Anpu Lord of Natron: Thinking Kemetically in West Wendover

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An offering of pure white hesmen-natron (sacred salt) in an onyx bowl before a cult image of Lord Anpu in my icon studio

 

O Anpu, Lord of the Sacred West,
open the Doors of Heaven,
and open your mouth in the
presence of the West!

Homage to You, Lord of Natron,
whose scent is the scent of the
First Occasion, whose breath
brings life to the one who inhales it.

Make the giving of life, O Lord
for the one who sleeps,
make a path in the Sacred West
for the one who has journeyed forth.

Open your mouth, O Anpu,
and may my mouth be opened
by that tool of heavenly iron
by which Ptah opened up the
mouths of all the Gods.
May You in your leopard skin
place your powers upon my shoulders,
your breath in my nostrils,
your terror in my hands.

You breathe, O Anpu, and I breathe!
You take your seat in the Wedjat Eye, O Anpu,
and I too am seated in the Wedjat Eye
at the hour of its filling!
You sit upright, O Anpu, and I am erect,
never impotent, never weary like the
Imperishables.

Homage to You, O Anpu the Lord of Natron!
Your purity is the purity of the Nine Gods,
whose sweat composes me, whose brows flare
with power over my flesh and my members!
I stand in the Sea of Reeds, rejuvenated
from the efflux of your body,
and what dwells in the Gods dwells
within me.

All praise to You, Anpu, Lord of the Sacred Land,
Dweller Upon His Mount and Foremost of the
Westerners!

-Prayer honoring Anpu Lord of Natron
by Master Iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa

 

The Bonneville Salt Flats of northwestern Utah- not more than a few minutes’ drive from my home in West Wendover, Nevada- are a harsh and desolate desert environment that nonetheless attract visitors from around the globe.  It is here that the world famous Bonneville Speedway acts as a Mecca for car racing aficionados, where the world’s speed records are made and broken.  However, I have found in this strange place an intimate connection with the Gods and ancient traditions of Egypt upon which I have built my vibrant spiritual life.

As a Kemetic Reconstructionist my goal is to honor the Netjeru or Gods according to Their most ancient rites and traditional prayers, according to the abundant sacred legacy left to us by the ancient Egyptians in a historic record encompassing more than 5,000 years.  Far from being an exercise in historical reenactment, Kemetic Reconstructionism as I know it and live it is a rich spiritual view embracing every aspect of my daily life, which seeks to be near the Gods in each moment, to experience an omnipresent awareness of the Divine world that is as relevant and empowering in the present day as it was to the ancient Egyptians in the distant past.

An important aspect of Kemeticism for me is taking the time to absorb the environment in which I live, and recognizing the presences of the Gods and Ancestors as They manifest through the natural world.  This view, which I call thinking Kemetically, concerns how our five senses (and more subtle spiritual senses or intuition) link energetically and symbolically with the Kemetic or Ancient Egyptian experience of the Sacred, an experience that saw the physical world and all its attributes as being the repository of divine power, the power of the Gods.  In the Ancient Egyptian mind frame, mountains, lakes, rivers, plants, animals, and the entirety of the earth and sky were all dwelling places of the Gods and other spirit beings.  For the Egyptians, the Gods were not limited to the monumental man made temples and sanctuaries, but were to be seen in all natural phenomena, which were demonstrations of the Gods as They manifested throughout creation.

Kemetic Reconstructionism (again, speaking only for myself) does not necessarily mean living each and every aspect of life in the Nile Valley as it was lived 3,000 years ago.  That would be impossible, given that the resources simply do not exist for the average individual or group of devotees to reconstruct the opulence of the Pharaonic past.  Secondarily, Kemeticism or Kemetic Reconstructionism is not aimed at recreating the past for its own sake.  It is not historical reenactment.  It is not ye olde Renaissance faire in Ancient Egyptian guise.

Adoring the Netjeru today is, like any active religion or spiritual tradition, a means of infusing our daily life with sacred meaning and purpose, a way for us to weave a bond between the mundane and mortal and the Divine immortal.  Through carrying out the same prayers, rituals, and offerings as those bestowed for thousands of years by those who came before us, we are linking our lives energetically with the vital essence that still lives in these ancient practices.  When we connect with them, we connect with the Powers living through them.

