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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Working on a New Book

As an attempt to make up a little for my complete absence this last month or so, here’s a little bit I just wrote – a bit of introduction to my new book project, dealing with the theology of the ka in what I hope will be practical and accessible terms.

(Unlike the Guide, I do not expect this one to be more full of jokes than my ordinary conversation.)

Sometime when I was a child – I do not know where or when – I saw a particular bit of line art somewhere in a book. The large figure was a seated man with the head of an animal I did not recognise, with wavy horns extending straight out on either side of his head. He stretched his hands out over a pair of human figures that appeared to be standing on a low table. I loved that drawing with the uncomplicated affection of a child: the gentle smile on the animal muzzle seemed so kind, so gracious, so benevolent. He seemed to me to care deeply for the little naked people standing on the table.

I did not really know – at any meaningful level – that this was a drawing of a god. I just knew, with that profound and clear simplicity, that the strange man seemed like a nice man. Gods, when I thought of them, were the lavishly illustrated humanoids of my D’Aulaires, whose stories were detailed by Edith Hamilton in her Mythology, or the mysterious figure that was explained to me in church sermons, who didn’t appear to have any particular interest in me, and thus lost my interest in return.

I got older. I learned things. I forgot things.

Somewhere along the line I learned that the two naked figures were standing on the potter’s wheel, and they were a human body and that body’s double or ka. I didn’t have the theology for what that meant, really, or a lot of interest in taking it deeper; I filed it away in the packrat-nest of information in my skull and carried on with my life.

When I stumbled into Kemetic religion, I turned back towards that friendly man with the strange head, which I had learned belonged to an extinct species of ram.

I returned in the end to Khnum, the first god I had ever loved, the craftsman of the ka.

The Nut Cycle: The Second Hour/Month

Yes, I am running behind again. With a little luck, the adjustments to my medication will help me keep on top of everything for a little bit. So this is late, but it is at least here before the Heb-Sed.

The theme of the first hour/month of the Nut cycle is the entering the realm of the night. Placing oneself in trust into the hands of the mother, awakening to the life of the spirit world. For if you imagine, as the ancients did, that the seen and unseen worlds were intertwined, and dreams were visions that passed through the unseen, then to go to sleep is to awaken in the world of dreams and the dead.

This is not a riskless thing to do. I am sure most of us can quote that line of Hamlet’s, “in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” We go to sleep; we awaken to the world of spirits and gods, of demons and akhu.

The Amduat names the gate between the first and second hours as Which Swallows All; the Nut texts in the Book of Night speak of her as “Lady of Trembling, high of walls, preeminent one, Lady of destruction, who forsees aggression and repels the raging, who saves the robbed from the one who comes from afar. Lady of terror.” The teeth of mother sky divide the traveller from the world of the living, a gnash that suggests, further, a crushing between her cosmic molars of those who would seek to plumb the mysteries of the spirit with “aggression” or as those who are “raging”, or who would “come from afar” – perhaps the sunlit lands of the living – in order to commit theft. To enter here is to face her judgement and her bite.

The king making this journey is, of course, granted passage: he is described as “the shining bull… who is with the Unwearying Stars”. The bull is the Egyptian symbol of virility par excellence; his name in Egyptian is one of many words etymologically related to the ka itself. The shining bull’s guide is the Bull of Light, a twinning that perhaps evokes the ka again, perhaps to serve as a reminder that the world of the dead is also the world of life, the font from which fertility flows, the spring of our blood.

In the Amduat, these lands are the fertile fields of Wernes, filled with the promise of the flood and the praise of baboons with hands lifted to greet the arriving sun. In the Book of Night, Sia acting as herald for our passage cries out to those present to receive their heads, to gather up their bones, to come and receive offerings. These cries are received by the transfigured and holy dead, and the surrendered, who may suffer, but who have submitted to the ministrations of the Mother. Their passivity here is like the passivity of Wesir himself, who was torn to pieces and restored (receive your head, gather up your bones, you are complete).

The body is the vessel of the soul. We cannot travel in a damaged boat; we must gather up our parts and bind them securely. This hour of the night is often linked to the Book of Going Forth By Day chapter 22, for regaining a mouth (and thus the power of speech – and therefore magic) and chapter 71, a spell for reintegrating the body.

Sia calls upon us now to take stock of ourselves, to pull ourselves together so that we can continue. He calls upon us also to partake of offerings, to step up to the space in which we share in the powerful nature of the gods. Here the dead have become divine; the living, also. The Powers are come to grant deliverance and strength, the abilities of the senses, a breath of air, and the capacity for great magic. The Amduat speaks of sharing the blessings of the gods: food and water and sex.

