Keeping Chaos At Bay
NOTE: This brief feature was posted on the original Icons of Kemet Blogger blog on Friday, January 16, 2015.
O Netjer (Deity) I inhale Your fragrance,
The god-making scent, the myrrh You
Inhabit in Your beauty, granting revival
To the senses and pleasure to the flesh!
You are seen, and You are unseen,
But known to all living creatures is
The breath of life, which You bestowed in
Your myriad forms.
Golden, I summon forms upon forms upon
Forms, my eyes seeking the Falcon of Gold
Who was with Nun in the secret beginning.
My hands can give birth like Nut of the Stars,
My fingers, as artisan, can open the doors of
Heaven to receive the sekhem.
O Netjer I behold Your power, Your essence,
Your golden Ba, the visage like the
Falcon, Whose dazzling plumage fills
The firmament with lapis lazuli and
You are the shining countenance of gold,
You are the deep blue lapis of the beginning,
You are the green malachite mound of the
First Occasion, Tatenen.
Now, O Netjeru (Gods), I summon You to
to listen, for I am as the Great Director of Craftsmen, with the power of Ptah in all
I give form to the formless, breath to the
Breathless, and a new beginning to the
Inert substances of the Earth.
I summon the radiance of the Sun-God
I summon the indestructible Ba of Atum
As gold, and the inexhaustible renewal of
Ra as lapis lazuli!
These are Your divine embodiments,
O Netjer, Whose forms are numberless,
Whose powers emanate in the infinite
Gods, Whose source is unknown and
Whose beginning is secret.
I have opened Your powers in these substances
Of Earth, and the Doors of Heaven in these
Metals of Heaven.
May this image open Heaven and renew the
Earth, for millions of millions of years!
- A Prayer for Blessing A Divine Image By Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
The ancient Egyptians saw creation as a fragile state of existence floating like an island paradise in the middle of a turbulent ocean. This primeval ocean ever churned with the forces desiring to recapture the world the Creator God had pulled from the grips of darkness.(1) Terrible and bloody battles between the serpents of chaos and Ra the Sun-God had initiated the great act of creating and bringing order to an otherwise unordered mass(2). Once brought up from the raging abyss of chaos, the world of light and order was under the perpetual threat of being extinguished by the hungry serpents of the deep.(3).
Kemet, what we know today as Egypt, was a favored sliver of light, order and divine justice, Ma'at, which the Creator God had established at the very beginning of His work, a period of time the Egyptians called Zep Tepy, the "First Time" or "First Occasion".(4) It was during this time that the Sun-God Ra had pushed Himself up from the deep as a child of light sheltered by the sacred blue lotus(5); however, this same creation story is also told as the sacred falcon alighting upon the pyramidal mound of creation, whereupon He establishes the first hut or reed sanctuary, which becomes the mansion of the god and the prototype for all temples to follow(6).
The Egyptian temple was not a place of worship as we in the West might know it, but was instead the actual dwelling place of the netjer (deity), which was invited to take up residence in the temple as the meeting place of the divine and mortal worlds(7). It was not a meeting place of the faithful, nor a declaration of servitude to an unknowable god, but a mechanism in stone through which the ordered world of creation could continue, and the netjeru or gods be drawn into the human realm in order to ensure its maintenance(8). It was via the cult image (bes or sekhem) that the House of the God actually maintained the ba or visible power of the netjer, which the Egyptians experienced not in abstract spiritual terms but as a tangible and visible image that could descend or be established in the temple as the home of the god(9).
The purpose of drawing the ba of the netjer into the temple was to ensure the continuance of the created world, its order and divine justice, which could be interrupted at any time by the tempestuous abyss of chaos existing on the periphery of creation. The serpents of chaos were apt to destroy the light and order of the world as Ra in the beginning had arranged it, thus it was through the cult statue of the netjer, and the elaborate rituals and festivals that served the god's ba dwelling within, that the divine cosmic order was ensured(10).
In a contemporary view, we can see the existence of chaos as an absence of Ma'at, which means the proper order of things as established by the Creator God during the creation of our world. Part of this Ma'at, this cosmic order and divine justice, are the presences of the netjeru or gods through Whom the work of creation expands and continues. It is the maintenance of creation that formed the backbone of the Egyptian cosmological view, which was pantheistic and polytheistic(11), and central to this view are the netjeru Who in themselves comprise aspects of the created world(12).
It is because of their very natures, so closely bound with the creation of the world and its inhabitants, that the Gods of Kemet have the ability to ensure that such a world continues to exist. In ancient times, it was the King of Egypt, partly human and partly divine, who had the ability to straddle both worlds (human and divine), commune with the Gods, and thus entreat them to maintain their presence in the material world(13). Ideally speaking, it was the King of Egypt who performed the vital role of officiant of the daily cult ritual through which the netjer was served and nourished with the appropriate cultic offerings(14). These are the offerings that maintain the ties between the divine and human worlds, that create a bond of reciprocal service between humankind and its gods. This is the food of Ma'at that sustains the cosmic order and allows the mortal world to exist, and at its core is the ritually awakened image of the netjer, the cult image that keeps a portion of the divine essence here at work in our world.
