Pagan Paths

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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Birds, Bas and Swans

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. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_Bennu_bird.svg.pngThe vulture was associated with Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt and one of the “Two Ladies” which protected every pharaoh.  Isis turned herself into a kite bird to fan Osiris as she worked her magic to bring him back to life.  Sekhmet was associated with the hoopoe, we see Horus depicted as a hawk, and Thoth with the head of an ibis. The soul was depicted as a ba bird with a human head; a transfigured soul was an akh bird. 

This weekend I attended a performance of Swan Lake ballet.  It’s a classic tragedy in which a whole flock of swans are actually young women who’ve been bewitched by a nasty sorcerer.  The climactic ending sees Prince Siegfriend choosing to join Odette, the Swan Queen, in death by drowning in the lake with her. Like Romeo and Juliet, the suicide of these lovers has made them immortal. What captivates audiences, however, is the other-worldly hypnotic effect of pulsing swan wings in each scene by the lake.  With their always-downcast or averted eyes, the swans signal to the audience that they are separated from the living by an abyss which may not be crossed without making the ultimate sacrifice.  Each beat of the Swan Queen’s arms, like the great wingspan of a swan, remind us that there is a transcendent aspect to existence. 

When we ponder the words of the gods written in the sacred pictures we now call hieroglyphs, we are subject to the magic, the heka, of their symbolism, no less than when we watch birds or ballet.  Heka most often bypasses the rational intellect, rather slipping into the inner consciousness when we allow ourselves to experience it without a logical filter.  What are the symbols in your world? What images would you use if you were a modern-day Imhotep, a scribe recording the wisdom of your time?  Next time you notice the birds outside your home, listen for what flutters in your heart.

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


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