"Sekhmet the Eye of Ra"/ November 2014

"Sekhmet the Eye of Ra"/ November 2014
"Sekhmet the Eye of Ra"/ November 2014 / Extra fine watercolor, 22 karat gold, lapis lazuli, Austrian crystal

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hwt-Her/ Hathor: Touching the Goddess of Love (Part 1)

Detail of the completed under drawing of "Hwt-Her Mistress of the Sky"

For more than 20 days the Goddess Hwt-Her (or Hathor) has gently coaxed my hand in the designing of an icon that could describe Her sensual beauty, Her musical power, Her vivacity as embodiment of celestial glory.  My icon panels aren't precisely miniatures, but they are quite small, merely 8" x 10", which means that the actual space used for the deity inside the ornamental borders is only 4.5" x 8.00".  This requires me to pack as much as I can into the available space, which is magically the entire point of creating the icon in the first place.  

A true icon is not a decorative work of art, but a piece of machinery that harnesses and directs the power of a deity into the viewer's point of observation.  The point is not to create a pretty and balanced little work, where there are just as many objects present as are needed to make the composition harmonious to the eye...like the perfect illusion of Greek temples, say.  Austerity and simplicity are not the modus operandi of Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian) iconography, where the exercise of "art" is to achieve the operation of divine magic, the process of a deity remaining present in the physical world, and assisting humankind in the preservation of life.  From the Egyptian perspective, divine images must function on visual and magical levels simultaneously, and in order to accomplish this the magically appropriate symbols and components must be present.

The Goddess Hwt-Her is a passionate and abundant goddess, certainly a far cry from ideals of simplicity or austerity.  This goddess goes for the reverse.  She takes an empty space, such as a womb or a tract of land, and fills it with fertility.  She creates life in profusion...a profusion of love, green and living things, and very much the seeds for renewed and perpetual life.  She is the goddess who cures infertility and impotence, whose passionate presence stirs the heights of sexual ecstasy from which new life will spring.  Even for the sake of sexual pleasure itself, Hwt-Her bestows the joys of sex to all who call upon Her, and with these She brings the fulfillment of life as a thing to be savored and devoured.

"Hwt-Her Mistress of the Sky", my first commission of 2015, was inspired principally by images of the Goddess from the elegantly painted coffins of what is known as the Third Intermediate Period (1070-945 BCE)(1).  This period of Egyptian art history is significant in that it provides us with some of the most exquisitely detailed representations of theological themes to have survived from ancient times.  Due to the social and political instability of the times, the elaborately carved and decorated tombs were no longer being produced as assets for the Afterlife.  What the ruling class of priests and the elite were opting for were simple burials to house nests of wooden coffins that fitted tightly together like so many Russian dolls.  These were sumptuously painted, varnished and inscribed, inside and out(2).

The Mummy Board of Henettawy/ Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 21
Mummy Board of Henettawy/ Dynasty 21, Third Intermediate Period

One of the common themes for the inside basin (or bottom) of these Third Intermediate Period coffins was an image of Hwt-Her as the Goddess of the West (Imentet), that is to say, the goddess who received and mothered the blessed dead once they entered the shadowy Western region where the Sun-God was swallowed each and every day.  As the Daughter of the Sun-God, Hwt-Her became a surrogate mother of the souls who struggled for rebirth each night with the Sun.  Many Third Intermediate Period coffins contain sensuous paintings of Hwt-Her as a goddess of renewed life for the dead, standing in the West arrayed in all Her divine finery, surrounded by magical figures and texts.  One such image, that made for the coffin of Mistress of the House Henettawy, was my inspiration and point of reference as I shaped the under drawing for my latest icon commission.

In "Hwt-Her Mistress of the Sky", the elegant, nubile form of the Goddess lifts up the hieroglyphic sign for heaven, pet, which contains twelve five-pointed stars of the night sky.  Upon Her head She carries the disk of the sun between lyre-shaped horns, these being those of the domestic cow, with whom the Goddess was always associated from the earliest period of Her worship.  While it is quite natural that the Goddess should occupy the central station of the icon in order to highlight Her significance, in this instance such placement has even deeper theological meaning associating Her with the placement of the rising sun.

The body of the Goddess is taking a position between two theological groups that are intended to represent the mountains of the east and west, between which the orb of the Sun-God Ra (of Whom Hwt-Her was daughter) held dominion.  On the viewer's right we see the pronounced dip of the Western Mountain, the very mountain assigned to the Goddess' special protection.  Out of this undulating desert feature rises the head of the sacred cow, which also carries the face of the sun between its horns.  Around its neck is suspended the amuletic device of the Goddess Bat, a very ancient bovine goddess with Whom Hwt-Her shares a certain relationship.


To the viewer's left can be seen the embodiment of the east and station of sunrise, the sacred falcon of the God Heru (or Horus), to Whom the Goddess Hwt-Her was married.  The God in His falcon form wears around His neck the menat necklace with its characteristic counterweight or counterpoise, this being an emblem of the magical power of the Goddess Hwt-Her as divine songstress and musician, the patroness of music and the dance.  The menat itself was a ceremonial necklace composed of numerous strands of beads, which, when shaken vigorously, provided an accompaniment to rituals in celebration of the Goddess Hwt-Her.  Here it is Her consort, resident in His animal totem, Who carries the sacred menat in honor of His beloved goddess.

