Finding Sekhmet at the Penn Museum

Sekhmet, meet my blog. My blog, meet Sekhmet.

 

The photo doesn't really do Her justice, to be honest. I guess you have to be there.

The photo doesn’t really do Her justice, to be honest. I guess you have to be there.

 

There’s this thing in Kemetic religion(s) called an open statue. Here’s how it works:

An open statue is an image of a deity which has had a ritual performed on it called the Opening of the Mouth. It’s very important to note that as far as we know there was no Closing of the Mouth ceremonies in Ancient Egypt; in other words, there are no take-backsies.  One a statue is opened it is opened theoretically forever. And once opened, a statue ceases being “just” an image of deity and instead becomes a living house for that deity Themselves. Statues that have been opened require care, as would any other living thing. You need to “feed” them, both through worship and literally by giving them food and water. They all, for all intents and purposes, the actual embodiment of that god. Not a stand-in, not “just” an icon, not a metaphor. That god in all Their glory.

And I had the privilege of encountering not one, but two open statues of Sekhmet on my adventures with Veggie. At least, that’s the explanation Veggie offered for this experience and it’s the one that makes the most sense given my limited experience both with Kemeticism and with spiritual energy sensing stuff in general. But I’ll give all my disclaimers later; first, I want to share what my experience was before chopping it to little tiny pieces in my analysis.

The space around these open statues definitely felt different than the space elsewhere in the museum. The image at the top of this post is from the first statue; you can see Her cobra-and-sun headdress and how She holds an ankh (a symbol of life, among other things) in Her hand. There’s another statue positioned at the opposite side of the hall having a staring match with this Sekhmet and they are nearly, though not completely, identical physically, while energetically I could sense quite a difference between the two.

A word about how I sense energy: I don’t. Not usually, anyway, not with any great confidence, and this had been the bane of my Pagan existence for many years before I accepted my body’s abilities for what they were and stopped feeling like “mystical woo feelings” were some measure of my worth as a spiritual being. I also tend to be pretty skeptical before, during, and after any encounter with non-corporeal reality. (It’s part of a defense mechanism from my awful experiences growing up in a conservative Baptist church in the American South, but that may be a post for another day.) So the fact that I felt anything in front of these Sekhmet statues is either a testament to their power, or to my own inner abilities shifting over time, or perhaps both.

Philly in summer is hot, but the space around these Sekhmet statues – especially the first – was different. That’s the incredibly unhelpful word I keep coming back to. Different. The heat was different. Charged, perhaps; in some ways it reminded me more of the dry and oppressive heat of Uttar Pradesh, the northern Indian state I visited in May 2012 that is most famously home to the Taj Mahal. (Side note completely unrelated to Sekhmet: if you’re planning on a trip to India, don’t go in May. That is a silly, silly decision.) I’ve been to southern Florida and Las Vegas in the summer and I’ve never quite experienced heat like I have in India during the hot season. It’s not so much that I felt the heat physically as I stood in Sekhmet’s presence as that I experienced the memory of that heat and all that it stood for in my mind. Foreign, overwhelming, and beautiful in its own way.

I realize as I’ve begun contemplating energy in my spiritual practice again that how I sense energy and my gods is not particularly showy or obvious. I just know. And not even a heavy-handed sense of utter, unquestioning knowledge, either. One moment there’s not an idea in my head and the next moment there is. This place is special, perhaps, or this specific act can be worship. I do not “hear” my gods and I’m beginning to realize that perhaps nothing would be sufficient proof for my skeptical mind to accept. Even so, I’m glad that there are instances in the world where just existing in tandem with Something Else is enough to trigger a visceral experience of the sacred. Being with these statues was that trigger for me.

The first Sekhmet was very, very warm, and almost brittle; when I think about Her now I get the image of terra cotta pots or bricks baking in the sun with heat fissures running across the surface. Veggie called this statue Sekhmet Justicar, Sekhmet in Her guise as the fierce arbiter of justice and upholder of ma’at. And sometimes in the upholding of ma’at, blood is split. This is the Sekhmet I felt “watching” me in the room and throughout the rest of our museum visit, though I wonder if Sekhmet was indeed watching me or if I had for a short while been able to be more aware of Her presence and thus felt self-conscious in a way I usually do not. As I remarked to Veggie, it felt like being sent to the principal’s office!

The second Sekhmet across from Sekhmet Justicar was cooler in sensation and temperament. Both Sekhmets gave me the impression of radiant solar gold, but while the first Sekhmet was paired with colors of deep red and rust, the second Sekhmet had been doused in greens and deep blues. This second Sekhmet felt older, yet somehow newer and more refreshed. Veggie called Her the Returned Goddess, the version of Sekhmet after She has been called back and Her rage soothed. Being near the second Sekhmet was difficult because I constantly felt myself drawn back toward Sekhmet Justicar and felt Her presence overwhelming everything, even Her other self.

Something odd that struck me as I noticed the statues was the attention to detail on Sekhmet’s form. Sekhmet had toenails and fingernails; I’m not sure why that made such an impression on me, but it did. This goddess has nails on her fingers and toes. I’ve always thought of Sekhmet as one of the less human sorts of gods (whereas Brighid, to lil’ old human me, feels extraordinarily relatable) but there was something oddly comforting about Her statue having toenails. You tell me.

I agree with the assessment that these statues are open statues and encourage anyone in the Philly area to poke their head into the Penn Museum and see if they come to the same conclusion. Veggie brought up the interesting point that as these statues were two of seven hundred that originally belonged to one temple, that perhaps other statues of Sekhmet might be open as well in museums all over the world. Which brings me to my next thought: open statues are so special because not only do they literally embody the deities, but they should be (need to be?) cared for as one would care for a living being. Veggie is a Sekhmet kid and told me that these Sekhmet statues felt starved. How does one care for open statues in situations like this? How do you feed them when literal offerings of food would be, at best, frowned upon by museum officials?

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4 Comments

  1. That museum is awesome…I was there about 8 years ago in back when I practiced wicca (it was my gateway drug to polytheism). Thinking I’ll have to go back real soon and see if I feel anything similar (although I also have a lot of trouble sensing energy as well).

    • It was my first trip to the museum and I was very, very glad I finally went. If you do end up going, I’m sure I and my friend would love to hear about your experiences! Though whatever those experiences are, even if it’s “I don’t feel anything,” is completely fine.

  2. First of all, nice post, I enjoyed it.

    It would be nice if food offerings could be a thing, but I highly doubt it would ever happen at museums. I have thought about what I would like to do when I visit any place with an open statue from antiquity.

    I wonder if a substitute for the physical food could be something like a piece of paper in a pants pocket with the different hieroglyphics for the food items. a short piece could be said and the energy from the representation of the items could become the sustenance for the statues. If amulets could be made to hold the place of the heart, or ubshabti could be made to be the servants in the marshes, I can see it working in a circumstance like this one.

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

      I seem to remember from my time with KO that since words are heka, they can be used in place of a physical offering because on some level they /are/ that offering. I think I’m doing an awful job paraphrasing this. Surely it couldn’t hurt to offer words to open statues in museums, whether spoken aloud or carried on paper scraps in our pockets. I wonder if enough people did that with certain statues – like the ones in the Penn Museum – would eventually be able to tell if it were “working”?

      I’ve only ever been in the presence of these two Sekhmet statues before so I don’t know what it’s like to be near a statue that’s been properly fed and attended to for some time, but I imagine there’d be some energetic difference at the very least.

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