Real Gods of Egypt

The Pharaonic period of Egypt lasted for about 3000 years. During that time, much can change. It is therefore impossible to propose a definitive form for Egyptian religion. To do so would make as much sense as to say that there was a definitive form of Christianity that applied to both the early Byzantine church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Egyptian religious belief and practice changed radically through time as one temple or another, one city or another, gained power. There were attempted revolutions such as that of Akhenaten. In the last few hundred years of the Pharaohs, however, the changes were much more radical.

In 525 BCE the Persians conquered Egypt. I’m not a great expert on their rule, but they were adept at absorbing many different cultures into their empire. My guess is that they will have left Egyptian religion mostly alone, though it will not have escaped unscathed. However, in 332 BCE Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. One of his generals, Ptolemy, was put in charge of Egypt and became Pharaoh in 305 BCE. His descendants ruled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE which resulted in the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Empire.

Rule by a Greek dynasty caused major changes in Egyptian religious life. The Ptolemies were keen to show their commitment to local culture, but at the same time they wanted to bring in a lot of Greek ideas. Let’s start with the chap pictured above. You might think that he doesn’t look much like an Egyptian god, and you’d be dead right, but he is one. His name is Serapis. It is not clear whether he existed before the Ptolemaic period, but it is clear that his worship was either invented, or massively promoted, by the Ptolemies. He continued to be popular through the Roman era.

That’s a very imperialist approach to merging cultures, but there is another option. Syncretism is the process of finding links between two different religions and building on that basis. You could take the view that two cultures worship the same god, but each has their own prophet whom they deem the sole arbiter of that god’s word, in which case they must fight for all eternity to see whose prophet is right. But you could say, look, your god Khonsu is a bit like our god Herakles. Both of them are mighty young warriors who defend their people. Perhaps they are the same god seen through a different cultural lens. Let’s build a friendship based on that. This sort of thing happened a lot, both in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.

I came home from London yesterday with a new goddess for my home. This one.

Isis-HorusThis is Isis and her son, Horus. Images of Isis nursing Horus were common in ancient Egypt (though Horus does seen a little big for breastfeeding — perhaps he grew very quickly).

The image of the nursing Isis is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, it is very similar to the image of Mary and Jesus that is so well known in Christianity. Secondly, those of you who know a bit about Egypt will have spotted that Isis is wearing the horned crown of Hathor. By the time this statue was made the cult of Isis has absorbed that of the older mother goddess, Hathor the Cow.

What attracted me about this statue, however, is that it has a significant difference from most Isis and Horus images. In fact it doesn’t appear to have been taken from either of the Isis & Horus statues found in Thonis/Heraclieon and Canopus. Rather it is based on this one, which is in the Knust Museum in Vienna.

The difference in the statue is the throne on which Isis is seated. It is flanked by lions, and that’s something more often seen elsewhere. Here, for example.

That’s Cybele, an Anatolian goddess with strong links to Ishtar who ended up in Rome as their Great Mother. Cybele was the patron goddess of trans women in Rome.

I know very little about gender in Egyptian society, but I am starting to turn up some very interesting stories about Isis. Some sources I have seen mention that the Phoenicians connected Isis to Astarte, their local version of Ishtar. Others mention a connection between Isis and Cybele in Rome.

There is no temple to Cybele in Pompeii. There is one in Herculaneum, and there is a lot of evidence of Cybele worship in Pompeii, including a number of paintings in people’s homes. What Pompeii does have, is a big temple to Isis. A while back I came across this master’s thesis suggesting a syncretic relationship between Isis and Cybele in the Roman Empire. Images Isis seated on Cybele’s lion throne would seem to confirm this.

Queer Spirit Festival

One of the things I learned about yesterday was the Queer Spirit Festival, “a festival of queer spirituality” which will take place in August. The festival site is not far from where I live, but it is a five-day event and you can only buy a five-day ticket at £130 so I doubt that I’ll be popping over to take a look. I did promise to give it a plug, though. Maybe some of you will find it of interest.

