Honoring Imhotep

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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
Tatenen.
Make of my fingers the fingers of
Ptah-wer-kherep-hemu
(“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!

Notes

1) Holmberg, Maj Sandman. The God Ptah. Lund, 1946, pp. 195.
2) Holmberg, Ibid.
3) 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

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In the Noblest of Cities: Antinous is Received in the House of Ptah

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Antinous had thus far beheld the wonders of various sanctuaries and monuments- colossal statues hewn from blood-red stone that were the equal of any in Roma, the sprawling urban centers choked with imports from every corner of the earth, a harvest of gold and goldsmiths, whose crafts became the ornaments of the affluent from Roma to far more distant, barbaric lands- yet he had seen nothing that made him gasp in astonishment as did “the noblest of cities”, Memphis, and its very ancient grandeur.

Hadrian’s ship had landed at the water steps of the great southern portal of one of the several imposing palaces that fronted the Nile, scintillating in the fierce heat of the sun that seemed to shatter over everything and everyone in this most hallowed of cities. As their craft had entered the famous port of Memphis, his local guides had enticed Antinous with stories of the renowned shipyards of the God Ptah, the workshops of the goldsmith’s guilds whose handicrafts were well known in Roma, and the elephantine, fortress-like walls of the Temple of Ptah. Here were obelisks piercing the liquid azure of the afternoon sky, with their pyramidions sheathed in glowing electrum. Beyond them rose mountainous pylons, gates and royal statues that seemed to dwarf all else for miles around. It was all very enthralling. And yet Antinous had come to receive the counsel of the High Priest of Ptah, the God for whom all of these marvels had been consecrated.

What perfection was to be seen in the craft of man’s hand…enormous and yet sensual alabaster colossi, sphinxes, divine images, and every other splendid and costly thing the mind could fathom…yet it was the ancient Mysteries of Memphis that had caused mighty Hadrian to make inquiries on behalf of Antinous, whose thirst for high learning knew no bounds.

A retinue stood waiting for Antinous beneath the blessed shelter of the palace portico. Antinous approached, bowing his head, not knowing which of these distinguished foreigners was the High Priest of the God Ptah. A tall, shaven headed and linen draped man came forward, and raised his hands in the gesture of reverence.

“Welcome and blessing to you, Antinous, heart-friend of our Lord Hadrianus Caesar, who is the Lord of Crowns and ruler of the Two Lands! I am Neferkaptah, and I am the Chief of Priests of the God Ptah in the Soul-Mansion of Ptah. Is the noblest city in Egypt fulfilling your expectations and satisfying your heart?”

Antinous relaxed and smiled, noticing the kindness and curiosity evident in the faces of the other priests. “Satisfy?…why no, much more than satisfy! I am stunned by all I have seen of this city of marvels. Our guides today pointed out the endless outdoor market as we approached, which I am told is the largest in Egypt…perhaps in the whole world! There are the giant sphinxes that look like marble, but I am told they are alabaster…and the high walls of the city itself, which our guide told us are the oldest and tallest in the entire land. Alexandria is a wonder of the mind, it is true, but this, Memphis, is a wonder of the eyes!”

The High Priest smiled knowingly, waving Antinous to follow him beneath the bulk of the portico and through an imposing gate in the high wall. Everywhere he looked were to be seen sculpted and painted reliefs of the highest quality, delicately carved statues of glittering stone, columns and tiles that shined a glossy sky blue. Everything around him seemed to focus one’s attention upon the crafts of the hands…that of stone masons, goldsmiths, jewelers. Antinous was taken aback almost to the point of speechlessness, however, he was here to receive the initiations of Ptah, and to take back with him a portion of their wisdom.

“I have seen at a distance the Pyramid that our guides told us was built by Imhotep-“
“Oh, but of course, you want to hear about Imhotep!”

Antinous blushed, but Neferkaptah smiled enthusiastically. “The Holy Pyramid was constructed by an army of the finest craftsmen in Egypt in the service of King Netjerykhet, but it was Imhotep the Son of Ptah who imagined how it could be accomplished, and it was his genius that made what you have seen possible.

“Homage to You Imhotep, Son of Ptah, the Good Physician, the Kindhearted God!

