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This week’s prompt asked: “Heka: What is it? How can I work with it?”
What is heka?
There is no one definition that could possibly encompass the entirety of heka‘s meaning, and I have elected not to try. Even the descriptions of Egyptian scholars are often vague or contradictory on this count, providing the hapless reader with less-than-helpful explanations such as, “a power known as heka or hike … was something like, and yet different from, what we understand by ‘spell.’” (Farmer 1957, 258). Far more useful is Hermann TeVelde’s explanation, that heka can imply a magical power, as well as a magical spell or rite, but also that it exists as a “pneumatic exhalation,” an “occult force that infuses the world of things” (Te Velde 1970, 170). This implies that heka exists not only in, and as, the breath, but also in the force that breath produces to “infuse” or be heard in the world: I argue that the voice is one particularly powerful way that this force might be interpreted.
The creative power of the voice is central to much of Kemetic theology, an energetic force that functions because of the connection between what is vocalized, and what is. Ancient egyptians perceived no divide between what a person spoke and what actively occurred in the real world, and indeed creation myths revolve around this concept. Hornung writes, “In the Cairo hymn to Amun it is said of the sun god Re that he ‘commanded, and the gods came into being’ … This primeval force not only rendered creation possible but also, in the hands—or rather the mouths—of the most various deities, serves to maintain its existence. The underworld teems with beings who live from the ‘breath of their own mouths’ or through the repetition of the sun god’s creative word; here again the ‘magic’ of the creative utterance is realized instantly” (Hornung 1996, 209). The gods spoke, and through their breath they created or continued to create the means of their own existence.
Yet heka was not limited to use by the gods. Hornung writes that, “The creator god gave ‘magic’ to human beings as a ‘weapon’ specifically for self-defense – as it is formulated in the Instruction for Merikare around 2060 BC.” (Hornung 1996, 209-210). This invisible power or energy was believed to be a personal, inward form of knowledge, distinct from the knowledge of facts and figures. Unlike that more “academic” knowledge, heka was believed to have a physical aspect, which could be swallowed or eaten, and thus resided in the abdomen. “When [heka] was transmitted, it was transmitted, as the nature of the information passed on required, from the entrails of the one who possessed it to those of the one receiving it. Consequently, the malignant forces ranged against the gods preferred to attack their hearts and viscera in order to gain complete mastery over the powers their victims possessed. To penetrate … the belly of a god was an easy way to establish oneself in the most intimate part of his being and acquire a position of domination there” (Meeks 1996, 96).
This focus on heka, a power contained within breath, being located in the stomach and abdomen intrigues me both as scholar and vocalist. Speaking from experience, when a trained singer breathes, she does so not from the lungs and chest, but from the diaphragm, expanding the muscle that resides just above her stomach to take in the greatest possible amount of air. The vocalist who masters control over her diaphragm is the vocalist who masters control over her breath, permitting her to meet the challenge of the most difficult of art songs or arias. Indeed, if you are singing well for an extended period of time, your stomach muscles should ache and your throat should feel nothing. A similar technique is used to project chants or monologues on stage, carrying the voice to vast audiences without the use of electronic amplification.
There is no way of knowing whether the hymns and liturgy of Ancient Egypt were chanted or sung in the manner of singing that most Westerners would consider ‘music’ today, though Farmer argues that recitation and chant could very likely have been viewed as equally valid methods of ceremonial utterance, relying on philological evidence that “the Arabic equivalent to the Egyptian sedi (‘to recite’) is shada (‘to sing’)” (259). If this is something of a stretch, perhaps more significant is that production of sound, herw (literally, ‘voice’) is associated with those gods often deemed to be most skilled in forces of ‘magic.’ Farmer notes, “We read of the Egyptian god Thoth who made Osiris ‘true of voice.’ The amulet which Isis hung about her neck was interpreted as ‘a true voice.’” (258). The association with the voice establishes these deities as particularly potent in ‘magical power,’ and possibly links them to having greater command over the heka residing within their stomach.
Yet the “voice” did not only imply the sound which emanated from a human (or deity’s) throat. Farmer describes how some of the earliest Egyptian instruments, wooden or bone clappers, may have been used used to conjure Min, in his aspect as a god of agricultural fertility. Later instruments featured images of gods on the body of the object itself, such as Bast, or more commonly, Hethert, being featured on sistra. Farmer argues that, “These features [images of gods on instruments] were of far deeper significance than mere emblems or symbols. They were a constant reminder that the voice of deity was ever present in their tones; it was not only ears in tonal appreciation that listened, but rather minds in transcendental anagogue that understood. Music therefore had a twofold influence on man in ancient Egypt; one brought about by a purely physical sensation, and another created or sustained by a power known as heka or hike”(Farmer 1957, 258, emphasis mine). Again we see a connection between the physical, experiential aspects of music-making and the physical aspect of heka. The sound or “voice” of the music helped to connect the musical participant to the invisible force of creation inherent to the gods. As one produced sound, one produced a voice, a voice that unto itself was the power of generation and the power of change.
