The Oscars aren’t really my thing. There’s a good deal about the annual ceremony that I personally find obscene: the coiffure hides the fact that everything we see, before and after the event itself, is based on less on artistic achievement and more on marketing, down to the opulence of the “everyone wins” swag bags (which are, to the nominees’ credits, are often donated to charity.)
I understand that this year every nominee in the acting and directing categories will receive a “Mister Poop (TM)” toilet plunger, which, yes, is in the shape of the famous emoji, complete with a smiley face. I’ve learned Mister Poop (TM) is not strictly a novelty item, but rather an antimicrobial, glow-in-the-dark – yes, this is true – “fully functional plunger that really works.”
Despite my distaste for celebrity endorsements, I must admit I may just be jealous.
This year, while I do not plan to watch the show, I hope that Black Panther wins, as well as Roma, the latter for the strength of its social commentary, the former for its subtle and deep reverence for traditional African religions, particularly those of the equatorial Atlantic coast of the continent. After watching Black Panther, the spiritual reflections of the African traditional religions only stuck me afterwards in conversations with friends. What I took for granted as part of daily life, they were surprised by; to them it was much like being someone unfamiliar with Christianity walking into a cathedral and learning about the meaning embedded in the architecture. The film shared the wisdom of African spirituality and taught many about balance, ancestors and spirit, and for that I was both surprised and grateful.
In reflecting on the year in film that culminates in this awards ceremony, I learned that there would be no host at this year’s Oscars. Apparently there is quite a bit of buzz about how there can be a ceremony with no host. That made me wonder about the codes embedded in this ceremony, because I think Paganism is far more pervasive in society than we often acknowledge, much like I overlooked some of the meaningful coding in Black Panther because of my familiarity with it.Let’s start with the statue. As I reflected on the question who would be the actual master of ceremonies if there is no host, I realized the statue itself must be the overseer of the ceremony. The statue is always present, the center of the event, and even oversees the screen as the show is televised. The statue has also been vested with so much energy over the past 91 years: how can it not have become something more than a simple, gold-covered bronze receptacle of hope, disappointment, achievement, envy and admiration? I did a little hunting for information.
To begin with, let me stand corrected. The Oscar is not a statue; it is a statuette. Pardon me.
The statuette is a stylized figure of a person, presumably a man, holding a crusader sword. It is the center of the celebration and the center of the logo of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It is not clear why the figure needs a sword or what it is crusading against, but that is the story.
I learned that the Art Deco design of the statuette was created by art designer Cedric Gibbons, but sculpted by George Stanley, sculptor of the Muse Fountain at the Hollywood Bowl as a Federal art project under the WPA. That sculpture is titled “Muse of Music, Dance, Drama.” Cedric Gibbons, by the way, was the art director for films like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gaslight (1944), Quo Vadis (1951), and Julius Caesar (1953), among many others, and he won the Oscar 11 times out of his 38 nominations in his category. I also learned that the model for the statuette was the actor Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, a prolific Mexican actor who introduced Gibbons to his future wife, Delores del Rio.
And finally, I also learned that this is all legend.
Which then raises the question: why does the Oscar statuette resemble statues of the Egyptian god Ptah so closely? That’s Ptah, father of Imhotep, the famous deified priest who was an instigator of ancient Egyptian culture and creator of the step pyramid. Imhotep was also, regrettably, the featured character in The Mummy (1932), whose story was inspired by the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb 10 years earlier in 1922.
Ptah is an early deity of the ancient Egyptian religion who is both ubiquitous and mysterious in the archaeological record. Ptah is the ultimate creator; he governs craftsmen and is the architect of Memphis. He was identified with Hephaestus by the Greeks. He was also represented as a mummified man holding a staff with both hands in front of his body. He has angular features and a false straight beard that is often a feature in ancient Pharonic imagery.
Ptah is described thus: “He who set all the gods in their places and gave all things the breath of life.” While he invented masonry, he also become the patron of painters and sculptors – those who create the artistry around us.
Ptah’s epithets describe his role in Egyptian religion:
Ptah, the beautiful face
Ptah, lord of truth
Ptah, master of justice
Ptah, who listens to prayers
Ptah, lord of eternity
Ptah, master of ceremonies.
I’m not the first to dig this up. There appears to be a conspiracy theory about secret worship of ancient Egyptian religion in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. One suggestion is that name “Oscar” is a hidden variant of the Egyptian deity Sokar/Seker, the falcon-headed god who oversees the underworld. I found this disappointing. The Academy was apparently depleted of its imagination when coming up with a proxy for Seker; they just added an “o” so no one would suspect.
Whether there is a conspiracy in the Academy or not, the Oscars are nevertheless a ritual. They represent an initiation into a secret cult, itself a lineage that is 91 years old. They will close with ruling initiates who will claim the spotlight for the coming year. They will honor the muses and highlight the gods of comedy and drama. They will celebrate their accomplishments, and during the ceremony, they will honor their ancestors.
And, regardless of conspiracy, they honor Ptah, an African god, he of the beautiful face and master of ceremonies, by their acts of creations – whether it’s through a statuette or not.