Temple Hymn ~ A Sumerian Memory
Even when she walks through the marketplace at noon her hips have the same sway they have on a full moon night in the temple that is her home. She rarely leaves there. But from time to time she likes to venture down into the city that was the place of her birth, Ur, her home before she was taken into the temple as a girl. She feels little connection to the townspeople now and there are few familiar faces. Some of the men seem to know her and she remembers something about them. Not the way they look, but the way they move.
She is beautiful. Her skin is brown. Her hair is black. Soft. Shiny. She can hear it move against the fabric of the hooded cloak she wears to protect herself from the sun and to keep herself somewhat inconspicuous. There is a cadence to her walk, a rhythm nearly in time with the beat of her heart. She is aware of all of this. None of it is lost on her. She is from the temple, and she is a walking temple. Her senses trained on the slightest stimulus–from inside or out.
It is also rare for her to be alone. She treasures this solitary walk to town. It is hers. She is hers. This is not usual. What’s usual is that she is tended to, watched, adored, admired, abhorred. What’s usual is that she is the center of attention, owned almost wholly by others, and totally unknown at the same time. She is an empty vessel in the presence of others, in the role that is her life. But alone she is full. She is full of her own experience of herself walking, carrying the basket that will soon be full of the fruits she loves. She allows herself to gorge on simple pleasures. Once night falls, she will once again be filled with the fears and desires of others.
She emerges from a side alley into the main square of the market. The dark, narrow passage opens onto a bright and bustling square. She squints into the sun, but keeps walking purposefully forward and smiles as she feels the energy of the crowd. A rush. Within a few paces, she is spotted by a group of children–boys mainly–who run towards her shouting and laughing. She smiles at their joy. She indulges their interest by acknowledging them, slowing, laughing along with them.
The priestess. The children are thrilled to catch a glimpse of such an infamous figure, to receive the blessing of her gaze. She knows this and bestows such glorious smiles on them that some of the boys feign being smitten there in the dusty street. Their innocent appreciation keeps her strong under the withering glances of the adults. They haven’t yet developed judgment, just curiosity. She loves them for this.
Some are bothered by her presence in the market, her presence at all. It is awkward to see her–this mythic figure–in the flesh. Too close. Too intimate. Too real. They prefer to tell tales about what happens in the rituals, to speculate about her, about her powers. Most of them know nothing. Most of them couldn’t handle knowing.
She goes to bathe and is attended by several maids. The process is solemn, measured. She is meditative though there is a lot of activity in the temple complex. It will be a full moon tonight.
Outside the men form a line down the long steps, across the plain. There are hundreds of them. Many of them have traveled a great distance and none of them will be turned away. The desire to be a part of the celebration is considered a calling, having gotten there in time and with payment in hand is considered a blessing. Those who are there are meant to be there. No man or woman will refute this.
I have walked the halls of the temple. Naked. I have been granted a secret name. I have stepped into position. I have donned the crown…and shackles.
She recites her oath inwardly as she sits immobile in the antechamber. Someone is applying her makeup. Her eyes sting from the black of the burnt frankincense. Someone else adjusts her headdress; weaving the gold filaments through her braids. Their touch is light, deft. She smiles at their whispered conversation–the small talk they make as they work–and breathes. She must be dressed before it gets dark and the light fails. There will be nothing but lantern light, and little of that, until the moon rises.
She doesn’t eat, but drinks the elixir she is handed. Once that’s done she will not be hungry or thirsty again until daybreak. Something else will feed her. Now she has little to do but wait and feel the energies shifting–in the temple complex and within herself.
The escalating noise coming from above signals the start of the ritual. She can hear music, drums, voices, chants, calls and responses. Her heart beats not faster, but with more force. She loses her vision just slightly…every few seconds her perception of space is altered and walls and floor fall away. She is expert at the transition into spirit and these vertigos no longer effect her. She can stand her ground even when she can no longer feel it. Fear is not a factor, grasping is no longer a problem for her, and so she is able to slide into a state of emptiness. She inhabits the space around her without a need for it to be any particular way. She is able to flow outwardly in all directions. Her perception is diffuse, though her attention is pointed. She can see in all directions at once…or so it seems.
There is a knock and then the door opens. Standing there is the first male she’s seen today, the first of many. It is a priest and an old friend. He’s come to collect her and she feels love enter her heart. It is no accident her escort is someone with whom she is so close. From this moment forward, no antimony can break the spell they’re all under. This has been carefully choreographed. Everyone has their role.
They exchange no words, but look deeply into each other’s eyes. It’s all so good, their glances assure. “It’s time,” he is saying. She drops her robe and with a light touch on the back of her arm he guides her forward and out the door.
The corridor is crowded with people and very dimly lit. Figures step out of the way as she is guided to the front of the entourage and they move slowly, rhythmically and silently through the maze of tunnels that make this area nearly impossible to navigate. She knows the way with certainty and without thinking.
The temperature in the corridors is exactly the temperature of her body, but she knows it will be much warmer in the inner chamber. There is one stop they must make before they reach their final destination, and it is this one that will set the tone for all that follows. A turn to the left, a turn to the right–she feels they are close–and the darkness gives way to light coming from a door in the wall. They enter.
