Posted by: Isidora | September 5, 2015

Our Bacchanal

 

I’m taking this weekend off from the blog, for this weekend there is a festival at our house: the Hallows Grape Stomp & Bacchanalia. And so I offer these thoughts on the harvest, early this year, as we have had a very hot summer.

Today I serve not Isis, but Dionysos. For He is my other Divine love. And today we celebrate His harvest…

It is sweet, sad September. Amber and scarlet just beginning on the leaves of trees. The decayed-honey scent of fallen foliage. Sugar-dusted grape clusters dangling from the vines in our grape arbor. In this golden month, at the time when day equals night and the world enters its slow roll toward the darkness, the empurpled grapes are finally ready for harvest.

All of our Pagan beloved ones—Bacchants for a day—ply their sweet labor among our vines. Oh yes, we shall make wine.

Our Virgo Wine Mistress, Priestess of the Hydrometer, fusses. The children giggle as they rip grapes from the stem, toss them into the barrel (and at each other), and run screaming around the yard in a fine, Bacchic frenzy. The adults drink last year’s vintage as they work. They joke and gossip with each other. Then, we begin The Crush. As the grapes are stomped into juice beneath our purified, bare feet, we sing. We invoke Dionysos, the God of the Vine, the Bull-Horned One, the Mad, Honey-Sweet God of Divine Intoxication.

As we crush His purple flesh, our song is as sad and sweet as September itself. Once all have danced upon the grapes, we strain the fresh juice into the “must bucket.” There, the God’s holy blood will ferment into His own Divine wine, making our kitchen smell like grape-y bread for two delicious, heady weeks.

But tonight…tonight, the grapes have just been picked and crushed and the juice secreted away in the must bucket; and so, we dance. We dance, entranced—drums thundering—in the sweet thrall of the God, breathing the breath of the Wine Muses and loving, loving, loving the mad, human beauty of every single one of our friends.

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Posted by: Isidora | August 30, 2015

Invocation Offerings to Isis

A king offering incense and pouring a libation

A king offering incense and pouring a libation

It seems we have always made offering to our Deities. Many have also honored their dead with offerings, as the ancient Egyptians did. Our ancestors offered the choicest cut of meat to the Great Hunter Who had helped them in their hunt. They gave the first handful of ripe berries to the Wild Mother Who had guided them to the mouth-watering cache. They shared their holy days and good fortune by offering feasts to their dead. They filled temples with sumptuous meals and beautiful scents for the Goddesses and Gods. They created art in enduring stone and precious metals and offered it to the Divine Houses.

From Christian tithing to Hindu puja to the stargazer lilies I grow and place upon Isis’ altar, we humans continue to make offering. Perhaps there is something of an inborn impulse to do so.

The Seattle Troll; that's a real VW Beetle in his left hand and a real bridge over his head

The Seattle Troll; that’s a real VW Beetle in his left hand and a real bridge over his head

I came across what I take as an example of that innate impulse one day when visiting the Seattle Troll. Large enough to hold a VW Beetle in one hand and staring out of a single, glassy eye, the Seattle Troll lives beneath the Aurora Bridge in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. He was originally a work of art funded by the city, but he has become something more. He has become a Work of Art and now receives offerings from passersby and neighborhood residents.

The day I visited—not a special day, just a weekday like any other—the Troll was supplied with an amazing array of offerings. There were fresh flowers, smoked almonds, jewelry, coins, jams, a bag of fresh cherries, a whole watermelon, a bright pink-orange slab of raw salmon, a whole Dungeness crab, a bar of soap, a pack of cigarettes, two coffee mugs, and two t-shirts. These offerings were fresh, too, the flowers and food as yet unwilted. At first, it looked like someone had temporarily left their picnic. But no. The votives were carefully arranged upon the enormous hands of the Troll. They were clearly presented, and no picnickers were to be found. The items were offerings and nothing less.

Two of the six Devas making continual offering in Hong Kong

Two of the six Devas making continual offering to the Buddha in Hong Kong

I doubt that any of those who offer to the Troll see him as a Deity—at most, he’s a quirky neighborhood spirit. Yet people leave offerings just the same.

Perhaps it’s because when we make offering we are seeking relationship. In the case of the Troll, perhaps we seek connection with the progressive spirit of the neighborhood. Maybe the Troll’s mere existence gave us a chuckle and we offer a gift of thanks, connecting with those who share our amusement or with the Troll’s artist-creators. Perhaps the offerings were intended to be discovered by someone in need.

In a divine context, making offering can be a joyful sharing of blessings with the Deity or spirits with whom we have or seek a relationship. As an act of gift giving, offering is a universal way to create the sweet bonds of interconnection and ongoing reciprocity between giver and receiver. Offering encourages generosity in the giver. Some Tibetan Buddhists say that it is this growing generosity in ourselves that pleases the Deities, rather than the actual offerings. Offering can be a meditation, a prayer, a way to honor tradition, an act of devotion, a method of giving thanks, a path to greater openness of spirit.

A Mongolian shaman making offering

A Mongolian shaman making offering

Making offering was essential to the Egyptian relationship with the Divine while the relationship itself was essential to the proper functioning of the universe. The Egyptians knew that the universal order hinged upon the ongoing, interwoven relationship between Divine and human, natural and supernatural. If human beings failed to provide right worship to the Deities—a significant part of which was the act of making offering—the world would dissolve into chaos and the Goddesses and Gods would not have the energy required to maintain and renew the physical universe. The exchange of energy, the building of relationship made the act of offering an ongoing renewal of the world in partnership with the Deities.

In fact, offering was considered such a key part of the functioning of the universe that there are numerous representations of Deities making offering to each other. From Isis’ temple at Philae, we learn that the Goddess made libation offerings to Her beloved Osiris every 10 days. The temple calendar from Esna notes that She also made offering to Osiris (and to another Deity Whose name is lost) on the 10th day of the first month of the season of Inundation.

Roman girl making offering

Roman girl making offering

In ancient Egyptian temples, the offerings were often food and drink, flowers, incense, perfume, and even special items associated with the particular Deity: jewelry for Hathor, hawk feathers for Horus. Symbolic offerings were given too. The Eye of Horus, for example, could represent many different types of offerings and statuettes of Ma’at were given to represent the offerant’s dedication to upholding the Right and the Just and the True, which is the Being and Nature of the Goddess Ma’at.

But today, I’d like to talk about a particular type of offering, one that may be especially appropriate to Isis as Lady of Words of Power and, as She was called in Busiris, Djedet Weret, the Great Word. Egyptologists today call it an “invocation offering.” Egyptians called it peret kheru, the “going forth of the voice.”

We’ve talked many times about the power of the word in Egyptian practice. Isis conceives something in Her heart, then speaks it into existence. Words can establish, they can move magic, they can nourish and renew the spirit. A Hermetic text from the early centuries of the Common Era expressed the genuinely ancient Egyptian tradition that the quality of the speech and the very sound of the Egyptian words contain the energy of the objects of which they speak and are “sounds full of action.” This is precisely why words are powerful: they contain the energy of the objects they name, which is the energy of original Creation.

