This article and future articles are a three part series from Anne’s time at the Sekhmet Temple and excerpted with permission from her book, Desert Priestess.
I began to have an understanding of Sekhmet in her context in ancient Egypt. But I wanted to understand her in the depths of my bones, in the depths of my heart, and in the recesses of my mind. I wanted to understand her anger, her fury, and, I wanted that understanding to encompass her love, her healing, her strength, as well as the Sun, the Lion, the Snake. I wanted to move to a place where my understanding of the whole would surpass my understanding of the discrete parts.
In my most honest moments, though, I felt trepidation. Part of me was scared of her. My father had an irrational temper and his bursts of uncontrollable anger caused us all to be wary of his moods. I can definitely access my own irrational rage. It wasn’t something I wanted to use, and I certainly didn’t want to be on the receiving end of someone else’s temper. And here I was, faced with a deity that, at least from myth, embodied anger. Righteous anger, but still anger that lashed with uncontrolled consequences.
I spoke with many people who connected with Sekhmet over issues that required rage and strength. People told me about using the anger of Sekhmet to fuel the courage to get divorced, stand up to a boss, file a lawsuit. Righteous uses of anger. I understood and accepted that, especially given her myth.
But that wasn’t the way I saw her. Or I should say, that wasn’t the gift she gave to me.
One warm summer night I light a fire in the temple, giving offerings to Sekhmet and my guides. I lie down on the temple floor, stones warmed by the sun. Looking at the stars through the roof, I feel the swirl of being nurtured by the sun’s warmth, the splendor of the stars, the cool embrace of night, the light of the fire. I open myself to the beauty of communion with the Divine. Ben drums the path for my journey.
On this journey, Sekhmet meets me again. We are in the temple, and I am lying on the sun-warmed stones. She looks at me with her great amber eyes, lion jaws huge. She is in full lioness form, and she puts her giant paw on my chest. Wow. It is big. And the claws are massive. I looked up at her with a bit of trepidation. “Your heart, it needs to be malleable.” She places her other paw on my chest and kneads. Yes, just like a cat, only a very large cat with very large paws. I look down and realize my chest is open, and that she is kneading my heart.
It doesn’t hurt, but I cannot help but be slightly disconcerted, seeing the large paws and claws pushing, tearing, kneading my heart. At some point, I surrender to it and allow myself to be there, in that place, and feel it. Feel the hardness of parts of my heart. Feel the sharp edges. Feel the places that don’t yield to touch. But her large paws knead, softening the edges and the unyielding places in my heart.
She stops, and I sense my heart as open, strong yet receptive, malleable yet shaped. I sit in that moment, aware of this sensation, knowing that with this heart I can be courageous and loving and open all at once. But only moments later, I feel the sharpness returning, parts of my heart hardening. And she starts again, kneading my heart to suppleness, openness, strength. When the kneading ceases, the hardening begins again, but the time in-between has lengthened. She begins another round of kneading, and afterward the time before the hardening begins lengthens again. Rounds and rounds and rounds of kneading, until finally my heart remains supple, strong, open, and brave.
As I recall this journey, remembering that beautiful warm evening, I feel my heart. Here at my computer, years later, I can once again feel the hard edges of my heart. Events pass through my mind, moments when I would not let my heart expand. I see clearly how fear shrinks my heart to stone. And that I am braver, stronger, more sincere, and authentic when I trust my heart and allow it to be open. I yearn again for a strong supple heart, and remain in infinite gratitude that I know it is possible.
I tried to reconcile these multiple images. I wanted to understand Sekhmet in her totality. I wanted to understand this warrior goddess who so lovingly and patiently massaged my heart. I needed to understand her myth in its totality, understand her context in the myth, understand the myth’s context in its own history as well as the present. I did not want to strip her of her anger, her righteous rage, her strength, her drunkenness, or her power. But the goddess of this myth was not the totality of the goddess I met in her temple.