So, often I find myself standing in the presence of the majestic amber mountains of the desert surrounding West Wendover, praying to the Goddesses and Gods Who live in pyramidal peaks and desert valleys: Hwt-Her (or Hathor), Mistress of the West, Merit-Sager, “She Who Loves Silence”, Goddess of the Mount of the West, Ptah-Tatenen, Ptah of the Ancient Earth, and Anpu (or Anubis), Lord of the Sacred Land.  These Gods of life and death have always been seen as natural dwellers in a harsh desert landscape, and for me They are still omnipresent in Their creation as living gods, protectors of a living spiritual tradition.

This year West Wendover received its annual monsoon rains, which deposited heavy flows over the region of the Bonneville Salt Flats, once the location of the ancient Lake Bonneville, which disappeared from the region nearly 15,000 years ago.  Standing at the edge of the Salt Flats, one can see a dramatic vista of hard, dry salt, shimmering snow white in the scintillating heat of the day, and, far in the distance, a stretch of pyramidal mountains, some of which appear to be floating above a sea of burnished silver.  But during the monsoon season the Salt Flats are transformed into something all together different.  Gone are the empty white sheets of desert salt, replaced with a shallow lake that dramatically reflects the sky and burnt red mountains upon its glittering surface.  And then something else happens naturally, something that links this modern desert landscape with the religious customs of the ancient Egyptians.

Gradually, as the sun slowly begins to evaporate the newly deposited rainfall from the Bonneville Flats, mass amounts of virgin salt leach from the earth below, and the entire edge of the lake becomes a ring of natural salt.  It is this salt, and the process of its creation, that jump starts my mind into thinking Kemetically.

The ancient Egyptians are famous for their particular brand of the mummification process, a significant component of their complex religion and its foundation on a belief in physical resurrection in the Afterlife. Mummification for the Egyptians was a sacred process through which the corruptible mortal shell was transformed into an eternal body, a body that would- like the cult statues of the Gods housed in the great state temples- become a vehicle for the spiritual essence to be reborn and sheltered, to live in a physical, sensual state.

Mummification also transformed the mortal body into a form of the God Ausir (or Osiris), the god whose mummification and resulting resurrection provided the model through which all Egyptians could attain the same resurrection from death and entrance into immortality(1).  True mummification, that is, correct preservation of the body to halt the decomposition process, depends on the complete desiccation of the body in order to destroy bacteria and thus prevent putrefaction.  This vital process was accomplished for the ancient Egyptians with the use of a naturally occurring salt known today as natron, called hesmen, bed or netjeryt by the Egyptians(2).

Natron is composed essentially of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, but is also known to contain properties of sodium sulphate and sodium chloride(3).  Harvested primarily from the Wadi Natrun north-west of modern Cairo, natron is deposited along the shores of lake beds, and was used by the ancient Egyptians as the agent for desiccating corpses during the mummification process.  It is quite understandable, then, why this humble salt came to be venerated by the Egyptians as a sacred substance, a substance containing properties both magical and divine, and why it came to be associated with the God Anpu, the inventor and patron of mummification.

One of Anpu’s ancient epithets is neb hesmen, “Lord of Natron”(4), which tells us that He is the master of this sacred salt by which a human corpse is transfigured into an eternal home for the soul.  But natron was not only used for the desiccation and preservation of corpses, it was also used extensively in the activities of the temple cult and its daily ritual. Purification was an essential ingredient of Egyptian religion, and we are told by Herodotus (11:37) that Egyptian priests rinsed their mouths with natron before fulfilling their sacred duties(5).  Obviously, it was believed that natron had the power to purify both physically and spiritually, as texts revealing the episodes of the daily cult ritual clearly demonstrate:

 

“Making purification with 4 pellets of bed-natron.  Thy natron is the natron of Heru (Horus);  the natron of Heru is thy natron, thy natron is the natron of Djehuty (Thoth) and vice versa.
Thou are established amongst them….Thou art pure, Ra-Harakhte”(6).