“Imhotep was born to a woman named Khreduankh, whose beauty caught the eye of the God Ptah Himself, and it was from His seed that Imhotep came forth, having even at his birth the powers of a Seer together with all the knowledge of a priest of Ra. He knew the stars in their courses, and the measurements of creation, and he had the knowledge and blessedness to heal the sick and cure the diseases of the flesh. Did they point out to you the temple where the God Imhotep, as the Son of Ptah, reveals cures to the sick as they dream? Well, then perhaps you know already the fame of Imhotep throughout the known world, for not only do the people of this city and Egypt come to be healed in His shrine, but also people from across the Great Green Sea….”

“I know that the Hellenes associate Imhotep with Asklepius“, Antinous said, “and that they believe He cures barrenness and impotence, and even fatal conditions. Aren’t there miracles attributed to Imhotep during His life?”

Neferkaptah nodded. “And you saw it!…the Holy Pyramid, from which King Netjerykhet was sent aloft to the Imperishable Stars, to be the divine leader and guide of Egypt for all eternity. My son, Imhotep was an innovator, not merely an architect who followed in the footsteps of others. Memphis, Alexandria and Egypt entire is filled with scholars and architects…so many trained monkeys who mimic what they read and see in the genius of others. What Imhotep did was excel beyond the great works of his predecessors, taking the original design for the tombs of hallowed persons, and shaping it into something truly sublime. His is a miracle of the mind, the imagination, which is one of the greatest testaments to his divinity.

“Your own Hadrianus Caesar is said to be such an architect and visionary…one who takes what he has inherited and pushes it beyond what others thought possible. To exceed the limitations imposed by the lower mind, the mundane intellect…that is the course of one who has received the direct blessing of the Gods. It is that way in your Roma, and so it is that way here in my Egypt, which is the House of the God Ptah, Architect of the World!”

Antinous recalled some of the things his tutors had told him about the origins of Egypt and the Great God Ptah. “Speaking of the House of Ptah, is it not true that the Hellenes gave Egypt its name, or rather, that the name Egypt is taken from the language of the Hellenes, when they beheld the wonders of the Temple of Ptah at Memphis and recognized its universal importance?”

“That is so, my son. The Hellenes knew that the most ancient city of Memphis- which was hailed as Men-Nefer by the Ancients- was the first capital of the Egyptian state, and that it was here, in our very own Temple of Ptah, where every king that has sat upon the throne of Egypt has received the Double Crown. Aleksandras, whom they call Great, the Son of Zeus-Ammon, was crowned as Pharaoh of Egypt in the Temple of Ptah, as was your beloved Hadrianus Caesar, Lord of the Two Lands. For Ptah is the King-Maker, the Establisher of Laws, who founded the first temple in the first city of Egypt, and that city, this city, was known as Ibebu-hedj, the ‘White Walls’, where at its heart rose Hawt-ka-Ptah, ‘The Soul-Mansion of Ptah’.

“The Hellenes pronounced the name of Ptah’s holiest temple Aigyptos, and it was from their speech that the name of our Egypt came forth. And Ptah is the King of the Gods in His temple here, because it is recognized in Memphis that Ptah is the Genius from Whom speech, intellect and thought came into being. Without Him, the Hellenes, Romans, the Egyptians, and indeed the peoples of all the world would not have intellect or speech or even existence itself, for Ptah is the Great God Who gave birth to the Cosmos and all the things dwelling in it!”

Antinous and his hosts had finally arrived at the Great Temple of Ptah, which was just south of the primary enclosure of the ancient capital of Egypt. Its great white walls (from which the oldest district of ‘White Walls’ received its name) were crenelated like some military fortress, and Antinous recognized that its massive corners gave way to high watch towers that were likewise crenelated. Tall flagstaffs sheathed in gold stood proudly before soaring pylons into which were carved, in exquisite relief, images of the God Ptah receiving abundant offerings. The heady fragrance of myrrh incense rose in a palpable cloud above the entourage, and then the sound of chanting, which echoed off lofty stone ceilings.

“Hail to Ptah Who is South of His Wall, who created in the beginning in His loneliness, when there was no one beside Him. Who came into existence by Himself and fashioned in the beginning, in that neither father nor mother had made His body. The truly lone one. He who made the gods and who created, but who indeed was not created”.