The falcon of Heru is further united with the Goddess by having as His perch the ceremonial rattle known as a sesheset or sistrum, which was played especially for Egypt's goddesses by the chantress priestesses, and was very closely associated with Hwt-Her in Her role as divine songstress and musician.  Here the instrument embodies the Goddess Herself, and thus becomes a symbol of the sexual and spiritual union of the God Heru and Goddess Hwt-Her.  It is well known that the name of Hwt-Her means "House of Heru",(3) telling us that the Goddess is the very dwelling place, the sacred womb, the place of empowerment of the great and ancient God of the Sky.

So the Goddess Hwt-Her rises up holding not only the starry sky, but also the face of the sun, and it is between the mountains of the east and west that She accomplishes it, and these locations are here represented by the divine animal totems (the falcon and cow) of the east and west.  The Goddess Herself may embody both the sun and the vital power of the Sun-God, Ra, Whose "Eye" Hwt-Her is often stated to be.

The solar presence of Hwt-Her is epitomized in the burst of flames shooting out from the solar disk tucked behind Her face.  Once again the symbolism reads on multiple levels simultaneously, for the disk can represent the face of the sun, and at the same time stand for the highly burnished surface of a mirror, an object very close to the mythos and ceremonial symbolism of the Goddess Hwt-Her(4).  Once completed, this portion of the icon will shine with pure 22 karat gold, and is intended to represent the hand held mirrors used by Egyptian women in connection with the cult of Hwt-Her; for this is a goddess of physical beauty and sexual allure, something that Egyptian women were as keen on as women of today.  Many examples of Egyptian mirrors have come down to us that depict the heart-shaped and cow-eared face of the Goddess Hwt-Her on the handle, below a disk mirror which stood for the sun.


As a royal mother goddess Hwt-Her wears upon Her elaborate wig the vulture coronet which reinforces Her dominion over the sky and stars, and states that She is, after all, royal daughter-consort of the Sun-God.  As the "Eye of Ra" Hwt-Her can encompass and harness the terrible fire or destructive power of Ra as the solar Creator, and as such She carries a cobra-encircled orb between Her curled cow horns, these representing Her cosmic fertility together with Her powers as a protective, regenerative goddess.

A lotus flower, yet another solar symbol of regeneration, opens its petals above the forehead of the Goddess, and this is a reference to a further aspect of the solar theology from which the Egyptian universe was composed.  A very ancient story told how the infant Sun-God pushed up from the dark waters of chaos before the beginning of time, and it was from the stamen of the sacred blue lotus that His cosmic light shot forth, thus bringing about the illumination and order of the created world.  Here the blue lotus of creation blossoms from the solar crown of Hwt-Her as the Daughter of the Sun-God Ra, and it is His fiery power She radiates to all living things.

Detail showing lazy papyrus stems falling at the bejeweled feet of the Goddess, Who stands on the nub or gold hieroglyph.  One of Hwt-Her's more prominent epithets is nubit, "the Golden One".
    
Detail of the erotic curves of Hwt-Her's body, accentuated by a form-fitting dress of transparent linen covered in a net of beads.  When completed the dress of the Goddess will be composed of 22 karat gold, precious mineral watercolor and Austrian crystals.


          


Notes 

1) Dates for the Third Intermediate Period are those given by Professor John Baines and Dr. Jaromir Malek in their Atlas of Ancient Egypt.
2) Tiradritti, Francesco.  Egyptian Wall Painting.  New York, 2008, pp. 372-373.
3) Redford, Donald B.  The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology.  New York, 2002, pp. 157.
4) Wilkinson, Richard H.  Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art.  London, 1994, pp. 32. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Isis Is An Urban Goddess (Part 2)

 
"Auset (Isis) Queen of Magic", an icon in progress/ Extra fine mineral oils, 22 karat gold, copper


In the early 80’s I was growing up as part of the MTV generation. Cyndi Lauper, Depeche Mode, Wham!, George Michael, Prince and Michael Jackson were all the rage. But foremost of the 80’s pop royalty was Madonna, savvy media mogul and video temptress, whose attention grabbing blend of sex and urban sheikh fashions, mixed with a high octane cocktail of street smarts and femininity, came to define the 80’s and everything that made us tick then.

The first video I saw of this glamorous street urchin was “Burning Up”, in which Madonna appears as a gyrating, sexually frustrated femme fatale, singing and sultry in the middle of a street as her lover drives toward her. Not an award winner by any stretch, but I was hooked. “Who is this girl?”, I thought, and decided to stay tuned. This was the beginning of a 30 year love affair with the Marilyn Monroe look alike who wasn’t, but also coincided with the initiation of a personal obsession with powerful women and divine femininity that was to take me to the depths and heights of human experience. 


Though pop goddesses may not seem a very likely introduction to THE GODDESS, for me as a young boy, the entrance of Madonna onto the pop culture stage resonated with a budding belief that the power and sexuality of women was a source of something sacred and mysterious…something primordial and latent in all living things.

