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
In 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.
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.
I am the incomprehensible silence
The 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.
In 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."
Last 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.
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-netjer (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.
Good guy, bad guy, the epic struggle between light and dark, good and evil - this is the iconic frame around Horus and Set. Too often, Set has been portrayed as some sort of heart of darkness, with Horus as the righteous golden conqueror. In reality, ancient Egyptians for thousands of years showed respect for Osiris’ younger brother with the squared-off ears. Set was especially favored by soldiers, who appreciated his ability to effectively wield power.
But history is written by the winners, as they say, and when the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt) were united under Narmer, the moment was fixed in memory as a one-sided victory for the Horus-king. Or was it?
The famous Narmer palette (many of us studied this in college, or saw it in the Tut touring exhibit) shows two animals with very long entwined necks. Their handlers struggle to hold them back, even as they seem to embrace each other. In another iconic image, we see Horus and Set themselves coming together astride several sacred symbols indicating unification of the Two Lands.
“Oh, look, there’s the moon, and it looks like a boat over the city,” said our guest keynote speaker, Ronald Hutton, as we left the restaurant Friday night. “It never looks like that in England because of our latitude,” he added. I missed the sighting at the time, but as I drove home, crossing over the wide Broad River bridge, there it was, peeping out from behind the mist. Just as quickly the thin crescent-sliver slipped back behind the moving clouds and the sky was dark again.
It so happens that the Egyptian glyph which looks like that boat-shaped moon is called “ia” and is often found on the head of Thoth (Djehuti). This seemed particularly appropriate to me as we began a day of talks at the Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes symposium. Thoth is, after all, the inventor of hieroglyphs, god of wisdom and learning, his guidance present from before history.
The subjects at hand were similarly lunar; one could almost feel the mental waxing and waning, shifting and changing, throughout the day. Some of our presentations were sharply analytical, and others bore out the highly-experiential nature of Pagan theology. As Wendy Griffin, our Academic Dean, noted in her remarks, Cherry Hill Seminary is a seminary, so we address not just the scholarship of Pagan studies, but also the very human life paths involved in ministerial service. I observe that, as with the mists and the moon on Friday night, those goals are inseparable but not always sharply-defined.
Like a moon-drawn tide, about 75 people swelled the symposium for less than 48 hours. Looking around the room on Saturday, I was elated at the diversity represented: 18 states and one country overseas, multiple ages and ethnicities, and a range of spiritual backgrounds. Sacred Lands was attended by a national CUUPS officer (John Beckett, who blogs on Patheos.com). The Henge of Keltria, the founder of Mother Grove (Byron Ballard from Asheville, NC), ADF (Archdruid and CHS trustee Kirk Thomas), OTO, Covenant of the Goddess, and a great many other traditions. Two Christians were among our participants, as well as others who do not identify with any particular religious tradition. While we were pleased to host many guests who are prominent, equally important were the many names and faces new to us. Naturally, we have a special fondness for the several Cherry Hill Seminary students who made the trek.
All of us came because we prize learning and discourse. In the process of scholarship, we strengthened the bonds of community, too. Such is the mystery that is Cherry Hill Seminary, for it has always been a challenge for me to adequately articulate in just how many ways it has changed my life. Learning, personal growth and leadership are mutually-beneficial traveling companions. So may they continue to be as we continue navigating through a sometimes cloudy, always stellar, journey of learning.
Most ancient Egyptian tombs have something commonly called a “false door.” Inscriptions around the doorway speak of the tomb owner’s life, of her or his good deeds, and the legacy they left behind. Family members would place food and gifts on an offering slab or table in front of the false door, where they also stood to recite prayers. If this seems a little odd, imagine yourself visiting your mother’s grave with a vase of roses on Mother’s Day.
“What is remembered lives,” claims the well-known Pagan chant, but the ancients were confident that the life essence of their offerings truly reached their loved one on the other side of the false door. (It was fine for the necropolis workers or priests to eat them after the family left.) Holidays such as the Beautiful Feast of the Valley were occasions for the entire family to picnic together at the family tomb and remember their lives together when all were on this side of the door.
The false door is normally found on the west side of a tomb, the direction in which the sun sets and the land to which the dead travel. Of course, any sane Egyptian would know that there was only more rock on the back side of the false door. As a spiritual symbol, however, one could hardly imagine a more apt psychic aid. Every false door was seen as a kind of magical portal, a threshold between worlds, the edge between daily routine and divine encounter.
