The Cakes of Osiris are a Lie: Portals of the Duat and their Keepers 

“Ugh,” scoffs the first man. “Don’t let her bother you. You know the Egyptians dream up the maddest things…” – Children of Actium

Last week we looked at the seven gates a soul must traverse as part of their journey through the Egyptian Duat in order to prove their worthiness to the gods of the afterlife, as laid out in so-called Papyrus of Ani copy of The Book of Coming (Going) Forth By Day. But unfortunately for the kas of the Egyptians, this was only one test of many and only one set of minor deities who must be appeased by the deceased. The Ani papyrus lays out in its very next chapter a similar test of ten portals that must also be passed through successfully before the soul can carry on with its journey.

So what’s the difference between a gate and a portal in the Duat, other than an opportunity for me to make very outdated Portal/Portal 2 references? The most correct answer is that, like most things in Egyptian archeology, we’re not exactly sure.

As you can see in the above picture of this section of the papyrus, the gates from last week (top row), are portrayed as smaller than the more elaborate portals (bottom row). There is a thought that while both the gates and portals are boundary markers to the “Domain of Osiris in the Field of Reeds”—the Field of Reeds being the Duat’s Good Place as opposed to its Bad Place, the Lake of Fire—the gates form an outer boundary, while the portals represent doorways within Osiris’ residence that lead to the hallowed halls of his love and judgment. The Egyptian word for the boundary markers last week is aryt, which does generally translate as “gate,” but this weeks passages are called sebkhets, which in addition to “gateway” can also mean “portal” or “pylon.”

[I can also reference equally outdated StarCraft memes]

Other copies of the Book of Coming Forth, like the so-called Theban Recension papyrus list as many as twenty-one portals, with an additional eleven pylons, but apparently Ani’s abridged version was deemed sufficient enough to get a body through this section. It is possible that there were twenty-one doors in Osiris’ palace, but if you correctly made it through the first ten, you could bypass the others. Or the last eleven were “make up” chances to reach Osiris’ hall by an alternate route. The gates and portals section of the Duat is basically the trivia portion of the journey: the deceased demonstrates their piety by knowing the names of the guardian deities of Osiris’ domain. Basically, it is the opposite of my high school AP English exam where I was granted a perfect score on a Heart of Darkness essay despite never actually referring to Colonel Kurtz by name (I completely blanked on what it was and just called him “the ivory trader” for the whole essay)— the accompanying spells are useful, but it is the recitation of names that most firmly establishes the deceased’s power over the deity.

As I mention numerous times in my books, names have especial power in Egyptian heka; to know a name or to speak it gives or takes control from an entity or the speaker. One of the most famous Isis myths, the one where she gains power over Ra, demonstrates this idea. To grow her own heka, the goddess wishes to have power over Ra’s magic, but to do this, she must learn the god’s secret name, the one that controls his life force. So she creates a poisonous snake that bites the god, causing him to fall ill and be threatened with death. Normally, Ra, as the creator of all life, would be immune to any animal’s poison, but because he didn’t create this snake, which the myth very specifically delineates as him not knowing the snake’s name, he is powerless against its venom, as are all the other gods. Cue Isis sailing in and promising that she can heal the bite, but in return, Ra must tell her his secret name. He tries to put her off, but the bite is extremely painful and deadly, so he eventually confesses it and Isis does in fact heal him. But Ra is understandably resentful of Isis’ underhanded play, and later myths claim this is why the Contendings of Horus and Set get dragged out in the way that they do. As the all-powerful creator-king, Ra could have simply decided in Horus’ favor at any point, but his grudge with Horus’ mom, Isis, means that contrary to what one might expect, Ra spends a lot of time backing Set’s claims and his negative vote keeps the dispute going many times when Horus would have otherwise been declared the victor.

