I wake up in the morning and before I distract myself with anything from the mundane world, my knees hit the floor in prayer. Our Shrine to the Household Gods shines and glimmers in the little tea lights that have been placed just so, ornamenting the gilt cult images of the God Ptah and His Holy Family. I light myrrh resin incense on a brazier of charcoal and waft its fragrance into a sweet cloud for the Gods to enjoy. “Men nek irit Heru…”, I half-whisper as I raise the palms of my hands in the ancient gesture of worship. “Men nek irit Heru. Take unto yourself the Eye of Heru…take unto yourself the Eye of Heru”.
An Egyptian alabaster votive bowl is filled with powdered sugar-topped lemon tart, another topped off with red wine. Yes, the Gods love their sweets, their alcohol, and in my household, both of these are given in profusion. In the meduw-netjer, the divine language of ancient Egypt, I recite the traditional offering prayers, inviting the Netjeru-Gods to “bestow the giving of life” for my household. I vigorously shake a sistrum- an Egyptian ceremonial rattle- to conclude my worship, after I have silently offered my own personal prayers for the ears of the Gods. I bestow my prostrations to the Great God Ptah, Hearer of Prayers, and, in our temple, King of the Gods. His gold-covered Kar-Shrine (or naos) containing a small cult image of the God now stands open to receive the morning rays of the sun’s light, and life in my household can spring to action once more.
I readily admit that I live an unusual life. Our living room has no television. Yes, we have the obligatory couch and (book covered) coffee table, however, in the place most people reserve for their entertainment center dominated by the almighty flat panel television, my husband and I have installed our Shrine to the Household Gods, which can be seen from every vantage of our flat. It creates of our home environment a sacred refuge and place of peace from the stresses of the outside world. It brings our sometimes fragmented focus back to the reality of the Gods in Their place at the very center of creation. This is a space for prayer and ritual, where our innermost aspirations may be expressed or realized, but it is also the fuel parlor, the generator for my daily work as an iconographer.
An iconographer practices a trade quite different from that of other artists, who often explode with a creativity fueled by a personal drive to explore and express the human psyche. The modern artist has at her or his center the Self with a capital “S”. My experience. My understanding. My feelings. My expression. These are the seeds that sprout the trees of modern art, which is dominated, of course, by the modern artist. However, in iconography there has been, historically, much less of an emphasis on the iconographer, on his identity or persona, and almost entirely a focus on the icons themselves. Iconographers are not commissioned to create their own reality, but are instead asked to express time-honored ideals concerning how the Divine should be depicted, and the most important part of this is the impersonal nature of the work itself.
That is not to say that the creation of an icon requires detachment. Quite the opposite, if the iconographer is true to his calling. Iconographers are called like priests and nuns to their craft. There is a drive behind the work that comes from the reservoir of the Sacred, a current of energy passing out from a deity or deities. It is this higher energy or inspiration that fuels the creation of icons. So, the work is impersonal in that it is not the artist’s ego or personality that is driving the work or providing the subject matter. Icons do not glorify the personality of the iconographer, they glorify the Sacred, the Divine, and many well known icons remain the output of unknown painters.
In the case of ancient Egypt, we but rarely are privy to the names of individual painters and artisans, whose masterpieces may be household names and instantly recognizable. Take the fabulous golden burial mask of Tutankhamun, as one example. This tomb treasure is often hailed as an “icon of ancient Egypt”, in the sense that its fame and preciousness have come to represent, in the minds of the masses, the greatness of Egyptian civilization. However, I would add that the mask of Tutankhamun is also an icon in the original religious context of the word.
To the ancient goldsmiths and jewelers who created it, the burial mask of Tutankhamun was a piece of sacred machinery, through whose great magic the deceased King Tutankhamun would be transformed into a living manifestation of the Sun-God Ra. The mask itself, though carrying upon it a stylized representation of Tutankhamun, is in fact intended to represent the God Ra Himself- gold of skin with lapis lazuli hair- as the indestructible Lord of Heaven, untouched by death and wholly divine. The Egyptians saw such treasures not as works of art, in the manner that we see them, but as holy objects embodying the powers of the Gods. They were, in short, icons.
Not only the incomparable treasures of Tutankhamun, but so many works of ancient Egypt had a sacred purpose that took them beyond the realm of the human viewer. So many works of art that stun and captivate us today were simply never intended to be seen again by human eyes, once they had been created and brought ceremonially, magically to life. We do not know the names of the craftsmen who produced them, their genius preserved only in the astounding objects they gave life to.
To the ancient Egyptians, the personality of individual artists was practically insignificant. Their mode of religion called for cult images wrought from the most precious substances on earth…gold, lapis lazuli, feldspar and turquoise, which represented to the Egyptian mind substances forming part of the anatomy of the living Gods. The task of the artist was to give earthly bodies to the Gods, Who would be invited to take up residence in the precious cult images once they had been ritually awakened. Thus the ego or personal experiences of the artisan served no purpose to the Egyptians, who saw ceremonial images as the dwelling places of their gods, not as representations of individual mortals. My, how things have changed!
