The image of a fish, whether alive or dead, doesn’t exactly inspire an image of a bonfire. A ton of potential associated images may flash in one’s mind after hearing the word “fish” and more than likely, an image of fire is not going to pop up. And yet, I have to try and figure out how to merge the two as the ancient Egyptian five-day holiday, Treading the Fishes, perfectly lines up with this year’s summer solstice.
The Solstice Squad call to solstice shenanigans was put out a few weeks back. In amusement, I immediately jumped into my calendar to see which ancient Egyptian festival lined up with it. Imagine my surprise when I saw the five-day Treading the Fishes holiday. I had never in my whole life wanted to celebrate a holiday that talked about fish, but since I’ve been trying to modernize holidays, merge modern day holidays with ancient, and trying to foster some sense of community, I was stuck.
Oh, sure. I could go with one of the normal Midsummer associations eclectic pagans harp on. The Llewellyn book I bought years ago about the summer solstice claims that Ra would be an appropriate deity to honor (well that’s a given really) and I could also honor Anuket (a deity that personifies the inundation of the Nile which happened around July/August and I was shocked to see that name). But the idea of cobbling together something new and not based on antiquity grated on my nerves. So… fish stepping it is.
Through the Ancient Ruins
This particular festival comes to us from the Kom Ombo calendar and is associated with Heru-Wer. Unlike most ancient Egyptian festivals where I am often left scratching my head about the why or the what, there are no questions to be had here. There is no secret meaning in the name, lost to the sands of time. This holiday is, quite literally, about treading on fishes.
In antiquity, the pharaoh or his representative would be given a basket of dried fish carcasses (ew) and would step on them. I assume the stepping on them took place at least once each day. Sometimes the pharaoh would also renew his vows of protection and kingship as part of this holiday, but clearly it was the stepping on dead fishes that held the most import here. And can I just say that I really hope they were wearing sandals at the time of the stepping?
The reason for the stepping on fish is two-fold: both a renewal of ma’at and a renewal of life. Fish could have both ma’at and isfet qualities in ancient Egypt. In this particular instance, the dried carcass of fish represent the overcoming of evil-doers. Just as ancient iconography depicts bound and trod upon, the stepping on the dead fish was symbolic of that. The second purpose of the treading on fish guts was a renewal of life. The bodies of the fish would be buried within the fields to help propagate new life.
When the Moon and the Stars Were Aligned
I will do a lot for my gods but slimy fish guts or dried fish guts is where I draw the line. I never had any intention of stepping on fish but replicas? Now that was something I could do. I live surrounded by three different craft store chains and they always have unfinished wood pieces of some animal or another on hand. I lucked out by finding a pack of 50 that you can thread into a garland (… why…?) and since the end result of the fishies was to burn, I thought wood pieces would be the best choices.
The basket posed a problem. Of all the things that I couldn’t find in the various home goods stores mixed in with the craft shops all around. Every basket didn’t really elicit the image I had in my head and none of the woven baskets I had at home worked either. I stopped at every obvious shop and not-obvious shop hoping for the basket and failed at every instance. I decided against using one after repeatedly finding nothing.
Other than stomping and vow renewals, what else could one do for five days? It was an evolving question. I mean, the ancient Egyptians are old hat at the long-winded holidays but how could the guy in charge (or his representative) just… step on fish… for five whole days? I decided three days was sufficient so I could utilize the rest of my time focusing on preparing for the Beautiful Reunion which starts three days after Treading the Fishes.
When You Sparked a Flame
I have to laugh at myself nowadays because ritual purity has never been a huge thing for me in my practice. Natron and purifying everything on my body to the ancient standards always seemed like Way Too Much for me even when I was exploring the idea that I could potentially hybridize a priestly role for myself for some of my deities. However, I’ve come to realize that I need the silence of a warm bath before long winded holiday shenanigans so day 1 for Treading the Fishes included an hour long bath and the constantly ringing phrase through my head, cleanliness is next to godliness.
The second day included yet another last ditch basket finding adventure that ended in failure. And yet more cleansing. But the third day was the important day, so I made my husband go out and ignite the tiny spark of pyromania that lives in his heart to light the Midsummer Bonfire and subsequently consecrate our fire pit (a Christmas gift that took months longer to get to my home than initially expected) for the first time.
There were three years’ worth of corn dolls from the Osiris Mysteries that needed to be reduced to ash. The corn dolls spend about four or five months covered in their dirt nap before they’re pulled free to awaken once more. Their ashes will be used throughout the yard as I work on trying to get certain sections of the yards where I want them before frosts begin again in the cooler months.
I chose to use 7 fish from my package of 50. Certain numbers have a specific meaning in ancient Egypt and seven tends to herald a great variety of things. But perfection was the image I was aiming for. The slaughter and decimation of 7 enemies, the overcoming of seven agents of isfet to the tune of ma’at screaming in one’s ears. The earth was chosen as the basket to cradle the enemies which seemed far more poetic than I had initially realized.
The fish burned quickly and efficiently. Before long, they were blackened vaguely fish-looking outlines. And when I covered the pit over that night, there wasn’t a single hint that the ashes had once held pieces of the past (corn dolls) or the desiccated and smited remains of agents of isfet. There was only the promise of ashes to be utilized in the renewal of the earth.