January 9, 2014.
The thing about attempting to create a calendar that a lot of people don’t realize, or maybe just don’t put a lot of thought into, is how many of these festivals are going to be about things that we have absolutely no information on. Some festivities lasted all the way through to the New Kingdom and beyond, some going so far as to have continued celebrations during the Greco-Roman era. However, when it comes to some of the less popular deities in the later period – such as Sekhmet – then a lot of times, we may learn about a festivity and go, “well… what the fuck was that about?”
Case in point, last week, I got a notice that I had an upcoming festival coming up. I got the information for this particular celebration from Fanny Fae, who is a priestess of Sekhmet. She was the one who told me about this celebration and what date it was celebrated on so that I could add it to my calendar. However, as with many things relating to Sekhmet, aside from a name, I had very little to nothing to go on. I had to start thinking clinically and clearly about what I thought this would be about and then, take it from there. Unfortunately, even the name of the festival didn’t help: “Sekhmet’s Procession with her Executioners.” Well, a big ole “what the fuck” on that.
The first part was pretty obvious – we had a procession.
To me, that word elicits a type of celebration that would have been filled with pomp. The pomp would have been, probably, pretty pious and quiet as it proceeding to wherever the end goal was. I could see images, in my head, of priests of Sekhmet walking toward their common goal, perhaps even surrounded by the populace as they went from point to A to point B. The problem with just having that is that I wasn’t really sure where they would be processing to. So, I had to look at the rest of the title in an effort to figure out what the hell was going on.
But the next problem arose pretty quickly: what executioners was this supposed to be about? Is it possible that we were focusing on a certain class of men in warfare who ceremonially killed the captives? Sekhmet was seen as a guardian of the pharaoh and was a war faring deity. So, perhaps, this was about a certain class of priesthood relating to the armies whose sole focus was to ceremonially kill the prisoners after the war?
However, she was also seen as an arbiter of justice, so maybe it wasn’t just about war and warmongering. Perhaps it was a class of priest who would execute those who deserved it under the laws of the pharaoh. In thinking on that, I thought about what sort of men and women would see the death penalty in ancient Egypt. They would have been the lowest of the low: men and women who had done unspeakable things to corpses, preventing the spirit of the deceased from traveling to the Duat. They would have probably have been murderers (though I can’t say, clearly, as I haven’t studied the justice system of ancient Egypt) and perhaps people who had committed some heinous sins against the gods. It makes sense, in a way, that Sekhmet would have a band of executioners whose sole job was to put the unjust out of the misery of the rest of the populace.
But, of course, there are other ways to interpret “executioners.”
In relation to Sekhmet, there are also the Seven Arrows of hers. These were seen as “the dark equivalent” of the Seven Hathors, who determined the fate of the populace. The Seven Arrows tended to also decree fate, but in a much less positive fashion. They are harbingers of ill-fortune, which tended to be shown most often in the form of disease. While the power of the Seven Arrows was mighty, it was possible in heka to control them. (As found on p39 in Magic in Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch, there was a spell that could be used to control the Seven Arrows against the “Evil Eye.”) While I’m uncertain if I fall in line with Pinch’s statement that the Seven Arrows were the “negative aspects” of the Seven Hathors, I have to wonder if the general populace, or more specifically her priesthood, would truly honor them outside of their valued ability to inflict pain and suffering on those whom they deemed worthy of that pain and suffering? And if so, would they have had a festival that was big enough to require a procession for it?
Another possibility was regarding the netjeri that are specifically related to Sekhmet. On top of the Seven Arrows, she also had a group of demons known as “the slaughterers of Sekhmet.” Again, according to Pinch, these demons were particularly dangerous usually at certain times of the year. It seems that the slaughterers of Sekhmet were more active during the scorching heat of summer (or Harvest), which makes sense as Sekhmet’s breath was thought to be the scorching heat of the desert. So, if the netjeri known as the slaughterers were her demon hoard sent to do her bidding, it makes clear sense as to why they would also be feared during the heat of summer and why they would also be associated with that heat. However, would they have had a festival in honor of them at all? If nothing else, it may have been intended as a sort of appeasement of Sekhmet and of her netjeri so that they would not infest, infect, or attack the unsuspecting populace. And there’s no way better, in my humble opinion, to keep a demon from striking than to bore them to tears with a long-winded procession from point A to point B.
Of course, this still didn’t answer my fundamental question: who the fuck were the executioners of Sekhmet? And why the fuck did they get a whole processional somewhere?
I decided that, in some cases, we’ll just never know.
And I absolutely hate that this may be the case with a lot of festivals that I end up celebrating this year, but it is what it is. I strongly suspect that many of these festivals regarding Sekhmet began in the Old Kingdom, or perhaps the very fundamentals began as early as the Predynastic Period. As much information as we have nowadays regarding ancient Egyptian history, there are huge gaps missing. Some aspects of the Old Kingdom practice have come down to us in other tidbits. If you look at the Pyramid Texts, you can find aspects of those spells found in the Coffin Texts and then, later on, in the Book of the Dead. However, not everything has been saved through time in this way. And I honestly believe that this is the case with many of the festivals and feasts for the deities popular during the earlier periods and less liked in the later periods. Sekhmet is a clear example: I have a handful of festivals regarding her, but according to my studies, she was a pretty important deity in the Old Kingdom, probably due to her relationship with Ptah and his preeminence as the deity of Memphis. I doubt that the handful of festivities I have (okay, more like a dozen) in my calendar are all that there is for her.
