Chapter 5 – The Fire Within
Neferaset, high priestess of the temple of Isis, entered the red-stone building through the twin pylons, and ascended the flight of wide, stone steps before stopping to carry out her personal invocation at the huge bronze doors to the inner sanctuary. She knew that no-one would be watching her as she performed the sacred walk to inspect the place of initiation. The temple apprentices could be trusted to do their jobs well; and the guardians of the inner space were well versed in her ways.
Now, young and mature, both, would be seated in their priestly alcoves, adding their inner powers to the ascending, invisible notes that would soon swell and fill the air which hovered, expectantly, over the temple island of Gezirah an-Nabatath. Everyone would be present at the ceremony to come, but only one person would hold the focus of them all… it was a terrifying ordeal, Neferaset, knew, but once in a generation someone came along with so much promise that the risks were worth it…
Placing both hands on the shining metal, she called down the power of her birthright and spoke the litany of the left and right hands.
“I am only a vessel
I have the gift of two
In me are the opposites born
And in me, alone can they die
As they were meant to
In my heart lies the gate of reconciliation
Let my mind be clear
Let my thoughts be their tongue
Let my left and my right be the sound and the mouth
Now let me enter to work for those whose day becomes”
She could feel the descent of the invisible flames, the build-up of energy in her arms and hands. She pushed with all the strength her compact frame allowed. The two temple doors, designed to be operated by a duo of burly guardians, swung, slowly, open…
The young priest-to-be was kneeling in the West of the temple, opposite the shining east, with its distant and part-shadowed figures of great Isis and Mut. He knelt in line with the central altar in which burned the flames which were always tended. She examined the boy become man and marvelled that seven years had passed so quickly. He had emerged, as she had hoped, to be a leader among the apprentice priests; and tonight would see his reward for that.
The season of Akhet, the great inundation, had begun; the time when the Nile overflowed its banks, flooding the growing lands with the fertile black alluvium. On this day, the temple offered the leading apprentice the highest honour – the chance to undertake three initiations, the first, that night; the subsequent two as the year rolled on. By the harvest, the season of Shemu, the boy would be a fully-raised priest; and great power would be invested in him by the accelerated induction which would, otherwise, have taken several years.
There were risks–she knew only too well! But the rewards were great for those strong enough to endure the intensity.
“Amkhren!” she said, softly enough not to frighten him; hard enough to command his instant attention.
She watched his back stiffen at her voice. She had been exacting in his training; but only because she believed him capable of so much. In other respects, she had been a mother to him, too, offering an ear and a heart, while moderating his troubles and energies into adulthood; though his aged grandmother, the venerable Snefer, was always on hand to provide familial comfort if the high priestess had pushed him too hard. There was little substitute for a gentle family touch.
“The flames,” she said, into the space that contained the priest-to-be.
She watched as he bent forward, taking hold of two alabaster bowls, ridged with gold, fired in a pattern that would form a complete sphere if the halves were brought together. Within the half-spheres burned two tallow candles. Amkhren extended his arms until they were each at a right angle to his body, then bent his head forward, his back curved and offered, the angle of his arms raising slightly so that his shape, seen from behind, assumed that of the Horus hawk in flight.
Neferaset stepped out of the temple slippers, then walked, slowly and silently, to stand behind the bowed figure, taking the left hand bowl from him. She held it up to the east, invoking Isis of the right wing, then placed one foot onto the white, crystalline surface of the outer of two rings of the circle, which bounded the sacred space within temple. As her freshly washed skin made contact with the perfect mosaic of shining white stone crystals, the air sang… Amkhren’s stretched body trembled as the high priestess intoned her chant of cleansing, using one of the most pure sounds he had ever heard. He had never been witness to this before; the establishment of the true temple, the invisible counterpart of the physical, was normally permitted only to those who had passed through the inner gates, themselves. Preparation was everything in this space.
By the time Amkhren had recovered his composure, the high priestess had walked to the east, censing the half temple with the flame, and lighting the incense burner at the point of the south. The cloud of heady incense billowed from the burner into the sanctified air of the vibrating space, curling around the circle in an act of love as Neferaset raised the flame of purification to the head and outstretched right wing of the goddess, chanting the secret song and making Amkhren tremble with its beauty.
When the High Priestess returned around the circle to the west, to take the second flame from the kneeling young man, the rich and heavy fragrance of the incense had taken its toll on Amkhren. His head was swimming and his outstretched muscles began to slacken, despite his best efforts to hold his position. Neferaset smiled to herself as she heard him flex his thighs to ease the tension in his body, but said nothing. She completed the cleansing of the temple, lit the second burner in the north, and returned down the centre line to where he was now straining, head slightly lower than it should have been, and nearly on the cold stone floor. She finished the cleansing ritual. Bowed to the east, then came back to stand behind the agonised youth.
“Enough. You may release the tension.” He would not know that certain of the herbs in the incense were there to relax the body. He would think he had come close to failing her. This was all part of the build-up to his initiation, to take place later. That edge of failure – and the chasm beyond, were part of a pattern that began the breaking of the reflection…
She smiled as she walked past him, taking the hammer to the gong and summoning the temple guardians from the shadows. She nodded at the near comatose figure of the priest-to-be as they entered.
“To his cell,” she said. “Ensure he rests, he will need his strength.”
She knew that rest would come immediately – she had seen to that. There had to be certain unseen things she could do for the chosen one… after all, she had chosen him…
Index to previous chapters:
Introduction to River of the Sun
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 ‘herectic’ 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.
Index to previous chapters:
River of the Sun, serialised here, and its associated images, is the intellectual property of Stephen Tanham and is ©Copyright material.