Goddess Temples in the Heart of Egypt
By Karen Tate
Having spent the last five years as an ordained priestess bringing rituals of the Egyptian Goddess Isis to my community and studying Egyptian mysteries, I felt prepared for a spiritual journey to the ancient land of Kemet. As I sat on the deck of our cruise ship, the Nile Goddess, with golden statues of Isis and Osiris as centerpieces in the lobby, it felt ordained that I should be making this trip with my beloved husband and partner Roy, himself an Anubis-like guardian and walker between the worlds, and with some of my very best friends and sister priestesses. This trip I was here not to marvel at the ancient stone monuments with the eyes of a tourist, but to feel and experience with the sensibilities of a seasoned priestess, to learn what they had to tell me.
After some of our sister travelers availed themselves of the camel rides, it was off to the Sakkara temple complex near the Step Pyramid of Zoser, located just outside Cairo, to visit the interesting phenomenon of the healing niches. One person could stand on the last remaining receptor pad while their counterpart would put their head in the stone healing niches of the temples once used by priests for divine guidance in healing and diagnosing illnesses. As would be the case throughout our two week journey, each of us had a somewhat different experience of things mystical. My own experience with the niche could best be described as feeling this emanating energetic sense of chaos and hearing a sound reminiscent of a great motor humming. This powerful sound brought to mind the tremendous energy within the Earth. This was hardly a stretch of the imagination when we were only a few miles away from the pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Great Pyramid
The pyramids are thought to possess special metaphysical powers; powers this skeptical priestess admits are open to debate but nonetheless continue to be thought provoking. Gaining entrance to the inside of the Great Pyramid was a testament to our determination and ingenuity as the Egyptian government had for a time closed the pyramid to private groups, so we counted our blessings and felt lucky indeed to be within this ancient temple! Once inside, we walked up the stairs leading from the pyramid entrance to the Queen’s Chamber. Some of us, including myself, focused on chanting Isis mantras as we ascended, instead of the many steps ahead of us. Once inside the Queen’s Chamber, my senses seemed amplified and the space seemed to exude a feminine essence within. As I looked at an immense rock opening leading down another shaft closed to the public, for an instant in my minds eye I was stunned to glimpse what I recognized as a giant golden Isis, with feathered wings at her sides, standing there, as if she were a sentinel watching over our visit. I immediately felt what I recognized to be her presence. As if that were not enough to blow one’s mind, because I am hardly prone to have these kinds of esoteric experiences very often, I also got a flash of a past life memory. It was me, thousands of years ago, not a woman, but a man, bearing stone burdens to help build the pyramids. I honestly could hear the massive blocks being pulled by ropes and slid into place through these shafts. Prior to these remarkable and hardly believable experiences, I had rarely had so many intense metaphysical experiences in one place in so short a span of time. Perhaps being in the pyramids did amp up one’s psychic abilities!
But rather than be a naysayer and skeptic, shutting off the ideas, sights and sounds, I allowed myself to be what Xia, a sister priestess describes as a hollow bone, taking in whatever would come. After all I could re-examine the experiences at a later time and accept or dismiss the experiences, but if being here was opening awareness, I did not want to foolishly pull the plug. And this phenomenon seemed to be affecting the other women too. I had been told before we departed to trust in the sacred sites and our intuitive abilities to flow with the energy within the temples and pyramids. Perhaps that explained what was happening to us all. With no advance planning, as if by the guidance of an invisible conductor, the women of our group gathered and began singing songs and chants, calling to our Mother Isis. What were the odds we would all know and start singing the same song?
It is really hard to describe how being there, feeling what we were feeling, seeing, hearing, and doing affected us. It has been said often one cannot always use language to describe the Mother; one feels her, senses her and intuits her. I can only say, our group did not enter the pyramid with any expectations. In fact, I did not expect any kind of metaphysical experience here at all, particularly nothing associated with Goddess. My concerns were would I be claustrophobic or have trouble climbing the many steps in the airless and hot chamber of the pyramid. Yet it happened to our little group, including me, the resident skeptic. I am not one who is quick to accept such experiences as anything but imagination and wishful thinking unless it comes from a reliable source. Yet, this was all real. The intensity of the experience moved us to tears of joy in the ecstasy of the moment, but we did not have time to linger. The guide was coming and we had to quickly set aside these sensations to begin to ascend the steps to the Kings Chamber.
Once there where we took turns lying in the sarcophagus and discussing the possible use of the pyramids as a place for initiations of the ancient priesthood learning the great mysteries of Osiris. These mysteries would show the initiate the separation between the flesh and blood vessels of our body and our soul or psychic self that continues on beyond the death. One could only speculate on having the privilege to experience the revelations and rebirth from having spent many hours in trance here within the pyramids where these secrets might be revealed. And perhaps while we were in the Queen’s Chamber we had been gifted with a glimpse into these mysteries.
