Lately, an issue that has been coming up time and again in my work as a Priest is the question of traditions, religion, dogma, belief and what it really means to follow an ancient polytheistic faith in today’s world. I have, for inspiration and observation/ study, often looked to the Sanatana Dharma or Hindu religion as a means of seeing how a people may harmonize in the modern world with such a plethora of goddesses and gods and the ancient traditions that go with them.
Brahmins are the carriers of the most ancient sacred traditions in Hinduism. They are priests whose training, study, and level of devotion maintain an unbroken line of teachings, rituals and philosophies stretching back through thousands of years. Brahmins are expected to maintain the highest degree of ritual purity in order to carry out their responsibilities in the temple, and these responsibilities include the very elaborate rites and rituals through which the Gods are honored and their presences commune with their devotees.
Hinduism contains ritual forms that have been handed down by Brahmins for literally thousands of years in an unbroken chain. Because Brahmins have handed down these ritual treasures, guarding their purity and not changing them just to be “current”, people who need the Gods are able to commune with them through ritual and receive blessings. Brahmins I have spoken to about these rituals have told me that the same ritual gestures, mantras and icons have been used in Sanatana Dharma since time began, and that they have not been changed. Now that is a long time!
I happen to follow a religious and spiritual tradition that has not remained unbroken. The Kemetic or Ancient Egyptian religion lasted historically for at least 3,000 years, though Egyptologists now acknowledge the probability that there was an oral tradition of worship going back well before the first dynasty…before the written record. Texts like the Pert-em-hru or Book of Going Forth By Day retain fragments that can be found in the so called Pyramid Texts, and these contain phrases that some mainstream Egyptologists say point to an oral tradition going back at least 4,000 years or more.
However, unlike the rites and rituals of Hinduism, the ancient Egyptian religion was eventually all but stamped out in its own birth place, where Islam and Christianity became the predominant faiths. In modern Egyptian folk traditions there are still practices and beliefs originating in the ancient faith of Egypt, but as a national religion, the ancient beliefs are no longer mainstream in Egypt as they once were.
Kemetic Reconstructionism is embraced by many contemporary spiritual practitioners who desire to return to the traditionally Egyptian (Kemetic) way of honoring the Netjeru or Deities. Unlike the unbroken line of Brahmins in the Hindu faith, we do not have specially initiated and trained priests who have received the ancient traditions unaltered by time or social/ political circumstances. Kemetic Reconstructionists attempt to replace what has been “lost” by digging into the archives…the vast body of literature and archaeological discoveries produced by Egyptologists, in order to put back together our ancient rites and sacred texts. This is a very challenging task even at the best of times, leading some of us to learn the meduw-netjer (hieroglyphs) and spend years sifting through some of the driest academic studies on the planet!
Why bother? Why can’t we just do whatever comes to heart or mind in order to serve the Gods in the new era. Of course, we can do that, and most people would rather do that, because it’s much easier to just “go with the flow” than dedicate one’s life to the stressful task of piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle, one in which a heck of a lot of pieces are still missing!
But then, what would have happened to the Hindu religion…where would modern Hindus be if they had lost many or most of their ancient rites and teachings? I’m sure their gods would manage to guide Hindus still and send them inspiration. But shouldn’t we be asking whether or not such practices, mantras, prayers and scriptures are worth preserving, having and handing down? I think they are, and I’m sure that millions of Hindus would agree with me.
My idea of dogma is blind faith and blind belief…strictly following an idea because you are told to follow it. Dogma leaves no room for personal inspiration or individualized expression. Dogmatism demands that we obey, adhere, and do not question. Dogma threatens. I have never felt that Kemetic Reconstructionism is being dogmatic. Quite the contrary, I feel it is a spiritual treasure hunt, where the Netjeru are hiding and welcoming us to find Them. As we dig deep into the ancient texts and reconstruct the Daily Temple Ritual, and the many other rites of the Ancients, we are communing with living gods whose presences brought inspiration, healing, life and abundance to millions of the ancients for nearly 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptian religion is a vibrant gathering of prayers, practices and gestures that enhances the experience of divinity within Nature and human nature. The ancient gods are alive and well, and Their presence can be felt as strongly today in the ancient rites and prayers as it was felt thousands of years ago.
Reconstructing an entire ancient religion based on textual sources sounds dogmatic to some, but I would argue that dogmatism is asserting one way of doing things over another. Dogmatism removes freedom of choice and individual conscience. What I follow is a 5,000 year old tradition of speaking directly to the Gods, and inviting Them to receive the very best the heart of humankind has to offer. For me, Kemetic Reconstructionism is a framework for carrying out a relationship between the living Gods and creation, as realized by the ancient Egyptians. Since their way of accomplishing this far outlasted all other civilizations, and existed much longer than our own, I think the ancients proved that their expressions of honoring the Sacred have staying power, and that we have so much to learn from them.
All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
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
Anna Applegate: The theme of this Autumn issue is “Dark Nights of the Soul.” Would you be willing to share an anecdote of how the Neteru have helped you through personal challenges or episodes of despair? Are they currently helping you navigate the powerful currents of any life challenges?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I could share so many “dark nights of the soul” with your readers, but I will share just one, which will be quite enough to express how my Netjeru have guided and saved me throughout my life. There is one thing I’d like to say about the Gods in general. I’ve encountered an attitude as I’ve worked with other Kemetics throughout the years that the Netjeru and human beings are something like cats and dogs…they just don’t mix!
There seems to be this undercurrent within a number of Kemetic communities I’ve encountered that seems to reinforce this view that we can worship the Gods, make offerings to Them, fear Them, but not have a close and personal relationship with Them. I have to say that this attitude is ridiculous, and is refuted entirely by the historical record.
