Wednesday 30 November 2011

Festival: Mlatu Niqalu (and a new local spirit)

Coming home from school, I began to notice Shapash's descent growing shorter every afternoon.  During the month of Niqalu I began to incorporate worship of a new god or spirit into my personal path/cult.  My school is built in the city on the slopes of a bank by a road.  There is a small sloping mountain which can be seen clearly from the upstairs rooms of the school.  Several houses are built along the sides of the mountain, but there are none nearer to the top as the banks begin to become rather steep.  There are several trees growing along the side, including a few palm trees.  During my first year at the school, I began to grow rather attached to this mountain who towered above the houses below.  And during this month of the second year my spiritual connection continued. 

After school, late in the afternoon when the sun was beginning to set, I walked out of the school and got onto the bus.  Shapash would be in the sky, glowing a wonderful golden colour above the towering roof of the school building.  As the bus began to leave, driving downbank past the many narrow windows of the school, I prayed to Shapash for a safe journey home.  Coming back up the bank past the mountain, I would look up at its slopes and see Shapash beginning to set, coming down over it.  I realised that this great mountain provided a rest for the chariot of Shapash as it made for the horizon.

And so I began to worship this local mountain god, giving him offerings of fruit juice or water during breaks in the school.  I see him as a friend of Shapash and as hospitable and protecting.

All of this was around the time of the Mlatu (full moon festival) during the month of Niqalu.  Yarikh in the heavens began to reveal that Mlatu was on its way.  When it arrived, I celebrated the Feast of Harvest In-Gathering, which takes place on the full moon of Niqalu.  I prepared sacred space in the temple of Baal, then took a ritual bath and cleansing, putting on my ritual attire and priestly garments.  Now I had a rather large temple room prepared, with a huge altar where a large image was set of Baal in his smiting pose with a bolt of lighting in his hand.  I then began to procession into the temple, walking slowly as I went, with the sound of the lyre playing through my headphones.  I entered the squared archway, then turned left and passed the large wall along the side, coming silently and solemnly before the door to the temple (which I had shut to protect the privacy of the god).  I went as carefully as possible, for I was to come before Baal (who is Zebul the Prince of Heaven, king over the sons of El and over the earth, and the bringer of order and creator of civilization, as well as being a young chief and warrior god).  Baal must not be angered and I had to pay special attention to the order of the ritual. 

I began by eating and drinking within the temple, bowing seven times before the altar and the idol of the lord.  In the light of the full moon I prepared a jug of wine, giving it to Baal as an offering on the altar.  During this time it is normal for priests to lead a procession carrying palm leaves and olive or willow branches hanging with fruit, and for men to dance whirling torches.  Sadly, I couldn't be so elaborate this year (maybe next year, but time will tell), so I prepared the offering of wine and then said several prayers for rain during the coming wet season.  I then went out from the temple and took a cup of water from the sink, carrying it back to the temple and pouring it as a libation upon the altar.  I then walked in a magic circle around the temple room seven times (a magical practice to bring the rains and make the earth fertile).

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Festival: Ashuru Mathbati

This year's Ashuru Mathbati was the first festival of the year.  Held in the month of Niqalu, it is usually seen as a festival of purification.  For me it is about these things: purification, the creation of the world, the new year, and autumn.

Ashuru Mathbati goes on for seven days.  Unlike most other festivals though, it is a more solemn occasion.  Most strict taboos go on for this time, and abstaining from several things is important.

Things were now beginning to change.  Summer was passing away, and the signs of autumn were showing.  The days were growing shorter, and Shapash began to move towards the underworld (there is a legend associated with this).  Autumn had arrived at last, and a new year began for me at school.  Getting sorted with classes and preparing for the year ahead became important, and I began to feel ready to celebrate the 'first' new year (there are two half-years, one in spring and the other in autumn).  I enjoyed the last of summer, then began to make preparations for the festival at home.  With the month of Niqalu, Ashuru Mathbati arrived.