I was attending St. Alban’s Perish Day School, a private Catholic institution, when Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album and video were released. This was a seminal moment of my boyhood. Madonna appeared as a lace and crucifix adorned sex symbol, sometimes veiled, sometimes clad in very little at all, and yet her strength, power and femininity were anything but demure. Here was a girl on a mission to conquer the world, who may at times have appeared as the stereotypical blond bimbo, but whose dominant self possession belied any attempts by men to have or control her in traditional domestic sexist roles.

It was Madonna’s liberated sexuality and confidence that made an impression on me, but also her explicit use of Christian and Catholic iconography. For me, the crucifix and the veil, both making appearances in “Like a Virgin”, symbolized deeper mysteries than Madonna’s need to harvest visuals from her staunch Catholic upbringing. These were hallmarks of an ancient Goddess into whose mysteries I was just beginning to be drawn, a goddess whose veiled countenance was to transfix my inner gaze and provoke a lifelong quest.
 

On Fridays we were required to attend chapel at St. Alban’s. The chapel was an enchanted building surrounded by rose bushes, clad in vivid stained glass windows and icons of various saints and biblical heroes. I had been raised a Baptist, in the tedious austerity of undecorated churches without incense and ritual, so the Latin Mass, with its flickering candles, chanting and icons, struck a deep and mysterious chord in me. Secretly, I was already praying to ancient Egyptian gods and learning about the Goddess Isis, and had developed an aversion to the concept of monotheism and what I saw as the Christian superiority complex.

When kneeling to say the Lord’s Prayer, which I ardently refused to parrot, I folded my hands and silently prayed to Isis, Osiris and Horus. How else could I go through with it…praying in the house of a god I did not even believe existed? For me, I found consolation in transferring the symbols and dogma of Catholic Christianity into the hieroglyphs and deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon.

Chapel possessed one virtue for me that helped me during what was a very troubled and difficult childhood. The secret faith I kept locked away deep in my heart had no open outlet through which to find expression. My parents were hardline Baptists…bible thumping church goers who believed and taught in the infallible, inerrant existence of the Christian doctrine. So, it was in the iconography of Catholicism that I was able to covertly maintain a living relationship with the Gods of Egypt. My gods.

The chapel at St. Albans contained a number of striking life size icons, but of all these it was the marble statue of the Virgin Mary that called to my heart. When I looked up into her outstretched arms, her veiled, tender form with its kind and compassionate gaze, I saw the Goddess Isis, most ancient Queen of Goddesses, and I petitioned Her to possess the statue of Mary so I could come and offer Her my prayers and heartaches.

For a year I came every week, and sometimes more frequently, to pray and commune with Isis in Her Catholic disguise, lighting candles, and in my mind reliving the ancient stories of the Goddess and Her holy family. Isis had traversed very troubled times, I knew. Her cherished brother-husband Osiris had been brutally murdered, even cut into pieces after He was slain, and Her son Horus was conceived in secret and reared on the run. The Goddess had lost Her queenship of Egypt, and had had to flee for Her life. She had been a refugee in Her own country, forced to scrape together a living in the marshes of the Delta, and She had almost lost Her son to a near-fatal scorpion bite. She had been alone and persecuted, and knew hunger, fear and heartache.

In Isis I knew that I was not alone, and that far from being a lofty fear-commanding god, Isis was the mother and caretaker of all living things. She took all people unto Her in their troubles, not only those who believed in Her, but all hearts. She did not rule through doctrine or man-made institutions, nor did She demand obedience via the threat of eternal torture in hell. Isis, the Mother of all Gods, simply loves. She is a queen of hearts, and it is through the heart that She calls, nurtures and loves.

One Friday morning Father Treat saw me lighting a candle in front of Mary, and sought me out. With a kind smile he said, “Ah, you are praying to our Lady”. With an even bigger smile I replied, “No, I am praying to Isis”. I am not quite sure what possessed me to confess my secret to Father Treat that day, but the cat was out of the bag! Suddenly I had diarrhea of the mouth, and blurted out everything, right then and there. I told Father Treat under no uncertain terms that my Goddess had given birth to his god, that Isis was the true origin of divinity, and that Her faith, the religion of Her people, was the true and ancient belief of the human race. “Christianity is second hand goods”, I told him. “The real thing began in Egypt”.

That was the end of my secret prayers to Isis, because Father Treat, naturally horrified and beside himself, called my mother to St. Albans for a meeting, during which I was chastised for my blasphemy, and assigned a strict penance for the “wicked lies” I had spoken. “Do you want to go to hell?!”, my mother yelled at me in the car on the way home from school. “Don’t you know that God punished the children of Israel for worshiping the false gods of Egypt?” For some reason I still had a tiny fragment of courage left. “No. He is your god, you deal with him. My god is Isis, and She was Goddess before your god ever existed!”

My father made me spend the whole weekend writing out John 3:16 in a legal notepad, and the controversy lingered in the household for quite a while. I never did recant my heresy, and I even had the nerve to return to chapel on Fridays. How suspiciously Father Treat eyed me as I lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary, and made my heartfelt little prayer to Isis:

Hail Isis, Queen of Egypt,
Mother of the World!
Blessed is the fruit of Your womb,
For the fruit which You have
Brought forth is the Sun!

