Lifting the Boat

I pray for the dead.

People throw out random prayer requests all the times in pagan circles, and whether or not I respond varies widely. But I pray for the dead. Always.

I forget who said it Рif it was Som̩ or an Ifa priest or someone else Рbut our tears make the water that lifts the boats of those crossing to the other side. The dead need the love and support of the community to reach the far shore. Our emotions offer power, offer guidance, offer strength.

And here is a thing: this is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the first moral obligations that a Kemetic has. Pray for the dead. For all of the dead. Especially in those first seventy days, the time of transition between living and the imperishable stars.

The spirits in transition exist in a place of confusion. The systematic ordering of souls and members has been snapped and the unifying force unravelled. Without help, those parts will drift away and be lost, a breath on the wind and a fading memory – or, perhaps worse, be trapped in fragmented ruins, a clutching wreck trying to seize wholeness from the living. Grief provides a structure, a system, a format around which the one who has been separated from the familiar can start to re-forge the connections between souls. We, the living, are the light that holds steady so that the Westerners can find the West.

When we give that gift, our tears, our wails, the candles we light, our murmured prayers, we breathe a little unity back into the system. We reach across the rift, we affirm that the dead are whole and the dead are with us, and that we are with them, in mutual support. We address the breach in our community, even as we see them on their way and acknowledge that this is a change of address for which mail forwarding gets a little complicated.

It is the nature of the energy of life to flow. We know this – trivially – from the cycles of ecosystems, of eating and being eaten. This holds true in broader terms; we know this mystically from the dance between the Beautiful Festival and the Mysteries, or – if more neo in our paganism – Beltaine and Samhain. We bring this knowledge when we pray for the dead, giving life, life, life, offering up life and love to the dead that they may be filled with life (for millions of years, a matter so many times true) and that we, being givers of life, may be filled with life.

It is sometimes tempting to hold back the prayers for the dead, when the dead are not our own, or when they have crossed some moral line of which we do not approve. In fact, one of my first experiences in Kemetic community was with such a person – difficult at best, widely hated – whose mooring day came by his own hand, and who many people declared should not be mourned. (I will note: a suicide almost certainly has major dissention among their souls, and needs our help to find integration far more than the peaceful dead.) But the unmourned dead, the unprayed-for, they do not find peace, they do not make the transformation, they do not go away, and that, if nothing else, should be good for a mumbled thousand of bread and thousand of beer.

Ancient tombs would have stelae set out before them, with demands of the traveller and passerby: read out this stone. If you cannot read, pour out water over the glyphs, that they might be fed and thereby activated. Speak the name of the dead, remember the dead, give life to the dead. A thousand of every good thing.

Pray for the dead.

(Temporal note…. I was writing this before I heard the news.)

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Light Fire. Eat Bread. Drink Water.

I spent a while last night pounding my head against the need to write up presentation proposals for Paganicon, which I will be attending this upcoming year. Which had me thinking, for various reasons, about the process of breaking down religion to be comprehensible to the kids.

This is actually not that difficult, once one gets down to the heart of things. There is a lot of elaboration in religious ritual, a lot of fancy and additional symbolism, bonus freight on things.

But a few months ago the older kid found a candle and candleholder I’d sorted out for a particular ritual I needed to do. “This you red candle?” she asked me. “Yes, that’s my red candle.”

She ordered me: “You put fire on it.”

You put fire on it. It’s simple, it’s accessible. (She’s loving Hanukkah at the moment: you put fire on it!) And it’s primal, it’s Zep Tepi: we bring light out of darkness, we give the world form with our eyes like Nit. This is an ancient power, the fire is, and perhaps there is a part of the soul who remembers the way it could drive the beasts back when we still greatly feared the beasts.

One of her fathers has a little prosperity shrine set up, and a little ritual that goes with the shrine. And she loves to help with that. He lights the candles, “You put fire on it,” she puts the coin in the bank, “I feed the cow.”

We light the fire, we eat. The universe is created; life is sustained. Bread is the default symbol of food in much of the West, as that was the default food of much of the West. It’s not just Egypt that had bread and beer as the staff of life, after all.

We eat, we drink. And with water, an ur-symbol of drinking something, we also become clean. We touch the primordial – whether it is the silent seas of pre-creation, the ocean of our water-ape past, the ritual bath, the flask of coolness on a hot day – and are transformed and uplifted by it.

Creation, sustenance, and purity. From this all ritual derives, in the end, if you go back to it. Which is something that a child can understand – you put fire on it, I feed cow – or that can be done in a difficult time.

