She is come.
The Goddess arises and Light flows into the world. Once again.
While I know some of us are buried in snow right now (especially those of us in the northern hemisphere), even that increases the light. The sparkling brilliance of snow reflects the light of sun or moon, illuminating the land by day and by night. Yes, it is cold now. But the light is returning. I breathe in and I breathe the enlivening Light of Isis. I breathe in Her cool, wintry breath.
Perhaps you, as I, have been lighting more candles and lamps lately—whether as a simple boost to the spirit or to catch a ride on the great magical tide of the Light’s Return. If so, we will not be out of step with ancient Egyptian practices.
In a world without electricity, light—especially in dark times and places—was exceptionally valuable. Something as simple as an ancient candle was quite an investment. The fuel—fat and oil—was expensive. So was linen, the material often used for wicks. We know that the workman’s village at Deir el Medina would receive shipments of old clothes and fat to make the torches they needed to work in the tombs. What’s more, the making of them had to be done under supervision so that none of the precious fat went missing.
The most common Egyptian term for these types of lamps or torches was “teka (sing.)” or “tekau (pl.).” A version of the word survives today in Coptic as tik or took, meaning “to spark” or “to kindle.” Tekau were given as offerings to the dead and to Deities. In fact, it may be that the offering of a teka to a Deity was the bare minimum that could be considered a proper temple offering.
Thus lighting a lamp or candle for Our Lady Isis is a most, most appropriate offering. Two is even better as tekau were often given in pairs. And if you’d like to offer Her tekau in the ancient color scheme, go red and white. Most paintings of tekau show them as a candy cane-like twist of red and white. This is because a teka was often made from a core of red (or white) linen, spiral-wrapped tight with white (or red) linen, then soaked in the fat or oil. They could be put on a stick like a torch and carried by hand, placed in a bowl of sand (?), or placed in a standing brazier. There was another product called medjet, which may have been the fat dyed red then used to make tekau or burned in a lamp.
Egypt was particularly known for its Rites of Illumination that featured the lighting of tekau. We have a graffito from a Middle Kingdom workman’s village by a man named Sobekemhat that says as a child he was like a particular flowering plant, like “the ones put to the nose on the day of lighting teka by all the people.” So a festival of flowers and flame. I love this very much.
We know that teka were lit for the blessed dead on the epagomenal birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis & Nephthys, as well as on New Year’s Eve (which would have been Nephthys’ birthday), New Year’s Day, and during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, in addition to other local festivals and significant occasions. Some scholars think that the New Year’s lighting of tekau may have been a Lower Egyptian ritual that gradually moved south to Upper Egypt. An ancient text tells us that on New Year’s Day, “…the house is given to its lord after kindling a teka in the temple.” So lighting a new fire, a teka, in the temple on New Year’s Day renewed and refreshed the temple for its Deity.
If the worship of Isis also first developed in Lower Egypt, as some researchers think, then lighting teka for Her—perhaps especially on Her birthday and the New Year—would have been an early rite for Her. (Come to think of it, we still light tiny tekau, placing them on birthday cakes to honor the years of a person’s life.) We have several surviving texts that refer to the teka being given for the ka of the Deity being offered to. It may be that the enlivening, illuminating, and renewing power of the teka was particularly effective in providing those benefits to the Deity’s vital essence or ka.
The tekau have the symbolism you might expect: illuminating the darkness for the dead until they are revitalized, “glorifying” the dead, and—like the fiery breath of Isis and Nephthys—protecting the dead as well as the Deities. In addition, as we just saw, they could also provide ritual renewal at the New Year. They may also have been part of the rite of the Reversion of Offerings. (Not quite sure how they were used there. I’m still tracking that down. I’ll let you know what I find out.)
A festival calendar from the temple of Edfu records a summer procession of Isis the Brilliant. During that festival, the image of the radiant Goddess was carried among the people in Her sacred boat, coming to rest in Her boat-sanctuary. There, the calendar text tells us “every kind of good thing is offered to Her.” Some modern Kemetic Orthodox groups celebrate this as the Aset Luminous Festival. Participants illuminate paper boats with candles and set them adrift to carry worshippers’ prayers to Isis. In accordance with the ancient traditions, offerings are also given to Isis at this time.
Now, you may be wondering how to deal with your tekau once they have been offered. Happily, we actually know this. Usually, they were extinguished in a bowl of milk, the milk of the Goddess. Today, this will be easier with a taper candle, but we might also be able to wet our fingers with milk, then pinch out the flame between our Goddess-blessed thumb and forefinger. In a large community ritual (back in the day when we could do that), we put out our ritual torches in bowls of milk. It was strangely powerful. I do recommend it.
The tradition of illumination for Isis continued even as Her worship crossed national boundaries. In his ancient novel, The Golden Ass, Apuleius describes the lanterns, torches, candles, and “other kinds of artificial light” that were carried in a procession for Isis in Cenchreae, Greece. Indeed, Apuleius notes that the processional lights were symbols of the heavenly light of the stars in the Goddess’ heaven. He also uses many allusions to light and radiance in telling his readers about Isis. For example, the blessings brought by Isis are described as “radiant” (inlustre). The initiating priest in Apuleius’ story says that, unlike blind Fortune, Isis sees and “illumines the other gods too with the radiance of Her light.”
At this time and in this place, perhaps you will join with me in lighting tekau for Isis, for Nephthys, and for all your Divine Ones, as we breathe in the growing light of the year.
Breathe in the Light of Isis, Lady of Light. Let it fill you, renew you, as Life arises. Once again.