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There’s a Very Good Reason Why Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” Video Is Set in Ancient Egypt

5 minute read

At first glance, Katy Perry’s latest music video, the Egypt-themed fantasy “Dark Horse,” seems to bear little resemblance to actual Egyptian history — but you might want to look twice. The clip’s director says there’s good reason for the Egyptian references, and prominent Egyptologists say that reason is good enough for them.

“[Perry] said that there’s actually a place in Egypt called Memphis, and she thought it was so interesting that Juicy J is from Memphis, Tenn.,” explains director Mathew Cullen. “She basically came to me and said, ‘I want to do something Egyptian and I want to combine it with Memphis hip-hop.’ That’s music to my ears — when an artist has a couple concepts that they want to mash up to create something fresh.”

Cullen says that while there was no on-site Egyptologist involved in the Los Angeles video shoot, they researched the period online to better “respect the symbolism” while having fun. Though Perry has been criticized for appropriating the symbols and images of other cultures — and has been under attack for “Dark Horse” for the same reasons — Cullen says he believes that while it’s dangerous to rip things directly from modern cultures without adding anything to them, ancient Egypt is part of what he calls our “shared collective mythology.”

“We’re only here because we build on the stories of every human being since the beginning of mankind,” he says. “The most important thing is that when you create something, and this is actually something Katy and I worked to do — you bring a new spin to it.”

And as it so happens, Perry and Cullen (who also directed the “California Gurls” video) did a pretty good job building on those stories.

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Full disclosure: when I called up some Egyptologists to ask them about Katy Perry, I was fully expecting them to trash the video. The inaccuracies in her similarly-themed performance of the song at the Brits have already been pointed out, and fans who are sticklers for history were turned off the video. But the reality was very different.

“I find this really very wonderful, but I’m willing to bend my formal standards,” says Robert K. Ritner, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. “Whoever put this together actually knew something about the myth of Cleopatra. There are a number of features in here that I could use in class.”

Here are some of those points that get a hearty thumbs up, courtesy of Ritner and David P. Silverman, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania and Curator of Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section:

  • The turquoise color seen in Perry’s make-up was used in Ancient Egypt; they often used colors inspired by nature, like the sky and water. Sealed tombs preserved the colors of their paintings, so historians can still tell what things would have looked like at the time.
  • Queens like Cleopatra really did have significant power — and, though it didn’t include the lightning-bolt-style magic that’s seen in the video, there was a belief in divine royalty.
  • The lyric about Aphrodite and Perry’s Greek-style dress have been called out by picky fans, but actually, they make perfect sense: Cleopatra wasn’t properly Egyptian; rather, she was descended from a Macedonian-Greek line, and her culture mixed Hellenic and Egyptian elements. In fact, Aphrodite is the analog to the Egyptian goddess Isis, who is represented by Perry’s winged ascent in the video.
  • The “walk like an Egyptian” pose does have a reference point in ancient paintings. The artists didn’t use foreshortening, so the iconic pose was a Cubist-like attempt to portray three-dimensional people by showing them from different angles. It was not, however, a dance.
  • The paintings on the wall behind Perry when she’s on the throne are clearly based on real tomb paintings.
  • The scene with Perry and the snakes suggests a reference to Cleopatra’s suicide via asps. At the time of her death, Cleopatra was dressed as Isis, which also loops back to Perry growing wings in the video.
  • The fan/monocle object Perry holds up shows the symbol of the Eye of Horus, a symbol of health and stability. (It has nothing to do with the Illuminati: “The many discussions of the Illuminati are nonsense,” says Ritner. Rather, the masonic imagery associated with the Illuminati is drawn from Egyptian imagery.)
  • The cat references and the scene with Boo the dog may reference Roman anti-Cleopatra propaganda, which implied that she made Marc Antony her lap dog.
  • Cullen and Perry even succeeded without trying: though Cullen says this wasn’t on purpose, Ritner sees a link between Perry getting a diamond grill to a myth that Cleopatra once dissolved a giant pearl in wine to demonstrate her wealth.
  • And even the parts that aren’t accurate at all — the Twinkies, for example — aren’t problematic. If Katy Perry fans do a little research about Ancient Egypt, they’ll follow a long line of people whose interest was sparked by Egypt-inspired pop-culture — from Boris Karloff’s mummy to Brendan Fraser’s, and from Betty Boop’s Cleopatra to Elizabeth Taylor’s.

    “[Egypt has] always been a part of popular culture,” says Silverman. “It encourages people to think of these things, and some of those people actually begin to learn a lot.”

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    Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com