Coming From the Heart: A Conversation With Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa & Anna Applegate~ Part One

Ptahmassu Portrait

O Gods, I come forth
With my heart in my hand;
O Gods receive me!
O Ancestors, I come forth
With Your heart in my hand;
May I follow in Your footsteps!
O Gods, I summon You to receive me;
For I am the kin of my Ancestors
Among You, Whom You in the
Fields of the Blessed have received!

O Gods, I open the Gates!
O Ancestors, wide open are the Doors!
My body, the Doors.
My members, the Gates.
My feet, the Holy Path.
I come forth with my heart in my hand!

– From “The Prayer of Consecration” by Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa.

Introduction

This week I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by the sparkling and gifted Anna Applegate, Executive Editor of Isis-Seshat, the quarterly journal of the worldwide Fellowship of Isis.  Our conversation centered around the theme “Dark Nights of the Soul”, to which the current Autumn issue of Isis-Seshat is dedicated; thus I was able to tell, for the very first time, my own harrowing dark nights of the soul, which concluded with my taking formal vows as a hem-netjer or priest of the God Ptah, and the legal adoption of my Kemetic faith name.

My dialogue with Anna came at a very significant stage in the current initiations I am undertaking as part of my spiritual path, and this “looking back” to my dark nights of the soul has given me the chance to reexamine my growth and motives as a Kemetic and spiritual journeyer.  Our conversation dug deep into many issues, and some controversial, facing the Neopagan and Reconstructionist Communities today.

How do we choose to label ourselves and our beliefs?  Are Pagans and Polytheists part of the same community?  What benefit does the framework of Kemetic Reconstructionism provide to today’s Kemetics?  Is Kemetic Reconstructionism really necessary, valid?  Can the Netjeru of Kemet be approached from outside historically informed practices?  How do our Gods lead us through our dark nights of the soul?  All of these issues, and much more are explored in this powerful dialogue, which seeks to offer its readers insights into their own relationships with the ancient Gods, and a resonance with others who may be walking the very same path.  Enjoy!

About Anna Applegate

annaChicago native Rev. Anna Applegate is a pious Polytheist and spirit worker who tends to roll out a welcome mat to chthonic Powers in particular. She became active in the Chicago Fellowship of Isis community in 2002 and has also been initiated into Gardnerian Wicca, the West African religion of Ifa, and Co-Freemasonry (she is a Master Mason in good standing in the Eastern Order of International Co-Freemasonry, Sirius Lodge, No. 21). In 2012, she was legally ordained as a Fellowship of Isis Priestess dedicated to the Goddesses Nebet-Het (Nephthys), Bast, and Hekate Khthonia by the late Lady Loreon Vigne at the Temple of Isis in Geyserville, California. Anna is the founder of the Iseum of the Rekhet Akhu, whose mission is to highlight the inter-relatedness of the communities of the living and the dead and to cultivate transfigured spirits (Akhu) in human form.

Anna holds an M.A. degree in English Literature and Linguistics from Loyola University Chicago. A wordslinger-for-hire, her devotional poetry appears in the Scarlet Imprint anthologies Datura (2010) and Mandragora (2012). Her nonfiction and photography appears in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina anthology to Sekhmet entitled Daughter of the Sun (2015). Anna is honored to serve as the Executive Editor of Isis-Seshat, the quarterly journal of the worldwide Fellowship of Isis. Visit her personal blog and share in her adventures in Polytheistic Priestessing: https://amoretmortem.wordpress.com. With her fiance and fellow Hekate devotee, Daniel, she is launching a site dedicated to Hekate Khthonia and Hermes Khthonios: www.hermekate.com

Anna Applegate: I’m always excited to meet fellow devotional polytheists, whether or not they venerate the Powers of the eastern Mediterranean like I do. How did you first come to love the Neteru of Kemet?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I find that the label polytheist is pretty loaded these days…charged with a certain amount of controversy in dialogues taking place within various spiritual communities. One hears terms like ‘hard polytheist’ or ‘soft polytheist’, and there are fierce debates going back and forth as to who is who, and what can or can’t be labeled polytheism. I’ve found myself having this discussion fairly frequently in my Kemetic work, with individuals who are very concerned with just how I identify the Netjeru (Gods) and Their relationship to Netjer, deity in general.

Am I, as a self-avowed polytheist, taking the stance that the Gods are wholly unique and distinct from the Creator God…as in Their own individual personalities that are self-determined, self-governing…or do I believe that ultimately the Netjeru are different forms and/ or manifestations of one hidden supreme deity called Netjer?

I have to admit that sometimes I find these isms and debates over labels incredibly constricting, irritating, and distracting from the real work of service to the Sacred Powers. At the end of the day I put my emphasis on action, on cultic service and devotional work, not on philosophical speculation. Ultimately, the precise origins of the Gods- of any god- are beyond the comprehension of human beings. Our place is not to reason why, but to get down to the work of organizing our lives in such a way as to be of service, to the Gods and to creation as a whole.

We can waste a great deal of precious time agonizing over this issue of ism…polytheism, henotheism, is deity really one acting as the All or the many…or we can choose to simply honor the Gods as gods, as our Sacred Powers, and accept the limitations our mortality, our humanity carries in terms of how much we can ever really know deity.

That being said, we as human beings are defined by the language we use to express ourselves. There’s no getting around the significance our culture places on how we choose to label our identity, our beliefs, our lifestyle and manner of connecting with the world around us. I’m somewhat dissatisfied by the application of terms such as polytheism or henotheism to very ancient systems of belief that preexist the advent of such language or modes of thinking. To me it seems a bit out of place. I’m sure that the Ancients would have expressed it as ‘we believe in the Gods. We honor the Gods’, period. To attach a philosophical framework to that…one that comes from another time and culture…seems very misguided to me.

I believe in the Netjeru, the Goddesses and Gods of the ancient Egyptians, and I view the gods I serve as wholly distinct, unique, and individual Sacred Powers, each carrying Their own personalities, manifestations, and spheres of influence. Are They related to the Creator God, absolutely, just as human children carry on the DNA of their biological parents. However, the Gods are not hindered or limited by Their connection to the Creator God, and They are certainly not mere ornaments, names or different sides of the Creator’s personality. I accept that each of the Netjeru is broader in Their forms and powers than I can possibly comprehend, and that each of Them can be and express anything They choose to. Ultimately, the Creator God is not sole or unique or without equal, but shares its creation with the Gods.

I do not believe in god with a capital g, the one, indivisible god of the Abrahamic religions. Even though I was raised in a very traditional and strict Christian family, I have always rejected the idea that there is a single omnipotent “God” fueling and controlling creation.

So just what does this make me? I choose to stand by the terms polytheist and polytheism…and in particular Kemetic polytheism…to describe what I believe within the limitations our language imposes on us, even though terms like polytheist and polytheism are quite obviously not ancient Egyptian in origin.

How did I first come to adore the Netjeru of Kemet? I’d rather put it that They came to me, and not the other way around! My experience is that our Gods, our Sacred Powers come to us. They make Themselves known, through gestures big and small. They flirt with us, play with us…almost in a hide and seek kind of way. And I’m not intending to sound trivial here, to somehow cheapen or lessen the very powerful, life-altering ways in which our Gods make Their presences known in our lives.

But I have always found that the Gods will find a door or a window, or a crack beneath the side door, in order to introduce Themselves and get our attention. It may be through little things at first, like a picture here or a song lyric there, or a ‘coincidence’ that turns out to be nothing of the kind. Our Gods will find Their way into our life in ways They know will get our attention, and each person is different in these regards.

When I was six-years-old I found the ancient Egypt section of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the first thing that arrested my attention were the full color images of Egyptian deities…statues and reliefs…which struck a very deep chord in me. And then there were the temples. These places did not seem foreign to me, mysterious or new, but rather like places I knew, that had once been part of my life. Even at this very young age, long before I heard terms like reincarnation or past lives, I had a definite sense, an instinct or certainty, that I had once lived in this ancient culture and had served its gods. And these gods, too, felt familiar to me, not like mythological beings from a dead religion or defunct civilization, but gods that were present and very much alive, active in the here and now.

My father was a humanities major at San Diego State University, so he maintained a very well-stocked library of books on archaeology, anthropology, ancient Near Eastern civilizations, and Classical history. It was within this armory that I first found the type of books that guided my fascination with ancient Egyptian history and religion…an obsession, really. For the first three years of that relationship with ancient Egypt, I focused my attention on the Egyptian preoccupation with the afterlife and immortality, and how the Goddesses and Gods guided this framework. My father often took me to the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, San Diego, which had a very small Egyptian collection, including two mummies.