During my first year, I read everything that I could find on Sekhmet, every little piece of writing, academic and personal. I started chanting to her. I memorized her names and began to listen for new ones. My daily practice consisted of going to the temple, lighting a fire, saying her names, chanting her mantra, letting it reverberate through my body, my heart, hoping that once my body understood, my mind would understand. Who is she? Who am I to her? What does she teach me? Day after day. Fire after fire. Offering after offering. I didn’t ask for understanding. I just kept surrendering, moving beyond the fear of my mind into the knowing of my body, and the knowing of my heart.
Connecting to Her
I began chanting the Sanskrit mantra of devotion to Chinnamasta. Chanting mantras is a millenniums-old tradition. The word mantra means instrument of thought, sacred text, or a prayer of praise. Repeating a mantra over time can calm the mind as well as spark our inner fire.
After a few months of chanting, I began to notice that at times when my thoughts would wander, I would hear Chinnamasta’s mantra go through my mind. It seemed as though my mind would clutch at the words and melody of the mantra. I found I was having fewer and fewer of the unhelpful thoughts: the thoughts that whispered that I was not invited to participate in a ceremony with another group because I was not talented enough; the thoughts that whispered that I did not have the spiritual depth to be a priestess; the thoughts that I was shallow and everyone knew it and that was why only three people showed up to the full moon ritual. Instead, these thoughts were drowned by Chinnamasta’s chant. I began to see my ego attachments in these instances; that my self-importance was dinged when I was not invited; that my self-aggrandizement and pride were confronted with overwhelming evidence that my charisma was not always enough to induce hordes of people to drive an hour into the desert for a ceremony. The words of Chinnamasta’s mantra exposed these whisperings for their true nature. And I began the slow process of allowing my strength to come from within.
One warm summer evening while Kalli Rose was visiting, we went up to the temple and lit a fire. We chanted to Kali Ma, with Kalli’s operatic voice filling the space with love and praise. At that moment, I heard very clearly the desires of Sekhmet to have songs and praise to her, songs of love and beauty with passionate and joyful energy.
But to honor Sekhmet, what did I have? Unlike the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, which are living traditions still practicing ancient techniques, the Egyptian traditions were long unpracticed as Islam gained popularity. To learn about Sekhmet and how to honor her, the only book I had to turn to was Robert Masters’ The Goddess Sekhmet: The Way of the Five Bodies. I was uncomfortable to be so reliant on someone else’s research and to feel so blinded, so unable to dig into the academic piece. In retrospect, I see how this situation brought me to a new way of understanding Sekhmet. Though I still wanted to understand Sekhmet in her ancient guise, in her Egyptian context, I was in the unique position to understand her manifestation in the Nevada desert, to understand her in the present context. And so I went forth with what I had.
Masters was my only source for a mantra, and I wanted to honor Sekhmet by saying her mantra. I wanted to connect myself to her in the same way that I had connected to Chinnamasta. I needed to understand Sekhmet’s gifts in a visceral manner. I wanted my mind to cleave to her words. So, I began using Masters’ mantra: Sa Sekhem Sahu.
Sa means the Breath of Life. It is the life force that comes into the human body at conception. The word sekhem is associated with power. This word has also been associated with energy, particularly the energy of Kundalini. Sekhem is the power that animates the Sahu; it is the power that leads one to spiritual consciousness. Sahu is the spiritual body, one of the Five Bodies of each human according to Egyptian cosmology. According to Masters, Sekhmet is associated with the awakening of the Five Bodies, particularly the Sahu. The Sahu is made conscious through spiritual practice. The awakening of the Sahu is the last stage of the integration of the Five Bodies, the final stage in becoming a Realized Human.
I had no idea if this was valid historically, or if it was valid even in the present incarnation of Sekhmet here in the Nevada desert. But I knew I had to try it and see where it took me. So I began chanting her mantra.
Her mantra filled the empty crevices between the wrinkles in my brain. Her names floated through my thoughts. I began to feel the power of my breath, and there were moments when I felt the surge of connection between my body and my spirit, the moments when I felt truly one, and at one with all.