To go on, one must have claimed and established a form. Your head must remain affixed to your spine. You must be in possession of your members. You must be whole and hale and unified, with a clear understanding of your image. If you do not have an image to hold onto, a clear sense of a physical form, you may be lost in the waters. And while the drowned will be saved, in time, that is a voiceless road.

Mehet-Weret comes with the flood and its promise of renewal, and washes everything away.

Blood Wounds

It’s not just mysticism that has me thinking about the Blessed Dead, not just the transformational cycle of Nut that leaves me pondering the mysteries of the Midnight Sun.

It’s other things, too.

One of my favorite bits of the Pyramid Texts is the bit where the Creator puts his arms around Shu and Tefnut “like the arms of a ka”, “that his ka might be in them”. Hug your children so they have souls. This embrace, this essential thing, passing life-energy and beingness from parent to child, is fundamental. (There are other ways we feed and nurture the ka, of course, but that’s not the point here.)

The point is this: this ability to live, to thrive, to taste and eat and love and fuck and work magic and all these things that are ka-driven – it’s an inherited thing. It comes from our parents, that bloodline, and the bloodline goes back and back and back. So many incarnations of a ka.

And that makes for complicated inheritance.

I went to the lab today to get blood drawn. I have an autoimmune disease – easily treatable, not a great worry – and we’re still getting my medication sorted out, so we’re testing my levels and all that fine medical stuff. But the thing is, this is something that is twined in with my DNA on some level; one of the primary risk factors is “does it run in your family”?

My grandmother had it. (Or something like it; she was on fundamentally the same medication I’m on, except mine is synthetic.)

And when I got my diagnosis, I called my blood kin – all of whom have issues that are comorbid with this particular thing – to say “Hey, I have this thing. You may want to keep an eye on that. Just in case.”

Because we come from the same source.

Genetic glitches aren’t the only thing we can inherit, though. And really, this is the easiest stuff to accept – the thing that can be looked at under a microscope, teased out of a blood sample, sequenced in the magic of our amino acids.

Wounds to the soul, spiritual wounds, mental wounds, those are heritable too. But that’s something that feels embarrassing, at times, or shameful, or irrational, or blaming one’s parents for one’s own flaws, or something else.

But.

I wound up in a conversation about “white nationalism” recently. And I learned something about myself there. I learned of places where my ka bleeds – not for my own sake, not for the sake of the world and my loved ones who have to live here now. It is an old wound, inflicted upon this soul before it was mine.

I don’t even know how to talk about it here, with its bloodiness and its scarring. The pain is not mine, but it is mine to heal, because I am numbered among the living. I have worked with this pain before – done magic, done heka, done witchcraft, done therapy, to try to pass on a ka with less suffering to my children. There is more to it than I had faced, and I am left with the strange awkwardness of it, the knowledge that this pain was part of why I feel I have so little from that line of family, because some was actively destroyed, and other parts hurt too much to touch. (When I first went chasing reconstructionist paganism, I went looking up that bloodline, trying to find the thing I was missing – and missing that what I needed was far more personal, entirely.)

It is not enough to put Death on trial, to condemn it for its act of murder and pay reparations to the Dead by giving them the life they lost in the new venue of the hereafter. That is only a beginning, a ritual declaration that wholeness will happen, not the actual process of becoming whole. Death itself, even in this most judicial of models, is only the last thing, and many people’s lives have more than one thing unmended. And sometimes the Holy Mother Death can mend more than just the transition – it is not uncommon for people who deal with the ancestors to comment that the Dead are much more reasonable people than the Living, having as they do a different perspective on life and its priorities.

There are other wounds than the fatal ones, wounds that need to be healed. They left their marks on our ancestors, and those marks have, some of them, in some form, passed on to us.

To heal myself is to heal my ancestors, and it is also to heal my children. If I am established, Wesir is established, this is the old chant, the old ways. If I am hale, he is hale. We learn over time how to mend ourselves, and perhaps we also learn how to offer the cup of that grace to those on the other side, who might find some peace in it.

If I can sacrifice two vials of blood on a regular basis to heal the physical legacy my ancestor gave me, can I not also offer space to stop the bleeding of our shared ka? To let my ancestors open to joys they may have been denied, to have forgiveness even for the things that wounded the living, to become whole?

I did magic to stanch the bleeding once. It is only a beginning. (And I think there is probably a chapter on this in the book I’m not currently reading. Among other things, other traditions, other ways of seeing these lines and the inheritance that comes of sharing the soul.)

We can heal. We must heal. And as we heal our ancestors, there is more opening to life.

This is not as simple as it seems

I wrote “what does that mean about breakfast?”

I mentioned, in passing, the cognate relationship between ka and food.

Stop.

