Devotional Artwork: Introducing Numen Arts, and a Prayer Card Giveaway!

What role does the artist play in our modern revival of ancient polytheistic religions?

For the past year or so, I’ve been trying to determine how I can serve the gods in a more formalized manner. Priesthood has been my goal for a while now, but the exact nature of this priesthood has been elusive. In my former time as a member of Kemetic Orthodoxy, priesthood was out of the question due to my personal discomfort with one of the vows required of would-be priests; now, as an independent practitioner, it was unclear to me who, exactly, the community would be that I was serving.

For the Ancient Egyptians, this would have been something of a moot point — priesthood was a job, a sacerdotal duty that did not require any of the pastoral activities that often define our many of our present-day notions of priesthood. Priests were ritual technicians, and they often only worked in 3-month shifts, after which they returned home. Quirke explains that Ancient Egyptian temples…

“…were not designed for crowds to hear sermons or readings, but more as containers for safely defusing the encounter between offerer and deity. As offering place, the sacred architecture required stocking with goods and staffing with personnel to keep the place clean and the offerings flowing each day and at festivals. In this sense, there is no clergy, only a temple staff.”

Quirke, S. (2015). Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell. Bolded emphasis mine.

Indeed, Quirke points out that at many temples, the only full-time staff member was the accountant! [1]

There was a wide variety of different roles and institutions associated with temples, and one of them that caught my eye early on was the “House of Gold.” The House of Gold was the workshop associated with temples, and this was where sacred statues and images were produced. There was often little separation between artist and priest; at Deir el-Medina, some artisans “had minor priestly titles indicating that the ritualist and the artist could be one and the same person.” [2] One of the most vital rituals, the “Opening of the Mouth,” enabled the deceased to breathe again in the afterlife and transformed an inert statue into a vessel for divinity, and this ritual “was a matter of artisans, for it was carried out in the ‘house of gold’ at the conclusion of the preparation of a statue, and it thus fell in the domain of artists, artisans, and Ptah, their patron god.” [3]

In short, there was a role for the sacred artist in Ancient Egypt — and I think there is one today, too.

A watercolor painting of the cobra goddess Wadjet.
A small watercolor painting of Wadjet that I auctioned off to charity a year or two ago.

Devotional Art

Art was of critical importance to the Ancient Egyptian religious mindset. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, art was inherently functional.

“To depict a scene, no matter which kind, meant to create the situation displayed in the scene. Hence, as the majority of sources come from a religious setting, they were embedded in rituals performed by priests. Depicting the scene of a single person praying or offering to a deity meant that this situation was believed as reality when set in the appropriate environment. Ancient Egyptian images were functional and always bore a symbolic meaning behind their pure aesthetic appearance.”

Luiselli, M. M. (2013). Images of Personal Religion in Egypt: An Outline. In M. M. Luiselli, J. Mohn, & S. Gripentrog (Eds.), Kult und Bild: Die bildliche Dimension des Kultes im Alten Orient, in der Antike und der Neuzeit (13-40). Würzburg, Germany: Ergon Verlag. Full text available here. Bolded emphasis mine.

This is one reason why Ancient Egyptian art almost exclusively depicts positive events (such as kings triumphing over their enemies, or gods embracing the newly-revived deceased individual in the afterlife) — each time the artist committed a scene to pigment or stone, it made that scene an eternal reality.

I’ve tried to follow that same mindset with my devotional artwork. My painting of Wepwawet leading the way for the Voyager I spacecraft isn’t exactly traditional in terms of scenery or style, but it depicts something I hope will be true: humankind will continue to explore the stars, with our gods leading the way for us. Likewise, I have painted Ra destroying Apep, Sobek swimming through the sea of creation to bring forth the stars, Sekhmet greeting the sunrise: all activities that should continue to occur in mythic time.  Additionally, I have tried to depict less “common” gods — Kebechet, Renenutet, and Ma’ahes, for example — because They are equally as worthy of attention as the more “popular” ones, and the more positive depictions of Them, the greater the heka, I hope. I am not a phenomenal artist by any means (indeed, I’m an untrained amateur!) but I do hope that my offerings of art bring some amount of joy to the gods and Their devotees.

There are a great many fantastic Kemetic artists out there, with paintings and icons by Ptahmassu and Setken; statuary and carvings by Khaiptah and Two Facing Shrines; and devotional jewelry from On the Temple Steps coming to mind off the top of my head. I know there are many more.

For the Ancient Egyptians, creating art was something of a pious act in itself, as “like religious rituals, painting was a means of guaranteeing the divine order. […]  Thus, by means of its beauty and effectiveness, the work of painting was also the work of ‘purification” and ‘renewal.'” [4]

Thus, that will be my service focus going forwards: not as a traditional priest as this point in time (though perhaps in the future!), but as a simple staff member in the “House of Gold,” even if my “goldsmithing” supplies consist of just an old graphics tablet and laptop haphazardly wedged onto my desk.

Introducing Numen Arts – And a Prayer Card Giveaway!

I am delighted to announce that Numen Arts is now live. Numen Arts is a collective of polytheistic artists run by the fantastic Lo, and if you’re an artist and a pagan/polytheist/magical practitioner, I highly encourage you to join us! As Lo explains it, the goal of Numen Arts is to “lay some sort of groundwork for building a community for polytheist, animist, and magical artists and those that want to find religious artists to support.” If you don’t consider yourself an artist (I think basically every human being is an artist, but that’s a discussion for another time) but are interested in devotional art, feel free to peruse and/or commission the artists, and spread the word! Right now the list is a bit slim, but I expect it will grow with time.

In ancient times, artisans in the Houses of Gold would have focused on creating statues and images for state-sanctioned temples. Today, I’d like to focus on furnishing your temple.

As my first act in serving as an artist in Wepwawet’s House of Gold, I am giving away 20 Wepwawet prayer cards, shown here.

Photo of a shrine with Anubis and two prayer cards depicting Wepwawet.
Front and back views of the prayer card in front of my (closed) shrine.

If you’re interested, or know someone who is, send me an email at atefwepwawet (at) gmail (dot) com (please don’t post your mailing address in the comments here!!), and I’ll ship one your way, no fee required, until I run out. (I also request your patience with shipping times due to COVID-19 concerns.) There may be future giveaways as well, but I’m currently working out the logistics there. 

I’ll get into the details of my thoughts on the role of the artist in polytheistic and pagan communities in future blog posts, but for now, I wish you all the best, and hope that you make or view some art that brings you joy.

References

[1] Quirke, S. (2015). Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell. Full PDF text available here.

[2] Hartwig, M. (2004). The functioning image. Monumenta Aegyptiaca X: Tomb Painting and Identity in Ancient Thebes, 1419-1372 BCE. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers. Full text available here.

[3] Assmann, J. (2005). Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Bryan, B. M. (2017). The ABCs of Painting in Mid-Eighteenth Dynasty Terminology and Social Meaning. In R. K. Ritner (Ed.), Essays for the Library of Seshat: Studies Presented to Janet J. Johnson on the Occasion of Her 70th Birthday. Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Full PDF text available here.

6 thoughts on “Devotional Artwork: Introducing Numen Arts, and a Prayer Card Giveaway!

  1. Lo

    I love this explanation of the function of professional artists in a temple setting! Would you mind if I cross-posted it to the Numen Arts blog? This is exactly the sort of material I would love to feature!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Atefwepwawet on Working in “The House of Gold” – Numen Arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s