Pool of Lotus: Magical Reflections on New Egyptian Spirituality

Out of the deeps rises the mysterious lotus. Stop in for refreshment, heka, and reflections from the sacred waters of ancient Egypt.

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Holli Emore

Holli Emore

Holli Emore is Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the premiere educational resource for Pagan and other nature-based religions (www.cherryhillseminary.org), founder of Osireion (www.osireion.com), editor/writer for Wild Garden: Pagans in the Growing Interfaith Landscape at Patheos.com, and serves on the board of directors for Interfaith Partners of S.C. (interfaithpartnersofsc.org).  She is co-founder of the original Pagan Round Table, www.paganroundtable.org, and author of "Pool of Lotus," available in print, or for Kindle or Nook, at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/holli1032

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b2ap3_thumbnail_abu-simbel-Ptah-Amun-Ramesses-and-Re-Horakhty-Osiris-Egyptian-Gods.jpgSpirituality does not have to involve the beings that we call gods, but Egypt left the world a rich legacy of as many as two thousands netjeru to contemplate and with whom we might enjoy relationships.  So the gods are a good next step to take when building an Egyptian spiritual practice.

Because there are roughly four thousand years of time and people and history and local deities mushed together under the label “Egyptian,” you can take years and years yourself to study the netjeru, their various manifestations, stories and names.  Most of what we know today is about the gods who were once venerated by the ruling dynasties. But with the exception of Akhenaten, the Egyptians never felt the need to eliminate or even denigrate a netjer that they did not follow.  In fact, they often, over time, brought together two or more deities in a new combined form which acknowledged the commonalities of the individual gods while recognizing and preserving their distinct identities.  Hence emerged Ra-Horakhty, Amun-Ra, Ptah-Sokar, Sekhmet-Bast, etc.

At the risk of vastly oversimplifying, here is a run-down of the primary divine groups.  Each has a claim to its antiquity, so I will make no claims about who came first.

Sailing up the Nile, just past the Delta, one first encounters Heliopolis, center of the powerful cult of the sun-god Ra.  No one knows when humans began to venerate Ra, but he is vital to and interwoven with the mythology of most other well-known netjeru.

b2ap3_thumbnail_goldskmt.gifNot far from Heliopolis is Memphis, the cult center of Ptah, creator god associated with the arts, craftsmanship, mining, his consort Sekhmet, and their son Nefertem.  Ptah creates with “the heart and the tongue,” rather than with the phallus.  We find him mentioned during the 1st Dynasty in the Pyramid Texts. Ptah is much later aligned with the gods Ra and Amun by the 25th Dynasty Nubian ruler Shabaka, who codified what is called the Memphite Theology.  At Osireion we connect Ptah with the earth, and with patiently creating the world we wish to live in. Sekhmet is a fiery goddess whose very name means power.

Moving further south along the Nile we pass by the site that would for only a few years be the center of a short-lived cult called Atenism.  While Akhenaten tried his best to wipe out the old gods during his reign over Egypt, he became much-hated for it.  Ironically, his efforts to establish a cult to an abstract disc which only the pharaoh could touch were replaced after his death by a period of increased personal devotion and piety by rulers. The Egyptians tried to forget Akhenaten and his sterile god; when they did remember, they called him the “Great Heretic.”

Continuing south we reach the ancient city of Abydos, center of the cult of Osiris.  Archaeologists continue to find important graves of unknown rulers at this traditional royal necropolis. The temple building called the Osireion is attached to the Temple of Sety at Abydos. Osiris is part of a group of nine netjeru: the primordial Atum who masturbated to produce creation; Shu, god of air, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture; their children, the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut; and their children, Isis, Osiris, Set and Nephthys. We know Osiris as the god of birth, death and rebirth, of fertility and transformation.  His sister-wife Isis is one of the world’s great beloved mother goddesses, a skilled magician and consummate mother and wife.

b2ap3_thumbnail_www-St-Takla-org--Osiris-Isis-and-Nephthys.jpgAround the bend in the river still further to the south is Thebes, another ancient capital and the cult home of Amun, the hidden one, and basis for the word “Amen.”  Amun created a set of four gods in the form of frogs and snakes (potent symbols of birth and regeneration), plus four more deities, including Djehuti (Thoth) and the all-important Maat.  Amun’s consort is the lion-headed Mut, a goddess of death whose name is the word for “mother.”  Their son is Khonsu, a lunar god.

Scholars have argued for centuries about whether the Egyptians were monotheistic, seeing one god as many, or polytheistic, seeing the many gods as essentially one, or simply pantheistic (everything is a god).  We do know that they were henotheistic, meaning that their worship of Osiris was not threatened by knowing the next village over venerated Khenty-imentiu.

