Fitting in to the second classification of iconography within the Kemetic tradition are votive monuments known as stelae to academics. These rectangular, round-topped devotional objects are usually carved from a single piece of stone, such as granite, and were commonly dedicated by kings as part of the temple program; however, stelae were in fact commissioned by ordinary Egyptians as demonstrations of their piety, and might be carved of wood and simply painted.
This is a form of iconography I have undertaken in my own stela dedicated to my patron deity Ptah, who is honored as the Hearer of Prayers in my traditional stela form known as a stela of the hearing ears. Such stelae were very commonly consecrated to the God Ptah as a god known for His compassion and personal interest in the welfare of humankind.
But stelae served another significant purpose apart from devotion or piety, and that was as a direct means of communication between the petitioner and the deity.
The Altar to the Household Gods in my home, where daily prayers and offerings are given to the Netjeru, and feast days and holy days celebrated at the appointed times. The religion of the Gods of Egypt is a living religion, offering its believers- like all living religions- a whole path to personal spiritual illumination.
For the ancient Egyptians all images had the potential to harness and manifest life. Indeed, images- together with words composed of images- were not arbitrary representations of material things or bodies in nature, but were believed to possess the essence of the object being represented. This is especially true in the use of the hieroglyphic script, which the Egyptians tellingly called medu netjer, “the words of the god”. As their original Egyptian name implies, hieroglyphs were viewed as a divinely-originated language, a magical language, carrying both creative and destructive power.
The potential of this language to carry malevolent characteristics when designating noxious creatures or concepts was demonstrated in the mutilating or disarming of individual signs deemed as threatening. Vipers were shown impaled with sharp stakes. Serpent demons could be dispatched with a javelin, and chaotic reptiles beheaded with a lethal blade. Words could also be left incomplete or partially drawn for the same reason. These mutilations were much more than symbolic gestures to ward off potential evil. They were literal disarmament of the essence seen to be resident in the very form of the word/ image depicted.
Each goddess or god inhabiting the Egyptian pantheon could be represented by a complete anthropomorphic form (most prominently consisting of a human body with animal head), by their name written in hieroglyphs, or simply by a single sign or amuletic form held sacred by the deity thus identified. The goddess Auset or Isis, for example, was commonly depicted as a woman wearing her stepped-throne upon her head. However, the presence of the goddess could be equally denoted by the simple depiction of this same throne, or by her name spelled out phonetically in hieroglyphs. The magical power of Auset was portrayed by the Tet or Tjet knot, which could represent the blood and magical enchantments of the goddess simultaneously, but also the goddess alone. For the Egyptians, a portion of their deities spiritual essence dwelt within the words and images consecrated to them.
It was within vast temple complexes sprawling out over hundreds of acres that elaborate rituals- carefully orchestrated and lavishly ornamented- were carried out for the Gods of Egypt, who dwelt in intricately wrought images that were quite small in comparison to the mammoth splendor surrounding them. The temples of the Egyptian state were enormous investments of time, material resources and royal patronage. Colossal statues and obelisks hewn from single blocks of hard stone fronted the soaring pylons, columns and gateways of these sacred centers, and yet all of this effort and expense was undertaken for the sole purpose of nourishing and maintaining the cult image of the deity enclosed within its hidden sanctuary. These cult images, though the fruit of skilled human craftsmen, were believed to be of divine origin, and were seen as precious vessels containing a portion of the Essence of the deity served through the rites of the temple. It was through these images and their accompanying rituals that the cosmic order of Ma'at was maintained, and the Egyptian state favored by its gods.
Such were the glory days of the very ancient Egyptian religion, whose sacred texts and use of ritual images can be traced back for more than 5,000 years into the distant past. Yet the Netjeru, the traditional Gods of Egypt, are still being worshiped today, though very much outside their original cultural context in the Nile Valley. The Gods of Egypt, it seems certain, are continuing to speak, shelter and inspire the faith of human beings, even though these devotees are "foreigners" who originate from a place and time quite vastly different from the ancient nation of Egypt that first raised temples and created images to honor the Netjeru.
