[This month, we sit down with author Olivia Church. Here. she discusses her personal spiritual practices; her two Pagan Portals titles on Isis and Sekhmet; and her upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How do you define your personal spiritual practice? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Olivia Church: Although it is a bit vague, I most often label myself as a ‘polytheist’ as I do not adhere to a set tradition, though I’m not exactly ‘eclectic’. I believe that the world is inhabited by a multitude of spiritual and corporeal entities, and I engage and honour various ones as appropriate to their context. The ones that I regularly honour aren’t always confined to a single tradition or culture, though there is common overlap.
ev0ke: Which Deities, powers, or other spirits do you honor?
OC: I take deities and liminal entities seriously, which is why I only maintain regular cults for a select few. Aphrodite is the central Goddess that I maintain a regular cult for. Our household/hearth cult honours our ancestors and mostly northern Heathen deities; and, of course, I hold the deities of ancient Egypt exceptionally close to my heart. This is quite a mix of pantheons, but I endeavour to keep practices relating to them separate.
ev0ke: To date, you have written two books for Moon Books, one about Sekhmet and one about Isis. How did these come about? Did you approach Moon Books, or did they come to you?
OC: My friend Jenny mentioned my name to a Moon Books editor, who got in touch and recommended that I submit a book proposal for Isis – which I did! I had always wanted to write books and so this was an opportunity to learn more about the process. Sekhmet emerged soon after, as I got into the flow of writing!
ev0ke: Pagan Portals: Sekhmet will be released at the end of January. Congratulations! What sort of research went into Sekhmet? Big stacks of books? Long hours online? Conversations with other devotees?
OC: A lot of the groundwork research for both books had already been laid through my PhD research, where Aset-Isis and Sekhmet feature prominently. I have been lucky enough to have had (virtual) access to University libraries for academic and historical resources, as well as books and articles that I had saved from my previous degrees. In the books I have written a Pagan audience, I ensure that I make a clear distinction between presenting historical information and modern gnosis. In addition to my historical knowledge, I can offer an insider’s spiritual perspective for how Aset-Isis and Sekhmet manifest in the modern world. My books contain cited historical research, as well as my own modern ideas and popular interpretations made by other devotees, which I may not personally adhere to. By presenting this varied of information in a way that keeps the ancient and the modern clear, readers can make up their own minds about Sekhmet’s past and present.
ev0ke: Sekhmet is a Goddess of balance and right order, intimately connected with the ancient Egyptian concept of ma’at. What do you think she has to offer today’s world? What place does she have here?
OC: I enjoyed exploring this question when writing Sekhmet! Ma’at is the personification and divine embodiment of truth, order, and balance. She teaches us that everything must be in balance and moderation. From what I see of the world today (but really, throughout human history) we are in desperate need of learning this! In terms of Sekhmet, I see her in a similar way to Sutekh (commonly known as Set): both are chaotically destructive, yet are powerful defenders of ma’at. That is because the Egyptians recognised the need for balance and that destruction is not necessarily bad or ‘evil’.
Though Sekhmet’s central mythology details a bloody, punitive rampage, it can be viewed as a warning of nature’s destructive capacity and that sometimes ma’at can be maintained through direct, combative action. Many have interpreted Sekhmet as an Goddess who stands up against injustice, ecological devastation, who defies gender stereotypes. People have always read mythology through contemporary eyes, finding their own meanings in the stories; as such, modern interpretations of Sekhmet’s myth build upon an ever-expanding tradition.
ev0ke: Sekhmet is complicated, associated not only with right order, but also with plagues and healing, destruction and protection. How would you advise someone who is interested in developing a devotional practice? In getting to know the Goddess?
OC: Personally, I love this aspect of Sekhmet! Nature is destructive, it can be ugly, unfair, and desperately sad. If we are to restore balance to the ecosystem, live in harmony with the planet and other people, and understand the Gods and Goddesses, we need to accept their whole Being. Nature’s destructive capacity is just as sacred as its beauty and tenderness. We don’t have to like it and may take measures to mitigate it. There are many modern devotees who choose to focus on Sekhmet’s role as a protective, healing Goddess, which is totally legitimate. However, ancient sources tell us that ancient Egyptians interpreted misfortune as the result of Sekhmet’s wrath; healing commenced when she withdrew her anger and was pleased. Sekhmet, as the bringer of disease is just as divine as Sekhmet, the maternal protectress. That’s my view. Fear of illness and natural disaster is a timeless part of the human experience and is why Goddesses, like Sekhmet, remain relevant in the modern day.