Today on Ujima: Pagan Festivals and Stuart Milk

We were a little light on guests for today’s show, it being that time of year, so I am especially grateful to Liz Williams and Trevor Jones for coming all the way from Glastonbury to be with me today. Most of you will know Liz as a science fiction writer, but you may not know that she and Trevor run the Cat & Cauldron witchcraft shop in Glastonbury. I had them on the show to talk about midwinter festivals. We covered a wide range, from the origins of Santa Claus to Roman Saturnalia and German Yule. My French colleague, Melody, was on hand to provide a European perspective.

You can listen to the first half of the show here.

At the start of the second hour I shamelessly used my place in charge of the microphone to send a Christmas message to Kevin. After that I played the interview with Stuart Milk that I recorded in London a couple of weeks ago. Thanks again to Dan Vo and his colleagues at Heavy Entertainment for the use of their studio.

If you want to see some of the things that will be happening in Bristol for LGBT History Month, check out the OutStories Bristol website. There will be lots more posts coming during January.

Melody and I were joined in the studio by Mary Milton who, amongst other things, is the Producer of ShoutOut, the LGBT radio show on BCFM (and now a host of other local community stations). In the final half hour we had a chat about the state of LGBT rights and what we we need to do to improve matters.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The playlist for the show was inevitably seasonal, though I did try to avoid most of the obvious choices. Having to play mostly black music helped a lot. I was especially pleased to be able to play Eartha Kitt. The full playlist was as follows:

  • Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt
  • Sun Goddess – Earth, Wind & Fire featuring Ramsey Lewis
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Jackson 5
  • Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry
  • All I Want for Christmas – Mariah Carey
  • So Strong – Labi Siffre
  • Winter Wonderland – Booker T and the MGs
  • Hot Stuff – Donna Summer

As Paulette is on holiday in Vietnam I’ll be hosting the show again next week. If anyone who lives in or around Bristol fancies being on, do get in touch. It is hard to find guests at this time of year.

Chyskhaan Is Coming To Town


Last night I re-tweeted a lovely picture of the chap above, billed as the Siberian Santa Claus. People seemed to like it. It came from Samantha Lee in New York, whom I don’t know. As is the way of such things, I was half expecting a “well, actually…” tweet this morning. It didn’t come, so I guess all of the mansplainers are down the pub complaining about how it should have been Christmas Adam, not Christmas Eve, and what’s all this about a festival given over to some female giving birth, ewwwwwww! However, as they will doubtless be back at some point, I have done some research.

My Googling first led me to Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, who is a character from Russian mythology. You may remember that he is a character in Cat Valente’s wonderful novel, Deathless. He’s a pretty fearsome chap, so to make sure the kids are not frightened he is assisted in his gift-giving by his beautiful granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden.


However, most pictures of Ded Moroz have him looking much more like Santa than the chap above. He does sometimes wear blue rather than red, but that may be the work of Stalin who allegedly wanted to make him look different from the Western equivalent.

So who is our Siberian friend? It turns out that he is Chyskhaan, the King of Cold. He is indeed from Siberia, and he shares a lot of characteristics with Ded Moroz, including the beautiful granddaughter. Some things however, are all his own. See those horns on his hat? Yep, mammoth tusks. That’s one bad-ass Santa.

For more information, and a whole lot more Russian gods of the cold (and more pictures like the three I have borrowed), see this wonderful article in The Siberian Times.

Siberian Santas

Happy Solstice

Uffington Hare - Dru Marland

Today, in the Northern Hemisphere, we will have the longest night of the year. Tomorrow will be the shortest day. After that, Gods willing, the sun will begin to return to our lands.

This year’s card is “Uffington Hare” by Dru Marland. Symbolically it is a bit of a mash-up, because hares are scared to Eoster whose festival is normally celebrated in the spring, but it is a lovely picture. You can buy greetings cards with this picture, and some of my aged relatives who still do the paper thing will be getting them next year.

My Solstice dinner has been postponed until tomorrow because some bright spark decided to hold the December BristolCon Fringe meeting on a religious holiday (War on Solstice! I demand an outraged article in the Daily Mail.) Still, it will be nice to spend the evening with friends and good fiction. Do come on down to the Shakespeare if you are in town. We have been promised mince pies.

