One Iconographer to Another

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa

Over on Facebook I’ve been having a very enlightening discussion with one of the most skilled and extremely sacred living Kemetic iconographers, Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa. This discussion arose from a question:

“Do you have a distinction between an idol and an icon? If so how does this related to your craftsmanship/spiritual practice?”

I followed up my views with:

For me I define an idol to be an object or piece of art that a deity can literally occupy, therefore a devotee who worships the idol is performing ‘idolatry’, as the object is literally the gods body manifest as an object.
An icon is a symbolic representation of the deity, but not literally the deity. It functions more so as foci of the devotees attention towards the god, but not exactly a ‘container’ to which a deity inhabits. In this sense it is not ‘idolatry’ (as defined by monotheists).
I categories my art as *icons* and while it is especially dedicated to the god I’m depicting and a sacred object as devotional art, the interaction of the art is merely human.
This is not to say that god can’t inhabit the artwork – just that is not the intended purpose for creating the work.

Ptahmassu replied via Facebook video:

In brief, Ptahmassu defines his work as icons and cult-images and views his creations as not Art in a modern sense. Instead he regards icons to be what I define as “idols” (a term that is not understood in a Kemetic sense, as this understanding is directly a result of our monotheistic overculture.) The icons/cult-images are therefore sacred vessels for the god the work is dedicated towards. These works are not made for human use or pleasure, it is completely devotional, with strict rules of respect when creating icons.

My response is thus, elaborating on my views of sacred art in my Hellenic understanding and practice:

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I find it very enlightening coming from a similar, but also different religious stance. I’m conscious that my definitions of ‘idol’ versus ‘icon’ is monotheist in origin and found your explanation to be perfect in setting these terms apart / removing it from our language as polytheists. I prefer ‘cult image’ also and likewise use the word ‘cult’ in its proper context. (Often to the suspicious eyes of those I’m talking too 😛 )

I’m especially intrigued (and envious of) your artwork being the embodiment of god/s, and also at the amount of ritual care/purpose that goes into the creation of each piece. I think this is fucking *powerful*, inspirational and beautiful stuff and really can’t equate it to what I believe when creating my religious icons.

From a Hellenic stance I’ve come across mixed ideas, some that touch upon what you discuss: the idea that icon is the embodiment/vessel of a god, others view it as a representation.
For myself I consider my art to be representations. This does not discount that it is spiritual in nature, (the creation is expressional devotion in its act alone), nor do I deny the possibility of a god inhabiting the icon, but the primary function of the image is just that, an image.
At various times, in various cults, in various cultures the Greeks had different ideas. Especially latter during Roman occupation there are examples of cultic images being “recycled” and even defaced to fit into a new cult. Also examples of the pantheistic aesthetic of the gods with the Greeks, i.e, icons having similar features, expect for key symbols. This concept leads me to believe that overall, in a Greek sense, icons were regarded as representation and thus can be appropriated by the devotee, therefore this opens different doorways to understanding the ‘art’.

Nevertheless, I do regard my work as holy in its own terms. What defines it as “devotional art” is the intention of the artist, not the viewers expected or non-expected reaction to the piece. I also regard the artwork to be created and owned by the god I dedicate it towards. I *strongly* encourage that those that buy/commission the our art to recognise that they are mere custodians of the icons, not owners. However I acknowledge that this is totally out of my hands once the artwork is sold.

Anyway, thank you again for illuminating me on your views. I really admire your devotion and craft!

To which Ptahmassu continued:

you’re very welcome, and actually, I’m the grateful one because it really never happens that I get the opportunity to connect iconographer to iconographer, or share my ideas with other sacred artisans.