Antinous braved a remark as they approached the entrance proper, the hallowed Soul-Mansion of the God Ptah. “The Hellenes know Ptah as Hephaestus, I have been told by my tutors, while my people know Him as Vulcan, and we see Him as the Wielder of the blacksmith’s hammer and fire. We know Vulcan as the creator of the blacksmith’s arts”.

“It is certainly true that the God Ptah is the divine patron of all handicrafts”, Neferkaptah answered, “…which include the arts of the forgers, goldsmiths, metal-smiths and jewelers. All of these are the products of the heart and tongue of Ptah, Who spoke them into existence, but so too are all the labors of the hands…stone masonry, sculpting, painting, architecture, mining and ship building. You have seen the famous ship yards of Memphis, which equal any in the known world, including Alexandria. Here too are the ateliers of the Temple, whose divine images in gold, precious stones and electrum are found in every temple in Egypt, and in the Royal Court.

It is known that the Servants of Ptah, that is to say His craftsmen, are among the finest in the world. They certainly have no equal in all of Egypt; for the God Ptah is not solely the patron of artisanship or craftsmanship, but rather the Progenitor of the finest quality work of which men are capable. It is excellence itself…this quality of having perfected a thing to the point where it cannot be improved upon…that is the hallmark of the God Ptah throughout creation. The very activity or attitude of striving for excellence in one’s work is the very nature of the God Ptah, Who has selected the perfect forms of all creatures and plants, given them birth through the speech of His tongue, and bestowed upon them the breath of life”.

Just then the entourage entered the sanctified outer courtyard of the Temple of Ptah, where grandiose and more humble stone images of the God Ptah stood in the presence of flaming braziers and tables choked with delicious offerings. Priests and acolytes moved to and fro with diligence, trimming wicks and lighting lamps, and dropping pellets of myrrh over the hot coals of the braziers. A presence of devotion and solitude pervaded the atmosphere, which spoke to the heart of Antinous of the first-fruits of the human heart.

“Is love part of the creation offered by the Great Ptah to His servants upon the earth?”, Antinous queried, his heart fluttering with admiration for the beauty and harmony of the images surrounding him.

Neferkaptah placed a warm hand on Antinous’ bare shoulder. “In our ancient teaching- which comes from the time when the Holy Pyramid was envisioned by Imhotep- it is said that the God Ptah thought the names of every thing to be created within His heart, which was then repeated by His tongue, and that it was through this divine miracle that all created things came into being.

“The heart and the tongue are the two instruments by which Ptah the very Great God brought out His vision for the created world, thus making it a reality. It is the heart that is the mind of all creatures in the world, for the heart speaks and the limbs obey. And when the tongue repeats what the heart has engendered, then life proceeds…activity shapes progress, and events unfold. This is the handiwork of Ptah, Who gave form to the heart that it might direct the limbs and the passions.

“But know too that Ptah is called the King of the Gods not merely because of His creative power, which makes kings in the world of men, but because He created the Gods. It was the desire, the passion…the love of Ptah that made the Souls of all the Gods, and determined that they should come to rest in their statues of stone and wood and metal, and it was Ptah Who ordained the cults of all the Gods, Their temples and worship, so that the Gods could receive the first-fruits of the earth from humankind. But also, it was through the love of Ptah that the Gods should receive the offerings of humankind, and intervene on their behalf, for men and women, together with all the creeping creatures of the earth, are the handiwork of Ptah’s heart and tongue. We, Antinous…you and I and revered Hadrianus Caesar, are the thoughts of Ptah’s passion, and the desires of His heart, and the fruit of His tongue…and so it shall always be!”

Antinous was filled with awe and humility in the presence of such a teaching, which inspired within his own heart the desire to receive the Mysteries of Ptah more fully and deeply. And so Antinous followed Neferkaptah into the dim inner court of the Temple of Ptah, and there received an answer from the very Great God Ptah.

All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa

Getting Personal With the Gods

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How I Found Grace in the Religion of Ancient Egypt

When I was six years old I had my first powerful brush with the gods of ancient Egypt. In the pages of Encyclopedia Britannica I found photographs of statues, bas-reliefs, amulets, coffins and paintings depicting super-human beings with animal heads…jackals, snakes, cats, crocodiles and a dung beetle. A glittering golden icon of the god Ptah with his characteristic skull cap, a treasure from the tomb of Tutankhamun, enticed me to keep looking, to dig deeper for more. For most people unfamiliar with the nuances of ancient Egyptian art and religious iconography, the goddesses and gods of the Nile Valley present a bewildering and incomprehensible spectacle. A fusion of human and animal, each bearing their own set of complex crowns, regalia and signs, the netjeru or gods embody the fantastical and magical, seemingly defying the mortal realm and anything we could recognize as logical. The gods of ancient Egypt appear to defy logic, and are infinitely locked within the framework of their strange myths.