Anyway, just like with the gates, we’ll list them out with their deities and spells, along with any side commentary I can give them. Thankfully for brevity, the portals are each guarded by only one god, or rather one goddess. For despite their forms, several of which are overtly masculine, as you’ll see, most of the spells address a female deity. In Children of Actium, I use this as a channel with the four Canopic goddesses (Neith, Selket, Nephthys, and Isis) alongside the portal guardians, but this has no basis in Egyptian cosmogony. Indeed, the gender-fluidity of the Egyptian pantheon is well-documented and would have been unsurprising to Ani when confronting entities existing on the precarious god/demon fault lines of the Duat.

Portal One

Guardian: Nerwyt (“Terror”)

Lady of tremblings, high-walled, the sovereign lady, the lady of destruction who utters the words that drive back the destroyers, who delivers from destruction he who cometh.

My readers will likely recognize Nerwyt, though I looked at this creature and saw “snake” and Budge (probably rightly) thinks this goddess is a vulture. I confess that I simply didn’t consider it because Egyptian vulture deities are almost invariably shown with their wings half or fully spread and the cobra goddess Iaret is often depicted crowned by the sun as Nerwyt is. Though Nerwyt is creepy-looking enough that even when I implied she was a snake, I was more envisioning a serpentine monster than a specific animal. Perhaps you can view her, as the first portal guardian, as a amalgamation of both vulture and snake, a sort of Iaret/Nekhbet hybrid goddess who instead of protecting the kings of Egypt, protects the halls of Osiris, the king of the dead. At any rate, as the first guardian, she’s also the most forbidding. Unlike many of the various gate gods, hers is the only portal goddess whose name is truly threatening, though the text of her spell is not really scarier than any of the others. As befitting a goddess addressed in the text as “high-walled,” her portal is topped with what appear to be stylized spear points emphasizing her ability to keep out the unworthy, but like all but two of the portal guardians, she is only armed with a whisk. This may be an attempt to illustrate Nerwyt’s sovereignty, or to signal that she guards the rule of Osiris; or maybe her willingness to bend her protection to those who are not among the “destroyers” who are her enemies.

Portal Two

Guardian: Mes-Ptah (“Child of the Fashioner [Ptah]”)

Lady of heaven, Mistress of the Two Lands [Egypt], devourer by fire, Lady of mortals, who art infinitely greater than any human being.

At the second portal we meet the lioness guardian Mes-Ptah, who also holds a whisk and whose entryway is crowned by a (true) serpent. This goddess seems to be an echo of several higher-ranking deities, the most obvious being the creator god Ptah, whose child she is called. On first blush it might seem odd to reference a creator deity in the Duat, but as we’ve seen in the past, one of Ptah’s most enduring hybridized forms was as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, an entity designed to encapsulate Osiris’ whole cycle of death and rebirth within Egyptian religious thought. Ptah-Sokar-Osiris’ worship was particularly associated with the city of Abydos, a major religious cult center in Egypt almost continuously throughout its long history, as evidenced by its frequent mentions in spells within the Book of Coming Forth. Abydos itself served as a kind of portal between the worlds of the living and the dead, as befitting the space where Osiris cycled between those states. As for the lioness motif, that makes more sense if one remembers that before she was domesticated as an almost-strictly cat goddess, Bastet was originally a lioness protector much like Sekhmet. And like Set, Bastet was often depicted as fighting the snake demon Apep in defense of her father, Ra, which might explain the presence of the Apep-like snake over Mes-Ptah’s portal. Interestingly enough, Bastet is usually portrayed as the daughter of Ra and Isis, the latter of which whose epithets are very similar to the ones used in Mes-Ptah’s spell, and Bastet was seen as one of Ptah’s consorts. So it is possible that Mes-Ptah is the child of Ptah and Bastet, especially given her similarities to a known child of this pairing, the male lion-headed war god Maahes.

Portal Three

Guardian: Sebaq (“Splendid”)

Lady of the altar, the mighty lady to whom offerings are made, greatly beloved one of every god sailing up the river to Abydos.