Enter me. My profession must be, at times, an experiment, for I am not an ancient artisan of cult images dwelling in a nation where my gods and their servants are supported by the state. Gone are the monumental temple sanctuaries filled with incense and solid gold cult images. What we have today are small ceremonial centers and home-shrines, these lovingly filled with not-so-solid gold images of our ancient gods. The incense and offerings have remained, though not on the scale consumed by the Gods in ancient times. Gone too are the monolithic stone statues of the Gods and kings that led way to the imperial sanctuaries. These things belong to a past that has now become a tourist trap. What we servants of the old Gods have is the Gods Themselves, Who continue to inspire us in ways that may fall outside the realm of traditional pomp and circumstance, but in circumstances that are, nevertheless, effective as a living religion.
In my world, it is the icon, a small panel covered in intricate details, gold and semi-precious stones, that has as much meaning as a massive stone temple or a solid gold cult image. Those things have meaning too, but for the past, and since we are living in the present, and the Gods are ever-present, our task is to find new traditional ways of honoring Them and asking for Their intervention in our world.
So, every morning, after I have awoken our household shrine with a heady cloud of myrrh or sandalwood, I sit in my studio at my massive table, where a modern panel of wood, which may initially appear inconsequential, will be transformed into an image of ancient splendor. It is not only gold or lapis or amethyst that will make this little panel something of value, but, much more importantly, the love of the Gods that is poured into its glittering metal and mineral pigments. Such love for the Sacred is what fuels and entices me to work fervently, day after day, in my own divine world.
All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
Imhotep is something of a phenomenon in the course of Egyptian history. His deification- as a mortal elevated to godhood- is certainly a rarity, however, Imhotep presents us with one of the very rare examples of a mortal man being given a divine parentage and pedigree. “Imhotep the Great, son of Ptah”, as he is hailed in a text from Philae(1), is said to have been born from a human woman named Kherdankh, who somehow managed to catch the attention of the God Ptah, who became the child’s biological father(2). Imhotep was cited as having a mortal father named Kanefer(3), but this small detail seems not to have made its way into the official cult of Imhotep, which was formal and constant from the time of the sixth century B.C. onward(4).
Imhotep the man was the architect, chief builder and vizier of King Netjerykhet (Djoser/ circa 2687-2668), a priest of the God Ptah, and high priest at Annu (Gr. Heliopolis)(5). His most renowned accomplishment is, of course, the monumental Step Pyramid of King Djoser and its imposing surrounding cult complex. It must have been on account of these architectual wonders that Imhotep was recognized as something quite special, quite on a par with the Divine Craftsman Ptah, Whose ancient cult center was always Mennefer (Gr. Memphis), near the vicinity of Imhotep’s brainchild.
Some time prior to the New Kingdom, Imhotep had begun to be titled “the son of Ptah”,(6) which one might be forgiven for thinking was simply an honorary epithet granted to a priest of Ptah who authored a tremendous piece of sacred architecture for his King. But the status of Imhotep is a thing quite unique, even for a priest of Ptah and vizier. Imhotep was given his own sanctuary at Philae, where, on the western facade, he is called not only “Imhotep, the great, son of Ptah”, but is also said to be “…glorious, god whom Tatenen created and his beloved sister bore”(7). Tatenen, “the risen land”, is perhaps the oldest name of the God Ptah as the Creator God par excellence, embodied in the primeval pyramidal mound of earth from which the Gods and creation were given birth.
It is certain that Imhotep was honored during the reign of King Djoser(8) as the architect of the king’s Step Pyramid, and it is also certain that that pyramid embodied in its shape the symbolism and power of the hillock of creation, the ben-ben. So, it would have been quite natural for the Egyptians to have made a theological correlation between the creation of the Step Pyramid and the hallowed parentage of the man who brought it into being. As a son of Ptah, Imhotep would have embodied the creative power of Ptah-Tatenen, Who, as the primeval mound, gave form and shape to the artistic endeavor of creation.
Imhotep’s power as an architect and innovator, an artist and a priest of Ptah seems to have bolstered his credibility to the community of artisans, who especially revered him as a divine patron of the arts, and academics are not shy in calling him a “patron saint” of the arts(9). However, it was as a healer of the sick, physician and a worker of miracles that Imhotep came to be renowned during the Ptolemaic era, where it appears to have been a common practice for the afflicted to seek healing dreams from Imhotep in special sanatoriums that had been reserved for such purposes(10).
It should be self-evident why Imhotep is of some special significance to me. Yes, the brilliant architect of a great and innovative monument. Yes, a wise counselor, vizier and overseer of works. But of course, the prodigious scholar and scribe, author and designer. But it is as a compassionate hearer of prayers, an answerer of the aches of hearts and bodies, that I seek Imhotep and always find Him attentive. There is a reason why, many centuries after his death, couples unable to conceive, the seriously ill, and those desiring answers, signs, and miracles came to the shrines of Imhotep. They appealed to a demigod who was not only the son of a god known as the Hearer of Prayers, but, more significantly, had been a living and breathing man who knew the suffering and challenges of being in a mortal body, and yet possessed a link with the immortal Gods. It is precisely because Imhotep had been in a body like ours, had walked in the human community, and had risen to greatness based upon his own unique merits, that Imhotep embodies a deity we can readily relate to, and rely upon for human compassion.
If you look at the lap of every single statuette of Imhotep (the famous bronzes that are scattered throughout museums of the world), you will see his ever-present trademark: the unrolled scroll that singles him out as the divine scholar and scribe, the patron of learning, scholarship and the arts. As a Son of Ptah, Imhotep was the inheritor of his divine father’s artistic acumen. This was well recognized by the Ancients, who recorded of him that “the Great God, Father of the Gods (Ptah) rejoices at the sight of him (Imhotep)”(11).