Philae – Island of the Temple of Isis
Having left the wonders of Cairo, with its museums, bazaars and traffic, we were off to Aswan for a visit to beautiful Philae Island, home of the Isis Temple, which stood here on the outskirts of the territory between Egypt and Nubia. Isis is here in her warrior aspect, blended with Sekhmet, the lion-headed warrioress and healing Goddess so important to women today. Both protect the borders of Kemet, their great land.
We arrived by felucca, a traditional sailing boat used along the Nile. We were dressed in our priestess garb of white linen with our sistra, or sacred rattles, readily at hand and prepared for ritual. We entered the inner chamber, the cella, or holy of holies, of Isis’ temple at Philae, on a glorious morning. At her altar, the heart of the Goddess, surrounded by beautiful hieroglyphic scenes which somehow escaped the fanatic destruction that was the fate of the images on the exterior of the temple, we began the first part of our ritual. Tears welled in my eyes and the hair stood on the back of my neck as the energy surged amongst us as we recited the ancient Egyptian words of power in this inner sanctum. As was typical, our time alone in these holy places was all too short so we processed to an area nearby that once supported a Coptic Church.
Here we continued our reverence and revelry witnessed by many who observed in quiet awe. Around our makeshift altar we danced, chanted and anointed ourselves. Amidst the sweet tinkling of our sistra, we called on Isis in her most ancient names to grant us that which we seek. We cast our petitions and prayers into the flames of the cauldron, later casting the ashes, along with our offerings of bread and beer, into the life giving waters of the Nile.
The prevailing senses collectively experienced by our entourage was that of familiarity and a feeling of belonging, which made leaving bitter sweet. We felt we had certainly been a part of this temple long ago, probably doing some of these very same things in our roles as devotee or clergy of Isis, even though this beautiful temple no longer stood on its original foundation. The energy and ancient memories must have permeated the very stones. As our boat pulled away from the island, our eyes lingered on our ancient home, our souls remembering being together in the past as we were here this very special day.
SekhmetTemple of Karnak
With all that had transpired in this short week, one could hardly expect more, yet our most powerful connections were made within the Sekhmet Chapel of Karnak, near Luxor. The temple of this lion-headed Goddess of healing and war was in an area off-the-beaten-path of most tourists, where entrance must be gained through negotiation with the guards at the site. There encircling her seven foot tall intact statue, lighted only by a small slit in the stone ceiling allowing in natural light, you could feel the ancient walls still vibrated with her power as the ten of us danced, sang, and chanted mantras, all geared toward raising our energy levels and that within the temple to praise and invoke Sekhmet. We made offerings of candles and incense to this Goddess of healing, tenacity and empowerment, asking her to bestow her gifts upon us and our loved ones whose pictures we brought and placed at her feet.
For me, I lit the red candle given to me long ago at my initiation when I pledged to stand in my own power. I invoked Sekhmet, asking her to bestow upon me that which I might need to continue my work as a contemporary priestess of the Goddess. As when I was in the Great Pyramid, I shut off my critical mind, and allowed in what thoughts and sensations directed toward me.
In a light trance it seemed I sensed her energy like a white smoke enter within from my yoni. It seemed to travel through my womb up to my solar plexus as her essence filled me. But the energy of this place was different for each of us. Roy gleaned it was a “women only” space and his presence was accepted by the great Goddess because she recognized he was guardian and brother to the women in this entourage. Moondancer felt the walls go liquid and could barely stand as the euphoria almost overcame her. Sekhmet priestess, Shakti, felt her heart chakra open and she became a vessel to help heal certain women with us for whom she had not previously known needed healing.
The small, darkened chapel seemed to vibrate with the intensity of feeling and knowing, that could hardly be described in words. And while these esoteric experiences may raise an eyebrow or two, they are far from isolated incidents. Others who have come to Egypt have sworn to seeing statues of Sekhmet move their head, or otherwise normal people have had auditory experiences they defined as messages from Goddess. Petitions and pledges to Goddess have been heard and answered just as on any more traditional pilgrimage. Should those devoted to the Divine Feminine be denied experiences with their deity similar to those recounted by devotees of God over thousands of years? I think not. It is all just a matter or perspective.
Bubastis and Alexandria
Another rarely visited site, barely as yet unearthed was Bubastis, meaning House of the Goddess Bastet. This archaeological site was not only home to her ancient temple but also of the feline graveyards of Tel Basta. This was one of the most ancient cities in Egypt, and according to Herodotus it gave one pleasure to look upon it. This high praise seemed to be both for the temple itself and because the city all around it had been raised to a higher level, so you could look down upon the temple where it stood amid shade trees on almost an island formed by two embracing canals which stopped short without meeting. Contemporary political controversy blocks meaningful restoration of the site, yet travelers can visit a small museum and glimpse a sacred well covered merely by a rough-hewn wooden cover. No temples have as yet been reconstructed, yet one can see among the tall grasses the landscape of granite blocks decorated with inscriptions and reliefs awaiting the end of human bureaucracy so that progress might begin.
Off to the side of this field of stones visitors could see the remains of the underground galleries for the burial of cats where ancient bronzes of cats had been found. It was here among the mud brick walls and enclosures we did our worship to Bastet, Soul of Isis, asking her blessing for our beloved feline children.
