House of Life

A while back, henadology mentioned a book titled Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance, by David Frankfurter, and I had to admit that it was Relevant To My Interests (even though I don’t do a lot of reading outside the Pharaonic period). But given that my generalised thoughts about the development of religion outside the temples, a study of how religion in Egypt was constructed during the decline and destruction of active temple cult is, well, a thing.

I didn’t get fifty pages into the thing before finding this:

This kind of rite was hardly unique to Esna and demonstrates that, alongside a ritual cycle exclusive to the priesthood and to the temples’ inner courts, temples would actively serve the needs of farmers, infusing the fields with the very sacred power that “lived” in the temples. Temples would thus be popularly regarded as repositories of such power for the sake of the landscape and fields, much as Libanius described: “In them, the farming communities rest their hopes for husbands, wives, children, for their oxen and the soil they sow and plant.” In actively penetrating the countryside with the images of gods the temples involved themselves intimately with a basic concern of popular culture, according to a calendar of festivals and processions. The fact that such processions adhered to calendrical cycles does not so much set up some sort of “temple hegemony” as integrate the natural cycles of the Nile Valley with the temple, the local “center” of sacred power, and with the worldview that the temple epitomized.

By the Roman period such traditional forms of administering the fertilizing power of the temple-gods were often supplemented locally with more “open” shrines. Thus in Thebes, outside the main temple of Luxor, stands a small mud-brick shrine dedicated in the early second century to Serapis and his accompanying images and holding a large statue of Isis-Thermouthis. Although other temples were still being built or refurbished in the more traditional manner that excluded the sacred images from the eyes of devotees, the structure of the Luxor shrine allowed for devotees to be separated from this central icon of popular agricultural fertility only by front doors, which were ritually opened by a priest at certain times; and offerings might be made immediately in front of the shrine.

This is from the section of the book headed “The Distribution of Powers: Fertility”; subsequent headers include “The Cult of the Nile as a Popular and an Institutional Phenomenon”, “Healing Cults as a Nexus of Temple and Popular Piety”, and “Temple Festivals in Egyptian Life”, which one might note are also primarily concerned with the basic same force as one might be invoking when dealing with fertility: the flow of life-energy and its channeling into proper channels.

In other words, from a perspective situated outside of state ritual and the formal cult which was almost entirely invisible to the general population, the function of the temple might be best summed up by the term for the temple library: House of Life.

The basic architecture of the temple supports this perspective of the temple as a sort of source or bank for life energy which can be accessed for the benefit of the people. Each temple, after all, was organised such that someone entering the pure precincts thereof would climb the gently sloping corridor through the hypostyle hall – full of the decorations of first fruits of the creative surge, the marsh plants and the wealth of life – into the holy of holies, which was Zep Tepi itself, the creative mound, from which the entire cosmos flows in the perpetual act of coming into being.

So this raises the fundamental question: what does it mean to have a House of Life? What does it take to create such a place, to live within a world in which the House of Life exists? What does this mean, in practical terms of what Life is, what qualities it has, what its substance may become.

The gods so frequently were shown holding the ankh, each one carrying life as they go about the world, sweeping the holiness of life in their wake as they walk. The divine carries life; the house of the god keeps it safe.

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2 thoughts on “House of Life

  1. jewelofaset says:

    There is another section in that same book that explains house worship to Aset-Isis during this time period. It mentions a lamp shaped like the Aset-Isis milking Heru statue. This lamp was lit for devotions.

    So I have this statue of Her on my hearth shrine along with a candle. :-)

  2. […] Kiya Nicoll goes into the House of Life: […]

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