In Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods, we are introduced to the idea that when Gods are forgotten, they settle into a kind of hibernation, waiting to be remembered again, if in fact, they are ever to be remembered at all. My own personal feeling about this is that there have been more civilizations on this earth than we ourselves as humans can remember, civilizations lying under water or desert sand, or rain forest too dense to uncover easily. Imagine the thought forms, group minds, and deities lying submerged in our collective consciousness that may never again be spoken of or thought of by humans. Imagine those same things from civilizations of which we are aware, but perhaps have not fully uncovered, whose languages our scholars have been unable to translate. Ancient Nubia is one such ancient civilization.
For many people, Nubia has always lain in the shadow of Egypt’s empire, and for portions of Egyptian and Nubian history, this was somewhat true. The area of the Nile around which Nubia formed was marked by cataracts – dangerous, unnavigable rapids. This made trade and moving around difficult at best in ancient times. And yet, long after Egypt’s empire collapsed under Roman rule, Nubia remained an empire, developing its own hieroglyphs, its own style of art, and its own Gods.
The period of Nubian history known as the Meroitic period (850 BCE – 350 CE) – named after the Nubian capital of Meroë (pronounced Mare – oh – way) is in some ways a golden age of Nubian history. Although they had lost Egypt to the Assyrians, they still considered themselves rulers of both lands, and continued to hold power in Meroe for over one thousand years. Meroe is located around the sixth cataract of the Nile.
The Nubians had by this time had adopted many of the customs and beliefs of the Egyptians, and although for a long while, Amun held sway at their primary god, by the time of the Meroitic period, it was a Nubian deity who became the principal and foremost god of the Nubian pantheon. This was Apedemak, the Lion God. Temples to the Lion God were located at Musawwarat al-Sufra and Naqa. There was also a temple at Meroë itself, and perhaps even at Basa.
By the time of the Meroitic period, the Nubians had developed their own hieroglyphs, for which the alphabet has been translated, but since there are no bilingual texts (as in a Rosetta Stone), the Nubian texts have not been well translated, so our knowledge of the Nubians and their pantheon is limited. However, we do know how they viewed their deities by how they were depicted in the art on temple walls and so forth.
At Naqa, the walls are decorated with images of the Lion God with other Egyptian deities, at one point even forming a triad with Isis as his consort and Horus as their son. At the Lion Temple itself there is an interesting image of Apedemak with Queen Amanitore, her husband Natakamani, and their son, making offerings to Apedemak. Ankhs spring from Apedemak’s nostrils to all of the royal family’s nostrils – he is breathing eternal life into them, much as Egyptian deities would do for Egyptian royalty.
Sometimes Apedemak appears as a winged lion headed man, sometimes without wings, and sometimes as a lion headed serpent. He is often shown wearing the hemhem crown. This crown, whose name means ‘war cry’, consists of three atef crowns or ‘bundles’ mounted on ram’s horns with a uraeus (cobra) on either side, and sometimes additionally with three falcons atop the bundles, each surmounted by a solar disk. This is unique to Nubia, as in Egypt this crown was worn by royalty, but generally not by deities.
It seems that Apedemak was not alone amongst lion headed deities. Maahes is another lion headed deity, although from Egypt. In the past, both Maahes and Apedemak have been confused with one another. His name is “He who is true beside her,” and he was the son of the god Ptah and the goddess Sekhmet, a lioness-headed deity.
Principally a warrior God, Apedemak can also appear bearing a sheaf of wheat, or in conjunction with solar symbols as indications of the breadth of his providence. Apedemak also appears sometimes riding a lion, and in association with a winged lion who may represent Apedemak himself or a divine agent of his.
In an earlier period, Apedemak’s wife may have been a goddess named Amesami. She was represented with a crown shaped as a falcon, or with a crescent moon on her head on top of which a falcon was standing. Not much seems to be known about her, but she does seem to have only been worshipped in Nubia and was an exclusively Nubian deity. The moon and crescent bow are both protective symbols, she may have been a protectress Goddess.
This year at the Between the Worlds/Sacred Space Conference, I was invited, with a small group of other artists, to come and make art during the Conjure Dance. The Conjure Dance is an event inspired by the dances led by Marie Laveau on Sundays in Congo Square in New Orleans before the Civil War. During the Conjure Dance, all tutelary deities and compassionate spirit allies are invited to visit and often spirit possession occurs amongst the dancers.
I was definitely not possessed by anything except inspiration while at the Conjure Dance. I had had an earlier conversation with Caroline Kenner, who organizes the Conjure Dance about which deities she wanted to have present, and she mentioned that they had no Nubian Gods. I set out to create a painting of Apedemak and his consort Amesami, in hopes they would be remembered and so be willing to return. I become incredibly focused listening to to drumming, and very quickly created a painting, although not in my usual style.
I have been attracted to lions since childhood, although I am a Cancer, and most definitely not a Leo. My father was stationed in Vicenza, Italy as part of a Red Cross/US Army Corps of Engineers relief effort in 1963 when a mountain side collapsed, burying an entire town. As a result, my family lived in Italy for three years and I was born there. One of the many medals and awards he received was a brass winged lion on a marble base bearing his name and the name of the project. It “lived” in our house through out my childhood, and eventually my father gave it to me as a token of the place of my birth.
The winged lion is also the symbol of St. Mark, and a symbol of the cities of Verona and Venice. We lived in Verona, and although I have not remained a Catholic, that symbol still resonated for me, and I have to believe the winged lion has much earlier attributions than Saint Mark.
As someone who love African and Egyptian and Nubian art and religion, I have welcomed Apedemak into the circle of deities I work with. He is a strong, protective ally – one that in earlier years I would not have worked with because of his war like nature. As I have matured, I have learned that sometimes we have to “go to war,” at least in a figurative sense in our lives, to protect the things and people that we love.
It is interesting to me that the gentle, watery woman I am also loves this fiery war god of the desert. Having said that, however, I am grateful for the lessons I am constantly learning from Apedemak, and also learning that nothing ever truly vanishes. There are always echoes of the past waiting to be re-discovered, and it is often up to us to decide what is to be remembered. I am privileged to have been able to share this information with you all!