Then I went home, turned on MTV, and got my Goddess fix watching Madonna videos. My parents may have seen an 80’s rock sex symbol, dancing in lingerie in front of a burning cross singing “Like a Prayer”, but I saw Isis, the urban goddess, ever present and ever ready to steal hearts…even in the most surprising of places!

Isis Is An Urban Goddess (Part 1)

"Auset (Isis) Queen of Magic", an icon in progress/ Extra fine mineral oils, 22 karat gold, copper

 In the late 90’s I had hit personal crisis big time. The long term relationship I had been in was slowly heading for the rocks. Like an ostrich I stuck my head in the sand and waited, hoping that if I hid long enough, pretended to go about things as usual, that it would all just take care of itself. So very Pisces, eh? My partner was a recovering Mormon from Salt Lake City, whose own father had been excommunicated from the Mormon Church for coming out of the closet. Initially, my partner found a breath of fresh air in my practice of the ancient Egyptian sacred traditions, and he seemed to be able to find a source of healing in the story of Isis and Her holy family.

Things took a drastic turn for the worse when my partner faced a crisis of faith, his Mormon past resurfacing to haunt him…his daily struggle becoming one of spiritual identity and life path. As I seriously considered taking priestly vows, my partner found himself despising religion in total, and unable to cope with my increasing spiritual epiphanies. It was a tense and difficult roller coaster ride….Enter Isis…enter DeTraci Regula.

My partner’s father was close friends with the owner of Better World Galleria in San Diego, and on a chilly Autumn night my partner and I attended a special event there that was to have serious repercussions on my life and spiritual path. DeTraci Regula was presenting a lecture and signing for her new book “The Mysteries of Isis”, and I knew I had to be there. It was one of those seminal moments in life…the kind you look back on even years later, and realize that without this one event, you would not be the person you are today.

DeTraci Regula is one of those rare speakers who has the ability to bring ancient, abstract or dated concepts right into the current moment as fresh and vibrant, living ideas. This is what DeTraci accomplishes in “The Mysteries of Isis”, which must be ranked as one of the most significant contributions to Goddess worship in the modern age. For me, the profound blessing of this book, together with its author, is the continued emphasis on the universality of the Goddess, and the continued relevance of Her worship and mythos in the current era.

”Isis is not just an Egyptian goddess”, DeTraci said at the very start of her lecture. “She has Her feet planted comfortably in Greece, Rome, London…even in China and Japan. Isis is at home in New York City!” DeTraci’s ideas and research strive to take Isis out of the confines of Egyptian antiquity and reveal Her much broader influences and characteristics. At the same time, “Mysteries of Isis” links past and present, antiquity and future, by giving the current devotee a means of utilizing the ancient rites and mysteries in the here and now. This is precisely what I needed on that night in the 90’s when I attended DeTraci’s lecture, facing a crisis in private love life…facing a crossroads.

At this time in my life I was struggling with my ardent devotion to my Gods and Their ancient mysteries and how the expression of this devotion could be reconciled with life in the modern era. Gone were the monumental temples of Isis, where priestesses and priests could celebrate the complex rites and rituals without constraints from the secular world. In ancient Egypt the secular and sacred were blurred, and there was no separation of church and state. Ancient celebrants had it easy, say, in comparison with practitioners in today’s New York City. My partner’s identity crisis brought it home to me that in the current era, the sacred was not so readily embraced or easy to find confirmation of. Things came to a head, and I had to make a choice.

I was single, again, and alone, it so seemed, in taking vows to join the clergy of the ancient Egyptian rites of Isis. I had obsessed myself with DeTraci’s book, and it was through her wise but firm guidance that I handed myself over into the two hands of Isis, sacrificing my old life, and becoming a servant of the ancient Mysteries of the Mysterious One.

Isis Lady of the Two Lands
Are you there?
Hear my prayer Isis, hear my prayer.
Are You there Isis,
Are You there!
Isis Lady of the Two Hands
You are there.
You are there Isis,
You are there.
Hear my prayer Isis,
Hear my prayer!

This Isian song was given to me by DeTraci Regula during much happier times, but it lends itself with such grace to my struggles and tempestuous feelings when I began my path as a consecrated priest. DeTraci said to me once, “Ptahmassu, you came into this world a priest!” Most people would agree with her, and most people seem to see me as a natural priest and ritualist, leaping tall obelisks in a single bound…with a simple flick of a wrist manhandling the harmonies out of any sistrum!

But for me, the actual state of affairs is much more complicated, and the sacrifices I have had to make for my priesthood have often been difficult…sometimes devastating. To all would-be priestesses and priests out there I say, be very careful what you wish for…what you think you are asking for. Initiation into the Mysteries of Isis means making of your heart a sponge, and the Goddess squeezes nothing less than everything out of it…then asks for even more.

I spent time on the streets of San Diego just before the 90’s came to a close. I had had to put everything I owned in storage, and found myself without an address. Reading Isis and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy by day, and spending nights on the couches of this friend or that acquaintance, I rebelled against the concept of working a traditional job and being a respectable member of society (some things haven’t changed, right?!), and opted instead to be a shaven headed urban priest of Isis, the Goddess in the red dress.

