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Photo Essay: Walking With the Virile One/On Pilgrimage With the Akem-Shield of Khnum-Ptah-Tatenen

Updated: Jul 6


The Akem-Shield of Khnum-Ptah-Tatenen and the Egg of Creation was completed on Saturday, March 20, 2021 at 2:25 PM (MST), the day of the Spring Equinox, the day before dnit or first-quarter day- bringing an end to nearly 11 months of painstaking labor and intense ritual work. There are those who might innocently assume that what I do is stand at an easel all day, paint brush in one hand and prayer beads in the other, blissfully painting devotional art until my heart is content. Alas, if only! My work is not about self-fulfillment, nor is it about the creation of devotional art with the focus of helping human beings feel better about their place in the universe. What I do is tear a hole in the veil between the Numinous and the material, and then, ever so precariously, catch the Numinosity that spills out in a vessel that can act as a vehicle for the Divine within the human sphere. For cult images (sekhemu) are not art; they do not serve to express an individual human's emotions or experiences, nor do they serve to satisfy a human aesthetic. They are not decoration. They do not serve even as inspiration of higher ideals. Cult images in the Kemetic sense serve as alighting places for the bas of the Netjeru, that is to say, the spiritual essences of the Gods that pass between spheres of influence and can come to dwell in material images maintained in sacred spaces.


The cult image is literally the physical manifestation or appearance of the god, the visible aspect of the deity human beings can engage and interact with. Being fashioned from precious materials held sacred by a deity, and made with the attributes shown over time to be favored by the deity, a cult image is awakened- through a complex series of ritual actions and offerings- to an interior spark of divine life, the vital essence of a deity's personality, which is installed in a specially prepared sacred space, and remains there as long as the deity residing in the image is fed through sustained cultus. The entire purpose of a cult image is the maintenance of right relationship between the Gods and humankind, the continuity of which assures that human beings and the Gods will continue the ongoing work of creation together. It is through the proper awakening and maintenance of the sekhem that sacred space- temple or shrine- and the religious community remain vitally linked to the Gods from which the community draws its spiritual and material sustenance.


Cult images do not just spring up out of nowhere fully formed and ready to go; like an egg in the mother's womb they must be fertilized and nurtured, fed as they develop, and allowed to grow over the right period of time. They are not inanimate objects, but from their inception are manifestations of the Sacred that have already been planned by the Gods Who will dwell in them, and are sent to the earth through the hands of qualified ritual specialists. Not every image of a god is a god; only images co-created with the Gods according to specific standards of purity, materials, and cult can be acceptable vehicles for the Gods to dwell, and these can only come into being through a certain process of struggle, sacrifice, and divine cooperation.


In the late evening on June 20, 2021, the day of the Summer Solstice, just as the sun was beginning its slow descent behind the western mountains looming above the Bonneville Salt Flats of the northwestern Utah desert, we arrived on our pilgrimage with the Akem-Shield of Khnum-Ptah-Tatenen to perform the Offering Ritual for the God. The ancient Mouth Opening Ritual (Wep ra or Wen ra) had been performed upon the God's image at high noon that day, and we had brought Him out to our own holy desert where our most significant ritual offerings take place. The Bonneville Salt Flats is a natural power site stretching out beneath tawny and amber colored peaks, some of which form natural pyramids above the glistening miles of salt forming part of the ancient Lake Bonneville, of which the Great Salt Lake is the only remnant. It is here upon these naturally occurring salt deposits where every cult image I birth is sanctified and empowered through the use of traditional texts and tools, and the cooperation of our local gods and land spirits.





Lord Khnum has found Himself somewhat isolated from His natural element, as there are no lakes, rivers or bodies of water nearby, and yet tucked away in these desolate valleys and their high mountain trails are big horned desert sheep, sacred to Khnum. As He passes through the spheres of influence held by the Gods Ptah and Tatenen, Khnumuw takes upon Himself the powers of the Creator of the material world, Who manifests Himself in the pyramidal mound of the most ancient earth. We have such salty mounds in this desert, and much larger sharp-peaked mountains that shine as sunbaked pyramids above the pure white salt below. All of these wonders speak to me of the Gods, and of Their holy land of Kemet with its burning Western Desert. This is a place that seems to forbid interaction with humans, and yet a place that seems to require obeisance to the Holy Powers, and communion with the sacred stillness that predominates the desert. Here the salt and sand purify the mind, and the mountains hold an internal refuge from the frenetic energy of all cities and the business of human life. One can be left alone with one's most private thoughts, meditate on the Numinous presences that abound within the natural world, and come to venerate the ancient Gods of the lonely desert.



