Friday, July 24, 2015

Me, Walking on the moon, Thoth, & Queen of Heka

 What do these things have in common? A lot when it comes to making me the writer I am today.

Forty-six years ago this month, on July 19 to be exact, I, some good friends, and my family gathered around the television with bated breath waiting for Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon.

I remember my leg jittering up and down, the way it still does when I'm excited. I knew this was a moment I'd remember all my life. It was surely the moment I'd been waiting for since Friday, May 6, 1961 when my teacher herded us into the auditorium of my elementary school. A 19-inch (massive in those days) black and white television sat in splendid isolation on the stage. We watched the lift-off of Freedom 7 and the first American in space.

To me, these men were gods, because who else could stride between worlds or hop around on another one? I was inspired.

In those formative eight years between Freedom 7 and and Apollo 11, my imagination grew by leaps and bounds, and reality set in. I went from being certain that I would be an astronaut to conceding that my on/off fear of flying might make me a person who wrote about going to the moon.

Inevitability my interests changed, too. Space gave way to something older, more mysterious, yet still connected. Mythology. My love of mythology, unlike my love of space, became a little more concrete. I have a minor in World Mythology. There are a lot of gods associated with the moon, and I loved them all. Oh,what was my major you ask?

Of all the world mythologies, ancient Egypt calls to me like no other. Of course, it has a moon god, Thoth (or Djhuty, which is closer to his actual Egyptian name ḏḥwty and what I call him in my novel). Yes, I write. My first bad novels were about ancient Egypt. My current, hopefully, better novel, Queen of Heka, is about Egypt and its gods. Djhuty is a major character as the tutor of the young goddess Isis (Iset), a role he most certainly played in Egyptian mythology.

So, who is this moon god, Thoth/Djhuty? Well, first and foremost he's usually depicted as an ibis, often wearing a lunar crown. (He's also depicted as a baboon, but  I'm not going to talk about that.)

You can go to Egypt today and still see ibises.
The unmistakable form of an ibis, with its small head, large body, sturdy legs and long curved bill, adorns many ancient Egyptian murals and carvings. A species of ibis called the sacred ibis represented Thoth — their god of words, writing, wisdom and truth — whom they depicted as a human with the head of an ibis. In hieroglyphics, the image of an ibis on a perch represented Thoth, and the first letter of the ancient Egyptian alphabet, hb, was called ibis.
From Let's talk about birds: Ibises
The other thing to know about Djhuty is that he is often credited with creating the system of writing and is associated with Seshat, the goddess of writing.  He is the author of the Book of Djhuty/Scroll of Thoth, which contains all the knowledge in the universe, a subject for Pauline Gedge's excellent novel Scroll of Saqqara. This is Djhuty and Seshat scribing on the Tree of Life.

Djhuty played many other vital and prominent roles in Egyptian mythology, such as maintaining the universe and being one of the two deities (the other being Ma'at, his wife) who stood on either side of Ra's solar boat. He also became heavily associated with the arbitration of godly disputes, the art of magic (heka), the development of science, and the judgment of the dead. Truly, a Renaissance god before his time.

In this scene from Queen of Heka, the young Iset meets Djhuty for the first time at the instigation of the god Horus (Heru).

An ibis emerged from the fog. With each step, the bird lengthened into a man. The long, webbed feet became well-muscled legs. White feathers molted into an elaborately pleated kilt. The transformation ended at the neck. When the bird’s beady eyes fixed on me, all the noise in the world stopped.
Heru spoke into the inhuman silence. “May I present the teacher of all teachers, Djhuty, Lord of Truth and Time.”
The great god bowed. His beak opened like a black crescent moon in the white mist. “Hail, Iset wer-Heka, Mistress of the Throne.”
“I’m just Iset.” I giggled for the first time that day. Daily commerce with Heru clearly had not prepared me for the company of other gods.
“You are the lady who will learn words of power,” Djhuty said.

“From the Book of Djhuty?” The prospect chased away every dismal thought. All the priests longed to read the scroll filled with heka and mysteries not even Ra knew. I bounced up and down on my toes, almost taking flight

“Pain and tragedy come to any mortal who reads my book,” Djhuty said.

“Pain and tragedy also come to those who do not read it.” My whole body practically vibrated with anticipation. Heru snickered.

“My book is dangerous.” Djhuty directed an anxious look toward Heru.

“My life is already dangerous.” I thought of Seti and Oso, and I wanted to shake him for making light of my predicament. I might have if he hadn’t put his cool hand on my forehead. My heartbeat slowed straight away, keeping time with the waves lapping our feet.
“So it is.”

Djhuty’s thumb caressed the spot where lore placed the mystical Third Eye. His heka thrummed, solid and resilient. Even a novice like me recognized his power, against which Oso was less than a Nile fly. My limbs loosened, and my chest relaxed into a long breath. My troubled heart went quiet.
“Lady of everlasting joy and constant sorrow, answer this. What mother offers her breast to countless sons? What mother’s milk flows more abundantly the more her children suckle?”
A riddle. How did he know I loved riddles? His thumb continued its soothing caress. All the noise and chatter left my head and only his voice remained. My breath came slow and easy. The tranquility of the evening gathered around me like a soft blanket, and I was content to rest for a moment in the sanctuary Djhuty offered. Full dark fell over the island. The wind whispered faintly and ruffled his feathers, a gentle reminder to solve the riddle. I knew the answer. I most certainly knew it.

“Wisdom is that mother.” I made my voice very, very serious. “The more one drinks, the more one seeks.” 
“Then, I am your mother.” He kissed my forehead and inhaled. “Ah, that’s a lovely bouquet. You make your own perfume, I imagine. Is it rosemary, lavender, and rose? ”

I nodded.
“Love, remembrance, happiness, and healing. Very appropriate for you,” he said. “I daresay you already know more about herbs than all my priests together.”
Don’t boast, I told myself. Don’t boast, even though his praise filled me like a wineskin and made me just a little drunk.

“Now, are you ready to learn heka and move the universe?”

Proud, grateful, just a little fearful, I could not hold back the giggles for another heartbeat. “Oh, yes, please.”