Were the ancient Egyptian hooked on drugs?
In 1992, Dr Svetlana Balabanova identified traces of cocaine and nicotine in different mummies.
The findings caught the popular imagination. Not least because these substances come from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Although later research has shown that there are strong reasons to question these results, meaning that we should not see these traces as evidence of ancient Egyptian cocaine use, the image of pharaohs spooning up gak remains strong.
Even if these ancient Egyptians were not on these drugs, they were other drugs and drugs have remained an important theme in how we perceive ancient Egyptian today.
Tintin and the cigars of Pharaoh
Tintin is arrested and held in the storage. What happens next? You will have to read the book.
Tintin, the intrepid journalist, is on his way around the world by ocean liner. On board ship, while looking out on the seas, he meets Sophocles Sarcophagus (Philemon Siclone in the French original), a European Egyptologist in a tailcoat with top hat. The wind has blown the professor’s ancient papyrus map to a fabled Pharaoh’s fabulous tomb out of his hand and he is chasing it across deck when he bumps into Tintin.
“What a strange person” Tintin thinks and returns to his cabin.
Where he is stopped by Thomson and Thompson (in French Dupont et Dupond), two international detectives. They have discovered eight balls of pure cocaine in his luggage. (If these balls weigh 1 KG each, this would give them a street value of at least $80,000 at 2019 prices, although it’s hard to make equivalences).
Tintin is perhaps the bande desinee par excellence.
Bande desinees or Franco-Belgian comics are an important cultural phenomenon in French speaking countries. The English terms comic or graphic novel do not quite reflect their unique position in France, where they are sometimes called the Ninth Art.
The term can mean either the whole medium or sometimes more specifically graphic works from the immediate postwar years such as Tintin, Asterix and Blake et Mortimer.
Like any other artistic ‘movement’ or ‘style’, bande desinees shouldn’t be reduced to simple stylistic similarities. However certain trends are noticeable: realistic images and a visual cleaness.
The artistic style is called ‘clear lines’ (ligne claire): clean, even lines with little cross hatching. The colours are largely solid blocks of colours (as opposed to the American style of comic which mixed colours using the Ben Day process – think Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings). Some cross shading happens such as red cheeks. Otherwise, solid lines separate different shades.
In the hands of an artist as skilled as Herge, this is an effective way to create expansive and detailed worlds which are visually simple. For example in this book, it is used to depict distant mountains and ocean waves but also detailed interiors.
It is against Tintin that many French graphic novels are compared. Visually they are unequalled.
George Prosper Remi also known as ‘Herge’ (or RG, his initials reversed) was born in Belgium in 1907.
He created Tintin in 1929 for The Twentieth Century, a french language Catholic newspaper. Tintin’s first adventure was in Soviet Russia. This book was in black and white and Herge always felt it was propagandistic. It is not normally included in the series.
The world of Tintin
The premise of Tintin is that he travels around the world having various adventures.
This is a world of empire. White Europeans live in different countries, if not always in charge then in positions of power or influence.
The books contain images that represent the time in which it was first drawn. Tintin in the Congo for example reflects both Belgians complex relationship with this part of Africa and also the casual racism that pervaded Europe.
Later books are a little more nuanced. Characters are individuals with their own drives and emotions however, some of the humour relies on stereotypes even if these are subverted. Sometimes non-white characters are used as the butt of jokes.
The ‘East’ is portrayed as an exotic and timeless land. It is ‘orientalised’ to use Edward Said’s term.
Tintin and the Cigars of Pharaoh is largely set in modern Egypt.
Although the cover has a beautiful image of a pharaonic tomb with wall paintings and mummies, very little of the book is set in this type of space.
Early in the story Tintin and Sarcophagus set off to find the hidden tomb on the papyrus.
The site indicated on the map is bare sand. Sarcophagus digs down with his hands and finds a block of stone with a single ‘hieroglyph’ on it. This hieroglyph is the first clue in the mystery that will develop.
The idea of Egypt as a land hidden beneath the sands until European scholars rediscovered it, perhaps owes something to the dramatic discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922 but also to the narrative of Napoleon’s role. In fact, throughout history Egyptians have known about and been proud of their pharaonic past.
The tomb Tintin and Sarcophagus discover contains sarcophagi and Egyptian style columns, statues and wall paintings and boxes of cigars (containing, we later discover, cocaine).
A malodorous smoke spreads through the tomb. Tintin knows what it is. Drugs! He falls to the floor and into an hallucinatory dream. Snowy becomes Anubis.
Herge appears to have studied Egyptian art. The people on the wall paintings have different skin colours (polychromy) which was normal in Egyptian art. The scene is dominated by an image of Pharaoh on a chariot with archers in front of him. This wall painting seems based on an image from Ippolito Rosellini’s Monuments of Egypt and Nubia engraved by Carlo Lasinio.
This is a fascinating book in which it reveals about the moment of its creation.
It is surprising that the plot hinges on the international drug trade, both given the time it was set and produced and also because it is a children’s book set in Egypt. We are so attuned to such books hinging on ancient magical powers or artefacts that it is refreshing to come face to face with a villain more akin to say Alejandro Sosa (from Scarface) than someone from Scooby Dooby Doo.
Egyptian chariot, Public Domain work.
All images from Tintin used under fairuse as part of review.