Rekhi ketu tjen, rekh kua renu then
I know you, I know your names,
Emek ui ua em tjen
Behold, I am one of you.
To know a name (ren) gives the magician or priest power over the thing named. Many spells of ancient Egypt make use of this principle in order to harness the power of one or more deities. Gods had many names, and some of them were secret except to initiated priests. A spell might direct the priest to write the name of a deity on an amulet and then recite it, usually a specific number of times. Conversely, the name of someone you wanted out of your life could be inscribed on, for example, a wax image, then melted or burned in a fire. The primary reason we see defacement of royal cartouches (the image containing the names of a pharaoh) is because later rulers wanted to dissipate the power of their predecessor.
To name something you have come to understand in your own life likewise gives you new power over yourself. As I come to recognize certain factors at work in my relationships with others, or my relationship with various aspects of my life, I am able to name the factor, suddenly giving me fresh insight. Insight about myself or others empowers me to move more easily in the world, live more effectively, and avoid wasting my time wondering about things I may or may not be able to fix. In modern psychology, we call this being self-aware. But I like the Egyptian ritual language. I know you, you are no longer a secret from me. I know your names and I will use them as needed. Look at me, I cannot be ignored, because I now hold knowledge - I am one of you.
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Rekhi ketu tjen, rekh kua renu then
The warm scent of sandalwood has filled this room and is working its way out through the rest of my house, dispersed from essential I have warming on an electric incense burner. After working in the yard for a while, amidst the tang of cut grass and a brewing summer storm, I walk back into a dreamy sandalwood sanctuary. The very smell turns my thoughts to the sacredness of life, the peacefulness of meditation.
Our ancient Egyptian friends put a great deal of their effort and money into perfumed oils and incenses. In the temple, the image of a god was wakened, washed, dressed and anointed with fragrant oil or ointment each morning. Ointments and oils were regular offering items, scented with selections from the profusion of flowers and plants that grew along the Nile, or valuable imports like frankincense and sandalwood.
And speaking of flowers, it was customary to greet guests for dinner at your house by placing around their neck a garland of fresh flowers. A touching element of undisturbed tombs found in modern times is the now-dried fresh flowers which were the last thing left on the casket, much like our custom today at a cemetery burial ceremony.
Cinnamon, cassia, myrtle, balsam, myrrh, honey, sweet flag, juniper, sage, cypress, iris, rose and, of course, lotus were all ingredients prized for their scent. Still more natural ingredients were used medicinally, including acacia, camomile, basil, dill, celery, cumin, fenugreek, lily, mandrake, pine and rue. Servants circulated at dinner parties with cones of goosefat mixed with perfume for guests to put on their heads. During the course of the evening the fat melted down through those heavy wigs, releasing the scent into the banquet hall.
The psychological effects of association with a particular smell are by now well known. Take advantage of that powerful tool by using your favorite scent whenever you meditate or do other work at your altar. True essential oils are a nice break from the smoke of burned incense, particularly if you are allergy-prone or have a respiratory illness like asthma. Just a drop in a much larger quantity of almond oil will allow you to breathe in the benefits of that plant.
And if you really want to treat yourself, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, by Lise Manniche, is a deliciously aromatic read, plus a gorgeous coffee-table book.
The ancient, sacred city of Abydos hosted an annual ritual drama about the mysteries of Osiris. Along a processional way the festival crowd re-enacted the abduction and murder of Osiris by his brother Set, and inside the temples, priests conducted uber-holy rites away from the public eye. Every good Egyptian hoped to go on pilgrimage to Abydos at least once in her life. Nearly as good was to have a tablet (called a stela, plural is stelae) set up on the processional route stating your name, titles, a statement of offering (and usually an offering picture) and a request for passers-by to stop and recite the offering prayer on behalf of the deceased. Many thousands of stelae have been found in Abydos, which was also the burial site of predynastic and First and Second Dynasty kings.