Hebrew priest making offering

Hebrew priest making offering

Because of their power, many of the most important words were preserved in Egypt’s great temple complexes in structures known as the Per Ankh, the House of Life. Primarily, the House of Life was a library containing information about all the things that sustained life and nourished the soul and spirit—from magic to medicine to religious mysteries.

The sacred words contained in the Houses of Life were sometimes understood as the food of the deceased as well as of the Deities, particularly of Osiris as the Divine prototype of all the dead. One of the funerary books instructs the deceased that his spiritual “hw-food” is to be found in the library and that his provisions “come into being” in the House of Life. A papyrus known as the Papyrus SALT says that the books in the House of Life at Abydos are “the emanations of Re” that keep Osiris alive. An official who claimed to have restored the House of Life at Abydos said that he “renewed the sustenance of Osiris.”

An offering formula from a tomb

An offering formula from a tomb

Because of the nourishing and sustaining power of the word, tomb inscriptions not only asked visitors to speak the name of the deceased, but might also ask them to recite an offering formula so that the offerings would be “renewed.” Egyptologists know this as the “appeal to the living.” The deceased assures the living that he or she need only speak the formula with the “breath of the mouth” and that doing so benefits the one who does it even more than the one who receives it.

By speaking the words and naming the offerings, the spiritual essence and magic of those offerings was re-activated and reconnected with its non-physical source so that it could once again feed the spirit of the deceased. It was as if the tomb visitor had given the offerings anew. Since both the human giver and the spirit receiver gained during this process, the act of making offering in this way reinforced and promoted the reciprocal blessings between the material and spiritual worlds.

Thus the peret kheru is an offering where no material object was given, but magically potent words were spoken. Because of the essential spiritual unity of an object, its representation, and the words that describe and name it, the Egyptians considered invocation offerings to be fully as effective and fully as valuable as physical offerings. Invocation offering is a genuine, traditional Egyptian form of offering.

That’s it for now. Next time we’ll look at some ways to use invocation offering in a relationship with Isis.

Posted by: Isidora | August 23, 2015

Isis & the Kore Kosmou, Part 3

Isis Fortuna, Roman, 2nd century CE

Isis Fortuna, Roman, 2nd century CE

We ended last time wondering whether Horus, the son and student of Isis, might be the “Pupil of the Eye of the World” rather than Isis. So let’s have a look at that.

As you already know, the Kore Kosmou is one of the Hermetica, spiritual teaching texts meant to illuminate the student. Like a number of other Hermetica, it appears to end with a significant hymn. I say “appears” because our fragmentary text ends just as Isis is about to reveal the hymn to Horus.

“Ay, mother, Horus said. On me as well bestow the knowledge of this hymn, that I may not remain in ignorance.

And Isis said: Give ear, O son! [. . . ]”

And that’s where it breaks off.

The hymn that we don’t have is the culmination of the entire text and must have had great magical/spiritual power for it is the hymn Isis and Osiris recited before They re-ascended to the heavens after having completed Their civilizing Work on earth.

Close up on an Isis knot, 1st century CE

Close up on an Isis knot, 1st century CE

I’ve been reading a paper by Jorgen Sorensen about the Egyptian background of the Kore Kosmou. He suggests that the missing hymn, combined with a secret that Isis refuses to reveal to Horus earlier in the text could be the text’s main point.

The secret comes up in Isis’ narrative when the embodied souls, not remembering their divine origins, are really messing up the world and the Elements complain to the Creator. They ask that an “Efflux” of the Creator be sent to earth. The Creator consents and as it is spoken, it is so. The One the Elements have asked for is already on earth serving as judge and ruler so that all human beings receive the fate they deserve.

Winds Of Horus by Pierre-Alain D; you can purchase a copy here.

Winds Of Horus by Pierre-Alain D; you can purchase a copy here.

Horus interrupts to ask how this efflux or emanation came to earth. Isis replies,

“I may not tell the story of [this] birth; for it is not permitted to describe the origin of thy descent, O Horus, [son] of mighty power, lest afterwards the way-of-birth of the immortal Gods should be known unto men—except so far that God the Monarch, the universal Orderer and Architect, sent for a little while thy mighty sire Osiris, and the mightiest Goddess Isis, that they might help the world, for all things needed them.” (Mead, Kore Kosmou, 36)

Thus the coming into being of the efflux of the Divine is intimately connected with the coming into being of Horus Himself. It is a secret that Horus, a Hermetic student but not yet an adept, isn’t ready to know.

Sorensen suggests that had Isis revealed the secret, it would have been that Horus Himself is the emanation of the Divine that dwells on earth. He notes that the Kore Kosmou is not alone in this and that a number of other Hermetica teach that the student, when fully adept, may indeed be a source of divinity in the world.

A Roman-era Harpokrates, apparently wanting Mom to pick Him up

A Roman-era Harpokrates, reaching for His mother

Sorensen thinks that the ancient Egyptian idea of the pharaoh as a living God is behind the concept of the Hermetic adept as a point of Divine light in the world. It is, of course, significant that the pharaoh is “the Living Horus,” the very embodiment of Horus, son of Isis, in the text.

What’s more, since kore can sometimes be translated as just “eye” rather than pupil, the “Eye of the World” can be considered the Eye of Horus, the Eye that, when healed and complete, becomes a great blessing for the world for it is the very essence of offerings and the greatest talisman of ancient Egypt.

I think I like this idea.

It would be consistent with the so-called “democratizing” of Egyptian funerary/spiritual literature. At first such texts were only for the king, then they became available to nobles, and eventually anyone, at least anyone who was able to purchase their own copy of the book of the dead. And we should remember that the hoped-for culmination of the post mortum process described in the texts was in essence to become a deity, living among the Deities.

Isis Pelagia, Roman, photo by Ann Raia

Isis Pelagia, Roman, now in the Capitoline Museum, photo by Ann Raia,

By the time of the Hermetica, the idea developed so that living human beings can find the divine potential within themselves. What’s more, their Hermetic studies and practices can help them work toward that potential. Like the healed and complete Eye of Horus, the fully initiated, “completed” adept can bring blessings.

During the first centuries of the Common Era, the period of the Kore Kosmou, the religions of the Mediterranean world were in turmoil. This is the period of the rise of Christianity, the development of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, as well as other new and changing religious and philosophical movements. People were dealing with the concept of monotheism, discovering its benefits—and paying its price, as Egyptologist Jan Assman puts it in the title of his book The Price of Monotheism.

Sorenson sees a society in which many people felt that the Divine had created the world then simply left it on its own, much like the complaints of the Elements in Kore Kosmou. This may be simply part of the human condition or it may have been something particular to that time.

Hermes Trismegistos as a rather pale pharaoh as pictured in Manly P. Halls Secret Teachings of All Ages

Hermes Trismegistos as a rather pale pharaoh as pictured in Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages

And yet many people today have that same feeling. That may be why we are seeing the rise of fundamentalist religions that insist that only certain beliefs and behaviors will put the world to right and bring whatever their particular conception of God is back into the world, while at the same time, fewer people identify as religious and more as atheist. Here in the first century of the second millennium, perhaps we too are in a period of spiritual upheaval.