Today that world is a very different place from the sheltered fertility of the Nile Valley, where the ancient Egyptians raised massive stone temples as houses for the Gods on earth. No longer are the netjeru worshiped in lavish state-supported rites in sanctuaries sustained by a vast royal largesse. Ancient cult images were fashioned from solid gold and semi-precious stones in the royal workshops of immense temple estates. These, too, are gone. However, the Gods remain, as They have always remained, in times of plenty and deprivation, through feast or famine...in faithful times or unregenerate. When the Gods' names are spoken, when the ancient prayers are intoned and the ritual gestures bestowed, the netjeru listen, as They are apt to listen when the best foot of humankind is put forward. Perhaps the solid gold, jewel encrusted cult statues are gone, but when an artisan uses the traditional deity forms and symbols to create a place of habitation for the spiritual essence of a netjer, and that image is awakened according to the ancient sacred texts and prayers, that god or goddess will invariably take notice and receive what is offered. At least that is my experience as a Kemetic iconographer. In ancient times the netjeru had no shortage of prayers, offerings and cult images to sustain Their active presence in the human community, but the same cannot be said of today. Yet there are communities and solitary Kemetics (followers of the ancient Egyptian religion) reestablishing the ancient rites and worship of the netjeru in the current era, who are revivifying the use of sacred images in our relationship with these ancient gods. The old forms, symbols and hieroglyphs are having new life breathed into them, and are finding renewed meaning in religion today. My own work as an iconographer seeks to renew the importance of the cult image in the creation of icon panels which "house" two-dimensional images of the netjeru, these being grounded in authentic, ancient models of representation, though without directly copying any individual example from ancient times. The Egyptians had time-honored ways of representing their gods in both two and three-dimensional works. Though changes may sometimes be too subtle for the non-specialist to recognize, there were changes in the iconography of Egypt's gods throughout the millennia of Pharaonic civilization. However, the most characteristic aspects of a deity's identifying attributes were always retained, as it was always the purpose of an image to draw the power of a deity into that image, to have the image and the deity be as closely linked as was possible. The linking of a netjer and the two-dimensional image made to represent it is my primary goal as a Kemetic iconographer. Some of the materials may have changed, but the purpose and function have not. Icon panels such as those that I create were not used in the temples of the netjeru in ancient times. The closest items we have are wooden stelae (round-topped devotional objects inscribed with dedicatory prayers and images of a netjer. More commonly made of stone, but wooden examples have come down to us) that were plastered and painted and consecrated as offerings to the Gods. My icon panels are not merely offerings to the Gods (though they can and do embody this aspect of devotion also), but are, in the tradition of cult images, embodiments of a netjer's ba or visible power(15). Their purpose, then, is to be installed in a modern shrine or temple space that has been consecrated to the cultus (or shetau, 'mysteries', in ancient Egyptian) of the netjeru, where the icon will receive offerings, ritual worship and prayer, and become the focal point of a group's or individual's veneration of the netjer today. The icon as cult image is a lens bringing into focus the power and physical presence of the deity, for just as the netjeru have more invisible, spiritual aspects, They most certainly have visible aspects(16), and Their most visible aspect in the temple environment is the cult image or cult statue. When I craft an icon, my intention is to allow the ba or visible power of the netjer to be experienced directly by the viewer. It is through this experience that the viewer is able to make contact with the deity, and thus establish a link between themselves and the Divine Power residing in the icon. Through this intimate link, it is possible for us to maintain in our own world the spark of the sacred world, which in the faith of the ancient Egyptians was the way in which the cosmic order Ma'at was secured, thereby keeping chaos at bay.
Notes 1) Meekes, Dimitri and Favard-Meeks, Christine. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. London, 1993, pp. 19-22. 2) Ibid., pp. 20. 3) Ibid., pp 19. 4) Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London, 1992, pp. 218. 5) Ibid., pp. 121. 6) Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. London, 2000, pp. 24-25. 7) Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY, 2011, pp. 43-46. See also Shafer, Byron E. “Temples, Priests, and Rituals: An Overview” in Temples of Ancient Egypt, Edited by Byron E. Shafer. New York. Pp. 7-8. 8) Dunand, Françoise & Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Gods and Men in Egypt. New York, 2004, pp. xii. 9) Teeter, Ibid. 10) Meekes, Ibid., pp. 126-129. 11) Lorton, David. "The Theology of Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt" in Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East, Edited by Michael B. Dick. Indiana, 1999, pp. 123. 12) Meekes, Ibid., pp. 53-54. 13) Wilkinson. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Pp. 86-89. 14) David, Rosalie. A Guide to Religious Ritual at Abydos. England, 1981, pp. 5. Also pp. 58. 15) Teeter, Ibid. 16) Meekes, Ibid., pp. 53-60.