In April 2015 a group of people gathered in the Derbyshire hills to enact the Silent Eye’s annual Mystery Play, entitled, The River of the Sun. The five-act mystical drama formed the backbone of that Spring weekend, and told the fictional story of a clash of ego and divinity set in an Isis-worshipping temple located on an island in the Nile, during the the fascinating period of the 19th dynasty, the time of Rameses the Great.
The 18th and 19th dynasties were a time of upheaval for ancient Egypt on many levels. The reign of the ‘Heretic King’ Akhenaten saw Egypt’s religious structure torn apart, as the revolutionary Pharaoh became what Wallis Budge called the ‘world’s first monotheist’; re-fashioning the power of the many Gods with one supreme entity – the visible sun disc, the Aten, for which Akhenaten, alone, was the high priest. Many have pointed to the failure of the ‘heretic’ Pharaoh’s politics, but few have doubted the sincerity of his religious vision. He will, forever, remain an enigma.
Whatever the nobility of his goal, the actions he took were ruthless, and included the shutting down of the annual deity festivals which were the sole point of ritualistic contact between the ordinary people of Egypt and their locally-worshipped gods. In addition, Akhenaten paid little attention to the domestic and military affairs of Egypt, allowing the country’s enemies to encroach on its borders, greatly weakening Egypt’s power at that critical time for the region.
After Akhenaten’s brief reign, culminating in the Pharaoh’s mysterious death, shadowy military forces took control of Egypt, instigating the 19th dynasty in the persons of Rameses I and, soon thereafter, Seti I, whose throne name derives from the god Set – often considered the ‘evil one’ because of his slaying of his brother, Osiris.
Seti I is judged by modern historians as having been one of the greatest-ever pharaohs, yet his importance in the 19th dynasty was eclipsed by the actions of his second son, the brilliant Rameses II, whose long reign of over sixty years included much self-promotion and the alteration of Egypt’s recent history. Both Seti and Rameses II (Rameses the Great) were passionate about the evisceration of the last traces of Akhenaten’s ‘chaos’, as they saw it.
But, although, by the 19th dynasty, the the ‘Son of the Sun’ was long dead and the buildings of his embryonic and doomed city of Tel-al-Armana were reduced to rubble, something of that time remained in the Egyptian consciousness. A new kind of connection between Pharaoh and God had been established, one which elevated mankind, if only in the being of the Pharaoh, to be someone who ‘talked with God’. It was, at the very least, a bold experiment and, though the world would have to wait until the 19th century to re-discover the ‘erased’ pharaoh, the philosophical waves of that period rippled out and dramatically affected the way the incoming 19th dynasty had to repair the worship of the Gods, uniting the people of Egypt under a trinity of Amun-Ra, Khonsu and Mut.
Our fictional story is a tale of politics, friendships, mind and faith. It is set against an historically accurate background, and at a time when Rameses was due to take the throne from the dying Seti .
Returning to Thebes in his swift warship, crewed by his fearsome Talatat mind-warriors, Rameses decides to mount a surprise night-time raid on the island-based Isis temple which has prospered under the sponsoring reign of his father. Rameses suspects that the inner teachings conducted by the revered High Priestess and Priest conceal views that relate to the thoughts of the heretic Pharaoh, Akhenaten. He plans to insert himself and his warriors of the mind into the islands’s Spring rites as the high priest and priestess begin a cycle of initiation for a chosen apprentice priest who has proved himself worthy of special advancement.
The resulting clash draws everyone, including the young Pharaoh-in-Rising, into a spiralling situation where each is forced to confront their own fears as well as living out the roles which life has allocated them. River of the Sun is the story of a spiritual and political encounter from which none emerge unchanged, including the man who will shortly be Pharaoh, the mighty Rameses II, whose secret name for himself is ‘the unchosen’.
Through the eyes and minds of those surrounding the chosen priest and the ‘unchosen’ Pharaoh, the River of the Sun takes us on a tense and compelling journey to the heart of power and its eternal struggle with truth.
The chapters of the book will be serialised in this blog. The finished work is planned to be available in paperback and Kindle by the end of the year, and will contain the full novel plus an appendix of the dramatic rituals used to enact the story in April 2015.
Gifts from the River
The water was soft on his skin. He was used to bathing in the river at sunset, but there was something special about today. He looked across at the glittering image of the sun as its reflection folded on the water, bouncing the golden light along the gentle waves at him. A boat had just sailed by and he felt the lapping waves caressing his thighs. It tickled and he giggled to the river.
His reverie was disturbed by the sound of his grandmother’s voice. “Wash, Amkhen! Stop your daydreaming!” He flashed his cheeky smile back at Snefer, sole guardian to him since the death of his parents many years ago, in the fire that had destroyed their home while they slept. The nickname, ‘Snefer’, which he had given the old woman, made her smile, though he was too young, yet, to know the kindness behind such tolerance.
The name derived from a present from his father, which he still kept. His father had travelled in his own youth – selling his beautifully hand-woven carpets, which he would pile onto his faithful donkey, before leaving for days or even weeks. He always came back with tales of his adventures, and Amkhren’s delight had been to sit, balanced precariously on his knee; and listen.
One day, his father had returned with a carved wooden object – a gift to his son. He took it from his bedroll and presented it, smiling as he did so. He had carved it out of a single block of wood. It was like one of the drawings his father had shown him of the fabulous white pyramids that legend said graced the upper parts of the river, just before it spread and flowed into the sea. The wooden carving had a square base, whose four corners rose in two stages, to meet at a single vertical point. The angle of the climbing sides became shallower half way up and this gave the whole thing a comic element. His father had said that its location was called Sneferu, and it was known as the bent pyramid.
