An archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle
I rejoiced since I have touched Heaven.
My head has pierced the sky.
I have felt the very stars,
I have reached joy,
So that I shine like a star,
And dance like the great constellations.
–Tomb of Sarenput II at Aswan
I wish my clients wouldn’t take my celestial interpretations so literally. I am not a prophet.
Just today, however, a man here in Alexandria asked, “Do these powerful Decans you mention favor good business or bad this season?”
I looked to the sky for wisdom. He looked to it for enough drachmas to buy another courtesan. He wasn’t even happy with the one who made sure he didn’t trip over his own sandals as he left his house to go trade.
Perhaps I’m in the wrong line of work. “Seti,” my older brother always told me, “fishing would make you happier. Happier! It’s a good solid Egyptian occupation! Far better than fiddling with star charts. Why don’t you listen?”
Out he sailed from the port every dawn, to return on a boat laden with the catch. No complex questions, no calculations. Fish are their own answer.
I have a Greek friend, Penelope, who thinks astrology is nonsense. So does her friend Ezekiel, who lives in Delta, the Jewish quarter. I haven’t met him yet. Penelope is a maker of clothing; Ezekiel teaches young people how to read. Later today we would indulge, over lunch, in the kind of deep conversation one cannot have with just anybody.
Accepting some bronze coins from my client, I saw him out of my shop, closed the door against the strengthening sun, and put my scrolls in order.
Astrological interpretation came down through my maternal family line from antiquity. Some said it came ultimately from Babylon, or even Greece. But Egypt had developed its own, including knowledge of the thirty-six Decan deities controlling ten days each throughout the year. We also used our own house system as we kept our eyes on the transits present at birth and those appearing after.
The fool I had just read for would never know how these deities mediated life down here with influences far above. They reminded me of Osiris in how their stars winked out and returned in the cosmic dance of death and rebirth.
In a way, my brother was right. I could never have survived on just astrology. The dyes and tints I mixed in the temple workshop colored sacred statuary paid for by the priests. Those among them who showed wisdom and learning entered the House of Wisdom to tend scrolls as scribes of holy Thoth. Unlike most of my clients, the priests paid me in silver.
Donning a somewhat frayed white wool tunic, I left the shop and wound my way toward the Greek-owned café where I would meet Penelope and her friend.
As I walked down a deserted alley, a brigand stepped out of a doorway. I knew he was such because he held a knife pointed at my chest. His other hand executed a scooping gesture: he wanted my money.
I must not have looked very formidable: thin legs and arms, unbearded face, alone, unarmed. I wished for a patrol of centurions, but none appeared. My lack of fear surprised me.
Black hair fell into his eyes as he gestured again while waving the blade. I reached into a pocket.
“I will give you a coin for bravery,” I said quietly as I tossed him one (bronze). “But you should know you are threatening a temple priest. Yes, I am out of uniform. But I can call down curses that will make Anubis seem a puppy and hungry Ammit toothless. Go while you still can.”
A scarab flew by, its wings flecked with a shaft of sunlight. At the sight of this powerful living symbol, my assailant turned and ran. I continued on.
Hekate’s Inn was less crowded than usual. Penelope and my new friend stood with drinks before them. I got my own and joined them.
After Penelope introduced Ezekiel and me to each other, I told them of my little adventure.
“Oh Zeus!” Penelope’s black eyes widened. “I’m very glad you were not seriously injured.” Ezekiel nodded his curly head, beard going up and down.
“Thank you both, I am fine,” I said. “The sudden appearance of the scarab seems fortunate.”
“Our ancient philosophers talk of ‘sympathies,’” said Penelope, “whereby the things of the world connect to each other.”
“Our priests have a similar idea,” I said.
“Ours speak of the power of Shaddai or Elohim,” Ezekiel put in. “But it is difficult to speak with conviction about that power when so many of us suffer daily.”
I nodded. The inconceivable magnitude of Jewish suffering down all the bloody ages has always left me silent. Even here, in the city designed to serve as a cosmos, the Romans and other elites gave them a hard time.
