Rekhi 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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Rekhi ketu tjen, rekh kua renu then
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.
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.