“But what’s so special about it, Father?”
The Egyptian boy was asking an incessant series of questions, and his father knew there would be more, no matter his answers.
“Today is a festival commemorating something that occurred many years ago, when the Pharaoh came to our city.”
“Did you see him, Father?”
“I was not much older than you are now, but yes, I did see him.”
“What did he look like?”
“He had a beard.”
“This kind of beard?” the boy asked, holding a papyrus scroll to his chin. His father laughed.
“No, not that kind, the kind made of curling hairs like the Greeks and the Romans prefer.”
“And what sort of headdress did he wear, Father?”
“One made out of leaves.”
“Papyrus leaves?” the boy asked, holding up the small bundle of scrolls he was carrying.
“It would have been interesting if they had been, son, but no, some sort of small, broad leaf that the Greeks and Romans prefer, arranged in a ring, a chaplet, upon his head.”
“Did you get to speak to the Pharaoh, Father?”
“Oh no, son! Such as we do not get to have conversation with kings!”
“But we have conversations with The Gods all the time!”
“That, alas, is different, my son. The Gods are closer to us than even our own thoughts, our own heartbeats; kings, on the other hand, are always far from us, even when we can touch them with our own hands.”
“Did you get to touch him, Father?”
“No. He trod upon palm leaves that were laid out for him, and I took one of them home with me afterwards.”
“What happened to it?”
“I had it for many years, until it became so dried out and worn that it crumbled away.”
“What did you do with it?”
“I took it down to the Nile and offered it to The Gods, especially Heru of the Papyrus Swamp, and Djehuty.”
“Who else was with him?”
“His wife, the Queen. One of our great priests, Pachrates.”
“The one whose poems we read?”
“The very same! The one whose poems are copied out by the scribes on the papyrus rolls we made for them.”
“Is that what will happen to these ones? Will they write his poems on them?”
“They might; or they might write other hymns on them, or perhaps even lists of what might be needed at the Temple–who can say? It is not for us to decide how The Gods and their Ministers wish to use these offerings, only that we give them humbly as the produce of our craft.”
“But other people are bringing food to the Temple, and bolts of linen, and fine carvings of wood, and living birds. Aren’t their gifts better than ours?”
“No gift is better than any other, if all are given with devotion, and are needed for what it done in the Temple. The finest white linen will dull and fray eventually; the birds will sing for a while, and then die; the food will be eaten before the week is out. The blank scrolls we are presenting may have words written on them that are then deposited in the House of Life, and they may be here for the children of twenty generations hence to yet read as clearly as the day they were written.”
“Which Temple are we taking these to, Father?”
“The Temple of Antnus, the Red Lotus of the Nile.”
“Why to him?”
“It is because in his Temple, there is also an image of the Pharaoh who came here so many years ago, and his Queen.”
“Are all of them Gods now?”
“Yes, but Antnus most of all, for he became A God because he drowned in the Nile.”
The boy was quiet for a few moments as they walked on toward the Temple, and more people bringing their offerings began to crowd around them.
“I would like to drown in the Nile someday, Father.”
The father stopped his son immediately, and knelt down in front of him, placing his freed hand from supporting his bundle of papyrus scrolls onto his son’s shoulder.
“No, that is not for you to decide. If you fall, as Antnus fell, then it is the will of Shai, and nothing can be done about it. But you cannot decide that you would like to drown yourself. You would be Anty cutting the head from Hethert if you did! Do you understand?”
“But how else can I become A God like Antnus became A God?”
“Live a good and long life; do not offend The Gods; do what is right in the sight of Ma’at at all times; make the work of your hands excellent for The Gods and for men; and if you are able, learn the Mysteries of The Gods as they are presented to you–and then, when it comes time to make your journey to the Beautiful West, your children will honor you as divine, if you have earned it by virtue of your being and your actions.”
The father stared at his son and nudged him slightly with his hand on his shoulder. His son’s eyes did not change in their expression, nor did his face, and there was an innocence in both that his father could not resist. He at last smiled at his son, and stood up, guiding him still by his shoulder as they continued along to the Temple.
The father remembered back to the time that the Pharaoh Hadrian had come to Oxyrhynchus, those many years ago. He asked his own father an unending stream of questions as well, but there was one that his father could not answer all those years back.
“Father, there was a young man following behind the Pharaoh. He smiled at me and placed a papyrus reed before me.” The boy–now a father–those many years ago showed his own father the papyrus stalk he had been given. “Who was that young man?”
“I did not see such a man, son. What did he look like?”
“He was strong, and had beautiful eyes and hair. There was a red lotus on his head.”
“I did not see such a man, son. Are you certain?”
“Yes, I know this to be true.”
His father did not know anything of it, but took the papyrus reed and taught his son how to make his first piece of papyrus.
It took many years for the father to realize who that man was, and it had only been a few years later when he saw one of the Greek images of Antnus that it occurred to him that he had met not a man at all, but A God. His humble trade and what it produced assumed an importance to him then which it had never ceased to have.
In time, he would tell his son of that moment, on another day when it is not the Pharaoh, but instead The God who is the recipient of the offerings.
(And if you’d prefer something else to think on for this day, or to use in any rituals you might have, my poems from last year are rather good, if I do say so myself!)