Gender and Spirituality Workshop

I spent Friday in Exeter at an event billed as a Variant Sex and Gender, Religion and Wellbeing Workshop. It was run primarily by academics who study intersex people, but there was plenty of trans involvement as well. The event was hosted by Exeter University’s Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. I do like the sound of “practical theology”. More on that later.

Obviously most of the people involved were Christians. There was one Buddhist and one Jew amongst the speakers. Some of the audience may have had other religious allegiances, but I don’t recall anyone other than me mentioning that.

The day opened with a presentation online from Dr. Stephen Kerry of Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia, who identifies as genderqueer. His paper was mainly about the difficulties of engaging the intersex community, though he talked a bit about Buddhism as well. More on that later. He also confessed to being a science fiction fan, so I guess he and I will be talking a lot in future.

Next up was the Reverend Dr. Christina (Tina) Beardsley who is a trans woman and head of the Multifaith Chaplaincy at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital NHS Trust. She talked mainly about how evangelicals have poisoned the Church of England’s attitude towards trans people, and her hopes for improvement.

After an excellent lunch, we were treated to a superb presentation on being a religious transgender Jew from Max Zachs (whom some of you may remember from My Transsexual Summer). Max was really good. More on that in a little while too.

Finally Maria Morris, the Clinical Team Leader from The Laurels, Exeter’s Gender Identity Clinic, gave the cis folks in the audience an update on the current state of treatment protocols. I knew all of that anyway, but it was so good to see it officially confirmed. The treatment of trans people by the NHS has come a very long way since I transitioned.

So what was the importance of this event? Obviously I have an historical interest in the involvement of trans people in religion, but the key is in that term “practical theology”. Whether you like it or not, large numbers of human beings have religious beliefs. Most of them belong to faiths that are currently strongly transphobic. While I was at the conference, my Twitter feed lit up with discussion of the latest pronouncements on trans folk by the Pope. There’s some push back from devout Catholics that he’s being misrepresented (he does, after all, only issue pronouncements in Latin), but it is still very worrying. Given this, I think it is absolutely essential for trans activists to engage with people of faith. There are those who support us, and from a practical point of view I think we are far more likely to convert some to our cause than we are to end religion.

Also, as Tina pointed out, trans people are often in need of a great deal of emotional support. If they are religious themselves, and can get help from supportive people with spiritual authority, that has to be a good thing. Sadly they are unlikely to get it from anyone else. One of the points that Max made in their presentation was that their left-wing friends had provided no support for Max’s attempts to become a rabbi, partly because many of them felt that all religion was the enemy, and partly because some were anti-Jewish on principle.

The reason I loved Max’s presentation so much is that they made such a good argument for using theology to make the case for trans people. They started off by emphasizing the importance of ritual and tradition in Judaism, and noting that the penalty for desecrating Shabbat is death. Nevertheless, Judaism exists in the real world, and rules adopted thousands of years ago may not work so well these days. Max noted that there are now many exceptions to the rules for Shabbat that allow Jews to do things like phone an ambulance if a family member has a heart attack. The point is that theological arguments can and have been made to change religious laws, and trans Jews have been busily working away to make their faith more welcoming to gender variant people.

This, by the way, is not new. Max provided examples from the Talmud giving advice to mothers of obviously intersex children. We’ve been discussing other things about the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament as well. Some of this may find its way into my history talks.

Stephen’s comments on Buddhism highlighted the importance of context and translation when discussing historical attitudes towards gender variant people. Some Buddhist texts contain prohibitions against “hermaphrodites”. As someone who studies intersex people, Stephen is naturally concerned about this. However, he’s aware that the word “hermaphrodites” may have been used to mean something quite different. My research suggests that, prior to the 19th Century, it could be used to mean trans people, and even gay people. In a Buddhist context, any prohibitions could be a response to the widespread use of eunuchs in China and Vietnam, or it could be in reaction to Hindu faith groups that were accepting of trans people.

