The city of Memphis sprawls across the head of the delta region, venerable and storied, watched over eternally by the leonine eyes of its patron goddess, Sekhmet. I am speaking of, not the original Memphis of Egypt, but the American city.
Founded in 1819 by president Andrew Jackson, judge John Overton, and general James Winchester, the city was undoubtedly named because, like its old-world counterpart, it was located on a mighty river in its lush delta. The men who built it must have hoped the city would also become a thriving center of trade and the arts, and it certainly did, quickly expanding to become one of the largest inland port cities in North America.
Today, Memphis boasts a population of over 650,000. It is a sprawling city, covering some 324 square miles, and straddles both Tennessee and Arkansas states. It encompasses not one, but two rivers, both the Mississippi and Wolf, and the Shelby state forest softens its curves along the edges. Culturally, the city is diverse, boasting immigrants from Irish and German backgrounds, and it regularly plays hostess to Memphis in May, Africa in April, Carnival Memphis, and the Cooper-Young festival. These things are distinctly American, but that does not mean the city has forgotten its Egyptian counterpart.
While the city is home to many churches, often of the Southern Baptist variety, that has not stopped the constant influx of Egyptian works, from the construction of the massive pyramid by the river (now home to a Bass Pro shop), to the Egypt-approved construction of a massive copy of pharaoh Ramses II. And, though Biblical hymns are diligently sung each Sunday from a massive church complex the locals have dubbed “Six Flags Over Jesus”, Bellevue Church…still, images of the goddess can be found all across the city.
It was only natural that this new Memphis would borrow the iconography of its Egyptian namesake, and while it cannot be said with any accuracy when the first statue of the goddess was placed, images of Sekhmet and of Her lions can now be found with relative ease in the metropolis. If you’re going to make use of the name of an old city, why not make use of its patroness, as well? The easiest places to spot Her statues are at the Memphis city zoo, but smaller ones can be found in the gardens of some of the wealthier inhabitants of the city, and once or twice her face has been depicted in a mural or graffiti work. Sekhmet is, after all, venerated as a goddess of protection, and protection is something every city needs.
Worshiped as the protectress of the pharaohs, guardian of the Eye of Ra, lady of the sun…all of these and more are titles of Sekhmet, worshiped long ago in Egypt and today in the far-flung U.S.A., and surely in hundreds of other places as well. Often presented as having the body of a woman and the head of a lioness (Her head usually depicted in green when painted), She is called upon to dispel plagues, prevent the destructive forces of the sun from overcoming us, and to protect us against those who would destroy us.
Sekhmet is also a goddess of wrath, and truly there is cause for it in Memphis. The land it was built on was stolen from the Chickasaw people, the sacred mounds of their ancestors flattened and built upon. It was once the site of a thriving slave market, creating immeasurable anguish as kidnapped and brutalized people were bought and sold to keep the cotton industry going. Yellow fever swept through the city and killed so many people that at one point its charter was revoked and it seemed the city itself would die. Much later, it was a battleground for the Civil Rights Movement where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The city has known rage and pain on an almost incomprehensible scale. But just as the goddess can channel Her anger and use it as a force for good, so too has Memphis taken its history and used it to birth talented musicians, artists, authors, and architects. It is known, culturally, as a home of the blues and of numerous museums, galleries, and gardens, all of them beloved by its people.
And yet, the American city of Memphis is considered today to be a dangerous place to live. On a national scale it ranks 8th for murders and 6th for aggravated assaults. Tellingly, the city does not currently have a festival for its goddess, and to my knowledge it has never celebrated one. A good step towards healing the city (though of course it would take many steps to fix things as they stand now) would be to see such a festival created. Hanging up sacred images and erecting sacred statues is all well and good, but true reverence must extend past simply collecting pretty things. Sekhmet is a great and terrible goddess, worthy of worship, and creating sacred reciprocity with Her in Her American city could only lead to good things.
[Ashley Nicole Hunter sits on the board of directors for Bibliotheca Alexandrina and has been published in a few reputable (and otherwise) publications.]