Ah, see, here again we see a reference to Abydos as a terrestrial home of the Egyptian gods. We also see, although she is addressed as a lady, that Sebaq has all the appearances of a man, including typically darker skin and a false beard. This leads Budge to label the guardian as a man despite the way the spell acknowledges them, but I’m less sure. Sebaq is called “the mighty lady” in the text, so what we might be seeing in their depiction is a female goddess arrayed in the traditional trappings of power that would have been understood by the Egyptians, i.e., male authority. Her masculine appearance is a way to use visual language to illustrate her strength, just as Hatshepsut would have herself dressed in a man’s kilt and false beard to demonstrate her authority as pharaoh outside of her biological sex or chosen gender. The hieroglyphs above Sebaq’s portal also support this intersex or non-binary reading, I think, because they are symbolic of both opposites and absolutes. The two wadjet eyes are meant to represent the sun and the moon encompassing hieroglyphs for eternity, water, and vase. The water-glyph is doubled here, generally used by Egyptian to indicate quantity, which makes it likely that this is meant to refer to the Nile, particularly since the river is mentioned in the portal spell. The vase might seem more puzzling, but as we talked about last week, certain versions of Osiris’ cult worshipped him as a burning vase—an “eternal flame,” if you will. Just as Nerwyt is both a means of forbiddance and entry, and Mes-Ptah is connected to both birth and death, Seqab demonstrates the totality of the cosmos: goddess and god, sun and moon, life and afterlife, the Nile’s capacity for creation and destruction; all symbolized by the glyph for infinity/eternity.

Portal Four

Guardian: Negau (“Long-Horned Bull”)

Prevailer with knives, Mistress of the Two Lands, destroyer of the enemies of the Still-Heart [Osiris], who decrees the release of those who suffer through evil circumstance.

Continuing our idea of non-binary deities, even Budge’s description of Negau can’t make up its mind about whether this is a male or female entity. He calls Negau a “hornless cow”—which is patently false given the picture the Ani text gives, but the goddess’ name is routinely translated as “Long-Horned Bull,” which straightens out the horn situation but abandons the cow part. Again, I think it makes more sense to see Negau as a (cow) goddess; not only because that’s how she’s addressed in the text, but because of her apparent role as a defender of Osiris, who was often hybridized with the Memphis bull god, Apis, who shared the Lord of West and Ptah’s connection to the afterlife. Negau could also be meant to be seen as a connection to the cow goddess par excellence, Hathor, who was known in the Duat as Imentet, “She of the West,” a psychopomp who aided the deceased in the transition between life and death. Cows were considered some of the most important sacrificial animals given to the gods and the yearly Apis bull in particular was seen to ensure the rebirth of Osiris and by extension, the rebirth of the Egyptians following in his wake. This might be how Negau “prevails with knives” and releases the deceased into the protection of the Duat—further emphasized by the row of sun-crowned uraeus cobras guarding the lintel of her portal.

Portal Five

Guardian: Hentet-Ārqiu (“One Who Spears the Disaffected”)

Hail O Flame, Lady of fire, inhaling the entreaties which are made to her, who permits not the rebellious ones to come forth.

Nerwyt might have the most unsettling name among the portal goddesses, but Hentet-Ārqiu is the only one with a truly monstrous form. She is presented as a hippopotamus-faced goddess with human breasts and a leopard’s body very reminiscent of Ammit, the devourer of souls. And if this wasn’t unsettling enough, she is also the only portal goddess who only wields a weapon (a knife). But there is a lot of symbolism amid the confusion of ideas surrounding Hentet-Ārqiu’s picture, so let’s break them down. The goddess’ forepaws rest upon a glyph for organ (as in body part), which Budge interprets as specifically her own organ, and the alternating glyphs over her portal stand for “heat” and “youthful strength”/“fecundity.” “Heat” is a common premodern term for virility, which combined with the fertility hieroglyphs might tie the goddess back to Taweret, the major hippopotamus goddess of the Egyptian pantheon, most associated with birth and renewal. Both goddesses have life-giving breasts, and Hentet-Ārqiu’s knife poised above her own organs might be meant to symbolize the religious sacrifices that ensured the restoration of life to Osiris and the dead alike. Egyptian priests are recognizable in art by their leopard-skin drapes, so the goddess’ leopard body might be a more literal interpretation of this. But the hippo’s great natural strength and ferocity when challenged made Taweret protective goddess too, who was also often shown wielding a knife. Hentet-Ārqiu’s additional role as a protector of Osiris is made clear by her name and spell, by which she roots out elements disloyal or rebellious to his authority.

Portal Six

Guardian: Semati (“United One”)

Lady of light, who roareth mightily, whose breadth cannot be comprehended. Her like hath not been found since the beginning. There are serpents over her which are unknown. They were brought forth before Osiris.

Semati’s appearance is another non-binary form, and admittedly another unusual for a human figure in Egyptian art—a person with nanism or dwarfism. Contrary to what you might suppose based on the generally highly-idealised portraiture of the Egyptians, little people were well-respected through much of their history as individuals with particular god-bestowed gifts and played important roles in certain artisan crafts, royal households (as they would do in many premodern cultures), and in religious ceremonies. They were also associated with the dwarf god Bes, perhaps the most consistently popular Egyptian god of them all. Bes was the guardian of households and children, as well as an important childbirth and fertility god. Semati, as her name suggests, might be meant to synthesize these cultural elements into one form. Her form is of a male little person, but her spell tells us her breadth (form) is unknowable. People with nanism could hold respected positions in Egyptian society, but typically in the manner of high-ranking servants and palace eunuchs, who could be rented and willed to others. They could be owned, but many of them were afforded royal burials in the holy precincts of Abydos among the kings and the gods. Bes was small, but one of the luckiest and most powerful of the gods. Semati holds both the whisk of authority and the knife of protection, the only portal goddess to do so. And like Mes-Ptah, her lintel is topped by an Apep-like snake, presumably one of the “unknown” serpents brought forth before Osiris whom she, like Isis, can name and command in his protection.

Portal Seven

Guardian: Saktif (“Ikety”)

O garment (veil) which envelopes the helpless one [Osiris], which weeps for and loves that which it covers [Osiris’ body].

Speaking of unknown names, Saktif/Ikety is the only one of the portal goddesses whose name is largely judged to be untranslatable. It could be related to sāh-t, which was an aristocratic male garment and would tie her back to her stated role as the protective veil over Osiris’ body. As for “Ikety,” that’s another one where my dictionaries will helpfully tell me it’s the name of this goddess and nothing else. What we can see is that she is a non-binary ram-headed goddess holding a whisk beneath another spiked lintel. Rams are usually associated with the various forms of Khnum, the other creator god who went by a variety of names throughout Egypt. Khnum was in many ways a Nile deity, in that the river silt was the clay from which he molded children on his potter’s wheel, and Osiris is connected to the river as well. In one version of his death myth, Set throws the mutilated pieces of the god’s body into the river, which is where Isis finds them and reconstitutes them. The Nile becomes the place of the god’s rebirth, just as it is the rebirth of the land of Egypt every flood season. Isis’ mourning for her husband as she gathers up his body is one of the most famous Egyptian mythological motifs and it is her tears and her magic that cover and resurrect him, taking the place of creator gods like Khnum. Rams are also connected to Amun, the iteration of the sun god as he travels through the Duat with the light of the world, protecting it from Apep and the other demons below, which might be the shielding represented by the spearheads above this portal.

Portal Eight

Guardian: Khudjetef (“One Who Protects Himself”)

O Blazing fire, unquenchable, with far-reaching tongues of flame, irresistible slaughterer, which one may not pass through fear of its deadly attack.

Among all the portal entities, Khudjetef is the only one whom I’m willing to concede as being truly male as opposed to transgendered or non-binary. This is in part because unlike the others, his depiction suggests that “Khudjetef” might be solely an epithet because he is drawn as though he is specifically meant to be Horus. He is shown, as Horus would be, as a falcon wearing the pschent, the double crown, and he’s standing with a whisk of authority and his magical wadjet eye on a serekh, the hieroglyph for a palace enclosure and the marking of a pharaoh’s “Horus name.” Above the portal are two bas (depicted traditionally as birds with human heads, showing the resurrected soul’s ability to move freely), possibly meant to represent the deceased’s soul and the soul of Osiris, both standing between flaming vases and ankhs to symbolize their eternal life. In keeping with the idea that this is in fact Horus, the spell text also doesn’t identify the guardian as a goddess and focuses on aspects that the god is well-known for: as a fierce protector of his father and a fearless fighter. His main mythological presence is that of Osiris’ avenger, but he also participates in the gathering of his father’s body alongside Isis, and in doing so is instrumental in the god’s resurrection and the extension of that resurrection to man.

Portal Nine

Guardian: Arisudjesef (“One Who Made Himself”)

Chieftainess, lady of strength, who giveth quiet of heart to the offspring of her lord. Her breadth is three hundred and fifty khet [~11 miles] and she is clothed with green feldspar of the South. She bindeth up the divine form and clotheth the helpless one. Devourer, lady of all.

After a fairly straightforward ID on our last guardian, we’re diving right back into gender fluidity as we enter the penultimate portal and we find ourselves with another lion deity. Though unlike Mes-Ptah, Budge and my other translators seem pretty confident that this lion is a dude and that his name is “One Who Made Himself” rather than “One Who Made Herself.” Perhaps because “Arisudjesef” is an epithet of several male gods, including Thoth, Ptah, and Khnum. The ability to bring one’s self into being is a hallmark of creating deities, and makes them powerful defenders of Osiris, a god notable for his dependence on others to bring him back to life. It is possible that this is a callback to aforementioned Ptah/Bastet son, Maahes, who is often shown with protective uraei as this lion guardian has over his portal. But Maahes is also usually depicted wearing Osiris’ Atef crown, whereas this lion(ess) is shown crowned by the sun. But there is an Egyptian lioness goddess thus shown and that is the indomitable Sekhmet, whose sun crown is typically encircled by a uraeus cobra as well. “Lady of Strength,” an epithet in the spell text is a common one for the goddess and in Upper Egypt, she often replaced her sister Bastet as the wife of Ptah and the mother of Maahes. And it is Sekhmet’s domain in Upper Egypt, the deserts of the south, where the precious feldspar is found that the unnamed lady of the spell wears. The protective war goddess without equal’s shadow is easy to imagine in the halls of Osiris guarding him as much as that of Bastet in another doorway.

Portal Ten

Guardian: Sekhenur (“Great Embracer”)

Goddess of the loud voice, who maketh her suppliants to mourn, the awful one who terrifies, who herself remains unterrified within.

At the tenth and final portal drawn in the Papyrus of Ani, we find Sekhenur, the so-called “Great Embracer,” who is another ram-headed deity, though this time they wear the glorious crown of Osiris, the Atef—which is the hedjet, the white crown of Upper Egypt flanked by ostrich feathers. Ostrich feathers in the Duat symbolized truth, especially in relation to the goddess Ma’at (the personification of truth), who used a ostrich feather to weigh against the souls of the dead during their judgement before Osiris. On the Atef, the feathers on each side of the crown are supposed to represent both truth and justice, and the balance of both in the court of the Lord of the West. Osiris is always shown in the Atef or the plain hedjet, never the red deshret crown of Lower Egypt or the double pschent. This may simply be a function of the hedjet’s greater historical age, but it may also be a marker of the god’s symbolic victory over death and the machinations of Set, the traditional Lord of Upper Egypt. Set may have ended his brother’s reign over the terrestrial lands of Upper Egypt, but in doing so he gave him dominion over the whole of the Egyptian underworld, in which the Prince of Storms must also operate. Sekhenur, a green-faced goddess with a louding voice, wears the crown of rebirth and shares the verdant skin tone of her master calmly beneath the serpents who might symbolize both his treacherous younger brother’s damnation and salvation, as both Set the father of demons and Set the Slayer of Apep. The creator of the Ani Papyrus might have forgone the additional eleven portals because the tenth best represented the full cycle of the Osiris myth and how this conclusion invents the very world of the Duat the book of the dead sought to navigate.

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