One night I had no couch to crash on, so there was nothing for it, I crashed in the covered back doorway of a store…one of the favored haunting places of San Diego’s elite homeless. One of the regulars was already there, a kind old gentleman wearing a very sporty suit coat and shiny dress shoes. He tended to mumble incoherently under his alcoholic breath, but he was not unpleasant, and didn’t mind sharing his blankets with me. At one point he turned to me and blurted out, “She’s watching you, you know”. I was perplexed. “Who is watching me?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t ask me…but it’s her…the lady in the red dress”. At that, the old drunk let out a confident fart, and turned over in the blankets. Isis! I thought, almost so loud I was sure the old man had heard me. Just then, I heard him stutter, “Yeah, that lady in the red dress”. Isis, I laughed inside my head….You’ve got to be kidding me!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Keeping Chaos At Bay/ The Icon as Cult Image

"Sekhmet the Eye of Ra"
O Netjer (Deity) I inhale Your fragrance,
The god-making scent, the myrrh You
Inhabit in Your beauty, granting revival
To the senses and pleasure to the flesh!

You are seen, and You are unseen,
But known to all living creatures is
The breath of life, which You bestowed in
Your myriad forms.

Golden, I summon forms upon forms upon
Forms, my eyes seeking the Falcon of Gold
Who was with Nun in the secret beginning.
My hands can give birth like Nuit of the Stars,
My fingers, as artisan, can open the doors of
Heaven to receive the sekhem.

O Netjer I behold Your power, Your essence,
Your golden Ba, the visage like the
Falcon, Whose dazzling plumage fills
The firmament with lapis lazuli and
Turquoise!

You are the shining countenance of gold,
Horakhty.
You are the deep blue lapis of the beginning,
Khepri.
You are the green malachite mound of the
First Occasion, Tatenen.

Now, O Netjeru (Gods), I summon You to
listen, for I am as the Great Director of
Craftsmen, with the power of Ptah in all
My members.
I give form to the formless, breath to the
Breathless, and a new beginning to the
Inert substances of the Earth.

I summon the radiance of the Sun-God
As turquoise!
I summon the indestructible Ba of Atum
As gold, and the inexhaustible renewal of
Ra as lapis lazuli!
These are Your divine embodiments,
O Netjer, Whose forms are numberless,
Whose powers emanate in the infinite
Gods, Whose source is unknown and
Whose beginning is secret.

I have opened Your powers in these substances
Of Earth, and the Doors of Heaven in these
Metals of Heaven.
May this image open Heaven and renew the
Earth, for millions of millions of years!

- Prayer for Consecrating an Icon By Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa


The ancient Egyptians saw creation as a fragile state of existence floating like an island paradise in the middle of a turbulent ocean.  This primeval ocean ever churned with the forces desiring to recapture the world the Creator God had pulled from the grips of darkness.(1) Terrible and bloody battles between the serpents of chaos and Ra the Sun-God had initiated the great act of creating and bringing order to an otherwise unordered mass(2).  Once brought up from the raging abyss of chaos, the world of light and order was under the perpetual threat of being extinguished by the hungry serpents of the deep.(3).

Kemet, what we know today as Egypt, was a favored sliver of light, order and divine justice, Ma'at, which the Creator God had established at the very beginning of His work, a period of time the Egyptians called Zep Tepy, the "First Time" or "First Occasion".(4)  It was during this time that the Sun-God Ra had pushed Himself up from the deep as a child of light sheltered by the sacred blue lotus(5); however, this same creation story is also told as the sacred falcon alighting upon the pyramidal mound of creation, whereupon He establishes the first hut or reed sanctuary, which becomes the mansion of the god and the prototype for all temples to follow(6).

The Egyptian temple was not a place of worship as we in the West might know it, but was instead the actual dwelling place of the netjer (deity), which was invited to take up residence in the temple as the meeting place of the divine and mortal worlds(7).  It was not a meeting place of the faithful, nor a declaration of servitude to an unknowable god, but a mechanism in stone through which the ordered world of creation could continue, and the netjeru or gods be drawn into the human realm in order to ensure its maintenance(8).  It was via the cult image (bes or sekhem) that the House of the God actually maintained the ba or visible power of the netjer, which the Egyptians experienced not in abstract spiritual terms but as a tangible and visible image that could descend or be established in the temple as the home of the god(9).

The purpose of drawing the ba of the netjer into the temple was to ensure the continuance of the created world, its order and divine justice, which could be interrupted at any time by the tempestuous abyss of chaos existing on the periphery of creation.  The serpents of chaos were apt to destroy the light and order of the world as Ra in the beginning had arranged it, thus it was through the cult statue of the netjer, and the elaborate rituals and festivals that served the god's ba dwelling within, that the divine cosmic order was ensured(10).

In a contemporary view, we can see the existence of chaos as an absence of Ma'at, which means the proper order of things as established by the Creator God during the creation of our world.  Part of this Ma'at, this cosmic order and divine justice, are the presences of the netjeru or gods through Whom the work of creation expands and continues.  It is the maintenance of creation that formed the backbone of the Egyptian cosmological view, which was pantheistic and polytheistic(11), and central to this view are the netjeru Who in themselves comprise aspects of the created world(12).  