The idea that there are many realities in the universe is no longer solely the domain of Victorian metaphysics or science fiction. While physicists eagerly pursue the Higgs-Boson particle and dark matter, others of us explore our interior landscapes, using meditation, dreamwork and the arts to access the other side of the door. Perhaps the most powerful practice we can cultivate for such purposes is a daily time of quiet reflection and mediation.
Take time to put an offering in front of your own false door and call on your ka, your so-called higher self, to visit with you and share with you a different perspective on life.
Only weeks after I began studying hieroglyphs last year I started to notice that my mind was working differently. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something about reading words and sentences which can go backwards or forwards, in circles, or hopscotch around the space inside an oval or square will do that to you.
The medu neter (words of the gods) of the Egyptians took an iconographic form, rather than alphabetic. The standard Gardiner list gives 750 signs, but there are far more than that. Some of these represent ideas (ideograms), some actual things (pictograph), and some of them are phonetic (phonogram). Mastering navigation of this lush subtropical written jungle took ancient scribes a fair number of years. The journey is even more daunting for the modern student since we do not live with most of the items that were common visual parlance for the Egyptians.
Yet, the more I learn of these medu neter, the more I see. It’s that whole-brain thing kicking in. A daily life hawk becomes the glyph (hor) for a ruler, and next thing you know, the ruler is a hawk, a god soaring high in the sky in golden noonday brilliance. After that, the hawk denotes strength, authority, power and protection. Then the glyph itself becomes powerful, especially as an amulet, perhaps a bit of turquoise or carnelian set in electrum. This one (at right) is actually a glyph for Hathor. The hawk is inside the glyph for house or temple. Thus, the goddess' name means, "house of Horus."
A step further and we easily realize that a human with the head of a snake is not a biological fantasy, but the symbol of a person or entity with the ferocious protective impulse of a deadly cobra. A segmented pillar with arms (djed) is not just a cartoonish rendering of Osiris, but a statement about the integrity of someone represented by a backbone. Everywhere you look in Egyptian art, the glyphs turn up, from the positioning of dancers’ arms to a temple roof which is actually the glyph for the sky.
Goose, garment fringe, body parts, jars, stars, water ripples, feathers, mountains, burning lamps, even a stylized placenta – all of these pictograms are meaning extracted from daily life. When used as hieroglyphs the process has spiraled around to impose still more layers of meaning onto the life that we experience. It is in the interstices between these layers, achieved in meditative, altered and reflective states, where we discover the divine.
You don’t have to read hieroglyphs to find inspiration. Notice your own sacred symbols. Get down your personal medu neter in colored pastels, stones, musical notes, or movement. Bypassing the left brain temporarily can stir your soul to as-yet undiscovered joys. Your life will begin to look more like art, art with beautiful deeper meaning.
Yesterday someone wrote me to ask about a ritual or spell to undo his marriage of eleven years. We have so many elaborate rituals in our culture for beginning things: christening, bas and bat mitzvah, prom, sweet sixteen, bachelor party, housewarming, wedding, and oodles of others. But we rarely hom something which has ended.
Breaking a red pot seems to have done the trick for the Egyptians. We have instructions for pot-breaking ceremonies during funeral rites, and have found many examples inside tombs, but no explanation for the purpose of such a ritual seems to have turned up. Some surmise that the red color identified the pot with Seth, and the breaking was to scare him away.
Omm Sety wrote about a modern Egyptian peasant custom of breaking an earthenware pot behind the back of a “departing and unwelcome” visitor, both to end the connection between the visitor and the household, and to prevent the visitor’s return.
While I would not normally recommend a china-smashing binge after your next breakup, it’s easy to imagine the release of power achieved by destroying the remaining shadows of something that is no longer a force for life and growth in our lives. We can easily create ways to seal endings which are appropriate to our own situation.
There are simple old witchy methods like burning down a candle (be sure to put it in the sink or bathtub - you won’t believe how many houses and humans leave this world due to candle fires), or burning a paper on which you have written your desire. If you need the more dramatic flourish of Egyptian pot-breaking, the pieces of a clay flower-pot make good fill in a large garden or the bottom of a planter; they are also biodegradable.
But the most important part, and this is what I shared with the newly-divorced writer, is to go do something life-affirming which moves you into a fresh energetic space. Attend a performance of live music, especially something new to you. Go dancing, attend a play, rearrange some furniture, buy or make a new dress. Whatever way you choose, do it while looking into the future with your inner vision. Feel the joy of being alive, of having free will and choice, even if you do not feel particularly happy. Let the ending be a new beginning in your ever-renewing cycle of life.
Because reality is continually unfolding out of the implicate order, because we create that which we imagine, and because we are inextricably interconnected, it is virtually impossible to conceive of a monotheistic world. Osireion theology implies, though it does not assert, that there is a monistic underlying divinity from which emerge the neteru (the gods), as well as all other forms of life. We recognize the gods as the life-forms which have been perceived by humans over time. In the same sense that human, animal, geologic or any other life form need not be restricted to one individual identity, so the neteru have multiple identities and personalities.
This is one of the things that we might say we accept conditionally, based on our best information and intuitive guidance. There is little doubt that the reality of the neteru has been strengthened and enhanced over time by the attention of and relationships developed by devoteés. This need not detract from the validity of the neteru, nor diminish their powers. Our neteru are dignified without being condescending, powerful without needing to be omnipotent, challenging without being onerous or unreasonable. We might even see in them our own reflection.
We hear lots of current discussion out there about whether Pagans are monotheists, hard polytheists, soft polytheists, etc. For those engaged in New Egyptian Spirituality, defining the gods seems to be beside the point. Given the nature of creative consciousness, both we and the gods will continue to display infinite variety for as long as we can conceive of ourselves.
So it is that Osireion recognizes the inherent divine nature of our own being. During at least the past two millenia, the idea of equating humans with deity has been considered blasphemous. If there is a linear aspect to development of human civilization, I suggest that it is time for us to grow up, out of our childish notions of what we owe an omnipotent god. Seth comments on the responsibility of consciousness:
You are learning to be cocreators. You are learning to be gods as you now understand the term. You are learning responsibility – the responsibility of any individualized consciousness. You are learning to handle energy that is yourself, for creative purposes.*
Whether we observe Atum procreating with the “god’s wife” of his hand, or Ptah crafting humanity like a stonecutter, or Khnum spinning life out of mud on the potter’s wheel, they are only the subjects of the stories we have told ourselves about our own personal potential. What will you do this week to be a co-creator with your gods?
* Roberts, Jane. Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul. Amber-Allen Publishing: San Rafael, CA, 1972.
That’s the tomb of Perneb, just inside the grand hall of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Something happened to me when I stepped through the doorway during my birthday visit in December. What, I cannot say, but grateful tears erupted from me regularly the rest of the day, at the slightest provocation. Like many before me touring the Egyptian galleries, I felt I’d come home, that I was in the embrace of a place which had haunted my dreams for many lifetimes.
A friend suggested I try to learn something about Perneb, see if I could recover any possible connection or past-life memory. A collector purchased this small mastaba in 1912 and donated it to the Met, so there is a fair amount of information available. Perneb lived during the 5th Dynasty (ca. 2381 BCE to 2323 BCE), part of that time under the reign of Unas, whose name jumped out at me immediately.
Anyone who has read the Pyramid Texts will recognize the name Unas as the pharaoh subject of those sacred writings, inscribed on all the walls of his Saqqara pyramid. The Pyramid Texts are said to be the oldest-known sacred texts. They have touched me as no other Egyptian texts that I have read. As an official in the royal court who personally attended the pharaoh, Perneb would have lived in the center of the religious culture which produced the Pyramid Texts, perhaps even attended rituals which used the liturgy. For that matter, Perneb may have been present at the interment of Unas in the pyramid, including the accompanying ceremonies.
No, I’m not one to claim that I was Perneb or anyone else in a past life (though I do not discount the possibility). But I have spent many years attempting to fine-tune my inner senses. If I have lived other lives, there are millennia of learning embedded somewhere in the layers of my soul. I can dismiss my experience at the Met as an overactive imagination, or I can thank my ka (some would say higher self) for jogging my memory. There is a lovely continuity to which I am heir. I plan to keep listening.
The fire is laid, the fire shines;
The incense is laid on the fire, the incense shines.
Your perfume comes to me, O Incense;
May my perfume come to you, O Incense.
Your perfume comes to me, you gods;
May my perfume come to you, you gods.
May I be with you, you gods;
May you be with me, you gods.
May I live with you, you gods;
May you live with me, you gods.
I love you, you gods;
May you love me, you gods (Utterance 269)
That’s me standing in a gallery full of pharaohs kneeling to offer nu, or water, pots to the gods. Why water pots? Why not gold or a rare incense or valuable livestock? Early scholars, no doubt working under the prevailing theory of the time that there had been an ancient universal cult of the “Great Mother” around the world, compared pot images to the womb. (Smith, G. Elliott, 1919) The holy grail, the witch’s cauldron, the baptismal font – all of these are nu pots, and all are capable of containing the formidable forces of emotion and inner sight.
The nu glyph has always looked a little unsteady to me; how can you set down this globular vessel without spilling what is inside? If the nu pot is a type of me, as a woman, then I definitely spilled this week when I was set down awkwardly and lost my balance. All my emotion poured out in a torrent of quick tears, then my pot returned to balance, but not without some rocking back and forth to feel out my foundations. Had I been given a choice, I would have much preferred offerings of gold and property to exposing my vulnerabilities.
There are many images of pharaohs holding out nu pots as offerings. Those scenes strike me as revealing a softer person than the ruler holding the crook and flail. Who knew better than the Egyptians just how precious a gift was the water that transformed their desert into a life-giving oasis? For that matter, my own anatomy is carved into the land by the Nile. As I grow into wisdom, may I carry my nu pot gently, understanding the gifts contained within.
Taui is the Egyptian word for the unified “Two Lands” of Egypt. From the time of the Scorpion King forward more than three thousand years, the Egyptians tightly held to their identity as taui and the responsibility of rulers to maintain a unified state. Did this indicate a homogenous culture or religion? Hardly, as Kemet was a coalition of tribes and former city-states. Even the cult of the pharaoh as embodiment of Ra did not emerge until the fourth dynasty (2613 to 2494 BCE). Apparently, creating an Egyptian identity did not threaten the myriad local cults and cultures.
The Two Lands were Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the north. Upper Egypt was mostly rocky desert, while over the north spread the lush Nile delta. The union of north and south was forever fixed in the Egyptian imagination as a mythical time in which their society became stable, safe and prosperous. Although this unity would be disrupted from time to time (the “intermediate” periods and the Amarna heresy), its primacy was never forgotten. Egyptians mythologized the struggle for unification as a deadly battle between Horus and Set, with Set representing brute force, Horus enlightened power. To lose unity was to return to a dangerous chaos.
Too often in our modern world people who consider themselves spiritual or religious become confused over what is meant by “unity.” They fear to release themselves into a world of cultures where they risk being blended with others and losing their unique identity. It’s an understandable fear; we are surrounded by eclecticism - the best, the worst and, worse still, the mediocre. We are uneasy about misrepresentation by others, even a sort of guilt-by-association. How do we know what we may have in common, after all?
True enough, any kind of unity is a risk. But isn’t there also a risk when our communities are fractured? Must we be so sure of every detail about others before we can stand with them in the most basic ways? Unity is not the same as uniformity.
Ironically, while Horus won his battle, Set remained a member of the Ennead, the Heliopolitan pantheon. His cult was especially popular among members of the military, who saw in him a source of the strength they needed to protect and defend Kemet. Both Horus and Set sit on the boat of the sun each night as it navigates the shadows of the duat until dawn. Each has a role very different from the other, yet they collaborate in maintaining the universe, joining forces to ensure the sun rises each morning.
Before we lose more time in this intermediate period of our modern spiritual culture, may our tribes find their voice of unity, bringing in a dynasty of fresh creative fulfillment.
Mut-i Nut, herak-a. My mother Nut, hail to you. You who hold a thousand starry souls in your lapis body, whose arms and legs are the pillars of the sky, who separates the earthly realm from the chaos of darkness. Mut-i Nut, you gave birth to the great ones in the barque of the Ennead, Asar, Aset, Nebt-Het, and mischievous Set. Mut-i Nut, you receive the blessed dead, the shining ones.
This weekend Temple Osireion will open our doors for our annual ceremony called Lights of Nut (pronounced “noot” like "boot"). During my recent weeks in Manhattan it was difficult to see Nut between the tall buildings of that great city. But walking at night, I was comforted to feel her dark presence embracing me from above, embracing all of us, in fact. The night of the winter solstice, walking back from supper in a nearby bistro, we looked up to Nut in time to see the beginning of a light snowfall.
Among the numerous Egyptian deities, Nut is an unobtrusive but pervasive presence. Rather than an active principle, she is a way, a path. If you follow the sun, you will nightly be swallowed by Nut and pass through her body to rebirth at dawn. She is the path of the duat, the solitary journey, the living house of our earthly akhet.
As we enter the temple space this weekend we will sing a lovely refrain (by Abbi Spinner McBride): O dark mother, lead me inward, down to the cave of my heart. Mut-i Nut, dua em hotep.
“Action is remembering; inaction forgetting.” (1) Perhaps the most remarkable legacy of ancient Egypt is thousands of years of written memories. These take the form of rituals, magical spells, poetry, stories, wisdom literature, business records, personal correspondence, funerary tablets and even pornographic cartoons. Because the written word was considered not just useful, but sacred, the Egyptians never forgot who they were.
Egyptologist Jan Assman points out that because the temple schools trained scribes by using the great sacred and wisdom literature of Egypt, those scribes went out into their career prepared to pass on that wisdom. Highborn or lowborn, a scribe left his training an educated, disciplined person with a strong sense of integrity. (Yes, scribes were almost invariably male, although education was not gender-exclusive.) The hard-won lessons of previous ages were disseminated throughout the country to kings, merchants, landowners and ambassadors.
Scribes also served as local magistrates, holding courts to settle disputes even in small villages. They were a key element in maintaining widespread commitment to the idea of ma’at. Assman calls ma’at “connective justice,” emphasizing the importance of community bonds. Egyptian writings preserved the memory of past breakdowns in ma’at, and scribes were well-placed to remind all Egyptians of their role in keeping a just society.
Recently, I’ve been asked about my interfaith activities, the latest involving a reception by our South Carolina governor in her office. The truth is, interfaith work is just one of many issues I have championed over the years. I have always instinctively known that memory and action were mutual concepts. Without memory, there is no motive for action. Without action, we soon lose what we have, then forget who we are.
Ma’at means action, for me. It means engaging, not isolating myself from the society in which I live. On this blog I will seldom advocate for those specific causes that I support because here I will give precedence to the standard that we are a diverse tribe and deserve to hold differing opinions. Locally, regionally, and personally, however, my positions on equal rights for all and domestic violence, for example, are no secret. Most of all, I hope to inspire action - be that for a social cause, or be it internal transformation. As a sort of modern scribe, I hope always to convey the importance of remembering, of acting, of ma’at.
1. Assman, Jan. The Mind of Egypt. Henry Holt & Company: New York, 1996 (trans. 2002).
It’s finally winter here at Temple Osireion. In our warm South Carolina clime, it takes a good while for autumn to wind down and release the last brittle leaves. The lawn lies brown and dormant right now, revealing every curve of the ground, exposing tree roots and shallow bulbs. However, Geb, the earth god, still stirs even in his sleep; the first irises opened this week in a sheltered corner of the garden, the butterfly bushes have new leaves, and I see a green shoot at the tip of my fig bush. A flutter at my kitchen window last week caught my attention just in time to see four bluebirds splashing in our little fountain.
Di ankh djed – given life enduringly. The glyphs jumped out at me on one after another of the tablets, statues and mummy cases we passed in the museum. I was spending a very happy birthday visiting the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a dozen years of following an Egyptian path I finally began to learn hieroglyphs last spring, having no idea that Red Cross would send my husband in for a long-term assignment in the wake of hurricane Sandy. Our holiday gift to each other was for me to join him in New York City for most of December while he continued to do relief work from the Hell’s Kitchen operation office.
No coffee-table book can prepare you for the beauty of Egyptian art. Those who say they dislike the rigid canon used by the ancients have never stood before the Mona Lisa smile of a pharaoh carved in red granite, holding out his offering of nu pots (nu=water), or the graceful curves of a ram in bas-relief, the shining eyes of painted coffin faces, the silent witness of Wepwawet in limestone, or the vibrant colors of a family boat outing.
But my deepest fascination was with the abundant rows and columns of medu neter, the hieroglyphic “words of the gods.” The more I get to know the sacred writing, the more I feel its magic, its ability to convey deep and layered meaning in symbol. Egyptians were not spare in their use of written magic; with it they covered the borders of monuments, the insides of coffins, the back sides of scarabs – everything, it seems, deemed important and meant to last....
The Hermopolitan creation story tells of a dark, watery void, “the infinity, the nothingness, the nowhere and the dark.”* Frogs and serpents, symbols of seething chthonic fertility and subconscious knowledge, generate an egg. The egg rises out of the water on a mound of earth, and out of it emerges Ra, the light. Sometimes, a lotus emerges from the egg, and Ra rises out of the lotus as a divine child.
Sound is life, sound is alive. The first sound is not lost but continues to reverberate throughout creation, throughout what we perceive as time and space. We are awakened at the deepest level of our being by the vibration of the Om, the Logos, the First Word. Sound manifests as heka, deep magic, the force that penetrates without intruding, changes without disrupting. Our brains are receptive to entrainment recordings because it is our nature to respond to the force that once initiated our very existence.
Thus, the singer emerges from the waters of Nun and utters the vibration which becomes all life. The height and depth of each wave define and divide manu, refining it in ever-increasing circles of life force. It is the watery element from which we emerge because it most closely resembles the deeper awareness which is our ground of being, our source....