During those first centuries of the first millennium, it may be that the sense of abandonment was even more acutely felt in Egypt where the Goddesses and Gods had always extended Themselves intimately into the manifest world. The solution of the Hermetic schools (which more and more scholars are now coming to accept derive from genuine Egyptian tradition) was to bring the ancient ideal of the Divine pharaoh forward so that now the individual adept—no longer just the pharaoh—could be a light of the Divine on earth, helping to turn the world to right (Ma’at) through her or his own being and actions.

There is much more that we could talk about in relation to the Kore Kosmou. For instance, we could trace the powers and blessings in the Isis & Osiris aretalogy of our text to concepts in Egyptian tradition. But this is work I haven’t yet done. So for now, we’ll leave the Kore Kosmou and next week’s post will be on another topic. (For aretalogy in relation to Isis, see here and here and even some here.)

Posted by: Isidora | August 16, 2015

Isis & Kore Kosmou, Part 2

An Italian edition of the Kore Kosmou

For those of you just dropping by, we’re discussing a fragment of an ancient text entitled Kore Kosmou. In it, Isis is the Divine Teacher and She instructs Her “Wondrous Son” Horus in spiritual truths.

So let’s start with the title of the text. Unlike some other ancient texts, it actually does have a title: Kore Kosmou. The simplest translation is Virgin (or Maiden) of the World. “Kore” is “girl, maiden, virgin,” as, for example, Persephone is called Kore—Maiden or Daughter—to Demeter’s Meter—Mother. Kosmou is “of the world, universe.”

Oh, but it ain’t that simple.

As is so often the case when discussing Things Ancient, interpretations vary. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, there has yet to be a single agreed-upon scholarly interpretation of the title, though they all have something to offer us.

So let’s have a look. First of all, who is this Virgin, Maiden, or Daughter of Whom we speak?

Isis-Mari by Willow Arlenea

A maidenly Isis-Mari by Willow Arlenea.

The most obvious answer is that She is Isis. Isis is the teacher in this text and She, like so many Egyptian Goddesses, has a youthful Form. In a Hymn to Osiris, Isis is even called the Great Virgin/Maiden (hwn.t or hunet). She is also a Divine Daughter, the daughter of Heaven, Nuet, and of Earth, Geb. What’s more, if the dating of the text to 1st-3rd century CE is correct, Our Goddess is by that time considered a kosmokrator, a universal ruler, so it’s no stretch to consider Isis to be the Maiden of the Universe in the title.

So, problem solved?

Oh, heck no.

What if the Virgin of the Universe isn’t Isis at all? It may be that the Virgin is Nature Herself. Nature is sexually virgin in the tale. She creates Her own abundance from seeds which She Herself supplies to the Sole Ruler and which the Sole Ruler then returns to Her in order to start the chain of fruitfulness upon the earth. We also find identification of Kore with Nature in another Hermetic text, the Perfect Discourse. That text reiterates that the Creator “does not possess the nourishment for all mortal living creatures, for it is Kore Who bears the fruit.” The text is, after all, a creation story, so perhaps the title refers to the creation of the Virgin Universe.

A maidenly Nature by Mystery Kids

A maidenly Nature by Mystery Kids

Isis Herself may certainly be considered to be Nature. Plutarch calls Her “the female principle in Nature” (On Isis & Osiris, 53). We have also discussed the idea that Isis’ name of “Throne” may refer to Her as the Original Place of Being. So perhaps we are intended to understand that Isis, Nature, and Kore Kosmou are one.

And that’s all fine. But now we come to the more interesting interpretations.

They revolve around another meaning of the word kore. For it also means “pupil,” as in the pupil of the eye, that black, liquid, bottomless center in the center of the eye.

Now at first thought, that seems very strange. How can a maiden and the pupil of the eye be related concepts? But it turns out that many cultures have an expression for the pupil that translates as “the girl in the eye.” In fact, according to ethnologists who studied such expressions, about one-third of the languages in the world have a term for the pupil of the eye that refers to a small human or human-like being. For example, Spanish speakers call the pupil the nina del ojo, the “girl of the eye,” which ultimately derives from Latin and which also had the expression: pupilla, the “little girl” of the eye. (“Figurative Language in a Universalist Perspective,” Cecil H. Brown and Stanley R. Witkowski, American Ethnologist, Vol. 8, No. 3, Symbolism and Cognition (Aug., 1981), pp. 596-615.)

The Eye of Horus with its deep, black pupil

The Eye of Horus with its deep, black pupil

The origin of the expression is probably the fact that when we look into someone’s eyes, we can see a tiny reflection of ourselves in the black mirror of the pupil.

The ancient Egyptians had this expression, too. Pyramid Text 155 says to Osiris, “Take to thyself the damsel [girl] who is in the eye of Horus; open thy mouth with her.” (That is Samuel Mercer’s translation; Faulkner translates it “pupil of the eye of Horus.” It is both.) Later, the expression was simplified to “the girl in the eye” and then just “the girl” so that by the time the Kore Kosmou was written, the pupil was frequently just called “the girl.” And yes, the Greek in which our text was written also has the expression: the pupil is the kore.

Not every language in which this expression occurs sees a girl in the pupil; some see babies, little men, or even angels. But in Egypt, it was a hunet, a young woman. Why?

This is pure speculation, but when it comes to the Eye of Horus, perhaps it is because His mother Isis is the young woman Who is reflected in His own Child God’s eye. Or perhaps it is because of the power of the Uraeus “Eye” Goddesses in Egypt.

Isis as a Uraeus Serpent

Isis as a Uraeus Serpent

There are many myths in which the Divine Eye goes forth in the form of a powerful Serpent Goddess, usually as a great protective power.

Isis is among these Goddesses of the Eye. In the Festival Songs of Isis & Nephthys from the Bremner-Rhind papyrus (Faulkner translation), Isis protects both Osiris and Horus and She is “Mistress of the Universe, Who came forth from the Eye of Horus, Noble Serpent which issued from Re, and which came forth from the pupil in the eye of Atum when Re arose on the First Occasion.”

But there are more mysteries of the eye. A praise of Amun-Re from Hibis demonstrates the power and mystery of the Divine Eye: “O Amun-Re Who hides Himself in His iris/pupil, Ba Who illumines by means of His oracular wedjat-eyes, Who manifests a manifestation: sacred one Who cannot be known. Brilliant of visible forms, Who hides Himself with His mysterious akh-eye: mysterious one, Whose secrets cannot be known.”

Reflection in the pupil of the eye

Reflection in the pupil of the eye

As the physical eyes are the organs of perception of the light of the sun and the moon, so the Divine Eyes can illuminate or conceal the deep Mysteries hidden within Their depths, most especially at the core, in the pupil, in the deepest, yet most reflective, part of the eye. For in the darkness of the pupil of the eye lies concealed spiritual illumination.