The day after that, he had pointed at his grandmother and said, “Grandma is bent, too! Can we call her Sneferu, like the pyramid carving?”. His father had looked at his own mother and smiled in that mischievous way that his young son had inherited. Then he had said, “Well, we don’t want to anger the Gods, so let’s shorten it to Snefer!”
She had sighed, inside, on that day. But now the memory of that time brought back such happiness that old Snefer didn’t mind it at all. She looked at the boy, who had finally taken off his loin-cloth and was washing himself. Her heart burned with feeling for him – the sole survivor of a family that had known how to love and to laugh, together. The sight of him always drove away the aches and pains that had begun to afflict her ageing frame . . . and the sad memories, too.
The sound of footsteps behind her made her whirl in alarm. After that, she could only drop to her knees in the sand, wailing.
“High Priestess, forgive me!” She bowed her head to the mud. Before her was one of the most beautiful and stately women she had ever encountered – Neferaset the high priestess who led the worship at the Temple on the island, a mile or so south along the river. Alongside her brother, Anzety, they were the most powerful of the bright people.
“Do not be frightened, old woman,” said the glowing one, bending down to take the withered hands from the dust and pull Snefer up to her normal, if bent, standing position. “We are not in the temple, and, if I chose to leave the sanctuary of the island and walk along the river, I am going to meet strangers . . .”
Snefer kept her head bowed. But spoke, “My grandson is bathing in the river. Forgive his rude nakedness.”
Neferset looked beyond the old woman and saw her grandson. He was talking to another boy who stood ahead of him in the deeper water. “And who is that with him?” she asked.
“There is no-one with him, High Priestess . . .”
Neferaset frowned and blinked her eyes, focussing on the sight of the two boys bathing. One was plainly visible, his naked form dancing in the water. But he was definitely speaking to another boy – one who stood motionless before him and had a bright but much less distinct outline . . .
Amkhren was delighted with his new friend. As golden as the ripples on the river, he had appeared before him in the beautiful sunset, smiling. He had asked Amkhren’s name, but refused to give his own. He had, though, given Amkhren a cloth bag of beautiful, carved stones. Now, the other watched, while Amkhren laid them out on the wet sand.
“Used rightly, they have great power,” he said.
“And how do I learn?” Amkhren asked, overwhelmed with the gift. “Will you teach me?” He looked up, but the other boy was shaking his head.
“My time here is gone,” he said, with sadness in his young eyes. “But your life will teach you” he smiled again, bringing joy to Amkhren’s face. “Many wonderful things lie ahead of you!” said the other boy.
Amkhren wanted to ask him more but he turned when his grandmother’s urgent voice cut through the peacefulness of their playful talk.
“Amkhren! Put on your garment and come here at once!
Amkhren, saddened, but obedient, spun back to say goodbye to his friend; but the other boy was gone. He peered deep into the waves in case his friend had swum off, but there was no trace. A second, and sterner call from Snefer dragged him from his searching. Panting, he retrieved his rags and tied them across his wet waistline. Only then did he look up to locate the old woman. She was standing, with her head bowed, next to another woman. This was a day of surprises! He looked harder, narrowing his eyes to carry his vision deeper into the tableau. Then, he stopped walking and his mouth fell open. There on the raised bank, his grandma was talking, though her head was bowed, with the High Priestess of the nearby island temple – a woman he had once glimpsed from the sanctuary of a hastily built log raft, which had floundered shortly thereafter.
The day had been baking hot and Amkhren had walked along the river bank, far from where Snefer had said it was safe for him to travel. He had, gradually, been extending his walks, because he knew that the temple island lay just beyond the next twist of the river’s course. On that day, he had caught sight of a temple procession on the sacred isle and had thrown caution to the wind, trusting his life to a few logs hastily lashed together with the stalks of reeds in the way that his father had shown him, so long ago.
Before the raft had fallen apart, he had caught sight of the winged one, as he thought of her. She had shone in the sun in her finery and splendour. All around her there was total silence, total reverence. Beside her, another of equal stature walked, but this one was a man, tall and purposeful, yet with a hint of gentleness to his bearing. The reed bindings gave way, the logs parted and, plunging into the river with a cry, he was forced to cling to the largest as it rolled. Gone were the wild thoughts that someday he would find a way to return to the temple island to serve them. Choking on the inhaled river water, he clung desperately to the remains of his capsized raft and forced his legs to kick, pushing the log slowly towards the far bank.
Now the Goddess stood before him. Disguised, yes, but it was her . . Amkhren took a few more steps and fell to his knees, prostrating himself in the dust.
“I feel I know you, boy?” said the shining one.
“Oh, you couldn’t know us, High Priestess – we are just beggars in your world,” blurted out his grandma, her head still bowed.
Amkhren’s mind raced. Should he tell her of his moment on the raft? Surely it would be to invite death . . . and yet, he didn’t want to miss the only chance that his life might hold to reach for that impossible goal.
“The river has many secrets, High Priestess,” he managed, somewhat proud of his cleverness.
“And dreams, perhaps?” the tone of her voice was soft; there was deadliness there, too, but her knives were sheathed. She knelt down in the dust of the bank and, with soft hands that contained more power than he had ever felt, pulled his head up to stare back at her almond eyes. “And what does this young man dream of?” she asked, running a painted finger up the side of his jaw.
River of the Sun, serialised here, and its associated images, is the intellectual property of Stephen Tanham and is ©Copyright material.