I was quite preoccupied with what I perceived as a spiritual technology demonstrated by the mummification process, and in texts like the Pert-em-hru, the Book of Coming Forth By Day…the Book of the Dead. Of course, all I had access to in those days were the books by E.A. Wallis Budge, which even then were quite dated and full of errors; but I used Budge’s Egyptian Book of the Dead as a springboard for developing, through my own intuition, a personal relationship with Egypt’s ancient gods. I always felt guided in that relationship by many pairs of unseen hands, which seemed to always direct me to the right resources at the right time.

The catalyst for my real relationship with the Netjeru of Kemet…the one person of influence I can trace everything back to…is Lady Loreon Vigné, Arch Priestess of Isis and foundress of the California Temple of Isis. I can’t answer your question without telling how she came into my life, without giving her the credit she richly deserves.

It was about six months before my 10th birthday, and my parents and I were spending an afternoon in the shopping district of historic Old Town San Diego. We discovered a fine art atelier by the name of Dergance Sculpture Studio, which specialized in the high quality reproductions of the Tutankhamun treasures produced by Artisans Guild International. These included magnificent statues of Egyptian goddesses and gods. It goes without saying that I was in heaven, but finding this little studio was the single most important event in my life. Everything else that has happened to me in my spiritual life since can be traced back to the relationships I developed by way of Dergance Studio.

The studio was owned jointly by a delightful senior couple, Maxine and Robert Dergance, and Maxine especially was very interested in all things spiritual, being an avid student of the Occult, and a believer in reincarnation and all things esoteric. It was from my conversations with her that I first became cognizant of the deeper meanings behind my ever growing obsession with ancient Egyptian religion and funerary beliefs, and it was through her that I was introduced to Lady Loreon Vigné, who was in those days still called Lora. Maxine and Lora Vigné had apparently been friends for years, and it was through Dergance Sculpture Studio that Lora had acquired her generous collection of Egyptian statuary.

Lora Vigné and her partner Paul Ramses had established the Isis Oasis Sanctuary and Retreat Center in Geyserville, California, which was dedicated to the exploration of ancient Egyptian spirituality and Goddess consciousness. Lora and Paul were legally ordained ministers of the Goddess Isis, and part of their mission was to reintroduce the ancient worship of Isis into the modern age.

Maxine urged me to write to Lora Vigné, and the rest, as they say, is history. Lora and Paul immediately took me under their wings, helping me to develop a serious attitude in my studies of Egyptian history and religion, but also to begin an investigation into broader areas of spirituality and Occultism in general. Something that I always admired about Lady Loreon was her capacity to push the boundaries of her own beliefs and practices, to never grow into a rigid or dogmatic pattern of thinking.

Loreon was a student of all the world’s religions and spiritual customs, and she really dove head first into everything she could get her hands on. Her appetite for research and reading was boundless, and these are attitudes she strove to pass on to me when we first became acquainted. Both she and Paul sent me countless books, not only on ancient Egyptian history and religion, but also in esoteric studies and general spirituality.

Lora had founded the Isis Society For Inspirational Studies, her first non profit educational organization, into which I was inducted around the time of my 10th birthday. Even at that very early stage, I believe that Lora and Paul had it in mind to see me eventually ordained as a minister of the Isian faith. It was certainly due to their generous tutelage that my obsession with the Goddesses and Gods of Egypt developed into a heartfelt devotion and sense of service. The Goddess Auset, or Isis, was guiding me through my close relationship with Lora Vigné and Paul Ramses. I’d say it was inevitable that I took the holy mantle as a Priest of the Goddess.

Anna Applegate: What is the appeal, specifically, of the Reconstructionist path as far as your personal practices go? Were you ever involved in other Pagan traditions?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: The appeal of Reconstructionism for me is that it allows us to come as close as we can to the way in which our ancient Ancestors communed with their gods. The Netjeru are the deities first worshiped by the ancient Egyptians, and it is their more than 4,000 years of experience that informs us how these gods have manifested, how They have made Themselves known to humankind. There is a tremendous track record, if you will, preserved in papyri and letters, on monuments and in tombs, in temples and shrines, and on artifacts such as amulets, ex-votos, and stelae.

