The Priests of Ancient Egypt by Sauneron, Lorton and Corteggiani

The Priests of Ancient Egypt: New Edition
Serge Sauneron (author), David Lorton (author), Jean-Pierre Corteggiani (author)
Cornell University Press (May 25, 2000)
264 pages

Reviewed by Devo

This book is considered a staple for Kemetics in many circles, and it doesn’t disappoint. This book goes far more in-depth into the priesthood of ancient Egypt than almost any other book that I have read so far.

The book starts off discussing the generalized idea about what priests are and do. Sauneron shows us that while many people have an ideal about what priests were like (morally speaking) there were examples of priests who were less than savory in their dealings. I would guess he does this to break any romanticism we have with the notion of being a priest. Priests were people just like us- and they were fallible as we are now.

Sauneron also discusses the basics of temple ritual, what a priest’s day might entail while in the temple. Most of this was not entirely new to me, but it was still interesting to read another perspective on it. He also goes into detail about different areas priests would have studied. He made a point to mention that each priest within the temple would have had a specialty. There was rarely a priest who knew EVERYTHING. Usually, you had someone who read stuff. Someone who oversaw just the offerings. Someone who spent their day making the linen and clothes for the icon. Someone who was there to deem if an animal was pure enough to be sacrificed to the god. Someone who knew the music that the god liked… etc. I think this is an important concept for modern Kemetics to consider, since it seems like we all have to know everything about everything in order to get somewhere. He also gave a generalized history of ancient Egypt and how the priesthood could have played a role in it. It was interesting to see his ideas about how the Ramessides were trying to placate the priests of Amun while trying to promote their own god- Set. I’ve never seen anyone really discuss whether the 19th dynasty had problems with the temple of Amun or not. So the concept was interesting to consider.

I liked learning little facts that I’ve seen asked around the Kemetic community, yet never knew answers to. For example, Sauneron does mention that there was likely some type of initiation ritual for new priests. He says not a lot of information is known, but that something happened to transition them from outside to inside. In the case of higher priests appointed by the King, they would receive a ring and ceremonial staff, which I thought was interesting to know.

Overall, the book had some interesting stuff to it. I learned a few new things and it reinforced a lot of what I have already read. Here are a few excerpts from the book:

A priest is any man who, through bodily purification, puts himself in the state of physical purity necessary to approach the holy place, or to touch any objects or dishes of food consecrated to the god.

Maat is the aspect of the world that the gods have chosen, it is the universal order as they established it from its basic constituent elements, such as the course of the starts and the succession of days, down to the humblest of its manifestations” the harmony of the living, their religious piety; it is the cosmic balance, and the regular recurrence of the seasonal phenomena; it is also the respect for the earthly order set up by the gods – truth, and justice.

The Egyptians distinguished in the sky, beyond the sun and the moon, the stars which never rest – our planets: Mercury, Venus (the star of the evening and the morning), Mars (the red Horus), Jupiter (the glittering star), and Saturn (Horus the bull).

I think the biggest complaint I have about this book is that he cites late sources a lot. It seems like the majority of his information comes from Greek writers. While I know that it’s possible that this was his only major resource to pull from, I would certainly enjoy using more native sources – information directly from the priests themselves- not outsiders who came to Egypt at the very end of her life.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the priesthood of Egypt, and whoever might be interested in creating a priestly role for themselves (or taking on such a role) in the modern era. I think by looking back at how the ancients did it, it can create a lot of ideas about how we can approach the concept today, and translate it into something that works in this time and place. I also feel this book does a good job at clearing up some of the misconceptions one might have about what bring a priest in ancient Egypt was about.

4.5 pawprints out of 5 pawprints

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Eternal Egypt by Richard Reidy

Eternal Egypt
Richard Reidy
Self-published (iUniverse), 2010
364 pages

This book is almost like a Bible for modern Kemetics. I can’t really emphasize how much I (and others) have used this book. It’s pretty much what the Kemetic community was waiting for and needed.

The layout of the book is pretty straight forward: it’s a series of rituals taken from ancient Egyptian temple walls and reliefs, and put into a format that modern practitioners can use in their own practices. There are two large rituals to Ra (morning and night rituals), execration rites for the enemies of Ra, rituals for celebrating your ancestors (akhu), a couple of examples and rubrics for rituals that honor specific deities (netjeru), and finally the rite of “Opening the Mouth” (which isn’t something most modern practitioners would perform lightheartedly). The purpose of the book can serve two-fold. It’s great for those who wish to practice the rituals from antiquity, and it’s great for those who are looking to learn about how rites in Egypt were performed.

The rites in this book can be used by solitary practitioners and by groups of people as well. The author uses these rites in his own temple in California. I have personally done a couple of these rites by myself in my own home and it felt great. I will add, though, that the “ingredients” list for some of these rituals is very extensive, and you might not be able to do every single ritual “by the book” right away. This is because he has tried to be as thorough and authentic in his presentation of the rituals from ancient Egypt- including some of the more complicated items needed to correctly perform these rites.

There are more than just the rites themselves in the book – Reidy is sure to explain the symbolism and meaning behind a lot of the aspects and items used within the ritual. This information helps to enrich the process of doing the rites because you really grok how this works on multiple levels. It helps to draw you in and feel a part of the heka that is stored in the words, motions and actions of each ritual. And all of his information is properly cited and sourced- with only one bibliography point being attested to Budge (which he addresses the reasons behind this in his book). It’s rare to find books for modern practitioners where such care has been taken to properly cite your sources.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in practicing rituals from ancient Egypt, wants to learn how it was done, or wants to learn how they can take their current rituals and format them into an Egyptian style. Out of all of the books on Egypt I own – Reidy’s book is the only one I open regularly and flip through to get new ideas and revisit ideas and concepts. For anyone who is serious about performing rites for Egyptian gods, I think this book is a must-have.

5 pawprints out of 5

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Abydos by David O’Connor

Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris
David O’Connor
Thames & Hudson, 2011
216 pages

Reviewed by Devo

If you have any interest in Abydos or early Egyptian tombs/structures, this would be a good book for you. The information is well written and seems to be pretty bias free. The author is very good at stating what we know, what we don’t know, and his thoughts on what might have happened. He doesn’t present his theories as truths- which is something a lot of Egyptological books have a problem with. For this reason alone, I would recommend this book. However, there is a lot of useful information in general. I learned quite a bit about Abydos- its structures, its history. The only thing I would have liked to have learned more about is Osiris- his cult and how his cult interacted with Khentiamentiu. However, there is still a fair amount of information regarding Osiris’ cult and his temple.

He goes in depth about the history of Abydos- from dynasty 0 all the way to the Late Period. He discusses various building projects there, talks about the layout and designs of many of the temples, the anomalies of some of the structures and what we can learn from them. Considering that Abydos is usually only mentioned as being “Osiris’ city” or “the place where Seti built that big temple with the kings list”- it’s nice to see a more in depth approach. Of course, as O’Connor mentions in his book- you find some answers, only to come up with more questions. I, too, have more questions for having read this book, but I have more answers too.

A particular quote that I liked:

The vast cemetery field comprising the Middle and North cemeteries and Umm el Qa’ab was personified as Hapetnebes, “Shoe who hides her lord”, a term peculiar to Abydos. The endless, open desert plain of Abydos was imagined to be a goddess, generated by & embodied in the landscape itself. “She who hides her lord” was complex in meaning. At one level, this goddess as landscape literally hid and thus protected Osiris himself- buried at Umm el Qa’ab – as well as his countless followers, eash one also an Osiris entombed in the Abydene cemeteries. But Hapetnebes was also a more positive force in that Osiris, buried within her, experienced revitalization or rebirth every year. In this perspective, “She who hides her lord’ is virtually lanscape conceited of as a mother goddess, in whose womb lies the potential for and actualization of life. She thus relates to the subtle interplay of meaning btwn desert and floodplain in the prototypical Egyptian landscape. The desert, seemingly dead, generates life for Osiris and deceased Egyptians; and thus relates to those more obvious manifestations of vitatlity and reproduction, the inundation and consequent vegetation, both seen as manifestations of Osiris’ capacity to regenerate.

He also discussed a bit about what we modernly call the Mysteries of Osiris. It was common for the Mysteries to involve a procession that started at Osiris’ temple and worked towards Umm el Qa’ab- what was believed to be Osiris’ tomb. During the procession, agents of Set would try to stop these people by attacking them. Of course, Osiris’ “team” would win, and they’d make their way to the tomb where rituals were more than likely done. This was also an interesting tidbit to learn.

I think for me, besides the two nuggets above, the biggest help this book served for me was to learn about early dynastic pharaohs. Most authors completely skip over early and pre-dynastic Egypt. More or less saying that they were there, stopping to look at Menes, Scorpion King, Narmer Pallet… and then moving on. If you’re lucky, you might see “Naqada” listed. However, O’Connor does go pretty deep into early dynastic goings on in Abydos (at least in regards to the structures there). So I feel like I’ve had a huge history gap somewhat filled. I know that this comes with the territory- Abydos housing tombs for early kings and all, but it was still nice.

Overall, I would recommend this book. I will add the caveat that it’s not likely meant for absolute beginners- if you don’t have a basis of Egyptian history or terminology, you might want to start elsewhere. That aside, it’s well written and has good information. And if you’re into Osiris or Abydos in general- it helps to give a more complete picture of both. The author is respectful of his subject matter, and I think he approaches the topics that he discusses really well. So go read it!

4.5 pawprints out of 5

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Salmon Nation by Wolf and Zuckerman, eds.

Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge
Edited by Edward C. Wolf and Seth Zuckerman
Ecotrust/Oregon University Press, 1999/2003
80 pages

This is another one of those “not specifically pagan, but of pagan interest” books that I like to add in here every so often. Much is made of totemism, and the Land, and our connection to these and other elements of nature-based spirituality. Salmon Nation is a book that keenly illustrates those connections, and the roots of why Salmon is such an important totem to the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, it is just one example of how humans have taken a system that developed over millions of years of natural selection, geological evolution, and other processes that we often only barely comprehend, and changed it suddenly, violently, and detrimentally.

The book opens up with an essay from a member of one of the several indigenous tribes that fished for salmon and traded goods at Celilo Falls. A tradition that lasted fifteen thousand years ended when the falls were flooded by a downstream dam, despite protest. This sets the stage for showing numerous other ways in which technological progress has run over patterns that took an incredibly long time to set into place, to include the intricate migration patterns of multiple distinct populations of salmon. The book continues through descriptions of both wild and farmed salmon fishing and cultivation, the safety and health of wild salmon populations, and the impact that our current fishing policies have on the very existence of salmon.

To pagans, this should be an object lesson of why we need to take totemism beyond “My totem is a fish! Yay!” and tie our spirituality to the very earth and waters themselves. Many of the cultures we draw from revere(d) animals, not just out of symbolism, but out of survival. In post-industrial cultures, we are too often divorced from the processes that bring us food, and so turn a blind eye to ongoing destruction of our life support system.

Read this book as inspiration. Read it as motivation. Read it for grief for what has been lost, but also for the realization that we can make more of our spiritual practices than simple lip service to Nature. Meditate on what you read, and go from there.

Five fins out of five.

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The Shamanic Way of the Bee by Simon Buxton

The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters
Simon Buxton
Destiny Books, 2004
208 pages

If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you’ll know there are three things that set me off. (Okay, more than three. But these are big ones.)

–Nonfiction, particularly speculative, really niche, or otherwise shaky, with poor research backup.
–Highly questionable anecdotes presented as literal, undeniable truth, without even an acknowledgement that there may be questioning of the sources.
–The idea that the above two are okay because spiritual writing doesn’t need academic/historical/other factual justification.

Sadly, there’s a lot of neoshamanic material that pings these pet peeves of mine. And this book especially hits them hard. The basic premise is that this guy meets this bee shaman when he’s a child, and spends a couple of years learning about beekeeping as well as spiritual elements thereof. Then later on in his twenties he manages to find another bee shaman of a secret, unbroken tradition called the Path of Pollen. Of course, there’s no written record or other evidence of this tradition. While there are some possible bee-related spiritual traditions associated with ancient Greek civilizations, the idea of a complete system derived from that, or contemporary to it, that survived into modern-day Austria and England is highly questionable. So we’re already starting on incredibly shaky ground.

Then come the amazing spiritual experiences–a bee flying through the author, who is accepted by his teacher without question right after his other apprentice graduates (which just seems conveniently perfect). Oh, and the sex scene. There are apparently sexy bee priestesses in this tradition. And we’re treated to a highly metaphor-laden (how many times can you fetishize a bee entering a flower? Never mind that worker bees are female…).

Finally, I want to know how in the hell he managed to kill a full-grown red deer stag (that just happened to knock itself out on a nearby tree) by suffocating it with his hand full of pollen without only a single gash from an antler. Don’t you know there’s a reason wolves and other smaller-than-stag predators, humans included, hunt them in packs? Not to mention, for fuck’s sake, that’s one of the cruelest ways you can kill an animal–if that even actually literally happened.

The whole book is like this. If it’s a Castaneda-style allegory presented as a real, completely true story, then the author is irresponsible for not prefacing it as such. If this all actually happened, then he really needs to question spiritual gurus and their authority.

One pawprint out of five.

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Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
Norton, 1999
496 pages

I’m sure there are going to be people scratching their heads in complete confusion when they see this book on Pagan Book Reviews. However, this blog isn’t just for books that are specifically about paganism, but are also useful to pagans. And this one is useful–for giving us perspective.

See, lot of (usually, though not always, white) neopagans romanticize their conceptions of what “tribal” societies are like, and glorify rather unrealistic portrayals of hunter-gatherer and basic agrarian societies. This is not to say that these societies aren’t of value; quite the contrary. But many pagans have insufficient understandings of what makes a society sustainable, which then turn into overly simplistic arguments about how technology is evil and indigenous people are noble savages.

The beautiful thing about Guns, Germs and Steel is that Diamond painstakingly traces the various factors that caused some societies to advance technologically quicker than others, ranging from access to large, domesticatible animals and cultivatible plants, to proximity to animals that can pass on diseases and build a population’s immune system, to specific geographical and geological features, and so forth. Obviously, the book is not flawless; Diamond, despite his attempts to be matter-of-fact, still shows a Eurocentric bias in some areas; additionally, this book should not be seen as the do-all and end-all of its subject matter. But there are a lot of salient arguments here, too.

For pagans, it’s a nice break from the sometimes technophobic attitudes that pop up. Additionally, as neopagans are mostly found in developed, English-speaking and/or European-culture-based nations, it’s a good look at societies outside of those contexts. And who can’t use a good history lesson now and then?

Four pawprints out of five.

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The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios by Marlene Dobkin de Rios

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros and Ethnobotanists
Marlene Dobkin de Rios
Park Street Press, 2009
190 pages

Note: This review is by Bronwen Forbes, who has been a huge help in cleaning up the last of the backlog of review books.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been all that interested in reviewing this book. Even though I grew up in the 1970s, my drug of choice has always been alcohol, not marijuana, not hash, not (passé though it may have been by then) LSD. My chosen Pagan path cannot under any definition be considered shamanic. However, over this past winter I had a regular Saturday afternoon gig reading tarot cards at a local shop that sold and promoted ethnobotanicals. When the store was raided and preemptively temporarily shut down by a SWAT team (literally) in anticipation of a state bill making the pot-like K2 illegal (K2 brought about $7,000 profit into the shop a day) I suddenly became very interested in ethnobotanicals, their history, and why the Powers That Be shut down a shop over a substance that wasn’t even illegal yet.

The Psychedelic Journey didn’t answer my questions, but it did provide some very interesting insight into why naturally hallucinogenic plants are such a big deal for a culture – whether that culture is “for” them or “against” them. de Rios did most of her academic research in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, but was able to apply much of what she learned to the drug culture in America.

What de Rios learned, or at least what she was most interested in studying, is how the ritual and cultural influences surrounding the consumption of ethnobotanicals (native hallucinogenic plants) impact the user’s experience. Here in the 21st century we may say “Well duh!” at the notion that one’s background and cultural orientation influences one’s altered-state experience, but back in the 1960s and 1970s this was apparently a totally new idea.
Knowing that de Rios is an academic, and having ready my share of dry, scholarly research (I was first editor for my husband’s Ph.D dissertation in ancient history), I expected to be bored silly by this book. I wasn’t. de Rios writes in a very accessible, easy style that even a novice in the field – like myself – can understand.

For the mainstream Pagan community, The Psychedelic Journey probably isn’t going to be very interesting or very useful, although the references to bufotonin (prime ingredient in old witches’ flying ointment recipes) are interesting. For anyone following a more shamanic path, I’m sure that de Rios’ insights in the field of ethnobotany and how native healers around the world use those plants will be of great value to their personal spiritual practice.

Four and a half paws out of five

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Shamanic Wisdom by Dolfyn

Shamanic Wisdom: Nature Spirituality, Sacred Power and Earth Ecstasy
Earthspirit, Inc., 1990
184 pages

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I want to not like it, because there’s a decent helping of cultural appropriation in it. Lots of “medicine” and various appropriations of watered-down indigenous concepts that have become so common in new age neoshamanisms. However, there are also some useful rituals for practicing a nature-based animistic path. I think it might have been a better book framed as animism rather than shamanism, and without the pseudo-Native trappings.

The good stuff includes practices for connecting with the directions, animals, plants, the sun and other celestial bodies, and various other denizens of the natural world. They’re designed to recreate awareness of these things we often take for granted, and the author does have a nice ecological flavor in her presentation of the material. The rituals are also not too difficult to enact, and this would be a great book in a lot of ways for a newbie pagan just learning to reach out to the world around hir.

However, as with so many other neoshamanic texts, there’s an element of entitlement, as though Nature will automatically always help us. While the chapter on eco-magic does emphasize giving back, the overall approach is fairly lightweight and says nothing about any of the potential dangers of connecting with these spirits. And there’s not really a discussion of the differences between what is presented here and indigenous practices. There’s the usual brief and somewhat stereotyped animal totem dictionary, just as a bonus.

Taken with some cautionary salt, this can be a useful text for beginners to nonindigenous animistic practices. Be skeptical, but also be open.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Echoes of Alexandria by H. Jeremiah Lewis

Echoes of Alexandria: Poems and Stories
H. Jeremiah Lewis
Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Nysa Press
260 pages

I actually read this a few weeks ago, but I’ve been so backed up with finals that I just now got the chance to sit down and write out the review. I have the Bibliotheca Alexandrina edition, but the book is now available via Nysa Press.

Whereas the last of Lewis’ books that I reviewed, Balance of the Two Lands, is nonfiction, this text includes fiction and poetry, as well as a scattering of nonfic essays, flavored heavily by the author’s Greco-Egyptian polytheistic syncreticism. He displays a great deal of versatility as a writer, because I like this book every bit as much as the last.

Much of the poetry scans like old Greek verses, addressing the gods and other beings with praise and fine description. One could simply say “Eilieithuia is associated with midwifery”, but instead Lewis writes “…lend [the expectant mother] your strength, so that she can grit her teeth/and bring her screaming baby into the world” (105). These poems would be excellent choices for ritual work, even if not in a strict Greco-Egyptian context. However, they also make for good reading as well.

The stories are of a similar quality. They make the gods seem even more real, multi-dimensional, even moreso than the original myths which often focused on the foibles and failings of divine and semi-divine beings. I think my favorite story is “The Beautiful Reunion”, which describes Hathor’s thoughts as she awaits her lover Horus, and how she feels conflicted over her attraction versus her independence. (And, of course, there’s the amusement of Horus greeting her with “Hello, sexy. I’ve missed you”.)

Overall, I found this to be a highly entertaining and enjoyable collection, and once again, Lewis does not disappoint. Highly recommended whether you want a good read for a cold night, verses for ritual use, or alternate, though faithful, interpretations of ancient myths.

Five pawprints out of five.

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A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis

A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings
Kent McManis
Treasure Chest Books, 1995
48 pages

Note: There are expanded editions of this text available; this is an older edition. Please see the link at the end of the review. Please follow the link at the end of the review if interested.

Often imitated, but hard to reproduce at authentic quality, the small stone animal fetishes created by the Zuni and other southwestern American Indian cultures are well-known artifacts. However, most people don’t know much beyond the fact that they’re made by indigenous peoples, and perhaps that they’re worth money to collectors. This little book serves as an introduction to their origins and the current state of the art form.

A very basic explanation of the spiritual cosmology that informs the creation of Zuni fetishes is offered at the beginning. This creates a nice context for what follows, brief but interesting explanations of some of the more common animals found in fetish art, and what their spiritual and cultural significance is. Unlike Zuni Fetishes by Bennett, this is not a how-to text, and sticks pretty closely to the source material as opposed to extrapolating rituals that may or may not be authentic.

The book is largely aimed at collectors, and the absolutely stunning full color photographs that grace much of the book make it worth the cost on their own. McManis showcases the works of some of the better-known fetish artist families, as well as giving some information on the current living artists, and a bit on how to tell a fake apart from the real deal. The depth of the talent and creativity displayed in the examples given is amazing, and the book made me appreciate this art form even more than before.

Whether you’re a potential collector, a spiritual or artistic researcher, or simply interested in knowing a bit more about a neat niche topic, this is a good starting point. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s an easy to digest intro.

Five pawprints out of five.

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