I am one such devotee, a painter who chooses the ancient art of icon painting as a mode for keeping alive the worship of the Netjeru today, and very much as a means of expressing my faith in the Gods of Egypt, who have touched every thread of my life's fabric with miracles and boons of divine empowerment. For me personally, the Netjeru are not archetypes of a single invisible god, nor are they mere aspects or projections of the human psyche. These are ideas that have become popular in certain circles where an attraction to Egyptian civilization and "philosophy" has drawn some to look outside their original monotheistic religions for inspiration. My calling to the Gods of Egypt is born from a natural disposition towards the polytheistic experience of the Sacred, which sees the Gods as distinct personalities and living presences of the created world.
Like the ancient Egyptians before me, I serve gods who dwell within the natural world surrounding me, whose powers are the very fabric of human and animal life, who live and breathe and manifest in both material and immaterial forms. The Netjeru, though very much concerned with the lives of those who call upon them, are distinct from the human mind and condition. They exist of their own accord, and are not dependent upon human beings for their existence. Whether or not the Gods exist as thoughts or aspects of the human psyche, they exist and function according to their own volition. If the human race became extinct tomorrow morning, the Netjeru would still inhabit creation, which is their own unique creation.
There are two primary models of iconography celebrated within the Kemetic (or Ancient Egyptian) tradition; the first of these being three dimensional god-forms or cult images, which are ceremonially awakened to receive part of the Essence of the deity so represented. Such images are traditionally made of gold and contain inlays of precious and semi-precious stones. These icons become the focal point of the temple cult, and are served through the performance of the Daily Ritual, which includes the bestowal of food offerings and the recitation of an elaborate liturgy.
Secondly, two-dimensional images such as sculptured wall reliefs and paintings are used to denote sacred space, and as further means for inviting and harnessing the Essence of the deity/ deities within the Daily Ritual of the temple cult. In the ancient temples of the Netjeru, walls, pylons, gateways, columns, and every conceivable aspect of architecture within a sacred complex, were all covered with elaborate scenes of the Gods and their reception of the temple cult. Far from being mere beautiful decoration, these images served as receptors of divine energy, which maintained the vital presence of the deity within the temple precinct, and, by extension, within the world of humankind.
"Idols...did not exist for the Egyptians. No representation was merely a representation: all physical images could become vehicles of an indwelling divine presence. They all potentially had a “within”, and therefore had the capacity to see, hear, smell, and indeed could also speak...."
Thus the gods entered into their bodies of all kinds of wood, all kinds of minerals, all kinds of clay and all kinds of other things that grow thereon, in which they had taken shape.
For stelae, like all ritually consecrated objects, were animate, living tools by which a devotee could have immediate access to the presence and powers of a god or goddess. Many ancient stelae are provided with one or more pairs of ears, together with a representation of the deity being addressed, and these are the animated, open ears of the deity, receiving and transmitting the prayers of the pious directly to the deity.
I gave my own hearing ear stela to the God Ptah one large pair of gilded ears in the top portion or register, and a further nine golden ears in the lower register. From the Kemetic perspective, these are far more than symbolic devices or wishful thinking. Upon ritual activation, these images of the god's ears are a magical manifestation of the deity's body, forming an intimate and tangible link between the prayers of the believer and the god being addressed. The stela is, in effect, a communication device, a transmitter of sacred words and intentions...a lense bringing the deity and devotee together in a single time and space.
The monumental temples of the Egyptian state were largely inaccessible to the common people, being instead the privilege of the king and the priesthood; however, the outermost walls of temples were immediately available to the masses, and it was here that common Egyptians found especially hallowed bas-reliefs, often brilliantly inlaid and always vividly painted, where tent-like projections were provided for privacy and intimacy with the deity.
This is the nature of all true icons, regardless of culture or era; a meeting place between humans and the divine. An icon is a visualization of the divine presence, which, because of its form and location, offers the believer a means for maintaining a direct link with the sacred. Whether deity, saint or mythological event, an icon brings the pilgrim or penitent into the sphere of the supramundane, allowing that person to experience the realm in which faith and miracles operate as the ultimate reality.
For the ancient Egyptians, the Gods or Netjeru could become residents in specially charged images, either two or three-dimensional, and these objects ceased to be inanimate or static, instead becoming embodiments of that very dynamic divine essence through which creation evolved and could be maintained. Royalty and common Egyptians alike dedicated and offered prayers to votive objects such as stelae or statues fronting the processional way of temples, and it was through these ceremonial objects that devotees could experience directly the living presences of the Gods, and the profound moment of their religion.