I was bitten by the bug (or should I say Scarab?) of ancient Egypt at an age when other kids were discovering cowboys and Indians and J.I. Joe. Today this would be nothing unusual, as ancient Egypt is all the rage from grade school to high school, and the Internet has created an endless place for discovery and research geared towards young people who are fascinated by this ancient world of pyramids and mummies. “King Tut” is a household name even for kindergarteners, and the recent global exhibitions of the Tutankhamun treasures (among many other collections currently circulating) have perpetuated the continued legacy of Egyptomania like never before. However, I grew up in the era before personal computers, the Internet and the iphone (I’m kidding, right?).

I grew up before Border’s and Barnes & Noble, before you could walk into any bookstore and find countless books on ancient Egypt to satisfy the voracious appetite of any Egyptophile. I had to make due with the few and far between titles available in mall bookstores or school libraries. When I did find those rare books (like E.A. Wallis Budge’s The Egyptian Book of the Dead or Mildred Mastin Pace’s Wrapped for Eternity), I devoured them greedily, taking notes and poring over the pictures for countless hours on end. Yes, it was the mummies and monuments, the fabled riches of Tutankhamun’s tomb that drew me in, but even more than those was the religion and magic of a world with which I increasingly found myself identifying. More than anything else from that culture, it was the gods of ancient Egypt that spoke to my mind and seemed to tug incessantly on the strings of my heart.

My first personal experience with an Egyptian deity happened some time after my seventh birthday. I was hospitalized for a severe concussion after falling over a tricycle, and I remember a terrifying moment when nurses were attempting to draw blood, and I squirmed around trying to prevent them from doing their job. I remember my stomach heaving, vomiting, an intense fear coupled with the fierce desire to get out of that hospital. It was then that I prayed to Imhotep- that most famous of Egyptian architects and physicians who after his death was deified as the son of the god Ptah and worshiped as a miraculous healer. I called on him and asked him to make it all better, and that’s exactly what happened. Call it a fantasy or a concussion-induced hallucination if you must, but I will never forget the vision I saw above my hospital bed: A shaven-headed and wise-looking man with a scroll of papyrus unrolled on his lap, surrounded by a scintillating golden aura. He spoke words in a language I did not know in my intellect, and yet my heart seemed to resonate with the sound and meter. All at once I felt a peace and comfort settle over me, and from that day to this I have called upon Lord Imhotep whenever in pain or in need of healing.

“Great One, Son of Ptah, the creative god, made by Thenen,
begotten by him and beloved of him, the god of divine forms in the temples,
who giveth life to all men, the mighty one of wonders,
the maker of times, who cometh unto him that calleth upon him,
wheresoever he may be, who giveth sons to the childless,
the chief Kheri-heb, the image and likeness of Thoth the wise.”

-Address to Imhotep in the temple of Imhotep at Philae
Imhotep by Jamieson B. Murry, M.A., M.D. Oxford University Press, 1926, pp. 46.

While in grade school I attended St. Alban’s Perish Day School, a private Catholic school, where every Friday we were required to attend chapel, take part in Mass, and to observe the saying of the Lord’s Prayer together with those prayers reserved for the feast days of various saints. I had been raised in the Baptist Church, which for me was appallingly sterile and devoid of mystery or passion. It was my experience with the solemnity and ritual of Catholicism that was to change the way I viewed religion. In the Baptist Church of my upbringing there was little to endear a heart already absorbed in the study of ancient rites of a pagan culture; enduring hour-long sermons in stiff pews surrounded by stark white walls and a plain wooden altar.

This is as agonizingly boring as religion gets! However, Catholicism struck a chord with me, and in it I identified with something that seemed to originate in a time and place much older than the origins of Roman Catholicism. When attending Mass- hearing the chants in Latin, being imbued with incense clouding up from swinging censors, seeing gilded icons glowing mysteriously by candle light- I connected with the temple rituals of the ancient Egyptians, for something in my heart recognized the sound of chanting, the smell of incense, and the power of golden icons.

