Miri could not imagine there was such a beautiful place as the island of Philae, an island amongst islands washed by the purling waters of the Nile. Amid a celebration of palms and luxuriant tropical vegetation, carefully tended gardens, the temple of Auset, the collegium, the Birth House and the surrounding buildings rose from the island of Philae as the mountain peaks rise from the Earth.
But as she walked between the huge pylons of the temple, Miri's soul shrivelled inside her. Standing amongst the towering columns and beneath the mind-numbing mass of stone overhead, her confidence drained from her body and flowed into the pavement through her feet. She wanted to turn her face from the temple and run back to Palestine. Everyone about her seemed to travel with inner purpose and knowledge; it was only she who moved hesitantly. She presented her letter of introduction from Mermaat through an opening in the door to the convent precinct and waited nervously. A bolt shot back loudly and the eye of the needle opened in the huge door and Miri stepped into the darkness within. Immediately she was entranced. The thick smell of incense caught her breath, wrapped about the fresh air in her throat and tied it into a knot. Eerie echoes of liturgical chants from a hundred unseen lips reverberated through the dark corridors. As the door closed behind her, it was as if she had sailed into a quiet harbour from a stormy sea. Men and women, their heads shaved bare moved with placid determination to the rhythm of a timeless ebb and flow, and Miri had an impression of deeper purpose within the massive temple walls than she had seen without. The small demure woman who had taken her letter led Miri through a narrow hallway, which sloped downward and seemed to shrink as they progressed down it. Mysterious, yet strangely familiar hieroglyphs carved into the walls passed the edge of her vision, and her sense of deep foreboding grew. Cut off from the sun and the outside world, Miri wondered if she would not have been better off remaining in Bethany with Yohanna and Martha. For an instant, an image of the gardener of her dreams flashed before her, and she suddenly felt a great loneliness, not just within herself but emanating from him as well. How could he reach her through all this stone? Every decision which had brought her to this point seemed folly, and now she was here, Miri called out to the Great Mother for help. Her silent guide reached the cell where she would begin her life as an initiate in the cult of Auset and motioned with a sweep of her arm for Miri to enter.
Miri stepped into the small room and turned to ask the woman how long she would be here, but she had vanished. Thereafter, she remained for several days. Her only visitor was her teacher who coached Miri in the initiation ritual, and memorized the strange Egyptian words of Re-en-Kaam. Miri was thankful for the afternoon lessons Mermaat had begun so far away in Canaan, for her tutor spoke only Re-en-Kaam and in a strange dialect from northern Egypt. Even so, the meaning of most of the words she was taught were lost. The liturgy seemed to expand and drone on forever, and she fought hard to concentrate on her lessons. She wanted to dance! To shout! To scream! To cry out in Aramaic!
But she held her silence and bent her head to the task of devotional memorization. Most of the time she was bored. With the exception of her tutor, she was totally isolated. The interior of the temple complex and monastery were windowless, lit only by flickering lamps. For all that time, she ate nothing, for she was told she must fast, but each day, was allowed a jug of water in which barley had been soaked and fermented. There, cut off from not only all other human contact, but from the sun itself, she spent long lonely hours crying to herself. As the incantations solidified in her head, she saw within them a flowing pattern, as though the words were waves passing through her, vibrating within her head then her breast, her belly, between her thighs, to her toes and fingertips and back, and she revelled in the sensation, singing the words concentrating on the physical pleasure they brought, sometimes extending the sounds longer to hold them in a particular place, then moving slowly to the next until she could control the feelings in her body with a single sound.
On the sixth day, she was allowed out. She was brought into a large kitchen, full of women of all ages. Confronted by the noise and the bustle, her thoughts froze, but as the other girls moved about her in the kitchen, life flowed back into her veins. Being with these women animated her and soon she was her former self again, happy and full of laughter.
The initiates were shown how to grind wheat in the prescribed manner, how to make dough from the flour according to a specific recipe, and the correct method with which to bake sacramental showbread. Each step was accompanied by a precise magical charm. Finally, before the cakes went into the oven, each novice, reciting the correct spell, imprinted three images on her own loaf: the throne of Auset, a loaf of bread and an egg. At the beginning and at every point there was a lull in the lesson, the girls were cautioned not to eat of the showbread until they were told to do so, for it was an offering for the Great Goddess. Miri's stomach ached as she prepared the food, and the sweet smell of yeast tantalized her beyond all description. After the baking, each girl carried the loaf of bread and a jar of beer on a tray back to her own cell.
