The re-imagining of an Egyptian myth by A. P. Runke
‘The first thing Sekhmet remembers is a feeling of warmth, and two faces looking down at her, those of her Ab and Gueda and The last thing she remembers is a tangy sweet oblivion and her father’s soft touch bearing the feel of a cold, cruel and all-powerful god. ‘
This scroll can tell no lies, it is made from the skin of the first bull sacrificed in my name and infused with my holy life-blood. Each day it will tell me of things I cannot control, so at the birth of my daughter and her sister I am gifted with two glimpses into a lifespan, where I am destined to break my own trusted daughter, into something so petty as human love. I am Rah, I pull the sun from the horizon and relinquish the earth from its rays, and this is not my story. Though I do feature in it, this is a story of how I committed a very human act against my daughters, and how I hope they will never forgive me. This is their story, of which I play only the villain.
I remember the position of the stars, the moment I made my intent known to become human to be a ruler of the flesh, which gives me praise, and to teach them, to rule them, and to hold within their hearts the highest of honors. The evening star was setting, and my own Mut (mother) was turning in, her youngest child asleep in a cradle of galaxies, and as I used my palm to sweep away the sun, I approached her, and at the onset of her tears I knew she knew I was ready, for I was to leave this immortal house. No longer merely a god. She bowed her head to me and her tears filled the valleys with a spring rain.
“My Sa, greatest of all nkosi, at least take with you a guardian, do not descend alone.” This remark gave me pause, and I gave leave for my mother to descend in three days to sit by my throne and nurture two of my kin. They too will exist as both god and man, as was my own intention.
“But Holy Rah, how can you subject merely two others to this fate, surely the others will…” I silence her. I call upon the spirit that lets me rule, summoning all who have served me. They appear on bended knee, from Anubis to the great magician Isis and her husband, Osiris.
“On the cusp of the coming morn, I will descend to the people of Earth beside the Nile and give them in me a Pharaoh, a king of kings, from whom a whole and divine line will be brought to rule them in great prosperity.” Surprise filled the air as I spoke. “You too will be able to take on human forms, and to walk among the mortal men, you will be able to conjure what they will practice as Magic, and is our own birth right as spirits as gods.”
“Will this not mean you will someday die, My Rah?” Isis speaks up from beside Osiris, to my left. I nod. “An ascension will be needed to keep our place with the universe, so it is written.” That was the first note that the universe, the Mut of the great goddess who created an even greater god in me did pen. At this time I did not look upon my life on earth as Pharaoh as anything but great, I did not factor in the pettiness of human hearts, or the cruel pain of the hearts of a god.
And so in the wee hours of the morning Isis brought to me two Amulets, crafted as my own eyes, and they were at the ends of two braids of a black lion’s mane. By infusing these tokens with my own spirit, Sekhmet and Bast were to be born, their bodies became in my and my Mut’s arms, before I descended to earth with the sun.
Sekhmet and Bast’s early years were simple. The young goddesses followed my Mut around as she would ride in my boat along the sky and pull the sun from horizon to horizon. Rat-taiut would then hand their sun-warmed bodies to me at the end of the day as I ushered any and all people out of my rooms. I was learning of humanity in a new way, it was enticing. The girls also seemed enamored with the race. The two would often run about the palace, the marketplaces. One day though Bast came home with a bump on her head. I healed it with a wave of the hand. It was then I figured the girls should learn magic. I called Isis to come down, her magics being the greatest I wanted her to teach the girls.
Isis was to me like a mother, always nurturing, always encouraging, and of course there were her magics. When Ab commanded for my Snt, Bast, and I to learn magic Isis was summoned to our home, as was Rat-taiute whom had been a figure in our lives for as long as Bast and I have been. Each was to take on one of us as apprentices. Isis, in her long red robes dazzled me. Her arms were adorned in feathers that twinkled in the sunlight; they looked alive, like the fire that burned in our hearths.