Leaving Bubastis, travelling north toward the Mediterranean Sea, our destination was Alexandria, known in antiquity for its famous library, a center of knowledge in the ancient world and home to one of the most famous queens of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, also a priestess of Isis.
When we visited, the Egyptian government was in the process of building a new library in this ancient-modern city with the hope it will some day house one copy of each book in our known world. Several years and over $220 million later, the Bibliotheca Alexandria is a reality, with its mission to be a centre of excellence in the production and dissemination of knowledge and to be a place of dialogue, learning and understanding between cultures and peoples. Not far from the new library, along the shores of the city of Alexandria, we got as close as possible to the site where the Temple of Isis once stood and Cleopatra sat upon her throne. As we gazed out upon the sea, we knew the stones from that temple complex lay beneath the waters of the harbor just a few hundred yards beyond we stood, where Cleopatra first set her gaze upon Julius Caesar.
Later, at the Greco-Roman Antiquities Museum of Alexandria, our Isian sisterhood had their fancies ticked with the many rarely seen artifacts of Isis from that period. We also visited the unique catacombs beneath Alexandria which were like a labyrinthine city of the dead underneath the modern city streets. With many tombs in restored condition we could gaze upon splendid murals of Egyptian and Greek death cult scenes, offering us a unique glimpse into the life under the rule of the Ptolomies. Exciting too was standing on the site of the great Pharos Lighthouse, allowing the spray of the Mediterranean to brush our faces as we imagined fleets of antiquity docking in the harbor bringing travelers to Alexandria from all parts of the civilized world.
Abydos – Temple of Osiris
Before leaving for Egypt, most of us had devoured the book In Search of Om Sety, by Jonathan Cott, who revealed the story of a modern woman who spent the better part of her life, until her death in the 1980s, as a priestess of Osiris. She spent many hours each day in and around the Temple of Osiris in Abydos working for the Egyptian Antiquities Department and practicing the old religion of the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. With our passions and imaginations ignited, our visit to what is believed to be one of the most ancient of all the Egyptian temples was an experience none of us will forget in our lifetime.
Just getting to Abydos was an adventure as access was restricted and we needed a military escort wearing bulletproof vests the entire way. At the temple itself, as we walked the outer perimeter of the temple and surrounding ruins, we were guarded by soldiers on camels. They added to the surreal nature of our experience with their machine guns ever ready across their laps as they rode upon their noble beasts. They were there to protect us from any terrorist threats; however we never did feel threatened. In fact, everywhere we went, dressed in our cool white linen galabayas, the locals were respectful and asked if we had come to pray. If there were some risks involved coming here, we all felt it was worthwhile because promise of the secrets of the Temple of Osiris felt just beyond the veil of our modern sensibilities.
Some mysteries of the temple were hinted at by Om Sety, and interestingly, without knowing about those specific references in Cott’s book, my psychic husband sensed that beneath the temple floor was a chamber yet to be revealed to modern archaeology. At the rear of the temple is the Osirion where we could see but not reach the healing waters used by Om Sety. The mystery that seemed to emanate from these ancient stones of the Osirion seemed to beckon you within, though unfortunately entrance there is denied to tourists. The sense of magic and wisdom felt almost tangible here in Abydos, with the keys to knowledge laying just beyond reach and awaiting discovery. We could only hope the temple might yet offer up more of its secrets in our lifetime.
As was the case so often on this trip, we only wished we had more time to spend there, to do ritual and perhaps spend the night. We could totally understand Om Sety living out her days in this powerfully magical place that seemed as if it might any second slip through an early morning mist and disappear into the folds of time.
This journey was a revelation on many levels from the mundane to the magical. Never will we forget the black crows that followed us from place to place so reminiscent of Horus, the hawk- headed son of our beloved Isis, especially the one that would awaken me in the mornings tapping the glass of our hotel window in Aswan. Carved into my memory forever will be the beautiful Hathor-headed columns of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera and the magnificently restored tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens. And the utter chaos at the airports at Ramadan, the Muslim holy day, will never leave my memory.
Months and years after the journey, the effect was still with me. Our experiences, though out of the ordinary, and perhaps even a little bizarre by traditional standards, were real. Yet are they much different from visions and epiphanies documented by ancient, even biblical scribes? I know for myself the strength and courage I felt permeate my being in the presence of Sekhmet in her temple at Karnak. That resolve seemed to steel and guide me through trials and transformations that challenged me in the time beyond this journey, helping me find strength to stand in my truth and integrity. As long as my red candle of initiation lasts, it will light other flames in ritual for healing and strength.
Remembering our Egyptian pilgrimage, the cool breeze of the Nile blowing through my hair on the sun deck of the Nile Goddess, sipping cold hibiscus tea, I wondered then as I do now, what other journeys lay as we journeyed together to seek out the Divine Feminine in all her sacred locales.
Karen Tate is author of ‘Sacred Places of the Goddess – 108 Destinations’ (2006) – reviewed in GA10 p.22, and ‘Walking an Ancient Path’ (2008) – reviewed in this issue p.22.