The first day of the festival I spent undergoing the Mushuru ritual, which is a purification ritual held around the new year for the cleansing of sins.  During this time I burned some incense around the home to chase away evil spirits.  I spent much of the time fasting and praying, as well as avoiding any music or sexual pleasure.  I managed to have a room to myself downstairs, and sat on the floor in silence.  It was here that I underwent the Mushuru ritual.  I began by washing purifying myself in ice cold water, chanting seven times over as I went.  I then went and removed all my clothes, sitting completely naked on the floor in a state of meditation.  During this time I focused on the deities, requesting the cleansing of any sins or taboos broken that previous year, and to restore my mental state, and give me a clean tablet for the next year.  I swore before meditating that I would not move if I was in any pain or discomfort, and to undergo a period of temporary suffering.  It is during this day that I underwent a punishment for my sins.  I sat in discomfort for 15 minutes (I hope to extend the time every year), not even moving my mouth or legs.  During this time I was desperate to move or get up, but I instead focused on the gods.  At the end of the time I requested El to bless me that upcoming year and purify me.  During the meditation I had a vision where I was once again in a corridor in my old school (where I spent my first years), walking towards a large square archway in the huge walls, which was the doorway to a large classroom where I had once spent two years.  Inside I saw El upon a huge throne, and when I came close he anointed me and told me I was purified, then raised his cup to bless me.  The vision then faded to black and my neck began to grow stiff until my head was moving upwards.  It was then that my eyes suddenly opened and I realised that the 15 minutes had come to an end.  Overjoyed, I went and poured an offering of wine to him, and put my clothes back on.  The I went and ate once more, and realised how good it tasted.

Most of the rest of the week was a celebration of autumn and the autumn season.  It is during this time that if one lives on a farm or raises animals, he or she should prepare specific ones for sacrifices (as in the ancient times this is when farmers brought unblemished animals to the temples).  I gave several meat offerings as animal sacrifices and reflected upon the autumn season and the year ahead.

The Gezer calendar states that this month is a month of gathering the harvest.  I also celebrated by preparing a lot of autumn harvest foods and shared them with the gods.

During this festival, I began to become more aware of the end of summer than ever.  By the time the festival was coming to an end, I saw that the days were now shorter and some of the rains had began to arrive in preparation for the wet season.

I read from the creation story, thinking about the creation of heaven and earth, and meditated upon the world and how it endures and goes on every year in cycles.  I became more aware of the great and good things in life and was thankful to El for creating them.  I thought about the once chaotic and watery state of all things, and how it changed into a state of law and order, and how El formed the world from this prior state, and how Baal ordered it to stay in this manner.  And of how the word of the gods would never pass away.

During the whole festival I celebrated the coming of the new year.  I wore my purple clothing and jewellry, and made offerings to several gods.  During the new year festival it is custom to eat sweet things and avoid anything sour.  The reason behind this taboo is that sweet food brings in a sweet year, while sour food will make the year ahead sour.  I had a large collection of sweets which I ate during this time.  On the final day was when the celebrations began to reach a climax.  This is the time when a small booth shrine, called a Mathbatu shrine or a Sukkot, is constructed of leaves and built in a high place, traditionally on the roof of the house.  Because of my fear of heights, I instead chose to build a Mathbatu shrine indoors, and place it on a high shelf on my bedroom wall, built near the roof.  I made the dwelling out of leaves and placed it on the shelf, then placed inside it the images of several deities.  I then went throughout the house clapping seven times to drive off evil spirits and bad luck for the next year, with the recording of a ram's horn being blown playing in my bedroom.  I ascended the ladder and spoke my heart to the gods at the Mathbatu shrine (as it is custom during this festival for the king to speak his heart to the gods), then prayed for the upcoming year and for the month of Niqalu to be good.

At the beginning of the festival I had felt as though I was still in the previous year, but steadily over the festival I began to feel transition, until by the end I felt that I was in the next year.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Typical Features of a Canaanite Town

I decided to lable some typical features of a Canaanite town or city.  Many of them may still be found in most towns or cities today, so this can be a useful guide to the naming of them and concepts associated with them in Canaanite culture.

- Bet (house):  This is obviously the dwelling of the Canaanite.  Houses were often made in ancient times from mud-brick and built with a flat-roof.  They often had a courtyard or garden in the front, which is where any animals might be kept, or just for storage space.  Houses were often small and had only several rooms.  Often the doorways were constructed as archways.  The houses could be one to several stories high, sometimes becoming apartments with people living above or below.  Today, a Canaanite's house is where he or she lives, sometimes with their family.  It is where most daily activities take place, as well as some worship.  My own house is two stories high and built of brick, with a walled garden on the front side.  Inside, a stone arch leads from the kitchen into the living space.  Upstairs in my bedroom is where my two shrines/altars stand, to the household gods and to the Rapi'uma.

- Merkaz (civic centre) and Shuq (market-place):  The Merkaz can best be described as the Canaanite equivalent to the Greek Agora and Roman Forum.  It is a place where people can meet, buy and sell, and trade.  It is often a large part of the community, more so in ancient times than today perhaps.  A shuq (market-place) is often set up around the Merkaz, as well as several important buildings like shops.  In ancient times, there was often a building in the street running alongside the Merkaz which was where the city council would often be held.  The mayor or govenor, often appointed by the king, might often reside here or near here.  Also, many northern cities (especially in later times, during the Iron Age), eventually adopted a council of shoftim (judges) who made decisions based on the demands of the people.  Their head was the king, though in later times the king ended up with a more ceremonial role rather than an active or political one.  These shoftim would judge and sort out disputes in the streets surrounding the Merkaz.  Today, there are two types of Merkaz.  One is the local public square, often in the town or city centre, where markets are often held and there are many shops.  There is a Merkaz built on the hills near my house, where there are often markets.  Another type is an online forum where discussions among the Canaanite community are held.

- Achuzah, machzabah and refet (farmstead, mill, and corral):  These would be found in Canaanite farms, where farmers would provide their kingdom's capital city with agricultural produce, and rear domestic livestock to be donated to city temples for sacrifices during festivals.  They would be more common in villages and smaller towns which tended to surround a large city.  The farmers here would be under the domain of the city, which would be the capital and where the king would rule.  Sometimes entire tribes would have villages which were owned for by the larger cities.  An example would be the Perizzites, who were mostly rural people inhabiting small villages and towns, providing for the Canaanite cities.  Though Canaanite culture is often two-way, with the concept of covenants or deals being an ancient one.  While farmers would be lower down on the feudal/caste/class system than city-dwellers, and would have to provide a large amount of food for them; in return, the farmers were under the city's protection and could flee there for sanctuary during attacks.  Today, there are still many farms and smaller villages which surround large cities.  I live in a village myself, with a few farms and fields surrounding it.  It is built with several others near a city.  Basically, we should be thankful for these areas as providing for us with our food and animals for sacrifice.

- Chamet (fortress or citadel):  Large fortresses, citadels and castles were built by the Canaanites to keep their cities protected from attack.  They were often built on large hills in the centre of a town or city.  It is here that the citizens would flee in times of attack or during a siege, and where the soldiers would make their final stand if they were losing.  The fortresses often appeared 'monolithic' and block-like, like giant stobe cubes with ramparts along the top.  Today, it is rare to have fotresses or castles (the only ones standing being historic sites), as it is unlikely that our towns or cities would ever be besieged or attacked.

- Maqdash (temple) and tophet (burning-place):  Temples were large and elaborate buildings for the Canaanites.  They are considered the houses of the gods.  A temple in ancient times is largely the same as one today.  It is the house of a deity, and when visiting it a Canaanite pays respect to that deity in worship, or by bringing sacrifices (especially during festivals).  Temples often have an outdoor courtyard, then an indoor shrine room where the idol is housed on a large stone altar, often behind curtains in a 'holy of holies'.  Temples largely resembled Solomon's temple in ancient cities like Tyre.  Priests and other temple staff spend some of their time here.  A tophet is where fire offerings are held.  A tophet building in ancient times would be large and built of white stone, displaying images and symbols of the deity on the walls.  Outside would be a graveyard for children, who were sometimes cremated and 'given back' to the deity, rather than buried in their family tombs.

- Machanet (barracks):  Barracks were stone buildings where the army would gather and train.  Swords and shields would be stored here, as would training dummies or anything else needed as part of the soldier's training.  Today, any military compounds or bases would count.

- Hekal (palace):  The palace was the house of the king and the royal family.  It would be a stone building, large and elaborate, flanked by pillars, with a courtyard and gardens.  There would also be many commoners found in the palace, including weavers and servants, as well as many slaves and attendants.  Today, any government building might count, and the house of a member of the Canaanite community with a leader role or important role might also count.

- Jdar, mijdil, and mijdil-shaar (city walls, wall turrets, and city gates):  Canaanite cities and even towns would often be walled and built atop a hill or mound.  This was for defensive purposes.  Walls were large, often described as reaching to the heavens.  They would have ramparts and battlements on the top.  The walls would have occasional towers built at intervals along them, and there would be large gates leading out of the city.  Canaanite walls shared a lot in common with Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian walls in terms of architecture.  Today, it is rare to have city walls for the same reason it is rare to have a fortress or castle.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Deity Post: Qabirim

After posting on Eshmun, I decided it would be useful to mention his seven brothers, the Qabirim, though it won't be a lot as not a lot is known about them outside of their mystery cults.

First of all, we can look into the works of the Berotian writer and sage, Sakkun-yaton.  In his works, he mentions the birth of the gods to either Resheph or to Zeduq, though it is possible that 'Zeduq' may be used to refer to Resheph rather than to the Jebusite deity who is also called Zeduq and is associated with justice.  Sakkun-yaton wrote several things on them, including:

"From Sedek came the Qabirim: these first invented a ship. From them have sprung others, who discovered herbs, and the healing of venomous bites, and charms."

"And after this El gave the city Gubla to the goddess Baalat Gebal, and Berot to Yam and to the Qabirim..."

"And when El came into the South country he gave all Egypt to the god Taat (Nebo), that it might be his royal dwelling-place. And these things were recorded first by Sedek's seven sons the Qabirim, and their eighth brother Eshmun, as the god Taat commanded them."

From this we can learn several things about the Qabirim themselves.   One is that they were the first to invent ships, and that from them came other gods who discovered herbs, healing of venemous bites, and charms.  

The Qabirim are associated with fire and healing, though they are not fire or healing gods as such.  Instead, it is better to think of them as the impulses within men that led them to develop civilization.  They are the divine spark that initiates commerce, law, and construction (among others).  

Unlike their handsome brother Eshmun, the Qabirim are ugly and dwarf-like.  They are chthonic underworld gods, and their worship is not as widespread as that of their brother.   

The Qabirim are considered 'the Beneficent and Powerful', great cosmic gods shrouded in mystery.  Their main worship is through rites conducted within their mystery cult.  They are not to be spoken about or mentioned by their names (known only to initiates or prophets chosen by them). 

They are mainly associated with Berot, unlike their brother Eshmun, who has his cult based around Sidon.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Deity Post: Eshmun

My recent visit to the doctor and to the houses of healing (nothing serious just a checkup) prompts me to now write on the healing god, patron of doctors, physicians and healers.

Eshmun's name means 'eight', and the reason for this given by Sakkun-yaton is that he was the eighth son.  His father and mother are Resheph and one of the Kathirat goddesses.  Their first seven children were known as the Qabirim, and were ugly and monstrous.  But Eshmun, the eighth, was handsome and youthful.  He was the desire of many goddesses.  Also, Eshmun was said to have been born on a heap of ashes.  While out walking one day, the goddess Astart spied him and gave chase in an attempt to seduce him.  Eshmun ran to the Awali River before the goddess caught up to him.  Out of fear and sudden panic, Eshmun took a knife and castrated himself, cutting his genitals off and throwing them onto the ground in that area.  However, the young god bled to death as a result of his action.  Astart carried the dead god into a nearby cave and restored him back to life with her power.  Arisen once more, Eshmun became an underworld god.

The site where Eshmun castrated himself and died is where the city of Sidon was built.  Astart became the goddess of the Sidonians who lived there.  On the banks of the Awali River is where the famous healing temple to Eshmun was built.  The cave, located near to Sidon, became an important cultic site, where pilgrims would go and bathe in the sacred waters to be cleansed of illnesses (there are still legends surrounding it today).

There are numerous explanations for this story.  One of them involves an astrological explanation.  In this explanation, the Deer constellation represents Resheph, who is shown as a deer.  The Arrow represents the heap of ashes (connected to a burning pyre) where Eshmun was born.  The Abyss represents the cave where Eshmun's devotees discovered the sacred healing pools.  Another explanation is about the cultic functions of Eshmun's priesthood.  Some of his priests were eunuchs, which explains Eshmun's castration (in the past, when castration was done with a knife to the genitals, there was a much higher risk of death).  The sacred mystery cult of Sidon is also connected to this legend, as are the Sidonian schools of thought.

Eshmun is the god sacred to physicians, doctors and healers.  He is often worshiped alongside his father, Resheph, and with his servants, who are healing-gods or demons of the underworld.  When a sacrifice (usually a sacrifice of boar or pig, offered to chthonic gods) is offered to him, it must be wholly consumed and burnt.  Nothing of it must remain, or else it will attract demons and unclean spirits. 

Eshmun is a dark and distant god.  He is feared by mortals, but well respected because of his healing abilities.  He can be symbolized by his rod, the Rod of Eshmun or the Nehushtan (a bronze serpent on a pole), which can be worshiped in its own right when in need of healing.  He is perhaps somewhat more distant than his father Resheph, and unlike his father is not actually responsible for spreading disease.  Instead, he only has domain over healing.  He is not the god he once was in this world, but is now an underworld god and a god with the mysteries of healing and of life and death.  He has gone to the underworld, and is now devoted to his duties as a healer.

Pray to Eshmun when in need of healing or when visiting the doctor.  If you ever need to heal anyone yourself, either as part of your profession or if simply needing to do it, offer him a prayer.  When in need of a cure, sleep in his sacred temple so that you have a prophetic dream.  Followers of the Sidonian schools of thought or of the Sidonian mystery cult are among his devotees.  There is not really anything else he is worshiped for apart from healing.

The image of Eshmun seen above shows him holding the Nehushtan.  Though Eshmun is usually shown as beardless (as he is a youth).  Here is my image: