It's that time of week again: time for Airy Monday! This week for our regular exploration of magic in pop culture we take a look at an American Indian tabletop game, the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke's alternate historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and the relationship between the blues and Southern Hoodoo. All this and more for the Pagan News Beagle!
PaganSquare is a community blog space where Pagans can discuss topics relevant to the life and spiritual practice of all Pagans.
My personal spiritual journey started, when I was 12 years old.
There are people who were raised in religion, and the idea that God exists is therefore very natural for them.
But I was raised in soviet-style secular atheism. I had read a lot of things about religions, but the default mindset ingrained from childhood, was that “religion is a human invention, and an instrument of oppression and control. Gods are just mythology.”
When I was 15, I joined Russian Orthodox Church (mostly because I was baptized there when I was a kid and it seemed like a natural decision), but left it in 2005 to become Roman Catholic. However, the existence of the Gods of Egypt (Netjeru) was shown to me in obvious experience - and now I’m trying to live with it.
“If anyone wishes to be sure
in the road they tread,
they must close their eyes
and walk in the Dark”
--- st. Juan de la Cruz
The old man, wearing a long gray galabiyah and white turban on his head, one with a skin color of a dark coffee, the man with incredibly kind eyes, bright and full of knowledge and wisdom, looked at me and touched my hand again. “My daughter,” – he repeated with kind, but quite demanding voice, “follow me, let me show you how to pray. Many people come here for prayer. I see that you came for prayer. Let me show you what they do.”
He was a guardian in the temple of Medinet-Habu, working there for more than 30 years, and probably living there under the hot skies of Egypt, day by day seeing tourist groups and individual visitors in the temple, he gained the wisdom to tell, who is coming “as a tourist” just to glare at the magnificent ruins and take pictures, and who is coming for prayer and devotion.
I wondered if the words “I came here for prayer” were written right on my forehead. But I had been wearing my ceremonial garment, long white ancient Egyptian style dress and wide necklace. And while other people in the temple did not really care, probably thinking that I was just cosplaying Nefertari or Cleopatra or another Egyptian Queen, it was not a cosplay.
Famine, 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.
Sekhmet is an interesting goddess; long before I traveled to Egypt, I’d begun to feel pulses of magic from the lioness-headed statues I encountered in various museums, and even in the land of the Nile, it was in a museum that I first felt a pull toward her. At the time, it struck me as a bit strange that I’d feel resonance not with the sand beneath my feet, but with the massive black granite statues of the goddess, but it makes a certain amount of sense. It’s widely believed that tremendous statues of Sekhmet guarded Egypt’s ancient borders, and some even say that in times of invasion, the statues were brushed with poisonous spores to infect the would-be invaders as they crossed into Egypt. It’s no wonder that the statues of the Lady of Pestilence pack a punch; these icons are loaded with power!
I hadn’t expected to feel so strongly drawn to this goddess during my pilgrimage to Egypt; I’m an Isis girl all the way, and while I’ve always enjoyed the other Egyptian gods, I’ve never felt pulled to work with them. But Sekhmet was insistent, from the first time I faced her in the beautiful museum in Luxor, and by the time I ventured south to the Temple of Kom Ombo, I couldn’t ignore the intense emotions her image stirred in me.
In the early days of Egyptology scholars took the attitude that a transcendent experience was only expected after death in ancient Egypt. This fit well with the predominant Judeo-Christian background of virtually all of them, as well as the desire to demonstrate their new profession could be as scientific as any others. But the record is plain as day that mystery schools flourished in at least the Late period, influencing other mystery cults all around the Mediterranean. Contemporary Egyptologist Jan Assman even goes so far as to assert that ancient Egyptians could not have developed their own mysticism because that it would not have been based on lived real-life experience. Really?!
I do love Assman’s writing, but as an unabashed mystic myself I am all too aware that close encounters with another kind of reality, one we often call “god” or “the divine”, happen all the time. It seems far more likely that Egyptians encountered this numinous, liminal reality enough times that they began to form, first mythologies, then theologies, around it....