“I will take on this one Amen-Rah,” Isis spoke and her voice flickered like that of a wise bird, “come here little goddess.” With a nod of permission from my Ab I walked silently to the great magician’s side. Bast then ran to Rat-taiute with glee, always more interested in our Gueda’s work with the heavens, and the life of the mortals we ruled. My father then descended from his high seat to kiss each of us on the forehead and to kiss the amulets in our braids, before tying the amulet of the nkosi, the symbol of life to our robes. I left with Isis to her shrine that day and did not see my father and sister for many a year.
Isis’ shrine was made from a green stone, the inner chambers were without windows and the only light came from the fire built in a bowl in the middle of the circular room. Isis stood tall, her red robes, and winged arms looked even more menacing than any other god or goddess I had yet met.
“Magic my dear, magic will be your savior. It can give you the upper hand in any battle; help you to defeat any god or goddess. It is the trump card of the universe. No one who controls magic can be themselves controlled.” Her voice echoed in the rooms and from her eyes leaked a green smoke. It took on the shape of two swallows. The birds flew around the head of Isis before diving at my own face. I was too stunned to move and the swallows entered my earthly body through my eyes. The life amulet and the Eye of Ra in my hair began to glow.
“You were created to safeguard Amen-Ra, you are his sword and shield.” I nodded.
“How can I serve him?” I asked my voice also resounding in the room causing me to flinch at my own sound.
“You will be fierce, Sekhmet it is time for you to learn.” Isis walks slowly to the fire. She reaches her hand in, and I gasp sure that her feathers will become inflamed. From the fire she pulls a large bound papyrus.
“This is the Book of the Dead, in it are the magics of our world and those of the mortal realm.” She hands it to me. I take it from her hands and when I look up she has disappeared.
“Hurry and learn Sekhmet, your job has only begun.” With these words echoing around me, I opened the papyrus and began. Fire magic came to me easiest, this was most likely from the years with Rat-taiute pulling the Sun across the sky in my Ab’s boat. The fire in the bowl never became burnt out for me, I could make it dance, writhe, scream, and burn at the slow crumbling pace of cooling coals, before letting the heat blaze filling the room, so not a shadow but my own existed. With these flames my laughter would echo in the chamber in which I inhaled my won lessons. Surely I had thought I would become the perfect weapon for my Ab.
My only companions during these days were the shrine cats, which would slink in through air vents when the cold night air chased them through the halls. They enjoyed the warmth of my fire. I watched them hunt, and fight in the light of my fire and discovered these shrine cats, kept for the upkeep of the shrine itself were in fact perfect warriors. I pulled out once more The Book of The Dead and looked to find animal magics. I would make myself a form as the best of the best, a lioness able to protect my Ab, and defeat any enemy set before me.
During my time of studying the shrine cats Bast and Rat-taiute visited me with Isis. Bast was robed in an emerald green matching our Gueda as I had taken to wearing the red of a warm fire, and the color of the blood I would spill in our father’s honor. I told Bast of the cats and she laughed having been studying the shrine cats of our Gueda as well. We resolved to make the sleek lioness of whom our spirits are merged from birth, and protector of the home felines the most beloved in all of the lands along the Nile.
From that point our training needed not be in solitude. Bast and I returned to our home, and began the practice of creating a presence with the mortals. From Rat-taiute Bast had learned much about the life-giving abilities of women, and often we would visit those heavy with child, chase away disease as if they were mice. Each night we would practice our transformation rituals until finally it was time to complete our learning of magics, and be considered full-fledged magicians. Isis, a master herself at these transformations was to be present during this initiation as was Ra, our Ab.
When Thoth, the moon, was at his highest we began. Bast and I walked in a circle creating floating flames, to be as lanterns in the courtyard of the palace. Our Ab stood at the center watching us, a grave look to his face. His time among the mortals has changed him; I see a mark of age not visible on Thoth, Isis, Osiris, Bast or myself. Isis stands in the shadows, her feathers catching the light from our flames. Bast and I walk into the circle, facing away from Ra, Bast facing the east, the rising Sun, the birth of the day. And I face the west, the setting sun, and the strength of the day won, a warrior. Isis opens the Book of the Dead, and once again the two magic swallows appear. From her hands they take the Book and deliver it into the hands of Ra.
