My Sow Goddess essay part 2 is now posted at Return to Mago. These essays are intended to stand on their own, but if you want to read the first Sow Goddess article it’s here.This second piece talks about Mediterranean porcine deities, including those in Egypt. The dietary prejudice against the pig that developed throughout the Middle East is touched upon here and will be explored again in a later article.
In the beginning the beginning beganIn the becoming the becoming becameI have come into being in the coming of my beingas I came into being in beginning timeTo the ancient Egyptians, the animating force Khepri was best exemplified by the scarab, also known as the Dung Beetle. This little critter descends on the scat of herbivores in droves to consume undigested nutrients. To consume a meal in peace, the scarab pats a piece of dung into a ball and rolls the scat some distance away, sometimes hiding the trophy in an underground niche. The Dung Beetle lays her eggs in concealed dung balls, which the larvae subsist on. The young adult emerges from the dung ball seemingly self-created.By pushing his large dung ball over the sand the scarab illustrated to the Egyptians the force pushing the sun across the sky in the daytime, then pushing the sun under the earth through the night. The scarab was not merely a symbol of this force, named Khepri, but an incarnation of a pervasive presence which manifested through this insect in a pure form.Egyptians wore scarab jewelry and carried scarab amulets. The deceased often had a scarab ornament resting over the heart. Egyptians saw the heart as the seat of consciousness in the body and believed it was paramount to meet death in a pure state of heart. Scarabs themselves were sometimes entombed in the little scarab sarcophagi.The hymn above is from a rather obscure third century papyrus called “Knowing the Modes of Ra” and is part of the Egyptian Hermetic tradition. This is my own interpretation – I won’t call it a translation because I don’t read hieroglyph. The original goes
Kheper-i kheper kheperu kheper-kuy n kheperu m khepra kheperu m sep tepy.
I first heard this in 1987 at the Isis Oasis in Geyserville, California and it has always stayed with me. More information can be found in a book called Eternal Egypt: Ancient Rituals for a Modern World by Richard J. Reidy and at the website for a group called House of Keperu.
Animal divinity can take many forms.A living animal can literally be a god or goddess. An example of this would be the crocodile Petesuchos, who lived at the temple to the Egyptian god Sebek. Petesuchos wore jewelry, lived a pampered existence and was considered the literal offspring of Sebek, elevated above the ordinary crocodile who might be killed for meat or safety.A specific animal can also be a living omen or message from a deity. The white buffalo calf Miracle, born on a Wisconsin farm, was seen as a message from White Buffalo Calf Woman of positive and momentous changes. Honoring Miracle honored the blessings and prophecy of White Buffalo Calf Woman. Miracle also shows how an animal can embody divinity in more than one way, as Miracle was often propitiated with gifts, sometimes highly valued gifts such as military medals, as if she were an actual goddess like Petesuchos (although not all Plains Indians who revered Miracle viewed her in this way).An animal species might be sacred to a particular deity, and thus all members of this species might be treated with deference out of reverence for that deity. An example of this would be the dog, who is sacred to the goddess Nehalennia and usually pictured as her companion.An animal can be considered sacred for her contribution to human life, for her symbology, or for her pivotal role in myth. The cow is given special status by Hindus for her gift of milk. In the 1980’s thousands of school children wrote the Ohio State Legislature protesting a proposal to allow dove hunting, arguing that it would be killing peace. Lenape Indians were successful in getting some limitations placed on groundhog killing in Pennsylvania, due to the significance of the animal in creation stories.Some deities of strong significance to humans are animal gods or goddesses. In his earliest known form of worship, Apollo is a mouse god. His temple in Tenedos housed hundreds or perhaps thousands of mice, who were not considered gods in their own right but were pampered as a favor to Apollo. The mice had a divine function as omens as well, with large litters presaging economic prosperity. Special priestesses were employed to interpret oracles from the mouse god. The goddess Athena typifies many deities of Old Europe by having twin animal forms of earth creature (snake) and sky creature (owl).Every animal has its own deity. Modern pagans refer to the chief deities of plant and animal species as devas, a word borrowed from Sanskrit which means “god.” In appealing to the deity of an animal which does not have a recognized cult, the animal “deva” will be invoked. Alternatively, when petitioning a specific animal colony, the “queen,” who is leader of that particular family, can also be invoked. It is also possible to appeal en masse to a group of animals, praying to the animals in their collective spirit, although some would quibble that this is the same as appealing to an animal deva.Closely related to an animal deity, but not exactly the same thing, is an animal familiar. A familiar is a being who helps a priestess with her magic. The familiar can be an incarnate living creature or a discarnate being who exists only in spirit, but most often she is a living animal. There is much that I can say about the animal familiar, and whole books have been written on the subject, so I will talk about familiars in a later post.