Ahead of them is a long and narrow room at the end of which sits a throne, and on the throne, the high priest. He appears to be radiating light and all that is visible from their position in the entry way are his black hair beneath a simple headdress and his eyes, which in a trick of perspective or some kind of magic, appear larger, darker and more clear than they should from this distance. She fixates on the eyes and feels the calm she’d been able to achieve on her own transform into something with more depth. Under his warm gaze and protection her calm is complete — she trusts. She is the primordial void, the sacred womb. She is all possibility.
As the silent exchange takes place between them, she walks forward. They are now close enough to touch, but they don’t. There is no need. They wait for the moment when the energy exchange shifts its point of origin from him to something that is mutual. When he feels the love she is sending his way he smiles ever so slightly and she thinks she has never known anything more familiar than that smile. He bows to her and she is flooded with a force that takes her breath away. She regains it by laughing loudly, expressing the joy she feels as an energy rises within her, and the room full of attendants is flooded with relief. The dance has begun.
The high priest makes a gesture and her friend steps forward again to take her through another door into the innermost chamber of the temple. Upon entering the sanctuary they hear steady drumming and see a circle of men in the center of the room. They have already performed the preparatory rites. They have been dancing and chanting for hours now.
The priests, eleven of them, sit in a circle around a small, stone platform. Their eyes are gleaming and lucid, their bare chests glimmer with sweat. Directly overhead there is a large oculus open to the night sky. The stars shine brilliantly and the great, full moon is beginning to move into the frame. Unknown numbers of spectators and worshippers stand at the periphery of the large, round room, hidden in the shadows.
It is quiet for a few moments while the men catch their breath. Then a slow, mournful tune is played on a flute hidden in the shadows and she sways, bends, and glides towards the center of the circle. Her friend leaves her there and takes his place among the other priests to make twelve, closing his eyes briefly and bringing himself into the same state of preparedness. When he opens his eyes again she is moving on the platform, swinging from side to side so slightly the movement is nearly imperceptible at first.
She feels the movements of the dance she has known for all time, the dance that is in her bones. It was taught to her in stages through her youth, but each move when it was introduced, already felt comfortable and inevitable as if she was simply remembering something she’d known once long ago. It’s not a routine, but a series of mudras, movements, gestures and arrangements of her physical and energetic body, designed to provoke states of ecstasy in herself and the priests. She is moved by the music and the energy in the room. She is in a state of response.
As the music picks up, becomes rhythmic and repetitive, she performs a series of movements that integrate her hips, her arms, her hands and fingers. The dance is no longer subtle. She is beginning to pantomime and suggest. There is a story being told. Her expressions bring the men in…they are players in this act. As she turns around and around, gesturing, beckoning and bringing each of them into trance. A fire begins to build within her as she moves more quickly. Somewhere a man shouts and then another. She moans.
The priests begin to crawl around her in their circle, chanting, writhing and sometimes collapsing. They are also being moved by the dance, something calculated, something ancient. As the moon moves further into the frame of the opening above her, she feels its light on her shoulders, her arms, hips, and breasts. Her dark skin is luminous and nearly white with moonlight. She can see more and more of the room, too. More people, more eyes, more movement, more expression. It’s literally a revelation.
As the moon inches towards a central position, the music escalates in intensity. She’s breathing hard now, moving faster and with more force. Her limbs are not her own, they’re possessed by the goddess. She is Inanna. She has been Inanna since the blessing of the high priest, but now she is Inanna in full fury. Her movements become violent, thrashing, her head rolling on her shoulders and her hair flying wildly about her head, emptying her of everything but the goddess. Ready.
At the music’s climax the priests stop and rise up on their knees with arms extended erect above their heads. The priestess assumes the shape of the vessel she now is, standing still, feet together, head high, arms curved above her head; waiting, feeling like her feet might lift off the ground. The moon moves to fill the circular opening in the ceiling fully. Man, woman, and heaven are coordinated, working in harmony. Then in perfect union, the priests shout a prayer and thrust their arms towards her, sending something brighter than light into her from all sides. When she feels it, she lifts her arms higher and channels the column of collected light straight up and into the moon, her father, above. She is literally illuminated; the bridge between heaven and earth, man and woman, spirit and material, lover and beloved. She is all of their prayers embodied.
It is job of the temple priestesses to keep the sacred dimensions of life in tact and to protect the natural resources of the land, including life force, Life itself. Fertility is the key to the land’s prosperity — every politician, farmer, and merchant is here tonight to stand in reverence to the great mystery and restore balance within themselves so that they may bring the sacred dimension into their work. This is not superstition, this is wisdom. They know how prayer works in reciprocity. They know you reap what you sow.
The music deescalates. They are cleansed and move now, individually and gently, into stillness, reverence. Quiet. The music has stopped and the room is filled with the murmuring prayers of each person there; each accessing the place within them that needs tending, and giving thanks for their bounty. The stage has been set for the rest of the evening’s festivities: feasting, sacred love making, games, dance. No longer mere mortals, they have been made demigods and the ritual space is secure. For tonight, at least, the primordial energies are at work and the universal courses through every body. They are all here for the same thing: to be made great in their stewardship of this Earth.