There are museums and archives full of evidence for the devotional practices and cults these gods inspired for close to five millennia, and that is a huge burden of proof enforcing just how momentous a role Egypt’s gods played in the lives of her people. And how can we simply ignore that evidence today? How is it possible for us to speak the names of these gods, to call on Them to answer our prayers, or serve Them in places we are calling “temples” in Their names, unless we first take heed of the ways in which the Ancients developed such a relationship with these same Gods? We can’t possibly believe that we know better than our Ancestors…that we- especially we in America and the West, who live in societies and cultures only a few hundred years old- know better than a culture whose religious customs and traditions lasted longer than that of any other civilization on our planet.

I’d say that the ancient Egyptians knew exactly what they were doing, because they had almost 5,000 years to perfect the way in which they engaged the Gods and derived blessings from Them. The rituals and sacred texts we have preserved from the temples, tombs, and monuments were passed down for thousands of years, so there is a tremendous build-up of energy in them…staying power, if you will. This may sound like a funny comparison, but just think of the way modern companies market their products…”Bayer Aspirin since 1899”. People trust tried and tested brands that have shown their effectiveness and integrity over time, and from my point of view, the ancient Egyptian way of communing with the Netjeru has proven its case over the past 5,000 years of human history.

What can we today market in its place? That’s not to say that more contemporary brands of Egyptian spirituality- Kemetic Wicca, for example- can’t offer us genuine spiritual experiences with the Netjeru; I’m not saying that at all. However, I think there’s something very pure, very powerful and primordial in the ancient and Ancestral way of accomplishing sacred work. It’s a matter of getting as close to the source as it’s possible to be; and who is closer to that source, we today, or the Ancients, our Ancestors, who had their sacred texts and spiritual practices handed down to them in an unbroken chain from the earliest times.

If we look at other ancient faiths, faiths that have survived the advent of monotheism down into the current era, we can see the immediate value in Reconstructionism. Take Hinduism, for example. The Brahmin or priestly caste of the Hindu religion is responsible for the preservation of the correct ways to perform ritual in order to attain the blessings of the Gods. Brahmins have been invested with thousands of years of Vedic knowledge and tradition, which includes the performance of sacred rites going back before recorded history. These things have been preserved because Brahmins have passed them down throughout the centuries, from priest to priest, ensuring their purity and the original seeds of spiritual potency.

In ancient Egypt there was certainly this same kind of maintenance of sacred traditions within the priesthood, where knowledge of sacred texts and rituals was restricted within the priestly profession, and passed down through the temple record from generation to generation. We can see direct evidence of the longevity of Egyptian religious practices and beliefs by examining the records clearly recorded from temple to temple. There is continuity. There are rituals that existed from Old Kingdom times that we can clearly see were carried down until the Christian Era.

What Reconstructionism strives to do is use this continuity in the historical record to the advantage of spiritual practitioners in the current era who are trying to tap into the original sources of power prevalent in the traditional, ancient relationship between the Ancestors and the Netjeru. It’s there in the historical record. We have the actual texts used by the Ancestors for thousands of years. We know how to read them. In many cases we can even work out an approximation of how the Ancients actually pronounced them in their own tongue. We have well preserved temples with basically step-by-step instructions on how to carry out the rituals, with clear depictions of the cult images and instruments of worship.

There is this very mistaken notion in some current spiritual circles that we have lost so much of the ancient Egyptian sacred legacy that we can’t possibly know it enough to reconstruct it accurately. That is absolutely false! We have much more available to us in the historical record than most other Reconstructionist communities. All it takes is intelligence, diligence, and a sincere desire to reconnect with our ancient Ancestors. It is their tradition, after all, and since they practiced it perfectly for almost 5,000 years, shouldn’t we who follow in their footsteps give them the benefit of the doubt? I think so!

Reconstructionism has given me a very solid framework for recovering and piecing back together the rich spiritual legacy left to us in the historical record by the ancient Egyptians, and this very much applies to my work as a priest of Ptah. When I founded Temple of Ptah Nevada in 2009, my goal was to piece back together the original, ancient ritual forms for serving Lord Ptah in the temple environment. I wanted to find every inscription, every prayer…every scrap of information from ancient times that could help us today in our understanding of who Ptah is and how He has manifested throughout history.