For me, Imhotep, as the Son of Ptah and Patron of artisans/ painters, is the iconographer par excellence, the creator of one of the largest pieces of iconography to have been envisioned by the mind of man, the Step Pyramid of King Djoser. Throughout the ages artisans, stonemasons, architects, sculptors and painters have looked to the genius of Imhotep for inspiration. His life and story are the hallmarks of one of the great artistic moments in humankind’s history. Still, Imhotep sits with his unrolled scroll, silent and ready to hear our prayers.
Before I sit down to work on an icon I have a little ritual that I always perform before any pigment or gold can be applied. I light a candle in front of our votive cult figure of Imhotep from Egypt, and I offer a few drops of my watercolor water in honor of the God Imhotep, the Son of Ptah, Who is well pleased by beauty. This is the prayer I composed in his honor:
Anedj her-ek Imhotep sa Ptah
Imhotep neb hemu nefer netjer
Homage to You Imhotep the Son of Ptah,
Imhotep the Master of Artisans, the beautiful god!
Come and shine, receive, O You beautiful offspring
Of Ptah Who is South of His Wall.
Take unto Yourself all things good and pure,
And give all things good and pure to this
Servant of the workshop of Ptah.
O Imhotep, glorious in Your sanctuaries,
Fashioner of splendors, radiant in Your
Body, make of my hands the hands of
Make of my fingers the fingers of
(“Ptah the Great Director of the Artisans”).
Make of my heart the vessel of Ptah the
Beautiful Who is Himself Atum.
May I give form to what is perfect,
May I give breath to what is good,
May my endeavors manifest the sky,
May immortality stream from my earth.
For I am in Your company, O Son of Ptah,
Imhotep the Great Whom the Netjeru (Gods)
Have embraced as one among their entourage.
Bless You, O Imhotep the Beautiful,
The wise, the merciful, the hearer of prayers!
May that which lives in You live in me.
May Your boons be upon my hands,
And the works of the Netjeru come forth
From my heart!
Anedj her-ek Imhotep sa Ptah
Imhotep neb hemu nefer netjer
Homage to You Imhotep the Son of Ptah,
Imhotep the Master of Artisans, the beautiful god!
1) Holmberg, Maj Sandman. The God Ptah. Lund, 1946, pp. 195.
2) Holmberg, Ibid.
4) Holmberg, Ibid., 194.
5) Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London, 2003, pp. 111. Also Holmberg, Ibid., 194.
6) Redford, Donald B. The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. New York, 2002, pp. 79.
7) Holmberg, Ibid., 195.
8) Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 112.
9) Redford, Ibid.
10) Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 113.
11) Holmberg, Ibid., pp. 196.
All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
My feeling is that Kemet and Kemeticism are almost as much a frame of mind as they are a physical place. On the level of Spirit, Kemet is the Eternal embodiment of the Netjer, manifest in the sacred images, scents, gestures and words of the Ancients. Our task is to imbue these ancient treasures of the Netjer with a new life, to continue to pass these down to those who are starving for at-one-ment with the Netjeru.
Every day, we have the opportunity to engage in a thread of sacred creation that in its linear, outward manifestation is at least 4,000 years old, and, I believe, much older. The ancient texts, prayers and rites are not just flies stuck in amber on temple and tomb walls, but are the actual fabric of a technology of the Spirit through which humankind has direct access to Netjer. That is the true and Kemetic meaning of “religion”. When we recite these prayers today, and partake of the offerings and ritual gestures of the Ancients, we and they are linked, and we enter immediately into the Presences of the Netjeru.
When we carve or paint or sculpt the Sacred forms and the Medu (or hieroglyphs), we are “turning on” the gears of a most ancient technology of the Spirit, and permitting access directly to the Gods. We are partaking of “Sacred Time”, and engaging in immortality. This, then, is our focus through our Kemetic art and practice. To be Kemetic means we live Kemet here and now; it means we live with the Netjeru in each and every moment of each and every day.
All text and image copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
Anna Applegate: What role, if any, do you think Reconstructionist faiths should have in interfaith ambassadorship? Have you personally been involved in such initiatives?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: Personally, I feel that all faiths should take some kind of role in interfaith dialogues, whether that means taking part in a formal interfaith initiative, or simply engaging members of other faiths in discussions and activities from which mutual cooperation and understanding can grow. My experience is that when we invest our interests not only in personal interest, but in the interests of others in the wider spiritual community, we bolster our own personal experience of faith, and create a way for others to understand sacred experiences outside the scope of their own traditions.
When we do this, it helps create awareness and tolerance, which can help to combat prejudice, discrimination, and violence between people of different faiths. Interfaith dialogues have enriched my own appreciation for the traditions I follow, but have also helped me to broaden my perspective, and avoid getting boxed in by closed-mindedness.
Many years ago, when I first began my public spiritual mission, an important part of the work I was doing as a spiritual practitioner and priest was interfaith work, including initiatives for nonviolence and human rights. I had been greatly encouraged in my desire to engage in this kind of work by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose interfaith message and teachings on nonviolence have always had a profound influence on my own ethical perspective.
I was invited in October of 1999 (and again in June of 2000) by the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to take part in a series of teachings the Dalai Lama was giving, which I attended in the capacity of visiting clergy in the spirit of interfaith cooperation. The teachings and initiations I received from His Holiness were a significant part of the personal mission I felt was guiding my budding vision as a humanitarian practitioner.