The night was agony. Miri picked up the loaf several times during the night, bringing it to her nose and breathing it's aroma in deeply. Saliva welled in her mouth and her lips parted, but she stopped short of biting into the loaf. She had trouble sleeping, for thick yeasty fingers waved under her nose beckoning her to eat the bread beside her bed. Even the beer, a drink that was alien to her, tickled at her taste buds. Unable to resist, she finally removed her veil and lay it over the bread and the beer and fell asleep. Then, on the seventh day, a woman appeared like a wraith in gossamer linen and announced in perfect Greek, "It is time!"
Miri stood up quickly to go, but the woman motioned to the tray covered by her veil. Miri slipped the veil from the tray and wrapped it about her face. The woman picked up the bread and scrutinized it carefully. "You did not eat of the bread!" she looked at the jar. "Nor the beer!" She searched Miri's eyes. "Good! Bring your offering!"
As if in a dream, Miri followed the woman through a long corridor into the temple itself, past the outer doors and into an inner chamber. They proceeded through gates guarded by two priestesses armed with huge double-headed axes as tall as themselves and into an inner sanctum. Shadowy figures filled the hall, and Miri took her place with other initiates. She was surprised at the variety of dress amongst the novices. She saw Greek and Roman, Syrian, Arabic, Persian, and others she could only guess as to their origin. She took heart at the sight of them, recognizing potential friends amongst them as they exchanged brief sidelong glances from one to the other. Others entered. Each initiate entered, like a stone dropped into a dark well, causing a ripple amongst the others already in place.
As the rites of initiation to the cult of Auset began with the first chime of the cistra, the crowd ceased even the tiniest movement. Three by three, the initiates moved forward to stand before the high priestess, the Mother Superior. There, the novices knelt, laid their tray at the feet of the Mother Superior. Each was then stripped of her clothes and jewellery, and knelt naked before the Mother Superior. Then her head was shaved by two male attendants assigned to each novice. Her shorn hair was piled on an offering plate with her clothes and jewellery.
Finally it was Miri's turn. She stepped forward with two others, one on the right and one on the left. She was caught off guard as her knees suddenly felt weak and unable to support her weight. She faltered in her step, but recovered her dignity and stood before the High Priestess. There, she was stripped of her clothes, her jewellery, even her signet ring of which she was very fond. Kneeling naked before the Mother Superior, tears welled in her eyes. Two male attendants attended her and she was ashamed kneeling naked before them. Silently and efficiently, they shaved her head, and placed her beautiful raven black locks with her clothes and jewellery on the offering plate beside her. Deep inside she felt betrayed by Mermaat, for she had envisioned a glorious epiphany would overcome her at this point, but it did not happen. She felt nothing but betrayal and shame, and it did not suit her.
Beating heavily beneath her breast, her heart ached terribly. She realized she had lost her connection not only with the land of Canaan, but the Great Goddess herself had now abandoned her. The face she saw now, the Goddess Auset, seemed cold and distant. There was none of the motherliness and passion of Astarte. It was the passion she missed. Her Goddess was above all else a passionate creature, but the face she saw now before her, the unmoving and controlled calm of the Mother Superior, depressed her greatly.
Her path had changed drastically and the changes had cut her off from all she held dear. Overwhelmed by the power of the stone and the grandeur of the monuments and the slow inexorable pace of movements around her, she knew she could not save herself. The silver thread which connected her to Palestine was drawn tight and was in danger of snapping at the slightest movement. She moved carefully and slowly, afraid the umbilical cord to her Motherland was about tear free from her body. If the thread broke, she imagined she would fall to the Earth and bleed to death from her ruptured belly.
Surrounded by clouds of incense and strange music, she repeated the memorized chants as the ceremony progressed, but inexorably, fear drifted into her heart. Fear of being alone. Forever. Trapped within the dark labyrinth of pillars of the temple. She wanted to turn and run. To race away from the temple. Away from Egypt. She wanted to run all the way to Bethany. To Yohanna. To Martha. Even to Sister Miriam. Her heart ached to see her friends. Salome and Naomi. She missed the circle in Shechem. There, she felt a belonging. A sistership with the women of her circle, the land where they lived and the sky above her head. Here, there was no sky. The temple was closed to the outside. Here, she felt nothing. In a sudden instant she realized she had died. She had died. Miriam of Sychar was no more. She was entering the underworld. This temple was the gateway to Sheol!