It is because of their very natures, so closely bound with the creation of the world and its inhabitants, that the Gods of Kemet (Egypt) have the ability to ensure that such a world continues to exist.  In ancient times, it was the King of Egypt, partly human and partly divine, who had the ability to straddle both worlds (human and divine), commune with the Gods, and thus entreat them to maintain their presence in the material world(13).  Ideally speaking, it was the King of Egypt who performed the vital role of officiant of the daily cult ritual through which the netjer was served and nourished with the appropriate cultic offerings(14).  These are the offerings that maintain the ties between the divine and human worlds, that create a bond of reciprocal service between humankind and its gods.  This is the food of Ma'at that sustains the cosmic order and allows the mortal world to exist, and at its core is the ritually awakened image of the netjer, the cult image that keeps a portion of the divine essence here at work in our world.

Today that world is a very different place from the sheltered fertility of the Nile Valley, where the ancient Egyptians raised massive stone temples as houses for the Gods on earth.  No longer are the netjeru worshiped in lavish state-supported rites in sanctuaries sustained by a vast royal largesse.  Ancient cult images were fashioned from solid gold and semi-precious stones in the royal workshops of immense temple estates.  These, too, are gone.  However, the Gods remain, as They have always remained, in times of plenty and deprivation, through feast or famine...in faithful times or unregenerate.  

When the Gods' names are spoken, when the ancient prayers are intoned and the ritual gestures bestowed, the netjeru listen, as They are apt to listen when the best foot of humankind is put forward.  Perhaps the solid gold, jewel encrusted cult statues are gone, but when an artisan uses the traditional deity forms and symbols to create a place of habitation for the spiritual essence of a netjer, and that image is awakened according to the ancient sacred texts and prayers, that god or goddess will invariably take notice and receive what is offered.  At least that is my experience as a Kemetic iconographer.

In ancient times the netjeru had no shortage of prayers, offerings and cult images to sustain Their active presence in the human community, but the same cannot be said of today.  Yet there are communities and solitary Kemetics (followers of the ancient Egyptian religion) reestablishing the ancient rites and worship of the netjeru in the current era, who are revivifying the use of sacred images in our relationship with these ancient gods.  The old forms, symbols and hieroglyphs are having new life breathed into them, and are finding renewed meaning in religion today.

My own work as an iconographer seeks to renew the importance of the cult image in the creation of icon panels which "house" two-dimensional images of the netjeru, these being grounded in authentic, ancient models of representation, though without directly copying any individual example from ancient times.  The Egyptians had time-honored ways of representing their gods in both two and three-dimensional works.  Though changes may sometimes be too subtle for the non-specialist to recognize, there were changes in the iconography of Egypt's gods throughout the millennia of Pharaonic civilization.  However, the most characteristic aspects of a deity's identifying attributes were always retained, as it was always the purpose of an image to draw the power of a deity into that image, to have the image and the deity be as closely linked as was possible.

The linking of a netjer and the two-dimensional image made to represent it is my primary goal as a Kemetic iconographer.  Some of the materials may have changed, but the purpose and function have not.  Icon panels such as those that I create were not used in the temples of the netjeru in ancient times.  The closest items we have are wooden stelae (round-topped devotional objects inscribed with dedicatory prayers and images of a netjer.  More commonly made of stone, but wooden examples have come down to us) that were plastered and painted and consecrated as offerings to the Gods.  My icon panels are not merely offerings to the Gods (though they can and do embody this aspect of devotion also), but are, in the tradition of cult images, embodiments of a netjer's ba or visible power(15).  Their purpose, then, is to be installed in a modern shrine or temple space that has been consecrated to the cultus (or shetau, 'mysteries', in ancient Egyptian) of the netjeru, where the icon will receive offerings, ritual worship and prayer, and become the focal point of a group's or individual's veneration of the netjer today.

The icon as cult image is a lens bringing into focus the power and physical presence of the deity, for just as the netjeru have more invisible, spiritual aspects, They most certainly have visible aspects(16), and Their most visible aspect in the temple environment is the cult image or cult statue.  When I craft an icon, my intention is to allow the ba or visible power of the netjer to be experienced directly by the viewer.  It is through this experience that the viewer is able to make contact with the deity, and thus establish a link between themselves and the Divine Power residing in the icon.  Through this intimate link, it is possible for us to maintain in our own world the spark of the sacred world, which in the faith of the ancient Egyptians was the way in which the cosmic order Ma'at was secured, thereby keeping chaos at bay.


Notes 

1) Meekes, Dimitri and Favard-Meeks, Christine.  Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods.  London, 1993, pp. 19-22.

