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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Power of Superstition

A statue of the Egyptian goddess Hathor,
courtesy of the British Museum in London

After Imlac, Rasselas, and his sister Nekayah return to Cairo with the hermit in Samuel Johnson’s novella The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, the prince and princess divide their efforts to observe every aspect of city life. When they come together, they compare notes, and argue the merits of a country versus city life, and domestic matters such as the ideal age for marital partners. Then Imlac approaches them with a suggestion.

“You wander about a single city, which, however large and diversified, can now afford few novelties, and forget that you are in a country famous among the earliest monarchies for the power and wisdom of its inhabitants. The old Egyptians have left behind them monuments of industry and power before which all European magnificence is confessed to fade away. To see men, we must see their works, that we may learn what reason has dictated or passion has excited.”

The royal siblings dismiss this suggestion at first. Rasselas argues that his “business is with man, not with piles of stone or mounds of earth.“ But gradually Imlac makes his case to the prince and princess.

“Let us visit them to-morrow,” said Nekayah. “I have often heard of the Pyramids, and shall not rest till I have seen them, within and without, with my own eyes.”

The trio travel to the Great Pyramid, and as their servants erect tents, they marvel at this structure that has defied time and nature’s efforts to sweep away all monuments to human civilization. But when they prepare to go inside, Nekayah’s servant Pekuah begs them not to enter. “The original possessors of these dreadful vaults will start up before us, and perhaps shut us in for ever.” Pekuah is anything but a simple-minded servant. Among Nekayah’s staff, she is called Lady Pekuah, and has maids that personally attend her. She converses easily with the princess, and readily takes charge when the situation demands. In many ways, she seems to have benefitted as much from Imlac's counsel (as well as the other educators from their days in the Happy Valley) as Nekayah and Rasselas. Yet she shakes with fear while warning of the ghosts that await them inside, intent on imprisoning their bodies and corrupting their souls. 

The Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the seven great wonders of the world. For nearly four thousand years, no one built anything taller. Even back as far as the fifth century BC, people of importance such as the Greek historian Herodotus traveled to Egypt, and discovered its wonders. Despite centuries of looting, exquisite Egyptian architecture, sarcophagi, decorations and furnishings await her. It is a place that, both then and now, most people would love to visit. Yet Lady Pekuah elects to remain outside the Great Pyramid, along with the other servants, their supplies, and of course, the camels.

That is the power of superstition.

Dragon Dave

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