Monday, September 29, 2014

Ancient Tanis, Forgotten Occasionally But Not Lost – From Rosemary’s Baby to Indiana Jones

What has the Nile delta, the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Rosemary’s Baby have in common?

Tanis … a city to conjure with, is an actual city rooted in history and interestingly enough, not lost at all and it never was; but it did get forgotten on occasion.  With this grammatically clumsy and editorially nightmarish opening sentence, let me introduce you to the historical Egyptian city of Tanis, by way of fiction and hearsay.  Most have only heard of Tanis through fiction, either in books or movies, probably primarily through the late 60s book and film, Rosemary’s Baby and through the classic 80s film, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. so let’s use those as a jumping off point.  Motherhood first.  
Rosemary’s Baby [1] (the 1967 book by Ira Levin and the 1968 film by Roman Polanski) features a silver filigree talisman filled with what is referred to as “Tannis Root”, that is part and parcel of making her baby “more like her father.”  It is associated with evil (according to the book quoted below) and as a partial MacGuffin (plot device) required to help things along as well as to cue you in as to who is in on the conspiracy.

In the book & film a (fictional) book is cited, All Them Witches, which just happens to have an underlined passage, (for the slow learners no doubt) shedding light on Tannis Root:  

 In their rituals, they often use the fungus called Devil's Pepper.  This is a spongy matter derived from swampy regions having a strong pungent odor. Devil's Pepper is considered to have special powers.  It has been used in rituals and worn on charms.

The chatty Marilyn Harvey, who is Dr. Saperstein’s receptionist, happens to mention that the good doctor, “… has the same smell once in a while, whatever it is, and when he does, oh boy."
In the story, a neighbor in the apartment building, Terry Gionoffrio, plunges to her death, wearing a “Tannis Root” filled pendant, after putting up with a wild night of chanting by her neighbors.  If you have ever lived in thin-wall apartments, you know the feeling.  Confusingly, there is a real plant called Devil’s Pepper, which is toxic, but there is no Tannis Root because it’s only a plot device.[2]  BTW, the actual Devil’s Pepper is not a fungus or a tuber, it’s a tree, all parts of which are toxic as the name Rauvolfia Vomitoria might suggest.  I haven’t found anything to indicate Devil’s Pepper (aka Tannis Root) has any strong, disagreeable odor.  Like in Lovecraft’s works, the horror from this story comes from the inevitability of the conclusion as well as the steps of getting there, not in the ending itself.  Remember that horror is a process, not a destination. 

You might be thinking, why this Tanis place anyway?  Tanis (Zoan in the Bible, but also under other names) might have gotten this magical association because ancient Egypt in general had a strong traditional association with magic starting from the time of the early era of the Hebrews, then the Greeks and Romans [3], through the Middle Ages and Renaissance right down to today.  Tanis, is in proximity to Alexandria (one of the great epicenters of magic teachings in ancient times) and the fact that Tanis supposedly becomes “lost” or destroyed by an angry deity gets some of that classical magical association with the big plus of being in the lost city genre.  But it’s not as easy as that.

The only problem is that Tanis was never actually lost or destroyed, but nearby Lake Manzala and its associated canal silted up and the city slowly went into decline over the centuries.   It was eventually abandoned with the ruins showing clearly there had been an important city at one time.  Tanis was located on the north east portion of the Nile delta with a useful lake and canal, making it an important seaport to the known world and land conduit to lands to the east.  Founded around 1070 BCE and it peaked in the XIX and XXI dynasties as a southern capital of a divided nation, but eventually had a long languishing decline and was final abandoned about 500 CE.  Tanis lived on a heck of a long time after the biblical era.  Tanis is noted by the ancient writers Strabo, Julius Caesar, Mantheo, Herodotus, Pliny, and Ptolemy, who mentioned Tanis, none as a ruin.  No, this time around I’m not going to dig out the refs, page, and line numbers, do it yourself.  But here's a map to put the location into perspective.
In fact, later Tanis was the site of numerous archaeological digs beginning in the mid 19th century, involving such luminaries as Auguste Mariette and Flinders Petrie.  Both these guys are well worth some reading if you have any sort of interest in the history of archeology.  Between the two of them, you can trace the change from artifact collecting to what we now know as modern archeological technique.

