Pool of Lotus: Magical Reflections on New Egyptian Spirituality

Out of the deeps rises the mysterious lotus. Stop in for refreshment, heka, and reflections from the sacred waters of ancient Egypt.

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Holli Emore

Holli Emore

Holli Emore is Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the premiere educational resource for Pagan and other nature-based religions (www.cherryhillseminary.org), founder of Osireion (www.osireion.com), editor/writer for Wild Garden: Pagans in the Growing Interfaith Landscape at Patheos.com, and serves on the board of directors for Interfaith Partners of S.C. (interfaithpartnersofsc.org).  She is co-founder of the original Pagan Round Table, www.paganroundtable.org, and author of "Pool of Lotus," available in print, or for Kindle or Nook, at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/holli1032

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b2ap3_thumbnail_goddesseye.jpgIn the early days of Egyptology scholars took the attitude that a transcendent experience was only expected after death in ancient Egypt.  This fit well with the predominant Judeo-Christian background of virtually all of them, as well as the desire to demonstrate their new profession could be as scientific as any others.  But the record is plain as day that mystery schools flourished in at least the Late period, influencing other mystery cults all around the Mediterranean.  Contemporary Egyptologist Jan Assman even goes so far as to assert that ancient Egyptians could not have developed their own mysticism because that it would not have been based on lived real-life experience.  Really?! 

I do love Assman’s writing, but as an unabashed mystic myself I am all too aware that close encounters with another kind of reality, one we often call “god” or “the divine”, happen all the time.  It seems far more likely that Egyptians encountered this numinous, liminal reality enough times that they began to form, first mythologies, then theologies, around it. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_Pached1.jpgWhat I find so intriguing about Egyptian myth is how it is used to shape one’s personal narrative.  By experiencing the mysteries of Osiris, for example, one can prepare for inevitable mortality.  But at the same time the initiate uncovers layers of his own psyche, depths of meaning about the here and now. 

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  • Holli Emore
    Holli Emore says #
    Isidora, I love Naydler! I also heartily recommend Rosemary Clark's books. She worked for the Oriental Institute at University of
  • Isidora Forrest
    Isidora Forrest says #
    Hi, Holli...couldn't agree more. I rather like Jeremy Nadler's take on it in Temple of the Cosmos.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_isis-3.gifOnce upon a time in Egypt, back when the Nile was free to flood and recede, the harvest season (Shemu) was at its height about now. Planting would have happened in our late fall (Peret); the inundation would come again in mid- or late-summer (Akhet). Renenutet and Aset (Isis) were two of the goddesses who were honored during this season that most of us know as the vernal equinox.

Temple Osireion likes to celebrate this end of the season of Peret, the coming of spring, the flush of new life symbolized by eggs. Many ancients observed this week as the time that Aset gave birth to Horus. In fact, during our ceremony when we wave participants with a fan, it is in remembrance that Aset turned herself into a bird to stir Osiris back to life long enough for her to conceive.

Sham el Nessim is a very old Egyptian national holiday, but even in modern Egypt thousands of families, regardless of their religion, go to parks and the countryside to picnic, decorate eggs, take long walks, and, as the ancients said, “Sham el Nessim,” “sniff the breeze.” At our gathering, we decorate eggs with ancient Egyptian symbols like the ankh and eye of Horus. Everyone takes a sprig of spring onion after the ritual, breaks it open a little and smells it; this is to keep away the evil eye for the year to come - it’s especially important if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. And we also share lettuce and fish, more potent symbols of the land when it is rich, ripe and fertile.  

Sniff the breeze this week as the sun moves a bit higher in the sky. Although snow has fallen on much of the country, most of us are seeing beneath it the first bulbs and green shoots of spring. The air is indeed fresh with the scent of hope, new possibilities in the season ahead.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_herculaneum-isis-temple.jpgBlest is the happy man
Who knows the Mysteries the gods ordain (Euripides)

It is a mystery – that we can be One and also separate, and likewise the gods.