Finally I want to talk a bit about the term “intersex”. As I noted earlier, several of the academics at the conference (including Stephen Kerry) study intersex people. There was some debate as to the acceptability of intersex as a term. I’m not intersex-identified myself, so it is very important to me to use terms acceptable to the intersex community when I’m talking abut them.

Given that I keep using “intersex”, you will have guessed that I think it is still the preferred term. That’s because activist organizations such as UKIA and OII use it. Nevertheless, Stephen and his colleagues are being told that the term is offensive. The alternative term is DSD. That normally stands for Disorders of Sexual Development, and I know that any mention of “disorder” tends to be greeted with fury by activists. Some people apparently claim that the first D stands for “differences”. That sounds a little weasely to me, but I am open to being corrected by intersex activists.

Having made a few inquiries, it appears that the people pushing for the use of DSD rather than intersex are medical professionals and support groups run by the parents of intersex children.

Superbowl Paganism Scandal!

I’m not a big fan of the Superbowl half time show. Ever since the embarrassment of The Who’s appearance I have cringed at the thought of it. Normally I use that time to get ready for bed. I’m not a big fan of Katy Perry’s music either, so I didn’t pay much attention this year. However, catching up with people’s tweets after the show I found something interesting. Tell me, sports fans, when you saw this:

Katy Perry as Priestess of Ishtar

did you immediately think of this?

Ishtar rides a lion

Because I did. Yep, that’s one great big piece of pagan symbolism there, right in the middle of the most watched show on American television. And not just any paganism either, feminist Iraqi paganism.

When I woke up this morning I half expected Faux News and the evangelicals to be bleating about Faith Malfunction and Lesbian Terrorist Lions, but as far as I can see there hasn’t been a peep. So congratulations, Priestess Katy. The First Church of Ishtar, Newly Revived, thoroughly approves of your actions. Go, go paganism!

Or, as we sports-loving pagans like to say,


Happy Solstice

Hare Solstice card - by Dru Marland

Here we go with another year’s Solstice card, which is avoiding wasting too many trees, not to mention time and money, on the greetings card business. Best wishes for today, and for any other seasonal festivals that you may have coming up.

This card is a picture called “The Uffington Hare” by local artist, Dru Marland. It is not, as yet, available as a card, but you can buy a print, and several other fine cards, from Dru’s Etsy shop. I am rather hoping that Dru will make a card of it, because I want to buy a few packs for sending to people who still do the paper card thing.

Hares are, of course, rather more symbolic of the spring equinox than of the winter solstice, but it is a lovely picture so you are getting it anyway.

The constellation of Lepus the Hare can be found between Rigel and Sirius, and therefore next to Canis Major and just below Orion.

The other major feature in the picture is the Uffington White Horse which is a genuine Bronze Age monument (as opposed to some chalk cuts which are much more modern). It is in Oxfordshire, but has a Swindon postcode so it isn’t far from here.

Eurocon – Day 1

The first day of Shamrokon has come and gone. Thus far I am still upright. This is progress.

There are copies of Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion in the dealers’ room if anyone wants them. They are on the Swan River table.

There are Jim Fitzpatrick prints in the Art Show. I want all of them. I suspect I cannot afford any of them.

I went to two panels yesterday. The first was on Mediaeval Women and had some expert panelists. I need to sit down with Gillian Polack and get some leads to follow up on. The other was on Celtic Gods and was more playing to the tourist market. There are basically only two ways such a panel can go: either you say, “we know nothing, Jon Snow”, which is basically true; or you run headlong into von Daniken territory, which is fun. Thankfully we managed to avoid any mention of the Irish Potato Goddess (Google it, it is a real thing).

Later in the evening I was on a panel about boycotts. No, not Sir Geoffrey, though I did come prepared with a list of his career statistics. The erstwhile subject was fannish boycotts of particular creators works, for example refusing to go to see the Ender’s Game movie because, so I learned last night, Orson Scott Card has promised to donate some of the proceeds to the fight against marriage equality.

