December 25, 2013

And there were stars: How a time out turned into the nighttime sky

Have you ever been angry with other people?

I'm not talking about being annoyed with one or two particular people, or general frustration. I'm talking about the kind of seething, frothing misanthropy that makes you furious at the human race in general, the kind of rage and disgust that makes you think, "If I never see another human being again, I could live with that." This is the kind of all-consuming anger that makes you sick of trying to get along with anybody, that has you cursing everything and everybody and just wanting to be left alone.

This is how angry Ra was with human beings, according to the myth where Sekhmet was born. In His rage – and mind you, as far as the myth goes, He was right to be angry – He sent Hethert down as the Lioness of the Blood Red Garments and told Her to chew up evil. Then She got carried away, and started chewing up everybody, not just the evil ones. Her rage was "pleasant to her heart," and She would not stop.

So Ra came up with a clever ruse with the help of a small army of priestesses and a large quantity of beer and hematite powder. Transformed into a lake of "blood," this red-tinted beer was poured out alongside the town where Sekhmet had gone a'slaughtering, and once She found it, She drank it. And once She drank it, She fell asleep. End of angry lion, end of destruction, end of story.

Or was it?

The story of the Destruction of Mankind is only the first half of the Book of the Celestial Cow, inscribed on the funerary shrines of Tutankhamun, the walls of Seti I's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and alluded to in some other source material. There's far more to this story once the Lady comes home, once She has transformed from raging feline to joyful bovine. Traditionally, this story gets translated is several different ways. Some of them mimic the other Near Eastern mythologies of a time when a deity got angry at humans and it all ended in some sort of a flood.

This story is different, and not only because the flood is beer and it saves people instead of killing them. In this story, the deity (in this case, Ra) isn't withdrawing because mankind is evil and doesn't deserve to live, or because mankind is not perfect enough for the gods to live among.

The reason that Ra withdraws is because He's still angry, but NOT at humans. If He was, why did He try to call Sekhmet off, and then why would He find a way to stop Her from destroying them all?

Ra's withdrawal comes after His anger turns inward: at Himself, rather than at the humans who angered Him. Like the process of coming down from our own blind rages, Ra goes through the stomach-churning of guilt – people are dead for the very first time! He also realizes that as long as He lives among mankind, They will not be safe from the consequences of His rage.

Sekhmet as Ra's Eye embodies His power, and the myth indicates that She cannot be stopped once unleashed. So, to keep creation safe, Ra realizes He must put some distance between Himself and His creations. He must withdraw, not to damn mankind....but to save it.

The Eye, Who has become a cow again, called mehet-weret or "great of the flood" to remind Ra (and the reader) exactly what it took to make Her this way again....lets Ra climb on to Her back, and Ra withdraws. He punishes Himself by separating Himself, by permitting Himself to be distant, so that humans and everything else on earth has a chance to live without having to worry about divine retribution lurking around every corner.

He trusts us to not screw it up, and He climbs to the sky.

Several times, the Cow stops, being afraid of the height. This is new territory for Her, too. Maybe She wondered why Ra was leaving, or maybe She hoped He'd change His mind. In any case, each time She stops, Ra encourages Her to keep climbing, up and up and up and up. Eventually She is up so high that She can't stand without help, so Ra calls the sons of Shu, the "pillars of the sky" and the four winds, to steady Her legs so She can stand without falling, and the two of them find themselves alone at the top of the sky.

Ra looks down. He can still see everything He created, but He knows that from up here, His vengeance is unlikely to find its way back down without intent – and with plenty of time to stop it, if it's not headed to the right place.

For Her part, the Cow is lonely. Where She was, there were people and gods and things to do, and now She's up here in the middle of nowhere with Ra, barely able to stand. And Ra notes Her difficulty, and tells Her that She should think of all the good people and creations that She can....

The next line of the text reads, in the original, "and there were stars."

In Kemetic thought, the stars are symbols of the justified, blessed dead. As this is also the myth where death originates, as a result of defying Ra...these stars are the souls of the people She killed. They represent Her first victims – and Ra's first consequences.

In creating the Celestial Cow, Ra has both made sure that She will never be lonely – and righted the wrong of killing people in the first place, by making sure that they can have another life after the lives they lost, and another chance at redemption.

From rage to guilt to redemption, the story turns. From cow to lion to starry sky, the Eye turns, and Ra shines in the sky as a reminder that He is always watching, even from the height.

(That's some deep thought for a quiet "moo-mas" evening. If you'd prefer something more playful, I wrote a humorous version of the myth in 2009 that you're welcome to peruse. Tonight, however, I look at the stars, and I see the concrete manifestation of a promise of gods Who are willing to take a time out rather than smite me, and I think about my own relationship with anger and its consequences.)

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