Thus it seems that the title of our text may also be translated as Pupil of the Eye of the World/Universe and that, as would-be initiates, we should understand the blackness of the pupil to conceal spiritual light. And indeed, in the Kore Kosmou, the Hermetic teacher Isis, begins the process of illuminating Her Wondrous Son, Horus, Who is Himself the possessor of Egypt’s most important eye, the talisman of talismans, the offering of offerings, the Eye of Horus.

The Kore Kosmou teaches about creation, and souls, and reincarnation, and the nature of Divinity. It reveals Mysteries—but not yet all of them—to the Hermetic student, Horus. Thus a title like Kore Kosmou, with its hidden meanings, is quite appropriate to this teaching text.

The Kore Kosmou, the Pupil in the Eye of the Universe

The Kore Kosmou, the Pupil in the Eye of the Universe

Isis is the Girl in the Pupil of the Eye. As a Holy Cobra Goddess, She comes forth from the Pupil of the Eye of Atum and She is a Divine Eye Goddess Herself. She knows the secrets of the darknesses of the kosmos (cosmos), a word that not only means “world” or “universe,” but also order, and so perhaps even Ma’et. Thus She is the one Who can appropriately reveal—or conceal—the Mysteries of the creation, ordering, and structure of the universe and the souls within it.

But on the other hand, perhaps we should understand Horus as the Pupil of the Eye of the World; He is, after all, the student or “pupil” of His mother. And yes, that word is related, too…

So it seems I am not yet done with the Kore Kosmou. I’m still researching and reading and I think I shall perhaps have some more to say on this subject next time.

Posted by: Isidora | August 9, 2015

Isis & the Kore Kosmou, Part 1

Yes, we are in the realm of the Hermetica;

“As Above, So Below” is probably the most well-known Hermetic axiom

Quite a long time ago now, a friend of this blog, Andrea, asked a question about an ancient text known as the Kore Kosmou.

It is one of the Hermetic texts and follows the common pattern of a dialog between teacher and student.

In the Hermetica, most often the teacher is Hermes Trismegistos and the student Asclepios, Ammon, or “Tat,” the son of Hermes. In the Kore Kosmou, Isis is the teacher and Her son, Horus, is the student.

Certainly, there were many more Hermetica than what has come down to us. It also seems likely that there were once more Isis-as-teacher texts than just the Kore Kosmou and the few fragments we have. This, of course, would make a great deal of sense: Isis and Thoth-Hermes—Egypt’s two great and wise Magician Deities—serving as the main Hermetic teachers. It is interesting to note that, as time goes on, more and more scholars are recognizing the genuinely Egyptian elements that are such an important part of the Hermetica. More on that later.

But in case you’re not familiar with Hermeticism and the Hermetica, here’s a brief introduction and then we’ll delve into Andrea’s question about the Kore Kosmou and discuss what the text contains.

Hermeticism & the Hermetic Texts

Hermes Trismegistos as a human sage, from the Siena Cathedral

Hermes Trismegistos as a human sage, from the Siena Cathedral

Hermeticism began as a late Pagan branch of esotericism and was one of the many products of the meeting of the ancient Hellenic and Egyptian cultures in the centuries surrounding the beginning of the Common Era. The primordial and venerable religion of Egypt, its ancient wisdom, and its eternal magic combined with the dominant Greek culture, religion, and philosophy to produce a powerful mix that continues to influence esotericism to the present day.

Hermeticism’s most fertile home was the great syncretic Egyptian capital city of Alexandria—a city that had honored Isis from its inception and which left an indelible stamp upon the Hermetic tradition. As religious wisdom and philosophy flowed into Alexandria from many cultures, it likewise flowed into Hermeticism. In addition to Egyptian and Greek Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Iranian Zoroastrian all added to the Hermetic amalgamation.

Thoth; Trismegistos' Egyptian original

Thoth; Trismegistos’ Egyptian original

The Hermetic texts address a wide range of topics, including cosmic principles, the nature and orders of Being and beings, the human desire to know the Divine, astrology, alchemy, magic, and medicine, among others.

Scholars generally place the individual texts of the Hermetica in one of two camps: the philosophical and religious Hermetica, or the technical—that is, magical or theurgic—Hermetica. The main philosophical Hermetic texts that have come down to us are contained in the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of approximately 17 treatises written in Latin and Greek. The exact date for the composition of the texts is unknown, but they are usually thought to be dated to the second or third centuries CE. Technical Hermetica range more broadly, and are tentatively dated to a period spanning the first century CE to the fourth. It is quite possible, however, that at least some of the texts were based on significantly earlier models.

We’re not sure when the Kore Kosmou was written either. In 1909, Egyptologist Flinders Petrie suggested that it could be as old as 510 BCE and thus is the oldest of the Hermetic texts. Frankly, it doesn’t feel quite that old to me and although it can be considered one of the most “Egyptian” of the Hermetica, it has enough in common with the other texts that the 1st-3rd centuries CE date seems more right to me.

So What Was the Question?

You know. This guy.

God the Father, from the Sistine Chapel

Andrea wanted to know what I thought about the androcentricity of the creation story told in Kore Kosmou. And it definitely is androcentric. The Supreme Creator is a He and a Father. “Nature,” the product of Creation, is a beautiful feminine Being. So there ya go; stereotypes all around.

But there’s absolutely nothing special about that. It’s just the usual sexism of the day.

As a woman reading the ancient esoteric texts, I almost always have to mentally “translate” or interpret them for myself. Is the author talking about human men or humankind? Are women intended to be included in this, that, or the other statement? Were women even worth bothering about in the author’s eyes? If there is an encounter with a feminine Divine Being in the text, does the same spiritual dynamic apply to women or would a woman have an encounter with a masculine Divine Being?

This is true of…well…just about every ancient text I’ve ever read, no matter the tradition. Not only must I puzzle through the meaning of the ancient author, but then I must try to discover whether or not it was intended to relate to me as a female seeker. (And all of this applies to heterosexuals; how much more translation is required if you’re LBGT?) So I grit my teeth and try to ignore the sexism to find the underlying spiritual meaning. Some days are better than others but, I must admit, it does get tiresome.

Okay, I’m done now. With that small rant duly ranted, let’s discover what’s in the Kore Kosmou.

As it is my opinion that the Ultimate Divine is ultimately beyond gender, as I summarize the text, I shall be using the term “Creator” and “Sole Ruler” (which is in the original text) instead of Father, Craftsman, God, or the masculine pronoun when referring to the Ultimate Divine. All other Deities retain Their traditional pronouns.

Isis from Athanasius Kirchers

Isis from Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1652

What’s in the Kore Kosmou?

Give heed, my son Horus, for you shall hear secret doctrine, of which our forefather Kamephis was the first teacher. It so befell that Hermes heard this teaching from Kamephis, the eldest of our race. I heard it from Hermes, the writer of records, at the time when he initiated me in the Black Rites [possibly alchemy], and you shall hear it now from me…

—Kore Kosmou, Walter Scott translation

This is how Isis begins Her dialog. She then describes for Her son the creation of the Universe, the Elements, and Nature. Nature is the most important female character in the story and is described as “a being in woman’s form, right lovely, at the sight of whom the gods were smitten with amazement.”

