Egypt is a land where life and death transition and integrate. The arid desert, capable of delivering death and decay gives way to the fertility of the Nile. The immense heat of the blazing sun departs into the coolness of the night in a symbol of death and rises again as the morning. The concepts of death, transformation, and rebirth are represented everywhere in ancient Egyptian civilization, including their magical practices and their sexuality.
Ancient Egypt evokes sensations of mystery, allure, and intrigue. We seek to understand the brilliance and the connections this civilization held with the gods and the cosmos, for these connections greatly influenced the Egyptian understanding of and relationship to life. As a practitioner of the occult I find great intrigue and curiosity in exploring the spirituality and mysticism of ancient Egypt. Their understanding of the deities shares the perspective of the beautiful complexity of the Hindu pantheon, of which I greatly admire. Both of these traditions reflect a deep understanding that our mortal forms are aspects of these deities just as the deities are a reflection of our psyche.
Magic offered a means of communicating with the gods and the cosmos as a whole and to influence the desired outcome of an obstacle. As with my own occult studies based in traditional witchcraft magic (magick or Egyptian heka) is practiced in order to strengthen connection with the divine. Magic, then, is integrated into daily practice. Further integration involves the sexuality of the ancient Egyptians, for without sexuality there is no creation, no destruction, and no rebirth. Sex was nothing to be ashamed of, embarrassed by, and was not necessary to be hidden (Booth), in contrast to our modern Western Judeo-Christian perspectives. Interestingly however, the imagery was sometimes coded. In the Treasures of Tutankhamen a clothing dresser was found depicting an image of the boy king drawing bow and arrow. Near his feet reclined his wife and the word meaning “to shoot” which has clear connotations with the image of archery. Further reflection determines this word also corresponds to “ejaculate” (Booth).
A mysterious document named the Turin Papyrus unearthed in the early 19thcentury in Deir el-Medina is still being researched. Part satirical and part sexual in its content, scholars debate the purpose of the papyrus: pornography, social commentary, coded message to the gods…? The theory of satire or social commentary arise because the illustrations are at times outrageous: while the women are young and beautiful the men are grotesque with caricature style penises assuming impossible bodily positions (Antelme and Rossini 151).
Other perspectives have been offered for consideration. Deir el-Medina was the location of the workers who were building the Valley of the King temples. As such, this village was populated with artisans and scribes who would have possessed creativity and intelligence and literacy. The cleverness possible in the minds and skills of these people is not to be overlooked. The papyrus could simply be the ancient world’s version of a men’s pornographic magazine! Some scenes seem to be suggestive of brothels with the young women engaged with older men (Booth).
Researchers have also unearthed love poetry expressing sensual feelings. One passage describes a woman as “emerging from the waters of the Nile, clothing clinging to her body… her fingers like lotus petals… and in her thighs her beauty rests” (Booth). The Turin Papyrus could be telling of the sexual desires and relations of the people in everyday Egyptian society.
The importance of sex maintains relevancy in its relationship to creation and rebirth and was therefore enjoyed by the deities and by souls in the afterlife. Spell 576 of the Coffin Texts offered the use of carnelian or amethyst beads as part of the working in order to ensure frequent intercourse and the ability to please one’s partner in the afterlife (Pinch, Magic In Ancient Egypt 124).
The myth of Osiris, Isis, and Seth clearly describes sex and phallic symbolism. Another spell relates to the love and faithfulness of Isis to Osiris: the male client would be instructed to anoint his penis with an ointment prepared for him by the magician. The act of engaging in intercourse with his lover while his penis was anointed would ensure she would be faithful to him and any children she conceived would be his. As is common in magical workings, there was a caveat, for if she was already married or her affections lay elsewhere, the result would be a hate towards him as Isis hated Set (124).
Of particular mythological interest to me is the beautiful power of the goddess Sekhmet in her role as destroyer and creator. Sekhmet is the lion headed goddess. She is an aspect of Hathor, born from the enraged eye of Ra who was being neglected by the human race in their devotion. Termed the “Powerful One” she is fierce and bloodthirsty, much like the Hindu goddess Kali. Both goddesses developed a thirst for blood as they were called forth for vengeance. Sekhmet’s body would become luminescent as she shot arrows at her enemies. Her mouth breathed the hot desert winds of Egypt. Her mane and eyes emanated fire and her back was the color of blood (Hubbard). Kali possessed fangs and a forked tongue that licked the blood of her enemies. She wore a garland of skulls and her eyes were aflame. While Sekhmet devoured the human race with the ferocity of her lioness qualities, Kali devoured the demons she was called upon to conquer, and danced upon the earth so ecstatically she threatened to destroy it. From these actions in both mythologies, rebirth transpires. The old must be destroyed in order to make space for the new.