Right at the start I tried to establish that there is a difference between some people not wanting to support certain creators, and the work of those creators being banned. Sadly there was one person in the audience who made comments about “witch hunts” and boycotts being “undemocratic”. I object strongly to being told that I have a moral duty to listen to all instances of people abusing me, otherwise I am guilty of “censorship”. (And, yes, I see this pretty much every day on Twitter from white feminists who think that trans people have a moral duty to submit humbly to any abuse aimed at them.)

Having said that, the whole issue is immensely complicated. What I tried to get across on the panel is that what is offensive to one person may not be offensive to another, and there are no hard and fast rules that can be drawn as to when it is, or is not, legitimate to take offense. Just because you are not offended by X, it doesn’t mean that no one has has a right to be offended by it. Equally, if you are offended by X, you can’t expect everyone else to share your objections. All you can ask is that they acknowledge and respect your views.

One thing I mentioned in the panel is this post on How to be a Fan of Problematic Things. I recommend it here as well.

Today on Ujima – Vicars, Media, Arms Trade & Mayfest

Very briefly as I’m on the road in Oxford and have a work conference to attend tomorrow.

First half hour: Caroline Symcox talking about God, being a trainee vicar, her book and being married to Paul Cornell.

Second half hour: The Bristol Cable on their plans for independent local media.

Listen to those here.

Third half hour: Students from UWE protesting against having arms fairs held on their campus.

Fourth half hour: Sarah Thorp from Room 212 talking about the Gloucester Road community’s Mayfest celebrations, including Jack-in-the-Green and various other pagan survivals.

Listen to those here.

Happy Solstice, Everyone!

Fox in the Snow - Dru Marland
I have pretty much given up on sending cards, except to aged relatives for whom such things still matter. I don’t send them through email either. I prefer opt-in card receipt to opt-out. But if you would like a card from me, the image above is the paper thing I have been sending out this year. It is by Bristol-based artist, Dru Marland. She has a number of other designs, some more religious than others, at her Etsy shop.

Manda Scott has done a paganism blog post so that I don’t have to. That post is also part of a “blog-hop” containing lots of historical stuff, some of it more academic than others (don’t look, Kari!).

For the first time since 2007 the skies were clear over Newgrange and visitors were able to see the sun light up the tomb as it was designed to do. The Irish Independent was there to see it. I wonder how much of what we have made will still be working in 5,000 years time.

Newgrange - Picture By David Conachy

Picture By David Conachy, published here

Historical Gardening

Last night Channel 4 screened an archaeology documentary claiming to have found the true location of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Although Greek sources say that the Gardens were in Babylon, and were built by Nebuchadnezzar, no trace of them has ever been found, either on the ground or in documents left by the very efficient Babylonian state bureaucracy.

The program suggests that the gardens were in fact elsewhere in the area covered by the historical Babylonian empire. Specifically they were at Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, and they were built by Sennacherib, one of the greatest Assyrian kings. Evidence is provided in the form of an actual canal network built to supply water to the city, and a carving in the British Museum that appears to show an ornate garden. There is also a cuneiform inscription stating that Sennacherib built a large and ornate garden adjoining his palace.

As a Mesopotamian history geek, this is very exciting to me. But just as exciting is that once again we’ve got a highly publicized broadcast TV program fronted by a lady academic who appears well past the age at which women are usually chuckled off TV for not being pretty enough. So congratulations Stephanie Dalley on a great piece of historical detective work, and on overcoming British TV’s notorious age and gender biases.

Of course this is all to the greater glory of Ishtar, and one in the eye for the perfidious Babylonians. Huzzah!

UK readers should be able to watch the program here. Those of you in the rest of the world will probably find the video blocked, but there is a long article about the discovery in The Independent which contains a lot more scholarship than the TV producer felt comfortable with including. There is also a book, which I am definitely buying.

Brighton Restaurants – The Marlborough

Well, more of a pub than a restaurant, and as much of a queer club and theater as a pub. When we have an Outer Alliance meet-up with the local community (which I am sure we will), it will be in the Marlborough, because that is where such things happen in Brighton.