Her mind returned at that moment to the here and now. To the words of the rites. She reentered the world at the precise moment she was to receive her new monastic name. For the first time in the ceremony, she understood the words!
"From this point forward, " pronounced the Mother Superior, "you shall be known as Sa-tem-Ast-Harath!"
Sa-tem-Ast-Harath! Satem Astharath! Astharath! Daughter of Astarte! Miri's heart leapt into her mouth and she barely managed to stifle a squeal of excitement. The High Priestess smiled at her for a brief moment, the returned to her more formal countenance with a reminding glance for Miri to make way for the next novitiate.
Her trepidation slipped from her shoulders and the scales of gloom fell from her eyes. This was the moment she had dreamed! She was not lost after all! Nor forsaken! Her Mother had been returned to her, and she stared adoringly at the image of Auset above the altar. There, in the image of Auset suckling the infant Horus, she recognized the face of the Great Mother.
"Mother, forgive me," she whispered as she stared up at her face. As Miri stood up, a priestess carefully placed the tray of beer and wheat bread onto the offering plate holding Miri's hair, clothes and jewellery. Another placed a crown of flowers upon Miri's head. Miri stepped into papyrus sandals laid before her and the two attendants fastened a beautiful pleated linen dress about her body. They handed her the offering plate. Miri held the plate high above her and approached the altar. She placed the plate on the altar, and took the bread from its tray. She broke the bread in half, replacing the bigger portion to the tray and took a bite of the piece she held. The bread seemed to melt in her mouth, never had she tasted such sweet bread. She reached for the jar of beer and sipped from its rim. The beer was sharp and Miri winced as she swallowed it, but as the liquid descended into her body, a sudden warm glow filled her stomach. She suddenly longed to down the rest, but she resisted the urge and withdrew to a position with other novitiates whose glowing smiles echoed the elation swelling within her own breast. Once the ceremony was over, the novitiates, priestesses and nuns gathered together in the great hall beneath the statue of Auset for a feast. As they no longer were allowed to eat meat, the meal they shared with Auset was vegetarian: bread, beer, bean soup, dates, figs, pomegranates, and fruits Miri had never seen before.
Miri's mood improved after the day of the feast for she was allowed to socialize with others in the monastery. She spent most of her time learning to speak and write Re-en-Kaam. She loved her studies and progressed at a rate that amazed her instructors. Such was her aptitude, soon the Mother Superior brought in a scribe from the temple of Thoth to instruct her star pupil. Miri herself soon acted as tutor for her peers. She had an uncanny aptitude for the most complex grammatical structures, and within a short time was able to read the inscriptions upon the temple walls with no trouble at all. In the library, she became fascinated by the magical papyri that prescribed cures for an amazing list of ailments, and soon absorbed the knowledge within them.
It was not long before it seemed Philae was the whole of the Earth, an island surrounded by the eternal waters of the Nile, nestled between the barren mountainous cliffs to the East and the West. The horizon of the plateau above the river marked the edge of the world, the twilight regions of Nepthet, the misty edges between the Earth and the Great Beyond. It was Nepthet who ruled over transition. from Life to Death, from knowing to unknowing, from Day to Night, the lady of the Twilight. It was she who was the Lady of the Desert.
Each day, the sun, the Aten, the boat of Rei, rose from the horizon, behind the mountains where it appeared as Horus with outspread golden wings each day, and travelled across the sky and died as Ausar in a blood red sky behind the western mountains. The sun passed through the twelve hours of the day from birth to death and as it passed from view travelled another twelve hours of the night through Tuat, the Underworld, battling the forces of Set to be resurrected victorious the next morning as the great sun god Horus. The whole purpose of the residents of the island was to aid Rei in his passage across the sky and to pray for his victory in Tuat over Set. It is for this reason the Egyptians called Philae 'The Island of The Time of Rei'.