These archetypes translate to our psyche and our individual growth as mortals upon this earth and can be called upon as guides through challenging moments. I personally have called upon Kali’s strength and find myself currently drawn to Sekhmet. Change is not always welcome and can be accompanied by fear of the unknown and that which we do not perceive we can control. Change is not deterred by these feelings and will occur regardless. Therefore it has been my practice to embrace transformation and work cooperatively with my awareness and insight rather than futilely attempt to stop it.
The archetypal process of destruction obliterates that which no longer serves us. As in the myth, Sekhmet destroys the humans who no longer serve the god Ra, the ultimate creator. Reasons to follow through with destruction include release of self-imposed limitations, to discover our truth, and to release our ego. This process also allows us opportunity to reach enlightenment, to purify our heart, and to transcend to ecstasy (Kempton 144). As the human race lost their devotion to the creator god Ra it may be perceived that they lost their connection to their divine self; they lost sense of their being and the relationship to nature and to the cosmos. I assert our contemporary western culture is more commonly disassociated in this manner, causing feelings of strife, lack of fulfillment, materialistic desires, and overall misery and unhappiness.
The totem of the lion, embodied in Sekhmet, also carries significance in various cultures. The lion is an “assertion of the feminine and the power of the female sun” (Andrews 283). The lioness speaks to the rising of the feminine energies, correlating to the awakening of creativity, intuition, and imagination (284). Sekhmet’s possession of these attributes is evident in her role of destroyer and creator. One of her names is Nesert, or flame, which personifies her role as the destroying heat of the sun’s rays (Spence 147).
The masculine and the feminine carry equal importance in the role of rebirth and the Egyptians were not ignorant of this. We see the masculine in the form of Khepri, the scarab headed deity. Scarab, a personal favorite totem, is the beetle that buries its eggs in mounds of dung, which serves to provide nourishment to the larvae. The action of the larvae emerging from these balls represented new life to the Egyptian people. The scarab would push these balls up from underneath the sand of the desert, similar in appearance to the rising of the sun and further symbolizing the concept of resurrection.
“The beetle itself had long been associated with the rising sun, and the word for ‘beetle’ was similar in sound to the word for ‘become’ or ‘come into being.’ Thus, the simple oval scarab, often with a magical pattern or inscription carved into its base, was a powerful symbol of rebirth and continued existence after death” (Roehrig 13).
The god Bes is another masculine representation relating to sexuality. He is the protector of children and was seen as vital in the ritual of childbirth. Archaeologists have discovered masks in his image which were believed to have been worn by attendees while a woman was in labor in order to invoke his protection in keeping both newborn and mother safe and healthy. Wands, likely imbued with magical protection spells in his name, were also utilized, perhaps in casting a protective circle over the belly of the mother (Booth).
Snake is another symbol commonly seen in Egyptian mythology. Snake is also a incredibly personal totem of mine: I have bellydanced with snakes for over 20 years and find a strong bond with their spiritual representation of rebirth and transformation. To sidetrack into a personal experience, my beloved snake Jasmine of 17 years passed away prematurely in an accident in 2012. Coinciding with the time of her death I was in a major life transition. Losing her was very much symbolic and emotional as I embarked on a tumultuous path which would take years to settle and balance out. Again, in a synchronistic series of events, as I found closure with this particular path, a new snake came into my life, whom I have named Mystique.
Snake is likely to spark the most controversy among the animal symbols (Andrews 360), thanks largely to the negative Judeo-Christian beliefs depicting snake as evil. The Egyptians hold snake as a representation of inner sight, wisdom, and understanding and was a common adornment among those initiated (361).
Renenūtet is an Egyptian goddess of harvest and nourishment oftentimes depicted artistically with the head of a cobra. Her relationship and importance to harvest, bringing life and fertility, can be contrasted with the symbolism of resurrection in snake. She is also related to Wadjet, a powerful protector of Lower Egypt.
It would be naïve to ignore the sexual connotations of snake symbolism, which only enhance its representation of creativity and transformation; as has been stated, sexuality and creation work in unison. The curved feminine body has commonly been poetically described as serpentine. A passage by contemporary author Karen Hueler reads “They’re phallic… They’re universal. And when they’re not phallic, I think they still have something to do with the birth of the world.. or medicine – healing… A powerful symbol” (Heuler and Lewis 125).
