Warning in advance: this is a giant-assed post. Usually I’d break it up into several, with calendar neepery in one and the deeper substance in a later post, but right now I’m feeling so far behind that I don’t want to wait on making more posts. Bear with me here, okay?
I mentioned the Mysteries in passing when I was discussing the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, because I was looking at the framework of the world – the inward and outward breaths of the passages between the seen and unseen worlds. I posited the possibility that – as the Beautiful Festival has resonance with celebrations in the broader pagan community of Beltane – the Mysteries of Wesir might likewise bracket the year from their position on the other side. Unlike Beltane and Samhain, this isn’t a six month gap; it’s more seven and five, so it’s not a perfect ‘and the veils are thin every half-year’ thing, but whatever the hell, hey?
So I will be, in part, exploring that notion as I putter at the Mysteries. I have no idea as I write this how it will go as a Thing, but hey, that’s what this research and exploration thing is all about.
Okay, so. I want to take a moment to talk about why the Mysteries are Mysteries. And the reason is – to speak of the condition of Wesir is taboo to the ancient mind. This is obviously not something we are good at respecting now, though I’m going through this post and tweaking my wording where I catch things. This is a protective matter: to speak of it is to invoke it, to grant it power, and that is to support Set in the matter of the Contendings. Whenever we approach Wesir in this regenerative aspect – whether it is as the former king or as the seed of grain – we are passing through the shroud of mystery, and observing the delicate nature of the cusp. Any reliquary of Wesir, any tomb door, is a transition point concealing the weakness of what lies beyond from potential enemies. (The open space said to hide him near Abydos – now known as Umm el Qa’ab – was named Hapetnebes, She Who Hides Her Lord, and likely had resonances with the Coffin Goddess as protector and womb.) So keep that in mind at this time. I will try to do the same, even though it’s not (yet?) native to my thinking. Language creates, folks.
So some general calendrical notes to start out. The Mysteries of Wesir conclude the season of Akhet. This is the flood season, and thus at the end of Akhet the waters are receding to allow for planting. Wesir – as a grain god – is entering the strange incubation time of the apparently lifeless seed in the earth that will emerge to reveal – and eventually sustain – life. Since November is closer to northern-climate temperate harvest season, it is easy to get the wrong end of the stick about which part of Wesir’s cycle is most relevant here. (I would also note that the fertility festival of the Beautiful Festival is also an akhu festival, and once again underscore that the whole question of “life” and “death” is not clear-cut in Egyptian religion. Fertility and the dead are not strangers!)
So: the planting season. Check out this keen image derived from the temple at Philae, willya? I would like to particularly draw your attention to the bottom center image, in which the sarcophagus of Wesir is literally sprouting grain, perhaps in part because some dude is watering it. If you cross-reference this with other images in the same thing – perhaps the image, center left, in which Aset and Nebet-Het are standing at either end of the body of Wesir – you’ll notice a certain ithyphallic tendency in related images. (I also, at one point, spotted the grain-growing sarcophagus where instead of a stalk of wheat at the relevant point there was, y’know, penis.)
(So as an exercise for the reader, consider the loss of Wesir’s penis in his dismemberment, the reaping of the grain, the necessity of the reaping of the grain, the equal necessity of replacement of the penis with one made of gold (both eternal and, y’know, amber waves of grain colored), the ‘dead’ seed in the earth and its rebirth, and the entire damn stuff that gets referred to as “the Osiris myth”, and once you’ve done that thinking would someone please explain to me why pagan pop-culture Wesir is ‘the god of the dead’ and not a gods-be-feathered green man icon? HE IS EVEN USUALLY PAINTED GREEN, OKAY? What gives, modern pagandom?)
Back to the calendar. My notes have a lot of consistency on this festival and when it is celebrated, actually, which is nice compared to the vagueness that I usually get to hash through. I mean, Karnak has a suggestion of a Sokar-Wesir festival on 4 Akhet 18, and the Ramesses temple at Abydos suggests the same date, while the Cairo calendar suggests offering ointment to Wesir on the 19th, and the slightly more specific Medinet Habu calendar doesn’t start until the 20th, but basically everyone starts around the 18th-20th of 4 Akhet and runs until the end of the month.
(Running until the end of the month is significant, because immediately in the next month – and the next season – is the Coronation of Heru festival. Which means that one thread of the Mysteries of Wesir is the preparation of Heru to ascend the throne. I’m not sure that comes up specifically, but it is worth noting: this is the exoteric manifestation of the Mystery.)