Of course it is a pub, so you’ll be wanting to know about the beer. They have the usual stuff, but also stock beers from a couple of local breweries: WJ King and Dark Star. Katherine McMahon and I did a tasting of the more girly offerings from these folks. Our verdict is that the Sunburst is deliciously smooth and summery, but the Brighton Blonde has much more of the traditional bitterness that people often want from their beer.

As I mentioned above, the Marlborough is a club. They put on lots of events. In particular, on Thursday October 31st, they will be staging a Halloween event. There will be costumes, there will be DJs, and there will be the Voodoo Love Orchestra. Really, what more does World Fantasy need? So do bring your costumes, and let’s horrify the fuddy-duddies on the World Fantasy Board.

Voodoo Love Orchestra – Thriller from Jack Chute on Vimeo.

Bristol Tomorrow: Steampunk, May Day & Bank Notes

I’ll be in Bristol tomorrow for the kick off meeting for Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion, the new Wizard’s Tower steampunk anthology. From 6:30pm we’ll be at the Shakespeare Tavern in Prince Street where Eugene Byrne will be entertaining us with tales of the more eccentric and story-worthy inhabitants of Victorian Bristol. Jo Hall and Roz Clarke will be on hand to discuss your story ideas. There’s a Facebook event page for those of you who do such things. I hope to see a good crowd there.

As I’m in town anyway I’ll also be doing Women’s Outlook on Ujima between Noon and 14:00. I don’t have any studio guests myself as this isn’t a planned appearance, but Paulette will have some interesting people coming in. One of the things on the agenda is May Day, and as Liz Williams will be in London for the Clarke Award ceremony I’ll be the emergency holographic neo-pagan.

Also on my list of topics for tomorrow’s show will be this petition which aims to ensure that there are always some women amongst the famous Britons from history featured on our banknotes. I think they have to be dead to qualify, but that still leaves plenty of wonderful women to choose from. Off the top of my head, we could have Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, Aphra Behn or Dorothy L. Sayers from literature; Ada Lovelace or Rosalind Franklin from science; Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst from politics. Feel free to add suggestions in comments; and sign the petition, of course.

The Card Thing

I find that I am sending fewer and fewer Winterval cards. I mean, what’s the point when I’m going to see many of you on Twitter or Facebook on the day? Most of the cards I send are to elderly relatives who don’t do computers, let alone social media. Of course one of the benefits of sending so few is that I can afford to send nice ones. I have just ordered some for next year (because if I don’t order them now I will forget). The art is by my friend Dru Marland, and the cards are available in her Etsy store. Given that I’ve just bought some, I trust that she won’t mind me sending the card virtually to the rest of you.

Glastonbury Fox

Happy slightly belated Solstice, and best wishes for the New Year, everyone.

Dru has several other card designs, many of them useful for those of you of a pagan disposition.

Ye Olde War On Christmas

How are the Winterval preparations going folks? The Solstice is only a few days away now, and we all have to be ready to victimize Daily Malice readers and Faux News watchers, right? Just in case you are short on ideas, here’s an article that digs into the history of the War on Christmas. Guess who were some of the worst offenders? Yes, you’ve got it, those killjoy Puritans.

The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas. From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony would be fined five shillings.

Not that I’m in favor of banning Christmas myself, but a similar fine, suitably adjusted for inflation, for any store found guilty of playing endless Christmas music could go a long way to solving government budget problems, and do so with impeccable fundamentalist credentials.

Happy Solstice!

The Winter Solstice happens at around 5:30 UTC tomorrow. That will still be today for those of you on the US West Coast, and I’ll be asleep when it happens, so I should get the festive post up now.

For the holiday I’m planning to head into Bath in search of cheese and other fine foodstuffs. After that it is back home and cook. There may also be a bottle of Saint-Emilion sat waiting for me. Bloggage will be limited.

Solstice in the Arctic

A couple of days late, but I have been pointed at this lovely time-lapse photo of the sun’s track across the sky during the Winter Solstice in Fairbanks, Alaska. The photo came from ScienceBlogs, and there are several other beautiful time-lapse pictures in the post. Thanks to my pal Otto for alerting me to it.

Solstice in the Arctic

You can see why people might have been worried about the sun not coming back.