As well as the priestesses and nuns of Auset, the island was occupied by priests of Ausar. The priests were called 'prophets' in Re-en-Kaam, but they were not the wild Hebrew prophets who railed from the wilderness against the priesthood of the temple in Yerushalayim, but very controlled and disciplined, with a very inflated sense of self-importance despite their profession of great humility. They were as far as they could be from Miri's sense of prophets, and each time she heard the word applied to a priest, Miri had to suppress a small giggle, for the contrast was so great as to be comic.
An important role for a priest, was the Cherheb, the cantor who recited the sacred books aloud to bring the magical powers hidden within the scrolls into the real world. The common people held the Cherheb in awe, for it was he who brought forth the Word and the power of the gods. It was he who gave form to the ritual and the sacrifice, which ensured the safe passage of the boat of Rei across the cloudless sky.
Another task assigned a priest gave him the title, Ueb, which also had a meaning of purity, and only those who were most devout were allowed to perform the rites of pouring out the libation, the drink offering before the god, Auset.
Each morning a priest assigned to the monthly service of Ueb, an honour for which all the priests vied jealously, was dispatched with great ceremony by boat to the island of Biga to the west of Philae. He carried milk from the sacred cattle of Auset to one of three hundred and sixty-five offering tables on the island, one for each day of the year. This offering and ritual fed Rei and his manifestations as the rising Horus and the dying Ausar and gave him strength for his journey across the sky and through the underworld of Tuat. So that nothing could interfere with the sacred tasks performed on Biga, strict laws were enforced for the Abaton. No human could enter there but the assigned priest and the goddess Auset. No word could be spoken aloud lest the words pass a curse upon the offering. Fishing and the netting of birds were forbidden, for no blood was to be spilled on the sacred island. No music should be played there unless it distracts the god who came to eat. Failure to perform this ritual in the minutest detail, would cause the End of Times, and the whole world would be plunged into darkness, and the Nile would cease to flow.
So the circadian rhythm passed methodically and placidly, setting the pace for the daily rituals. The months turned in their greater circle, and the Great Houses of the Stars wheeled grandly across the sky, setting the times for the great festivals, and all was well. But the pace increased imperceptibly as the summer approached, and on New Year's Day, at the summer solstice, the star Sothis rose in the East in the same House as the Aten-sun, and thereafter, the waters of the Nile began to rise. For the first time Miri and her peers were allowed outside the temple complex. The contents of the temple were removed by cart and sledge: a great procession of the riches of the temple of Auset moved from the temple to the shore of the island of Philae. From there the possessions were loaded onto barges and rowed to the banks of the Nile, then hauled to the eastern foothills of the Nile valley. The huge temple doors swung wide open and the statue of Auset was brought forth. As the image of Auset was removed, people bowed down, touching their foreheads to the earth until the Goddess passed by. Soon, the entire village and surrounding farms were abandoned and their inhabitants moved all their belongings on carts, camels and donkeys, and backpack up the sides of the valley and out of the reach of the spreading muddy water. There was no panic nor desperation or resentment in the exodus. The people accepted migration as a necessary annual ritual. A new settlement of tents blossomed on the hillside at the edge of the valley. From a vantage point on the hillside, when she was not needed in the hospice camp, Miri sat each day as the Great Nile reclaimed the black land from her children. She marvelled at the immensity of the inundation, each day the Nile rose and stretched wider and the islands shrank, until the river became a lake stretching across the breadth of the entire valley. Soon only the temple showed where the island of Philae once stood. The low buildings were completely covered by the great blue lake below. Biga shrank also, and many of the offering tables were covered by water, but still a few remained above the flood level. The daily passage of the priest to the Abaton became more treacherous as the flow of the Nile was now far swifter than ever before. It was these times which threatened the existence of the world, for the barque of Rei which was dispatched each morning, came perilously close to capsizing on more than one occasion.
Despite their close encounters with the End of Times, everyone around Miri laughed and joked with each other, seemingly unconcerned at the narrowness of their escapes from oblivion, or even, for some, the loss of their homes. She asked Mother Nefrit, one of the priestesses of Auset, herself a native of the area, why.
"It is a holiday for us all!" she answered laughing. "Ausar-Hapi, the god of the Nile returns to us each year and swells in size as a penis aroused by the presence of a woman! He fills the land with his life-giving semen and the fertility of the land is once again aroused to accept the seed of her children. Houses filled with his semen are guaranteed later to bring forth children"
"He is portrayed by some as a man with breasts, for some say Hapi swells like a woman with child, sometimes he carries a lotus, sometimes papyrus, sometimes both," answered Nefrit, "But the Lord Hapi cannot be sculpted in stone. He is not seen in the images of the crown of the South nor the crown of the North nor the urai of cobra nor vulture, nor can great deeds or offerings be dedicated to him. He cannot be brought forth from his house for his abode is ever unknown. He cannot be found in the inscribed shrines, there is no temple large enough to contain him, and you cannot make images of him in your heart. His name is not found in the Tuat and can never be uttered, for he will not manifest his forms, and imaginings will always fall short of knowing his form. He is Eternal and all life emanates from his bosom; He is Father of the Gods, creator of all things that are, the Vivifier, the Source of All Life!"
"Then how would I recognize Hapi?" asked Miri, "There are such a multitude of gods and keeping track of them all seems hopeless. There's a god for each hour of the day, each day of the week, each day of the month; every moment, every motion, and every object is presided over and protected by a different deity; and each of those has an opposite or negative image opposed to it, and for every deity there is a deiva. And every god has more than one manifestation. No one could ever hope to know them all!"
Nefrit laughed. "Every novice feels the same way, Sati! Once a young scribe named Pepi asked the same question many, many years ago and as no one he met could answer it, he embarked upon a counting of them. He began writing the names of the Immortals on a scroll. After several days he had filled his scroll. Then another and another! And still there were gods and goddesses to count! Days became weeks, weeks became months, month became years. Still, his task was unfinished. He travelled far and wide, from the Hebrides to India. His entire life was consumed by his task.
Finally, he was called by Ausar to the Afterlife. As he lay on his death bed, surrounded by his scrolls and disciples, one of his pupils asked him, 'Master Pepi, please tell us, have you discovered the number of gods in the world?'
The dying scribe nodded weakly. 'Yes!' he whispered, 'Yes, I have!'
'Please tell us!' pleaded another student, 'How many are there?'
The old man smiled and lifted his voice for the last time.
Nefrit smiled. Miri stared out at the rising Nile. The Nile was a living being, but despite the story she had heard, she sensed the Nile, the river the Egyptians called Hapi, was female, for it rose so graciously. She was rising and covering the dry and desiccated body of Ausar, the land of Egypt, and under her cloak of floodwaters, the parts of Ausar swelled and grew full with life, the cracked and parched limbs rejoined and his lover animated him once more.
She realized suddenly, she had been in Philae now for almost an entire year, for the rites of Adonis and Aphrodite she had witnessed in Alexandria took place at the same time of year as the rising of the Nile, when the star Sothis rose with the Aten from the House of Taurus.
Eventually, the river receded and the village returned to the island, and fields were sown and grew on the shore opposite Philae. The maidens of Auset were now allowed into the public square, but they were veiled and always escorted by an older nun. As her education progressed, Miri and a few others began work in the hospice attached to the temple. The sanctuary was not part of the actual temple complex but was still considered as sacred ground. Here hundreds of pilgrims arrived to be cured by the healing powers of the waters of the Nile and blessed by the Great Goddess Triumvirate of Auset and her sister Nepthet and the Ancient Hathor. Here to the sanctuary came those suffering from lameness, blindness, leprosy and a thousand other diseases and disabilities. Some days Miri despaired of being able to help, but somehow, day-by-day, cures were affected. Those who suffered from malaria and sleeping sickness were sent to another camp, isolated from the main, as were the lepers.
Her favourite workplace though was the Birth House. There, women from far and wide came to bring their unborn children to the sanctuary for the protection of Auset. The Sisters of the order of Auset were renowned for their midwifery skills as much as the nuns of Hathor at Dendera. Miri knew no greater thrill than coaxing a child from the womb, and receiving it alive into her own hands, wet, warm and squirming. Miri was always amazed by the force of the newborn's personality as it entered the world. As the baby opened its eyes and scanned its new world for the first time, Miri recognized within its eyes, the Soul, the essence of the tiny creature, and she knew it recognized hers.
Here was true power. Here was the great Mystery. Here she came face to face with Eternity. She was confirmed in her belief that a Soul travelled from some land removed from hers in both space and time. For an eye blink, she could read the mysteries of the universe in the eyes of the tiny soul in her hands, and then a veil dropped over the baby eyes and the connection with the All was forgotten. A new life was begun!