Museums around the world are filled with stelae, ex-votos, letters, inscriptions, and votive offerings deposited at both major and minor temple sites throughout Egypt, and these are objects that give testimony to people who have had their most fervent prayers answered by the Gods, and so have dedicated a monument or offering in order to pay thanksgiving to the Gods. Both women and men made petitions for fertility and conception through symbolic offerings at temples, and the textual record from devotional stelae and prayers is immense!
The ancient Egyptians believed that their Netjeru could and did intervene on their behalf, bring healing and relief from suffering, grant requests for material or emotional needs, and deliver Their devotees from death. The massive quantity of devotional figures, amulets, and cult images recovered from town and village sites is proof enough that average Egyptians believed in the immediate presence and power of their Gods, and wanted their Gods close to them!
Honestly, from a very human point of view, what good is a deity who is removed from our daily life and suffering? What need have we for gods that can’t or won’t hear our prayers…who demand worship but refuse to be engaged? What can any such deity or deities possibly offer us? And who would offer prayers or make offerings to such a deity? I’d say the answer is self-evident. Humankind has always responded to deities who are actually involved in human life, needs, sufferings and desires.
Human beings establish ties and relationships with the Sacred Powers because they give us something we need for our physical and emotional survival. More than that, the Gods we worship or call upon actually answer us! We receive a response from Them that creates a bond, and a powerful sense that we are not walking alone. That is the reason religions have survived the test of time. Without a response from the Sacred, religion would cease to exist.
My relationship with my Gods has always been immensely personal. I can’t put my finger on an exact moment and say, oh, there it is, that’s the moment that did it for me! I think I just have a naturally devotional nature, and that nature needs to give and receive love, to feel an intimate exchange between myself and the other. I have never been casual or superficial. If I am going to love, I do it fully and deeply, with abandon; otherwise, I’d rather not be bothered. This is how I love my Gods, and it has never occurred to me that such a relationship was anything other than natural.
I was raised in a very strict, traditional Christian family…a church going family. My siblings and I were trained to memorize bible verses every single day, and attending church services twice a week was compulsory. But for me, there was an emptiness in Christianity, a void because the Christian god and his son were shown to me as aloof, judgmental, vengeful, and completely removed from human affairs. The Christian god I was raised with was an angry god who demanded at all times to be worshiped, but refused to show himself or engage actively with the lives of his followers.
For me, this just never worked. If you want to be my god, if you want me to acknowledge your power and greatness and sacrifices, then you had better answer my prayers, manifest your intervention in my life, and speak to my heart directly. In a manner of speaking, you better bring it to the table, and be ready to throw down…you know what I’m saying?! I don’t want to hear that it’s all there in a book, because words are meaningless to me unless they’re backed up by action.
And I think that’s always been the real difference between Pagans/ Polytheists and monotheists, ancient and contemporary. The Abrahamic religions, the religions of the book, have precisely that, a book. They have faith because they are told to, in books that are the law. Pagans and Polytheists have always asked for, and received, much more than the word from their Gods. Paganism and Polytheism have always been traditions of reciprocity and mutual exchange…I give because You give.
The ancient Gods have always backed up Their end of the deal through direct intervention and demonstration of powers; what I’d call “miracles”. The Gods are anything but removed from the daily lives, cares, and needs of Their devotees. They answer prayers directly, and They show Their living presences throughout the natural, material world They created. They do not demand our worship simply because They’re Gods, but through the immediate demonstration of Their powers, Their ability to govern life’s forces and bend these to Their will. They speak to us directly, and They are willing to prove to us just who They are and how They shape our lives!
My life has been shaped by my Gods, my Netjeru, Who have always answered my prayers directly, even when the answer had to be no, or you’ll have to wait…or you need to rethink what you’re asking for. I have never felt separated from the Netjeru, and no more so than during my “dark nights of the soul”.
Lord Ptah is my namesake, that you know. I also serve Ptah as a hem-netjer or priest, and, as an iconographer or craftsman of cult images, I look to Ptah for His blessing and empowerment in my craft. I could cite all kinds of esoteric or mystical reasons why Ptah called to me, why I answered, and why I honor Him above other gods…above my own life; however, the simple truth is that He saved me. He took me by the hand, quite literally, and led me through a darkness that very nearly claimed my life. And that is His claim on me, this moment of crisis when I trusted in Him and gave my life over into His hands. It is the time that culminated in my life-altering decision to formally receive a Kemetic name from Ptah, but also to belong to Him as His son.
1997 was a turning point in my spiritual life. After years of cultivating a relationship with the Netjeru of Kemet, devoted study, and spiritual guidance from Gods and earthly teachers, I was prepared to take the next and most serious step towards formal ordination as a priest. This was to be a spiritual initiation and transformation, not a legal ordination within an established religious organization. That would come later, and as a formality only. For me, initiation and ordination are not experiences that can be conferred by others. We can go through a physical ceremony performed by others in the name of a religious body, and can receive a piece of legal paperwork that certifies our standing within a religious community, but these things alone do not confer the actual mystical empowerment of initiation or ordination.
My initiation into the Priesthood of Ptah came by ordeal. When I say ordeal, I am talking about a deeply transformative personal experience that- by virtue of the level of emotional or physical pain involved- leads directly to an epiphany that results in one’s spiritual awakening into the mystical knowledge of a deity’s tradition or mythos. Each culture or tradition has its own expression of ordeal, which can take the form of rites of passage, during which those undergoing them are bestowed with a certain kind of knowledge or confirmation, an inner blessing or guidance for their life path.