Everything else is elaborations upon a theme. And like I’ve said before, and like someone else said today, the fancy shit is not the point. You create the world, you feed the hungry, you drink and become clean. Yes, there are details to explore as one gets deeper and deeper into creation, into nutrition, into clarity, into what that means and how to put it into action in a situation more complicated than Light Candle. Eat Bread. Drink Water.

But in the end, if we need to return to the beginning, to where the story begins, to our religious roots and the things that start to nurture us, we can always go back there, both for ourselves and for others, trying to figure out how to bring light and food and water to all people, all relationships, all Powers.

Light fire.

Eat bread.

Drink water.

The rest, as the man said, is commentary.

Nut Cycle: Fifth Hour, the Heart

When we left our intrepid night travellers we were struggling through the fourth hour, the place of implied strife transitioning between the outer regions of Nut’s embrace and head and into her body. Now we approach the goddess’s heart, the fifth hour.

(And for the gods’ sakes, my brain is puttering along singing Survivor’s “The Moment of Truth” at me. Make of that what you will.)

Here we enter the darkest hours of the night, the ones in the Amduat in which the Mysteries of the Midnight Sun occur, the night union of the sun with Sokar-Wesir in the hidden cavern of Rosetjau. Here in the heart of the mother, the gate becomes a benevolent royal lady: “Lady of the sky, Mistress of the Two Lands, the Relishing One, Lady of the Entire Land, Great of Awesomeness.” Much as the Contendings give way to the Mysteries of Wesir and the crowning of Heru, we see here the strife (and implied relationship with the Contendings) starting to give way to the kingdom, and that kingdom is the kingdom of life. (While there are still “followers of Seth” found headless here in the lower registers, there is little sign of active strife.)

This is the nefer-region – “nefer” that familiar symbol of goodness, beauty, or, as Roberts puts it, “vitality”. This hieroglyph is the trachea and heart – from the throat into the breast. (In the sixth hour, we will reach the zema-region, the trachea-and-lungs glyph meaning “unite” and seen commonly in such phrases as “Union of the Two Lands”.) We are guided here by “True of Face” (or “True of Heart”), and this is a region of space intimately entwined with Ma’at herself, who is worn by Ra like an amulet about the neck, resting upon his breast. Nefer, nefer, nefer (and now the internal jukebox is trying to set that to the Christian hymn that goes “Holy, Holy, Holy”, but not getting anywhere ‘cos I remember neither tune nor words beyond that bit).

Here the traveller starts to rise up again, sprouting like a plant from the dead “seed” bequeathed by the harsh and scorching opening hours of the night. Power starts to flow once more, feeding the soul on this path, and restoring the heart to its central place. The heart, of course, is the unifying power of the body: the pulse which can be felt in all members is proof of its work to make the disparate organs and parts into a unified and functioning whole. The heart awakens in the heart regions, sensically enough. As Heru comes into possession of the heart-power of his father (in the Ancestor Ritual Roberts links to the Book of Night) with his coronation, creating a continuity across generations, now that governing and generative organ is restored to the traveller.

In the Amduat, the process is approaching Zep Tepi, the first time; the totality of creation implicit in that first moment is delicate and restorative. This is the singularity from which all things come, the first moment, the heart of the mother; it holds the mysteries of creation, rebirth, and union, as if these were separate processes. This is the Underworld of the Underworld, the most secret and precious space in the land of spirit, and yet – when framed as the body of Nut – open and expansive to encompass all things.

Yet, this is only the beginning of the transformation of the process. Simple resurrection and awakening to life is insufficient. Life and power are what must be brought forward, not the endpoint and goal of this process.

Coronation of Heru: This Festival is for the Birds

Every so often one comes across a festival that is just plain not easy to reframe for the modern day. And thus, we come to the Coronation of Heru, also called the Installation of the Sacred Falcon.

It is inevitable and essential that this festival follow immediately upon the heels of the Mysteries of Wesir, so I’m hesitant to neglect it entirely. It seems to me that it is a part of Wesir’s reign over the Duat that the Sacred Falcon is installed properly, and that the arc of mythological action is incomplete if we do not appropriately turn to address Heru.

This is not a festival that can be addressed and translated simply by having a modern king, either. For all that ancient kings would time their coronations to fall in this period, the better to partake of the appropriate ritual and mythological resonances, this is not a festival of human governance.

Allow me to summarise:

The statue of Heru of Behdet comes from his shrine and rests on a litter of the sort used in the coronation of a human king. He is carried by the ancestors (priests dressed as same), masked as jackals and falcons – the Souls of Pe and Nekhen. This is a silent procession, and it is led by the human king, who faces the god and censes the passage with incense. The god performs an oracle to select the next Sacred Falcon, and he first rejects ‘the high priests, the priests and the great officials’. When all human candidates have been refused, a parade of falcons is presented to the gods (raised on the temple grounds in order to be presented as candidates for the office), and one of those is chosen as the god’s heir, brought inside, set on a stone carved as a serekh, and presented with a ceremonial collar and four bouquets with varying patron deities and significances. Then the falcon sits atop a seat, is entertained with recitations, is given royal regalia, and is anointed with milk. Invocations for protection were made, equating the bird with the living king and Heru of Behdet. Finally, meat offerings were made to the bird (who was by this point perhaps a little tired of all this nonsense and thus enthusiastic at falling upon the symbolic enemies of Egypt and devouring them) accompanied by incense burning, the Heru icon withdrew to his kar-shrine, and the bird was left in charge.

Watterson quotes another Egyptologist suggesting that the care and attention given to the Installation of the Sacred Falcon in Edfu may have been a form of protest against the government by foreigners. It might well be more appealing to raise a bird to the religious throne than a human king considered a usurper of the political throne. However, given the existence of other sacred animals in Egypt, and the fact that the beginning of the first month of Peret was long-established as the appropriate time to install a king, who would be carrying the inevitable weight of the conclusion of the Mysteries with him to the throne, one cannot use the late date of the Edfu temple to dismiss the festival. (And I certainly wouldn’t discard the possibility that earlier falcon coronations might have been held to provide a backup Heru incarnation in case something happened to the human king – and vice versa.)

So there’s a lot of “so what does this mean” to be had here.

Let us assume, as the ancients did, that Heru was present in the Falcon, much as they found Montu in Bakha or Ptah in Hap. The animal could offer oracles and omens, and lived as an honored guest in human spaces. Humans are amazing egotists, able to make everything all about us, all about the things we made and the things we do, but a god explicitly in the body of an animal has to break those boundaries a little. Sure, one can escort that animal into human spaces and build human rituals around it, but a god incarnating as an animal is a god that is willing to touch something alien to human thought, willing to bring that alienness forward as a part of a presence. It is a reminder: the world is larger than you, the world is larger than your human issues.

One may live aware of the possibility that an animal or plant might be the temporary manifestation of a god, a sign or omen (but there is that human egotism again) or the god going about divine business in that moment, but formally committing to the recognition of that particular other is a different thing. It is not momentary, it is not transitory: not only is there a god indwelling that animal, but we can name that god and honor him. What other gods might be lurking in other places, in other forms? It warrants attention.

Further, as the Mysteries of Wesir serve as the mythological template of the funeral, the atemporal/cyclical model upon which our occurrences in linear time, the Installation of the Sacred Falcon serves as the mythological template of the recognition of the leader and unifier of a community. This is something that we revisit every year, even if we have no stated leader, even if we have the same leader we did last year at that time, affirming the presence of this continuity, of the resonance between the mortal world and that of the unseen.

And this is not something that comes of titles and honors – Heru rejects all the high officials presented to him as candidates for this office. Status is not the same as leadership. (And anyone who has had experience in the sort of office where being on good terms with the right janitor or secretary makes a world of difference for how well things can be arranged knows that power-status is also not the same as effective power that gets things done.) One may have a title, but that does not grant special access to the ineffable.

Regardless of what this festival meant to the ancients, I’m going to contemplate it with these two musings – that the gods are not limited to humanocentric models, but have a broader view than human eyes and forms might grant; that power, including holy power, is not the same as status and titles. Both of these have interesting magical weight to them.

I conclude with a relevant note from an entirely different religious tradition. Consider inner divinity, the personal god which is the perfected self, unbound by limitations, able to communicate freely between all worlds. One might call this soul the God-Self, the Sacred Dove, the Holy Guardian Angel, or – as Thorn Coyle suggests in a footnote for her book Evolutionary Witchcraft, “One may also call it the Sacred Falcon, using Egyptian imagery if that is more comfortable for you.” What might it mean, I ask you, to install the Sacred Falcon upon the throne of your life?

Reference: The House of Horus at Edfu: Ritual in an Ancient Egyptian Temple, Barbara Watterson.