Early European Egyptologists also held a superior attitude to the civilization which, after all, worshiped gods with animal heads!  But the visible form of the gods was merely a reflection of their personality and role in the cosmos, not a literal form. 

Once you open your life to the possibility of a relationship with the netjeru, they will most likely show themselves to you.  More on that in the next Ankh Life post.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_warfare.jpgFamine, cannibalism, disease, crime – it was widely rumored in ancient Egypt that during a terrible time in its past the forces of isfet (chaos) completely upended the orderly society of which Egyptians were inordinately fond.  The first “intermediate period” between kings became the subject of several Middle Kingdom teaching or wisdom texts, such as The Prophecy of Neferti and The Admonitions of Ipuwer. These writings essentially bemoan the terrible things that are supposed to have happened, and warn readers to maintain maat (balance, justice) in order to avoid a recurrence.

Here’s the thing – there is no real evidence that the catastrophic events actually happened.  Modern scholars lean towards the idea that they were written primarily as propaganda, reinforcing the importance of unifying under the king, keeping religious observances of the neteru (gods), and keeping things on an even keel.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_scribes.jpgMany of us are drawn to ancient Egypt, and of those a small number linger to find and follow the spiritual path embedded there.  Soon we find that for all the wealth of published material about Egypt, there is very little about modern spiritual practice.  Egyptian Pagans are also a small minority in the wider Pagan world, so it can be difficult to connect, find teachers and gather for ritual.

My early years on this path were probably characterized by more bumbling and feeling alone than anything.  But much of the first advice I received was to read the Egyptology literature, surely a daunting task for the non-scholar.  After all, few have set out to simply write about religion; more importantly, there was no monolithic single religion in ancient Egypt, at least not as we understand religious affiliation today.  Here are a few things I learned along the way.

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What does Egyptian religious practice look like in the 21st century?  Maybe more to the point, why do we turn for inspiration to a culture which disappeared nearly 1800 years ago?b2ap3_thumbnail_Pached1.jpg 

The second question makes me think of my friend Marion who just loves to travel.  He’s been in more countries, more times, than I can count.  He and I have mused together about how deeply one is changed by stepping outside of everyday life and being immersed in something completely new and different.  For some of us, religious travel is just the tonic needed for a weary soul. 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_101_0669.JPGRecently, Osireion celebrated the vernal equinox (spring) with our own version of the Egyptian secular holiday, Sham el Nessim.  We held a ritual to honor Isis, piling her altar with the simple feast which would follow: lettuce, smoked salmon, capers, onions, boiled eggs and cream cheese (yes, we like lox and bagels!).  Each of us decorated a red-dyed egg with glyphs and used it during ritual, then ate it afterwards.  We peeled little spring scallions, “sniffed the breeze” (sham el nessim translated) and nibbled them, and sang to welcome spring – “we see your life in the greening of the land, we feel your love and begin to understand.” 

At the same time that many of us were holding various kinds of Pagan ceremonies to mark the equinox, present-day Egyptians were picnicking and doing some of the same things.  I hear that Muslim authorities don’t like it, but for most Egyptians it’s a national holiday, involving the eggs, salted fish and onions.  Certainly, after such a long winter here in the States, going outside with family and friends to sniff the breeze and have some picnic-innocent fun has been quite welcome. 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Nebamun-2.jpgMore than 50 ancient hieroglyphs depict birds: ibis, quail chick, hawk, vulture, duck, plover, goose, swallow, sparrow, cormorant, egret, ostrich, heron, flamingo, lapwing, hoopoe, guinea hen and falcon, plus variations on each of these.  It’s a veritable feast for modern bird lovers; tomb paintings like Nebamun hunting are still more delightful, showing the teeming color of life in the Nile marshes. 

Egyptian cosmology is closely tied to birds, too.  During Sep Tepi (sacred time), a bird of light flies out of the dark waters of Nun and lands on the primordial mound called the benben. This bird was thought to be an early form of Ra, and Herodotus thought the bennu was the phoenix of later Greek myth, the firebird which rises reborn from its own ashes. 

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[I was asked recently to develop a talk which could be delivered as a sermon, using ancient Egyptian sacred texts and ideas.  Here is Part 2 of that talk. Read Part 1 here]

b2ap3_thumbnail_Osiris-2.JPGSo, what is all this about Osiris?  I don’t know about you, but there are some times when I have felt very beat up by life, even broken in pieces the way Set did Osiris.  I have felt lost, scattered all over like Osiris’ body parts all over Egypt.  I have felt swept by the flood downstream and out to sea, completely overwhelmed.  Like Isis, I have wandered from place to place and through the desert, trying to find all the missing pieces of myself and trying to figure out how to put them back together again.  Anyone else felt that too?  It feels dark, doesn’t it?  Everything out there begins to look like a crocodile, or a singing snake, maybe.  We wish we had a handbook for getting through the dark. 

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