Chernips, Greco-Egyptian style
Cleanse yourself with a purifying bath.
Then dress yourself in proper clean attire, placing the garland-crown upon your head.
Prepare yourself mentally and spiritually.
Take up the vessel of holy water.
Walk the circuit of your ritual space, sprinkling everything you encounter with the holy water to purify it.
Recite the following as you make your circuit:
You are washed clean by the life-giving waters of the Nile! You are pure! No man has set foot on you, for you are the primordial mound rising from the broad depths of the Ocean at the First Time. You are pure!
Egyptian temple complexes had pools built in so that the priests could bathe before they entered the sanctuary. (Serge Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt pg 36) Herodotos remarked that the Egyptian priests bathed three or four times a day (2.37), and the lowest rank of Egyptian priests was called wabu, “the pure/clean ones.” Cleanliness – both internally and externally – was of paramount importance. For an explanation of why this exterior purity is so important, please consult my article on ritual etiquette.
There is, however, another reason why it is important to bathe before performing ritual: the act of doing so puts us in the proper mindset and helps spiritually regenerate us. For the Greeks and Egyptians, water was the holiest of all of the elements. Every river, spring, lake, stream and well had its presiding spirit, deity or nymph. Both Greeks and Egyptians agreed that water was the primordial element out of which all life emerged. (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 364 D) In Greece Okeanos and Tethys were the divine progenitors of the gods themselves (Iliad 14.200-244), while in Egypt we find in the Pyramid Texts the belief that originally only the watery abyss of Nun existed, before Atum caused the first mound of earth to emerge, upon which the gods could stand and life could flourish. The annual flood of the Nile made life possible in the rain-scarce lands that bordered the Egyptian desert. Without it, there would only be death and desolate destruction. As the river overflowed its banks, it deposited the rich black alluvial soil that the farmers needed to tend their crops so that they could feed their children and life could prosper. Neilos was a potent, generative force: barren women would drink from it to conceive; the sick would wash away their illness in it; during the Imperial period the water from the river was collected and sent to Isiac temples as far away as Rome, Spain, Germany, and England to be used for purification and renewal; and any who drowned in its depths was granted instant immortality and given cultus as deified heroes.
Meditate on this as you bathe before your ritual. All rivers are connected; not only do they flow into each other many times, but there is only a finite number of water molecules in existence, which are constantly being recycled through evaporation and rainfall. No matter where you are, at least some of the water molecules that you are bathing in belonged at one point to the most holy Neilos! So as you submerge yourself in the watery depths, think about yourself bathing in the Nile, or going back to the primordial waters of creation, Okeanos and Nun. Feel yourself washed clean, all the grime and pollution that you encounter on a daily basis dissolving away from you, your frustrations and fears drowning in the depths so that you are focused, holy, and clean. Feel the healing, generative powers of the water flow into you, suffusing your spirit. Feel yourself come into contact with that primordial divine potency that grants life, abundance, beauty, and purity. And when you emerge from the waters, emerge as if you were just coming into being, as things did in the First Time, when the world was still new. You are a pure creature, reborn and refreshed. All of your faults, your doubts, the hardships you’ve had to bear are washed away; all that remains is your love and devotion to the gods. You are now fit to stand before them, pure in the presence of the pure ones.
If you don’t have the chance to take a full bath before the ritual – say, if you’re doing this in a public place or with a group of people – then use some of the holy water to purify yourself.
Especially wash your hands and face, and place some over your eyes, in your ears and mouth. Feel the water enter into you and cleanse your body.
Some people dress up in replicas of ancient garments or have special ritual attire which they reserve solely for their worship. This is a fine thing, especially if it helps put the individual in the proper state of mind. (The act of dressing up in strange clothing can send signals to the brain letting it know that one is not in a normal setting, and therefore to act accordingly, to delineate between the mundane and sacred sides of one’s persona; these vestments, further, through their exclusive contact with the holy can become imbued with its properties, and can thus become powerful talismans of a sort.)
However, I would like to point out that this is not in any way necessary. There is nothing inherently sacred about ancient costumes: the Greco-Romans wore chitons and togas during their rituals because that’s what they wore the rest of the time. If a modern-day person were to put on clean, nice clothing – perhaps a little dressier than jeans and a t-shirt but nothing as extravagant as a tuxedo – then they would be doing exactly as the ancients had done. So what you choose to wear is entirely up to you.
However, there are some considerations. First off, it’s best to wear linen during ritual. Wool and leather were forbidden inside the Egyptian temples (as well as several Greek ones) because these came from unclean animals. (Herodotos 2.81) We also find numerous injunctions to wear white clothing, as white symbolized purity (Saunerson pgs 40-42) – although less frequently we find other colors suggested, such as black for Isis (Orphic Hymn 42), saffron for Dionysos (Seneca, Oedipus 401) or Hekate (Orphic Hymn 1), and so forth. The magical papyri numerous times forbid anything red to be used (PGM LXII. 1-24), since this color was associated with Seth-Typhon and thus was proper only to him.
