbuena
15810 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico

Bloodletting and Trepanation: A Tour of the International Museum of Surgical Science

12 fascinating, freaky facts about early medical science.

You can’t miss the strange statue in front of the International Museum of Surgical Science just north of the Magnificent Mile shopping district

You can’t miss the strange statue in front of the International Museum of Surgical Science just north of the Magnificent Mile shopping district

We had heard about the International Museum of Surgical Science’s spooky Halloween tours for years and had passed by the colossal figure holding a limp and seemingly lifeless body out front numerous times on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

So when something called Morbid Curiosities showed up as a suggested event in our Facebook feed, we couldn’t resist. The museum smartly offers tours year-round, though their Halloween event is legendary.

We were surprised to hear that George Washington died from bloodletting.

The reason this was prescribed? He had woken up with a sore throat.
The tour starts in the coolest room in the museum: the hall of statues of famous physicians

The tour starts in the coolest room in the museum: the hall of statues of famous physicians

Housed in a mansion built in 1917 near the shore of Lake Michigan, just north of downtown Chicago, the museum contains three floors of macabre medical paraphernalia. For this event, a guide walked us through the displays, calling out gruesome fun facts about the various medical techniques of the past.

Here are a dozen creepy cool things we learned on our tour.

Doctors swear to healing gods that they will obey certain ethical standards in the famous oath named for the Greek physician Hippocrates

Doctors swear to healing gods that they will obey certain ethical standards in the famous oath named for the Greek physician Hippocrates

1. Ancient doctors believed illnesses were attributable to an imbalance of the four humors.

This notion dates back to Ancient Greece and the teachings of Hippocrates. Often referred to as the Father of Medicine, his code of ethics, known as the Hippocratic Oath, is still used today. Hippocrates developed the theory of the four humors and their influence on the body and its emotions.

This woodcut from Leonhard Thurneysser’s  Quinta Essentia  (1574) shows the four humors

This woodcut from Leonhard Thurneysser’s Quinta Essentia (1574) shows the four humors

Humor: Black bile

Organ: Spleen

Trait: Melancholic


Humor: Phlegm

Organ: Brain

Trait: Phlegmatic


Humor: Yellow bile

Organ: Gallbladder

Trait: Choleric

Humor: Blood

Organ: Heart

Trait: Sanguine

Hippocrates believed that by paying attention to the balance of these four humors, we could maintain a healthy body and mind — and an imbalance could result in disease or death.

2. One of the best-regarded doctors of the Dark Ages recommended a medical bath involving the blood of blind puppies.

In Flowers of Bartholomew, written around 1375, the monk and doctor Johannes de Mirfield wrote:

Here is a bath which has proved to be of value. Take blind puppies, gut them and cut off the feet; then boil in water, and in this water let the patient bathe himself. Let him get in the bath for four hours after he has eaten, and whilst in the bath he should keep his head covered, and his chest completely covered with the skin of a goat, so he won’t catch a sudden chill.

If you decide to try it, let us know how it works! (Kidding, obviously.)

If you get poisoned, don’t expect the bezoar, which comes from a goat’s stomach, to be a miracle cure

If you get poisoned, don’t expect the bezoar, which comes from a goat’s stomach, to be a miracle cure

3. A stone that grows in a goat’s stomach was thought to be the ultimate antidote to any poison.

The bezoar comes from the Persian word for “counter poison.” And while the bezoar works miraculously in the world of Harry Potter, it doesn’t have quite the same power in real life. The French surgeon Ambroise Paré decided to put the bezoar’s antidotal properties to the test (with the help of an unwilling condemned criminal). The poor fellow was given sublimate of mercury, a nasty poison, to see if a bezoar would counteract it. Things didn’t work out too well. Paré wrote about the experiment in Apology and Treatise (1575):

An hour after, I found him on the ground on his hands and feet like an animal, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his eyes wild, vomiting, with blood pouring from his ears, nose and mouth. Eventually he died in great torment, seven hours after I gave him the poison.

Patients risked blindness (and suffered a lot of pain) during the earliest cataract surgeries in India

Patients risked blindness (and suffered a lot of pain) during the earliest cataract surgeries in India

4. Cataract surgery can be traced all the way back to the 5th century BCE in India.

I’m not sure what current cataract surgery involves, but its origins are downright disgusting. The procedure started out pleasant enough, with an oil massage and a hot bath. But that’s when things got icky. The patient was tied down because of the excruciating pain to come. A knife or needle would dislodge the cataract — you’d know when this had happened because you’d hear a pop and see a gush of water. Surgeons would seal the cut with breast milk and a salve of clarified butter. If the patient could see after, it was considered successful. Not surprisingly, this didn’t happen all that often.

The most infamous book bound in human skin,  Burke’s Skin Pocket Book,  put a serial killer to good use

The most infamous book bound in human skin, Burke’s Skin Pocket Book, put a serial killer to good use

5. There are books — mostly medical texts — that are bound in human skin.

The practice of binding books in human skin was once fairly common and has a fancy name: anthropodermic bibliopegy. The poor suckers whose epidermises have been cured to cover books were typically prisoners and other cadavers used for dissection. It’s tough to know if that leather-bound ancient tome is from a cow or a criminal.

How many books from the museum’s library are bound in human skin?

How many books from the museum’s library are bound in human skin?

A famous (and morbid) example is Burke’s Skin Pocket Book. William Burke and William Hare were serial killers who murdered 16 people and sold the cadavers for anatomical study and dissection.

Burke was found guilty and hanged. He received a just punishment: His corpse was dissected, and some of his skin was used to fashion a small book, now part of the collection of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.

An early C-section in Latin America, where they actually gave woman pain relievers, unlike Westerners at the time, who thought childbirth was supposed to hurt like hell (thanks, Eve!)

An early C-section in Latin America, where they actually gave woman pain relievers, unlike Westerners at the time, who thought childbirth was supposed to hurt like hell (thanks, Eve!)

6. People didn’t think women should have anesthesia during childbirth because of a Bible passage.

Yes, there’s a lot of crazy shit in the Bible (read the story of Lot sometime, who offered up his daughters to be gang raped and was then seduced by them). In Genesis 3:16, God punishes Eve for her part in convincing Adam to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, declaring, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”

Sorry, moms-to-be! Childbirth is gonna hurt — though a lot less than in the past

Sorry, moms-to-be! Childbirth is gonna hurt — though a lot less than in the past

In South America, at least, when a woman was to give birth, they’d use a sea sponge drenched in wine and mandrake root as anesthesia. It had one mild side effect, though: The woman would hallucinate and trip her balls off.

The first surgery ever was to create literal holes in the head, during a practice known as trepanning or trepanation

The first surgery ever was to create literal holes in the head, during a practice known as trepanning or trepanation

7. The first surgery involved poking holes into the skull.

This fun practice, known as trepanation, seems as necessary as a hole in the head — pun intended. It was performed by Incan priests to let out evil spirits. They’d chew coca (the same plant from which cocaine is derived) and spit it into the open wound. What’s most shocking is that more than half of the victims, er, patients survived.

A portrait of Vesalius from  De Humani Corporis Fabrica  (1543)

A portrait of Vesalius from De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543)

8. Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, took to grave robbing for corpses to dissect.

Vesalius, who lived during the 1500s, used the bodies of convicted criminals to create his seminal works on human anatomy. But when that wasn’t enough, he started digging up bodies in graveyards. To be fair, many cemeteries were a mess at the time. Dogs would often be found gnawing away at the bodies piled up in mass graves, and Vesalius would have to fight them off for his prize.

Who’d’ve thunk a sore throat would lead to the death of the United States’ first president?!

Who’d’ve thunk a sore throat would lead to the death of the United States’ first president?!

9. Bloodletting was a popular practice — and led to the death of none other than George Washington!

For 3,000 years, surgeons have thought that blood gets old and stagnates, and that the best way to refresh it was to open a vein and start to drain. We were familiar with the practice of bloodletting but were surprised to hear that the first U.S. president died from complications of a bloodletting procedure in 1799, in which nearly 40% of his blood was drained. The reason this was prescribed? He had woken up with a sore throat.

10. Blood transfusions didn’t work so well in the past.

This surgical procedure had a high rate of mortality before blood groups were discovered by Karl Landsteiner in 1901. In fact, sometimes animal blood was used in transfusions because it was thought to be cleaner (in part because they don’t drink booze).

Dr. Liston, the Fastest Knife in the West End, was a master of amputation (though he had quite a few misfires as well)

Dr. Liston, the Fastest Knife in the West End, was a master of amputation (though he had quite a few misfires as well)

11. Amputation used to be the most common surgery because of infection.

There was even an amputation superhero: Robert Liston, who earned the nickname the Fastest Knife in the West End in the earlyish 1800s. The London surgeon proudly wore his bloody apron and could hack off a limb in 90 seconds flat. Fast was good, what with the lack of anesthesia.

Nice gams! Check out these early artificial limbs from the museum’s collection

Nice gams! Check out these early artificial limbs from the museum’s collection

Of course, the downside was that Liston had a high mortality rate. In fact, one of his surgeries killed three people: the patient, an assistant whose fingers were accidentally cut off and later became infected, and an elderly doctor watching the procedure whose coat was sliced in the excitement and died of a heart attack.

