Last week or so I knew that I had big thinky thoughts about death and I wanted to talk about them. About fear and death, mostly, and there was something in there about change and transformation and probably the nature of initiatory experience (to become something new is to die as what was old).
Unfortunately, the whole coherent thing kind of vanished while I was asleep and I’m left with scraps.
Scraps, and Mother Death.
This is part of the Nut cycle, the Sow who Eats her Piglets. Her husband Geb is horrified by the way she swallows stars, her many children, devouring them, dissolving them within her, her many nameless children, until they are re-formed and born again, new stars once again named and visible and brilliant in the night sky. This happens over and over, and still Geb is horrified, even knowing that this process, star-eating, star-birthing, is always ongoing.
(Maybe that’s where I got to thinking about Holy Mother Death. Thinking about Nut, about the approaching gate of her teeth, that crushing and awful visceral image of death. But this death, also, is a nourishment; it feeds Heaven herself. A thing to think about.)
There are addresses to Nut in various texts. “In your name of Coffin”, some say. That coffin is allegorised, metaphorised, syncretically bound to the womb. When I wrote the concluding hymn for the Guide I referenced this:
Let me be a star within you
Held safe within your belly’s span.
Bind me together
As my mother bound me together
Hold me for millions of years
As her ten months held me.
What does it mean to die? The earliest Egyptian judgement day was putting Death itself on trial, hearing the evidence, convicting, and condemning Death for the act of murder that created a rift in communities, which slew the innocent. Death – subjected to proper judicial processes – was cast back into its place. Even if its depredations could not be prevented, justice could be had for them, the victim could be enshrined safely in the community of the other side as recompense.
And at the same time, Nut is there in her name of Coffin, in texts that were collected in the same places, written on the same walls, decorated with her body painted arched over the dead. Because this is the transformation moment, the Death card of the Tarot, the place where the old thing passes away and the new thing comes into being.
I wrote this sonnet – “Jackal at the Gates” – a number of years ago, and it is still one of my favorite pieces.
You fear to speak what rests upon your heart
As if the past is root to some decay
A feather’s condemnation of the part
Unborne, unwritten, never forth by day.
What was has been, what is is yet to come
That was must pass is cause enough for grief
But morning’s voices will be ever dumb
If morrow’s burnt to buy today’s relief.
They say such endings come but once a life —
They say, though those who say are wrong —
In every transformation lies the strife
Of Phoenix flaming out to renew song.
You live through ending with each taken breath.
Come, take my hand, and have no fear of death.
The thing about these transformational cycles, these bennu moments, is that we don’t know what we’re going to lose, I think. We know that something is lost, something is discarded, but it’s not exactly easy to say what dies and lies inert and what lives on, in any given ending. And the bigger ones, well, that’s a thing to shy away from, because the risks are larger.
Of course, there are risks in not changing, too. Of not taking Anpu’s hand and accepting Holy Mother Death. The stars get swallowed whether we wish it or not. The stars are reborn, again … whether we wish it or not.
These are initiation cycles. These are also the cycles of living, the rhythms of being. My sister prays for the lives that feed her life, for the deaths that feed her death, and here is that space again. The iron in my blood was the death of a star once, but it feeds me the air I need to breathe. What star died some five billion years ago that I could live? Swallowed up, swallowed up. Swallowed up and born again.
Another prayer, neither ancient nor my own:
“Holy Mother, in whom we live, move, and have our being, from you all things emerge. Unto you, all things return.” – Victor Anderson