My vision was not only to call for a restoration of the ancient Egyptian spiritual traditions, but also, in a wider perspective, to call for a unity between the practice of religion and human rights ethics…that one could not be separate from the other. In my view, I saw this also as the practice of restoring Ma’at in our world, in cultivating a feeling of solidarity between people of differing views, which could only help in advancing the work of the Sacred Powers. These are all still goals I place at the center of my spiritual practice, which I always strive to include a broader view of the world in which I live and engage.
What I’d really like to see happening is more interfaith dialogue between the various Reconstructionist faiths, and far more cooperation and support between different Kemetic communities. My experience in Kemeticism- both general and Reconstructionist- is that there tends to be a great deal of argument, banter, and disunity between various groups and temples. So much of the fuss seems to be centered around whose version of Kemeticism is the authentic one, or more authentic, or the real thing. Whose interpretation of source texts is correct? Who is using the “right” scholarship to reconstruct the traditions? Which groups have the “real thing”, and which groups don’t?
There is a lot of mud slinging, accusation, and argument taking place that has very little to do with devotion to the Netjeru and Ancestors, and mostly to do with the human ego. Far too much of an emphasis is being placed on source texts and belief, in my opinion, and not near enough emphasis on Sacred Work, cult, devotion, and engagement of the Sacred Powers. After a number of years of trying to connect with other Kemetic groups online, I eventually backed away from online communities entirely, and have concentrated all my effort on building an actual physical cultic house and practice…a hands-on approach, as opposed to a virtual one.
Anna Applegate: Do you believe in evil? If so, how do you define it? How do you avert it?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I do believe in evil, yes, and I believe the existence of evil manifests itself in a number of ways. I’d like to begin with a Kemetic view of what evil is, because that’s the spiritual framework I operate in. The Kemetic view of creation gives us two primary forces at play in creation, and these are Ma’at and asfet. Ma’at may be simply defined as “order” and asfet as “chaos”; however, these are very relative terms that need further elucidation. Ma’at is the continuity of the creative process as it was ordered by the Creator God at the beginning of creation, the Zep Tepy or “First Time”, “First Occasion”.
So creation was began and regulated by the Netjer, and established according to a specific pattern of manifestation. The continued existence of all created things is wholly dependent on the maintenance of this pattern, and the tools for accomplishing this were believed in ancient times to have been handed down to the Egyptians for their use. These tools include the Daily Ritual, performed in every temple every day; the engagement of the Netjeru (Gods) through Sacred Works such as temple, votive offerings, and stelae; engagement of the Ancestors, the Blessed Dead; and specific rituals designed to identify and limit the activity of chaos or evil in the material world, which scholars term execration rites.
Ma’at does not just mean “order”, “balance”, “truth” or “right” in the often relative way these terms can be used, but actually the “right way” through which the created world is maintained exactly as the Gods ordered it in Zep Tepy. Ma’at is literally the ongoing process of this divinely regulated creation, which, if deviated from, will result in the collapse of the created world. This collapse, its signs, symptoms and causes, are called asfet, which is anything that upsets the original order of the creative process. Asfet is not just “chaos” or “evil” in a human, social sense, but also self-destruction on the largest possible scale.
The ancient Egyptians were, in a sense, apocalyptic people; they believed in the possibility of cosmic annihilation, which was for them a very real possibility at all times. How could this annihilation be avoided? How can the ongoing process of the divine creation continue? These were the questions that underpinned Egyptian culture and religion. It was through their divinely granted system of rites and rituals that the temples of Egypt engaged the Netjeru in order to keep the Sacred Powers active throughout the human world. These activities were the backbone for the maintenance of Ma’at in ancient Egypt, and without them, Ma’at cannot exist, nor can creation be expanded. The result is asfet, a dissolution of the divinely regulated process of creation.
So how is asfet prevented from gaining a foothold in our world, and infringing on the cohesive force of Ma’at? That is why the Daily Ritual exists, the temple texts were compiled, the rites for engaging the Ancestors and Blessed Dead were established, and this complex framework for divine engagement was woven and remains active in the historical record. So often, modern spiritual celebrants look down on the ancient texts, prayers and rituals as being complicated or restrictive or dogmatic, and wish to move away from them because “these are different times”. They’re not, actually.
The same problems and trials, forms of injustice, and manifestations of chaos exist now that existed in ancient times. The only thing that has changed is our material technology. But the ancient Egyptians were given a tremendous spiritual technology for combating chaos and evil, and this technology is comprised of the liturgies, hymns, ritual gestures and ritual forms that were passed down virtually unchanged for thousands of years. These texts, like those of the Daily Ritual, existed as a direct response to asfet, so that the Netjeru could be directly engaged with humankind in the co-creative process of maintaining and protecting the created world.
In these regards, how do I define evil? I define evil as any force whose aim is to separate myself and the human race from engaging our Sacred Powers and Ancestors in the divine work of Ma’at, which is the maintenance of creation itself. It is by way of our immediate, direct relationships with our Gods and Sacred Powers that this work of protecting creation can continue, and it is our inheritance and responsibility to behave interdependently with the Gods in the furtherance of Their creative work. That is what I recognize as Ma’at, the labor of maintaining the divine creation as it was ordered by the Gods; and evil is anything that rears itself against this sacred relationship, be it human, action, manifestation or entity.
