What is remembered, lives. According to the old Cairo calendar, today is the Feast of Sekhmet-Bast-Ra: Blessed be Their Names! In the 164th Chapter of The Book of the Dead, we are presented with this glorious hymn (I’m citing the Budge translation):
Homage to Thee, O Sekhmet-Bast-Ra,
Thou Mistress of the Gods, Thou bearer of wings,
Lady of the crowns of the South and of the North,
Only One, Sovereign of Her Father,
Superior to whom the Gods cannot be,
Thou Mighty One of the enchantments in the Boat of Millions of Years,
Thou who art pre-eminent,
Who risest in the seat of silence,
Mistress and Lady of the Tomb,
Mother in the Horizon of Heaven,
Gracious One, Beloved,
Destroyer of Rebellion,
Offerings are in Thy grasp,
And Thou art standing in the bows of the boat of Thy Divine Father to overthrow the Fiend.
Thou hast placed Ma’at in the bows of His boat.
Praise be to Thee, O Lady,
Who art mightier than the Gods,
And words of adoration rise to Thee from the Eight Gods of Heliopolis.
The living souls who are in their chests praise Thy mystery.
O Thou who art Their Mother, Thou Source from whom They sprang,
Who makest for Them a place of repose in the hidden underworld,
Who makest sound their bones and preservest Them from terror,
Who makest Them strong in the abode of everlastingness,
Who preservest Them from the evil chamber of the souls of the god-of-the-terrible-face who is among the company of the Gods.
‘Utchat of Sekhmet, Mighty Lady, Mistress of the Gods’ Is Thy Name.
The Ancient Egyptians and Composite Deities
The polytheism of the ancient Mediterranean world undoubtedly rubs modern peoples’ sensibilities the wrong way–whether they’re religious or not–because of the lack of absolutism that ancient peoples ascribed to their Gods. This principle of a lack of absolutism was especially true of Egyptian religious thought. As University of Pennsylvania Professor of Egyptology, David P. Silverman, explains in his essay “Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt”:
“These deities…are part of a very complicated and sophisticated set of religious beliefs. It is not possible simply to label one deity a god of one thing and another the god of something else. There were many identifications and interrelations among the members of the pantheon, but underlying this complex network of deities was a highly developed concept of the divine, one that came into being during the early stages of the ancient civilization and evolved into the doctrines upon which the religion of ancient Egypt would be based for more than three thousand years” (qtd. in Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p.7).
It was common for the ancient Egyptians to organize their Gods by family groupings. So, for example, the great Theban pantheon known as the Ogdoad had the elemental Deities Shu (Air) and Tefnut (Moisture) give birth to the more concrete Mother Sky (the celestial goddess Nut or Nuit) and Father Earth (Geb), Who, in turn, brought into being the familiar and widely worshiped Gods and Goddesses Ausar (Osiris), Aset (Isis), Set, and Nebet-Het (Nephthys).
Other family groupings included the “Holy Triad” (clearly, the Christians weren’t the first to devise the concept of a Trinity!) of Ausar, Aset, and their son Heru/Horus (not to be confused with an older hawk-headed God, distinguished as “Heru the Elder”) and the Creator God Ptah (one of many Creators, actually), His feared and revered lion-headed wife Sekhmet, and Their son Nefertem, a God of Healing. The cult center par excellence for Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem was the city of Memphis.
The fluidity of a given God’s nature and function was given expression in the idea of composite Deities, where two or more are syncretized to the extent that They are treated as one, with a compound name. And so, today’s great Feast Day celebrated both a family grouping–as Sekhmet and Bast are both Daughters of Ra, His Two Eyes manifest in the world of humanity–and a syncretization, with Sekhmet-Bast-Ra addressed in the hymn above as a composite female Deity (the attributes are overwhelmingly those of Sekhmet).
I Just Love My Sun God, He’s Always Such a Fun God! Ra! Ra! Ra!
Not surprisingly, since the sun was the most obvious symbol of vitality, light, and regeneration to the ancient Egyptians, Ra was apparently the most common solar Deity, and He was often syncretized or amalgamated with other Gods to form such new Gods as Ra-Horakhty (meaning “Ra-Horus of the Two Horizons”) or Amun-Ra (the “Almighty in Heka, Ra”). Or He could be split into different Deities to denote specific times of day, as the morning sun is different from the midday sun, which is different from the setting sun. According to Silverman, the beetle-headed Khepri took the form of the solar orb in the morning, sailing across the heavens in His boat, Millions of Years; Ra took the form of the midday sun, representing virility and strength, and Atum claimed the setting sun (“Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt,” p. 36). Whatever His name/aspect, Ra in the evening had helpful Gods with Him–including the God Set–aboard His boat of Millions of Years to assist in the nightly battle with the dreaded, demonic serpent Apep (Apophis to the Greeks), who tried to bar Ra’s passage through the Underworld. Brown University Professor of Egyptology, Leonard H. Lesko, notes in his essay “Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology” that this myth of the Apep serpent striving to swallow the sun attests to the ancient Egyptians’ astronomical familiarity with and religious dread of the phenomenon of solar eclipses (qtd. in Religion in Ancient Egypt, p.119).
When it came to understanding the realm of the dead, the deceased could either hope to dwell in the happy chthonic realms of Ausar, presuming his or her heart was weighed favorably at Judgment, or in a solar sphere presided over by Ra (Silverman 46). In the latter case, the deceased would be identified with Ra Himself (just as in the former case, the deceased is identified with Ausar), would journey on the boat of Millions of Years in the company of the other Gods, enter the Underworld every night at sunset, fight with and triumph over the forces of izfet (evil understood as disorder, the opposite of the divine order, stability, and truth represented by the concept of ma’at) during the 12 hours of night, and experience rebirth with each new sunrise (Silverman 46). Silverman explains:
“In the two gods Osiris and Re is manifest the Egyptians’ understanding of a dual eternal existence, one related to Osiris and reflecting his infinite everlasting existence, and one related to Re and reflecting his cyclical rejuvenation” (“Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt,” 46).