Many Mystery traditions and cults have this concept as the “dark night of the soul”, when one must undergo a painful self-examination, or a set of experiences whose outcome will determine whether or not an initiate is prepared to be inducted into the Sacred Mysteries proper. Such Mystery traditions or cults, like the Eleusinian and Dionysian Mysteries, use vivid experiences of ecstasy and terror to induce consciousness of the Sacred Powers directly within the minds and hearts of its celebrants. Joy and ecstasy can certainly be powerful tools for engaging the Gods and drawing forth empowerment from Their Mysteries, however, it is my experience that initiation often comes through ordeal, which can be the “dark night of the soul”.
I had recently ended a long term relationship, which had slowly dissolved because of the religious differences between my partner and I. The more I had become immersed in my relationship with my Gods, the more he had felt excluded, threatened, and distanced from me. My partner had not found his own spiritual path, and due to traumatic experiences in his childhood, could not bring himself to accept anything resembling organized religion. What I was doing- being that it was so all-encompassing, so pervasive in my life- was ultimately too “religious” to be reconciled with his life path and direction, and we could no longer see eye to eye. It was the most devastating termination of a relationship I had had. But the situation as it played out have given me an ultimatum: it was follow my Gods, or stay with the man I loved. I chose my Gods.
This was the beginning of my initiation, which I see as the process of me coming into awareness of what my spiritual path really was. It wasn’t the Netjeru who made me choose between my faith or my man; that choice was solely mine, and I had free will to do as I pleased. I could have stayed in the relationship, and accepted that he and I would not harmonize in our spiritual beliefs. However, I wanted to devote each and every aspect of my life to service to my Gods, and that very much included any committed relationship I would invite into my life. If I had human love in my life, that love needed to embrace service to the Netjeru as its foundation; otherwise, there would be only a disharmony that would ultimately hold back the Sacred Work I felt compelled to do for the Netjeru.
At that time I had no job and no savings, only a large line of credit, which I used to secure myself an apartment while I looked around the city for employment. It was then that I shaved my head for the very first time, and donned the white robes that for me signified taking on the Sacred Mantle of priesthood. Shaving my head was a revolutionary step for me, for I had always had a full head of lustrous dark hair, and had been raised with a certain sense of pride that it was the hair that made the man. But for me, the shedding of my hair was part of the sacrifice I was offering my Netjer, Who Himself was smooth of scalp, and Whose ancient priests had shaved their heads during their time of service.
These are the little things we do for our Gods when we decide to make service to Them more important than the ephemeral things of this material world. We can give up our vanity, our sense of self-importance, our innate feeling that we indeed are the center of the universe. We learn through initiation that the Gods are great, that They are alive throughout Their creation, and that our life is the miracle of Their divine hands. We learn to see the bigger picture, that the Sacred Powers are far larger than us, and that we are engaged in an interdependent relationship with Them. When They give, we give…and when we give, They give.
It is in our smallest gestures of love and devotion that are contained the seeds for a larger spiritual awakening, which are bestowed through the fruits of true service, which has nothing to do with the ego, and everything to do with love for its own sake. When one truly loves the Gods, one simply gives, out of instinct; but it is this very instinct, this altruistic instinct, that manifests the most profound rewards. This I have learned only too well.
I seemed not to have found the job I was looking for, my credit ran out, and so did my ability to pay my rent. With the last sum of credit to my name I rented a small self-storage unit, put my shrines, my icons, my books, and my life into storage, and began a strange period of self-imposed homelessness. Most people in my situation would have been desperate at that point, and perhaps not a little spiritually desolate. But something kept me charged and invigorated from within, and perhaps strangely rebellious, too; refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of my situation, or see in it something self-destructive. Instead, I welcomed it, knowing that no matter how painful things became on a skin-deep level, that underneath it all would be the answer to my path in the Netjeru.
I stayed with friends, and friends of friends, sleeping on a couch here or a floor there, scrounging coffee and food from friends at my favorite corner café; and all the while studying the Sacred Texts of the Pert-em-hru or Book of Coming Forth By Day. When a couch or a floor wasn’t on offer for the night, I found relatively safe places to sleep outside, in apartment hallways or beneath shop awnings. I made friends with homeless men who had been forced into their lifestyle through desperate circumstances, and I never felt sorry for myself. I looked for the Gods in everything, continued to shave my head in the sink of a local park restroom, and did absolutely nothing to extricate myself from my ridiculous situation.
One afternoon, I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop reading the Pert-em-hru when I was approached by a young man carrying a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum (or Hermetica). He was Indian, and I knew by his Dastar or turban that he was a Sikh. He told me that he had been watching me for a little while and felt that I might be the person he was looking for. Apparently it was his birthday, and he had given himself a vacation to San Diego as a birthday present. It was in a used bookstore down the street that he had discovered a copy of the Hermetica, which he believed was a much later manifestation of ideals that had been handed down by the temples of Pharaonic Egypt.
It was a teacher of the ancient Egyptian religion he was looking for, and he told me he believed I was that teacher. I invited him to sit down with me, and for the next several hours we engaged in a very animated conversation concerning the Netjeru of Kemet, and the fundamental points of view that defined the religious traditions of ancient Egypt. Finally, the young man told me he was flying back home to Vancouver, British Columbia the following day, and asked me if I would go back with him in the role of his spiritual teacher.
I look back on this event now and realize that it was one of those crossroads people reach that wind up changing the course of their lives. I did not see myself as a spiritual teacher at that time, but as a priest-initiate, traveling through my own personal demons and experiences in order to come into awareness of my ultimate spiritual path. It was not my devotion to my Gods that I was questioning, but my ability to guide and inspire others; for what right does a man in crisis have to advise others in how to pick up the pieces of their life and serve the Gods? That was how I felt then, but I realize now that I was in exactly the right place at the right time, having been guided by the hand of Ptah to the next stage of my initiation.