Clear your heart.

Think.

Ka is your life-energy, your vital power, the root of your magic, the thrum of your sexuality, your bond with your ancestors and the Creator Itself.

Think about this font of holiness that you carry, your double, your twin. Think about the ka of the Creator, passed on through generations of children until it places its arms about you. Think about life received from your parents, and nurtured through the gifts that they and others bestowed upon you with the silent whisper “For your ka.” Think about this sacredness, this intrinsic, fundamental sanctity that is the raw basis of life.

Now.

Think about kau.

Think about food.

What is your relationship with food?

Do you divide food into the holy and unholy, and say that you will be “good” and eat your vegetables to make up for being “bad” and having cake? This food is saved, this food is damned, as if the holiness of ka is not present in all food as proved by the simple fact that it sustains life.

Nutrition is itself holy. It sustains life. Those overcounted calories, each of them is holy. They sustain life. These carbohydrates, these fats, these trace minerals: holy. They sustain life. Those animals have ka power, which enables them to become kau; those plants have ka power, which enables them to become kau.

If you wish to love life, how can you hate food?

This is not simple.

(We are, quite often, thoroughly trained otherwise.)

The Ka and Etymology

There is one thing that I keep circling back to in all of my work, and that’s the theology of the ka. This is fundamental, perhaps the most fundamental thing to understand, so I always find it when I’m looking for important things.

You spat out Shu, you expectorated Tefnut, and you put your arms about them as the arms of a ka, that your ka might be in them.

– Pyramid Texts 600

So you see? The ka is there from the beginning.

ka hieroglyphThe glyph of the ka is a pair of upraised arms. Some have suggested that this is hands lifted in praise; others, and I tend to align with this perspective (not just because of the PT reference) to an embrace – whether of love or of protection – and thus a view as if from above.

The ka is threaded all through traditional liturgy and symbology. The entire cult of kings is built around veneration of the royal ka. We see Khnum at His wheel, shaping the forms of body and ka. We present offerings with “May your ka be fed” and gifts with “For your ka.” An ancient euphemism for death was “to go to [his/her] ka”.

To understand the ka, first consider word relationships. Etymology can reveal a lot about concepts that are considered related in the host language. (Further, the ancients placed a lot of value on wordplay and word similarities, even in cases where the words are not actually related etymologically.)

So the ka relates to, perhaps most blatantly, matters of fertility and reproduction: k3.t (vagina), bk3.tj (testicles), nkj (copulate), nkjkj (fertilise), bk3 (be pregnant, impregnate). This is also related to the ‘ka’ that is the bull, as in Kamutef, a divine title meaning Bull of His Mother. The ka is the soul of life, of vitality, of erotic power, and one can see this expressed further in nk3k3 (good condition of flesh).

The ka also relates to matters of magic. Consider ḥḳ3, ḥḳ3.w (magic, magic spells, yes this is that familiar word “heka”), ḥḳ3 (presumably a slightly different spelling or determinant, this one meaning enchant or be enchanted), ḥḳ3j (sorceror), and ḥḳ3(w) (the god Heka). Wikipedia translates “heka” as “activating the ka”, meanwhile.

The ka also has relationships with the process of cognition, with its related words k3j (think about, intend), k3.t (thought), nk3j (think about). It is perhaps here as much as under magic that k3j (speak) goes, given that one of the fundamental conceptions of Egyptian magic involves speech which evokes that which is intended and thus gives it form and being. Here, the understanding of the ka can get murky, as it is usually a different soul – the ba – which is usually associated with the mind. (Another word, ḫmt, gets the translation “think” or “to act three together” in Redford, perhaps suggesting a trilateral process of cognition, consisting of ba, presumably ka, and I would bet the heart.) But life has its own intelligence, its own process, and I suspect the ka’s thoughts are the primal ones rooted in life and magic, as the ka is rooted in life and magic.

But this gives rise to the ka being translated in times as one’s character, temperament, or even, with a little extrapolation from those, destiny and luck. But if we go too far in this direction, we start getting vague, and away from the ka that’s as concrete as your genitalia.

Another word resembling the ka is kau. Victuals. Here the equation is simple and strong: our life energy is fed with, well, food. This seems to be too obvious to state, but really, it isn’t; the holiness of nourishment is fundamental. We offer food, we receive food, we eat food, this is all about nourishing and sustaining our ka and the ka of others.

I will return to the ka over and over again. I wanted to be sure the basics were available before I started to go into greater depth.

Egyptian words and their meanings are mostly drawn from Donald B. Redford’s The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, specifically the entry on the ka.

Yes, I did spend time scouring the bloody internet to find the HTML codes for the funky transliteration letters. You’re welcome.