A low incantation fills the courtyard; it was the voice of the all-powerful Amen-Ra. A gold sheen took over my body, I was under the power and will of Ra, and it was glorious, and I was drunk in it. I went to laugh but what came out was instead a roar that echoed in the courtyard and beyond. Surprised by myself I looked at my hands, my nails darkening and lengthening, sharp at the point. My braid was elongating, and swishing about my feet, a tail I realized. My tongue prodded at newborn canines, and the darkness became lighter to my new feline eyes. From the other side of the courtyard I could hear Bast purring, as drunk on the magic as I.
Isis then entered the circle, the power from the spell my Ab was working causing her own features to change, and becoming more birdlike, but her control was eons beyond my own or my Snt’s. In her hands were two chalices and with them she approached Amen-Ra. I heard a crack behind me before the sound of a heavy liquid was poured. The sweet scent of blood blossomed in my senses, and my braid now more a tail swished like a hunter who has just caught the scent of prey on a northern wind. Isis appeared before me, the chalice filled to brimming with a shrine cat’s blood. I bowed my head before bring the cup to my lips. Before I could finish a sip my body convulsed. The gold sheen became a tangible power about me and I fell to my knees, Bast’s own roar echoing with mine. I was changing.
I stretched out an arm, to see the aura of a paw, clawed and fierce surrounding my own-clawed hand. I rose on the spirit body of the lioness I had become, pure rolling power, I shook my head, my own hands and feet did not touch the courtyard tiles but I could feel the pressure my paws put on them, feel them scrape against the new claws, the weapons of a killer. My braid elongated to a tail, the Eye of Ra Amulet glowing red at its tip and my laugh echoed in delight. Feeling my transformation complete I turned to face my Ab. I saw my Snt fully transformed, her feline face twisted in glee behind the spirit body of her own lioness, her own amulet glowing at the end of her tail. We must be a pair I thought to myself.
Amen-Ra closed the Book of the Dead handing it to Isis who left the circle with a bow.
“My daughters you are now as new as a freshly sharpened blade, and as sturdy as the heaviest of shields. You were born to be of my use, goddesses to protect the hearth and home of the gods. I welcome you.” And with his hand on each our heads we bowed to our Pharaoh.
Bast and I are able to transform at will after that night. We rarely see Isis or Rat-taiut, and instead learn about what has been going on in Ab’s royal life as a mortal pharaoh. In the council room Bast will sit as a black cat, eyes alert on Ab’s lap, and I as a Lioness will curl about his feet. If the mortals ever did question our father’s power, their doubts are quelled with Bast and my presence. However peaceful times were not destined to stay. Apep was a councilor who was constantly a headache for the pharaoh. He too is a god, hidden among mortals to help sway their councils, and to lessen the menial mortal problems Ra actually has to deal with. It is one evening when the three of us have watched the sun set and Ra sends away his chamber women, and the servant boys we watch Rat-taiut descend in her shining chariot from the heavens to watch over mortal women heavy with child. Bast gets up; she still enjoys helping our Gueda on these ventures, just as I still woo the people at times with Isis. Once gone my Ab turns to me, a grave look upon his face.
“Ab? What troubles you?” I ask, unconsciously the fire glows brighter at my concern, and he waves it down to mere coals.
“I am concerned about traitors in my court Sekhmet.” I am taken aback, who could even think to over throw my Ab? They were seriously mistaken, and if Ab was bringing this subject up to me, then they would soon be dead.
“Who would dare to defy you Pharaoh?’ I ask solemnly, understanding my duty.
“I have felt the tendrils of betrayal in Apep’s gaze since our beginning on this mortal realm. I fear he will soon act.” Apep is a powerful god, and I am surprised at his disobedience to Amen-Ra.
“Ab are you sure?” He shakes his head. My brow furrows at this, unsure of what it is exactly he will have me do.
“Sekhmet your name means fierce lady, you have always had a harder eye, and swifter claw than Bast, and it is here and for that I will need you tonight.” I nod.
