Seshat’s Secret

Solving the mystery of what the ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom was all about brings to light the true nature of the world’s favorite forbidden flower…

By Carl Hedberg

I am not an Egyptologist, but I played one as a boy in the late 60s. Attracted by the art, the mythology, and the unsolved mysteries, I spent enough time in the Egyptian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in

Boston to recognize when objects were moved around or rotated off the floor. One unsolved mystery is the mean- ing of the emblem symbolizing Seshat, the sexy and mys- terious goddess of wisdom, writing, and measurement.

I never paid the question much mind as a kid, but recent- ly I stumbled on a Seshat carving sporting what looked like a five-point cannabis sun leaf; Northern Lights, to be exact. My work with legal cannabis patients and care growers in New England gives me access to such leaves, so I scanned a few and chose point counts to correspond with Seshat images I found online.

The notion that Seshat is the patron goddess of cannabis is not so far-fetched. Her symbol is among the oldest hieroglyphs, and although cannabis is not  native  to North Africa, it would have grown well there, and been available through trade routes. Indications for use of cannabis and instructions for preparation are in some of the oldest medical texts in existence.

Temple walls depict festive royal spirituals featuring beer, wine, psychoactive concoctions , ceremonial sacrifices, and exotic dancers including the Seshat priestess herself— turning heads in a dazzling leopard-skin pullover. Lotus buds soaked in wine produced a spiritual effect of such
importance that much of their art and architecture was devoted to the flower.

No temples to Seshat have ever been found, and the psy- choactive use of cannabis in ancient Egypt is thought to be less well documented—or maybe the truth is all over the walls, and we just can’t see it through the haze of drug war propaganda.

Prohibition did not start with the banning of cannabis in the 1930s. It began many centuries earlier with religious edicts that forbade—on pain of death—the use of psy- choactive plants as spiritual sacraments. The Industrial Revolution went even further by creating a propaganda campaign that turned the world against natural medi- cines, and by outlawing any plant that could produce euphoric and/or spiritual effects.

That’s where Seshat comes in. We know the ancient Egyptians were intelligent, spiritual, and as a culture, very successful. (For the United States to be half as long-lived, our Constitution would have had to have been written around the year 762.) If cannabis was revered in those ancient times the way it is today (mostly in the shadows by people you’d never think…), that’s one more body  slam against the crumbling walls of prohibition.

Establishing the Proof

Seshat emblems from their golden age—The New Kingdom (c. 1550-c. 1069)

Here are six Seshat emblems from their golden age—The New Kingdom (c. 1550-c. 1069) : Artistic interpretations and dynastic variations are an excellent measure for eliminating popular guesses. For example, if the top piece looks like a bow  at Luxor  and like horns at Karnak, it’s probably not representative of either. The explanation must work across all variations. (Condition 1)

Since the two parts of the emblem never appear separate- ly, the explanation must describe how the images work together to symbolize one concept. (Condition 2)

Seshat was the deification of wisdom: the goddess of writ- ing, astronomy, architecture, and mathematics.  She  was an exotic dancer with  spirit-realm  connections.  The Coffin Texts, a collection of funerary spells written begin- ning in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-c. 2055), spell out 10 states: Seshat opens the door of heaven for you. The explanation for the symbol must reflect  the whole of Seshat’s complex character. (Condition 3)

The human embodiment of the goddess was a royal priest- ess—a smart, creative, and powerful top advisor to the king; the keeper of records and chief architect responsible for laying down measurements for royal projects. The explanation must plausibly reflect the life and duties of an actual Seshat priestess. (Condition 4)

First Inquiry:

What Is That Star-shaped Thing?

It’s not a star because the base of the emblem is often not star-shaped. Same for papyrus and palm leaves. Cannabis hemp matches the images, but a food and fiber plant can- not begin to capture the full color spectrum of this god- dess and her earth-bound representative.

Cannabis leaves vary greatly between strains, but point counts of five, seven, and nine are common. Although the drawings differ widely in shape and artistic style, cannabis is a perfect match for every image in the set. This satisfies the first condition of the proof.

Second Inquiry:

How Does the Cannabis Leaf Work with the Image Above?

Unlike the leaf, the upper image is portrayed in many dif- ferent ways. Sometimes it floats above the leaf (emblems  B and C), and often it looks more like a veil (A, E, and F). Some are open at the top (B and E), and when the two sides are joined they form a point (A and F), or a cap (C and D).

Given that the message must be evident in all cases, this wide range of interpretations suggests that the image on top is symbolic rather than physical—and that the answer must lie within the elements that the images have in common.

In every carving, the upper shape flows down from above and around the image that always looks like a cannabis leaf. That leaf always rises straight from the very top of Seshat’s head, and always stands at attention under the veil.

The leaf is cannabis, and the veil is the wisdom it bestows. Taken together, the two images represent the source of her creative ideas, cosmic intuition, and spiritual connection. This satisfies the second condition.

Third Inquiry:

Does This Explanation Reflect the Whole of the Seshat Mythology?

This might be a hard pill to swallow for the people of a nation raised to just say no, but nothing about this smart,

This ancient truth is reflected in the lives of creative thinkers and people of action like Steve Jobs and John Lennon, and in the words of the late astronomer, mathe- matician, philosopher, and novelist Carl Sagan. Writing anonymously as Mr. X in the 1969 book Marijuana Reconsidered, Sagan described cannabis as a spiritual conduit for ideas and creative expression:

“I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate…. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me…a  kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.”

People who use cannabis to spark insights and creativity (artists, professionals, clergy, teachers…mostly all in hid- ing) would agree that the whole of Seshat—the writer, the spiritualist, the dirty dancer, as well as the no-nonsense nail-the-numbers professional getting baked on the job— are all well within the lifestyles and possibilities of people who use cannabis. This satisfies the third condition.

Temple complex at Karnak/18th Dynasty

Final Inquiry:

Does This Explanation Relate to Real Life in Ancient Egypt?

Yes. Cannabis was known, available, and would have thrived in the region. The variety of point  configurations in the drawings supports the notion of favored  strains, and a private palace home grow is consistent with the theme that Seshat was a secretive goddess of the royal classes. This satisfies the final condition.

Why This Matters

This is more than an academic exercise. Cannabis prohi- bition is a war of words and images, and until very recent- ly our government was in total control. History will record the irony; the very communication system that was being used to broadcast lies about this so-called recreational drug was suddenly the means by which the people could learn and share the truth about what cannabis really is. As we head into this new century, few things represent the future better than cannabis, an ancient plant that can deliver food, fiber,  fuel, medicine, inspiration, and an occasional laugh. Seshat reminds us that sometimes the best way forward is to look back and learn from the wise ones who came before.

Thoth and Seshat
  Carl Hedberg is a writer, speaker, and medicinal use explorer working with legal cannabis care growers and their patients in New England. This article is from the lecture Cannabis Rising: Truth and Healing on the Front Lines of the Battle to Restore Our Right to Choose. Questions and comments for Carl:    A. Temple complex at Karnak/18th dynasty, B. Red Chapel of Queen Hatshepsut (1473-1458)/18th dynasty, C. Luxor Temple; Ramesses II (1279-1213)/18th dynasty, D. Medinet Habu mortuary of Ramesses III (1184-1153)/18th dynasty, E. Temple complex at Karnak/18th dynasty, F. Temple of Osiris, Abydos; King Seti I (1294-1279)/19th dynasty’s_emblem (Note that the word “sesheta” means hidden things, mysteries, secrets, and through Seshat the Pharaoh was given access to the power of those mysteries).  

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