Jumping way ahead, in 1939 several intact royal tombs of the 21st and 22nd dynasties were excavated in the main temple enclosure in Tanis, but it wasn;t by Germans but by the French.  No, not Dr. René Emile Belloq, but Prof. Pierre Montet. They found lots of wonderful artifacts, silver coffins, gold masks, and jewelry in gold, which recall the burial of Tutankhamen, though the Tanis finds are not quite as rich or as well known.  Moreover, the Tanis tombs were secondhand and even the sarcophagi were reused material from earlier periods.  In 2009 a sacred lake measuring 50 by 40 feet (15 by 12 meters) and dedicated to the goddess Mut was found at Tanis and work in the area continues.

In Weird Fiction, setting and background information is very important.  Ancient missing cities are great stuff of fiction and that glamour is transferred to whatever you are writing about when it’s associated together with your subject.  Read that as “street cred.”  Sprinkle on the magical association of ancient Egypt and you have instant mystery in ancient settings, especially if it is unverifiable because the city is lost.
The Tanis of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, is all pretty much ballyhoo because Tanis was never lost and it wasn’t destroyed by a sand storm, the Well of Souls isn’t in Tanis – it’s supposedly in Jerusalem under the Dome of The Rock.  For that matter, the Staff of Ra is totally fictional, but makes a great MacGuffin and a beautiful scene in the fictional map room.  Of course the Nazis didn’t “discover Tanis” in 1936, because it has been an important archeological dig site for well 50 years prior.  Today it continues to yield archeological objects and data.  But hey, mystery sells – even if you have to invent it. 
But let’s recap Raiders for those who were asleep: 
Jones:  Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets Moses brought down  
 from Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?
Musgrove:  Well, I --
Jones:  Oh, look.  The Hebrews took the broken pieces and put them in the Ark. When they settled in Canaan, they put the Ark in a place called the Temple of Solomon.
Marcus:  In Jerusalem.
Jones:  Where it stayed for many years. Until, all of a sudden, whoosh, it's gone.
Eaton:  Where?
Jones:  Well, nobody knows where or when.
Marcus:  However, an Egyptian pharaoh --
Jones:  Shishak.
Marcus: Yes... invaded the city of Jerusalem in 980 B.C., and he may have taken the Ark 
back to the city of Tanis and hidden it in a secret chamber called the Well of Souls.
Eaton:  Secret chamber?
Marcus Brody:  However, about a year after the pharaoh had returned to Egypt, the city 
of Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a whole year.  Wiped clean by the wrath of God. [4]
Musgrove:  Obviously, we've come to the right men.  Now, you seem to know, uh, all about
this Tanis, then.
Know Tanis they do, at least they know an important way of using fiction to embed the Macguffin(s) into history, or at least quasi-history, with a big dollup of goose grease and a lot of chrome.  But it works well for story progression.  Remember what H. P. Lovecraft said about writing Weird Fiction

If I may quote a bit of dialogue from earlier in Raiders which illustrates the point perfectly.  The scene is Prof Jones, teaching his archeology class:  This site also demonstrates one of the great dangers of archeology, not to life and limb, although that does sometimes take place, I'm talking about folklore.”  In this case it’s folklore injected directly into the story by the writers [5] of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The folklore is added by the movie makers themselves to the story of “lost” Tanis, the location of Well of Souls to Tanis, the Ark of the Covenant in Tanis, Staff of Ra, the Map Room & etc. 
By now you probably have a few questions.  Here’s a few links to answer some of your questions about the real Tanis and also the Raider’s fictional Tanis rather than drag this out any further.  There will be no test.

And finally, Tannis anyone?  (Yeah, I had to say it).  That cliche goes back a long way to Humphrey Bogart's youth when he played young aristocrats on stage.  See the link  Sorry for the diversion, back to the subject at hand.

By embedding your story or prop into history and weaving a bit of folklore into the mix, you can add depth to your work, just don’t start believing your own inventions and propaganda.  There are also plenty of fringe and crank books that you can mine for “associations” to fill out your pseudo history if the actual historical record is a bit thin.  It worked well for Raiders sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls – well kinda.  As an aside, why do all these ancient temples that stood for thousands of years always just happen to cave in when the good guys show up?