Understanding the Sun
Many solar goddesses share the common symbols of mirrors and cats. Mirrors reflect the sun. They are miniature suns. They are also closely associated with shields, which also reflect the sun, both blinding an enemy and protecting the warrior.
Sekhmet is a solar deity, often shown with the sun above her head. She is a half lioness and half woman. Cats, big and small, are associated with the sun. The image of a cat searching through the house for the sunny spot certainly comes to mind.
The uraeus on Sekhmet’s head, the snake poised to strike, harnesses the energy of the sun and strikes at her command. The energy of the sun is equal parts life and death. She embodies the harshest of truths: we cannot live without the sun, but we cannot live with untempered sun.
The sun has the energies of creator and destroyer. Consider how the sun’s light literally gives the energy for life on this Earth, then take into account that the sun is a giant fire, capable of causing the total destruction of Earth. There really is no difference in creation and destruction; they are not two different cycles. For anything to be created, something must be destroyed. When anything is destroyed something is created. One doesn’t come without the other. Hold the creator and the destroyer in one hand, not two, and you begin to understand goddesses such as Sekhmet.
I see her in the sun.
Days and Nights of Silence and Fast
I wanted to rewrite her myth, or better yet, write her current myth, her current story, the story of this Sekhmet, here in the Nevada desert looking out toward the Nevada Test Site. I began this task on one auspicious New Moon ritual during my first spring at the temple. I fasted and kept silent for three days, my only words out loud being her names and her mantra, and my only writings in homage to her. I spent mornings in the temple then came back to the house to write. I took my pieces back up to the temple and read them aloud, pen in hand, listening to her. I tried to be her scribe, to get her story from her mouth.
I lay down to sleep in the temple the first night, curled up in blankets in front of her. I intended to spend the night there, but the cold kept seeping under the blankets, and soon I was shivering. I headed back to the Starbed, found Ben, and curled next to his warm body underneath all the blankets. We drifted to sleep in silence.
I felt a sense of failure. I hadn’t even been able to make it through the whole night. What kind of a gnarly priestess was I? But was it my fault that I get cold easily? Each night I started out in the temple then crawled late at night into the warmth of the Starbed with Ben. We were joined in the deepest of silence—the silence of the night, the silence of ourselves. Keeping silence was a beautiful experience for the two of us. When I started talking again, it was painfully obvious to me how many useless words would spout out of my mouth daily and how I used words to communicate instead of my eyes, my hands, and my heart.
The fasting was powerful, moving me to a place of not even thinking about food, not spending the time each day to figure out meals. I began feeling out of my body in the best sense—out of time, out of place. Not tied to the physical and able to surrender to spirit. Transcendent.
So, through this time, my thoughts, my words, my breath, my body, and my heart were engaged in writing her myth. I listened. I chanted. I sat. I wrote. I rewrote.
I began to understand the idea of place and the Divine, that writing about Sekhmet here in Nevada was different from writing about Sekhmet in ancient Egypt. I needed to be with her in this context, this temple, because understanding her here and now was not purely scholarly research. Knowing exactly what she was to ancient Egyptians would not reveal her totality—it would not reflect what she was right here, right now. So I began listening so that I could hear her now.
I started to see the threads come together. I saw her in the myth of the “Destruction of Humanity.” I saw her here, facing the Nevada Test Site. I felt her anger, felt its source. I understood her as a force of nature, a force that is irrational, a force that wreaks havoc, and I saw the ensuing destruction that came without “judgment,” with no sense of “fairness.” I saw the human-rational paradigm clearly, our need to feel that someone is in control, most especially of the forces of nature. I surrendered to that place of no control, that place of nature and spirit—that place beyond human-defined justice.
Then I began to understand Sekhmet in a visceral way, in a way that filled my heart. I yielded to her. And I was not afraid. I was not afraid of the uncontrollable or the irrational. I was not afraid of the claws, the teeth, the strength, the anger. Instead, I was overcome by bliss in the ecstasy of communion with the Divine.