I flew with Sukhi to Vancouver the next day, never stopping to ask myself how I would be able to fly back to America if things didn’t work out. I had no money in my pocket, no resources of my own, and I was walking blindly into the unknown…into a country I had never visited, with a young man I hardly knew. What I did have was this certainty that I was being guided and taken care of, that Lord Ptah and my Netjeru were asking me to go on this pilgrimage of sorts, where I would have the opportunity to refine my understanding of the spiritual quest, and my own understanding of myself.
Vancouver was a beautiful city, and Sukhi spent the first few days taking me to all the major landmarks, together with the places he loved. We visited the Sikh Gurdwara or mosque where he and his family attended sacred services, which inspired me greatly through the devotion that seemed to be the fabric of that faith. Throughout the evenings, and long into the nights, Sukhi and I debated religion, and I instructed Him in the myths and sacred texts of the Netjeru of Kemet. I shared with him my own devotional compositions, and chanted for him in the ancient Egyptian language.
I had brought only one icon with me, and that was my first icon of Lord Ptah I had purchased as a birthday present for myself with money I received for my 14th birthday. Marble and gold with blue and black enamel, this Ptah was a reproduction of the famous cult statue of Ptah found by Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Every morning we lit a candle and incense in front of Ptah while I chanted the words from the Daily Ritual, and every night we veiled Ptah and “put Him to bed”.
Sometimes we stayed up until the next morning, as Sukhi urged me to read the Pert-em-hru- the Book of Coming Forth By Day- to him out loud. Sukhi had a voracious appetite for spiritual learning, and my time with him in Vancouver felt like a teacher’s boot-camp, where the Netjeru were refining my abilities to share the Sacred Traditions with others, and giving me the opportunity to expand my learning as I was teaching. It was also in Vancouver where I discovered an emotional and spiritual peace I had not known for quite some time; not since before the breakdown of my long term relationship.
But it was not to last. In the middle of the night one night, Sukhi received a long-distance telephone call from a family member in India. His uncle was gravely ill, and his mother wanted him to come home so that he could be there in the event of death. His mother was purchasing airline tickets for Sukhi, and he would be flying out for India in a matter of days. I was stunned. Sukhi asked me what I was going to do, as I had no money or friends or connections in Vancouver, save him. That great sinking feeling overtook me the moment I realized the true test had come. My days of peace and devotion and philosophical introspection were coming to an end.
I had avoided the inevitable for as long as I could, and it was time to pay the piper. How I would have loved to continue my days in the chilly air of a Vancouver Fall, strolling through parks with Sukhi as we debated the chapters of the Coming Forth By Day. How I longed to spend my evenings in devotion, chanting before my icon of Lord Ptah, sharing the incense and flame of candles with Sukhi as he grew deeper into the Mysteries of the Netjeru. What I knew I wanted from my life was a life of devotion, where I was free to serve the Gods through Their ancient rites, and to restore the traditions of the ancient sanctuaries as fully as possible. I wanted to teach, to learn, to be absorbed in the Netjeru; and the very last thing I wanted was the one thing I feared was going to happen, now that Sukhi would be leaving for India.
This was the beginning of the darkest part of my dark night of the soul. Sukhi asked me about my family, if they could help me fly back to San Diego and get me back on my feet. This was the one thing I feared the most. I think I would have gladly cut one of my fingers off if I could have avoided asking anything, let alone this, from my family. Were there any other options? What did Lord Ptah want me to do? Would the Netjeru reveal any other choices or roads I could take to extricate myself peaceably from this situation?
I performed a divination, which was inconclusive, made an offering to Ptah, and asked Him to give me a straight answer in a dream. Dreams have always been used by the Netjeru to communicate important information to Their devotees, and my relationship with Them was no exception. My experience has always been that the Netjeru will answer my questions through the signs and symbols of a dream experience. That night I left the candle in front of Ptah burning, and the Lord unveiled. We did not “put Him to bed” as we had on other nights, and the golden glow of His face was the last thing I saw before I drifted into an uneasy sleep, my heart aching with a feeling of premonition.
In my dream the Lord Ptah appeared as He always had, but instead of giving me His usual blessing…pulling me into His body with His left hand, while stroking the back of my head with His right hand….He removed the white blessing shawl I often wore around my shoulders for the Daily Ritual, and tossed it into the air. The shawl flew through the air like a bird, gathering speed as it soared closer and closer to the ground. The ground took the shape of California, and my blessing shawl fluttered to the earth in the City of San Diego. Ptah pointed at me in a fierce gesture that seemed to strike me like a dart at the level of my heart, and then backed away.
When I woke up with a start, my heart racing and the lump in my throat rising, I knew what I had to do. I was going home to San Diego, and I was going to have to swallow my pride, my pain, my fear, and the outward practice of my faith, and accept the help of my family. I tried one last time to negotiate with the Gods, bringing my tears and heartache before Ptah, begging Him to open up some other way for me. As soon as I began my prayers, I heard His voice in my heart saying “Swallow your tears, my son, and do what you have to do!”
At this point I began to suffer excruciating dental pain from a couple of teeth I knew were probably abscessed, which made the physical, material aspects of my plight omnipresent. Since breaking up with my partner I had lived in a world of suspended responsibility, refusing to take the serious steps that were needed to make myself self-sufficient and productive in society. What I wanted was to be a spiritual recluse, to live as some kind of Kemetic hermit, considering nothing except for devotional service to my Gods.
