This is an excerpt from Anne Key’s book Desert Priestess: A Memoir
Though I would usually go to the temple in the morning and at sunset, most of the time the temple sits open, waiting, and unattended. This is, I believe, a part of the magic and beauty of this temple—that it is open to anyone. It makes the temple a unique and extraordinary place. It also answers a very interesting but most likely unasked question: In a culture such as modern Protestant-leaning America, where giving offerings is an unusual act and places of religious worship are not usually open to the public, what do people do in a temple where there is no posted protocol for offerings and no one around to direct their actions?
People come, most often singly, and leave offerings. Every day I find some assortment of candles, plastic flowers, fresh flowers, jewelry, sage wands, beer, art, and photos carefully placed in the temple. Most often these items are left in front of a particular goddess, the intention clear. One day I found a tiny silver pendant in the shape of a knife, the miniature handle curved and the blade straight, resting in the lap of Sekhmet, an offering honoring one of Sekhmet’s many names, “Sekhmet of the Knives.” I regularly found sage bundles in front of Madre del Mundo, offerings linked with her Native American roots.
What to do with all of these offerings? At first, I tried an administrative solution, meaning an across-the-board decree: all offerings would be either burned or buried at the turn of each season. But then, some offerings begged to have different outcomes. And so I moved from a blanket policy to a case-by-case process, with established precedents, of course.
Flowers were the easiest. Flowers are a traditional offering for deities, probably because they are beautiful, scented, and even when cut retain a spark of life. I left vases inside and there was usually a water bottle or two around to fill the vase. When the flowers passed their prime, I offered them in prayer in a ceremonial fire. I think fresh flowers are one of the best offerings because of their heady scent and vivacious colors. As they need to be replaced periodically, fresh flowers also show a continued devotion. And, when burned, they provided a final offering in the fire. They are probably the most traditional offering worldwide.
Plastic flowers are a different matter. Plastic flowers provide color and beauty not found in the desert landscape, and they are inexpensive, even available at the mini-mart in the gas station in Indian Springs, the closest town to the temple. Plastic flowers provide the gift of beauty and color, but they do not provide scent or any sense of life as an offering.
For my priestess duties, plastic flowers were a conundrum. They did not naturally disintegrate, nor did I think it wise to burn them, so when people left plastic flowers, I would take them out at the next turn of the season clearing and bury them alongside other non-burnable offerings.
Incense and candles were also popular offerings. These offerings, like flowers, follow ancient traditions. Incense burns and releases a sweet smoke that drifts skyward, making it a perfect offering for the deities. Candles hold the spark of life, the flame. Frankincense, myrrh, and kyphi10 were popular incense scents left for Sekhmet as they had been used in Egypt, and rose incense was left in honor of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Many people brought candles to the temple, often beautiful tapers and votives. However, in the summer when temperatures regularly soared above 100ºF and frequently over 110ºF, candles would melt quickly and often drip all over the rocks on the floor, giving me something else to clean. I preferred that people bring tea lights or novena candles as they were self-contained.
I was always so appreciative when people left incense and tea lights in the temple for others to use because not everyone came to the temple prepared, and once inside, the urge to light candles and incense is instinctual.
Another traditional offering is food. All sorts of foods were left as offerings at the temple: apples, strawberries, cakes, honey, nuts, meat, to name only a few. I burned all the food offerings in the temple fire pit, usually after the mice and other critters had had their feast. Though one time, an offering of a dozen or so papayas became the center of a feast for the ravens. And what a feast it was! The ravens picked at the papaya and flung bits of it all around the temple, on the statues, everywhere. I was cleaning up bits of papaya for weeks. After that, I remembered not to let fruit sit too long in the temple.
Liquid offerings abounded, especially juice and beer. These I poured out at the feet of the goddess in front of whom they had been left. Because of Sekhmet’s association with beer, and most specifically red beer, I would often find six-packs of Killian’s Red beer left for her. And every month or so, someone would come and leave a case or two of bottled water. I would pour out a bottle as an offering then bring the remainder to the guest house.
Jewelry was another frequent offering. Rings and necklaces were left on the statues, adornments for the goddesses. After a certain time I removed the offerings from the statues. At times I buried them, and sometimes I took the whole piece of jewelry and kept it in a box for a special ritual when that particular goddess’s statue would be adorned. If the jewelry was made of beads, I often restrung a few different offerings together to create a beautiful adornment for the statue. If the offering had glass or semiprecious stone beads, I might cut the string and mix the beads with the stones of the temple floor.
The offerings that couldn’t be burned or poured were buried. Placing things within the earth is an act of nourishing the Earth, honoring her cycles, the continual nourishment of life-death-life. The Earth transmutes the energy of these offerings, bringing them into her cycles.
In the dry clay earth around the temple, it was no easy task to dig holes large enough to bury offerings. Fortunately, Ben was always willing to swing the pickax and dig a deep hole. One time I dug the hole for some offerings, so it was not very deep. I cut myself on a shard of pottery to be buried, and I bled on the offerings. Though I worked to cover them thoroughly they were uncovered by some beast the following night. The second burial, executed by Ben, went as planned. The items stayed buried.