I like the Medinet Habu calendar because it names most of the days of the festival individually, like so:
- 4 Akhet 20: Festival of Purifying the Ennead
- 4 Akhet 21: Festival of Sokar: Opening the Aperture
- 4 Akhet 22: Festival of Sokar: Hoeing the Earth
- 4 Akhet 23: Festival of Sokar: Preparing a way in the Sheteyet
- 4 Akhet 24: Festival of Sokar: Placing in the Midst
- 4 Akhet 25: Festival of Sokar: Ntryt
- 4 Akhet 26: Festival of Sokar Proper
- 4 Akhet 27: Festival of Sokar: Annointing the Ennead
- 4 Akhet 28: Festival of Sokar: Drawing forth the Benben
- 4 Akhet 29: Festival of Sokar: (I couldn’t sort out a subtitle)
- 4 Akhet 30: Festival of Sokar: Raising the Djed
(I will note: the 28th of November is the Festival of Sokar proper on my lepidopterist’s calendar, so technically I am getting at least a little commentary in under the wire here, heh. Not so much with the preparation though.)
The calendar of Seostris I marks the 26th-28th, naming them “Festival of Sokar”, “Anointing the Gods”, and “Drawing Along Sokar”. Karnak has “Hacking up earth” on the 22nd and “Day of Libation” on the 23rd (the latter being ‘preparing a way in the Sheteyet’ in Medinet Habu). Esna has “Opening the Door-leaves of the Temples” for the 25th, “Feast of Sokar” on the 26th, “Feast of Neith” on the 27th, and “Setting up the djed” on the 30th. Edfu places “Feast of the Lord of Flight” at the 20th, “Feast of Heru who rescues the shroud of his father” on the 24th, the Feast os Sokar of course on the 26th, and has a procession on the 30th; the Edfu Hathor calendar has “Feast of Offerings on the Altar” on the 28th, “Procession of Hathor in her feast of Nehebkau” on the 29th, and the second day of the Nehebkau and Erecting the Djed on the 30th. Dendera has “Procession of Wesir by Night” on the 24th followed by a straight-up procession of Wesir on the 25th, and a Procession of Sokar on, again, the 26th.
We are very consistent here, people, and I like that. One can even get a sense of some of what’s going on just from the name data – and a sense of its importance from the fact that there is consistent reference generated from multiple temples.
I will take a quick moment to comment upon the Nehebkau (which also appears as a festival on 1 Peret 1 in some calendars). Nehebkau – also the name of a Power – is the bringer-together of souls. This is a useful thing if one has gone to pieces, such as if one is dealing with restoring oneself after becoming tired of heart.
A pun about Sokar links him closely to the Opening of the Mouth ceremony – claiming his name is sk r, ‘cleaning of the mouth’. This sort of word play is common in Egyptian language and ritual and does not necessarily reflect anything about actual etymology. (The Pyramid Texts claim it derives from the cry of Wesir as he fell, so even referring to just ancient texts there is not agreement.) The Opening of the Mouth is of course a critical part of divinisation of the body of a Westerner or an icon of a Power. The eventual syncretisation Ptah-Sokar-Wesir does become a loop of earthly powers – Ptah the craftsman creator who conceives the world in his heart and governs smithcraft and the wealth of the earth, Sokar the transformer and lord of transition and change, and Wesir the reborn.
There. A visual break so I can feel a little less overwhelmed by my own data. Sorry about that.
The Mysteries bear a strong resemblance to the structure of an Egyptian funeral. This has its obvious reasons. The seed is being interred. This is the heart of the mystery.
Use the Medinet Habu feast-day names as a guide: begin with purification of the company of the gods. What does this mean? Well, remember, this is parting the veil of the great mystery, the presence of the Lord of Silence about whose condition we do not speak. Remember, too, my comments on the third and fourth hours of the night/Nut journey – and this is the fourth month, and thus (if we play with the throat chakra riff) purification. No corruption, no threat, can be permitted to cross beyond this veil. Even the Powers must wash.
The mysteries are the mythic event that a mortal funeral must emulate. The lamentations that Aset and Nebet-Het use to awaken Wesir from his untimely sleep become for humankind the transfigurations, those which transform the scattered selves of the would-be Westerner into an akh. This is the funeral liturgy: the poetry of the gods crying out to the gods. This is the knowledge that we approach with a pure heart, once we – as members of the company of the gods – have been purified.
I don’t have specific ideas for Opening the Aperture, though if I had to riff on anything it would probably be talking about opening and preparing the tomb. Since the only calendar with something named on the 21st is the Medinet Habu one, I can’t even interpolate from elsewhere.
The word for ‘hacking up the earth’ is khebes-ta. This word-phrase appears a number of times in various places, and one of them refers to the way the combatants in the Contendings tore up the ground as they struggled against each other. (The legacy of these great stompings include at least one sacred lake.) I quote Assmann: “In classical antiquity, an agrarian meaning was imputed to it. The earth was hacked up for sowing, and the seed grain was mournet as it was placed in the ground like a corpse, for it was bewailed as a manifestation of the slain and buried Osiris.” There may also have been meat offerings – which are always signs of victory over Set and other potential threats – since there is reference to a slaughtering ritual associated with khebes-ta.