In Abydos Osiris is most often known by the name of a jackal-headed god who came from that locale and eventually took on Asar’s identity, Khenti-amentu, “first of the Westerners.” Any mention of the west was an oblique reference to having died (like the sun, which sets in the west). Stelae like the ones at Abydos came to be used at lots of pilgrimage sites, as tomb markers (just like our modern tombstones), and even inside burial chambers. The picture usually shows the deceased standing in front of an offering table piled with bread, beer, geese, the leg of a bull, alabaster and lengths of linen. A typical inscription, known as an “offering formula” among Egyptologists, might say something like:
"An offering of thousands of bread, beer, meat, fowl, alabaster and lengths of linen, and all good, pure and beautiful things, which Pashed gives to the great god (neter aa) Khenti-amentu, first among those at Abdju, for the soul of Pashed."
Last week I was worrying a little about how the whole world get to enjoy ancient Egyptian heritage because moderns have basically robbed thousands of graves. Then I thought about how the Egyptians counted on their descendants and/or priests to perform rituals, “say the prayer,” for them in perpetuity. Obviously, that system broke down in the same centuries that brought Christianity then Islam to Kemet. And yet, here we are all these centuries later, reading and admiring the stelae, contemplating the original owner, pondering what his or her life was like. If you are a student of hieroglyphs like me, you find yourself reciting the offering formulas over and over again in lessons.
To me, that is part of the power and mystery of hieroglyphs, that somehow they have emerged from a time almost before memory to continue to remember the ancestors and honor their wishes. I wish I knew more about people like Pashed, but it’s clear that what he wanted most after his death was to be remembered as constant in his devotion to Osiris. May I be at least in part as dutiful in my respect for those who came before me.
Only weeks after I began studying hieroglyphs last year I started to notice that my mind was working differently. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something about reading words and sentences which can go backwards or forwards, in circles, or hopscotch around the space inside an oval or square will do that to you.
The medu neter (words of the gods) of the Egyptians took an iconographic form, rather than alphabetic. The standard Gardiner list gives 750 signs, but there are far more than that. Some of these represent ideas (ideograms), some actual things (pictograph), and some of them are phonetic (phonogram). Mastering navigation of this lush subtropical written jungle took ancient scribes a fair number of years. The journey is even more daunting for the modern student since we do not live with most of the items that were common visual parlance for the Egyptians.
Yet, the more I learn of these medu neter, the more I see. It’s that whole-brain thing kicking in. A daily life hawk becomes the glyph (hor) for a ruler, and next thing you know, the ruler is a hawk, a god soaring high in the sky in golden noonday brilliance. After that, the hawk denotes strength, authority, power and protection. Then the glyph itself becomes powerful, especially as an amulet, perhaps a bit of turquoise or carnelian set in electrum. This one (at right) is actually a glyph for Hathor. The hawk is inside the glyph for house or temple. Thus, the goddess' name means, "house of Horus."
A step further and we easily realize that a human with the head of a snake is not a biological fantasy, but the symbol of a person or entity with the ferocious protective impulse of a deadly cobra. A segmented pillar with arms (djed) is not just a cartoonish rendering of Osiris, but a statement about the integrity of someone represented by a backbone. Everywhere you look in Egyptian art, the glyphs turn up, from the positioning of dancers’ arms to a temple roof which is actually the glyph for the sky.
Goose, garment fringe, body parts, jars, stars, water ripples, feathers, mountains, burning lamps, even a stylized placenta – all of these pictograms are meaning extracted from daily life. When used as hieroglyphs the process has spiraled around to impose still more layers of meaning onto the life that we experience. It is in the interstices between these layers, achieved in meditative, altered and reflective states, where we discover the divine.
You don’t have to read hieroglyphs to find inspiration. Notice your own sacred symbols. Get down your personal medu neter in colored pastels, stones, musical notes, or movement. Bypassing the left brain temporarily can stir your soul to as-yet undiscovered joys. Your life will begin to look more like art, art with beautiful deeper meaning.
When I was a kid, I devoured books on ancient Egypt. I was fascinated by the Gods and Goddesses and mythology and great temples and pyramids -- and especially by stories of female Pharaohs such as Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. While my spiritual path eventually led me to Hellenismos, rather than Kemeticism, I continued to remain intrigued by that land and its culture. As a result, I ended up with a nice collection of books about ancient Egypt, a number of which are aimed at kids (and the young at heart). Below are a few of my highly recommended favorites, in order roughly according to reading level.