But was that really the way to serve the Netjeru, by retiring from my worldly responsibilities so I could chant and read the Pert-em-hru all day? Was refusing to take care of my material needs really the way to teach others how to engage the Gods and develop a personal relationship with Them? I don’t think I wanted to hear the answers to those questions then. I resented time. I resented money and the material world. I resented any form of responsibility that would take me away from my daily devotions to the Netjeru; and now, the Netjeru were sending me back to San Diego to immerse myself in all the things that I had been running away from.
In the end Sukhi wound up taking me to the airport and dropping me off unceremoniously in one of the massive and noisy lobbies. He said his goodbyes very sheepishly, ashamed, I think, of having brought me to Vancouver in the first place, and then leaving me stranded at the airport without food, money, or a sure flight back to San Diego. This left me to try my luck with friends, attempting to call everyone I knew before daring to call my mother’s house and beg for her help. When that eventuality finally came, it was certainly the hardest phone call I have ever made in my life.
My relationship with my mother was a strained one, and she was, as a strong evangelical Christian, anything but welcoming of my faith. She made it painfully clear to me how undesirable my presence in her house would be, and I waited a number of hours in that airport while my mother and stepfather debated and discussed whether or not they were going to help me come home.
Home. That’s a cozy way of putting my return to a place where I was unwelcome. I knew this was going to be difficult, painful, an emotional battle up hill, but I think I had underestimated just how much I was going to have to sacrifice to get myself back on my feet. There I was, standing in my mother’s kitchen, a malnourished and shaven-headed waif, still wearing the white yoga pants and long-sleeve linen shirt I wore beneath my outer priest robe; looking for all the world like a Buddhist monk or a Hare Krishna, my lapis prayer beads with silver Ptah pendant hanging around my neck. It was then that my mother spilled her mind concerning my choice of religious vocation, the direction my personal life, and life in general, had gone, and the gross disappointment I had turned out to be. I listened to her lecture, as she verbally dismantled everything I believed in, sharing no sense of love or sorrow or sympathy with the recent dissolution of my long term relationship.
What she could say about my religion, other than its non existence as a defunct pagan idolatry, was that I had not been raised to shave my head, wear a robe, and wander the streets of Hillcrest without a proper job. I had been raised to wear nice clothes, to drive a nice car, to have nice things and live in a nice house; and “nice” meant having a certain amount of money in the bank, living with a sense of pride in all my “nice” worldly things, and having a “nice” normal job that would eventually land me a six figure salary. What my mother regarded as a “successful” life was a life in which I amounted to something of financial and material value in the eyes of the world.
What would make me a real man, a “successful” man, was working an average of 50 or 60 hours a week, so that I could have all those “nice” things in that “nice” house…that I could come home to after I got done with my 12 hour day at my “nice” and “successful” job. After my mother was finished with her tirade, I listened to more of the same from my stepfather. Needless to say, I was at that point thoroughly demoralized, and probably as emotionally devastated as I have ever been in my life.
That night, I sat on my old futon in the guest bedroom of my parent’s house, my overwhelming sense of desperation growing stronger by the hour. I had been told that the prayer beads would have to come off, the hair would have to grow back, and I would be expected to conform to my parent’s standards of normality for the length of my stay in their house, which was still a subject of intense debate. I think I have rarely been in a place where I have felt such a profound lack of love or empathy, or even humanity, and have wished myself removed from the face of the earth. But there I sat, feeling all at once abandoned and wholly dejected, wondering how such a woman could have given me birth, and how I could have let myself come to this. On top of it all, my abscessed teeth had reached a point of crisis, and I was in nearly unbearable agony. What could I do but pray, begging Lord Ptah to bring me some kind of comfort, however small, and to send me a light from somewhere other than there!
My mother came into the guest bedroom with one of her prescription bottles of Vicodin for my tooth pain, which was about as much as she did to bring me a touch of humane comfort in the midst of my struggles. I sat there staring at that bottle, wondering how many it would take to get rid of the pain. Yes, I said to myself, how many would it take? The thought of taking enough Vicodin to end my life seemed perfectly natural to me at that moment. I wasn’t frightened at the prospect of suicide, only frightened by the thought of not taking enough, and enduring the consequences that could follow. I was perfectly calm as I read the label warning against accidental overdose, and made up my mind that I didn’t want to be here anymore…in this world, in this place, in this “family”.
As soon as I made that decision, I somehow felt better than I had in the past few days, and got up to go to the adjoining bathroom for a glass of water to take the Vicodin. I sat the bottle of pills on the edge of the bedside table, and felt a strange calm settle over my throbbing mouth. I still felt the surreal pain coursing through my jaw and throat, but suddenly felt that it was happening to someone else; like I was a visitor in someone else’s body, without having to feel the effects of their pain for myself.
When I came back into the bedroom, the bottle of Vicodin was nowhere to be seen, and I looked around the foot of the bedside table, figuring that the bottle had fallen off the table after I sat it down. It had. It was there just under the edge of the bed. I felt myself bend over to pick up the bottle, saw my hand reach out to touch it, but somehow I felt once again that these were the movements of someone else, and that I was just a visitor. And then I saw something that stopped me exactly where I was. I saw the feet and legs of Ptah standing in front of me. This was no delusion or hallucination, and, despite the excruciating amount of pain I was in, I was still in my right mind. I felt awake, lucid, though still as if I were a visitor in another man’s body.
I let go of the bottle, but refused to stand up straight. I have seen the feet of Ptah many times in my life, and for those of you who have, you know exactly what I’m talking about. His bandaged feet, swaddled in the purest white linen, were actually there in that room with me, and the air was suddenly heady with His sandalwood scent. This was no vision, but a physical reality that I still choose to believe was the living God Ptah.