It is a mystery – that we can have a solitary experience which then links us inextricably with others who have shared that same experience, or one like it.

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Awake in beauty - rsi m nfr
Awake in peace - rsi m htp
Awake my soul in beauty and peace
Awake in beauty and peace, Great Ones in the Boat of a Million Years
Awake in beauty and peace, ancestors, guides, spirit friends and elements
Dua!  Iti m htp - Hail and welcome!

This is the beginning of my daily morning devotional, based on an ancient Egyptian prayer. As I light a candle* while offering this prayer, I imagine myself in my wholeness as if my soul is waking to a renewed awareness of its immortality.  I remember the great continuous thread of existence of which I am a part.  I rebirth myself into the present moment, ready to bring the gifts of the past and future into my day.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Abu-Simbel-video-capture.jpg (click photo to watch the sun rise at Abu Simbel)

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b2ap3_thumbnail_bookofgatesramesses1a.jpgBook of the Dead, Book of the Amduat, Book of Caverns, Coffin Texts, Book of the Night, Book of the Earth, Book of Gates - these and more comprise a group of ancient Egyptian texts which describe the journey of Ra through the night world and, by extension, that of the dead soul following his pattern. First discovered by Champollion in the Valley of the Kings in 1829, they were pretty much dismissed as priestly fantasies by subsequent Egyptologists, though Maspero and Lefébure worked on deciphering some of the books in the 19th century. Only in the 20th century did scholars like Piankoff and Hornung begin to really study this rich material.

But I can understand why some were initially put off. I even found myself commenting last week to a friend, “The ancient Egyptians were in their own way just as nutty as the early Christians!” (If you’ve read all the lately-translated apocryphal texts you’ll know what I mean.) Hornung’s The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife is a blow-by-blow description of what you see in the accompanying drawings. Page after page of embellishments, fantastical netherworld characters, and attempts to graphically illustrate esoteric concepts begin to make me a bit dizzy. I start to wonder just how much artistic license the different priest-artist-scribes employed while creating their masterpieces.
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But I’ve reconsidered. Some say that pre-industrial people did not distinguish betweenb2ap3_thumbnail_hepetglyph.gif the physical and the realm of the soul, as we do now. Certainly, the written record indicates that Egyptians viewed every part of existence as infused with meaning and spirit. The books of the afterlife predominantly depict and describe these ideas, illustrated with a seemingly-endless pantheon of otherworldly deities and characters. Hence, a human figure with the head of an cobra can stand for the motherly protection for which the cobra was noted.  A floating pair of arms may denote protection, or the reverential passing of the sun disk from one place to another. Mummies are shown which have waked from the dead and turned over in their coffin, the implication being that they are about to rise and walk into a new life. And snakes - there are a lot of snakes, some of them a protective coil or ourobouros, and others represent the sinister Apep (or Apophis).

b2ap3_thumbnail_gates21.jpgEgyptian culture was one that valued dreams and the numinous. The Duat was nothing if not liminal, poised as it was on the edges between life and death and new life, between conscious and subconscious, between this world and the next. I can imagine that priests who were truly devoted to their practice and craft would birth fresh ideas in the course of temple life. No doubt, some also wanted to impress the client with elaborate products that might be perceived as better than the last client’s - though most of these works were found in tombs of pharaohs. The texts also span many centuries and several locales; given how different English communications now are radically different from only 400 years ago, I would likewise expect Egyptian texts to show some evolution.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Book_of_Gates_3rd_Hour.jpgThe afterlife books also remind me of the value of personal gnosis. Our scientific era has made this a dicey subject - how can gnosis replace so-called verifiable fact? But ancient Egyptians understood the importance of those insights which can only emerge from within, from the dark waters of the Duat, or from the watery interior of Nut’s body (through which the sun also passed during the night). Pondering the mysteries of the afterlife texts is like stepping into those waters and exploring, one foot in the conscious world and one in that of the soul.

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No wonder the magi watched the skies.  This is the time of year when all the heavenly bodies seem to dazzle with chilly brilliance in their indigo field of space. 

Maldevian Starry Sky Here in the woodlands part of the country, the sky seems to open downward with the falling leaves.  Not only does the dark come sooner, faster, longer, but small twinkling lights peep from beneath the highest branches of the woods behind my home. 

What wonders must have shown themselves in ancient times, centuries before anyone dreamed that a satellite camera might show the earth covered by an Indra’s net of human-made lights.  Tonight from the orbiting space station, astronauts can see a grand conjunction of the Earth, Jupiter and Venus.  The sun has just completed another annual analemma, a sort of ourobouran eternal dance through the sky. 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_isis_horus.jpgCome, the darkest night

Come, new light at dawn

Aset, bring the child of promise,

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Most of us grew up listening to song lyrics that proclaimed a lack of satisfaction. Here in mid-life I find myself increasingly satisfied, peaceful and content, or hetep – a fitting mood for today’s annual holiday of Thanksgiving.

The word hetep was also used in the classic “offering formula,” a standardized epithet placed on stelae commemorating the dead, on tomb walls and numerous other inscriptions. The formula started with the phrase hetep-di-nesu, “a gift the king gives.” Since the king was the priest for all of Egypt, any offering was thought of as offered by the king, even if it was just you ordering up a monument for your mom and dad.

Here’s what hetep-di-nesu looks like:b2ap3_thumbnail_htpdi.gif

And here’s a whole offering formula for a guy named Ky:

b2ap3_thumbnail_offeringforumulaglyph.gifb2ap3_thumbnail_offeringformulatranscribe.gif
Translated, it means, a gift which the king gives to Osiris, lord of Djedu, lord of Abydos, he gives an offering of bread, beer, cattle, fowl, alabaster and linen and every good thing on which a god lives, for the spirit of the revered one, Ky.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_IsisCU.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_Nbt-HtLamentationCU.jpgCome to your house, Osiris!
Long, long have I not seen you
My heart mourns you.
Shall I not see you, Good King?
Come to your beloved
Gods and men look for you, weep for you together
While I can see I call to you . . .

In ancient Egypt, each person hoped to make the pilgrimage to Abydos at least once in their lifetime to attend the Osirian mysteries, observed in early November, near the end of the season of Akhet, the annual flooding of the Nile.

As the waters began to recede, they left behind rich black silt, leaving the land fertile for another year’s crops. Until the late 19th century, no one knew why the Ninle so dramatically flooded most of the country, or where all the excess water came from, and yet, the Nile, with its accompanying cycle of flooding, sowing, harvest and dry season, was the most powerful force in Egypt. With a reliable food source and a way to travel through the country, ancient Egypt became the richest and most powerful country in that part of the world.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Set1Crop.jpgThe ancients carried a memory of the great ones who came before them, the children of Ra named Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Set (the Egyptians called them Asar, Aset, Nebt-Het and Sety). Firstborn and king Osiris, with his sister wife Isis, ruled the land with care, teaching the people to weave linen, make papyrus, brew beer and wine, and beautify (embalm) their dead.

But the most important lesson, the mystery of life, death and rebirth, came through the story of Osiris, which Temple Osireion presents annually as a ritual drama. It is a timeless story, with echoes in other mysteries throughout the classical world - Demeter and Persephone, Attis, Dionysus and Jesus.

b2ap3_thumbnail_AnubisEntry2.jpgThe festival opened with a procession in the streets led by a priest wearing the mask of Anubis (Anpu).  The soon-inebriated crowd re-enacted the murder of Osiris by his brother Set.  Inside the temple, priests conducted the sacred rituals in private.  Two priestesses played the parts of Isis and her sister Nephthys, each reciting a solemn lamentation.  The first day, the priests placed seeds in a coffin-like container with water and soil.  On the third day of the festival the priests opened the container to reveal that the buried seeds, like Osiris, had germinated and come to life.

Every one of us experiences pain, loss, grief, at some time in our lives. To experience that loss through the medium of a drama enables us to gain new insight about what we have gone through. By reliving the mysteries of Osiris we may, like Isis, find the power inside to conceive new life. We may, like Osiris, discover our own eternal, immortal nature, and rise to new life.

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O King, the mouth of the earth is split open for you, Geb speaks to you.  May you be cleansed in the Jackal Lake, may you be purified in the Lake of the Duat.  Come in peace . . . (Utterance 697, Pyramid Texts, trans. Faulkner) 

We are approaching the time of year when many of the living things around us appear to die, when our spirits sag a little with the dwindling light and ebbing warmth. 

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The Pyramid Texts urge the recently-deceased king along in his journey towards eternity.  Egypt’s risk for seismic activity is lower than many parts of the world, so the idea of the earth splitting open for the king may not carry memories of destruction as it would in many parts of the world.  Instead, it represents the welcome  of the earth deity, Geb, and the opportunity to be cleansed in the lakes of the Duat.  

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My heart is with me, it shall not be carried off.
I am the ruler of my heart.
I live in maat.
I am Horus, pure of heart.
My heart, my mother, my heart, my mother,
. . . my existence on earth.

Ab-a ma-a, an un tjetet-f
Nuk neb abu
Ank-a em maat
Nuk Heru, ami-ab
Ab-a en mut-a sep sen
. . . una tep ta

(adapted from The Papyrus of Ani, trans. Wallis Budge)

b2ap3_thumbnail_PapyrusofAni.JPG
Last night I dreamed that someone handed me a premature baby. The roughly two-pound creature was disturbing to see, though I felt great love for it. I held it against my body to keep it warm. Then it began to speak aloud to me, expressing its concerns about me and encouraging me not to fear death, but to think, rather, about life and eternal things. One time I set it down for a moment, and it told me, I will die if you let me grow cold. When I woke, I could not shake the feeling of the baby’s presence, and then it came to me that the premature infant was my inner self. I don’t know how I know this, but I do.

For the ancient Egyptian, the heart was the center of life in the body, intrinsic to personal identity, essential to ankh, or eternal life. The writer of The Papyrus of Ani calls out to his heart to stand in witness to his integrity and worth. The heart knows its own better than any other entity, be it ba, ka or neter (deity).

Ab-a en mut-a! My heart, my mother! When all other layers of defense and separation to protect us from the world fall away, there is only our heart, the mother of our existence. Stripped of all else, we cry out to our heart as to a mother to shield us, to assure we are able to walk safely through the world.

b2ap3_thumbnail_red-tailed-hawk-i.jpgWhen we learn to let our heart lead, then we are strong like the shining golden hawk-god who soars above the earth on wings of maat, with the vision of Ra’s burning eye. Then we may say, Nuk Heru, ami-ab, I am Horus, pure of heart.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_mummy-boxes.jpg
Most of us who find spiritual roots and sources in ancient Egypt are sorely aggrieved by the damage being done to ancient sites, relics and museums during this time of political turmoil.  Osireion joined groups around the country (world?) a few weeks ago to magically cool the region down.  We drew a map of Egypt on papyrus and embellished it with hieroglyphs for peace and other related ideas.  We poured over it cool rose-scented water and it now resides in a block of ice in my freezer.

But so much damage has already been done.  Recently, I dared to think that perhaps some good did come, after all, out of the 19th and early 20th centuries pillaging of Egyptian artifacts for European and American museums and private collections.  And yet, now those collections may be the safest place for this priceless cultural heritage.  So many people who invested heavily in -name-inscribed sarcophagi, stelae, and tombs, were forgotten for hundreds of years until Egyptology descended in a frenzy of Egyptophilia.  Now every good amateur Egyptologist knows the names of Khaemwaset or Tuya or even Tutankhamen (a king most didn't believe existed until Howard Carter's discovery).  Perhaps this is how their magic is working itself out in our time.

Meanwhile, I'm relieved that things are actually quieter in modern Egypt for the moment. The focus has turned to Syria, another cradle of our spiritual traditions.  May Maat soon return balance to the good people of every land, and may Set thwart the isfet, the chaos, being sown by those whose minds are clouded by anger and fear.

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  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor says #
    So Mote It Be.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_unasbc2_20130906-021346_1.pngThe oldest religious texts in the world, the Pyramid Texts, are found in the Old Kingdom Pyramid of Unas; they are dated to perhaps 2400 BCE, though they surely were in use for long before that.  The sophisticated cosmology and deeply-layered poetry must have been in development and then use for many generations before it was recorded in the tomb of the 5th Dynasty king.

Though I have read two different English translations several times, I still feel that I've wandered into a magical cave when I read PT passages.  Ritual voices seem to whisper all around me.  I can almost smell the incense, smell the roasted bull and guttering oil lamps and floral garlands that are being laid on the sarcophagus before it is sealed for eternity. 

The Book of Going Forth By Day (Book of the Dead) and Coffin Texts gained great popularity in later centuries, but the Pyramid Texts were solely for the use of the king upon his or her death (yes, there were at least two other female rulers, in addition to Hatshepsut).  In new Egyptian spirituality, we identify with the ruler's journey of transformation, taking on the role of the pharaoh as s/he becomes first an Osiris, then Ra, then an imperishable star.

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All summer long it has rained in South Carolina, a state plagued with drought since I moved here in 1986. When it’s sunny, the humidity is smothering. At the beginning of August, Osireion held a public ceremony to mark Wep Renpet, the opening of the year and flooding of the Nile. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_WepRenpet2013.jpg

In the beautiful woodland park beside the river where we hold such occasions, a local news station joined us as part of a story about minority religions (at the anniversary of the Sikh gurdwara shootings in 2012). A number of non-Osireion friends joined us, despite the heat and humidity; we sang, danced (not too much in the heat) and visited an altar with a large bowl filled with rosewater. Someone had the inspiration this year to add some ice to the water, making it a delicious sensual experience. 

Some of the rain has eased up, though we continue to have a Gulf weather systema1sx2_Thumbnail1_Group1.jpg stalled over the Southeast. The nearby river is high, swollen and full of mud, though ours is red mud, while the life-giving silt of Kem was black. Even though here in my state the growing season has passed its peak, this is a time of new beginnings for many of us.

The respite, vacations, festivals and laziness of summer now lead to fall semesters, the end-of-year holidays, and many projects taken up with new or renewed zeal. It’s easy to relate to the time of flooding in ancient Egypt because we are also enriched and enlivened. Even the name of the season, Akhet, reminds us of fresh starts since it is also the word for the horizon where the rising sun appears.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_ba2.jpgKa, double, khaibit, ba, sahu - what a confusing complexity of terms for what moderns simply call “soul.” Everything we know about the ancient Egyptian concepts of non-physical being come from writings like the Pyramid Texts, the Book of Going Forth, Coffin Texts, etc. These do not define terms that must have been an accepted part of the culture, but we can derive a sense of their meaning from the context of what they do, where they live, and to what they are attached. Reams and reams have been written about Egyptian ideas of the soul, but I will only give as very brief summary here, as best I understand.

shat - this is the living body; a corpse or mummified body is the khat.
ba - shown in art as a bird with a human head, I think of this as the personal identity, the personality. The ba is restless and longs for the next life, but is attached to and continually drawn back to the shat, then the khat.
ka - source, life force, “higher self,” the group spirit or energy of one’s ancestral group.  
akh - the being of light that one becomes as a last step in spiritual development after death, often translated as “shining one,” or “imperishable star.”
sah - a spiritual body, sah is to akh as ka is to ba

Some people also add some more concepts to this group:

ren - one’s true name; to speak the true name of a person or any thing in the world gives one power over it.
ib - the heart, seat of individual existence, conscience, intellect.
sekhem - personal power or will
hau - unified whole of all aspects of one’s existence

b2ap3_thumbnail_ba3.jpgEgyptians also located different qualities of the soul in various parts of the body, for example:

heart - seat of being
legs - strength
arms - ability and efficiency
genitals - creative power
mouth - entry and exit point of life
eye - inner strength, protection, knowledge
ears - understanding, compassion

Somehow, western culture began to view existence in a binary or polarized pattern, about the time the Egyptian civilization was dying. Many will not accept the veracity of anything that is not physical; others exalt the non-physical as a superior state. Egyptian cosmology, however, is all about the cycle of life, death, transformation and rebirth. Each aspect of the self is a facet of being, a step along the way of growing.

One thing the current age seems to be getting right is to recognize the hau, the whole self. But I also like the nuances of the Egyptian terms, which honor the parts of our self, defining the underlying purposes of each.

I have passed through the Duat
I have seen my father Osiris,
I have scattered the gloom of the night . . .
I have become a sah,
I have become an akh,
I have become equipped,
Oh, all you gods and akhs,
make a way for me . . . (Book of Going Forth By Day)

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b2ap3_thumbnail_shemsudjehuti_20130707-220353_1.jpgRekhi ketu tjen, rekh kua renu then
I know you, I know your names,

Emek ui ua em tjen
Behold, I am one of you.

To know a name (ren) gives the magician or priest power over the thing named. Many spells of ancient Egypt make use of this principle in order to harness the power of one or more deities. Gods had many names, and some of them were secret except to initiated priests. A spell might direct the priest to write the name of a deity on an amulet and then recite it, usually a specific number of times. Conversely, the name of someone you wanted out of your life could be inscribed on, for example, a wax image, then melted or burned in a fire. The primary reason we see defacement of royal cartouches (the image containing the names of a pharaoh) is because later rulers wanted to dissipate the power of their predecessor.

To name something you have come to understand in your own life likewise gives you new power over yourself. As I come to recognize certain factors at work in my relationships with others, or my relationship with various aspects of my life, I am able to name the factor, suddenly giving me fresh insight. Insight about myself or others empowers me to move more easily in the world, live more effectively, and avoid wasting my time wondering about things I may or may not be able to fix. In modern psychology, we call this being self-aware. But I like the Egyptian ritual language. I know you, you are no longer a secret from me. I know your names and I will use them as needed. Look at me, I cannot be ignored, because I now hold knowledge - I am one of you.

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The warm scent of sandalwood has filled this room and is working its way out through the rest of my house, dispersed from essential I have warming on an electric incense burner. After working in the yard for a while, amidst the tang of cut grass and a brewing summer storm, I walk back into a dreamy sandalwood sanctuary. The very smell turns my thoughts to the sacredness of life, the peacefulness of meditation.

b2ap3_thumbnail_offerings_20130627-001859_1.jpgOur ancient Egyptian friends put a great deal of their effort and money into perfumed oils and incenses. In the temple, the image of a god was wakened, washed, dressed and anointed with fragrant oil or ointment each morning. Ointments and oils were regular offering items, scented with selections from the profusion of flowers and plants that grew along the Nile, or valuable imports like frankincense and sandalwood. 

And speaking of flowers, it was customary to greet guests for dinner at your house by placing around their neck a garland of fresh flowers. A touching element of undisturbed tombs found in modern times is the now-dried fresh flowers which were the last thing left on the casket, much like our custom today at a cemetery burial ceremony.

Cinnamon, cassia, myrtle, balsam, myrrh, honey, sweet flag, juniper, sage, cypress, iris, rose and, of course, lotus were all ingredients prized for their scent. Still more natural ingredients were used medicinally, including acacia, camomile, basil, dill, celery, cumin, fenugreek, lily, mandrake, pine and rue. Servants circulated at dinner parties with cones of goosefat mixed with perfume for guests to put on their heads. During the course of the evening the fat melted down through those heavy wigs, releasing the scent into the banquet hall.

b2ap3_thumbnail_egyptian-perfume-cone.jpg

The psychological effects of association with a particular smell are by now well known. Take advantage of that powerful tool by using your favorite scent whenever you meditate or do other work at your altar. True essential oils are a nice break from the smoke of burned incense, particularly if you are allergy-prone or have a respiratory illness like asthma. Just a drop in a much larger quantity of almond oil will allow you to breathe in the benefits of that plant.

And if you really want to treat yourself, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, by Lise Manniche, is a deliciously aromatic read, plus a gorgeous coffee-table book.

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I am the incomprehensible silence
and the idea often brought to mind.
I am the voice sounding throughout the world
and the word appearing everywhere.
I am the sounding of my name,
For I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and bravery.
I am without shame; I am full of shame.
I am power and I am trepidation.
I am conflict and peace.
Listen to me,
For I am the scandalous and magnificent one.

Excerpted from Thunder, Perfect Mind, trans. by George W. MacRae

b2ap3_thumbnail_isnefertari.jpgIn the silence of the night the waters were troubled.  We did not know that far to the south, in the headwaters of the great river, rains swelled the flow, sending the fertile black earth our way.  What we did know was that the star of Sopdet, whom we know as Aset (Isis), had disappeared from the sky for weeks now.  Each evening the priests watched for it to reappear at the horizon, the signal that Aset was weeping, mourning the loss of her husband Asar (Osiris).  After dark there is no way to see if a crocodile lies in wait or a hyena quietly stalks you coming home late.  Except in the cities, the silence here is vast, incomprehensible.  Against that quiet, the change in the water showed itself in little lappings higher up the bank, a swath of new green advancing up the shores on both sides.

The priests told us that Aset’s tears were flowing, rousing Hapy from his sleep among the rocks of the headwaters.  I do not understand these things.  Like the Lady, I had suffered loss, the death of my husband at the hands of an evildoer.  My grief was unabatable; like hers, my tears seemed a limitless flood.  Then I found myself carrying my own Heru, pregnant with my own shining Horus boy, and hope soothed my tears.  By the time of planting, I could hardly stoop to the water’s edge with my jar, and as the first harvest came in, my son saw the light of Ra.

The mother is so many things – fearful, yet brave, cunning, but also confused, wandering in search of Asar’s body.  I am not pharaoh in his House of a Million Years, nor am I a priest who can explain these things.  But I see that she is like me, or maybe I am like her.  Maybe we are the same, though she is eternal.  When I am cowed by shame or ignorance, I remember that she found her power, found a way to her heart’s desire.  When the waters rise each season of Akhet, I remember that even while she wept, Aset brought new life to the world.  I smile when I walk back to refill my jar, knowing it is her lovely tears, her life I’m bringing back home with me.

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  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Very nice.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_stela1-100dpi.jpgThe ancient, sacred city of Abydos hosted an annual ritual drama about the mysteries of Osiris.  Along a processional way the festival crowd re-enacted the abduction and murder of Osiris by his brother Set, and inside the temples, priests conducted uber-holy rites away from the public eye.  Every good Egyptian hoped to go on pilgrimage to Abydos at least once in her life. Nearly as good was to have a tablet (called a stela, plural is stelae) set up on the processional route stating your name, titles, a statement of offering (and usually an offering picture) and a request for passers-by to stop and recite the offering prayer on behalf of the deceased.  Many thousands of stelae have been found in Abydos, which was also the burial site of predynastic and First and Second Dynasty kings. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_stela2.pngIn Abydos Osiris is most often known by the name of a jackal-headed god who came from that locale and eventually took on Asar’s identity, Khenti-amentu, “first of the Westerners.”  Any mention of the west was an oblique reference to having died (like the sun, which sets in the west).  Stelae like the ones at Abydos came to be used at lots of pilgrimage sites, as tomb markers (just like our modern tombstones), and even inside burial chambers.  The picture usually shows the deceased standing in front of an offering table piled with bread, beer, geese, the leg of a bull, alabaster and lengths of linen.  A typical inscription, known as an “offering formula” among Egyptologists, might say something like:

