The Feast of Sekhmet-Bast-Ra: Composite Deities in Ancient Egypt

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):

The campsite shrine I erected to Sekhmet, Bast, and Ra at this year's Pagan Spirit Gathering, held the week of Summer Solstice here in Illinois. Everyone was welcome to join me in my daily devotionals or pray in the shrine in solitude.

The campsite shrine I erected to Sekhmet, Bast, and Ra at this year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering, held the week of Summer Solstice here in Illinois. Everyone was welcome to join me in my daily devotionals or pray in the shrine in solitude.

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).

Shu (Air) upholds the Sky Goddess Nut, who arches over Her husband, Geb, God of the Earth. Gods like Thoth are cruisin' in celestial boats in the periphery.

Shu (Air) upholds the Sky Goddess Nut, who arches over Her husband, Geb, God of the Earth. Gods like Thoth are cruisin’ in celestial boats in the periphery.

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!

A separate campsite shrine I erected at this year's Pagan Spirit Gathering prominently featured Ra. The statue was handmade in Egypt.

A separate campsite shrine I erected at this year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering prominently featured Ra, Who was often depicted as a hawk-headed man. The statue was handmade in Egypt.

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).

Set skewering Apep on behalf of Ra, seated in Millions of Years

Set skewering Apep on behalf of Ra, seated in Millions of Years

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

Detail of my main altar to Sekhmet, Bast, Ra at a public ritual I conducted at this year's Pagan Spirit Gathering.

Detail of my main altar to Sekhmet, Bast, Ra at a public ritual I conducted at this year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering.

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!

Hail, Ptah!

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!

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6 thoughts on “The Feast of Sekhmet-Bast-Ra: Composite Deities in Ancient Egypt

    • Thank you!

      Oh yes, there is always musical accompaniment to my dances for the Kemetic Neteru. Depending on Who I’m presenting the dance as a devotional offering to, the musical selection will certainly vary in style and tempo. The music of contemporary Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy has many wonderful belly dance albums with selections I’ve found Bast, Sekhmet, and Nebet-Het to greatly enjoy. Ramzy’s two-disc 1997 album “Rhythms of the Nile” presents a great overview of contemporary belly dance music and its ancient world antecedents in rhythms; for example, the track “Zaar” is an homage to the “spooky” (to use Ramzy’s term) drum rhythms played for the dead.

      I also highly recommend Ali Jihad Racy’s album “Ancient Egypt,” which uses traditional Middle Eastern instruments from antiquity in a glorious tribute to the Kemetic Hosts and The Book of the Dead. The final track, #8, on that album is my favorite; despite its chthonic title of “The Triumph of the Deceased,” it is a sprightly, delightfully danceable tune. I dance that one for various Gods–Khnum really digs it!

      The 2006 album by Gerald Jay Markoe entitled “Meditation Music of Ancient Egypt” can be a wonderful thing to have softly playing in the background during your rites or solitary/group meditation, but I also tend to use track #3, “Sacred Ceremony,” as a piece to dance to as a devotional offering, either when I’m demarcating the Sacred Space set up by the Four Pillars/Children of Heru or giving praise to Heru Himself.

      Culturally straying a bit, I love dancing to Balinese gamelan music and offering my dances to Sobek, as for many years I’ve been operating under the personal gnosis that Alligator and Crocodile, my Spirit Animals, love to dance to gamelan chimes. My favorite album in this genre is called “Between Heaven & Earth: Traditional Gamelan Music of Bali,” and someday I’m going to choreograph and publicly perform, as a devotional act, the ritualized combat I envision whenever I dance to track #2, “Gamelan Semar Pegulingan Saih Pitu.” It’s EPIC!

      Lastly, lusty Set LOVES some good Norwegian Progressive Black Metal, as I’ve discovered, and He *immensely* enjoys it when I thrash for His pleasure (sweat flung from my person onto His statue is well-received) in my temple room, especially to Enslaved’s title song from their album “Riitiir.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll have to check out the Ramzy and Racy albums you mentioned; they sound like excellent choices! I really enjoy the belly dance albums of George Abdo and his Flames of Araby Orchestra from the 1970s. I’m not an expert on that style of music by any means and I don’t really know what counts as “good” or “bad” belly dance music, but I know what I like, and I like that material. It especially makes me think of Ishtar.

        Have you ever listened to Karl Sanders’ Saurian Meditations and Saurian Exorcisms? Sanders usually plays in the death metal band Nile, but these two albums consist of instrumental Egyptian-style “darkwave” music that you might enjoy (if you don’t already). I highly recommend them!

        And yes, I totally understand Seth’s appreciation for Norwegian black metal! There’s been many a Sabbath when we’d crack out a Bathory or Emperor album for Him and just thrash around like a bunch of Nazgul-possessed mountain trolls. I’m glad to know it’s not just us! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: “Religious to Excess”: The Ancient Egyptian Worldview of Polytheism and Piety | amor et mortem

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