In ancient Egypt, magic and religion were indivisible. Priests were magicians and magicians, priests. Hekau was a general term for anyone who used magic, but the “Hekau of the House of Life” were probably specialists in ritual magic who served as the highest rank of temple clergy. Classical writers (Plutarch, Apuleius) refer to the daily ritual performed in Egyptian temples to animate divine statues as an exalted form of magic. This ritual was comprised of daily service for the temple’s chief Deity, in which Its ba, or manifestation, through the statue was purified, fed, clothed and praised.
As a Kemetic Reconstructionist gearing up for Egyptian New Year’s observances, I can say that my modern adaptation of this ritual is one that is going to be used with great frequency in the days ahead, especially with the Epagomenal Days–the transitional days between the Old Year and the New, which also notably mark the birthdays of the Great Gods of Heliopolis–that follow fast on the heels of the last day of the Egyptian year (which in my system corresponds with our Gregorian calendar date of July 26).
As with every temple working, the intent is to enforce the maintenance of cosmic (and by extension, earthly) order (ma’at) against the forces of misfortune and disorder–the Egyptian word izfet covers both–that are especially active in the liminal period between one year and another. As my Babalawo teaches in Ifá, “Powers don’t work for you for free.” So perhaps the ancient Egyptians worked in a quid pro quo mindset: by showing your devotion to a given God through this (thrice-) daily devotional, the God will safeguard you against the forces of izfet in the year to come.
Three prerequisites are necessary on the clergy member’s part, those that echo the faculties of the Gods at the Dawn of Creation/First Moment, also known as Zep Tepi: Hu (divine utterance), Heka (magic), and Sia (divine knowledge). What we learn from the Creation accounts is that the spoken word, the power of creative utterance, is an essential part of summoning Gods and people into being. The magician constantly seeks to emulate this power, and it finds no more powerful expression than in the daily care and feeding of the God.
Temples served as the dramatic settings for the performance of this most essential rite required for the maintenance of the cosmos, a rite that formed the main dialogue between the realms of humans and the Gods. The daily offering service was performed three times a day, like meals; it was believed to satisfy the Deity’s need for nourishment.
Temple complexes had areas that were definitely off-limits to the visitor or general worshiper. The holy of holies (djesr djesru) housed the God’s cult statue. Once enlivened by the ba of the God, the statue became the ka, or physical form of the God. The texts at Edfu read: “The God rests in His shrine after His ba has united with the image of His ka.” The pious acts of building a temple and providing the cult statue were thought to be enticements enough for the ba of the God in question to descend from the heavens in hawk form and settle in the statue–but a little magico-religious persuasion couldn’t hurt.
The ritual consisted of physical maintenance of the God, followed by the presentation of food and drink. There were many ranks of priests in ancient Egypt, as Egyptologist Dr. Emily Teeter’s book Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt articulates, and the magically/ritually astute lector priests led the endeavor. A lower-ranking group of priests began the ceremony with the chants that accompanied the lighting of the fires, for putting the incense on the brazier, and for advancing to the holy of holies.
Holding a candle, the chief lector priest chanted upon entering: “Awake in peace! May your awakening be peaceful!”
He then broke the seals of the door bolts of the shrine, and drew those bolts back—a symbolic gesture commemorating the end of the conflict between the Gods Set and Horus (specifically, the withdrawal of the bolts signified the removal of the “finger” of Set from the “eye” of Horus. There are many interesting interpretations on just what exactly that means, but I’ll save those for subsequent posts praising Set as a Queer God). Kissing the ground and prostration before the open shrine ensued.
Interestingly, the chief lector priest then scattered pure white sand on the floor, symbolizing the Mound of Creation from which all life sprang. Removing the statue, he placed it on the sand. He removed the Deity’s outer garment and removed the unguents from the previous day’s ritual. Once the statue was cleansed, the priest offered the god lengths of white, red, and green cloth that symbolized the uraeus, the blood of Isis, and fertility (Teeter 54). This was followed by the presentation of green and black eye cosmetics (crushed and powdered malachite worked for the former, and the Egyptians had quite a fondness for kohl as eyeliner). The God was then adorned with bracelets, a broad collar, and anklets–and given the appropriate scepters and headdress. The statue was then wrapped in a great outer garment, probably a linen wrapper.
Now fully awakened, the God was presented with flowers, food, and drink (e.g., grain, vegetables, fowl, wine). When the God was considered to be done eating, the food was taken away and the God was readied for sleep. Another round of purifications ensued and then the God was put back in Its shrine, the doors closed and sealed. As a final ritual, the priest performed “the Bringing of the Foot,” in which he grasped a broom-like plant and backed out of the sanctuary, sweeping his footprints away. This left the sanctuary in good order and prevented evil from approaching the God, presumably by following the footprints of the priest.
Slightly less elaborate versions of this ritual were repeated at midday and evening, with the participating clergy bathing before each ceremony (priests bathed four times a day). “The cult actions reinforced the rhythms of the Egyptian universe, creating a comforting, predictable pattern” (Teeter 55).
Comfort and reassurance are precisely the emotional states sought during liminal periods of time when chaos might hold sway, as during this precarious time between the year that has not yet fully passed and the year that has not yet begun. The act of performing ritual, by its very habitual nature, can alone induce a sense of calm–especially if you’re praying before a shrine dedicated to the Kemetic Gods, as those shrines themselves are usually paragons of symmetry and order. (I’ve noticed how mine have just organically evolved that way.)
I know I definitely feel poised between peace and power when I tend to my Gods at Their shrines. I look forward to experiencing those feelings as I gear up for the birthday celebrations of my Powers next week–especially Nephthys and Set–to help offset the anxiety I always feel when we’re on the cusp of the New Year. And to really make matters “interesting,” this New Year will have a Venus Retrograde (first in Virgo, then backing up into Leo) and a Uranus Retrograde (in firecracker Aries) serving as part of the energetic backdrop. Time to resolve the unresolved issues and clear away that which no longer serves…easier said than done, of course.
And this is why the care and feeding of one’s Gods is such a vital and necessary practice, one that Kemetic polytheists can and should adapt for the Powers that they serve.