In chapel there was an especially beautiful marble statue of the Virgin Mary, before which always burned dozens of votive candles in blue glass holders. I remember the morning I made my first prayer to Mother Auset (Isis), seeing in the smiling face and outstretched arms of Christ’s mother the spirit of a much older goddess, whose son Heru (Horus) was the savior-god of the ancient Egyptians. At this time I did not yet have my own statues of the Goddess to adore, so I used the statue of the Virgin Mary as my “stand in” to reach Isis. How can I forget the day Father Treat found me lighting a candle in front of the Virgin and said with a smile, “You are praying to Our Lady?” “No”, I answered with an even bigger smile, “I am praying to Isis”.

“Praise to you, Isis, the Great-One,
God’s Mother, Lady of Heaven, queen of the gods.
You are the First Royal Spouse of Omnophris,
The supreme overseer of the Golden-Ones in
The temples, the eldest son, first(born) of Geb.
Praise to you, Isis, the Great-One,
God’s Mother, Lady of Heaven, queen of the gods.
You are the First Royal Spouse of Omnophris,
The Bull, the Lion who overthrows all his enemies,
The Lord and ruler of Eternity.”

-Hymn to the goddess Isis from the temple of Isis at Philae
Six Hymns to Isis in the Sanctuary of Her Temple at Philae and Their Theological  Significance. Part I . By L. V. Žabkar. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 69 (1983), pp. 115-137

Isis was the first goddess of the Egyptian religion to answer my prayers. I came to her at first very timidly, not quite sure how to address a goddess, as I had been raised in the Baptist Church of Christianity, which recognized no goddesses and had no concept of the divine feminine. But I was enchanted by her story, because Isis is no ordinary goddess. Queen of Heaven, yes. Great of Magic, but of course. Crowned and arrayed in the trappings of royalty, to be sure. However, Isis is no loller on the clouds of divine queenship. She is a goddess who knows the sufferings of widowhood, homelessness, imprisonment, forced manual labor, single parenthood, poverty…and the list goes on and on. Something that won the hearts of millions of the ancients was the truly humble story of this powerful goddess whose husband (Ausir or Osiris) was brutally murdered, who then had to flee for her life as a widowed and pregnant mother, to give birth in the marshes of Egypt in hiding and on the run from her husband’s murderer. Isis raised her son Horus in secret, ever aware that the chaotic Set (the murderer of Osiris) would destroy not only her but also her young son. The trials of single motherhood in this day and age included near death encounters with scorpions and crocodiles, and the added humility of begging for scraps and help from rich matrons who slammed their doors in the goddess’ face.

This was the story that captivated the ancients, and, when Christianity was struggling to overtake the East, made it difficult for evangelists to convert adherents of the Goddess to the doctrine of Christ. The faith of Isis, Osiris and Horus is the story of a divine family enduring and transforming through very human circumstances. It is also the story of resurrection from death that formed the foundation of the Egyptian belief in immortality and physical resurrection from the dead. Long before Christians formed their doctrine of a divine son crucified and resurrected from the dead as the path to salvation, the very ancient Egyptian religion asserted the death and resurrection of its god Ausir (Osiris), and the guarantee of his story to all Egyptians that they could follow in his footsteps and be risen from the dead into the paradise of the Blessed. Central to this belief was the magic of the goddess Isis, who had used the insurmountable skill of her magic to revive her murdered husband from the dead. Upon achieving her aim, she conceived a holy child, the falcon-headed god Heru (Horus), who became to the Egyptians the very embodiment of divine justice, truth, and righteousness.

The story of Heru’s struggle to overcome the obstacles of his tumultuous childhood and regain the throne of Egypt from the murderer of his father had a particular meaning to me as a young boy; for the story of Horus is essentially the story of history’s first underdog turned top dog. He is a child who experiences severe tragedy and darkness, then, as a young man, enters a vicious struggle against his uncle in order to regain his stolen throne.