Our tree goddess this week is the goddess Neith (Neit), and her tree is the acacia. The acacia is a small scrawny tree with tiny leaves and pronounced thorns. It has a long fibrous seedpod that is attractive to animals and is often used as fodder for cattle. There are over a thousand trees with the common name acacia, and they grow all over the world in arid climates. One species in northern Africa, probably the tree of Neith, is the Vachellia nilotica, also called the Egyptian thorn or the gum arabic tree. The ancient Egyptians used the very hard wood of this acacia for making tools. The sap, called gum arabic in its powdered form, was used for incense, perfume, cosmetics, glue, pigment binder, and embalming. Gum arabic from a related acacia native to sub Sahara Africa is still used for a variety of commercial purposes, especially the manufacture of candy.Probably the most important quality of the acacia is its globular, fragrant yellow flowers, which draw quantities of bees. Honey has been a vital food going back to the hunter/gatherer tribes of Paleolithic times. When Egypt adopted a grain-based diet, honey remained important not only as a food of pleasure but as a catalyst in bread rising and fermentation. In the complex Egyptian economy that nonetheless had not developed a metal currency, honey was a medium for paying taxes. Not only was it valuable, but it kept well. Honey was a staple food offering to the gods.The symbol for Neith is the bee, and the bee hieroglyph can mean Neith, Lower (northern) Egypt, or the ruler of Lower Egypt, depending on the context. Neith is the oldest of the Egyptian gods, the mother of all the gods. It was she who emerged first from the amorphous primeval waters, and she who created the first mound of earth to rest upon. The round yellow flowers on her sacred tree reflect her position as mother of the sun, as does the sun-loving bee. Like many sun goddesses, she is the goddess of weaving, which is why the Greeks associated her with Athena. Neith gave the Egyptians the bandages used to wrap the deceased, and gum from her tree was the adhesive holding the bandages. Acacia resin was one of many substances used as an embalming preservative.Unlike many creator gods, Neith did not create the world and retreat, but could be relied upon for continued gifts and sustenance. The gods drew on her wisdom in times of crisis, appealing to her for counsel through written messages, which Neith responded to with letters of her own.
In historical times Neith gained prominence as her city Sais rose in influence during the seventh century BCE, but Neith was probably worshiped in Lower Egypt long before dynasties or agriculture, when people still hunted for food. The crossed arrows on her crown probably originated as a hunting emblem, and may also relate to the defensive stinger of the bee and the defensive thorns on the acacia. Primarily Neith is a goddess of sustenance, engaged in the perpetual creation of life. Out of just one tree she created incense, perfume, wood for implements, seedpods for cattle, pigment binder for ink and paint, materials for embalming and food for bees, not to mention welcome shade in a hot dry climate.SourcesBarrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The mythology and beliefs of ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1996.Clark, R.T. Rundle. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1959.Jay, Lisa and Nessi Domizlaff. Ancient Egyptian Art: The Relationships Among Binders, Pigments and Surfaces, 2005. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 11, No. 2. REVIEW ON THE MATERIALS USED DURING MUMMIFICATION PROCESSES IN ANCIENT EGYPT, 2011.Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Egyptology, 2001.