“Making purification with four pellets of Upper Egyptian natron of el-Kab. Thy purifications are the purifications of Heru and vice versa, thy purifications are the purifications of Djehuty and vice versa, thy purifications are the purifications of Sokar and vice versa.

Mayest thou be established amongst thy brothers the gods, oh, Ra-Harakhte”(7).

“Making purification with 4 pellets of Lower Egyptian natron of Wadi en-Natron.  Oh, Ra-Harakhte, who resides in the Mansion of Menmaetra, the smn, the smn, which opens thy mouth.  Oh, Ra-Harakhte, who resides in the Mansions of Menmaetra, mayest thou taste its taste, who art chief of the god’s booth”(8).

 

These texts from the chapel of Ra-Harakhte in Seti I’s temple at Abydos are paired with images depicting the king kneeling at the feet of the God Ra-Harakhte in order to present a vessel of natron pellets to the god.  This gesture is vital to the performance of the king’s spiritual duties, which require a level of purity equal to that of the Gods, that is to say, a level of purity on a par with the perfection of divine power.  The king’s utterances demonstrate that it is natron itself which is the embodiment of this purification power, equating the sacred salt with the purifying force of different netjeru (gods).  Concerning the third example from the daily cult ritual of Seti I, scholar Rosalie David notes:

 

Moret states that this is one of the most important rites in the cult of Osiris, for this perfume was believed to have the effect of opening the mouth of the god, and this rite was believed to restore to the god the use of both his limbs and senses(9).

 

By “perfume”, of course, Moret means a mixture containing 4 pellets or balls of natron salt from the lake beds of the Wadi Natrun, which was quite obviously held to be the most potent source of the purifying salt. This specific recitation gives us insight into the divine nature of natron salt, which not only has the power to purify and protect, but also to magically activate the cult image of the deity, to “open” or “awaken” the image to a life all its own.

The much earlier Pyramid Texts contain utterances pertaining to the bestowal of natron offerings on behalf of the deceased king, which likewise associate the substance of natron salt with the living power of the Gods:

“Your purification is the purification of Heru, your purification is the purification of Seth, your purification is the purification of Djehuty, your purification is the purification of Dwn-‘nwy, and your purification is also among them; your mouth is the mouth of a suckling calf on the day it was born”- Lower Egyptian natron of St-pt (Wadi Natrun), 5 pellets (Utternance 35)(10).

The gods cited here, most especially Heru and Seth, are the personal gods of the king, but are also gods known to protect via physical prowess and magical strength; thus natron is also being associated with protection from bodily harm as well as spiritual and/ or magical attack. As a source of renewal and awakening, natron is linked with the power that rejuvenates the king, described poetically as the king’s mouth being “the mouth of a suckling calf on the day it was born“.  This has a parallel in the later cultic texts from Seti I’s temple at Abydos, where a mixture of natron opens the mouth of the god’s cult image, causing it to taste the taste of this substance of vitality.

Now we return to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, where a contemporary lake has filled an ancient lake bed, where copious deposits of salt fuel a local mining industry.  For this area of Utah, very close to West Wendover, Nevada, is the industrial home of Intrepid Potash, the only supplier of potash (potassium chloride) in the United States.  Potash is an essential ingredient in agricultural nutrients, and this salt-rich landscape provides an unlimited source.

Walking along the salt-choked edge of the new “lake” Bonneville, I pondered how this monsoon down pour had coincided with the initiation of my latest icon, “Anpu Lord of the Sacred Land”.  I was astonished to look out over the glittering lake, out of which seemed to emerge the pyramid-shaped peaks of the desert mountains, and see how the surface and rim were decorated with delicate flakes of new salt.  In some places, larger rocks, almost like bricks, jutted out from the water-logged earth.  It took little imagination for my Kemetically-inclined mind to see this ancient Bonneville Lake bed, now flooded and ringed with salt, as a model of the time of creation as visualized by the ancient Egyptians.  Their view of creation has a pyramidal mound rising up out of the dark waters of chaos, very similar to the black mounds of earth that emerged from the Nile River after its annual inundation.  It was from this pyramid-mound that Ra gave birth to the Gods, the earth, and to humankind.