Hopefully this viewing of historical Tanis through the distorting lens of fictional book and film will make you more interested in the history of Tanis as well as understand a bit better about the use of historical settings in building up credibility in Weird Fiction as well as touching on the important of props and their backstory. 

I felt my previous posts were getting a bit heavy and relied a lot on ancient writings, so I thought I would lighten it up a bit with some popular fiction references and how they tie into history and the importance of settings and background information in weird fiction for writers and prop makers.  The techniques of fiction writers are worth some study to gain insight into the technique.  In prop making, the backstory and presentation is nearly as important as the prop itself to make a believable whole and a create a lifting of disbelief. 

Mea Culpa – Kinda, Sorta

I’m not a biblical scholar by any means and frankly a lot has been debated by theologians and scholars for centuries, so I expect that some of the dates and explanations here might fall short in somebody’s eyes (be it scholar, theologian, or just plain crank) at some time or another.  I’m not really interested in stirring soul-searching debate, just making discussion about the use of the historical Tanis in fictional works.  I also attempted to keep it under my 3,000 word cap by using lots of links.  If you enjoyed this Egyptian article, you might also check out my other post about The First Female Pharaoh Nitocris and her association with the Weird Tales crowd.  Again, I am no historian and not an author, so any errors I made, were made … uh, erroneously. 

I really had a lot of fun putting together this article and found there was way too much to include, so I added a lot of interesting links below.  Hopefully this tantalization will encourage you to check out some of the material.  Happy reading.                                 CoastConFan

Update, March 2015 – I did some reading recently and turned up some more Tanis information: 

During the western attack on Fatimid Egypt, the town of Tanis was attacked by a small fleet of forces of crusaders, mostly newly arrived in the mideast from Nevers, France, in early November of 1168 and all the people in the town slaughtered.  This late destruction added in with the ongoing silting up of the access route and the terrible slaughter of the inhabitants, many of which were Christian Copts, which was probably was a major step in the decline of Tanis.  The fact that the French forces has lost their commander while reroute meant that they were only controlled with great exertion by the overall commander, King Amalric I of Jerusalem with his Hospitaller Knights. 

Source, P381, Vol II, A History of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, Cambridge University Press 1951.  

Fifty years later, the Crusaders came back (5th Crusade) and invaded Egypt again.  While besieging the delta city of Diametta they decided to go over to Tanis for another swipe in November 1219.  They found the town evacuated and the Crusaders looted to their heart's content. They eventually also took Diametta, but didn't hold it for long and the whole bunch got ejected.  Source, P162, Vol III op. cit. 

H. Rider Haggard wrote the novel, The World’s Desire (1889 in serial form) in collaboration with Andrew Lang.  A good portion of the story takes place in Tanis where Odysseus, an eternal wanderer, tries to choose between two women after his wife is slain.  There are some interesting modern spins on the meaning of the story of dualities and choice.    I read this back in the early 70s and probably will have to do a reread since its gotten a bit fuzzy in my memory.  But we are in luck because it’s available in electronic form on Project Gutenberg, for free.   Download The World’s Desire here.

Update May 2017-- I added a map (above) that shows the Nile Delta and the location of Tanis.

  [1] Rosemary’s Baby was the best selling horror novel of the 1960s and is well worth a read as a highly influential suspense/horror work that taps into some of the most primal of fears:  What if our baby is “not normal” and “what if my spouse is working against me.”  These fears are right up there with fear of the dead/returning dead on the Fear Index.  The film and book are underrated these days, but really needs to be included in any list of classic horror works.