The trials of Heru seem to know no bounds, but he is, in the end, rewarded with justice, and himself becomes the embodiment of truth overcoming brute force and immorality. Horus, once perceived as the outcast renegade of the Egyptian marshes, proves his valor to the gods of Egypt, and wins the kingship of his father as the god of strength and honor. To a young boy who was also a runt, often an outcast amongst other children his age and the butt of many a joke, the story of Heru made me believe in the probability of noble character to surpass mere brute strength, and the significance of maintaining one’s moral and spiritual integrity even in the face of the most violent opposition. My prayers to Isis and Osiris inevitably included earnest petitions to the holy son Horus, the valiant god whose power of truth could help me defeat the schoolyard bullies, and survive the heartache of a troubled domestic life.

“I am Horus the Behdetite, great god, lord of the sky,
Lord of the Upper Egyptian crown,
Prince of the Lower Egyptian crown,
King of the Kings of Upper Egypt,
King of the Kings of Lower Egypt,
Beneficent Prince, the Prince of princes.
I receive the crook and the whip,
For I am the lord of this land.
I take possession of the Two Lands
In assuming the Double Diadem.
I overthrow the for of my father Osiris
As King of Upper and Lower Egypt for ever!”

-The speech of the god Horus from his temple at Edfu
The Triumph of Horus: An Ancient Egyptian Sacred Drama. Translated and edited
By H.W. Fairman. University of California Press, 1974, pp. 106.

I was raised in a very religious family, and I have always been a very religious person. I was even religious as a kindergartener. My problem as a child was that I was drawn to the “wrong” religion. Something about monotheism stuck in my craw and seemed to chew up my insides. And something about church made me shake me head for want of something more. Where are the statues?, I remember asking myself while daydreaming during Sunday school about being anywhere but there. Where are the flowers, the chants…the Mysteries? They had these in ancient Egypt, I told myself, so why shouldn’t they be in the houses of God now? Somehow, it all seemed wrong to me, and I never felt very right sitting in those stiff wooden pews surrounded by black-tied and suited fathers beside their starchy looking wives. I couldn’t stand church, because to my little mind it felt completely separate from the Divine. It seemed more about who was wearing what, and showing off good Christian morale than about finding and serving God. And which God?, I always asked myself. Some distant and wrathful old man flying around out there, just waiting to send irredeemable souls to the lake of fire. Even at eight-years-old I said to myself that one god was just not enough, let alone a jealous and angry god that would condemn his “chosen people” to forty years of hard time in the wilderness. So, I opted for something else.

When I was entering puberty my father told me I needed to be baptized. He was close friends with the preacher, whose son was just about my age and was going to be baptized in a group ceremony for young adults. And how would it look if I decided not to be baptized too? How would it make my father look, my family? Church was, after all, a place where one’s status in society could be firmly established. It’s where you showed off your new car, your wife’s 24 karat gold rope chain, your son’s straight A report card. It was also about showing off your Christian do-goodness. My parents were ahead of the game in that department. They volunteered for everything they could, everything from Wednesday night youth group to Sunday picnics and fund raising bake sales. My father was a pillar of the church, so his son just had to be baptized with the other boys. Period.

So I went to baptism class with the preacher’s son, memorized bible verses and evangelical prattle, and generally hated myself because I didn’t believe in any of it, and felt impure at the thought of taking part in it. Why did I feel impure? It wasn’t because I felt I was tarnishing Christian values by taking part in something so sacred without being a believer. That thought never crossed my mind. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of slandering the gods I truly believed in, the gods I kept locked away in my heart so that my Christian parents couldn’t see them. I would betray anyone, anything but them. How could I go through with it?

I stood behind the baptismal tank with all the other boys, dressed in my pure white robe, looking up behind the altar at a blue-painted sky in which clouds beckoned the mind to dwell in Christ’s kingdom. But my mind was lower than low, consumed in guilt and conflict, because I was consecrating my body (and, supposedly my soul, too) to the Christian faith in front of the whole community. But then something happened. I felt a presence leading and guiding my heart into awareness of how this moment could be transformed into something sacred for my personal religion, for my gods and my true beliefs. Looking at the four corners of the baptismal tank, I saw in my mind’s eye the four tutelary goddesses of ancient Egypt: Auset (Isis), Nebet-het (Nephthys), Selket and Neith. Their kind expressions and outstretched arms surrounded the waters in a protective embrace, just as they had the fabulous golden canopic shrine of Tutankhamun.

