Living In A World of Symbols With Adriano Bulla/ Part 5
NOTE: This feature first appeared on the Icons of Kemet Blogger blog on March 12, 2015
As you know, Coleridge would have agreed with you that a way of knowing the Divine, possibly the best way we have as Humans, is through symbolism. I was admiring, for example, Bast the Light-Bringer, could you explain how it makes us closer to the Divine and its symbolism?
Firstly, I think it's important for me to say that this icon, Bast the Light-Bringer, was conceived as a
tribute to Lady Olivia Robertson, co-founder of The Fellowship of Isis, who passed away in 2013. She was an extraordinary spiritual teacher and mentor to me, and when I heard the news that she had passed, the first thought that struck me was an image of the Goddess Bast standing with Her golden Sistrum in front of the holy Ished Tree, the sacred Persea Tree. Lady Olivia had a special relationship with Bast, so I believe that's why I was tuning in to the Goddess at that time.
As for how it makes us closer to the Divine...this icon, an icon in general, I'd have to answer that it depends on your perspective, whether or not you as a viewer are receptive to the kind of energy or messages being conveyed by the icon. One aspect of my work that I constantly need to address, an aspect that I think is unique to the type of iconography I'm working with, is the fact that the religious culture I'm honoring is believed by most people to be an extinct one.
People see images of Egyptian deities, images of gods and goddesses and hieroglyphs, and they immediately think oh, Egyptian mythology. So, even though I'm classifying my work as iconography, as religious work, people on the whole aren't used to thinking of ancient Egyptian images as being sacred, as being objects of worship or devotion. For most people, ancient Egyptian religion is just that, ancient, past tense, something that belongs in the archaeological remnants of a dead pagan culture. People are saturated with images of Tutankhamun's treasures, mummies, pyramids, et cetera, and for them ancient Egypt is a curiosity, a historical fascination, not something that's the source of valid spiritual fulfillment. For the majority of people, the images of Egypt's deities are just so many idols, figments of a pagan past and its false gods.
An important part of what I'm striving to do is revive the connection humankind once had with its
original and ancient gods, prior to the advent of monotheism and rise of Christianity. Polytheism is far older than monotheism, and the gods of Egypt, the netjeru, were worshiped for much longer than monotheism has existed. A very significant part of the practice of Kemetic or ancient Egyptian polytheism, and the same can be said for other Near Eastern cultures, is the emphasis placed on cult images, images that allowed a portion of the deity's essence to remain active in the temple environment where humankind could have access to it.
The same kinds of cult images, using the same kinds of iconography, remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years, and this means that those symbols, signs and deity forms had a tremendous build up of power in them. That power, that sacred blessing is still active in those forms today, and I see my job as an iconographer as that of accessing that power and blessing in the current era, where more and more people are rekindling the ancient polytheistic faiths of humankind...through reconstructionism and neo-paganism.
So, what value does Bast the Light-Bringer have? How can it make us closer to the Divine? If you can accept that the Gods still have something to say to humankind, if you can see the validity of an ancient religion remaining as an active and living presence in our world, then my icons can be a refuge and a source of empowerment. I believe that my icons send out a strong message declaring that the Gods have not abandoned us, nor have they lost a connection with the human soul. The Gods are living presences in creation, in our material world, and they speak to us, flirt with us, give signs to us, and continue to court our love and devotion. They bring us healing, love, the gift of life itself...they are ever-present and omnipresent.
Something that continually emerges in my work is this struggle between order and chaos, light and dark, life and death that becomes a foundation for the symbolism at play in my icons. I always begin at this place where the netjer, the deity is rising up as a challenge to the forces at work against creation. I think this is something one finds very prevalent in Kemetic, ancient Egyptian iconography. The entire experiment in ancient Egypt was to preserve the cosmic order, Ma'at, that had been established at the time the world was created. All the temples were a stronghold for Ma'at, where the precise order of ritual actions was maintained as a form of spiritual technology to guard against asfet or chaos.
In Bast the Light-Bringer we see the Goddess standing in front of the Ished Tree at dawn. This was
the time of day when, according to the solar mythos, the Sun-God Ra was reborn after His great nocturnal struggle against the serpent-demon Apep. It was at dawn when the blood of Apep was spilled across the eastern sky, which reads as the bright pink stain spreading through the heavens just at sunrise. We see the primary scenario in this mythos taking place at the base of the Ished Tree, where the Book of Coming Forth By Day, Pert-em-hru...the so-called Book of the Dead...tells us that the Great Tomcat dispatches the demonic serpent with his knife. But we know that the Goddess Bast was also associated with the Great Tomcat, and that is the association I am making here. Instead of decapitating Apep with a knife, I have given the Tomcat long silver nails, which pin down and slice through the scales of the serpent.
You will notice that the back foot of the Goddess is shown stamping on the tail of the serpent-demon, and this is, of course, the working of magic. Images in the Kemetic tradition are a form of shaping reality...like we discussed before, they are a means of actually changing or impacting the material world. They aren't just for decoration, and the symbols used in sacred images aren't just visual placeholders for ideas. Divine symbols hold a literal reality, a magical force that has its own independent life; so, if one depicts a chaotic being...one that has the ability to disrupt the creation process, one must disarm that image through the use of more powerful images or symbols against it. That's why one finds images of Apep or vipers or other noxious creatures pinned down with staves or knives.
