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Photo Essay: Evolution of A Goddess, My Journey to Birth Sekhmet Who Incinerates the Rebels (Part 1)



An original Kemetic icon

By Master Iconographer Ptahmassu K.M. Nofra-Uaa.


5"x7" museum conservation wood panel.


Genuine mineral pigments used as watercolor: garnet, hematite, jadeite, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, amazonite.


22kt yellow gold, 23kt rose gold, platinum, copper.


Meteoric glass (Libya), Citrine (Madagascar), bastnasite (Pakistan), ruby (India), Mohave copper turquoise, carnelian, black spinel (India).


Lead crystal (Austria).


The Akem-Shield of Sekhmet Who Incinerates the Rebels was completed on New Moon Day, February 20, 2023, the day before my birthday, after a journey of more than two years in production. This is a superfluous amount of time for such a little panel, I hear you say. What took so long? I never really know what I'm in for when I initiate the birthing of an icon, despite the length and depth of my vocation as an iconographer. Somehow the Gods keep such knowledge veiled from me until it's too late for me to do anything about it; I'm already neck deep in a process that's dauntingly technical- involving multiple mediums and skillsets- and challenging on the cultic, priestly front. Viewers can immediately see those technical aspects of my profession, the use of mediums and materials, colors, textures, highlights and shadows, and the assembly of all these components to arrive at a recognizable image; but the craft of the iconographer does not begin or end in the studio with paint and gold and precious stones. The iconographer is a magician (often in a literal sense) whose craft entails the manipulation of material substances into sacred forms possessed by the Sacred. Our profession begins with cult or cultus, religious engagement through which the God/Gods to be embodied are brought directly into the process of manifesting an earthly image reflecting and magnifying a numinous reality.


Cult images- the craft of the iconographer- are never art as the modern tradition knows it. They

aren't personal expressions of an artist's unique experience intended for public display in secular situations or institutions. Cult images, true cult images, are the outcome of a complex spiritual process navigated by the craftsperson and the deity being depicted, a process often involving prayer, ritual, offering and sacrifice, pilgrimage, and installation in a sacred space given over wholly to structured religious engagement. Cult images never represent the personality or experiences of the individual artist, but rather the cultural ethos and sacred framework through which each deity expresses itself in the material world. Cult images might be birthed in the world with very earthly substances, but they are not truly of the world; once handed over to the deity for possession, they cease to be representations of the material world and instead behave as lenses, bringing into sharp focus a view of that Other World usually out of reach of mortal eyes- the World beyond the Veil.

My challenge in birthing such images is to use every tool in the iconographer's arsenal to attract the deity being embodied in the image, and then entice them to remain in the image as the patron of a specific sacred space; for cult images are never independent from their environment, being that they are the repositories of deities who have taken a vested interest in a specific cultic location or religious community, a shrine, temple or other holy area where the deity becomes the focal point for the aspirations of the human community. Without the actual presence of a deity, cultic spaces cannot come into being or flourish, and what makes cultic spaces of value to human beings is their ability to actively connect worshipers with their personal deities. In order for such connections to exist, there must be that point of contact, that place or object of alighting where the deities settle, activating a relationship from which human beings and human communities can receive internal nourishment. This is where cult images or god-images take their vital role as mediators between human and divine. The Gods enter Their images because such images reflect- through an arrangement of forms, symbols, and substances- the spiritual reality of the Numinous, and these, being acceptable to the individual deity, become the visible emanations of a deity's otherwise hidden powers in the created world.


In early May of 2017, while still at work birthing the Akem-Shield of Djehuty and the Souls of

Khmennu, I petitioned the Goddess Sekhmet via oracle to ask for Her consent to birth an akem-shield for Her; I received a "no, it's not time" response, thus went about my other work. Every so often I approached the Goddess through Her oracle to test for Her approval of the birthing and received the same emphatic answer, "no, it's not time!" But in March of 2020 things changed. The Covid-19 pandemic had hit the United States and been declared a public health emergency, and Americans were dying. On March 17 the town I live in was officially locked down as a response to the pandemic; normal life ground to a sudden halt as a town powered by casino tourism became strangely quiet and devoid of the familiar sights and sounds of our enterprise. The gravitas of the Goddess Sekhmet's presence was clearly felt, for as much as She is a source of life, healing and power, She has also been known as a bringer of plague and misfortune, a tempestuous goddess who punishes the enemies of the Gods with Her Seven Arrows. Diseases and pandemics are Her specialty. She can cure, but She can also curse.

