The Shoe in the Sky

The Shoe in the Sky
Pentecost 143

In a land of over one thousand languages, Diversity is the norm for Africa, not the exception. The mythologies of Africa also reflect this diversity. However, just as some themes are timeless, similar themes are found throughout African mythologies. Much of what modern man knows about Egyptian mythology starts with the pyramids that seem to rise out the terrain. Egyptians were not focused on death but on life. Their extensive rituals of death which included mummification and elaborate burials were to provide for a new life after death. As one ancient Egyptian song explains in its lyrics – “Earthly life is just a fleeting dream. When you reach the land of the dead, you are welcomed safely home.

The San Bushmen have a similar opinion in the myths about /Kaggen. The native people of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa are descended from a culture that dates back over 30,000 years. The San have a “click” phonetic sound in their language represented by the “/” or forward slash symbol. We may think of this character of the forward slash as a modern-day technical symbol but it really signifies one of mankind’s earliest human vocalizations.

The San mythological figure “/Kaggen” has a prominent role in many myths. In one, /Kaggen finds a piece of a shoe of his son-in-law, Kwammang-a, who is also called the Rainbow. Legend has /Kaggen finding this piece of shoe and then soaking it in water. The portion of the shoe turned into an eland, an animal we would call an antelope or a type of deer. /Kaggen made the eland a pet and fed it honey. According to the legend, Kwammang-a, along with his son /Ni-opwa the Ichneumon find the eland and kill it, beginning to butcher it when/Kaggen arrives upon the scene. In great misery, /Kaggen pierces the gallbladder of the eland. Darkness pours out of the gallbladder and covers the world. /Kaggen tosses one of his own shoes into the sky and the shoe becomes the moon.

San mythology tells of the moon walking across the sky at night. As the moon becomes full, the story tells of the sun piercing it. The moon decays from this blow but, following a promise of the creator /Kaggen, is slowly reborn. The San believed their Creator deity /Kaggen wanted rebirth for all mankind. As the moon, he represented a return to life, a wish the San felt /Kaggen wanted them to also have. [Soiler alert for tomorrow: This is not the end of the story!]

I have always been enthralled by often these ancient mythologies touch on what are actually very basic facts. The moon does rise throughout its phases to full glory only to become nothing again and then grow once more. While I doubt it is the shoe of /Kaggen, it is a wonderful analogy for hope.

We each experience types of death, not just with loved ones or friends but personally in our daily lives. We have the rise of hopes which are then trampled on or perhaps even crushed. We spend time working on a project only to have it canceled or ignored. Maybe you plan a lovely dinner and then no one can make it. Recently I invited someone to attend a conference with me. Three weeks have passed since the conference was over and I still have no response to my initial invitation to this person, a very capable and professional individual.

Sometimes life interferes with our living. Often we take these cancellations or deaths of plans personally, too personally. Certainly the lack of a response to the conference invitation was rude but that should not be interpreted as my failing. Sometimes, though, we do indeed fail. In spite of all our efforts, our work is unsuccessful.

Disappointment and death are facts of life. What we need to remember is that they are not the end. Like the moon, we can restart and move forward. As we move across the terrain of our life, as we put on our shoes each day and walk towards our future, we also can give rebirth to our dreams and create new expectations. Today really is the first day of the rest of your life.

Pyramid or Something Else?

Pyramid or Something Else?

Pentecost 132

It is seven city blocks long and wide.  Known as the Great Pyramid of Giza (and yes, there are other “great pyramids” worldwide), it was constructed in 4500 BCE.  The name is something of a misnomer, however, since there are actually three pyramids.  They were constructed to honor the grandfather Khufu, the son Kaffre, and the grandson Menkaure.  The pyramid built to house the body of Khufu was coated with white limestone and had a gold capstone.  Like most pyramids’ purpose, we assume it was built to house the body of the pharaoh.  But could it have had a different purpose?  Was there another reason for the construction and why are the three pyramids placed in the positions they were built?

Storytellers in Egypt did not just tell stories.  They had archaeological show-and-tell artifacts to accompany their legends.  The legends of this region are plentiful and, although many visit things such as the Great Pyramid(s) and the various Sphinxes, not much is really known about most African and Egyptian mythology.  First of all, these stories were and still are mainly found in the form of oral tradition, passed from generation to generation by mouth.  Additionally, the belief systems were not that organized and it is difficult to identify the thousands of deities in these myths.  Froom Benin and the Fon religion to Mali with its Dogon mythology, every facet of living became symbolic, based upon some myth.

Egyptian writing refers to a limitless creator, the “Hidden One whose eternal form is unknown.”  In Egyptian mythology, a deity exists first as potential energy.  That energy or potential would then take shape, usually an animal form or combine with another deity.  It is really interesting to me that they treated their deities like scientists treat elements.  Think about the Periodic Table of Elements.  Each exists on its own and yet, most can and are combined to form something else.  Hydrogen and oxygen exist in their natural state but when combined, with twice as much hydrogen as oxygen, then they become what we known as water – H2O.

The Egyptian goddess Ra joined with the god Horus and became Ra-Horakhty; Isis, the Egyptian goddess who is the patron saint of mothers and children and not the radical terrorist modern group who goes around killing mothers and children, formed an alliance with Renenutet, a goddess of fertility and the harvest who was often portrayed in the form of a cobra, to become Isermithis.

It is important to note that while the Egyptians did not worship animals, they did hold in high esteem the animal forms they believed their deities took.  Animals were mummified so that they might be reincarnated.  Animals were also embalmed and received proper burials for much the same purpose.  It was believed that showing such reverence to these animal forms would give a person special blessings and consideration by the deities.  The reincarnated animals would act as liaisons between the gods and goddesses and mankind.

The power of a story is very evident in sub-Saharan Africa and it holds the attention today just as it did when the first stories were told.  One of the more famous myths is from the Ashanti of Ghana and it addresses how these mythologies came to be.  These Anansi stories, so named because the myth gives credit to Anansi, a crafty spider, for convincing the sky deity Onyankopon to release the stories in exchange for Anansi trapping various gods in his web.  The myth proclaims that Anansi, with the help of his wife, even captures Mmoatia, the spirit, considered a most impossible task.

The sky was very important to ancient Egyptians.  Writings known as Pyramid Texts refer to the stars as “imperishable ones”.  The Egyptians believed that, upon his death, the Pharaoh would be transformed into a celestial being.  Did they construct their pyramids, and especially the Great Pyramid of Giza to be more than just a large burial crypt?  The sides of all three pyramids face north, south, east, and west.  The entrance of the largest of the three pyramids faces due north to within one-tenth of a degree.  This is an amazing fact given the tools they had at the time of the pyramid’s construction.  Additionally the descending passage into the burial chamber itself also faced north.

The internal design of this pyramid is fascinating.  It is believed that the Egyptians determined due north using the Pole Star method.  The Pole Star would have been a fixed point and once due north was identified and the passageway built, then construction continued on the rest of the pyramid.  The King’s Chamber is at the heart of the sarcophagus and is directly on the center axis.  It would have contained the mummified body of the pharaoh.

The north and south walls have two shafts and we can only speculate at their purpose.  Was it to provide ventilation or perhaps illumination?  The Egyptians believed the soul was immortal and could not die.  They embalmed and mummified so that the “ka” or body could be unified at some point in the future with the “ba” or soul which, upon death, would be sent or beamed up to the stars.

Beaming a soul up to the stars may sound more like modern-day science fiction than ancient Egyptian mythology but the Egyptians thought of such long before Star Trek had Scotty beaming up Captain Kirk.  Remember, the Egyptians thought one’s soul went to the stars upon death.  The north and south shafts in the Great Pyramid of Giza bend at some point so they could not have simply been observation points.  They do, however, align with the brightest stars of the constellation Orion or rather, they would have aligned at the time of the construction.  We’ve discussed previously the North Star and how the North Star of today has not always nor will forever be the North Star due to something called precession.   The north shaft connected directly to Thuban or Alpha Draconis, a former North Star while the shaft on the southern side aligned with Osiris, the Orion’s constellation god of afterlife.  Osiris also represented the complete cycle of life to the Egyptians – birth, death, and resurrection.

We will discuss this Great Pyramid again but for now, ask yourself:  What captures your spirit today?  What gives your soul release?  What is it that allows you to feel free, really free in your mind?  The purpose of all of these myths was not simply to entertain but to explain.  We often forget to stop and ask ourselves some very important questions, questions like “What would really make my spirit soar?  I have a feeling the questions at the beginning of this paragraph, when you first read them, invoked answers in your mind that went something like this.  What captures my spirit?  Work and responsibilities; they capture and enslave me.  What gives me release?  Going home or, perhaps, going to the movies or out on the town.  What allows me to feel free?  A nice cold beer or piece of chocolate or maybe even a long hot soak in a hot tub or bubble bath.

It is important to know not only where we have been and where we are going, but also to know what drives us and what can give us rest.  Thuban is no longer the North Star but it remains an important nautical marker which continues to guide sailing vessels.  Naval historians know that the USS Thuban, an attack cargo ship served valiantly and was of great importance to the United States Navy during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The naming of this ship is yet another instance of how ancient mythologies never fade away or die.  They are as immortal of the deities whose stories they tell.

Our living also leaves its footprint on the world.  We may never have a ship named after us or have a great pyramid built in our honor but we do leave our mark.  The trick is to make certain that we are leaving something positive.  We all have a legacy.  Unlike these myths and the spirits about which we are discussing, we can write our own story, create our own legacy.  What will you write today?