My heart beat fast in terror as the realization struck me that this was no projection of my subconscious mind during a state of meditation, but a solid manifestation of my Netjer standing before me. I did not see Him move, though I felt the palpable touch of His hands at the nape of my neck. At once, terror, at once disbelief; at once, the realization that I was back in my body, present and painfully aware of what my actions could result in. The throbbing in my mouth reminded me that this body was mine…or was it?
Within the spiritual view of some members of the Heathen community, there is the concept of being “God-owned”, which means that a devotee, of their own free will, has offered up the entirety of their being into the hands of a specific deity. This is a complete relationship of service, devotion, and worship, where the devotee entrusts the fruits and direction of their human life to the care and use of the deity. This is the strongest possible bond that can exist between a deity and human being, and it is a consummate one, integrating everything in a devotee’s life as part of the vehicle of service for the deity. This in no way means exclusion of other deities as part of a devotee’s spiritual life; however, it does mean that this sacred relationship is the primary relationship in one’s spiritual life, which spills over into every single facet of one’s life to encompass even the tiniest aspect of our mortal life.
I have never heard of the term “God-owned” being used within the Kemetic or Kemetic Reconstructionist communities, and I myself never consciously used it until only a few years ago; but now, looking back on this dark night of the soul, I realize that it was then and there, the very moment I had decided to take my own life, when I became Lord Ptah’s own kin, His “God-owned”, to put it in the way of some of my Heathen peers.
It was then and there that Lord Ptah claimed me, charged me with His sacred blessing, and made my flesh the container of His holy purpose. I was no longer the owner of my own skin, free to dispose of it in any way I saw fit, but was, as an instrument for His Sacred Work, a tool in His hands…clay in the hands of the Sculptor of Life. And I knew this then, with more certainty than I have ever known anything in my life.
It was Lord Ptah Who cut through my self-pity and raging sorrow, allowing me to break free of my personal demons in order to come into the awareness of my spiritual gifts and purpose. I suddenly felt that my physical pain was inconsequential, temporary, and would ultimately fall away to leave a renewed man in its place. I understood, as I stood there at the feet of Lord Ptah, that it was through this purifying fire of Sekhmet, His consort, that I would be healed from my own ignorance and self doubt. These would be burned away, perhaps slowly at first, but would in time give rise to my full purpose as Ptah created it.
I had heard my Kemetic name before, in the back of my mind during meditations, and I had begun to use it in my Kemetic work with peers and colleagues, but I had not formally accepted it from Ptah, nor made the final decision to take it as my legal name until that night. It was there in the presence of Ptah that I took my personal vows as His priest, and the nectar of this experience I recorded in a prayer which I call my “heart prayer” of Ptah. For me, this prayer sums up the innermost nature of being “God-owned” or fully consecrated to a deity. It also speaks to its reader of the living nature of the living God Ptah, Who is the Creator of the Gods, and the Father-Mother of all living things:
Homage to You, Ptah,
And hail to the Gods Who came forth from Your members!
O Ptah of life,
O Ptah of light,
O Ptah of mercy,
Hear my prayer.
O Ear that hears,
O Eyes that see,
O Hands that bless,
Receive my offering.
O Father Ptah,
I give You my heart.
O Father Ptah,
I give You my hands.
O Father Ptah,
I give You my breath,
O Father Ptah,
I give You my ka.
O Father Ptah,
I give You my name.
O Father Ptah,
I receive Yours in return.
O Father Ptah,
I give You my sorrow.
O Father Ptah,
I receive Your power in return.
O Father Ptah,
I become Your own flesh.
O Father Ptah,
You become the Lord of my life.
O Ptah of life,
May Your life be my life.
O Ptah of light,
May Your light be my light.
O Ptah of mercy,
May Your compassion
Liberate me; I who came forth
From Your body!
I am also a priest of the Great Goddess Auset, Who has been with me from the time I was a child. There are a number of “dark nights of the soul” stories I could recount from my many years of walking with the Goddess, but because time is short and space is limited here, I have chosen to tell a story of my darkest night of the soul that I have never written down before, and have told only one person, my husband. However, I wanted to end this segment of the interview with a recitation of two very dear prayers I wrote in response to Auset having rescued me during my dark nights of the soul. These are prayers I have continued to use whenever I feel the pull of darkness in my life, whenever I need to bring forth the Light. May they touch all with the same Sacred illumination.
Great Goddess Isis, I have heard Your call in my heart, and I vow to love and serve You until I take my final breath.
O Isis, I take up the knot of the sacred red thread, and I tie this knot around my heart. My vow to serve You is a vow to serve all living things in creation.
My vow to You is to love all beings, to heal all the afflicted, to save all those in peril, to take the hands of those without a friend.
May my life be the vessel of Your kindness, generosity and abundant love.
I reject none, and take unto myself the needs of all creatures in the world.
Receive my vow, O Isis, and may Your great work flourish in my heart for millions upon millions of years!
O Isis Myrionymous, the Many-Named,
Mother of the World, the Great Enchantress,
Whose nightly footsteps spin the sea
Of stars in the celestial vault!
O Bride, veiled, O Mysterious One,
The throne of the Mysteries.
I enter in silence, I depart in gratitude,
Knowing that not even the primordial gods
Have knowledge of Your true name or
Secret, eternal form.
O Goddess, I come into the bosom of
Your protection and wisdom,
Seeking virtue, and hail You as
Isis the Life-Giver, Isis the Axis of the World,
The Savior Who charts the way for the
Lost upon the waters.
Holy Isis, Your throne is virtue,
And to Your disciples in Egypt You
Are Auset, the Divine Seat, in Whose
Lap the God dwells, in Whose wings
Was reared the Sacred Falcon,
In Whose lotus womb was nurtured
The seed of the Resurrected One!
O Ee-sees, the Traveler, the Lady upon the
Waters! The sea is Your veil, churning,
The mighty roar of the wind Your command,
Ordering the heights and the depths in Your
Feared name of Pelagia!
