The younger priest finished applying the kohl to his eyes. The makeup was of the usual design for a neophyte as he. He had lived for all of his fourteen years in this temple; his family had placed him here when he had been but a baby. His name was Wedj. He had spent that time learning the ways of the priests as a neophyte, a priest in training. Now, if he passed the day, he would discard his neophyte while tunic and be given the uniform for the next rank up.
He looked down at the younger version of himself who was putting away the kohl brushes, just as he had done to initiates before him when he had been younger. Today was a special day for he was to take part in one of the more mysterious great trials. This trial and its outcome would determine whether he would live to be a priest.
The temple was dedicated to the full pantheon of Egyptian deities. Gods and goddesses, the great divine family, all of them were worshipped here. This was unusual in that a temple was normally dedicated to one particular. The temple was set on the east bank of the Nile, its plateau looking out over the Mother River. A hypostyle hall led to the Holy of Holies and then further back the apartments of the priests.
One of the priests came to collect him. He was led through the back garden to the front of the temple. Inside he followed his master through the hall to the back rooms. He saw the stone steps to the rooms beneath the temple. He had never been underground before. He had to follow priest down the steps into another hallway below. Five other men stood there, three of them were members the high priests, one he recognised as a snake handler by the pendant that hung round his neck. It was carved into the ureaus, the shape of the coiled snake, the badge of the office of snake handlers. The last was a guard, standing by an open door, the only other door in the room.
This door led to a room; a sealed room.
The snake handler held a bag at his side. It looked heavy. One of the leading priests nodded to him. He stepped forward, held out the bag, opened it and with care lifted a snake out from it.
“Cerastes,” the snake handler said as he held it in both hands, keeping the head away from everyone.
Wedj felt his heart quicken but he tried not to show it. He should not fear snakes but he recognised this. It was very venomous. The snake was known as the horned one, for it indeed had horns, one above each motionless eye. Wedj could see it was over a foot long with serrated scales. It’s top body as yellow and brown patches whereas its underneath was paler. Its forked tongue darted out to taste the air making Wedj flinch. He had expected to see its fangs, but they had been kept concealed.
The snake handler walked to the door, knelt down and gently laid the snake down on the ground inside the room. The snake slithered off into the darkness.
The snake handler returned to his previous position. The other priests looked at Wedj. His personal master, with a kind look, nodded towards him.
It was with a hesitant step that Wedj walked towards the door and waiting room. He forced himself inside without looking at anyone. The door shut behind him. All light was extinguished. He was in blackness. No light could come from anywhere. He had been in darkness before, but never alone with a venomous snake and the door was not allowed to be opened by anyone for any reason during the time of the trial. Not even if he was screaming.
He tried to focus his senses. He knew the door was two steps behind him and so was the wall. Ahead to his left and right were two centre pillars that held up the ceiling and then the far wall. It was not a big room, thirty paces long, ten paces wide, and a high ceiling, stone tiled floor. There was no sand for the snake to hide in. He hoped he did not accidentally tread on it.
Wedj felt behind him and walked two steps back and turned so he faced the wall. With his hands he felt the painted pictures. He walked slowly, almost shuffling, so as not to step on the snake. His sandals scuffed the floor; his hands rubbed along the wall. He soon came to the corner.
There was no other exit from this room, not even a small hole for a mouse.
He was not sure what the snake might do to him, or even what it was supposed to do. There were no instructions for this trial. One just entered the room and awaited the outcome. The door would not be opened until sunrise the next day. This was an occult test, a part of the priestly adeptship that led to the next stage in wisdom. It was also strictly forbidden to ever talk about it.
He concentrated on reciting the magical formulas that he had been taught by the priests; the ones to protect him, to keep him connected to the gods. He recited them hoping that a god or two was listening and would come to his service. One had to be careful in the vicinity of such venomous snakes. They were in a small space and could easily cross paths. The encounter represented the two opposites in that the meeting could go one of two ways; life or death. The snake could be insightful, passing on knowledge, or it could be a trickster and give false information.