Christopher Wise has argued that the physicality of heka and the musical voice may have been experienced in part through the aphrodisiac qualities of musical instruments in ancient Egypt. “In numerous images of the Egyptian goddess Hathor,” he writes, “she is shown bestowing a pearl necklace called a menat upon her lover. The menat is not only an ornament worn around the neck, but a musical instrument that inaugurates the resurrection of the dead. Isis similarly brings Osiris from the dead through her sexual healing powers. The sistrum, or sesheshet, which is like a rattle or gourd, serves a similar function: to transmit vital energy to her lover that is necessary to his spiritual rebirth” (Wise 2006, 32). Both of these examples connect the power of music to the transferring of sexual and curative powers. The voice of the instruments enables one of the most profound transformations possible, the transformation of the dead to the living.
What did this unique connection to heka mean for human musicians? Terry G. Wilfong, Assistant Curator at the Kelsey Museum, writes that, “Professional musicians existed on a number of social levels in ancient Egypt. Perhaps the highest status belonged to temple musicians; the office of “musician” (shemayet) to a particular god or goddess was a position of high status frequently held by women.” Some court musicians were considered to be ‘near relations’ of the kings, and in the New Kingdom the religious contributions of some ‘chief of the singers’ were deemed to be so significant as to have their names preserved (Farmer 1957, 260). That these court musicians held substantial, even magical, power over the emotions of others was documented by several Greek visitors. While I acknowledge the words of Herodotus and Strabo offer a “creative take” on history, that both note grand processions led by flute and reed-players, where the growing crowd of pilgrims gladly lose themselves in ecstatic abandon, suggests the perceived power of the instrumental voice, even if the events described never actually occurred (Farmer 1957, 262).
How can I work with it?
I’m biased over here, living as I am in operatic soprano-land, but I’ll always suggest singing as a great way of connecting to the energy held in your stomach (see Joan Lansberry’s excellent chart, here). Breathing deeply, feeling the weight of the power you have in your own form, and then releasing it into the world as sound can be a deeply satisfying experience. If you’re not comfortable singing at home when others are around, you can always give it a shot in your car. Blast a favorite song, or find a new one that is particularly meaningful to you and your gods, and sing the hell out of it where no one can hear but you and Netjer.
Creativity is also an important element here. Writing new music with lyrics that are relevant to your goals can be a great way to invoke change in your life. Remember: heka is pretty straight forward. If you sing it, you are helping something become. Write a simple chant about confidence and sing that baby before you go into your next job interview, and you’re going to rock that conversation better than any bozo with a power tie.
Not a singer? That’s okay. As described above, the “voice” of an instrument is just as relevant to heka as the voice coming from your own throat. Have a drum? Speak aloud that the drum is the voice of Wepwawet and beat a quick rhythm in the name of breaking down obstacles to opportunity. It’s all good, all open to whatever interpretation best serves your needs.
The important thing is just to sound a musical voice. You can create powerful change through the power of your own, internal force, embodied in the invisible, yet physical strength of a voice. Sing loudly, place your will into your music, and know that the power of your voice is enough to create great change. Just as Set’s voice “is appropriated by the magician in a ‘conjuration against scorpions’ … which states ‘The voice of the conjurer is loud while calling for the poison,’ [to leave the body] ‘like the voice of Seth while wrestling with the poison’ ” (Henadology), you too can use the power of the musical voice to great effect.
Farmer, Henry George. 1957. “The Music of Ancient Egypt.” In New Oxford History of Music: Ancient and oriental music. Edited by Egon Wellesz. New York: Oxford University Press, 255-312.
Hornung, Erik. 1996. The Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Meeks, Dmitiri and Christine Favard-Meeks. 1996. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Te Velde, Herman. “The God Heka in Egyptian Theology.” Jaarbericht van het Voorsaiatisch-Egyptish Genootshap. Ex Oriente Lux 21.
Wilfong, Terry G. “Music in Ancient Egypt.” http://www.umich.edu/~kelseydb/Exhibits/M
Wise, Christopher. 2006. “Nyama and Heka: African Concepts of the Word.” Comparative Literature Studies 43: 19-38.