The era of the Coronavirus pandemic and its inevitable lockdown gave birth to some challenging phenomena; trips to the grocery store to find empty shelves and long lines of shoppers overloading their carts with the leftovers; constantly wiping down household surfaces with disinfectants; compulsory hand washing; avoiding touching one's nose or mouth to lessen chances of viral transmission; social distancing, meaning staying away from other human beings as much as possible or, in rare instances of moving in public places, maintaining a minimum of six feet of space between yourself and others; masking every time one left home, and seeing most of your neighbors in masks when out and about.

But this era also gave birth, quite appropriately, to an even greater closeness with a goddess to whom we were already especially close. Sekhmet came to dominate our daily devotions and religious observances as associates came down with the virus and news of its devastating effects proliferated. A beloved member of our extended priestly family finally succumbed to his lengthy battle with bone and prostate cancer. His wife, shocked with grief and nursing a serious heart condition, had a massive heart attack and was hospitalized. On Mother's Day (May 10, 2020), a neighbor's house burst into violent flames and exploded, urging us to pack what we could take in our Jeep and be prepared to flee at a moment's notice. Another close friend was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent laser surgery. Everywhere around us seemed to be touched with disease or trauma that had an emotional impact on my household, and yet left us personally unscathed. The awesome power of Sekhmet felt omnipresent, and when I next approached the oracle of the Goddess (in late June of 2020) to receive Her approval to birth an akem-shield for Her, the answer was an affirmative "yes, the time is NOW!"


Two patrons of my iconography practice had written me within days of one another expressing their

keen desire to have me birth a Sekhmet shield for them. Each would be a slightly different version of the Eye of Ra aspect of the Goddess, that most violent, fiery, and potentially lethal manifestation of Sekhmet sent forth from the forehead of Her father Ra to dispatch human rebels. Yet I felt instinctively that these two shields were coming into being because of the current pandemic and the tragedy of so many human lives being swallowed by it. I felt that these divine bodies of Sekhmet were being called for as a response to the pandemic, as materialized prayers to the Goddess that She would use Her terrible powers to heal and bring back from the brink of death. The pain of loss and traumatic events still so fresh in my own life seemed to be materializing in a vision of two akemu-shields wherein the violent powers of Sekhmet would be tempered by Her compassion to heal those who called out to Her in their misery. There were visions of Sekhmet as the Eye of Sun carrying the sun upon Her head, and from within that sun a sacred beetle bursting forth like a seed of immortal life.

There are aspects of my work nearly impossible for me to convey properly, and yet whose immense reach tempers each and every aspect of what I do technically (artistically) and spiritually during the processes of my vocation. One of these is initiation, a much-overused term in Pagan/polytheist/magickal communities, but one I can't avoid mentioning in an honest discussion of what I do as an iconographer. From the vantage of my work, initiation is a psychospiritual process through which the spheres of influence inhabited by the Deities and Their powers are impressed upon me via the events occurring in the physical world. By having these spheres of influence unfold before me in ways that impact my day-to-day life (and its physical, mental, and emotional conditions), I am able to tangibly enter into the states of the Numinous, to touch, taste, smell, and hear the Powers of the Gods as They manifest in creation.


Each deity has spheres of influence, areas of life in which that deity takes a particular interest, including- but not limited to- specific geographical places, timeframes, events, and the activities that take place in such. Thus, deities of all pantheons come to be known by their epithets as concerned with these activities or spheres of influence. It is through the process of initiation that my work takes form and is given its individual marks of power directly from the deity being embodied. It is only by way of this often-tumultuous process that my work can become an honest and authentic expression of the deity's being, an object that is part of the deity and the deity's spheres of influence, and thus a living expression of the deity capable of receiving veneration and dispensing boons.

Initiation also provides unique insight to the individual undergoing this process, insight into how the deities operate within the framework of the material world and its activities, and insight into how these operations impact the human condition when human beings choose to engage the Gods directly. The outcome of this process for me is that I come into understanding of the qualities of the Gods as individual manifestations of the Numinous, and, through this understanding, am able to more accurately embody the Gods in Their earthly images. Of course, human beings can never fully comprehend the Gods. We can only ever comprehend (and often not well) what the Gods choose to reveal of Themselves at any given moment, that is to say, what the Gods allow us to see, what They want us to see. Even the smallest local deity is more powerful and complex than the human mind can conceive, and our perceptions of Them are almost always colored by our own misconceptions, preferences, and predispositions. It is initiation that jolts us into an awakening experience- however temporary that might be- that brings us close enough to the Gods to see beyond our limited vantage and experience the Gods more fully than before. That is why initiation is often shocking, and at times deeply painful, as the fragile human ego is overcome by that which is more comprehensive, vaster than our own perceived position at the center of everything.