  [2] BTW, Lovecraft associations run deep in Levins’ Rosemary’s Baby:  Hutch the landlord knows the apartment’s dark reputation. He tells them of terrible things that took place in the building around the turn of the century:  about two sisters, who cooked and ate several children including a niece of theirs in the Victorian era.  Adrian Marcato, lived there in the 1890s and practiced witchcraft, claiming to have conjured up the living devil.  Some residents and neighbors must have believed him because he was attacked and nearly killed in the lobby.  
  According to the story line, after that, the building was known as The Black Bramford.  But things didn’t end there, because in 1959, a dead infant was found in the basement wrapped in newspaper.  Despite all that, our couple decides to live there anyway (classic).  After they move in, their neighbor leaps to his death, wearing a Tannis Root talisman.  But this doesn’t deter the couple and they conceive a child who looks like its daddy.  Doesn’t this sound a bit like The Dunwich Horror, Pickman’s Model, or Dreams in the Witch House?  See this synopsis of Rosemary’s Baby if you are interested:
  The building exterior used in the film version was an actual NYC structure, the Dakota, (1 West 72nd Street) started in Oct 1880 and finished in Oct 1884 and is a historic building on Central Park West.  Coincidently it was at the Dakota, that John Lennon lived and was killed outside the entrance 8 Dec 1980 by Mark Chapman, nearly 100 years after construction started on the Dakota.  Note that the fictional Black Bramford of Rosemary’s Baby fame is located by Levin at 55th St and 7th Ave in the book.  Since only the exterior was used, interiors were filmed on sets in Hollywood.
  [3] Egypt was considered so contaminating by the Roman government, that travel to Egypt by Romans was highly restricted for many years after the conquest, especially for high-level functionaries of the Empire.
  [4] So the historical Tanis wasn’t swallowed up by a sandstorm at that time, since it was around circa 500 CE, about 1,500 years after the sacking of the First Temple, but it does make for a good story.

Encyclopedia Brittanica says:  Tanis, biblical Zoan, modern Ṣān al-Ḥajar al-Qibliyyah,  ancient city in the Nile River delta, capital of the 14th nome (province) of Lower Egypt and, at one time, of the whole country. The city was important as one of the nearest ports to the Asiatic seaboard. With the decline of Egypt’s Asiatic empire in the late 20th dynasty, the capital was shifted from Per Ramessu, and about 1075 BCE the 21st-dynasty pharaohs made Tanis their capital. A large temple of Amon was built, mainly with stone from the ruins of Per Ramessu. The Libyan pharaohs of the 22nd dynasty continued to reside at Tanis until the collapse of their shrinking domain before Shabaka, the Kushite founder of the 25th dynasty, in 712 BCE. Tanis declined with Shabaka’s shift of the royal capital to Memphis and with the rise of Pelusium, 20 miles (32 km) to the east, as the main eastern-frontier fortress and trade centre.”

Links of interest
A blog article about Polanski’s additions to the Rosemary’s Baby script

Links about the real, historical Tanis with great photos: 
A nice site with an overview of Tanis tombs
Biblical importance of Tanis/Zoan

Abbreviated account of Petrie’s Findings at Tanis
For the hard-core archeology fan: dig books of Flinder Petrie 1883-4 Pt I 

Biblical historical associations of Tanis

Photos of the filming of Raiders at the set of Tanis
Some shots where they filed the Tanis dig location for the film

For those of you with a quick eye, you may have noticed the R2D2 & 3CPO friez in the tomb:
He also points out that:  THX1138 is on a license plate of a car in Egypt (that license plate gets around – it was in American Grafitti as well.

Raiders prop stuff
Image in the Bible in Raiders. 

Design of the prop ark based on artwork by 19th century James Tissot
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836 – 1902

A bit of trivia about the name Tanis
Far from having a sinister association, Tanis has been used as a personal name for over 100 years.  I haven’t delved into it deeply but I did turn up a few facts.  The use of Tanis as a male name in English seems to be much more recent than its use as a female name. One of the first uses of it for a female character was in American author Amelie Rives's novel, Tanis the Sand-digger (1893).  Sinclair Lewis's famous 1922 novel, Babbitt features a female character named Tanis Judique.

You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.


  1. Excellent excavation of information, thank you

  2. Wow, I love this, and I love you for putting this together. Wonderful to find a keen mind and insight on literature and cinema. You've done a lot of work here...but I keep thinking I first read "Tanis or Tannis Root or Tannis Potion" in an old horror book about mummies coming back to life...or was it in an old movie? Some dusty dark thing from the 1930's or 40's. Bram Stoker also wrote a book -- which I read years ago -- but haven't come across in ages, a mystery/horror with an Egyptian curse and that in that book this "Tannis" potion or whatever it is is also referred to...I think. Maybe I mis-heard or mis-read or more likely mis-remember but I thought i would post this because who knows...maybe someone else also remembers Tannis as a film/novelistic piece of folklore from other than Rosemary's Baby and Raiders of the Lost Ark. ty :)