Isis next describes how the Souls—which are Divine and share with the Creator the ability to create—were made and how they became too proud of their creative ability, overstepping the bounds the Creator decreed for them.

To punish the Souls for their pride, the Souls are placed into human bodies by Hermes Trismegistos on command of the Sole Ruler. Yet the Creator is merciful. As consolation to the imprisoned Souls, the Creator allows them to forget their heavenly origins, to receive blessings from the Deities, and to return to the Heavens provided they do good upon earth.

Theres a band called Kore Kosmou...and they have a gorgeous album cover

There’s a band called Kore Kosmou…and they have a gorgeous album cover

Nevertheless, once the Souls are embodied, they began to fight amongst themselves, killing each other and polluting the world, so much so that the Elements complain to the Creator. The Creator bids the Elements to return to Their work, for help is on the way.

And so the Creator sends Isis and Osiris, Who are “the efflux” of the Divine, to help create order, religion, and civilization.

The Goddess and God bring “that which is Divine” into human life, thereby putting a stop to savage slaughter. They establish the rites of worship on earth, consecrate temples, and give human beings food and shelter. They introduce the oath and law and justice. They teach the art of mummification. They discover the cause of death by finding that the life-breath eventually returns to its place of origin. They learn the ways of the Spirits and inscribe the secrets on stones for human edification. They devise the “magic of the prophet-priests” so that human souls can be nurtured by philosophy and human bodies can be healed by the healing art.

Having brought all these Divine blessings to earth, Isis and Osiris are allowed to return to heaven after speaking a hymn. Horus asks to learn the hymn…and that is, unfortunately, where the text breaks off.

Isis and Osiris, from a stele now in the Louvre, photo by Rama

Isis and Osiris, from a stele now in the Louvre, photo by Rama

Another fragment seems to pick up the tale and has Isis answering Horus’ questions about the nature of the many types of Souls, how they are differentiated, and how they become intelligent.

In the surviving Hermetica, Isis often concerns Herself with Souls; an interest continuing from Her early function as a funerary Goddess and a guide and protector of the dead. In other Isis-to-Horus fragments, Isis teaches about reincarnation and the nature of Souls. In their Isian and Hermetic concern with the journey of the Soul after death, the texts resonate with the power of the ancient Egyptian tradition from which they, in part, derive.

Read It for Yourself

If you’d like to read the whole text for yourself, you can find the G.R.S. Mead translation here. And the Kingsford-Maitland translation here. Both of these translations are in the public domain, which is why you find them online. Mead’s is overly poetic in true Victorian fashion and Kingsford & Maitland had their own agenda. Of the translations I know of, the Walter Scott version seems best to me, though he is criticized for some of the “corrections” he made. It, however, is not in the public domain, so you won’t find it online. Always remember; translation is an art, not a science.

But it seems that I’m not quite done with the Kore Kosmou. So next time, we’ll talk about some of the genuinely Egyptian elements in the text and find out how it may indeed be the most “Egyptian” of the Hermetica.

Posted by: Isidora | August 2, 2015

An Isis Cornucopia

Today’s offering is one of those collections of little bits of Isis information that aren’t quite enough to make a post on their own, but are interesting if you put them all together.

So here we go…

Cuneiform writing

Cuneiform writing

Isis in Babylonia…Maybe

Egyptologists have long used transcriptions of Egyptian personal names found in cuneiform as clues in helping them figure out how ancient Egyptian might have been pronounced. Many of the Egyptian names in these texts are what are known as theophoric names, that is, they include a Deity’s name in them. For instance, Isidora is a theophoric (“God/dess-bearing”) name meaning “Gift of Isis.”

A number of the Egyptian names in cuneiform also are Isis-bearing names. Researchers have also found something else interesting about them, and that is that the cuneiform also includes a marking that indicates that the name is divine. But only in the case of the Isis names—even though they have found a number of other theophoric names that include other Egyptian Deities (for example, Amun, Mut, Thoth, and Bastet).

What’s more, the Isis-bearing names with the divine marker in them were found mostly in the records of a wealthy merchant family from Nippur, dating from 465-405 BCE. This coincides with the first period of Persian rule in Egypt: 525–402 BCE.

An artist's conception of ancient Nippur

An artist’s conception of ancient Nippur

We might speculate that some members of this wealthy family, or perhaps an Egyptian family they were trading with during Persian rule of Egypt, had a devotion to Isis. Perhaps they brought Her worship to Nippur. As yet we have no other evidence of a temple there, but the prominence of Isis theophoric names, as well as the unusual divine marker in the writing makes this a possibility.

Another interesting bit of information in relation to this is that all the Isis-bearing names have Her name as “Esi,” which is another confirmation that the final “t” was dropped in saying Iset’s name at least by this time and probably quite a bit earlier…some think as early as the Middle Kingdom.

Personally, I love the softness of Isi/Esi/Ise/Ese…and I think I shall be chanting Her name that way for a while.

Some Notes on Isis as a Tree Goddess

The Tree Goddess Isis nourishing Pharaoh Thutmose

The Tree Goddess Isis nourishing Pharaoh Thutmose; you can see Her name at the bottom of the column of hieroglyphs

There were a number of sacred trees in ancient Egypt, notably the sycamore fig, the persea, and to a lesser extent, the date palm. All of these trees are fruit-bearing, and were sources of nourishment—both in life and in the afterlife. (We talked about the sacred acacia, which is not fruit-bearing but has other fine qualities, several weeks ago.)

Three Goddesses were particularly associated with these sacred trees, in which They could also be seen to dwell. They are Hathor, Nuet, and of course, Isis.

There are a number of representations of Isis as the Lady of the Sycamore. A pillar in the tomb of Sennefer of Thebes (18th dynasty) shows Sennefer and his wife Meryt as they stand before a leafy tree with a Goddess figure in it Who is identified in the hieroglyphic text as Isis. Another 18th dynasty stela shows “Isis the Great, the God’s Mother” as a Tree Goddess Who extends Her breast toward the souls of the man and woman standing at Her roots. A 19th dynasty stela shows a leafless tree in a pot, but which seems to be hung with ribbons. The Goddess wears Isis’ throne upon Her head, yet is identified as Mistress of the West as She pours water to refresh the deceased.

A beautiful piece of Tree Goddess Photoshop work...if you know the artist, please let me know.

A beautiful piece of Tree Goddess Photoshop work…if you know the artist, please let me know.

According to Plutarch, the persea tree (Egyptian ished) is sacred to Isis “because its fruit is like a heart and its leaf like a tongue.” He explains that this is because no human quality is more Divine than reason, symbolized by the tongue, and that there is no more driving human force than happiness, symbolized by the heart. Taking an Egyptian, rather than Platonic approach, we could say it was because Isis created by conceiving something in Her heart, then speaking it into being with Her tongue.

A Praise of Isis from Koptos

On a large stela showing Ramesses offering incense to Isis in Her sacred barque and dedicated by the overseer of the work on Ramesses’ temple, we read this praise of the Goddess:

Flinders Petrie, who excavated much of Koptos...looking a bit obsessive

W.M. Flinders Petrie, who excavated much of Koptos, offering us his intense look

Adoration to Thee, Isis, Fair of Face in the Adtet boat, Great of Prowess [. . . ] ills, abolishing quarrels, driving away [. . .] saving the weak from the fierce [very sketchy in here with many broken lines] this humble servant reached his city in order to give praise to Isis, to glorify the Great Goddess every day.

