In an ideal world, I would have a graphic designer on hand to provide me with handy-dandy blog artwork, in this case of a variety of marginally different (differently crowned, likely) bennu birds each perching on its own benben. Since I do not, kindly manifest that image in your own mind.
Ancient temples evolved out of something called the “fortress of the gods”, which were apparently the fortifications and gathering points of the companies of deities and spirits known as the Followers of Heru. (See Shafer et al., Temples of Ancient Egypt.) The fortresses of the gods were not simply religious structures as we conceive it today; they also appear to have been focal points of tax collection and the ritual executions of war captives and the sacrifices of desert animals. (An Egyptian pagan familiar with such symbolism will recognise the prisoners and animals as common symbols of the minions of disorder and opposers of ma’at. Treating enemies of the state such as foreign prisoners as having this sort of theological significance, along with the image of processions of icons coming in from all over the region along with the tax money, makes it quite clear how tightly bound the theological and political functions of the government actually were.) A fortress of the gods may also have been the site of the celebration of the sed-festival, the king’s rejuvenating jubilee.
Each temple served as a fixed point of stability that served to hold the relationships in the cosmos in their proper place and time. They were built from the First Time at their hearts out to the edge of the universe, their undulating outer walls which represented the boundary holding back the Nun. (Kings loved to build onto temple complexes, perhaps to enlarge the cosmos by expanding its microcosm.) Each temple was also the body of a god, and housed at least one living image, imbued and infused with divine power and presence. The layers of reflection from larger to smaller and back again are, again, kind of like an onion….
Each of these temples, while a complete universe in itself by theological axiom, also existed in relationship with the other cosmic microcosms in Egypt. The icons went on pilgrimages to visit each other, or on processions to lesser shrines in their vicinities. A festival at one temple might draw attendees from the entire country, who would then take their experience of the cosmos as focused around that one place back home, spreading it in a more diffuse fashion across the nation. While each temple, with the god at its heart placed on the hill of primal creation, might have served as a factionalising point, with partisans of its own vision of cosmogenesis expressing dislike for those who hewed to a different theory, in practice divinity as much as finances flowed back and forth between the various temples, blending the visions of the universe into a multifaceted whole. People left graffiti at sacred sites: I came here to see the god. My name is….
While the idea of Egypt as one functional nation ebbed and flowed over time – breaking up into the islands of the nomes in times when the central government failed, then being reassembled as the cosmic order was once again reflected by the national one – ancient Egyptians maintained a national identity, a cultural identity, and a religious identity, and in fact did not separate them into these categories.
This is not the case for modern Kemetics.
We are from different nations. Even those of us from the same nation are likely to be from different cultures of origin. We do not speak the same birth tongue. We are not a cohesive or collective people, who can, after the turmoils of a particularly long Intermediate Period, rejoin our scattered temples and shrines and uphold the world as it was. There are oceans between us, rather than the easy flow of connection wrought by the Nile’s flow and the wind’s countering gusts. The internet is not a modern Nile, allowing icons to travel from fixed point of creation to fixed point of creation to affirm fundamental sameness and unity.
The price of diaspora is differentiation.
It is a heavy price, particularly from an ancient perspective. Our starting point of normal is beyond things they spoke of in stories with atavistic horror: the shipwrecked sailor who feared never seeing Egypt again, the courtier who abandoned family and post in a foreign land for the hope of seeing himself buried on the banks of the Nile. Many of us have never seen the river or the line that separates red land from black with our own eyes; fewer still could claim Egypt as a home where we could sleep in the company of our ancestors, confident in the continuity of our communities. In fact, that form of community is pretty hard to come by around here at all, in the suburban commuter world where we may be hundreds of miles from our blood kin or have friends we have never touched.
But still the souls search for the anchor point, for the temple, in some form. Here is a place built in ma’at. Here are the places that touch it, and spread that connection. Here is a place fit into the world and a way of being that supports the world.
These places are small, compared to Egypt. They are specialised, built to fit a niche. Their unity is not sufficient to bind together a great nation, but they may be enough to make an island. And perhaps one can see a finch from another island as a cousin, a sibling, a kinsman, as eventually Darwin did the birds of the Galapagos – though they did, in fact, differ notably, because their needs were different.
Our temples and shrines must hold the cosmos in healthy condition, and encourage right relationship. They are no longer the circulatory pulse of a nation, a people, and a culture; they must be something else, an island of a particular nature of being, that nurtures and supports those who live within that way.
I draw a line from my training in a completely different religious background, now, to leave you with. This is Francesca De Grandis:
“A healthy priest makes all things sound.”