As a snakedancer, the connotation is tremendously powerful. The use of dance ritualistically is also no coincidence in various cultures for fertility, death, and rebirth. Dances were “sometimes erotic, since sexuality was considered a regenerative power” (Pinch, Magic In Ancient Egypt 154). In addition to being a protector of women and childbirth, Bes was the patron god of music, dance and sexual pleasure, further supporting correlations between sexual power and creative powers.
Bellydancers, as well as many temple dancers cross-culturally, utilize coin belts around their hips. This action emphasizes the suggestive movements of the pelvis. The sound also plays a role in sexuality, for music and dance are enhancing accompaniments. It is no secret that evenings of revelry, elixirs, music, and dance lead to sexual and sensual acts.
The deities and their myths share common elements and integrate with each other and with our own daily behaviors. The practice of magic, or heka, served to harness these energies and influence the outcome of problems and obstacles. “Egyptian magic can be defined as an a
ction which seeks to obtain its good by methods outside the simple laws of cause and effect” (Pinch, Magic In Ancient Egypt 16). One method was the utilization of amulets and talismans and the application of them in ritualistic practices. The earliest recognizable amulets in ancient Egypt date back to the fourth millennium BCE and the earliest magical texts to the third millennium BCE (9). As I have discovered in my witchcraft practices, the use of tangible objects aids in the focus of intent. There is an immense power in words and images, particularly when uttered by someone such as a shaman, a witch, or a holy person who is connected with the mysterious, as is demonstrated in all societies and cultures apart from magical and ritualistic practices. They also add a certain element of joy and play!
Pinch differentiates talismans held the purpose of enhancing a particular quality sought by the wearer while the amulet’s primary purpose was to protect (Magic In Ancient Egypt105). Both items could be jewelry, as was common, but were not limited to this modality. “Most Egyptian art had a religious or magical purpose” (Pinch, Egyptian Myth 107). Amulets and talismans could be almost anything, so long as it was believed to be blessed or imbued with the magical properties necessary to achieve the goal. Magicians and physicians worked hand-in-hand as magic and medicine were integrated, such as the wearing of Bes masks during childbirth.
“Amulets with a mythical resonance are particularly characteristic of Egyptian culture” such as creation myths (Pinch, Magic In Ancient Egypt 109). My own witchcraft practices most definitely adopt this tradition. Many of my necklaces and rings hold value as talismans and amulets. Stones carry specific energies and purpose, as well as elements such as copper wire wrappings or the pouches in which they may be carried. The scarab, snake, Isis pendant, or Eye of Horus are all examples of amulets with a mythical quality. The clothes chest of King Tutankhamen discussed earlier may have been illustrated with the intention of a spell such as fertility or the succession of heirs. Such assertions are likely impossible to determine since any accompanying written spell work has not been found in many of these instances.
Similar to our familiar western society, the challenges within love, intimacy, and relationship created reflection and the desire for magical aid and intervention. Scholars and archaeologists have unearthed erotic poetry and spells relating to inspiring devotion and affection. This speaks to the age-old quest to balance the masculine and feminine dynamics in search of fulfillment.
The integration of creation, creativity, sexuality, and magic is compelling and enjoyable. The Egyptians held great reverence for life and for death and put effort into finding various modalities of connecting with the mysteries of the cosmos. By sharing experiences and desires with the deities, the people of the ancient Egyptian civilization did not set themselves apart from the deities, but rather coupled with the various archetypes. I find myself in continued awe of their mysticism and believe there is much to be learned from their way of life.
Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2002. Print.
Antelme, Ruth Schumann, et al. Sacred Sexuality in Ancient Egypt: The Erotic Secrets of the Forbidden Papyri. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2001. Print.
Booth, Charlotte. “Love, Sex and Marriage in Ancient Egypt.” History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com:443/period/ancient-egypt/love-sex-and-marriage-in-ancient-egypt/. Accessed 16 Mar. 2018.
Hubbard, LaRese. “Sekhmet.” Encyclopedia of African Religion, edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, vol. 2, SAGE Publications, 2009, pp. 601-603. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.pgi.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/CX3074400384/GVRL?u=carp39441&sid=GVRL&xid=144a2d5a. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.
Kempton, Sally. Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Boulder: Sounds True, 2013. Print.
Lewis, Willee, and George Plimpton. Snakes: An Anthology of Serpent Tales. New York: M. Evans & Company, 2003. Print.
Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010. Print.
Roehrig, Catherine H. “Life along the Nile: Three Egyptians of Ancient Thebes.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 60, no. 1, 2002, p. 1.
Spence, Lewis, and Paul Mirecki. Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends. New York: Dover, 2005. Print.