Continuing our exploration of the sacred trees of the goddess, we turn this week to the Egyptian goddess we know by the Greek name of Hathor. I had research to do for this, because I did not know why Hathor carries the title “Lady of the Sycamore” or why she had a shrine of sycamores in her city along the Nile. My first step was to learn more about the sycamore tree, and I quickly discovered that the tree known as “sycamore” in northern climates is unrelated to the sycamore of Africa and the southern Mediterranean. Hathor’s sycamore is the sycamore-fig, the earliest cultivated fig tree. Its fruit is orange-red, rounder than the common fig, and slightly less sweet. The milky juice of the unripened fruit is used medicinally for skin conditions. The fruit and the wasps pollinating the fruit attract a variety of birds. The tree is long-lived and grows along riverbanks to a height of about sixty feet, much larger than the common fig. The sycamore is a generous tree, offering its fruit year round.The association of the fig with Hathor evokes the idea of fig wine, as Hathor is a goddess of intoxication. Her new year rites were revels of dancing, music and wine, drawing large numbers of participants. Her priestess cult was an ecstatic one, with a strong emphasis on music. As Patricia Monaghan describes her,
…she was the patron of bodily pleasures: the pleasures of sound, in music and song; the joys of the eye, in art, cosmetics, the waving of garlands; the delight of motion in dance and in love; and in all the pleasures of touch.
As her cult spread, Hathor assumed a variety of attributes, even becoming merged with the lion goddess Sekhmet, but she was usually portrayed as a cow, a cow-headed woman, or a woman with cow-horns and moon disk, sometimes suckling her son Ihys (himself a complex deity).As is sometimes the case with life sustaining goddesses, Hathor is also guardian of the dead. Hathor does not seem to have a “death aspect” or twin, but is the same generous, nourishing goddess in life and death. The spirits of the dead hang on her sycamore trees, and she wanders through the groves offering them fresh water. Sycamore was the preferred wood for sarcophagi, and one tomb painting depicts a sycamore tree with singing birds.Even before Hathor’s cult became assimilated with others, her mysteries were probably far more complex than we can fathom from this distance. Clive Barrett conjectures:
The association of joy and intoxication on one hand and death and the underworld on the other suggests that her rituals involved some kind of shamanic practices. Divine madness freed her priests or followers from the mundane world, and with the correct training they were able to move onto other planes and walk with the gods.
Whether the sycamore-fig was ever fermented for Hathor’s rites I was unable to discover through my books and an Internet search. I found that this fig is indeed sometimes fermented into wine, but that it has a vinegary taste that makes it more suitable for medicine than enjoyment. The common fig and the grape, both more suitable for winemaking, had been introduced to Egypt by at least 3000 b.c.e., and there are extensive written records on the production of grape wine. Still, according to Meir Lubetski “The pairing of the sycamore fig and wine was firmly anchored in the cultic practices and in the prevalent landscape of the ancient Egyptians.” He also says that in one funerary ritual the newly deceased king would be fed figs and wine.The sweeter common fig never supplanted the sycamore-fig as an important staple in the Egyptian diet. Hathor’s cult likewise, though it widened and changed, remained popular long into historical times. We generally think of death goddesses as unyielding of temperament like the Sumerian Ereshkigal, frightening in appearance like the Hindu Kali Ma, or stern and scary like the northern European crone goddesses. The worshipers of Hathor had a beautiful, happy lady with them in death. Small wonder the cult of Hathor was one of the most tenacious the world has seen.SourcesBarrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Aquarian Press, 1992.Iziko Museums, Figweb.Lubetski, Meir. “Lot’s Choice: Paradise or Purgatory?” in Biblical, Rabbinical and Medieval Studies, Judit Targarona Borras and Angel Saenz-Badilles, eds. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic, 1999.Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Ray’s Figs website.Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications, 2008.