I think the rekindling or revival of Polytheistic iconography is a vital part of the overall restoration of our ancient Polytheisms. Cult, offering, sacrifice, prayer, the Holy Crafts / Arts; these ALL need revival in our communities and movements. God-images / cult images are central to Polytheism. They are the method we have inherited from our ancient Ancestors for directly communing with our Gods. The tradition of God-images goes right back to the beginning of spiritual life on our planet; but unfortunately, the Abrahamic faiths have done their level best to strip away our living connection with the living Gods by destroying and prohibiting Their images. What we can do now to counter this is create and sanctify as many holy images as possible, and retrain craftspeople in the ancient arts of God-making and the cult of images. These activities are the greatest weapon we have against the oppressive ideologies inherent to monotheism. They are also our path to engaging our Gods in the most immediate and visceral way possible.

If I may brave an opinion here. I do think what you and Wayne McMillan are doing is very similar, if not the same, as what I am doing. You may be operating within the Hellenic tradition, which certainly has many differences from Kemeticism, but the sacred spirit of your endeavors shines forth as being a direct gift from the Gods, and in my view, the Gods are living through your work. Your intentions are holy, and your heart is enthused with the living mythos of living Gods. This makes what you accomplish a vehicle for the Gods to manifest in the tangible world, and never let anyone tell you differently. From a cultic standpoint, any image of a deity that receives veneration and offerings can become a living cult image. That’s why we must be careful when we show devotion to an image; because the deity in question can and will walk in to that image in order to receive what is being offered. From that moment on, the image ceases to be an image, and is a living sacred reality, a reservoir of the Holy Powers.

You are precisely right in stating that those who commission or purchase God-images are not owners, but rather custodians only, and have been entrusted with the care of that deity from a cultic and devotional perspective. The Gods are not archetypes. They are not merely energy, nor are They simply different names of a faceless universal power or god. The Gods are each individual personalities and powers, seperate from the Creator God (s), and They each have specific tastes and qualities to Their manifestations. Cult images serve to display those colors and qualities within the material world; They make the material spiritual. They make the inanimate animate. They make the mundane holy. When a cult image is assumed by a patron, that patron has the sacred responsibility of caring for that deity as if it were their own child. A cult image is part of a contract between the human and divine worlds. You never, never create and activate / awaken a God-image and neglect its cultic care. Daily prayers must be offered, the image must be fed through the sustenance of the cult. People who fail to satisfy these are punished, and often severely, and those who claim ownership of divine images while also neglecting them are guilty of hubris in the most profound sense, and are likewise deserving of divine displeasure and punishment. The Ancients knew this, and acted accordingly. Those who commission cult images or icons can never own them. You cannot own a God! You can only invite a God to the table of fellowship and reciprocal offering via the sincere actions of the cult, through personal devotional acts, and through sacrifice. The image is a conduit, but it is also much more than that. It is not a mere peg or symbol of the deity, but IS the deity in the flesh, in the material aspect of its presence, thus cannot be owned or had claims made upon it. True God-images or icons can never be owned. They can only be loved and adored, and that relationship cherished for the divine gift that it is 

My partner Wayne also added to the discussion, he comes from a completely different stance altogether:

Yeah we have a large drawing of the Toys of Dionysus hung in our hallway and there is this very scary feeling I get whenever I pass it and I’ve had nightmares and stuff since it’s been hanging there. I don’t know the right language to use, except that it’s a very real and eerie presence. The cat likes it, too, as I mentioned elsewhere and watches it and I’m always suspicious with animals on how knowing they are. When I draw or paint I am aware of a presence, and I get a lot of like… ‘spiritual backlash’ which I attempt to like… suck up and put back into the work. This is different than simply suffering for your art, and can quite easily make you go mad, which isn’t a bad thing all the time but more like a transition of understanding and focus, as in like initiation. I don’t come from any traditions, so this is how I personally go about figuring out stuff.

And now I’m going to toot my high-horse. This is what HEALTHY polytheistic discussion looks like. Two artisans, different traditions, different views, mutual respect. Undoubtedly we have the same goals and intention in mind when creating our art, just our beliefs and philosophies are slightly nuanced.

Anyway, this has been a fascinating discussion and one that I feel is much needed. My thanks to Ptahmassu.