Concerning the Goddess Sekhmet, initiation meant being ever in the eye of a storm, witness to the

effects of disease and human suffering taking place around me without those things happening to me; close enough to feel the intense heat without being directly scorched. Initiation began at the time of the Covid crisis, through the fear and uncertainty of lockdown, as peers and associates battled Coronavirus or fought for relations that were. Even before I made a single mark on a panel, the Akemu-Shields of Sekhmet were manifesting in the ether through the force of my prayers to the Goddess, and my anxieties over what direction the pandemic would take or who it would take next. All of my icons have manifested through circumstance, that is, personal experience that provoked my receptivity to a specific deity's powers and spheres of influence; a period of heightened awareness compelling me to understand how the Gods work through and manipulate circumstances in the material world. Thus, each era of an icon's birthing is defined by the qualities encompassed by the deity I'm embodying in the image. Colors, textures, metals, stones, moments of prayer and pilgrimage, the appearance of specific stars in a specific location; all of these being part and parcel of a deity taking custodianship of my experiences as an iconographer, pushing me to craft the perfect body for the era in which we live now.


It must be understood that my work is not and never has been an exercise in historical reenactment or literal reconstruction of the past. Both of these have little to no value for me personally. If the Gods exist (and my whole life's experience has proven to me that They do), then They exist in the here and now, and They are available to us in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Engaging Them directly as part of a framework of traditional cultus naturally harmonizes with a specific ethos and cultural experience of the Numinous, thus the vitality of the historical record in which cultic precedent is laid out, and acts as a sound springboard for how we approach the Gods in sacred space.


I would never suggest ignoring the rich traditions of the past, for these are the keys to unlocking the intimate experience of religious engagement in accordance with the specific tastes of individual deities, and these the Gods most certainly have. There is a powerful dignity in bowing the urges of our egos to the service of the Gods as expressed so eloquently in the words and actions of the Ancients, Who have bequeathed to us a millenniums-old record demonstrating how the Gods desire to be engaged by human beings. We ignore these to our detriment. However, we must also see- if our desire is to experience the moment of religion as a constantly applicable framework to our everyday lives- that the Gods respond to the human condition as it changes and evolves, and that traditions must likewise adapt and change in order to facilitate the current state of humankind's evolution; otherwise, religion becomes nothing more than a mummery of the past for its own sake, an outdated fancy devoid of staying power as we face the realities of life in the modern world.


Therefore, I regard my work as the continuance of a tradition without pretending to be a literal copy

of its past. I work from the understanding that the Gods desire engagement with Their devotees in the here and now, that the Gods are receiving cultus in situations far removed from the Nilotic origins of Their ancient cultus, and that certain aspects of traditional cultus might not be applicable to the contemporary world or might require adaptions in certain details. At the end of the day my work must satisfy right relationship with the Gods, which in its essence means that the Gods are receiving what They want from those who want to receive Their boons. In terms of birthing cult images, this means that specific materials and processes must be provided in order for the deity to accept and take up residence in an image presenting itself as the deity. Without the fulfillment of these, the deity might very well reject the image, refusing to take up residence in it, and a cult image without a resident deity is not a cult image at all, but a bauble for show without any divine power in it.


It took me more than two years of work and thousands of hours to complete the birthing of the Akem-Shield of Sekhmet Who Incinerates the Rebels. Many of these hours were spent in the taxing technical aspects of the project, composing the under drawing, building up bas-reliefs with gesso, gilding, coloration, and finally the setting of precious and semi-precious stones in the image. But, as previously stated, my work as an iconographer is much more than these technical aspects, however significant they might be. What makes a cult image a cult image is its possession by the deity its form emulates; the deity must instill the image with its own unique spark of divine life. While the ancient Mouth Opening Ritual is conducted upon the image for this very reason, that ritual is only the final ritual act in a complex series of sacred acts stretching back to the beginning of the image's existence, even before work on the actual physical image is initiated. Every stage of my work is governed by specific prayers paired with each step of the work; pilgrimage with the image in progress to natural holy sites indicated by the deity, observance of specific numbers of monthly lunar and stellar festivals, specific numbers of offerings composed of specific substances acceptable to the deity, the recitation of specific prayers over the image a specific number of times, the participation of the image in specific ritual celebrations being offered for other resident cult images. All of these acts contribute to the empowerment and gradual development of the god-image into a fully-fledged cult image acceptable to the deity. Such a process also ensures that the image is impregnated with the magical powers corresponding to its intended ritual/ cultic use.








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