 

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Twilight settles over the flooded Bonneville Salt Flats, where pyramidal mountains appear to emerge from a primordial lake

 

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What looks like white foam ringing the edge of the Bonneville lake is in fact fresh deposits of salt, our own local form of hesmen-natron

 

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The ring of pure white salt deposits surrounding the monsoon lake at Bonneville

 

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Thick deposits of salt that have been built up over time by successive floods on the Bonneville Salt Flats

 

But this sight also inspired in me a parallel with the Wadi Natrun, for it was from those ancient lakes that the Egyptians harvested their natron salt, used by the priests in the daily cult ritual, and by the embalmers for the rites of mummification.  Here in Utah is our very own “Wadi Natrun”, a source of salt that is being used by human beings in an industry that sustains life on our planet.  I knelt by the edge of the lake and scooped up the slightly moist pellets of salt in my hands, pondering how the ancients saw a living divine power transferred from their natron salt.  Although the salt deposits of the Bonneville Salt Flats are not precisely the same chemical composition as the natron used by the ancient Egyptians, salt is still salt, and the effects of its use are the same.  Even after only a few moments of contact with the fresh salt, my hands had become dry as my pores absorbed the salt.  I could feel that acute dryness almost immediately.  I have no doubt that this salt, too, could desiccate a human corpse in the same manner as natron did for the ancient Egyptians.

 

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Virgin Bonneville “natron” salt removed from the most recent deposit during the monsoon season.  What looks like snow beneath my hand is the new deposit of salt.

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A large, pristine block of virgin Bonneville “natron” gifted to the Netjeru on the Altar of the Household Gods in our home-shrine.

 

We carried home a large block of Bonneville “natron” as a gift for the Gods, together with a small harvest of pure white flakes and pellets of salt.  The ancient texts, such as the utterances for the daily cult ritual found in the temple of Seti I at Abydos, call for “pellets” of natron from either Upper or Lower Egypt, and the images that pair with these texts show what look like little balls sitting at the top of an offering vessel.  I had always wondered about these balls or “pellets” of natron.  Were the texts and images referring to natron salt that had been somehow rolled by hand into this spherical shape?  Since I had never seen natron salts in their natural environment, I simply didn’t know.  Now I am quite certain what the ancients were referencing when they indicated “pellets” of natron.  We noted that after the waters of the monsoon lake had evaporated, the earth, now snow white with pure salt, was dotted everywhere with deposits of salt that had naturally formed small pellets or balls which looked strangely familiar.  These must be, in my opinion, the “pellets” the ancient Egyptians would offer to the Gods during the episodes of the daily cult ritual.  These were not man made forms, but naturally occurring shapes deposited in the lake beds of the Wadi el-Natrun.

 

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Four naturally formed pellets of Bonneville “natron” salt

 

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Pellets of Bonneville “natron” as seen following the evaporation of the monsoon lake

 

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Two pictures showing the white salt deposits covering the Bonneville Salt Flats after the evaporation of the recent monsoon lake

 

Being a Kemetic is, for me, a daily experience of living with a direct awareness of the Gods of ancient Egypt in everything that I do.  I do not see the Netjeru as archetypes of the past, nor as supernatural beings distant from humankind or creation.  My path in Kemeticism has shown me the presence of living gods who manifest in and through the very world around me.  It is by thinking Kemetically, relating to the world with the same spiritual consciousness as the ancient Egyptians, that I am blessed by the dynamic powers of the ancient gods, gods who continue to reach out to whomever is prepared to listen.

 

Notes

1 Taylor, John H.  “The Day of Burial” in Journey Through the Afterlife:  Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.  Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2010, pp. 83-84.

2 Faulkner, Raymond O.  A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.  Oxford, 2001, pp. 178, 86, 143.

3 Taylor, John H.  Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt.  Chicago, 2001, pp. 56.

4  Leitz, Christian.  Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen.  Leuven, 2003, Band VIII:  Register, pp. 103.

5  Teeter, Emily.  Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt.  New York, N.Y., 2011, pp. 32.

6  Rosalie, David.  A Guide to Religious Ritual at Abydos.  England, 1981, pp. 67.

7  Ibid.

8  Ibid, pp. 68.

9  Ibid.

10  Faulkner, Raymond, O.  The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.  New York, 1969, pp. 7.

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