In Volume 1 of his seminal work The Gods of the Egyptians, E.A. Wallis Budge translates a lovely hymn to Ra from the Papyrus of Nekht, sheet 21; it’s something I as a Chicagoan definitely will keep top of mind now that we’ve experienced an earlier-than-normal onset of winter!
“The company of the gods rejoice at thy rising, the earth is glad when it beholdeth thy rays; the peoples that have been long dead come forth with cries of joy to see thy beauties every day. Thou goest forth each day over heaven and earth and art made strong each day by thy mother Nut. Thou passest through the heights of heaven, thy heart swelleth with joy; and the Lake of Testes is content thereat. The Serpent-fiend hath fallen, his arms are hewn off, the knife hath cut asunder his joints. Ra liveth by Ma’at the beautiful. The Sektet boat draweth on and cometh into port; the South and the North, the West and the East turn to praise thee, O thou primeval substance of the earth who didst come into being of thine own accord. Isis and Nephthys salute thee, they sing unto thee songs of joy at thy rising in the boat, they protect thee with their hands. The souls of the East follow thee, the souls of the West praise thee. Thou art the ruler of all the gods, and thou hast joy of heart within thy shrine, for the serpent fiend Näk hath been condemned to the fire, and thy heart shall be joyful for ever.”
Honoring Sekhmet-Bast-Ra Today
My shrine to Sekhmet-Bast-Ra can be found in my temple room against the southern wall. It is the most elevated of the shrines that I have in that room. For morning devotionals, I like to offer frankincense; in the evenings, kyphi. Fresh flowers of some variety–usually red or gold for the solar associations–are always present. Sekhmet loves offerings of meat (gyros, typically, which are certainly easy to procure in Chicago) and strong beer. Bast, as a refined Goddess of Pleasure, loves fancy chocolates and chocolate liqueurs–you can’t go wrong with Godiva in either case. Ra’s statue gets anointed with essential oils; I’m fond of bergamot for its apotropaic qualities when I pray to Ra for protection of my person and warding of my home.
I ward my space by invoking the Four Sons of Heru (Heru the Elder, not the Son of Aset and Ausar) in Their cardinal directions and elemental associations (Hapi in the South for Water, Qebshennuf in the East for Fire, Duamautef in the North for Earth, and Imseti in the West for Air). I invoke Khnum and Ptah as fellow Creator Gods, and specifically because Ptah is the husband of Sekhmet; Ptah is also said to really be responsive to peoples’ prayers. (In an archaeological excavation at Saqqara, Egypt, amulets of ears dating from the New Kingdom period were excavated near statues of Ptah.)
This is my invocation to Ptah:
Hail to Thee, the One Who Roared at the Time of Beginning,
The One Who Commanded Through His Words!
Hail the Great Apis Bull, the Ba of Ptah on Earth!
Lightning-Born One, Wielder of the Staff of Life! Of Health!
Bestower of Virility of Gods, Animals, People, and the Land!
Glorious Soul, be with me as I declare what I wish to put into action on this earth.
Essence of the creative force indwelling in all things,
Consort to Sekhmet, father of Nefertum,
You teach me that words have power—may I use that power with discernment as I call
New visions for myself—My Highest Self—into being.
You who performed the Opening of the Mouth with your sacred adze, forged in iron,
May You part me from all illusion, all self-deception, all falsehood, and render me True of Voice
That I may approach You and Your Awesome, Dreadful Wife with purity and peace!
Open my Mouth, Great Ptah! May I be blessed and my Mouth and Ways Opened!
With pleasing eyes, accept my offerings of this life-giving water, this bread, and this blade,
A representation of your adze.
May I hear you say,
‘With the sacred adze I open your mouth so that breath and utterances may flow forth.’
And in turn, may You be rejuvenated as I behold Your beauty and power, Your sekhem,
Grow strong in life through my love of You!
A net’-hra-k Mesedjer-Sedjem!
Honor to You, the Ear that Hears!
I then recite the 164th Chapter of The Book of the Dead, the Hymn to Sekhmet-Bast-Ra given at the beginning of this post.
And then, invariably, something ecstatic will happen. Having a working relationship with Deities means that you’re willing to surrender yourself to Mystery, and that can’t be written about or even subject to discursive thinking; it can only be experienced, and then you walk your path differently–transformed, empowered–as a result. Suffice it to say, music and dance are often facilitators of the opening of the roads to ecstasy, and this is when, as Priestess of Bast, I invite Her energies to overtake me fully. Whatever dances I perform are given to Bast as a sacred offering (this is a practice I do frequently for the god Set also). More food offerings are given and I partake of my portion in communion with Sekhmet-Bast-Ra.
Before offering my prayers of thanksgiving and preparing to conclude my rite, I do divination to see if my prayers and sacrifices have been accepted by the Gods. It’s a means of touching base with Their energy currents–are They pleased with what’s transpired? How are They viewing me? Is there something additional I can offer to satiate Them if They’re not satisfied? I tend to rely on Murray Hope’s Cartouche Cards, drawing either one or three cards to get the Deities’ perspectives on the whole affair.
Honoring Sekhmet-Bast-Ra invites us to walk our paths of devotion–in my case, ordained priestesshood–in a sprit of power, pleasure, and peace. Sa Sekhem Sahu!