O Queen of Heaven, circled by light,
Diademed with the riches of constellations,
Hallowed as the alabaster crescent and
Bring me close to Your starry feet,
To know Your paths traversed through
The realm of the Gods.
May Heaven open and Earth take witness,
And may the Gods rejoice,
For all that was ill is renewed in You,
O Isis the Breath of Life!
All that has passed away is brought back
To life, for You are the Weaver of destinies,
Whose command alone reorders the fates
Dictated by the stars!
O Veiled One, Ast-Amenti, come forward,
Taking my hand, washing my heart, bestowing
Knowledge! For You, O Bride of the West,
Are the countenance of Eternity and Everlasting!
You, O Isis the Queen of Heaven, are the ladder
Upon which Souls are reunited with the celestial beginning,
And in You I take refuge, in You I become a
Disciple of the Sacred Way.
All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa, Rev. Anna Applegate
Anna Applegate: Do you feel that polytheism should be incorporated under a broad, encompassing “Paganism,” or should it be its own tradition distinct from Paganism? If distinct, how do you see the communities relating to each other?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: This is a complicated and controversial question. If by “Polytheism” we agree that this refers to all traditions that accept the validity of many gods…that include the worship of many gods as a vital component of their identity…then yes, in these regards we might very well label all Polytheistic traditions as “Pagan”. Academics certainly do, when they are referring to the ancient pre-Christian religions of humankind. Academics almost always refer to all pre-Christian and/ or non-monotheistic beliefs as “pagan”. However, they mean pagan not with a capital p, as is used by modern adherents of Neopaganism, but as in not Christian, before Christianity, or gods and practices falling outside the domain of the Abrahamic faiths.
My personal experience is that many individuals who refer to themselves as Polytheists try to distance what they believe and practice from the labels of Pagan and Paganism, simply because so many people instantly associate these terms with Wicca and Witchcraft, which are in many ways very different paths from, say, Hellenic Reconstructionism or Heathenry. There has also always been a rather negative connotation tacked on- admittedly very unfairly- to the term pagan, as used historically by Christians in order to denote and slander those not belonging to the army of Christ.
This all gets very sticky when you start canvassing today’s spiritual communities for their definition of precisely what Paganism is, and what it means to be Pagan. Is Paganism the practice of Witchcraft? Are Wiccans Pagans? Are all who believe in many gods Pagans, or is Paganism simply another wider term for anyone practicing an earth-centered religion or spirituality? Who, then, has a right to decide who is Pagan and who is not? With a lack of a central authority, as if there could ever be such a thing in today’s spiritual climate, how can we place an absolute division between Paganism and Polytheism?
It seems to me that there are so many grey areas, so many instances where Paganism and Polytheism mesh or intermingle, or at least share some similar components. I honestly feel that this has to be an individual question, left to each practitioner’s discernment and ideals. I know a number of practitioners of various traditions who describe themselves as both Pagan and Polytheist, and plenty of others who like to draw a distinct line between the concepts of Paganism and Polytheism. Each has their own valid argument for the language they use or the terms they invoke.
How about we start with respect? It all comes down to respecting the choices of others to belong or label or identify themselves in the way that is healthy for them as individuals. We may choose a different path or expression from others, but there needs to be a basic respect for the right of others to choose, just as we have our right to choose. This seems to me to be the best way to form healthy spiritual communities; communities that are strong and can accomplish Sacred Work more fully together, as peers and equals.
I think it would be near impossible, and perhaps undesirable, for all who define themselves as Polytheists to be lumped together under one communal umbrella of belief. Even within Reconstructionist communities, such as Kemetic and Hellenic, there is fierce debate concerning use of the term polytheism. Multiply this by the number of groups, communities, and individuals who might identify themselves as Polytheists, then add to that the number of people who subscribe to both Polytheist and Pagan identifications, and the question of one or the other just gets drowned in the hubbub over what Polytheism is; how a belief, group or individual practitioner fits into the dictionary definition of polytheism, as opposed to a less clinical understanding of Polytheism as understood in contemporary spiritual circles.
At the end of the day it all sounds like a bunch of noise to me, truth be told. Once again, I think we can get so caught up in the use of labels, identifications, and definitions of belief that we lose sight of our higher spiritual aims and Sacred Work. In my estimation, both Paganism and Polytheism serve very similar aims, and those are service to the Gods, and service to creation through communion with the Gods, together with our Ancestors. Ultimately the philosophical ramifications and debates must take a back seat to the work of actually engaging and honoring the Sacred Powers. If someone’s idea of spiritual work is sitting in a corner and arguing over “Polytheism” versus “Paganism”, should we or shouldn’t we, then I’ll opt to excuse myself so that I can get busy getting down to the real work of honoring my Gods and Ancestors.
Anna Applegate: A lot of Kemetic Goddesses have been adopted by traditions and philosophies outside of historically informed Kemetic practices. Goddesses like Sekhmet have been co-opted by the women’s spirituality movement/Dianic Wicca and related views as a symbol of female emancipation from patriarchal mores. For example, I recently made the acquaintance of a Hermetic teacher here in Chicago who argues that Sekhmet is a “tantric goddess” like Kali and that “desire, ecstasy, and illumination are interrelated and fundamental to understanding Sekhmet and tantra.” What is your take on that?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: Firstly, I think it’s very important for us to acknowledge how vast the Netjeru are, how vast the deities of all pantheons are. Attempts are often made to constrict deities into the roles we humans have assigned to them. We want a goddess of love to play her role with grace, and we somehow expect that she’ll always show up in that capacity. We want a “mother goddess” to remain a mother, to adhere to those foremost qualities we’ve come to expect from our own biological mothers. We feel most comfortable with deities when we can label them…”god of war”, “fertility god”, “goddess of the household”, et cetera.
People are often attracted to a specific goddess or god because that deity manifests traits or qualities they themselves have. For example, I am an iconographer, painter, sculptor and craftsman, and obviously a great part of my attraction to my patron and namesake Ptah is due to the fact that Lord Ptah is the Divine Artisan, historically venerated as the protector of painters and sculptors. So, it goes without saying that it was a very natural relationship to develop between an artisan and the Father of all artisans.
My experience is that most Polytheists and Pagans share this kind of affinity with the gods they’ve chosen as their own. However, something that also happens is that people fall into a comfort zone with their gods, desiring to see and experience only those aspects that first attracted them to their divine patrons in the first place. The gods wind up being stereotyped, put into neat little boxes that fit comfortably into one’s preconceptions and notions. Sometimes, the gods become almost one dimensional in the way their devotees see them…the old “goddess of love”, “god of war”, “goddess of healing” labels that may or may not have the significance to the deity we think they have. People are often threatened by the dynamic nature of the Gods, when the Gods demonstrate that they aren’t going to operate according to the neat and tidy little labels we’ve tried to paste on them.
In the case of the Netjeru of Kemet, these are gods who each have their own unlimited arsenal of names, forms, epithets, iconographic features, and powers or spheres of influence. The Netjeru cannot be pinned down with limited frameworks or labels such as “goddess of love”, “god of war”, “fertility god”, et cetera. Scholars and academics have always attempted to do this to some extent with the Goddesses and Gods of Egypt, and I think it’s quite futile and grossly inappropriate.
Each deity, each netjer has basic qualities or attributes that demonstrate a prominent aspect of its nature, however, these natures are fluid, changing from circumstance to circumstance of the deity’s manifestation. Each geographic location, town, village, temple and shrine in Egypt has localized forms that are particular to that space, and these local forms each have powers, attributes, and iconography specific to that location, and these may or may not be visible in other locations.
If one makes a true and detailed study of the iconography and names or epithets of any given deity in the Kemetic pantheon, one will recognize very quickly the futility of slapping one overall label on any netjer. Literally hundreds, and sometimes thousands of epithets, names or forms of some deities can be found in a single location source. Magnify this by the number of temples, shrines, papyri and artifacts that may exist in reference to that deity, and you are faced not only with an overwhelmingly complex pantheon of deities, but also individual deities who each have vast quantities of forms and names and attributes. So much for “god of war”, “goddess of love” labels!
The reason I’m going into all of this is because your question touches on a sense of framework, a historical framework, for recognizing and accepting the roles the Netjeru of Kemet have to play in our lives. Reconstructionists are faced with the difficult task of trying to piece back together and recreate authenticity in the systems we develop for engaging our gods. We want to be as faithful as we can be to the way in which our Ancestors honored the Netjeru, and our motivation is meeting the Gods on Their own terms, according to the sights, sounds, tastes, gestures, and modes of worship the Gods have responded to for thousands of years.
These are practices that have maintained the presences of the Gods actively in our world for immense stretches of time, and our goal as Reconstructionists is to strive to maintain that presence as strongly as we can, using the time honored and time tested tools handed down to us by the Ancients within the historical record.
What happens if we disregard this? What happens when we remove the Netjeru from Their Kemetic context, and install Them within another cultural, spiritual framework? What happens when we strip that Kemetic framework away…that legacy of sights, sounds, smells, and gestures through which these deities have engaged humankind for thousands of years? Is anything lost or sacrificed in the process? Is something lost in translation, as it were. My first response is yes.
The Netjeru first made Themselves known to human beings in Kemet, in that specific location, and used that land, and all of the attributes it possessed, in order to communicate Their powers to human beings. One can quite accurately say that the Netjeru as we know Them are the spiritual legacy of the ancient Egyptian land and people. Without these people and their land the Netjeru would still exist, of course, however, the system or technology for engaging Them would not have come down to us in the form it has.
The Gods chose the land of Kemet for a reason, and They chose the people of Kemet as the custodians of that framework, that technology or tradition, through which They could be engaged. A near five-thousand year track record exists that shows us exactly how we can maintain these gods in our world, commune with Them, co-create with Them, maintain creation with Them.
The ancient Egyptians believed that their system of writing, rites, rituals and temple traditions were handed down by the Gods during Zep Tepy, the First Time of the Gods, and that the proper maintenance of creation, Ma’at, depended on these things being continued and preserved. The original names of the Netjeru, the means of invoking Them, and the tools for accomplishing Their work in our world have all been preserved in the historical record. This is the record we have for direct access to these goddesses and gods, and I think we would be quite foolish not to use it.
So, you have Kemetic deities being removed from Their native system of engagement and dropped into another. Do I think that works? Yes and no. I think it works for those who are doing it, otherwise they probably wouldn’t do it, if they felt no response at all…if they could not achieve anything in the spiritual work they were trying to accomplish. Kemetic deities have always been borrowed by non-Kemetic spiritualities, including Wicca, Witchcraft, New Thought/ New Age circles, Golden Dawn…and the list could go on and on.
I think people have always been attracted to certain Kemetic deities, especially Auset/ Isis and Sekhmet. We know the track record of the Goddess Auset throughout history, and have seen how this Goddess transcended geographical and cultural boundaries, language barriers and religions, and became one of the most celebrated cults of the Mediterranean world. This went far beyond the borders of Egypt, speaking to the hearts of people who had never heard of or experienced the ancient rites of Isis in Her native land. Isis became as much a goddess of the Roman world as She had been a goddess of the Egyptian world, in Her name of Auset.