Secondly, I regard evil as that which attempts to strangle our individual mind and conscience from living in the way we know is right. Obviously, this is on a very subjective level, and is deeply personal, but I believe that evil operates in this way; in a way that strives to sever us from our personal knowledge of what is right and wrong, and that includes the operation of our freedom.
Evil seeks to remove our freedom of choice, our freedom of individual conscience, our innate understanding of what is right or wrong for us. Evil strives to entice us into a box, a mode of thinking and living that disregards our conscience and our intellectual and spiritual freedom. Evil for me is any mindset that constricts our ability to reason or choose for ourselves, to operate according to our own free will. Evil is what we are engaging when we prevent others from exercising their free will, when we take away the right or ability of others to choose, think, or live according to their own volition.
Kemetically speaking, but also speaking very much in a general Polytheistic sense, evil can be combated directly through the intimate engagement of our Gods and Sacred Powers. There are very specific rites, rituals, prayers and cult images created for the aversion of evil, and these exist in all Polytheistic traditions. In a Kemetic sense, we have the execration texts and practices, which are a collection of magical recitations and ritual actions designed to hand over the sources of evil and chaos into the hands of the Gods, thereby binding and preventing these sources from operating their influence. These are practices in which I have been trained as a vital part of my work as a priest, and it is certainly one of the basic understandings of what being a priest means.
Being a hem-netjer, a “servant of netjer” or priest, means becoming the hands and feet of the Gods in Their sacred work of maintaining the cosmic order of Ma’at. This means that my primary goal is in the deflection of asfet from within the created world, and this means combating disorder and injustice in as many forms as it takes. How I go about doing this is by using the arsenal of spiritual technology handed down to me by my Ancestors in the historical record, but also by directly engaging the Netjeru and Ancestors throughout all my activities, making sure that I am operating according to Their plan for continuing the process of divine creation.
In another sense, I avert evil by operating according to my conscience, and my conscience tells me that the use of free will, the use of my intelligence to choose for myself, is the strongest threat to evil I can muster. Evil fears free will and freedom itself, which compels the individual mind to think for and act for itself. Evil tells us there is only one way to think, believe, act, and live, and when we try to think outside the restrictive little box, evil closes in and attempts to remove our innate desire for personal freedom.
So, what is a priest, a servant of the Gods to do? He fights evil by looking it directly in the face and declaring I am a free man, and I am going to think for myself! He uses his free will to make choices that do not violate the free will of others to choose, and he summons the Gods and Ancestors each and every day of his life to help him do it! That is how I avert evil!
Anna Applegate: What advice do you give to spiritual seekers who say that they’d like to “work with” a given Deity, as opposed to cultivating a personal devotional relationship with that God or Goddess? Are there ever instances where having a “contractual” relationship with a Power is okay? If not, why not?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: A Kemetic peer of mine recently directed my attention to the way she and others view the concept of “working with” deities. She pointed out to me that “working with” the Gods need not be seen in a negative light, if by “working with” we mean a spiritual partnership with the Gods, a mutually beneficial relationship that can be driven, in Alchemical terms, by the desire to accomplish the “Great Work”.
So, in these terms, I’d have to agree with her, that one can “work with” the deities in a vital partnership for the accomplishment of the highest spiritual labors. We can view the Gods as actually being “hands-on” with us as we endeavor to fulfill our Sacred Work or spiritual aims. Why should we feel that we are alone in the mission of restoring Ma’at, say, to put it in a Kemetic context? The ancient Egyptians saw themselves as participating in the process of maintaining the cosmic order, which was an interdependent process between humankind and the Gods. On the one hand, you have asfet, chaos, the dissolution of the cosmic order of creation, and on the other you have Ma’at, the continuity of creation according to its original framework during Zep Tepy.
Human beings are charged with the task of co-creating with the Gods, keeping the wheels of creation turning properly through maintenance like performing the Daily Ritual. The Daily Ritual is not just “worship” in the contemporary sense of the word, but is actually the vital process through which the cosmos is balanced and directed in a steady course. The ritual episodes of the Daily Ritual are the spiritual technology for engaging the Gods as co-creators with humankind.
Each gesture, each set of prayers, each formula and offering is an integral part of the “work” human beings need to do in order to create harmony with the Gods, which ripples outward to effect the entire created world. So in these regards, “work” is a creative, co-creative process between humankind and the Gods. “Work” means Sacred Work, the labor of engaging the Gods and the Ancestors for the benefit of all created things.
However, I know you’re asking about “working with” the Gods in a way that reads as a strictly business-like, “contractual” relationship, that can sometimes mean the exclusion of a deeper devotional relationship. I’m not fond of “contractual” relationships with deities, and here’s why. Let’s think about our human relationships and how we define them. We have acquaintances, people we know in a casual manner, perhaps like, but don’t necessarily include in our circle of friends…people we might depend on or enjoy spending quality time with.
Then we have people we consider our friends, individuals we actually spend quality time with, share mutual interests with, and generally trust. And then there are those people we have as part of our inner circle of friends, people we might even call our “family”, though there are no blood ties between us. The definitions grow more and more intimate as we define our very best friends, lovers, spouses, and blood family. Think for a moment on how different each of these relationships are, and what each of them contributes to our overall life.