And I saw the baptismal tank not as the waters in which John the Baptist had baptised Christ, but rather as the waters of the sacred Nile, the holiest of rivers to the ancient Egyptians. And I called on the gods of those people, just as I was summoned to take my turn in the waters. I offered to them the vessel of my heart in sacrifice, and gave over my soul, my mind, the entirety of my being, to them and only them. With my mouth I parroted the words the minister spoke, the words he and everyone else believed would make me a true and consecrated Christian- but in my heart I prayed fervently to my gods, and gave myself over into their sacred care. When I was dipped beneath the waters I experienced them as the same waters in which the god Osiris was drowned, the waters beneath which opened up the hidden passage to the Netherworld. And I entered, and from that moment on I belonged to the living gods of ancient Egypt. Like Osiris, I died and was born again, and my life was the vehicle for the glorious gods who still spoke and moved when they were listened to and called upon.

“I come unto thee, son of Nut, Osiris, ruler of eternity. I am a follower of Thoth, rejoicing in all that he has done. He brings for thee refreshing breath to thy nose, life and dominion to thy beautiful face, and the north wind that came forth from Atum to thy nostrils, lord of the sacred land. He lets the light shine on thy breast; he illumines for thee the way of darkness”.

-Excerpt from Spell 183 of the Book of the Dead
The Book of the Dead or Going Forth By Day: Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians
Concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in their Own Terms. Translated by
Thomas George Allen. The University of Chicago Press, 1974, pp. 200.

My Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) icons are my answer and my call to the gods of the Nile Valley. However, these gods are not just fixed in space and time, belonging only to the hazy mythos of a long-dead civilization, nor are they solely the gods of ancient Egypt as a historical culture or geographical location. The netjeru or gods are manifestations of the Eternal, beings who both embody and transcend the extraordinary culture that first recognized them as the components of all life. Nor can they be boiled down to mere archetypes, the play of the human intellect as it attempts to define the undefinable and bestow meaning to what is beyond comprehension. I must ask how an archetype is worthy of worship? Do Christians, for example, worship Christ as an archetype of resurrection or salvation? Do they view his power solely as that of some abstract symbol by which the human mind can label a thing hidden deeply within the recesses of its own mind? The answer is self-evident.

The passion of Christianity lies in the physical existence of Christ, in his historical passion of birth, death and resurrection, in the redemption literally passed down to humankind through the spilling of his blood. There is no Jungian symbolism or Freudian theory that can define for Christians the solid truth of Christ’s sacrifice and promise. So too did the ancient Egyptians view their gods as historical and tangible beings, incarnate in and through the created world. Their powers were very immediate, very real to the mind of the Egyptian, who did not bother with abstract universal thinking, but opted instead to experience the Divine in the here and now, in the flesh, and in the world beyond this one that was as earthy and tangible to the Egyptians as their beloved Egypt.

There are those who, in the spirit of New Age thought, assign the gods to the Jungian realm of abstract symbols inherent to emotional states of being, or simply define them as “nature”. The true gods laugh at such egoistic folly, as human beings strive to quantify, label, and explain away through tidy language the quintessence of the Mysteries. My experience of the gods is that just when you find a convenient label to slap on them, they are sure to change and transcend logic in all its secure forms. That is why the netjeru were served by the ancient Egyptians through the cultic rites they called shetau, “the mysteries”, from a word meaning to “make secret”, “make inaccessible”, “mysterious”, “confidential” (Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, pp. 248-249). The gods so enjoy the delicious complexity of form and symbol, name, color, texture and transformation.

To the ancient Egyptians, each deity was the composite of nearly limitless qualities and manifestations of form. Each assisted in lending the power of recognition to the whole; however, ultimately the gods were mysterious and hidden, experienced truly through the magic of ritual and iconographic forms.

So, I wish not only to connect with the netjeru personally as a devotee summoning up their images within the artistic medium, but also to bring these gods to humankind once more. The mission of my creativity is to literally give birth to the gods, for we are told in the so-called Memphite Theology of the Shabaka Stone that the creator-god Ptah determined the offerings and places of worship of the gods, that he made their body as they desired, and that because of this the gods entered into their bodies of all kinds of wood, minerals, clay, and all kinds of other things that grow thereon (Holmberg, The God Ptah, pp. 22). It is through the artistic medium, then, that the gods make contact with human beings, for the artistic medium is that process by which wood, stone, minerals, clay, and the substances that have sprung from the earth are transfigured into the shapes in which it pleases the gods to dwell.

All text and image copyright © 2011, 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa