REKHU: ancient Egyptian, âfire'
Amerotke was glad he'd drunk the goblet of wine the heset had given him when he and Shufoy arrived at the Temple of Isis. They had hurried from the Hall of Two Truths, through the busy streets, skirting the basalt-paved Avenue of the Sphinxes, and been admitted to the temple by a side gate. Challenged by the guards, they had been met by an acolyte priest who had taken them across the moon-washed gardens to a painted pavilion, where they were served sweet pancakes soaked in fruit juice and strong Canaan wine. The acolyte had examined the cartouche Amerotke carried, and apologised for the lord Impuki being extremely busy, saying that until the High Priest was available he would look after the visitors. The man listened intently as Amerotke explained why he had come to the Temple of Isis, then clearly nervous, he hastened away and returned saying that he would take Amerotke to the wabet, the Place of Purification, where corpses were embalmed to complete the soul's journey into the Far West.
The underground cavern was indeed a strong contrast to the exotic temple gardens, a gloomy, low-beamed chamber lit by pitch torches and bitter-smelling oil lamps. Amerotke had to pinch himself to be sure that he had not fallen into a nightmare. He stood just within the doorway and stared around. Such places always surprised him, even though he
was used to visiting the Houses of the Dead and scrutinising the hapless victims of some killer. Cauldrons bubbled over. Small fires burned in their open brick hearths. Corpses in varying stages of being embalmed lay like slabs of meat on tables, slightly tipped so the body fluids, as well as the juice of the ointments, could run down to the wide earthenware pots placed judiciously beneath. Priests wearing the masks of jackals, hawks, rams and the smiling face of the goddess Isis moved like sleepwalkers or stood next to the tables chanting the Office of the Dead.
Go out, go out
To the Far West.
Enter the secret sanctuary,
Enjoy the splendour
Of the Lords of Eternity.
Follow him into shrines in the Far Horizon.
May you be with the Lord of Years.
May your Ka be ravished by the beauty of the eternal fields.
On the whitewashed walls similar prayers were painted in red.
O heart of my mother,
O heart of my mother,
O heart of my mother transform me!
Do not rise and testify against me
Do not stand against me at the Great Tribunal
Do not be
enemy in the presence of the Guardian of the Scales.
Amerotke stopped to admire the exquisite paintings of the goddess Ma'at. In one she had a golden skin, in another the royal blue of the gods. She stood holding her scales next to Osiris, the green-skinned falcon-headed god who decided the eternal fate of souls.
The acolyte led Amerotke across the cavern. They had to pick their way carefully, as each corpse was surrounded by a range of caskets, coffers, pots and the tall canopic jars which would receive the sloppy entrails of the dead. The smell was rank and cloying, mixing with the salty odour of the natron in which the corpses would be bathed and dried out once the intestines had been removed. Trails of perfume, cassia, frankincense and myrrh teased Amerotke's nostrils as the priests, still chanting their prayers, wound the corpses in thick linen bandages. Shufoy picked up a heart scarab from the floor and paused to watch an acolyte priest push a wire up the nose of a corpse to break the bone and draw out the brain. Amerotke turned and grasped the little man by the shoulder.
âShufoy,' he leaned down, âthis is not a place for the curious.'
They crossed the cavern, the priests around them oblivious to their presence. Their guide escorted them into an adjoining chamber, where other corpses, yet untreated, lay beneath white shrouds covered with the Words of the Gods, the sacred hieroglyphs from the Book of Thoth; these would protect the dead until they received the ministrations of the priests. It was a stark chamber where the Scribe of the Dead, sitting on his low stool, carefully described each corpse as it arrived. Amerotke noticed with some amusement that above the stool a scribe had painted a quotation on the wall extolling his profession. He nudged Shufoy. âYou should take careful note of that!'
Shufoy, peering through the ill-lit room, spelt out the words. âBe a friend of the scroll and the pen, this is more pleasing than wine.
is better than all professions, it pleases more than bread and beer, it
more than clothing and ointment
, it is even richer than a tomb in the West. I don't know,' he whispered back. âI still believe a shrewd merchant can make a fortune.'
âMy lord judge.' The acolyte paused at one table and
pulled back the linen cloth. The corpse underneath looked frightful, the face still contorted in the final convulsions of death, with popping eyes and snarling mouth. It was the corpse of a soldier, muscular and scarred. The acolyte moved the blood-stained linen poultice which covered the groin. Shufoy gagged and looked away; Amerotke stared in horror: the man's genitals had been removed, both penis and scrotum.
âMay the gods of Egypt guide him,' Amerotke prayed. âBy all the terrors of the night, who did this?'
Shufoy turned back, hand over his mouth. The priest too had difficulty controlling his stomach. Amerotke pinched his nostrils. It was a truly horrid death. The removal of a man's genitals was the final indignity; it would hamper his journey to the Eternal West, for if his body was incomplete, so was his soul.
The priest removed the second poultice, on the left side of the chest. Amerotke already knew to expect the great gaping hole where the heart had once been. This dead soldier's fate was sealed. According to the Rites of Osiris, when the body was embalmed, the heart was always protected by a sacred scarab. If the dead person had no heart, what could be weighed in the Scales of Truth? Murdered in life, Mafdet had also been murdered in death, and unless the compassion of the gods intervened, his soul would be doomed to wander the gloomy caverns of Am-Duat, the Underworld, for all eternity.
âWhat happened?' Amerotke asked.
âLord Impuki will tell you more,' the acolyte gabbled, âbut this morning the captain of the guard did not report for duty, so a messenger was sent to his house. The door was off its latch, the lamps had burnt down low. The stench was so offensive the messenger realised something was wrong. Guards were summoned. Mafdet was found stripped naked, a gag in his mouth, hands and feet lashed together. His bed and the ground beneath were soaked in blood. Lord Impuki
immediately organised a search of Mafdet's chamber and found the remains of a drink with a sleeping potion. Someone apparently drugged our captain of the guard, bound him whilst he was asleep and committed these atrocities upon him.'
The acolyte stared back owl-eyed. âI cannot answer that,' he replied.
He hastily re-covered the corpse and took them to another table, folding back the linen sheet. The corpse underneath was that of an old man, well past his sixtieth year, a scrawny body with spindly arms and legs. The face was composed in peace; two sacred scarabs covered the eyes.
âThis is Sese, Lady Nethba's father. He died some days ago and his body was first kept cold before being brought here.'
Amerotke quickly scrutinised the corpse. Apart from the blemishes of age and the passing of time, he could see no mark of violence. He told the priest to cover the corpse.
âHow did Sese die?'
The acolyte shrugged and, going over to a table, picked up a scroll. He unrolled it and peered down the entries. âAccording to the scribe, he suffered severe pains in his stomach, a great deal of blood passed through his stools, in the last few days he was given the undiluted juice of the poppy.' He put down the scroll. âAnd virtually slept to death.'
âMy lord Amerotke?'
The judge turned to greet the young man dressed in the fringed robe of a high-ranking priest.
âMy name is Paser, priest of the Royal Chapel in the Temple of Isis. The Lord Impuki will now receive you.'
Amerotke clasped the young priest's hand. Paser was of medium height, his head completely shaven. He had a soft, effeminate face, gentle eyes, a snub nose and a laughing mouth. He wore a pendant around his throat depicting Isis
suckling the infant Horus, and faience bracelets displaying the same theme around each wrist. His robe was spotlessly white and gave off a fragrant smell every time he moved. He was not barefoot but shod in sandals, and as he turned, Amerotke noticed that the heel of one was considerably thicker than the other.
âBefore you ask, Amerotke,' Paser had seen his glance, âI was born with one leg shorter than the other. My mother thought I was to be lame for the rest of my life. She dedicated me to the House of Life to strengthen my limbs.' He grinned. âIt is a wonder what prayers and a sturdy heel can achieve!'
He led them back through the wabet, up the steps, across the gardens and into a deserted temple courtyard, where a fountain surrounded by glowing braziers still splashed water up to the night sky. The High Priest's mansion stood amongst gardens screened by a cypress grove, a beautiful place with its porticoed entrance. The walls within were painted a resplendent gold, depicting scenes extolling the exploits of Isis as the goddess fought to protect Osiris, raise her son Horus and challenge the malicious fury of the red-haired Seth. The small hall of audience was a chamber of opulent splendour, its ceiling supported by palm columns, the leaves at the top painted gold, the roots dark red, the columns themselves a deep refreshing green. The floor was of marble, with a small pool of purity just within the entrance on which blue and white lotuses were floating. The blue lotus had opened to exude its own singular perfume.
Impuki and his wife Thena were seated on a dais behind veils at the far end of the hall under a small window. The tables before them were covered with pots and platters of delicious-smelling food. Impuki rose to meet Amerotke, coming down the steps of the dais to clasp his hands courteously. Then he solemnly greeted Shufoy before escorting his visitors up into the eating area and introducing them
to his wife. Amerotke and Shufoy were seated on feather cushions before the small tables prepared for them. Servants stood in the shadows, but Impuki insisted on serving them himself, filling the jewelled goblets with white wine and sharing out the rice and spiced chicken on the silver platters placed in front of them.
Whilst he did this Amerotke looked round appreciatively. The walls of the eating area had been painted a rich gold. On one side was an eye-catching picture of Isis being reconciled with her son Horus, on the other Isis making her triumphant appeal against Seth before the Tribunal of the Gods. The robes of the goddess were ornamented with jewels, but close up Amerotke realised these were cunningly carved niches to hold glowing oil lamps in alabaster jars which served not only as a wall decoration but also as a source of light. The cushions he sat on were soft and comfortable, dark blue with golden tassels, the napkins snow white, fringed with gold, the knives, platters, goblets and jugs all fashioned out of precious metals.
Lord Impuki was a tall man with a scholar's face, a thick, sharp nose, deep-set eyes and a strong chin, but the mouth was pleasant, his voice soft yet firm. The Lady Thena must have been a beauty in her youth; of middle age, she bore herself like a queen. She had a rather haughty face, with high cheekbones, but her eyes danced with mischief. She'd immediately teased Shufoy about the small good-luck ring he wore on his finger. Both, like Paser, were dressed in gauffered linen robes with blue fringes and sashes depicting the red and gold colours of Isis around their waists. Lady Thena was rather small, and was already comparing her height to Shufoy, while tactfully waiting for her husband to stop serving, whisper the prayer and commence the meal.
âI'm sorry you had to wait.' Impuki broke a piece of bread, crumbling it with his fingers. He popped a morsel in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. âThe temple day is long and we have a great deal of business to complete. I know
what you are thinking: physician, look after yourself, we are dining far too late. However, we always do so in the cool of the evening, followed by a walk in the temple gardens or a swim in the pool.'