It was in a way ironic. While so often ceremonies are centered on the idea of infusing something with energy, my work with offerings at the temple was focused on defusing and transmitting energy. Too many offerings, too many intentions, too many personal heart-felt prayers, too many tears began to add up in the relatively small temple space. I would cleanse the temple regularly, both physically and energetically, to keep the space open, willing, and ready to receive the new.
One bright morning I walked into the temple to find a photo in a large wooden frame with wrought-iron bars across the front. The photo seemed to be someone’s promotional shot as an exotic dancer. It was accompanied by a note in which she explained that she was seeking the protection of the temple. The framed photo stayed in the temple by the west door and I burned a candle in front of it for her. After a few weeks, I buried it whole with the prayer that she would always be protected. I took her photo out of the frame so that she would not be imprisoned but rather protected by the embrace of the land.
One of the largest offerings left was a painting on canvas and a manuscript for a book detailing the tragedies of the author’s life. Her pain, horror, and anguish emanated from the manuscript and the painting. After much contemplation, I decided to burn them both, seeking to release the artist from her past and to release her mind from the idea that her anguish was the only and best fuel for her art.
Sometimes the offerings left me with my own sense of despair, anguish, and responsibility. I tried to intuit the best possible course of action with each offering, wanting to honor the wishes of someone I had never met.
One particularly poignant offering was a dead lizard, wrapped neatly in a cloth and tucked in a shoebox. Inside the box along with the lizard were a T-shirt, the lizard’s watering bottle, and some food. This box was placed lovingly in front of the statue of Madre del Mundo. I cried when I found it. Ben dug a deep hole and we buried the lizard near the temple.
There were times when offerings needed to be broken. Some items held great strength and energy, and I felt that it was better for that energy to be released. When I broke an offering, I did it with the prayer that the energy infused in it would be released and support the highest good. Breaking an item never meant that I disregarded it. The most difficult offering that I had to break was a candlestick in the shape of Sekhmet. It had very strong magic, very beautiful love magic woven into it. But, it was the turn of the season, and this offering had already been in the temple one extra season, so it was time to move it along. I dug its own special hole, and as I placed it into the hole I prayed that its love would be released and nourish the Earth. When my spade hit the candlestick and it broke, I could feel the waves of love move out.
Not long after I began my service as priestess, I encountered one offering that was particularly memorable; it had an immanent power yet was also a little creepy. The offering was left on what we called the “moon rock,” a boulder situated on the short path approaching the south entrance of the temple. Large and white, on full moon nights the moonlight illuminates the rock and it gleams brightly. There is a deep indentation on the top and, just as Patricia did, I collected the rainwater that accumulated in the indentation when it rained on full moon nights, an extraordinary occurrence considering how little rain we received.
I went out to the temple one morning and noticed some small odd squiggly bits in the moon rock’s indentation. I looked closer and was struck by their familiarity. Over the years I have been the beneficiary of many gifts from cats, often left on the front porch, and these squiggly bits looked familiar, like rodent entrails. There was also blood on the rock. Not a lot, but some for sure. I put my hand on the rock, nearby but not on the entrails—I am squeamish about these sorts of things. When my hand rested on the rock, my head instantly went fuzzy like a TV screen after the station has signed off. I knew I had to be careful with this offering.
In retrospect, I would have handled the situation differently, say smudging with Palo Santo and rinsing the rock with water from the spring. But at that time, only a few months after I had come to the temple, I relied on what I had learned from my grandmother about how to clean. I trotted back to the house to get my trusty magick rubber gloves and called on the lessons of my grandmother and the smell of clean I learned from her—Clorox Bleach. With gloved hands I removed and buried the entrails, then set about cleaning the rock, hoping that was the right thing to do. I had the distinct feeling that the offering was beneficial—powerful with no ill intent. As I wiped the indention of the moon rock, I recognized the power and intention of the offering, honoring whoever had left this with palpable love and purpose.
My thoughts return to one dark and clear November night. Ben and I are wending our way home from an evening in Las Vegas, and as we come down Highway 95 and draw close to the temple we can see light streaming from the doorways and beaming through the roof. Immediately fear and anger well up in my chest—is there an uncontrolled fire inside? No one is supposed to be in the temple after dark without calling me first. As we speed up the dirt road I see that there are no cars in the parking lot and my fear surges—has someone set fire to the temple and then left? Before the car stops, I jump out and sprint across the sand up to the temple.
I reach the doorway and stop in my tracks as I am met with a beautiful sight. The temple is steeped in light emanating from thirteen novena candles glowing in front of La Virgen de Guadalupe. A circle of salt rounds the fire pit, designating it as a sacred and protected area. I stand in the cold night air, breathing in the space filled with passionate intent galvanized by love. An ardent petitioner has been here. I begin chiding myself for the anger I had held earlier for the illicit visitor, and my heart swells to have come home to the temple filled with radiance and the magic of someone’s ritual that now nourishes this sacred space.
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