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“Reversion” of Devotional Art Offerings

Sep 30, 2022
by Atefwepwawet

Recently, a discussion arose amongst some members of the Numen Arts collective about the intended audience for our spiritual-focused artwork. One person, a fantastic kemetic artist named Poeta Immortalis, mentioned that their art is intended foremost for the gods, and “the human audience is a side effect which may also be pleasant sometimes.” That struck a chord with me — I figured that my spiritual art had the same underpinning, that same deep sense of purpose. But after sitting with this for a while, it didn’t actually feel authentic to my personal practice, to use an overused term. I realized somewhat begrudgingly that although all my devotional art is made as a gift to the gods with Them in mind, in reality the intended audience is other human beings; their enjoyment is of great concern, and not a side effect.

Thus far, I’ve posted the vast majority of my devotional artwork online, and have even sold some of the originals (in the rare case I create traditional rather than digital art) for fundraisers when I was a member of KO. Honestly, there isn’t a single piece of art I’ve made, devotional or otherwise, in which the interest or taste of my potential viewer(s) didn’t impact what I created, from theme to composition to color scheme. My art is always involved in indirect parasocial dialogue with my (amorphous, small) hypothetical audience. A few examples:

  • I painted Anubis’s daughter Kebechet because She is relatively unknown to many of my viewers, so drawing Her was a magical act that reinforced Her permanence by exposing more people to Her image.
  • The composition of my Renenutet piece was inspired heavily by modern tattoo art, which I know tends to be rather popular.
  • Ra and Mafdet are depicted as cats in my art instead of other forms (like the falcon and mongoose, respectively) in part because I know many of my viewers connect to Their feline forms more closely (i.e. the internet loves cats).
  • A friend of mine once pointed out that a large portion of my devotional art involved lionesses, despite not being in a devotional relationship with any lioness goddess. She meant it as a sign that perhaps these goddesses were subtly inspiring me, but now I wonder if it’s actually my audience who was inspiring me, as these images tend to resonate with folks.

Stating it all so bluntly, I feel like something of a fraud. Whenever I put pen to (virtual) paper, while the first question is always “what can I make for the gods today?”, the immediate follow-up is then: “and what would be appealing to my audience?” (At least I do say “appealing” rather than “most appealing.” If I were only after likes/reblogs and sales without regard for what might please the gods, I couldn’t in good faith call myself a devotional artist anymore.) It’s messy, since one of my primary goals in creating devotional art is subtly drawing more attention to these entities, and the more people enjoy my work, the more people get exposed to Them.

This entire thought spiral has led me to decide to make some art exclusively for the gods for a change of pace in the future. It doesn’t check the box of “get Their images out in the public sphere,” but it’s magically powerful in itself. In Ancient Egypt, much art was created without human viewers in mind, as “a majority of Egyptian [funerary] pictorial representation was destined never to be seen,” with the exception of “the tomb owner and to the artists he employed.” [1]

A little drawing for Khepri — my least popular piece to date, but as long as 
He liked it, I’m happy! 

Reversion Offerings and Votives

On the other hand: if I stretch my imagination a bit, this concept of giving something to the gods and then releasing it to the public isn’t terribly different from the concept of reversion of offerings in Ancient Egyptian spiritual thought. (This is a bit of a reach, so stay with me here.)

When offerings were given to deities and some deified humans, after the ritual they were typically reverted (or consumed) by the temple staff. From the earliest periods of the Old Kingdom all the way to the later Ptolemaic era, “priests were paid in kind from the offerings that were presented to the god or to royal or private statues in temples or tombs. These goods [are] referred to as “reversion offerings” (wedjeb hetep) because the food reverted to the temple staff.” [2] And it wasn’t only temple staff who received these reverted offerings — family members of deified individuals with temple statues sometimes shared in these offerings as well. [3] In addition to being the primary source of sustenance for temple staff, [2] these reverted offerings (bread, beer, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat products, etc.) held spiritual significance, representing “a manifestation of the Ka of the god, and partaking of it is somehow partaking of divine status.” [4] Foodstuffs weren’t the only reverted offerings; oil, cloth, and incense were also reverted. [1]

What I didn’t find any evidence of in terms of reversions was votive offerings. Votive offerings were typically small clay, glass, or even bronze figurines of animals, people, or body parts which “were generally offered to the gods in thanks for divine intercession or in the hope that they would spur the god to act on behalf of the petitioner.” [2] These little works of art were frequently deposited in temples, tombs, and shrines. Many major temples had on-site workshops where artisans created votives from molds for pilgrims to purchase, either as an offering or a souvenir. One of my favorite examples of this is the cultic site at Sais. This area specialized in tiny clay doorways, which “may have offered a gateway to the afterlife, connecting individuals to their next life and linking with the great shrines of Sais and Abydos, creating a wormhole in time and space. Waiting just inside was Osiris himself, ensuring a successful arrival and warm welcome to the underworld.” [5]

But all these votives started to pile up over time, and eventually the temple staff had no choice but to bury them. “As sacred objects they could not legitimately be recycled, and so were buried within the sacred precincts, sometimes within the catacombs themselves,” [6] which was often the case with the millions of animal mummies at certain cultic sites. While the aforementioned incense and cloth were also sacred due to their nature of being offered first to the gods, these were different from votives in that they were consumable — once the incense is burned, it’s gone. In comparison, the clay/glass/metallic votives were solidly permanent, and oftentimes immensely personal, with specific healing requests and/or individuals’ names baked on. Thus, they couldn’t be reverted.

Jumping forward in time a few thousand years: how does digital art fit into the “consumable” vs. “non-consumable” dichotomy?

Rare example of a pen-and-ink piece of devotional art. 
I sold this at a fundraiser years ago, so now I don’t need 
to worry about how to “dispose” of the offering eventually… 

If I can’t bury it, reuse it, destroy it, or eat it, then what?

Digital art as an offering is complicated. Unlike traditional art, there isn’t really an “original,” unless you count the .RIF or .TIF file that lives on my desktop. As soon as I complete a devotional piece of digital art, I offer it to the receiving deity in my shrine via holding up my laptop/phone with the freshly-created image, along with incense and other tangible offerings and hymns. This is in accordance with historical precedent, as votive offerings “may have had spells said over them to identify them with the things or beings they represented,” with temple priests going as far as performing a mini version of the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual on god-shaped statuettes. [7] But then, once it’s posted online, it has transformed from single image into a theoretically endless quantity.

So once the image has been offered, what now? Deleting the original file could be considered destruction of the sacred object, which was historically considered sacrilegious. In antiquity, excess votives could also be “carefully deposited in the foundations of rebuilt shrines, perhaps as a means of sanctifying the new construction” [7] but again, not especially applicable for digital art. (I’d rather not bury my laptop.)

If I can’t bury it, reuse it, destroy it, or eat it… why not revert it?

Once the deity has received it in Their shrine, posting it online essentially releases it to the public sphere. As with food offerings, I hope the vital essence of the offering has been received by the deity, with nothing but empty pixels remaining.

Another way of looking at this would be to consider a printed-out copy of the digital art to be an “original” piece given that it has been made physical. One of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received was when a kemetic practitioner let me know that they put a piece of my art in their home shrine. This, to me, feels similar to the service temple artisans performed when they sold their mold-made (essentially the ancient equivalent of mass-production!) votives and statuettes to devotees visiting temples. Once every few weeks I receive a request to produce a piece for a particular deity, which I imagine was quite a regular occurrence in antiquity as well. That’s an even more interesting situation for me, as it’s an offering on behalf of someone else, made by me, but I again own the “original.”

But for now, the idea of reverting these offerings back into the public sphere feels the most fitting in my practice. Art is a constantly-evolving thing though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if my opinions on this change over the years. That has been one of the most fun parts of being a member of Numen Arts — my ideas and perceptions are constantly being challenged in the most positive ways.

A Few Final Thoughts

I should’ve said this in the beginning: I’m not taking myself too seriously here. Art is not my vocation, and I don’t create enlivened images or cultic icons for the gods. This is some fun exploration into how Old Kingdom ideas could translate to 21st-century art media, which is one of the exciting parts of being a modern-day pagan polytheist. As always, fun must be part of my personal practice in order for it to remain sustainable. (After all, one epithet of my patron deity Wepwawet is the “Lord of Joy,” [8] so I must remember to play now and then!)

Second, when I refer to my “audience,” it is very small. The only social media to house my art is Tumblr, since every other social media site spikes my anxiety to unbearable levels. (I lasted less than 2 weeks on Twitter.) To give you an idea of the numbers, my least-popular kemetic devotional art is of Khepri with <200 likes+reblogs, and the most is Bast with ~3k, which is still just a drop in the bucket compared to the engagement of more “popular” art.  I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve got a huge audience!

Finally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you view your artistic offerings, whether that’s traditional/digital art, poetry, etc. And as always, if any of my scholarship is lacking, please let me know! I’m certainly not a trained Egyptologist, so my knowledge is limited. I’m always eager to learn more, so if you’re familiar with other aspects of votive offerings and/or reversion of offerings, send that info my way.

References

[1] O’Neill, B. (2015). Setting the Scene: The deceased and regenerative cult within offering table imagery of the Egyptian Old to Middle Kingdoms (c.2686 – c.1650 BC). Oxford, UK: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd. Retrieved here.

[2] Teeter, E. (2011). Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Harrington, N. (2013). Living with the Dead: Ancestor Worship and Mortuary Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books. Retrieved here.

[4] Haikal, F. (2013). The impact of religious initiation and restricted knowledge on daily life in ancient Egypt: an ethno-Egyptological perspective in The Sensory World: Art, Religion, Experience. Oxford, UK: Griffith Institute. Retrieved here.

[5] Wilson, P. (2019). Gateway to the underworld: the cult areas at Sais. British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 25. Retrieved here.

[6] Nicholson, P.T. (2005). The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara. The Cults and Their Catacombs in S. Ikram (ed.), Divine Creatures. Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. Cairo.

[7] Pinch, G. & Waraksa, E. A. (2009). Votive practices, in J. Dieleman, & W. Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Press. Retrieved here.

[8] Bolton, C. (2017). Lord of Strength and Power: Ancient Hymns for Wepwawet. Lulu Press, Inc. Kindle Edition.


Atefwepwawet is a Kemetic polytheist and ADF member. They primarily work with digital media to create devotional images of the Gods for their community.

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