For those wishing to establish a relationship with Sekhmet, I always recommend first looking at ancient sources relating to her (I am an historian, after all). This way you can get to know how her original devotees worshipped her, under the Egyptian sun, along the flooding Nile, and it’s beautiful, dangerous fauna. Egypt’s ancient and modern context is a big part of who Sekhmet is, and I think it’s important for modern devotees – most who live quite differently – to comprehend this.
Such exploration will then explain what offerings might be suitable to present to her. You can then create an altar to place offerings on and speak her name. In ancient Egyptian tradition, there was a long-lasting belief in the power of the spoken word: to speak something, was to make it so. Speaking Sekhmet’s name aloud manifests her. Speak and she will hear you; offer her red wine and roasted meat and she might just answer! But if, and when, you call upon her, do so with the caution and respect warranted by a wild lioness.
ev0ke: What one interesting tidbit did you discover about Sekhmet that you just had to include in the book?
OC: I’d actually like to share something that I came across after completing the book … Today Sekhmet is popularly regarded as a fiercely protective, maternal, healing Goddess. I tried to find ancient evidence to support this view, but honestly it was sparse! Most ancient sources focus on her baleful influences. She is nature’s ferocious face! However, I recently came across Sekhmet’s first attestation (that we have found so far): in the 5th dynasty she is depicted, lion-headed, nursing king Niuserre. In the following dynasty her name appears in the Pyramid Texts in a similar royal, maternal context (I mentioned that in the book!). Clearly, then, at this early time the Egyptian sovereigns recognised her nurturing side. It shows me that, though most sources, focus on her destructive aspects, Sekhmet is a complex, full-charactered Goddess, and that modern devotees have identified a side of her that goes deeper than the superficial profile!
ev0ke: Pagan Portals: Isis discusses the very long history of that Goddess, from the beginnings of Egypt all the way up through the present. First, what do you think is the cornerstone is her popularity? Why has her name — her ten thousand names — survived when so many others have been forgotten?
OC: There are numerous reasons for why Aset-Isis achieved great popularity across vast geographies and cultures, from antiquity to the present day. For one, the events recorded in her Egyptian and Graeco-Roman mythology portray her as a Goddess who empathises with human suffering and is willing to intervene. Aset-Isis was a Goddess of the people, rich and poor, and by the Graeco-Roman period she was especially associated with the socially marginalised (notably women, foreigners, and LGBT people). As a shape-shifter and magician, Aset-Isis accumulated numerous powers and knowledge over all things; this meant that her devotees could call upon her for almost anything. This is why her epithet ‘Isis Myrionimos’ has persevered, for she continuously adapted to the world and needs of those around her. Today, as in the past, Aset-Isis is a friend to those in need and will help us with compassion, cleverness, and magic.
What I find most remarkable about Aset-Isis is her multi-cultural and timeless relevance. I firmly believe that the Graeco-Roman Isis is one and the same with the Egyptian Aset, despite their cultural differences. Her form changes according to the form most needed by the people who call upon her. Aset-Isis is a friend to humanity, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic background, gender, sexuality, ability, or belief. She is a Goddess who unites people across cultures, embracing both differences and commonality and aligns with many concerns prevalent in our contemporary, international world.
ev0ke: Walk into any bookstore or library, and you will likely find books on Egyptian mythology. Most of these, however, were not written by people who view the Egyptian Gods as living beings. Which are some of your favorite mythology texts? Which do you recommend?
OC: Most academic writing about ancient Egypt religion has been, and is, written by monotheist or atheist authors, whose perspectives leave traces behind in their interpretations. And popular writing by polytheists and Pagans are not always good at making a clear distinction between personal gnosis and historical information. There are some exceptions though! I 100% recommend reading anything by Isidora Forrest or Lesley Jackson, devotees of Egyptian deities whose work is reliably well-researched and often accompanied by references.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
OC: I keep my spiritual work (including historical work aimed at a Pagan audience) separate from my academic and professional work and use different author names for each. You can find my spiritual work through the links listed on my Link Tree.
Royalties for Isis and Sekhmet are donated to Egyptian and Nubian charities. I am currently supporting Tawasol Egypt and Nubi Youth and encourage you to learn more about the work they are doing!
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
OC: At present, I am focusing on my doctoral thesis and publishing academic articles. Once my thesis has been submitted, I will return to writing for a Pagan audience, but also hope to expand into writing fiction (though I will use another pseudonym for that). I have some ideas for what I’d like to write next but nothing has been decided yet!