Now let’s apply this outlook to deities. Our relationships with our deities are a two-way street. We are hopefully asking Them to engage with us in a manner that meaningfully contributes to our experience of life, a manner that actually enriches our life and empowers us in every area. We have wants and needs and desires, and we’re asking the Goddesses and Gods to fulfill these. We have “work” to do, and we’re asking Them to help us do this “work”, and sometimes we’re asking Them to do all the “work” for us.
But do we ever stop to consider that the Gods we’re invoking and asking for help are expecting us to meet Them half way? Do we ever anticipate that the level of effort or involvement we bring to the table is going to determine how much our Sacred Powers actually listen to and give us the help we need? Or are we just taking for granted that because the Gods are gods that they’re going to snap to and give us everything we want, simply because They can?
Well, my personal experience over the past 35 years tells me that the Gods are here to help us and to give us the things we want or need. Yes, They will give us what we ask for, and They have the power to do it. However, the Gods expect us to meet Them half way, at least, and They are going to respond in the same manner as we present ourselves to Them. People who use the Gods as some kind of cosmic vending machine are going to find out sooner or later that the Gods stop listening to them and engaging. If we are going to treat Them casually, then They are going to treat us casually.
So, your casual acquaintances, the people you know but don’t consider your closest friends; why don’t you consider them as part of your inner circle, as part of your family…people you know you could depend on in a serious crisis? Probably because your relationship with them is merely polite, casual, friendly but not a truly deep friendship. Maybe you say hello once in a while, or ask them how their day is going. You might see them at work, and now and again exchange a few words.
But who are you going to call when you need someone to really be there and pick up all the pieces for you? You’re going to call the people in your life who have shown you by their effort and actions that they will be there for you and can be completely trusted. We don’t like to think of deities as having these same kinds of discriminating faculties we recognize as being all too human, but They do, and They use them!
If we want our deities to listen to us, be there for us, rescue us, and give us the things we ask for, then we have to be willing to step up to the plate and give Them our time, sincerity, offerings and respect. Without these things as a foundation, the Gods are going to treat us just as casually as we treat Them. If we merely acknowledge the existence of deities, then They are going to merely acknowledge us. They are going to return exactly what we’re willing to give to Them.
Our relationship with our Gods has to come from a genuine effort of cultivation, where we bring our true selves into the dynamic in order to establish a foundation of trust and love, a bond that manifests the blessings of a true and mutual exchange.
The Ancients operated according to the premise of we give because You give, which defines an interdependent system of reciprocity. The Gods give human beings boons, and human beings offer those things back to the Gods. The Gods, then, respond in the selfsame manner, bringing human beings the essence of life, materially and spiritually. But it has to come from both sides. Both Gods and human beings have to meet one another in the middle, otherwise Sacred Work cannot be accomplished, and you will be left with a very one sided partnership.
My experience with people who are “working with” the Gods has often left a bad taste in my mouth, because far too often I see people jumping from pantheon to pantheon every other week (I call them “dharma faeries”), “working with” the Gods in a very skin-deep or superficial manner. I often see these people treating the Gods like a cafeteria, grabbing all the bits and pieces they like, without paying for any of it. Oh, this week I’m “working with” Athena, and next week I’m “working with” Kali. It all get’s very superficial, because instead of actually taking the time and pains to develop a solid relationship with the deities they’re invoking, taking the pains to learn what the deities like to receive within their traditions, people are just snapping their fingers and making demands, then moving on to the next best thing.
I think this kind of spiritual outlook is deeply disrespectful to the Gods, and potentially self-destructive to the people engaging in it. But then again, it all depends on how much you ultimately wish to receive in your interactions with your Gods. You’re going to get no better than what you give, and if you want to grab and go, the Gods are going to grab and go, too. It works both ways, so people need to be conscious of this, that the Gods charge interest on the things we take from Them without bestowing anything in return. The Gods give with one hand, and take with the other.
My honest advice is to check your motives and know your own intentions before approaching any deity…before choosing to “work with” a goddess or god. Be very careful how you ask for the things you want or need, and be prepared to meet the deity on their terms, which I think is very difficult for “dharma faeries” to do. What do I mean by meet the deity on their terms? Gods and Goddesses of all pantheons have a cultural and spiritual framework within which they are used to operating. This is another thing so many people seem to ignore or be unaware of.
Each deity has demonstrated to its devotees throughout history the ways in which she or he likes to be engaged. Deities have favorite foods…oh yes they do! They have colors, textures, smells and sights that have been part of the celebration of their existence since the beginning of their structured worship.
Hellenic deities have a very different flavor and set of expectations than Kemeties deities, or Norse, or Hindu. These are very ancient pantheons, whose desires have been made known and passed down from generation to generation. There’s a reason why- when you examine the devotional track record of any given deity- devotees have brought the same type of offerings to the same deity over very long periods of time.
These aren’t accidents. These aren’t human beings just projecting their own limited framework onto deities. These things become traditions, become part of a deity’s cult, because the deity has indicated, through the bestowal of boons, that such and such an offering is pleasing to them. The same applies to cultic gestures, ritual music, cult images, temple sites, and so on and so forth. Cults are developed through an intimate exchange taking place between people and their gods, and these things shouldn’t be so lightly swept aside if we wish to continue having meaningful relationships with these same deities today.