Pilgrimage is a constant companion to my journey as an iconographer, for sekhemu (cult images) are empowered through their proximity to the holy; their holiness must be cultivated carefully before any god will touch them, let alone enter and remain. The Gods must recognize Their images, must be drawn to them, enticed to visit and settle, and this can only be accomplished by means of strengthening the images with the natural power emanating from sacred spaces. Man-made shrines and temples possess such power, but even more so the places in nature where the Gods and Land Spirits congregate to perform Their own workings. I have found in my work that such spaces have an instant effect on budding cult images, wrapping them in the holy awe or holy terror of the natural world. This holiness can be felt in the dreaded heat and silence of the desert, where the mind and body are forced to bow to the Powers of nature, in the wind that whips up over the Salt Flats, and in the massive stillness of the mountains that cast their shadows over the lonely stretches of salt. There is fear, humility, respect, and admiration reverberating through these spaces, and in its purely indomitable nature, this land gives back the boon of holy awe through which inanimate forms are imbued with divine personality.


Pilgrimage is a constant companion to my journey as an iconographer, for sekhemu (cult images) are empowered through their proximity to the holy; their holiness must be cultivated carefully before any god will touch them, let alone enter and remain. The Gods must recognize Their images, must be drawn to them, enticed to visit and settle, and this can only be accomplished by means of strengthening the images with the natural power emanating from sacred spaces. Man-made shrines and temples possess such power, but even more so the places in nature where the Gods and Land Spirits congregate to perform Their own workings. I have found in my work that such spaces have an instant effect on budding cult images, wrapping them in the holy awe or holy terror of the natural world. This holiness can be felt in the dreaded heat and silence of the desert, where the mind and body are forced to bow to the Powers of nature, in the wind that whips up over the Salt Flats, and in the massive stillness of the mountains that cast their shadows over the lonely stretches of salt. There is fear, humility, respect, and admiration reverberating through these spaces, and in its purely indomitable nature, this land gives back the boon of holy awe through which inanimate forms are imbued with divine personality.



So we brought the Akem-Shield of Khnum-Ptah-Tatenen to the place we call the Mounds of Sutekh, a place on the Bonneville Salt Flats where numerous salt-sand mounds have sprung up in a formation creating a natural ring of ritual power. A strong wind was picking up in the north as the sun was setting in the west just behind our holiest mountain. The desert felt agitated, anticipating the completion of this journey with the Holy Ram; the holy awe was certainly present, enhanced by the yellow-orange glow emanating in the west.

When one has worked at this for as long as I have, one comes to expect such ritual events to be punctuated with signs from the Powers: Suddenly in the middle of a perfectly calm evening a fierce wind comes from the north at the moment when the liturgy praises the God as Lord of the North Wind; a dust devil appears out of nowhere as soon as the turbulent God Sutekh is hailed as Master of the desert's breath; a coyote appears just beside a main road as you go on pilgrimage to petition for the Way to be opened; a cloudy sky parts at just the opportune moment during the recitation of a liturgy lauding Ra, allowing a beam of sunlight to break through and strike a cult image precisely in its center. The Powers grant signs, They demonstrate Their presence, They engage us through the phenomena of the natural world surrounding us. Lord Khnum, being the Master of natural forces wet and dry, commanded our attention through the north wind, which rose and fell during the Offering Ritual in accordance, it seemed, with the moments the Liturgy hailed Him by name as God of natural forces. There was a palpable sense that this cult image was being taken by the God, formally received by His hand in such a way that His intense action to take possession of the sekhem resulted in the disturbance of the atmosphere around us. When all was completed- and Gods and Spirits had gorged Themselves on the lavish spread of offerings arranged on the desert floor- a dazzlingly bright Venus ascended in the western sky in the exact place where the sun had descended earlier.


There is a moment when the heavens and earth unite, when conditions above and below seem to conspire to mark an event of special significance for us, and this Summer Solstice was such a time for us as we brought to a close our part in the birthing of a new god-image. On the longest day of the year we brought the God out to meet His own reflection in the sky, the sun and the stars of the west. The wind swept fiercely over the Salt Flats, creating a haze of white salt in the air, and, being three days from Full Moon Day, the light of the moon was already gaining in intensity, and caused Lord Khnum-Ptah-Tatenen's gold and precious stones to gleam and wink out into the night. Standing there in the summer heat of the desert, looking at the God bathed in the yellow aura of the moon, we felt that the birth of this god-image was especially significant and unique; a new beginning after a year marked by so much fear and uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It's time for life to continue. It's time for life to renew itself, for our inner work to become our outer work again, for us to initiate a new cycle, either better than we had been before or a little worse for wear. Khnum-Ptah-Tatenen is the God Who rises from the depths of the dark waters to manifest and arrange creation as a divine embodiment. He is the God of rejuvenating sexual potency and procreative prowess. He is the Holy Ram encompassing the four corners of creation's attributes, the God Who takes the mud and clay of creation and, through the blast of His breath, impregnates the material world with Numinous essence. He is the Lord of Life Whose activity propels new life into being from the shells of what has expired. He is the Virile One Who plants a seed in the most unpromising desert, and brings it to fruition before our very eyes.



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