“It could be cunning.” Wedj remembered his master’s advice. He had to see into its heart, into its mind, then he wondered if maybe that was what the snake was doing to him, seeing into his heart, his mind, reading his thoughts. Perhaps to see if he was
worthy? Wedj knew he was. He was confident in that though he trembled as he realised he still did not know where the snake was in the room.
He prayed to the divine family. He wondered whether he should ask them to weaken the snake’s strength or to empower him with courage. He really hoped that the snake would just ignore him. ‘Perhaps it has just fed and will fall into a stupor and leave me alone?’ he hoped.
He knew the snake was lying out there in the darkness. Its jaws could snap upon him at any time. It was be a rapid stab of pain from the sharp fangs, then, he knew, the venom would sweep in, paralyse his body and take away his soul.
“Maybe if it bites me I will turn into a snake or become a snake like god akin to…” Wedj paused, concerned he could not remember the name of the god he was referring to. His mind strained and he sent out prayers asking for forgiveness that he was so forgetful. He tried to recall it by calling up a blank cartouche in his mind and filling it in with hieroglyphs that spelt the deity’s name. As they fell into place he sighed relief; Sokar. A god of the underworld, He had three human heads with a serpent body and mighty wings.
Though it was forbidden to discuss this trial it was known about. Wedj remembered the horror at seeing the swollen corpse of a neophyte who had not survived the test. A cobra had given him many bites and his body was drenched in snake spit.
Wedj visualised the snake biting him. He knew it would come quick, the snake was lash out rapidly, one vital bite anywhere, it’s fangs digging into his skin spurting forth the venom that would travel round his body in minutes. He would be paralysed as the poison attacked his system rendering him helpless. He wondered just how severe the pain would be before he finally succumbed to its will and he passed into the next life.
He suddenly realised that his muscles had stiffened at his fearful thoughts. He forced himself to relax, feeling his tense nerves sparking.
Heart beating he made his way to the centre of the room. He could feel the presence of a pillar to his right. He reached out his fingers to it. It was cool to touch. He leant against it and used the pillar to lower himself to the floor. He felt around with his ands, he was sure the snake was not near by. He settled himself down, his legs crossed before him.
The darkness began to haunt him. It pressed upon him, almost suffocating. He tried not to fear it. He prayed to the father god, Ra, wishing that his rays of light could fall upon him.
He felt a slight lightening in his heart, his pulse slowed. He felt calmer, though not relaxed. His throat was dry. He had to control that thirst. He knew there were no provisions provided. Except the snake.
He prayed to Anubis, the jackal-headed god, to guide him through this darkness. It was Anubis’ duty to guide any who asked. Anubis helped navigate through any situation.
Whilst he sat and tried to relax he began to think about what he knew of snakes in the divine world. For the snake form appeared on both good and bad sides. Apep, the enemy of Ra, often appeared in the form of a giant snake. Yet Horus’ right eye was in the shape of a snake, it was known as the ureaus, the sacred serpent. The goddess Bast had used it in defeating Apep in battle. Wedj mind filled with a picture of the ureaus, the coiled snaked, head raised high, the symbol of royalty representing honesty.
It was so silent he was sure he should be able to hear the heartbeat of the snake. But there was nothing else out there but his own. He wondered, for a moment if the snake was dead. Then he reminded himself snakes were cunning animals, never to be trusted.
The sound of movement, though slight, threw him back into an alert state. The sound of his pulsing heart filled the room. He had been reminded that the snake was really there, somewhere. His survival tactics were telling him to get up and bang on the door. But his mind and heart knew he had nothing to fear; he was in the gods’ hands. He trusted in them all; to guide him through this life whilst he remained a loyal servant, his life dedicated in their service.
He could hear faint noises, he strained his ears. There was definitely the sound of movement from the other side of the room. It was the snake, trying to scare him, he was confident of that. He prayed even more intensely.
All his life he had been working towards being a priest, he was content in that role. He had no desire to leave this place and become a civilian. He would not know what to do. He was a believer, a true believer, and he believed that his life was meant to be spent in service to the gods and goddesses.