Another possibility is that maybe there are more festivities that have come down to us, but we have no idea because of syncretism. There’s more festivities of drunkenness under the auspices of Hetheru than there are of Sekhmet. I don’t honestly believe that the two began their deity status as a syncretized deity, but that it came later in an effort to tone down the blood thirst of Sekhmet. I think that some of the festivities of drunkenness that are related to Hetheru actually started off as appeasement ceremonies to Sekhmet in an effort to keep her pacified so that she wouldn’t become enraged again. However, I can make thoughts and suppositions all I want, but chances are, we’ll never know. People who study their particular deity for long enough can make educated guesses, but at the end of the day that is all they are. We just have to hope that in our attempts to recreate something ancient in a modern-day kind of way that we are doing it justice in our attempts and that, hopefully, we’re not as half-cocked as we sound when we discuss it.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter so much what the festival is about. I really do attempt to figure it out. Sometimes, there are discussions I have about it with the folks on Tumblr. Someone thought, maybe, that the festival had to do with the single myth we have of Sekhmet, in which she was sent to end the world and then Re went, “Whoops, about that.” While the thought was appealing, I had to admit that I knew that wasn’t the case. (The reason I’m explaining it here is so that others can see why I didn’t go down this route.)
All things said and done, the ancient Egyptians feared Sekhmet’s wrath and what she was capable of doing. In most of her festivals, the aim was all about pacifying the power that she has so that she didn’t end up trying to end the world a second time. Let’s not forget, she did it once and nearly succeeded in destroying all of humanity. If it wasn’t for some quick thinking and some dyed beer, we wouldn’t be here! And so, while they regarded her with awe and there are other aspects of her that they turned to in their time of need, when it came to the powerful one that she is, they would have done whatever they could to not remind her of that time. They would have given her beer and made her drunk and they would have petted her like a kitty, but they would have been very clear in not celebrating any aspect of that time. It was chaotic and frightening – why bring it back up?
So with all of this boiling in my head, I decided to just ignore what the fuck I thought everything was about and go with whatever I could in my gut.
While thinking about how I could possibly do all of this with the limited information I had, I thought about the word “executioners” again. And I thought, well, maybe, her devotees could be executioners in their own way too?
Here is where UPG meets the recreated.
I tend to think of myself, and the other Sekhmet devotees, as executioners. In many instances, we turn to her out of a deep-seated need for removing harmful influences in our lives. Everyone who has been reading this blog for long enough knows what a whiny, sniveling brat I was in the beginning of it all. And everything has changed in the last year or so. As someone else indicated to me, I’ve “matured.” (Cool!) And as I’ve looked back over the long, long years where I’ve been in this relationship with her, I’ve come to find the influence of her in my life in many different places. And what I’ve come back to is that she has always, always helped me out with “executing” the more negative aspects of myself, my practice, and my past. In every instance, whether she has been publicly and obviously assisting me with it or she has been maneuvering in the background, she has assisted me with this in one way or another.
And this got me thinking about some of the other relationships I know that other Sekhmet kids have. I was thinking about one in particular, who may realize who she is while reading this, who has been going through the “growing pains” in her relationship with Sekhmet. And she’s at a place that I very clearly remember being in numerous times with her over the years. But the outcome of all of these “growing pains” will be good things. I can assure her of that and I can tell her that, but she still has to realize that on her own. And while she’s walking down that path, traipsing and screaming and running and yelling and pouting and growling and everything in between, on her way to that realization, she is steadily but surely “executing” the negative aspects in her life that she needs Sekhmet’s help with.
So, I realized, well, maybe it wasn’t just about who could have taken part in this festival way back when but who could take part in this festival now.
I came home and I thought about what a procession would probably have looked like in the actual act of it. I thought that they would have probably have had a barque that the icon of Sekhmet would have been riding in. I’ve re-created a barque before during one of my rites, but since that rite was specific to sailing and this was more about walking around, I decided to nix it. I thought about the movement that would have been felt when the procession was ongoing and that, maybe, there would have been pendants floating in the breeze during the walk. Maybe those pendants would have even have been on the barque that was taking its time going from wherever to wherever.
So, with the thought of those pendants in mind, I created four strips of paper, cutting them lengthwise. I wanted to have them long and sort of free flowing in the breeze, or at least as free flowing as I possibly could. After cutting those strips of paper, I detailed the four types of executioners I thought needed to be honored here: the Seven Arrows, the weapons that would have been used (maybe) to execute people, the general netjeri known as her slaughterers, and the names of every Sekhmet kid that I could think up off the top of my head. I chose red for the Seven Arrows to better associate them with Sekhmet and her association with the color red. The rest, I just wrote down with your regular pencil and decided against coloring them in. I did the best I possibly could with the weapons sketches, looking specifically at pictures of ancient Egyptian weapons so that I could sketch them as appropriately as I could. (I can’t art!)
I set the four pieces of paper in a kind of “flowing” pattern on Sekhmet’s altar. I also kind of bent them a little bit so that it would look as though they were blowing in the wind. I arranged them in a pattern that I thought was most pleasing on her altar. I lit a cone of incense and added four white tea lights. I chose the number four because it’s supposed to be a number of completion in ancient Egypt. (I honestly can’t recall where I read this but I know that I read it relatively recently. I’m also uncertain where the information comes from outside of numerology concept, which tends to be associated with R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz.)
Per usual, I have to hope that how I moved forward with this particular festival was enough for her. I was looking for something more somber and less fun-filled than my last festival. In that, I know that I succeeded. Whether or not I capably succeeded in recreating a festival that probably hasn’t actually seen the light of day in thousands of years? Well, Sekhmet hasn’t offered any complaints.