The Sheteyet is the cabin of Sokar’s barge. The boat is being prepared to sail. This is a sanctuary, much like any kar-shrine, and is possibly something which evokes the secret chamber of the mysteries of the midnight sun.
Placing in the Midst evokes arrangement and preparation for me, but I don’t know where to go with it. The Heru festival on this date – Heru who rescues the shroud – suggests to me, though, that this is a place for Heru’s role as son and establishing priest to shine through. Here is the new instantiation of life come to give honor to the old, to restore protections to it with the recovery and haleness of the shroud.
The wake was held the night before the funeral, with invocations of the protective deities of the hours to hold back the forces of Set, with recitations of transfiguring magics, with anointments or libations or censings, with the performance of the lamentations. Watchfulness is essential to prevent the second time, a final strike of doom. The parallel to this is the Ntryt festival (translated ‘the Divine’), with onion garlands worn as necklaces; at Abydos the night festival was apparently called ‘Haker’. The Egyptian term for the wake is ‘spending the night’. (I am slightly at a loss, but do kind of want to figure out what the onion thing is all about. Manniche does not enlighten me beyond noting that onions had function in mummification rituals, so I’m left without a clue. Anyone have any ideas?)
Ntryt was arguably a night of staying up all night in order to properly complete the wardings and protections, to sing the lamentations. (Perhaps this is the night festival recorded at Dendera, slightly displaced?) A recitation makes a decree: that Wesir be properly installed as ruler within the Duat, while those left behind in the seen world keep vigil and mourn. Another word for this festival is the Night of Loneliness, for here the sisters sing the lamentations, and the departing Wesir grows distant and increasingly untouchable even as he takes up his proper place and his honors. The priests would escort the god through the many gates of the Duat, greeting each one formally like heralds even as the sisters sing their mourning songs.
And thus is the great departure prepared.
On the day of the Festival of Sokar proper, the barge departs, laden with the icons, the offerings, and presumably the onions of the festival. It is bound for the tomb, and bound for the world of spirit, intrinsically a matter of crossing the boundaries and going forth into the Duat. (And here we have the reversal, as the Beautiful Festival is one of energy emerging from the Duat to share its bounty and regenerating power with the world once more.)
The Great Festival of Sokar may also be addressing matters of the regeneration of the previous generations of kings, and secondarily a matter of establishing legitimacy of the living manifestation of Heru, the current king. (This ties in with the comment about the Coronation at the beginning of the following month rather nicely, doesn’t it?)
Anointing the company of the gods may be a means of recognising and establishing the new constellation of relationships established by having Wesir properly in place in governance of the “nome of the Duat”, as the text from the Divine night suggests is imminent. Now that everything is well and properly established, it is worth performing ritual to acknowledge that. The funerary liturgy of one bound for the West would at this point be establishing that the departed is now vindicated and present as a companion of the gods, after all.
Drawing forth the Benben strikes me as a Zep Tepi evocation, drawing forth the moment of creation perhaps in service of rebirth. Beyond that, needs more research.
The unnamed day on the 29th can be brought forth as a beginning of the Nehebkau, which may by this point be a reflection upon the spiritual unions that have thus been generated by the Story So Far of the festival. This gathering of the spiritual power and unification of the souls into a coherent and glorified whole culminates in the raising of the djed, which we can riff on by referring to the Raising the Willow festival for ideas, I think, because this is long enough and I am tired.
As an overarching thought, back to that coffin-image I linked above: a feature of the Mysteries was the making of a sort of grain doll. Redford has “a mold in the form of Osiris was filled with sprouting plants”; when I’ve read in the past I was sure I read something about a measure of barley and earth being entombed as part of the festival, after being permitted to sprout for the eight days of celebration – this is from Firmicus Maternus, apparently. (I had thought there was something about divining the upcoming year from how the grain dolly was growing, but who knows if I made that up? It’s been years since I thought I read it somewhere.) These grain dolls – a frame filled with Nile silt and seeds – were also used in funerary function by the New Kingdom, because why waste a good symbol?
And it’s rolled over past midnight, and I am totally okay with posting this a bit early (even though it’s not ‘tomorrow’ yet as I haven’t slept yet) in the hope that more of its information will get out to somewhere useful in time for someone to do anything with it at all this year. Phew. Back on the horse, folks, back on the horse.
References: El-Sabban’s Temple Festival Calendars of Ancient Egypt, of course. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Assmann, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Redford’s The Ancient Gods Speak. Manniche, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. O’Connor, Abydos.