He took his role in the temple seriously. He knew the names of the entire pantheon, of which there were many. He kept to the rituals and prayers set for each day, never late, never absent. He enthusiastically learnt the ways of the priest, the embalming processes, the writing of the hieroglyphs and he hoped as he rose the ranks that he would learn their magical meanings. For hieroglyphs were the signs of the gods. He was fascinated with the crystals and the precious stones that were used in the rites by the priests.
It was then that Wedj realised that he did not care whether that bite and the venom pouring of death came and whether it be long and painful, he would not care. Because whether he lived or died he would be in paradise. If he died he would go to heaven and be in the service of the divine family. If he lived he would continue to serve them, but here on earth.
His consciousness seemed to have shifted and he was relieved for it. He realised he was prepared for death. It was just a stage in the constant flow in the cycle of the universe and the gods’ ways. He did not care that he had lived only a short life on this earth or whether he continued in it, as long as he was in the service of the gods he would be happy.
“I dedicate my life to you,” he said aloud. He did not shout but just said it. There was no reply. Not even from the snake.
“I am your obedient servant,” he said. Still there was nothing. He continued his prayers inside his head.
The time continued though he had lost it. He could not anticipate what the time was. He had been hungry and thirsty for some time now. He was thankful it was not cold down there, he did not like being cold. Then he chuckled, he worried about the cold and yet there was a snake somewhere in the warm darkness.
He never actually slept; he just stayed still the whole time, concentrating in his breathing, every now and then moving a limb to allow the blood flow. He had no idea what time of day or night it was. He felt disappointed that he had lost track of his body clock, which allowed him to know whatever time it was through hunger, movements, training.
He thought about his family, he had not seen them in so long, he barely remembered their faces, though his mother’s voice was always clear in his minds ear. He melted as she sang nursery rhymes to him inside his head. He relaxed his back against the wall. He could not remember settling himself against the wall; he had been in the centre of the room. He was not being vigilant.
“A deadly snake is in this room, awaken!’ He told himself.
He sighed deeply, his breath seeming to reverberate around the stone room. He stopped his breath and listened intently. The walls were too thick too hear anything from outside, he concentrated on the interior, there was no sound, not even a flicker of a sound from the snake. He almost had convinced himself it was no longer in the room. Wedj toyed with the idea of feeling the walls with his hands, to trace a gap or ridge the snake may have hidden itself in. He stopped himself, that was dangerous; he could slip a hand across the snake and straight into it’s waiting jaw.
Time was dragging and he no longer liked being in this darkness. He could feel the fear swelling at the bottom of his stomach. He knew he would not be here forever, he just had to outwait the snake and the return of the priests. He could see nothing in front or to the side of him but darkness. He felt the cold wall on his back and it sent a shiver down his spine. Suddenly he was too frightened move. It was so quiet he was sure the snake was watching him, waiting for Wedj to move within striking distance of it.
Wedj pulled his legs up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them, hugging himself as he recited chants, sometimes aloud, sometimes silently. His eyes were wide open but he could see nothing but the dark. His ears strained but they heard nothing, which made them hurt. His body ached and ached, he was far too nervous to even risk a stretch of his cramped limbs. As the time went on he struggled not to scream, he knew that would be just a waste of energy, only the snake would hear it.
The door opened, the faint light from the priest’s torch partially blinded Wedj as he turned to look. His heart heaved a huge sigh. He was free. His master w as looking carefully round the room. The snake handler came in holding a flame aloft. The horned snake slithered towards him from the other side of the room. The snake handler joked that Wedj was still alive but Wedj ignored him. His attention was on his master, who looked pleased with him.
“Well done,” he said, putting a hand on Wedj’s shoulder and leading him out. Wedj watched the snake handler bending down by the wall.
“A gift for you,” the snake handler said. Wedj turned back to him. He could see the yellow snake on the floor not far from him. With one eye on it he turned back to the handler who was holding something out to him. It looked dry and transparent.
“A shed skin,” he heard his master gasp and then realised what it was. He took the snake skin gently between the fingers.
The snake handler was grinning at Wedj as he turned the skin over in his hands. The handler put the snake into the bag as he said to Wedj, “Good luck, that is a sign from the gods.”