It was inevitable that the Reconstructionist approach would have to be adopted, and that approach is at its roots a scholastic, academic approach…researching specialist texts and volumes, scouring Egyptological theses for every reference to Ptah and his historical worship, no matter how obscure or seemingly uninformative. This search has been very discouraging at times, very enlightening at others, but it has yielded solid results that have greatly enriched my relationship with my Netjer, and my spiritual walk in general.

I feel that the Recon approach has better connected me with my Ancestors in the tradition, and to those ancient temples of Ptah that served the very same god I am serving now. There is this amazing and vibrant link forged with the Ancestral Powers when one is chanting or speaking the very same prayers used 3,000 years ago. It loans one’s sacred life this thread of meaning stretching back thousands of years into the distant past, which means that one is partaking of a near-limitless reservoir of divine energy, built up over the millennia. That kind of resonance is hard to come by when one is just making something up on the spot, or creating something entirely new. New can be beautiful, and so too can spontaneity; however, new ritual forms have yet to build up that reservoir of power that extensive usage over time can generate.

When we create something entirely new in our spiritual practice, we aren’t necessarily connecting directly with the Ancestral Powers, which is historically very important in the worship of the Netjeru. Within the ancient Egyptian experience of the Sacred, traditions are maintained for very long periods of time without being altered, and within this ancient system there is precedence, which the Ancients believed was established in Zep Tepy, the First Occasion or Time of the Gods. Everything closer to Zep Tepy retains that holy power, which dissipates the farther you move away from the First Time. So, Reconstructionism is a valid way for us to recover our Ancestral links and engage the most ancient practices through which the life-giving, life-affirming blessings of our Gods may be engendered.

My one word of caution concerning Reconstructionism is not to fall into the trap of taking the religious experience and making it something of an intellectual experiment. I have encountered this a number of times over the years in my Kemetic work, where individuals and groups are so adamantly opposed to any experience or element that falls outside academic scholarship, that they wind up creating a very artificial experience of Kemeticism, much more akin to historical reenactment than to a living spiritual tradition engaging living gods.

The scholastic record is very deep, and Egyptologists have certainly given Reconstructionists a vital legacy in the reclamation of our ancient rites and authentic texts. However, we must remember that religion and spirituality are living and organic frameworks for communing with the Divine. Without heart, without intuition, faith and feeling…without reverence and a direct relationship with the Gods, one cannot grow spiritually or be fed by the Sacred Powers. This has to come from the heart, not solely the head. Our cerebral capacity alone cannot give us a window into the Divine world. That requires a certain amount of faith in that which we cannot quantify or measure. That means we have to set aside the books and the brain, and hit the temple floor with the service of the heart.

If Kemetic Reconstructionists refuse to acknowledge that our Netjeru are living gods, active in the here and now, working through the very world we are currently inhabiting, then we run the risk of taking these sacred rites and reducing them to nothing but so much mummery…ye olde Renaissance faire in ancient Egyptian getup. I have attended Reconstructionist rituals that sounded more like an Egyptology symposium than anything religious or mystical, and there is absolutely nothing more useless to the human soul than dressing up mere historical reenactment and daring to call it authentic religion.

The Netjeru are not limited to one specific time frame or mode of worship. They are under no obligation to follow even the most ancient words or formulas, if these are used in any way other than to glorify Them. You can take an authentic text and follow it to the letter, but if you do so without heart, without feeling and genuine reverence, the Gods will refuse to be engaged, and your work will ring hollow, without any truly fulfilling, lasting response.

Many people who know me in a strictly Kemetic context may be surprised to hear that not only have I been active in other sacred traditions, but am to this day initiated in non-Kemetic traditions, and offer devotion to other pantheons. If by “Pagan” you are referring to Neopaganism, Wicca, Witchcraft or Western Occult traditions, the answer is no. I have nothing but respect for these others traditions, for the Craft and like-minded paths, but I have not devoted serious time to studying them, nor have I practiced them, simply because they have never called to me personally.

I have always been, from the very beginning of my religious and spiritual life, called by the pantheons and cults of the Ancient Near East, the Mediterranean world, and to some systems of South Asia, namely Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism. I am also a devotee of the Religio Romana or pre-Christian religion of Rome, and have an affinity for some of the deities and practices of the ancient Hellenic religion.

All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa, Rev. Anna Applegate

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One thought on “Coming From the Heart: A Conversation With Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa & Anna Applegate~ Part One

  1. Pingback: Interview Excerpt: The Vision of Icons of Kemet | Icons of Kemet

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