So, I have to advise people to take some time to learn about the deities you are going to “work with”, if you’re going to develop a “contractual” relationship with them. Demonstrate your respect to that deity or Power by doing your due diligence, as it were, within the tradition that deity has been operating in. Learn the offerings that have been part of that deity’s cult, and have enough respect for these traditions to make a basic effort to include them in your “contract” with the deity.
My own experience is that all deities appreciate even the smallest efforts we make to connect with them in a sincere manner. Starting off on the right foot means bringing your Powers the kinds of offerings they’d expect from those who ask favors of them. If you aren’t willing to offer copious amounts of wine to Dionysus, I can promise you He isn’t going to be interested in anything you have to say!
I don’t think this is rocket science I’m talking about. It’s about basic respect for the Sacred Powers. How can someone demonstrate to you their sincerity to really be your friend? By learning your favorite foods, bringing you your favorite Godiva chocolate on your birthday, knowing your favorite movies, et cetera. The Gods are the very same way. If you want to get Their attention, bring Them the things They love, the things They’ve always wanted, especially if you’re going to ask Them for something in return. People who “work” generally get paid for their labors, and those people wanting the Gods to “work with” them or for them have to be willing to pay for the things they’re asking for. It all comes back to we give because You give.
Anna Applegate: Tell me how Lady Olivia Robertson impacted your work/continues to inspire you.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I think I was about ten-years-old when I started writing to Lady Olivia. Loreon Vigné (Lora at that time) had initiated me into the Isis Society For Inspirational Studies, and Paul Ramses was helping me to explore the doctrine of reincarnation and past lives, but they wanted me to connect in a much deeper way with the many aspects of the Goddess, the Sacred Feminine, so Lora suggested I introduce myself to Lady Olivia.
You know, at that time I was going through a difficult time in my spiritual development, because my parents were very conservative evangelical Christians. They seemed not to have a problem with my enthusiastic correspondence and telephone conversations with Lora Vigné and Paul Ramses, because I think they considered them more or less as harmless New Age types who were helping me in my “Egyptology studies”. I think they went along with it because I never expressed to them the real nature of my involvement with Egyptian studies, or the kinds of things I was really absorbing from Lora and Paul. But I was lonely, confused, and determined to understand why I felt so strongly called by the Goddesses and Gods of Kemet.
When I wrote to Lady Olivia, she was one of those rare friends who instantly showered me with genuine warmth and interest, who showed a depth of sincerity towards my relationship with the Gods. In one of her first letters to me, Lady Olivia explained how she had had her first physical encounter with the Goddess Isis…the great horned Isis…her first tremendous visitation. With that one letter, Olivia had changed the course of my life, because up until that point I had felt so utterly alone in the experiences I had been having with the very active, living Gods of Egypt.
I sat in my bedroom alone for hours at a time, engaged in what I called my “quiet time”. These were my little meditations, where I calmed my body and mind, and invited the Netjeru to introduce Themselves to me. Slowly but surely the Gods initiated a sparkling relationship and dialogue with me, not as figments of my imagination or archetypes of my subconscious, but as living and breathing manifestations. It was Olivia with whom I could share these experiences, because she was having the same kind of experiences, and it was a great part of her work to help others cultivate their natural spiritual gifts, including awareness of the Gods and Sacred Powers.
If there is one cherished gift Lady Olivia gave to me, it is the gift of remaining open…keeping every single channel I have open to Sacred experience…not closing off my mind to any avenue or form the Sacred might take in order to expand my awareness. So often we fall into that trap. We get caught up in spirituality or religion as an exercise of the intellect, and we lose contact, however temporary, with our intuition and heart.
Lady Olivia always threw the doors of the intuitive heart wide open. She was never closed to any of the Goddesses, Gods, Spirits, Faeries, or Sacred Powers, and that is precisely why she was able to accomplish so much life-altering work everywhere she went, in everything she did. She didn’t accept limitations to spiritual awareness, and her work always seemed to be growing, opening up further doors or channels for the Sacred Powers to reach us. She led such a spiritually vibrant life, so rich in the Gods, and that is her great legacy to all of us.
I believe that Lady Olivia helped save me from my despair and feeling of confinement as a young man. It was such a constricting experience to be raised in the spirit-stifling atmosphere of evangelical Christianity. That kind of environment was a prison for my soul, when all I really wanted was to be with my Gods, to know Them and receive wisdom from Them. I wanted to reconnect with the Netjeru of Kemet, not as some body of mythological, intellectual figures, but as living gods who had the power to shape and transform my life for the better.
Olivia gave that to me, that spark I needed to keep pressing forward in my Sacred Work, even though I felt confined or imprisoned by the faith of my parents. Olivia and Lawrence both had much to offer in regards to how one can live in the midst of close-mindedness, and it was because of their very generous guidance that I was able to maintain my courage to follow my Sacred path, despite the animosity I was eventually subjected to by my parents in their fundamentalist thinking.
What Lady Olivia gave to me, what shaped my work in the past and continues to shape the work I am now engaged in, is this sparkling feeling of joy and devotion for the Gods and Sacred Powers, which really is the foundation of everything Olivia taught. She taught me never to lose my joy, my yearning for sharing with the Gods, my love for the Divine. When you are filled with love and joy, when you are immersed in devotion as an offering of your life and consciousness, then the pull of despair and darkness cannot touch you…it cannot pull you down or destroy you.