2) Ibid., pp. 20.
3) Ibid., pp 19.
4) Wilkinson, Richard H.  Reading Egyptian Art:  A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture.  London, 1992, pp. 218.
5) Ibid., pp. 121.
6) Wilkinson, Richard H.  The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt.  London, 2000, pp. 24-25.
7) Teeter, Emily.  Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt.  New York, NY, 2011, pp. 43-46.  See also Shafer, Byron E. “Temples, Priests, and Rituals:  An Overview” in Temples of Ancient Egypt, Edited by Byron E. Shafer.  New York.  Pp. 7-8.
8) Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane.  Gods and Men in Egypt.  New York, 2004, pp. xii. 
9)  Teeter, Ibid.
10) Meekes, Ibid., pp. 126-129.
11) Lorton, David.  "The Theology of Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt" in Born in Heaven, Made on Earth:  The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East, Edited by Michael B. Dick.  Indiana, 1999, pp. 123.
12) Meekes, Ibid., pp. 53-54.
13) Wilkinson.  The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Pp. 86-89.
14) David, Rosalie.   A Guide to Religious Ritual at Abydos.  England, 1981, pp. 5.  Also pp. 58.
15)  Teeter, Ibid.
16)  Meekes, Ibid., pp. 53-60.                          

Friday, January 9, 2015

Hwt-Her, Am I Under Your Western Sky?

The barren desert landscape of the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, about 1 mile from the town of West Wendover, Nevada.

What desolate voices have called me out
Beneath turquoise skies and wasted valleys?
To make love beneath Your embrace,
To empty my loins within Your intoxicating
Influence;
Hwt-Her, am I under Your Western sky?

Stars kiss the lapis vault without obstruction,
How far my eyes may behold Your grace.
O bovine gilt and wet with the Milky Way's
Lust, never spent, ever ambitious in Your
Holy light.

O moon, fresh, painted only in naked white
Veil, I stroke Your tender thighs, I sweeten
My tongue with Your beauty!
Hwt-Her, am I under Your Western sky?

When I kiss, make love, taste the nectar of
My true love's bud, I wonder at the
Passionate sweep of starlight, the horns of
The Celestial Cow prodding the noble Moon.

The desert, so ambitious, possesses my eyes
Relentlessly, and yet is Your favored cavern,
Where deep inside the miracle of life is
Renewed.
Hwt-Her, am I under Your Western sky?



The City of West Wendover, Nevada, stands about a mile from the famous Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway of Utah.  It was very near here that the ill-fated Donner Reed party made its fateful crossing in 1846, first becoming victims of this treacherous desert landscape before the winter terrors they encountered in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains.  As far as deserts go, this is as lonely, lifeless and dangerous as any, the Salt Flats reflecting and highlighting the intensity of the sun to such a degree that the scintillations read to the eyes as water, becoming a blinding silvery ocean whose mountains appear to be floating on water.  This, then, is my new backyard, a dramatic desert vision with breathlessly beautiful sunsets, and nighttime skies that display the clearest map of the stars I have ever seen in my life.  Enter Hwt-Her, a bovine goddess of stars and desert lands.

The ancient Egyptians saw their gods as living manifestations of the landscape surrounding them.  The Nile Valley, its silty and fertile fields, its trees and verdant beauties were all experienced as the dwelling places of the Netjeru (or Gods).  Kemet was the "Black Land" of the Nile Valley proper, where chaos was kept at bay by the annual inundation of the Nile; however, the deshret or "red land" of the desert, sweeping up from the Black Land in hungry dry cliffs and rugged peaks, was a terrible and powerful place both feared and honored by the Egyptians for its existence as a dwelling place of gods and spirits.

Among those supernatural beings to take their place in the deserts of the Egyptians was Hwt-Her or Hathor, a most ancient sky goddess who, from the beginning of Her worship, seems to have been linked to the constellations of the lapis-blue night sky, together with the barren deserts both domestic and foreign(1).

Hwt-Her is a goddess of startling contrasts.  We know that She was recognized as a goddess of potent sexuality and eroticism, which, paired with fertility and pregnancy, made Her one of ancient Egypt's most significant national deities(2).  But the fertility and abundance She gives is matched only by the searing heat of Her power as the "Eye of Ra", a most dangerous and destructive manifestation of the Sun-God(3).  It is not only the green breadbasket of the Nile Valley that comes beneath the patronage of Hwt-Her, but also the lonely desert mountains and mines of foreign lands(4).  For whatever reason, the Ancients assigned to Hwt-Her the turquoise and copper mining operations of the Sinai, and the vital trade regions of Punt and Byblos(5).  By extension, the commodities of these regions became emblematic of the bounty of Hwt-Her, which included minerals aside from precious turquoise and copper(6).

As a modern day Kemetic (or follower of the religion of Ancient Egypt), it has come very natural to me to view my world and personal experiences via the mirror of the Gods, and through the lens of the ancient Egyptian mind, which recognized divinity as emanating from the tangible, natural world in all its glories and terrors.  When I gaze at my world through my Kemetic eyes, I see a world inhabited by living gods and Ancestral Spirits, and see natural phenomena as indications of an inner Spiritual reality.

West Wendover, Nevada, may at first glance appear to be very far from the Nile Valley and its very ancient religion, however, if one is thinking Kemetically, that is to say, if one is looking at one's world as the ancient Egyptians would have seen it, then one can quickly see in its amber, pyramidal peaks and tawny cliffs...in its stark desert beauty and dramatic geography, the same topography over which the Goddess Hwt-Her was seen to reign.  