The Ished Tree is the sacred tree of Ra at Annu or Heliopolis, upon whose leaves were written the names and regnal years of all the kings of Egypt. In this instance, the presence of the Ished Tree embodies the proper order of life in the cosmos, the divine order or Ma'at established by Ra. In a manner of speaking it also represents the Sun-God Ra Himself, and that's indicated by the raised reliefs of some of the leaves, which I've gilded with 22 karat gold. Gold is always solar in my icons...it represents the skin of the Sun-God, His indestructible nature.
It was important for me to include birds in this icon, not only as symbols of life, the power of life to overcome death, but also as symbols of the Sun-God, Whom Lady Bast is representing, of course. These are the menets, swallows or martins, which stand in the prow of the night barque of the Sun-God, and hail His triumphant progress against chaotic night. I have one swallow facing right, and one facing left; these being the directions of west and east respectively.
The root of Bast's name is 'bas', an ointment jar, so it would appear that the name Bast or Bastet means something like 'She of the ointment jar'; that's just one interpretation, of course. I decided to place a 'bas' jar in the Ished Tree as a representation of Bast's name, but also as an embodiment of Her power, Her fiery nature, which has always been very solar...associated with Ra the Sun-God. Bast is called the 'Eye of Ra', and in this She takes upon Herself the role of the destructive or defensive power of Ra, which shoots out as fire to incinerate the enemies of the Sun-God. I have been very faithful here in my depiction of the hieroglyph for ointment jar, which is modeled after a specific type of alabaster jar with its tightly sealed lid.
Bastet was originally a lioness goddess, in the pyramid age when She manifested as something quite ferocious and warlike. I wanted to include that defensive, protective character of Hers in this icon; however, I didn't want that to predominate, because the purpose of this icon is to summon the much more benign aspects of the Goddess, Her qualities as a compassionate source of motherly protection. I wanted to...oh, I guess you could say tone down...those wrathful characteristics She has as a lioness, as the Eye of Ra. I have the smaller scene of the Great Tomcat slaying Apep, which I felt was sufficient to honor the very ancient warlike character of Bast.
Later on, Bast's association with the domestic cat came to dominate Her iconography, and
because that's the aspect of Her that contemporary devotees gravitate towards, I felt guided from the beginning to depict Bast in Her cat form. Always pushing this icon in the solar direction, you'll notice that I gave the Goddess orange colored fur, which one sees in traditional Egyptian images of domestic cats. Of course, I used lapis lazuli in the stripes of Her headdress, which are solar, once again, linking Bast to the indestructible celestial qualities of Her father Ra. This intimate relationship with Ra is really spelled out in the presence of the large Wedjat Eye, its falcon talon reaching out to exchange a blessing of power with the Goddess. The Wedjat Eye is always used as a symbol of solar power, and in this instance it is used to denote the creative power of Ra as the originator of the cosmos.
Bast the Light-Bringer, I call Her, and we find in this icon two very significant sources of that light. Firstly, the Goddess carries upon Her head the disk or face of the Sun, which the Egyptians used as a determinative for the name of Ra. In fact, the name of Ra can be written with just the solar disk, having a dot in the center. Can one even miss the sumptuous Indian star ruby I've placed in the center?!
Surrounding the star ruby, and very nearly filling up the inside space of this sun disk, is a sixteen-petalled rosette representing the corolla of the sacred lotus flower, a symbol of the solar creation and of the rebirth of the Sun-God at dawn. We find this design usually associated with statues of the lioness goddess Sekhmet, where it covers the nipples of Her breasts. But it is the opinion of some scholars that this floral design is solar in nature, which means that it's association is with Ra and the reborn sun, so that is how I've used it in this icon. That meaning is further emphasized by the two rearing cobras that flank the sun disk, these, of course, being badges of the Sun-God's power to preserve the cosmic order and destroy His enemies. Their eyes are ruby-colored Austrian crystals.
Foremost of Bast's symbols...really, the primary symbol used in all ancient images of the
Goddess...is the Sistrum, which the Egyptians called sesheshet, a ceremonial rattle beloved of the Gods. This is a highly charged ritual object used first and foremost by chantresses or priestess singers in the temples. Bast seems to have been associated with music and the joy it brings from almost the beginning of Her iconography, and for me She is inseparable from it; so, in my icon of Her I've used the Sistrum as an embodiment of Her power and the light She brings. Notice how the multi-colored flames shoot out from the base of the rattle and writhe upward. You can think of these also as music, as the sacred power being produced as the Goddess flicks Her wrist back and forth to create the rattling sound. This rush of energy and movement is indicated by the forward tilt of the Sistrum in Bast's hand, instead of standing upright. To emphasize this feeling of energetic movement, the flames jumping up from the Sistrum handle are shown dancing this way and that, curling up and twisting around in the sky.
I have not forgotten two of the other important symbols of Bast, which are the menat necklace and the aegis or sacred shield. The menat is a heavily beaded ritual object closely associated with the adoration of goddesses such as Hathor and Bast, and was used as a form of rattle, having a counterweight at one end that was held by priestesses. Bast holds a menat decorated with golden lotus leaves and a sixteen-petalled rosette, in the center of which I have placed a ruby-colored Austrian crystal. Two strings of beads connect the menat to the aegis-shield, which has at its center a tiny image of Bast as a lioness, paying tribute to Her roots, as it were.