"An offering of thousands of bread, beer, meat, fowl, alabaster and lengths of linen, and all good, pure and beautiful things, which Pashed gives to the great god (neter aa) Khenti-amentu, first among those at Abdju, for the soul of Pashed."

b2ap3_thumbnail_stela4.jpgLast week I was worrying a little about how the whole world get to enjoy ancient Egyptian heritage because moderns have basically robbed thousands of graves.  Then I thought about how the Egyptians counted on their descendants and/or priests to perform rituals, “say the prayer,” for them in perpetuity.  Obviously, that system broke down in the same centuries that brought Christianity then Islam to Kemet.  And yet, here we are all these centuries later, reading and admiring the stelae, contemplating the original owner, pondering what his or her life was like.  If you are a student of hieroglyphs like me, you find yourself reciting the offering formulas over and over again in lessons.

To me, that is part of the power and mystery of hieroglyphs, that somehow they have emerged from a time almost before memory to continue to remember the ancestors and honor their wishes.  I wish I knew more about people like Pashed, but it’s clear that what he wanted most after his death was to be remembered as constant in his devotion to Osiris.  May I be at least in part as dutiful in my respect for those who came before me.

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Priesthood Then and Now

What did it mean to be a priest in ancient Egypt? 

Roving mendicant, parish pastor, fiery evangelist or vodoun mystic – so many stereotypes joust for attention when you speak the word.  Egyptian priests, however, were very different from the typical modern western image of a minister.  Their primary obligation was to conduct daily and seasonal rites in order to perpetuate the balance between the neteru (gods) and the earthly realm.  Healing, magical and literary and musical arts developed around these rites.  But preaching, converting, pastoral care for a congregation, and the like were not part of the job.

A hem-netja1sx2_Thumbnail1_inmutef_priest.jpger (servant of the god) might be attached to a temple for life as a permanent vocation.  Other priests served in rotation, living at home with wife and children most of the year.  Celibacy was not a requirement for priesthood, though married priests during the New Kingdom abstained from sex before coming to the temple for their period of service.  In the large temples, divisions of labor resulted in specialties like the wab priest (a sort of ritual helper), sem priest (performed funeral rites), and kherheb (lector) priest, who recited texts and often performed magic.

In Osireion practice, we look at the figure of the priest as an allegory or type for our own daily living.  That does not mean we go live in a stone temple, but that we contemplate the devotion of the priest to spiritual practice.  We do not feel that we are inherently unclean, but we do find it meaningful to dip our hands in clean water before a ritual, to signify that we are washing away what is unwanted in our lives and coming to the altar with a clear and open heart.  We burn incense before the statues of our gods, but we are well aware that the scent has a powerful effect on our own human minds, instantly connecting us to the realm of spirit.  We shake the sistra, not only because it was believed that the gods like the sound, butmodel of devotional practice, in particular.

Today, however, we live in communities which are accustomed to a pastoral culture of ministry.  This need not be a conflict for independent-minded Pagans; humans naturally congregate and form groups based on shared values and practice.  Within those groups, some will emerge as possessing specific skills needed by the others.  There is honor and beauty in the idea of caring for others in our spiritual communities.  Intentional nurturing of one’s own spirituality, in addition to learning about ethics, leadership, ceremony and pastoral care, brings about a model for priesthood which can serve the growing new Egyptian spirituality communities.

“O Ra, Lord of Light, Giver of Life and taker of it, cast your light of peace unto the world. So commands the Chief Lector Priest, Haroeris M7, everliving in Ma’at.”

From Selections of Ancient Egyptian Prayer, © Copyright 2009 Michael J. Costa (M7), All rights reserved.

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