The rest is too broken up to reproduce here, but I get the idea reading it that perhaps he had had an encounter with Isis in Her barque and he had been inspired him to make this stela in Her honor. Also, I like the idea of Isis “saving the weak from the fierce.”

Women Isiacs in Roman-era Athens Causing Change

We have a number of Greek grave reliefs of women, and some men, in what has been termed “the Isis dress” and carrying a sistrum and libation vessel. The Isis dress is the one with the Isis knot in the center. I’ve written about that here and here. Elizabeth Walters (a professor of Art History and Archeology at Penn State University), who studied these reliefs extensively, believes that the people to whom the grave reliefs belonged were probably initiates of Isis.

Funerary relief of Alexandra in Isis dress, from Roman-era Athens

Funerary relief of Alexandra in Isis dress, from Roman-era Athens

A paper I’m reading now explores the role of these female “religious enthusiasts” and attributes to them some changes in the way priestly activities would have normally taken place. The author, Paraskevi Martzavou (A Greek-born professor of Classics at Oxford University), suggests that at least some of the women in the Isis dress may have played roles in an Eleusinian-style initiatory ritual, perhaps even taking the role of Isis Herself.

Martzavou believes that the influence of these women may have opened up a new way for Isis devotees to be more involved with their chosen Goddess outside of an official priestesshood. He sees it as characteristic of the worship of Isis and terms it “sacerdotization.” He explains that term as there having been a sort of freelance priestessly status among these women who may have been involved in initiatory rites. He says he’d like to see it studied more. And so would I.

Okay, that’s the download from the Isis cornucopia for now. I hope you found something to pique your interest, and as always, may She bless you abundantly.

Posted by: Isidora | July 26, 2015

Werethekau & Isis Great of Magic

“O, Isis, Great of Magic, deliver me from all bad, evil, and typhonic things…”                                                  —Ebers Papyrus, 1500 BCE

Werethekau as a winged Cobra Goddess

Werethekau as a winged Cobra Goddess (photo by Mark Williams)

One of Isis’ most powerful epithets is “Great of Magic,” which you may also see translated as Great One of Magic, Great Sorceress, or Great Enchantress. In Egyptian, it is Weret Hekau or Werethekau. (“Wer” is “great” and “et” is the feminine ending. “Hekau” is the plural of “magic,” so you could also translate it as Great of Magics.)

Isis is not the only Goddess Who is called Great of Magic. Many of the Great Goddesses bear that epithet, too: Hathor, Sakhmet, Mut, Wadjet, among others. Gods are also Great of Magic, notably Set in the Pyramid Texts.

Werethekau from Karnak

Werethekau from Karnak

There is also an independent Goddess named Werethekau. As so many Deities were, She was associated with the king, and especially during his coronation. There had been some doubt among Egyptologists about whether Werethekau was indeed a separate Goddess. But recently, Ahmed Mekawy Ouda of Cairo University has been doing a lot of work tracking Her down. (She was also the topic of his thesis, which I hope to get a copy of someday soon.) He’s gathered references to a priesthood and temples for Her that seem quite clear. More on all that in a moment.

In addition to the Great of Magic Deities, there are objects called Great of Magic, especially objects associated with the king, such as the royal crowns. In the Pyramid Texts, the king goes before a very personified Red Crown:

“The Akhet’s door has been opened, its doorbolts have drawn back. He has come to you, Red Crown; he has come to you, Fiery One; he has come to you, Great One; he has come to you, Great of Magic—clean for you and fearful because of you . . . He has come to you, Great of Magic: he is Horus, encircled by the aegis of his eye, the Great of Magic.”

                                      —Pyramid Texts of Unis, 153

A Lioness-headed Werethekau from Karnak

A lioness-headed Werethekau from Karnak

Some amulets, including a vulture amulet, a cobra amulet, and, as in the example above, the Eye of Horus amulet are also called Great of Magic. So is the adze used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.

With all this great magic going for him or her, the king or queen becomes Great of Magic, too. King Pepi Neferkare is told, “Horus has made your magic great in your identity of Great of Magic” (Pyramid Texts of Pepi, 315). Queen Neith is told, “Horus has made your magic great in your identity of Great of Magic. You are the Great God” (Pyramid Texts of Neith, 225).

I wonder whether there might be some primordial connection between the Great of Magic royal crowns and the Great of Magic royal throne—Who is Iset, the Goddess Throne. Perhaps we can understand the accouterments of kingship as personified extensions of the Power, Divinity, and Magic of the Living Great Goddesses, which were empowered by Them in order to bestow upon the king his own power, divinity, and magic.

A cobra-headed Werethekau...also from Karnak. Lots of Great of Magics at Karnak, eh?

A cobra-headed Werethekau…also from Karnak. Lots of Great of Magics at Karnak, eh? Or should that be Greats of Magic?

The magic of the crowns is enhanced by the protective uraeus serpents often shown upon them. They’re not just snakes, of course; They’re Goddesses. Most often, the Uraeus Goddesses are Wadjet and Nekhbet or Isis and Nephthys, representing Lower and Upper Egypt. But Werethekau is a Uraeus Goddess, too. The uraei are also known as “Eyes” due to the similarity between the Egyptian word for “eye” (iret) and the word for “the doer” (iret)—for the Eyes of the Deities are the Divine Powers that go out to do things (much like the active and feminine Shakti power in Hinduism.)

The Pyramid Texts of King Merenre associate the Eyes with the crowns:

“You are the god who controls all the Gods, for the Eye has emerged in your head as the Nile Valley Great-of-Magic Crown, the Eye has emerged in your head as the Delta Great-of-Magic Crown, Horus has followed you and desired you, and you are apparent as the Dual King, in control of all the Gods and Their kas as well.”                                               

                                           —Pyramid Texts of Merenre, 52

The human-headed Cobra Goddess Werethekau nursing Tutankhamum

The human-headed Cobra Goddess Werethekau nursing Tutankhamum

The Uraeus Goddesses or Eyes are powerful, holy cobras Who emit Light and spit Fire against the enemies of the king and the Deities. Learn more about Isis as Uraeus Goddess here.

When Werethekau is an independent Goddess, She may have the body of a woman and head of a cobra, be in full cobra form, and we even have a few instances of the Goddess in full human form. Among Tutankhamun’s grave goods is a figure of Werethekau with a human head and cobra body nursing a child Tut.

She also has a lioness form. We know of a lionine Isis-Werethekau from the hypostyle hall at Karnak. A number of the Goddesses with a feline form—Sakhmet, Mut, Pakhet—were also known as Great of Magic, so we can understand that powerful magic has not only a protective and nurturing side, but also a fierce and raging one. Which seems about right if you ask me; magic can be very positive and healing or, if used unwisely, a real mess.