“The ways of the gods are difficult to understand,” I muttered at length, thinking about the earlier encounter.
“The gods?” echoed Penelope. “The gods could not care less about us. Remember the Golden Age of Athens? A time of unparalleled reverence, until it wasn’t.”
“We were exiled,” said Ezekiel, “from our homeland until the Persians let us back in. What good was reverence, then? Some say it was all part of the divine plan. I say: tell it to the wanderers who watched their families die in the desert.”
“The Persians conquered Egypt,” I said. “Overall, they watched out for us. The priests welcomed them and deified their kings. But they were conquerors nonetheless. And our gods? They did nothing. And then other waves of invaders came, all of them blessed by the priests…”
The conversation had gone south in a hurry. I wondered if the inn sold anything stronger to drink. The day had started badly and gave no sign of improving. My bitterness surprised me.
“And yet, the scarab,” I added.
We listened to patrons talking about their morning. Footsteps scuffed the path outside the door. The complicated hum of city life drifted over our heads and around us. A bird with a long, curved beak sat watching us from a high window. It flapped away.
“My people have waited and waited for the gods to do right by us. So have yours”—Penelope nodded at Ezekiel—“and yours,” at me. “That is one reason our playwrights make fun of them.”
Ezekiel cleared his throat. “Do you doubt the presence of the Divine, then?” he asked.
“No. I doubt the presence of Divine compassion.” She sipped. “Seti, what do you think?”
The grimace bent my mouth before I could stifle it. Her question touched a sore place in my heart.
I used to think we pick our friends, but we don’t really. Of course, now and then we find ourselves in bad company. But this was not such a time. Real friends find each other. We three held to different outlooks, values, cultural backgrounds; but we took each other seriously, and I felt safe. So my mouth opened.
“I am tired,” I said, “of my clients wanting me to access the celestial gods to foretell futures, and not just because of the clients. They don’t know any better. Of course a trader wants to know if trade is good, and a lonely single feels curious about the prospects of love.
“What makes my heart weary is that we Egyptians have shown centuries—no, millennia—of devotion to the gods, and they have replied by letting us be invaded, over and over, by godless people who could not care less about how we live. All they want are our minerals, grains, lands, and mysteries.
“But what really infuriates me is that I still believe in the gods, if ‘believe’ is the right word. The scarab—the scarab! I can feel when something sacred enters the picture. I’m sure you two can too, however you interpret it: as Zeus, as God, whatever. The sacred is undeniably real. It plays with us every day, and those of us with certain sensitivities know it very well.
“What I can’t get past is the disparity. The old stories tell us to cherish our gods. But the gods don’t cherish us.”
My voice rose unexpectedly: “How dare they?”
I stopped and drank, breathing deeply.
“We have a story,” said Ezekiel, “about a man named Job who confronted God over injustices Job did not deserve. All God said was: I’m powerful, worship Me, and how dare you ever question Me. In that argument I am on the side of Job.” He shuddered. I liked his manner: quietly intense.
“When Pericles melted down a statue of Athena made of gold to pay for his war efforts abroad, a plague struck Athens.” Penelope glanced up at the window where the bird had sat and flown. “It was the beginning of the end for us. Who can doubt that the gods had entered the field? But the question I have never been able to answer is: On their behalf, or ours?”
We were silent, waiting, perhaps, for something superhuman to either educate us mystically or hurl lightning into the inn and level it. Nothing happened. Perhaps Zeus was pursuing a nymph; perhaps Re was tired and retiring; perhaps God was placing a bet elsewhere. A few flies buzzed above a spilled beverage.
“It would be easier to be faithless,” noted Ezekiel, getting nods from Penelope and me. Another silence loomed.
“You will never believe what just happened to me,” exclaimed a loud patron at a nearby table to his partner. Evidently they did serve stronger stuff here. His speech was just this side of slurred.
“My landlord was about to kick me out, and I made up a story out of nothing about how I had just talked in a dream to Eve—yes, that Eve, the original one in the Garden—and she told me I belonged there in my home, and that she would look out for me no matter what. My landlord wasn’t even Jewish or Christian; but when I cut loose with that tall tale, he decided to let my rent go for a few more weeks! Can you imagine? I felt like Eve was looking out for me!”
Penelope smiled. “He was looking out for himself.”
“As was I,” I said, “when I lied about being a priest this morning.”
“Was the scarab in on the joke?” asked Ezekiel.
Sometimes an idea lands simultaneously on an entire group. After another moment of reflection, we all looked up at each other.
“What if,” I asked, “we reinterpreted the old stories? It’s what the priests in the House of Life do anyway, the only difference being that they get paid to.”
Penelope: “I worry that my influence is turning you into a cynic.”
“No. I don’t feel cynical about this. It’s deeper than that.”
“Well, when that patron over there mentioned Eve, I imagined someone different from a passive female ordered around by Adam, as in the official myth we’ve all heard. I imagined someone more like Ma’at, our wisdom goddess. Someone capable of awakening Adam.”
Ezekiel nodded. “Some of our old tales talk about Wisdom co-participating in the Creation.”
“Have you ever noticed how beautiful the Kosmos really is?” blurted Penelope. I had never seen her tear up before. “Have you ever really watched the sun rise? Or set? Really watched, letting in the sight. Or listened to the sounds of nature: wind, birds, thunder, the creatures all calling to one another?”
“Before they sold out,” I said, “our priests, the wise ones, said that the transformative beauty of Creation continues always. It’s not one event; a vast Something cannot come out of Nothing. Mothers keep giving birth. Ma’at and Nut give birth endlessly. Re rises and sets. Creation binds the entire universe together.”
“’Now the earth was formless and empty,’” quoted Ezekiel, “’darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters…’ What if that occurs every day? All the time.” He looked away, absorbed.
I thought about how when I applied dyes to fabrics and metals, they changed hues. Our wise folk said that the Art brought out the “essence” of what we worked on. Our statues “opened their mouths” and received a creative influx. So, in a sense, did we artisans.
“I propose that we get together with like-minded people and start writing new stories rooted in our traditions but flying off in new directions. Stories that portray us as linked with the Ultimate instead of subjected to fateful influences. Stories that encourage reflection, celebrate creativity, and rekindle the spark of human dignity amongst powers we do not understand but need to work with.”
Had that really come out of my own mouth just now?
Penelope began talking, and Ezekiel replied, and I could scarcely hear them for the cloud that surrounded my thinking.
At some point, we talked about ancient traditions about the ultimate God not being gendered or sexed. The feeling of affirmation this flooded me with surprised me. Although male-bodied, I had never considered myself a man. “He” did not apply to me, although I had been called that all my life. Yet our vision of God, the truly ancient vision of God, dared imagine a Being not constrained by the pronoun so prevalent in all our cultural backgrounds.
I felt good. My heart felt happy. It was the right course for us to take, from out of our respected and heard disenchantments on into new kinds of storytelling.
Although not a priest, I had learned how to write. I spoke Egyptian, the Koiné dialect of Greek, and Latin, but the writing was what mattered just now. This time I would write down something different from astrological arcana: tales of suprahuman nature wisdom waiting to be listened to. The radical freedom bestowed on us by the Ultimate brooked no lesser interference.
At our next meeting, which was in my shop, I uttered a prayer to Thoth, not of need but of gratitude. Penelope signaled Hermes. Ezekiel prayed to God. We acknowledged our debt. But we had to go beyond…
I picked up a sharpened reed, dipped it in ink, and wrote what we all chanted together:
“Having thus spoken, Isis poured forth for Horus the sweet draught of immortality…”
The cosmic Powers took a special interest in events in historically pivotal Alexandria, first century Common Era by human reckoning. A Nexus Crisis involving the Powers in conflict was brewing there, and on many worlds.
The Powers thought at each other through and below what humans called the spacetime continuum:
“I held it together for them for as long as I could,” said Renastra, who had appeared to the Egyptians as Osiris and to the Christians as Jesus.
“And I as Isis,” spoke Unda. The Greeks had imagined her as Demeter. “How many, many times I brought water to their desert both literal and figural.”
“You always did overestimate them.” This from trickster Kluni, otherwise known as Set and the Devil. “All that empire, you know. Century after century of carefully ordered oppression.”
“It wasn’t just to oppress,” protested Naran, as structured as ever in his measured phrasings. “We helped build dynasties that lasted for longer than empires in Europe.”
“Aye,” added Ordiri, whose sunlike countenance had inspired images of Re.
“And down those centuries, those millennia, what happened to the spark of life?” asked Wildia.
“That,” replied Magus, “was in my keeping in this part of the globe. I nod to all of you who were involved in maintaining it.” Most of the Powers present acquiesced to this acknowledgment—even deathly Doja, who had built a lot of tombs there.
“Not to mention the Egyptians,” said Kluni, who felt ignored.
“We infused our presence into a magical civilization that went on to found so many others,” Magus went on. “As cultures blended in Alexandria, the next step, to free human minds from overidentification with us, became obvious: a wisdom path emphasizing continual creativity, ever in search of the new. The Renaissance this will influence is now free to focus on human dignity.”
“With you operating behind the scenes as Thoth and Hermis Trismegistus?” prodded Kluni as an asteroid struck a moon and all but pulverized it. “How new was that?”
Wise Vaeda responded: “A new take on an old tale. You tried to influence it, of course. We would expect no less of you. But Hermeticism, the new path forward, first Egyptian and then worldwide, is the Way of Magus. Be content that one of your Greek names is remembered in it.”
“I’m not mollified.”
“Then reflect that what you bring always flashes forth in every act of creation. And the nature of our cosmos is creativity.
“A distant ancestor of Seti will be born, if all goes well, in Terrania, which humans will envisage as the just and inclusive world civilization of belonging, love of place, daring imagination, material abundance, and deep homecoming.” The time Power Cronicus performed his equivalent of a bow.
She/They went on: “He will have visions while sleeping soundly, a needful reminder of the great chain of being. To him will be given not only memories of his Hermetic alchemist ancestor, but glimpses of cosmic creativity on other worlds. It will be time at last for human beings to see themselves as members of a larger interstellar society.
“He will see:
“Titanic, jellyfish-like sacks of methane thousands of cubic miles in volume propelling themselves through clouds of pink and mauve, which will rain and draw down lightning into intricate patterns of atmospheric art.
“Twelve-armed octopi sculpting colored currents on sandy pedestals blown in place through artful puffs of water.
“Sentient hillocks roamed by sentient herds of dinosaur-like animals who eat their tribal designation names into freely flowing grass: a philosophy grown greenly up from the soil.
“Spiked swarms of six-winged insects broadcasting radio compositions to an audience of listening fungi reorganizing entire ecosystems.
“Intelligent event horizons of black holes: cosmic gatekeepers hoarding millennia of entangled, holographically recorded events broadcast into space in hieroglyphic codes reminiscent of those in the Pyramid Texts of Earth.
“And the vision encompassing all this trans-human creativity was anticipated by a three-way conversation of disillusioned humans in an Alexandrian café.”
She turned to Kluni and demanded: “How is this not a Trickster signature?”
Kluni chortled. “Yeah. We can’t determine their destiny. It was time for them to take one giant step to leave the nest, and they took it. I applaud you for giving them a needful kick in the ass. The next big kick is on me.”
“Terrania cannot endure unless human beings realize that creativity belongs not just to them, but to everyone everywhere in the cosmos.”
Kluni shrugged. “Did you hear the one about the biped realizing that the cosmos is full of eager legs?”
In the far future, Darwish Sethos woke and spoke aloud to himself, slowly:
“That was one hell of a dream.”