If you associate specific colors with a deity, you can wear these as a way to feel closer to them – but otherwise you should go with white or black, and try to avoid clothing with brand names or slogans on them, as that can be distracting. It’s best if you have a set of clothing reserved solely for temple use – a robe or modern Arabic thoub, perhaps, or loose-fitting shirt and trousers, like those worn by Yoga practitioners. Another consideration is foot-wear. Generally speaking, the sneakers you wear to work and play aren’t appropriate inside a holy space. Egyptian priests wore special palm-sandals or went barefoot (Instruction for Merikare 17), and you should too. If you are doing the ritual outside, however, exceptions can certainly be made.
The stephanos or garland-crown was an important feature in ancient Greek worship, and was also worn by Egyptian priests. They considered it essential for prayer, and donned them every time they entered a temple, took part in a festal banquet, or did something important such as speak in front of the council or claim their victory at the games. The crown signified joyousness and festivity: it drew a tangible divide between normal reality (when one didn’t wear them) and being in the presence of the sacred (when one did). Placing the crown on one’s head imbued the wearer with the properties of the crown. They received generally the abundance and life of the fresh green leaves of the plant, and different qualities depending on what the crown was made of: purity for Apollon’s laurel, civilizing intelligence for Athene’s olive, heated ecstasy for Dionysos’ vine, cool for his ivy; beauty and love for the rose and violet of Aphrodite; chthonic fertility for the myrtle, and so forth. (See Athenaios’ Deipnosophistai for a lengthy treatment of the symbolism of festal crowns.)
If you do not have the time or inclination to string flowers and leaves together into a temporary crown, you can make a permanent artificial one using strands of plastic vegetation found at most craft stores. These can be quite lovely and serve as decoration for your shrine when you’re not wearing them.
At this time take a couple moments to get yourself ready internally. Clear your mind of all external concerns. Several temples had injunctions to maintain reverent silence once one entered the temenos and that all profane things were forbidden beyond that point (IEdfou 3.361.1). This held not just for unclean persons or taboo items – but also for errant thoughts, at least according to an inscription at Asklepios’ temple at Epidauros.
Just as you have prepared yourself externally to enter the presence of the divine, you must do so internally as well, making your soul a worthy receptacle for the divine. You shouldn’t be worrying about what your asshole co-workers said earlier in the day, how you need to balance your checkbook, what stupid celebrities are dating this month, or even concerns you might have about how successful the ritual will be. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths, calming yourself and filling your heart with love for the gods.
Call up their image inside your mind: think about their epithets and attributes and all of the symbols and ideas associated with them. Feel yourself relaxing, slipping into a reverent mood. Let desire for the sacred take hold of you until you are trembling to be in their presence.
This holy water should be prepared beforehand, either before you take your bath or before things are set up if you’re doing the ritual with others. There are a number of different methods for making it.
Gather the water from a river, lake, or spring or set out a vessel to collect pure rain water. Because this water comes directly from the divinities, it is considered holy by nature and requires no further preparation. You should, however thank the nymphai or spirits of the water for their gift, and leave something in return for taking it.
Fill a bowl with water, either bottled spring water or from the tap. Drop a couple granules of natron (salt and sodium bicarbonate or baking soda) into the water and let them dissolve. As you stir the mixture together, envision the natron mingling with the water and purifying it as if with a golden light like that of the pure rays of the Sun, transforming it into a salty substance like the tears that Isis wept over her beloved Osiris, which removed the grime and blood and made his body fit for burial. If you choose, recite words to that effect over the water, or simply visualize the whole process.
Fill a bowl with water, either bottled spring water or from the tap. Take a branch (can be of laurel or pine or some other sacred tree) light it – with or without saying a blessing – and then dip the flaming branch into the water, extinguishing it. The purity arises from the meeting of all the elements.
You can either use a branch or whisk for this, or simply use your own fingers. Dip it into the holy water and then sprinkle whatever you come across. Use this method to purify any participants in the ritual, as well as all of the ritual tools, the offerings, the altar, the image of the god, etc. The idea is to have the water touch everything – not necessarily to douse it, so be conservative in your sprinkling!
Only do this, however, if you have already undergone preliminary purification yourself. You don’t want to put your dirty (from a religious perspective) finger in water you intend to cleanse the sacred space with after all.
Repeat this phrase as many times as necessary until you complete the circuit. As you speak the words think about the imagery associated with them: feel the sacred space becoming clean and renewed, full of the creative potential of life.