Isis-Werethekau from the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak

Isis-Werethekau from the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. You can read Her name in the hieroglyphs above Her. Click to enlarge.

So far, I haven’t tracked down the oldest reference to Isis as Great of Magic. Since She has always been a Goddess of great magical power, the association is ancient. Perhaps it has always been. Perhaps there’s something to my guess about The Great-of-Magic Throne. Or perhaps Professor Ouda will come to my rescue when I finally get a copy of his thesis.

In Ouda’s article outlining some of the references to Werethekau’s priesthood and temples, several of the extant references to Werethekau also tie-in Isis and Her Divine family.

For instance, on a stele of a chantress of Isis, the chantress is shown playing the sistrum and adoring Isis-Werethekau. The inscription reads, “adoring Werethekau, may They [Isis and Werethekau?] give life and health to the ka of the chantress of Isis, Ta-mut-neferet.”

Ta-mut-neferet holds the hand of a man identified as “the servant of Osiris.”  Another stele calls Werethekau “Lady of the Palace” and is dedicated by a chantress of Osiris, Horus, and Isis. A man who was Second God’s Servant of Osiris, God’s Servant of Horus, and God’s Servant of Isis was also God’s Servant of Werethekau, Lady of the Palace.

Iset Werethekau in hieroglyphs...three different ways

Iset Werethekau in hieroglyphs…three different ways

Ouda also notes that Lady of the Palace may be Werethekau’s most common epithet. That is quite interesting in light of the fact that Lady of the Palace (or House or Temple) is the very meaning of Nephthys’ name. (Learn more about that here.) And of course, She, too, is called Great of Magic. Together, Isis and Nephthys are the Two Uraeus Goddesses and the Two Great of Magics.

So if the question is, “is Werethekau an independent Goddess, a personified object, or an epithet of other Deities?”, the answer is, “yes”. With the beautiful and, to my mind, admirable fluidity of the Egyptian Divine, She is all these things…and most especially, a powerful aspect of Isis, the Great Enchantress.

Posted by: Isidora | July 23, 2015

Join me for the Celebrate the Goddess Telesummit

Celebrate-the-Goddess-Ad-2-300x300

Hello, Isiacs!

Coming this August, I’ll be participating in the Celebrate the Goddess Telesummit that begins on August 3 and runs through the 14th.

The way this works is that you can register for free and tune in for 20 one-hour sessions, two each weekday, with 20 different speakers. Each session will be about building a relationship with a particular Goddess, including Persephone, Inanna, Saraswati, Artemis, the Black Madonna, Aradia, and more. There’s no cost to attend and the sessions are at 10 am and 1 pm. But since many of us work and won’t be able to listen live, you’ll also have access to listen anytime within 48 hours of each session. You can listen online, via phone, or Skype. You’ll receive the connection information after you register.

You can probably guess which Goddess I’ll be talking about. I’ll be the last speaker—on August 14 at 1 pm…or up to 48 hours after that, at your convenience.

One of the things we’ll be doing is the ritual of Opening the Ways to Isis. I’ve never done the ritual remotely before, so this should be interesting. Please do come and help make the magic even more powerful by your presence and participation.

I hope you’ll join us for all these sessions as we explore some of the many, beautiful faces of Goddess.

Click here to register for free.

Posted by: Isidora | July 19, 2015

It’s Time to Get Sirius about Isis

The holy Star of Isis, the brightest star in the night sky

I know, sorry.

But it is that time.

Star and Cow Goddess were associated very early in Egypt

Stars and the Cow Goddess were associated very early in Egypt

The time when we watch the skies for the pre-dawn reappearance of the beautiful and brilliant star of Isis, Sirius.

Thanks to the wonders of modern online astronomical calculators, we can know pretty precisely when the Fair Star of the Waters will rise before the sun in our area. (To use the calculator, just enter your email and the password: softtests. You will need to know the latitude of your area and its altitude. Both of those are easily google-able.)

I’ve written a number of posts about Sirius and Isis. Here are the links, all in one place:

At Denderah, Sothis is a cow with the star between Her horns, and surrounding Her

At Denderah, one image of Sopdet shows Her as a cow with Sirius between Her horns, and stars surrounding Her

The basic information on Isis and Her holy star and why it is called the “dog star”.

Meditations on Isis and Her Mother during this time of waiting.

Why Sirius is appropriately the heavenly marker of our modern New Year, too, and about temples oriented to Sirius.

The experience of my sister priestess and me last year as we watched Her rise.

About the symbol of the star in Egyptian spirituality and being “joined” to yours.

And a ritual for beginning the process of “being joined to your star.”

Sothis from Isis temple at Philae

Sopdet from Isis’ temple at Philae

The rise of the Star of Isis was important in ancient Egypt for it marked coming of the fertilizing Nile Inundation and the day of the New Year. It was also the end of the epigominal days, those days out of time when the the Cairo Calendar tells us that the birthdays of Osiris, Horus the Elder, Set, Isis, and Nephthys were celebrated.

Thus, if you wish to celebrate the Birth of Isis, it is two days before New Year’s Day.

There are a number of options for choosing our New Year’s Day.

For instance, perhaps you’ve seen a date of July 19th given for the rising of Sirius? This comes from a 1904 calculation by Eduard Meyer, who was the first modern person to have noticed ancient Egypt’s Sothic Cycle.

Isis-Sothis, Lady of the Dog-Star, riding on Her dog

Isis-Sothis, Lady of the Dog-Star, riding on Her dog, from an Alexandrian coin

You may recall that the Sothic Cycle is a period of 1,461 ancient Egyptian years during which the 365-day Egyptian year, which is one quarter day too short, loses enough time so that the Egyptian New Year, once again coincides with the rise of Sirius.

Meyer was trying to calculate the date of the star’s rising from the ancient Egyptian calendar and translate it to the modern Julian so that the reigns of the pharaohs could be more accurately dated. The Sirius rising date he came up with was July 19—but that would have been for 140-142 CE.

You may certainly use that date if you prefer a firm date for planning your celebrations. That would make New Year on the 19th and Isis’ birthday on July 17th.

Personally, I like to use the date when Isis’ star may actually be seen in the morning skies in my area. In my part of the world, the Pacific Northwest of the US, that’s August 23rd. You can use the calculator link above to find out when She rises in your area.

The jumble of stone blocks that is, today, Isiopolis

You could mark the rise of Isis’ star at Isiopolis…

Another option might be to use the modern rising time at either of Isis’ major sacred temple sites in Egypt.

At Her Lower Egypt temple of Isiopolis in the delta, that will be August 9th this year.

 The Temple of Philae; photo by Ivan Marcialis from Quartucciu, Italy and used under Wiki Creative Commons usage guidelines

…or from Her Philae temple; photo by Ivan Marcialis; used under Wiki Creative Commons

At Her Upper Egypt temple of Philae/Agilika, that would be August 3rd.

So you can see that latitude makes a great deal of difference as to when the rising of the Goddess’ star may be actually observed.

This year, at my latitude, the rise of the Star of Isis falls on a weekend (no work worries, yay!), which means that I will be getting up in the wee hours of the morning, traveling a short distance to a high place, and watching as the Mystery unfolds and the Goddess emerges once more from the Underworld into the dawning light.

If you wish to join me, you’ll need to be at your observation point about an hour before sunrise in order to see Her. We may chant Her name—Iset-Sopdet, Isis-Sothis—as She rises. We may offer Her milk and lotuses. Or we may watch in beautiful silence as She comes, She comes.

Posted by: Isidora | July 12, 2015

Isis, the Acacia Goddess

Birds in an acacia tree, from a Middle Kingdom tomb

Birds in an acacia tree, from a Middle Kingdom tomb

There are many species of acacia, medium-sized, thorny trees with rough, dark bark that can be found in the arid parts of Africa and Asia.

In parts of Africa, the trees characteristically have a dome-shaped canopy because of the way the giraffes graze them. Yet the acacia has developed what seems like an almost miraculous defense system. The tree senses its leaves being grazed. This triggers the release into the acacia’s leaves of a poisonous tannin—so poisonous, if enough is consumed, it can even be deadly.

Researchers discovered this when they observed giraffes browsing only one in ten acacia trees, while antelopes on a fenced game ranch that could not roam freely ate acacia and died.

Furthermore, the tree emits a chemical, ethylene, into the air that can travel on the breeze about 50 feet to alert nearby acacia trees—and they produce the tannin, too.

While the ancient Egyptians may not have been aware of the less observable aspects of this cycle, they clearly recognized acacia as special—both practically and magically.

A stool made from acacia wood

A stool made from acacia wood

On the practical side, the Egyptian acacia, acacia nilotica, has many, many uses. Acacia, called shont, shonnet, shondj, or shondet in Egyptian (it is called sont in modern Arabic), is an attractive hardwood from which the ancient Egyptians built, among other things, boats, sarcophaguses, and furniture.

… the Boat of Ra arrived at the town of Het-Aha; its forepart was made of palm wood, and the hind part was made of acacia wood; thus the palm tree and the acacia tree have been sacred trees from that day to this.

—the Legend of Horus of Behutet and the Winged Disk

Acacia flowers are sweet smelling and look like mini suns

Acacia flowers are sweet smelling and look like mini suns

Acacia’s sweet smelling, yellow flowers, which look like little yellow sunbursts, are astringent and were used to help cleanse the skin and clear up skin problems. Brewed acacia leaves were drunk in a cough mixture. They were also applied to wounds and swollen limbs for their astringent properties. The tree’s seedpods are edible by livestock. The crushed bark produces tannin that was used to help heal burns and tan leather.

Gum acacia (aka “gum arabic”), a resin exuded by the tree, has an amazing variety of uses. It is edible and is extremely nutritious. During the gum harvest, modern-day pickers are said to live almost entirely on it, and just six ounces is enough to sustain an adult for a day.

Young woman gathering gum acacia in Sudan

Woman gathering gum acacia in Sudan

Gum acacia assists in blending and smoothing fats, so it is often used in candy making. It can be used in medicines, incense, paint, and even as glue. Ancient Egyptian women used gum acacia, blended into a base of dates and honey, as a contraceptive. And it worked, too. When gum acacia is dissolved, it produces lactic acid, a spermacide.

DMT, a hallucinogen associated with spiritual experiences, may be present in acacia nilotica in low doses. It is, however, present in other species of acacia in higher doses. This has, of course, led some to speculate that the Egyptians may have used the drug as a way to contact the Otherworld.

And that thought is the perfect crossover to look into acacia’s magical potencies.

Acacia pods, very nutritious, make excellent fodder for all kinds of animals

Acacia pods, very nutritious, make excellent fodder for all kinds of animals

The acacia could represent both life and death for it was thought to encompass both. As the antelopes learned, the tree can be deadly, though it is more often connected with life and healing. The tree is evergreen, making it an apt tree of life. Its yellow flowers look like small suns, making it a solar and renewing, tree. Among the virtues of acacia recorded by Pliny, is a quality that would seem to associate it with resurrection and renewal:

…but the principal merit that it possesses is, that when it is cut down, it will grow again within three years.

—Pliny, Natural History, Book XIII, chapter 19

In one of the formulae of the Coffin Texts, wood from the Goddess Saosis’ (that is, Iusaaset, the primordial Grandmother of Creation and the Gods, sometimes identified with Hathor or Isis) sacred acacia is crushed by the deceased for its healing properties.

In another, the acacia provides an unidentified instrument of power that enables the deceased to avoid evil things in the Otherworld. In yet another text, the acacia appears to be an ingredient in a divine mortar.

Just as the Double Lions served as the gateway to the Otherworld, sometimes Two Acacia Trees could be a gateway, too

Just as the Double Lions served as the gateway to the Otherworld, sometimes Two Acacia Trees could be a gateway

The acacia is also associated with the Double Lion, the twin lions Who guard the horizon to the Otherworld.

The Egyptians must have considered the acacia an ancient, even primordial, tree. In the Book of Coming Forth by Day, the deceased says that he stands before Anubis in a time before the acacia was born, that is, In The Beginning, before the Deities had established All Things. At Heliopolis, there was a tradition that all the Goddesses and Gods were born beneath an acacia tree. In the Book of Coming Forth by Day, the deceased goes to “the Acacia Tree of the Children;” probably the Divine Children of Iusaaset, the Goddesses and Gods born beneath the sacred acacia.

The deceased and his ba receive water from the Acacia Tree Goddess in the Otherworld

The deceased makes offering while his ba receives water from the Acacia Goddess in the Otherworld

While the acacia is associated with a number of Egyptian Deities, it has specific associations with Isis and Her family. A particular acacia—simply called The Acacia, or Shondj—was sacred to Her. The Goddess Shontet, the Acacia Goddess Who took part in the Osirian resurrection rites at Djedu (Mendes), was considered to be a form of Isis. And Isis and Nephthys together were called the Two Shonti Goddesses, that is, the Two Acacia Goddesses.

In the story of the “Contendings of Horus and Set,” Isis, in the form of Her sacred bird, flies into the branches of Her holy acacia after tricking Set into condemning His own attempts to usurp the rightful rule of Horus, Isis’ son. In some tales, the acacia is the tree that magically grew up around the body of Osiris when His sarcophagus washed up on the shores of Byblos. He is called “the One in the Tree” and “the Solitary One in the Acacia.” In the Pyramid Texts, Horus, “comes forth from the acacia tree.”

Acacia nilotica

Acacia nilotica, showing leaves and thorns

In one of the poison-curing spells that include the legend of “Isis & the Seven Scorpions,” when Horus is stung and cries out in pain, it is the doorkeepers at the Temple of the Holy Acacia Tree who hear Him and send a cry to the heavens for help, since Isis is away making libations for Osiris.

Because of Divine associations like these, acacia could serve as an offering to both Horus and Isis—and although I haven’t yet run across it, it would seem that it would be a very appropriate offering for Osiris as well.

The acacia is a tree of beauty, usefulness, powerful protection, life and death, and the magic of healing…and thus it is sacred unto Isis Shontet, the Lady of the Acacia.

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