The Goddess Hwt-Her is seen in many ancient representations in the guise of a sacred cow emerging from a desert mountain, the Western Mountain (of Waset or Thebes), in fact, where the souls of the blessed dead came to be received by Her(7).  One of Hwt-Her's more prominent epithets and identifications was as "Mistress of the West"(8), where She is seen as a beautiful lady carrying upon her head the falcon-mounted standard embodying the entire Western landscape.  In the town of West Wendover, we have our own dominant mountain landscape, which bears a certain resemblance to the triangular peaks of Western Waset (or Thebes), which the Egyptians saw as the special domain of Hwt-Her as a funerary goddess.

Hwt-Her's association with mining and minerals may also be found in the landscapes surrounding West Wendover, near which exists the largest Potash producing mine in the United States, Intrepid Potash.  Potash (potassium chloride) is an essential ingredient in the production of liquid fertilizers, and is thus used extensively in agriculture.  This is certainly an association that would not be lost on the ancient Egyptians, who saw Hwt-Her's protection of mines and their minerals as a vital divine role, for which the Goddess was duly honored in ancient times(9).

As I look around me at the dramatic pyramid-shaped peaks, red and gold cliffs and flat stretches of pure desert, I cannot help but feel the very ancient presence of the Goddess Hwt-Her looking down upon us from Her sacred western peak.  She is a goddess seen in the barren and dangerous desert as much as She is known in the green and fertile.  As a sky goddess Hwt-Her may be represented by the Milky Way(10), which is seen very prominently if one stands at the Bonneville Salt Flats just outside West Wendover, where the city lights cannot obscure a startlingly clear view of the night sky.  This desert domain may be thought of as part of a "wild West" culture and history, however, I have experienced it as a living embodiment of the ancient Egyptian landscape, where a very old goddess holds sway as the "Mistress of the Western Mountain" and "Mistress of the Sky".

The Salt Flats outside West Wendover are dominated by pyramidal peaks

Notes 

1)  Redford, Donald B.  The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology.  New York, 2002, pp. 158-159.
2) Wilkinson, Richard H.  The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.  London,   2003, pp. 141.
3) Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 140.
4) Ibid, pp. 143.
5) Redford, Ibid., pp. 159.  Also Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 143. 
6)  Ibid.
7) Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 143.
8) Redford, Ibid., pp. 158.
9) Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 143.
10)  Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 140.    

Friday, January 2, 2015

Invoking Hwt-Her~ Summoning Hathor in Word & Image Day 1

The "raw" icon panel receives the blessing of Hwt-Her in our Shrine

Yesterday began my journey with "Hwt-Her (Hathor) Mistress of the Sky", my first commission for 2015.  After spending a night basking in the divine blessings of Hwt-Her in our Shrine, the "raw" icon panel was initiated by having the "deity house" delineated, which is the bordered space in the precise center of the icon where the image of the Goddess will be placed.

I had a very fruitful 8 hour session with the icon panel yesterday, during which I began blocking in the sinuous body and limbs of the Goddess (pictures are forthcoming, as soon as I have more to show for myself).

"Hwt-Her Mistress of the Sky" will honor the probable celestial origins of this most ancient and celebrated of Goddesses, depicting Her as ruler of the celestial, Daughter of Ra, and, but of course, as the embodiment of divine love, passion and sexuality.  The dream the Goddess sent to me was very clear, very precise, and I will have to work very hard to accommodate all of the elements She has directed me to include:  the Falcon of Heru mounting a sistrum (yes, it means precisely what you think it means!), the head of Hwt-Her as the Sacred Cow of the West, emerging from a papyrus thicket, the (desert) mountains of the West, and the five-pointed stars of the night sky.  Both day and night must be expressed.  A tall order, to be sure, but they always are.

Here is my hymn in celebration of this new icon, yet another sacred image for the cult of Hwt-Her to continue throughout the ages.



O Golden One, the Hand of the God,
Hwt-Her, within Whose house the ardor
Of the Falcon arises!

Mountains in the West open their portals
Upon hearing the sweetness of Your voice,
The Sun coming home again, alighting
On the noble perch, swathed in the
Turquoise beams of Your sacred body.

O Hand, blushing cheek, honey lips,
Tresses of blue-black like real lapis lazuli;
Yours is the countenance that ensnares
The hearts of gods, Whom Ptah the
Beautiful of Face cherishes.

O Star, sweet bovine, the Ark of the Sky-Lord,
There is no remedy for a man who holds
Fast to Your scent, when breezes like the
Northern gust take heart and eyes with
Sudden delight.

Hwt-Her
, the very body of the God, Whose
Dazzling plumage shines in Your Sun,
Whose eyes are ruled by Your eye,
Whose nobility is the power of Your loins,
Whose beauty is the mirror of Your love.

O Holy Lady, Mistress of the Western Mountain,
I call You to come in Your glory, bestowing the
Boon of love, the favors of Your Lord, Whose
House on high is the House of Your golden
Loins.

Hwt-Her, the sweet essence, the fire, the Eye of Ra,
Appear not in Your terror but in Your beauty, come,
Enchant the heart with goodness, and make of my
Flesh a vessel for the miracle of Your love!