When you come open-hearted and sincerely engaged to all of life’s tasks, when you allow the Sacred to breathe through all the things you do, then your life cannot help but be anything other than good. And these are the things Lady Olivia taught me that have shaped my work, past and present. I don’t think I could elaborate on that.
Anna Applegate: You’ve recently launched a business called Icons of Kemet. What prompted you to launch it? What words of advice can you give to people who want to transition to spiritually based entrepreneurship? How has the interaction of business concerns and a spiritual ethos been playing itself out for you?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: My journey with Icons of Kemet began a number of years ago. In 2009 I co-founded Temple of Ptah Nevada as a Kemetic Reconstructionist temple devoted to the restoration of authentic ancient Egyptian spirituality, and part of that work, quite naturally, is the revival of Kemetic iconography or cult images.
As a priest of the God Ptah, I regard it as a vital component of my Sacred Work to revitalize the energetic link that has always existed between the Netjeru and Their historical iconography. Icons or cult images are much more than mere symbols or reminders of a deity’s presence and powers; they are, in fact, physical and living embodiments of that presence and power, open channels through which the Netjer maintains Their activity within the domain of Sacred Space.
Icons of Kemet is first and foremost a tradition and way of life, before it is a “business” in the outer world. What gives Icons of Kemet its legitimacy and mission is its direct link with the Netjeru as living Gods Who maintain contact with the physical world we inhabit. It is through the creation and activation of icons that a gateway remains open for the Netjeru to enter our world, and Icons of Kemet is operating as one of those gateways, perpetuating the physical manifestation of Netjer in our world.
In a “business” sense, the creation of Icons of Kemet is the outcome of two key factors in the continuation of my Sacred Work. The first is the simple fact that devotees of the Netjeru need to have access to Sacred images for use in their worship. It is by way of such images that individuals and temple communities can know they are activating Sacred Spaces for their traditions, and are honoring the Netjeru by maintaining the images of the cult. So, in these regards I wanted to provide the highest quality images of the Netjeru that could continue to serve the Gods and Their devotees in the contemporary world.
Secondly, I realized that the Gods had given me a valuable gift, not only as a means of celebrating Their cults, but also in eventually being able to financially support the temples my husband and I are on a mission to build. You know, DeTraci Regula, Arch Priestess of Temple of Isis California, said something during the 2014 Isis Symposium that has stuck with me every day since. DeTraci was giving a lecture about the continuation of the ancient temples today, and she said that each one of us- as priestesses and priests- came into this world with a unique gift that was ours alone, and that this gift was something that only we could do, and that if we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. What we needed to do, she said, was find this gift, develop it, and let that be our path to service. Very wise words!
I think I reached a point in my work a few years ago when it dawned on me that I was sitting on the means to cultivate financial prosperity for our temples, and that was my gift as an iconographer and painter. If I could eventually generate enough interest in my work, I could not only satisfy the needs of the Kemetic community to have special images of its Gods, but at the same time put those images to work in support of our temples. Sure, I could go out and try to find a “normal” day job and try to use that income to fund some of our temple’s goals, or I could use the skills the Gods gave me to celebrate Them and sustain the revival of Their traditions.
The fine art market has opportunities for unique work, and there are patrons out there who will pay huge sums of money for the kind of work I’m offering; and what better way could I find to bring in an income for our Sacred Work, than by using the very images of the Gods to help make Their modern temples a living reality? That is our ultimate goal, as far as a “business” focus is concerned.
I think spiritually based entrepreneurship is a very noble pursuit, but it is also a tremendous risk, and a painfully difficult concept to make feasible in today’s economic climate. The only reason I’ve been able to devote my working life to Icons of Kemet is because we have a full time income from my husband’s career to support our life’s needs; otherwise, there is no possible way I could be maintaining my current vocation. It’s a very difficult trade off, because it means making sacrifices of things we really want in the short run, so that we can manifest the bigger picture.
My advice to others is to first take a good hard look at your goals and priorities, and organize your business plan accordingly. I would also strongly suggest making sure you have some secondary form of income flowing regularly into your household…an income source you can wholly depend on. That way, should something go wrong, or the profitability of your business not manifest, your household will still be secure.
Also, don’t limit the possible financial success of your business by being closed-minded to generating the highest possible income from your endeavors. There seems to be this attitude in the spiritual community at large that making money is a negative activity, and that to be spiritually ethical one must somehow be impoverished, or hand out one’s assets for next to nothing. I face this constantly in my work, where people somehow feel that because I’m an iconographer, and my work is “religious”, that it somehow has less value, and should be just handed out. People have this mindset that if it’s spiritually sound, it should not be given a monetary value. I’m definitely not one of those people!
My experience is that so many people in the Neopagan, spiritual community believe they have this innate right to everything spiritual, and that if someone is asking for financial compensation for their spiritual work, they are doing wrong. I think the moral wrong is actually in the reverse, to actually expect a person to deny their right to make a living and support their household just because their vocation or business has a spiritual focus, which you feel you have some right to.
Everyone has a right to food, clothing, and shelter; to pay their rent or mortgage, support their family and obligations, and pursue their path to personal happiness. We live in a society that requires money for everything, and we can complain about that, throw a tantrum about it and fight it, or we can find ways to make that system work for us and our higher, spiritual goals. That is exactly what I’m doing, and I think it requires a thick skin, a strong vision, and enough personal strength to go against the grain, even of one’s spiritual community.
All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa, Rev. Anna Applegate