12. Maggots are still used to clean out wounds.

These disgusting little creepy-crawlies are actually really good at finding necrotic tissue and dissolving it. On top of that, they have antibacterial saliva. Maybe you should make out with a maggot next time you’re feeling sick? –Wally

If you’d like to learn the creepy origins of medicine, book a tour of the Chicago Surgical Museum

If you’d like to learn the creepy origins of medicine, book a tour of the Chicago Surgical Museum

International Museum of Surgical Science
1524 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Chicago, IL 60610
USA


More Strange Stuff

Bali Then and Now

In the post-Eat Pray Love world, Bali has lost a bit of its charm. Ubud has become a more congested tourism hotspot, but parts of the island remain a paradise on Earth.

Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001  Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001

Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

We had been planning the trip to Bali for half a year. And then, less than two weeks before we were set to leave, 9/11 rocked our world. The entire country was in a daze. Americans had been living in a  bubble of isolation, of false protection, thinking that our global actions wouldn’t have severe repercussions. And the idea of an attack on our own turf was incomprehensible. But then the World Trade Center towers fell, and that bubble popped horrifically and unexpectedly that morning in September.

The United States, so often a place of optimism, had turned utterly depressing. I eagerly grasped at the chance to escape the overwhelming malaise. “I’m still going to Bali,” I told my travel companions.

“I reserve the right to back out, even up to the last minute,” my friend Christina told me. It probably didn’t help that she was unnecessarily taking malaria pills at the time, which can induce paranoia as a side effect.

We were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world.

Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

When the day came, Christina and her then-husband Malcolm joined me at O’Hare in Chicago. The airport had only recently reopened, and everyone still seemed scared to fly. The corridors were empty. I felt fatalistic, numb. It was difficult to care what happened, but I was willing to take the risk.

I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

What ended up happening was that we were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world. It was just what the doctor ordered, and I recall that trip, back in 2001, as one of the best of my life. Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

So I was eager to share the magic of Bali with my husband, Duke. We had visited other parts of Southeast Asia, our favorite region on the planet, and I decided it was time I returned to Bali.

Here are some ruminations on my experiences on this one-of-a-kind Indonesian island 17 years ago and how it differed on our recent trip.

Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

For one thing, the city of Ubud has grown exponentially. When I was here before, I remember it being a sleepy little town, with one main drag. We would wander into town in the morning, find a driver parked along the side of the road, negotiate a day rate and hop in. We would say, “Take us to a cool Hindu temple and an art village.” I don’t recall us ever having a set itinerary; we put ourselves entirely in our driver’s hands.

We did take some farther-afield trips, tourist attractions two hours or so away. Of course back then it might not have taken so long because the traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it is now.

Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Speaking of traffic, there are certain stretches of the small winding two-lane roads where traffic becomes impassable. A lot of it has to do with the construction vehicles that are all over the place now as the city and the island itself gets built up more and more.

Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Beggars now plead for money in parts of Ubud. We didn’t see any homeless in the streets in Ubud on our trip 17 years ago. But there were plenty of signs of poverty in the small city of Kuta, which is popular with Aussie surfers. (This was part of reason I had zero desire to go back to Kuta on this trip. If you’re going to visit a tropical paradise, why surround yourself with the filth of a city?)

You don’t see a lot of people begging for money in Ubud, but we did see about 10 the five or so days we were there. In fact, one homeless woman was holding up her young daughter as she squatted over an open sewer grate to take a dump.

When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

A lot of the handicraft items were no longer anywhere to be found. When I was here before, there were certain items that lined stalls in every market you visited but had, for some reason, vanished: shadow puppets, wooden frog instruments, blow dart guns, hand-carved chess sets, colorful kites in the shape of ships and the wavy ceremonial daggers called kris.

The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

Last time I was here, you literally only found Western toilets at your lodging. In fact, they had stickers on them to tell people who are unfamiliar that you shouldn’t squat on top of the seat. This time there was only one bathroom I went into where there was traditional Balinese toilet, which is really ceramic hole in the ground with treads for your feet. You “flush” your waste by dipping a plastic pot or bucket into the garbage can filled with water.

A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

When I visited last time, Ubud felt more like a traditional village. One afternoon we wandered behind a temple and stumbled upon a cockfight. We had heard about this popular pastime and stopped to watch. A group of men waved bills, placing bets on their favored bird.

Each contestant held his prized cock and tied triangular razor blades to the back of its leg, just above the talons. Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust. In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.

It struck us as extremely anticlimactic. I imagined the roosters circling each other like boxers or sumo wrestlers, making parries and retreats. But no. It was over in about a second.

A man told us that we the rooster would be eaten as an offering at the temple. He said this almost apologetically, I imagined, to justify this violent pastime — though I probably imposed that sense of guilt upon him. To him, it was just a way of life. –Wally

Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust.

In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.