“I live to serve you Ab.” I answer, his smile is a warmth I’ve known for years, and tonight it chills me. He plays with my braid, it has grown with me, and as I am a woman, a goddess, it is long and full. His thumb lightly rubs the amulet that clasps the braid and I see an answering shine in it that is in his eyes. Suddenly I’m acutely aware of how simple it would be for me to be destroyed by this one man, the god among gods. I gulp but look into my Ab’s face determined to carry out my orders.
“Such a good girl, Sekhmet. I thank you for your service.”
“Do not thank me yet Ab.” His laugh is low and heavy. “What is my mission Pharaoh?”
“Tonight I have caught wind of Apep holding a meeting, he plans to use the night servants to allow him access to my chambers and to silently kill me.”
“Ab! Is this possible?”
“No, I cannot be killed unless you know my true name, something of which I have told no one dear daughter.” I am sated and release a held and strained breath.
“Then what is Apep attempting?”
“Apep forgets that I am merely a god wearing a mortal’s visage, he forgets that though I age, I am no less a god than I was eons before this time and this body. I need you to remind him of that daughter.” I nod and begin to shift into my lioness form, but Ra’s hand on my shoulder stops me.
“I’m afraid this is not a time for such a conspicuous battle, I need you to have stealth in your movements, and your kill need be immediate without any gore.”
“Ab I know not any other form other than that of the blood I have drunk.” He nods.
“I know, but if you allow me I can transform you, daughter. I can give you my eye, so you may see Apep and use my eye to incinerate him from the realm.”
“As you wish Amen-Ra.” I close my eyes feeling my father’s palms covering my eyelids. A rippling pain spreads through my body and I have never felt a heat like this. A heat that isn’t soothing, that isn’t fierce. A heat that flows into you and melts all that you are. I know I must scream but I can hear nothing over that pain. Then suddenly it is over. My Ab has transformed me into a snake, a tiny garden snake, seemingly harmless.
“Go to the council room where a candle shines outside the door, inside you will find Apep. Once one traitorous word slips from his mouth think of the pain of your transformation and send it out from your eyes, it will consume him and he will be no more.” I hiss in acknowledgement and slither down the torso of Ra and leave him on the terrace while I slink deeper into the shadowed palace, the rooms of the court of the Pharaoh. The passageways are dark, but as a small garden snake I need not my eyes to find the way, and can move quickly and silently. Soon I come across a doorway where a small enclave hides the flickering small candle, and under the door I go inside.
Watching Rat-Taiute work has amazed me ever since I was small, before I knew magics I learned much from her. Sekhmet and I would sit in our Ab’s boat and float among the stars, as Rat-taiute would pull the sun across the sky. We learned much from her then through her stories, we learned of when she had learned from the Scroll that she was to be the mother of Amen-Ra, when mortals began to worship us, of wars, of bad gods, of bad mortals. She taught us about fire. When we then learned magic I was eager to work with Rat-taiute. And she taught me much more beyond fire. In the night we would visit the home of women who were heavy with child, helping them give birth. There was a wonder and magic to guaranteeing a child’s first breath. I loved the work, and it was simple to choose to continue it as my own goddess of protection.
That evening I had left my Snt, Sekhmet and my Ab to attend to a young slave girl of our house who was to birth twins, it promised to be rough even with a little divine effort, of which I was happy to give. I came to her in the form of a simple black cat and purred and rubbed her belly. The twins are boys, and the girl is happy with her family. Feeling my job done, and slinking from the thanks and prayers sent to me by the girl and her husband, I returned to the terrace where my Ab sits.
“Ah Bast, where had you run off to?” He asked, sitting serenely staring up into the heavens.
“A slave girl was birthing twins and I decided to lend my aid Pharaoh.” He nods thoughtfully. I await him to give me leave to go or to ask something of me. I wonder at where he has sent Sekhmet and if I’ll be to join her.
“Bast sit here at my feet.” I bow and do as he asks, sitting on the cool tiles by his feet, looking up into his face. It was getting haggard, mortality having had its strain upon Amen-Ra. That is why Sekhmet and I are here though, to show Amen-Ra’s true power. I unconsciously play with the amulet at the end of my braid, the Eye of Ra.
“How can I assist you Ab?” His eyes are dark; a heavy burden encroaches upon his soul. “Ab?”
“My time among the mortals is limited my daughter. I need to be able to secure stability for the People of the Nile once I have ascended to the heavens.” I sit and puzzle over his words. Dim firelight casts odd shadows upon his cheeks and I cannot interpret his expression.
“Are you going to take a mortal wife Ab?” I ask quietly. He chuckles mirthlessly.
“No I’m afraid I must do something much less pleasant.”
“And you need my help?” I ask unsure. A deep sigh rumbles in my Ab’s chest.
“Can you deny Bast that you were made for my preservation?” I shake my head no. “No I thought not.” Before I could question my Ab further he moved his hand quick as a cobra strike and plunged it into my chest.
“Amen-Ra?” I look up at my Ab’s face, but it is clouded.
“To make my own line in the mortal realm I need the heart of a goddess Bast,” I raise my own hands to his arm that is protruding from me, “And not just any goddess’ heart will do, it must be a goddess of mine own spirit experienced in the magic of bringing life into the world.” My eyes widened. All this time, Ab had been ripening me for the harvest.
“Sekhmet…” I attempt to speak. He pulls his hand from my breast, in it my own heart glows.
“Your sister will not know of this. She will continue to live as my tool.” A blood covered hand caresses my face and I flinch at its touch. “I am sorry my Bast.” And with that Amen-Ra walks away, leaving me in a pool of my own life force pouring out onto the terrace tiles. I bring my hand up to my breast and mutter with faltering breaths a charm to attempt to staunch the bleeding. I open my eyes searching for help when I see a set of gold eyes in the dark night. A shrine cat.
“Go to Sekhmet.” I touch the feline’s forehead giving it the ability to pass on my memories to Sekhmet. The cat runs off deeper into the palace.
In the council room several mortals are sitting, wearing the robes of the priests of Amen-Ra. At the head of the long table sits Apep. His face is schooled, but a smirk is fighting at his lips. Quietly I slink past men’s feet, and past never rustling fabric. Finally I come to Apep’s feet. I decide to take a chance and begin to climb up his leg. His rousing speech falters, as he looks down at me in my cold-blooded form.
“And here my good priests, here is my proof. For an omen has come to me,” his eyes glitter with the power of a jealous god as the fire catches his eyes, “here is a young snake, the likes of which is upon the headdress of the Pharaoh, and here is the sign that I am greater than Amen-Ra!” With this final fate sealing remark I look upon Apep’s face and recall the feeling of my body burning off its bones from the point of my father transforming me in the evening’s dying light. Apep’s eyes widen before the smell of a funeral pyre minus the incense fills the chamber and Apep’s own eyes pop like seeds in a raging fire, and his skin slinks from his bones like mud, and his bones char before becoming dust. I fall onto the table and my body shifts and I find myself being changed back into my form of a lioness. Before me is the ruined carcass of Apep and his followers cower before me. One looks up at me and whimpers.
“Long Live Amen-Ra, God and Pharaoh!” Just before my claw descended to end the deserter and coward a cry catches my ears. I turn and face the door; a mewling had caught my attention, a shrine cat. I growl a warning before slinking to the door and opening it, immediately a shrine cat puts its nose against mine and images flood my conscience. I see Ra pull the heart out of my Snt’s chest, and I without thinking run to her.
The terrace is dark but the fire blazes back from the cooled coals at my arrival where I see the body of my Snt, lying motionless on the tile.
“Bast!” A roar erupts from me and I let myself fall at her breast, my claws shrinking to earthly hands as I look for a sign she may yet live. There must be a way to fix this; my mind races and I come upon one solution, The Book of The Dead. Iris had me swear on my Life amulet not to summon the Book outside the shrine unless it was a dire situation. As tears fell freely down my face at the loss of my closest companion and twin I mutter the incantation as quickly as I may. The old papyrus appears before me and I search for the spell I need. As I search frantically a shadow appears before me.
“Sekhmet you have sworn not to open The Book of The Dead outside the shrine, what makes you break your oath goddess?” I look up into Iris’ as always still as stone face.
“Ra. Ra killed Bast, he took her heart. Oh great magician Isis help me save her!” A light I had never seen came to life in Isis’ eyes. She knelt by me and laid her hands on Bast.
“She can be saved, but you must give her a heart.” Isis whispers. I look down at Bast.
“How?” I ask solemnly.
“The Beetle Scarab can act as a stone heart. It will keep her alive, however her ability to conjure any magics will be lost.”
“I cannot do that to her!”
“Then she will die!” I shrink at Isis’ bitter tone.
“What if I give her my heart?” Isis eyes land on me. “What if you put my heart in her body and put the Beetle Scarab in my breast.” Isis is quiet before standing.
“You ask much from me goddess, you have been my greatest accomplishment, and your magics among my ranks is key to my future, to Osiris’ future, I have plans child!” She turns away from me. The cruelty of my old teacher is not lost on me, it isn’t news and I harden my features before standing to face her.
“Isis. You will give Bast my heart and place the Scarab in me.”
“Shall I oh Eye of Ra?” She sneers. The fire is leaping at the palace walls with our tempers.
“Yes. Because I can give you what you need most magician, something your magics cannot achieve for you.” A laugh fills the courtyard, it echoes like the death call of a crow picking at a corpse left at the riverbank, half starved.
“I know how to kill Ra.” The statement rings in the courtyard bouncing from tile to tile. “I now how to kill Amen-Ra, and I will tell you.” Isis studies my face, peering ever closer. I keep my gaze straight.
“Deal Eye of Ra, I will conduct the spells, and you will tell me how to destroy Amen-Ra.” Isis’ two swallows appear and bring her the papyrus. “Lay beside Bast.” She instructs and I hurry to comply. Isis begins to chant and her hand glows red. For a moment sympathy comes into her face.
“I am sorry Sekhmet.” And her hand plunges into my chest, stealing away my breath. I watch dizzy with pain as Isis pulls out my own heart and swiftly presses it into the chest of Bast. I lay still as stone as she sends her swallows off to gather the necessary ingredients for the Scarab to place in me. She waves her hand over Bast, until a breath is heaved through her torso, as easy for her as impossible it is for me. Her eyes flit open meeting my own.
“Sekhmet…Sekhmet!” She sits up and leans over my body. “What have you done?” She rounds on Isis. The swallows have returned in their grasp Lapis Lazuli.
“Quiet! Let me work or I will not be able to save your Snt.” Bast recoils but only slightly. She turns to me and lifts my head; she bends her forehead down to mine.
“Thank you Sekhmet, thank you.” Her tears fall into my hair. My breath is suddenly given back to me as Isis plunges the Scarab into my breast. She pushes Bast from me.
“Now”, her eyes are steel on mine, “tell me.”
“Sekhmet what is she talking about?” I ignore my Snt.
“To kill Ra you must learn his true name. I know it not Isis, but any other attack will be fruitless without it.” Her grin is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen and with it she is gone. I let Bast carry me back inside.
The two sisters knew it to be inevitable that Ra would find out about Sekhmet’s betrayal, they could not after all lie to their Ab and creator. The morning came and Ra saw what Sekhmet had done to save Bast. He threw Bast from the palace banishing her, and forced a poison down Sekhmet’s throat. Sekhmet later described the poison, Rage, “It is funny how rage fills a person, and how it rots them. Rage can fill your chests, block your airways and choke any comfort you may have found. No water can quench its heat, and rage will always be unable to be washed away. No floral perfumes or holy oils can cleanse a person of rage. The body can be pure as a god but rage’s putridness will still be expelled with every breath.”
This Rage filled Sekhmet and Ra used her as a reaper upon the people who challenged his authority, realizing only his cruelty when it became known that Sekhmet’s stone heart could not battle the spell and her slaughter would never end. It was then Bast returned to the palace to tell Amen-Ra how it was that Sekhmet saved her that day, and the price she had to pay to Isis. Amen-Ra and Bast concocted an antidote and found Sekhmet gorged on the blood of the People of the Nile she had slaughtered. Ra came upon the sleeping Sekhmet and fed her the draught. And the last thing Sekhmet remembers is a tangy sweet oblivion and her father’s soft touch bearing the feel of a cold, cruel and all-powerful god.