Ankh-af-na-Khonsu’s dancing on the ceiling

Oh, what a feeling!
When we’re dancing on the ceiling…

—Lionel Richie

The name Ankh-af-na-Khonsu will immediately give you tingles if, like me, you at some point imbibed a heady dose of Crowley.  For those of you who haven’t partaken, Ankh-af-na-Khonsu was the chap whose funeral stela Crowley’s wife, Rose Edith Kelly, pointed out to Crowley in the Boulaq museum. The stela’s museum number was, naturally enough, 666. And according to Rose, someone on the stela had an urgent message to pass along.  That message turned out to be the Book of the Law

Well a couple of months ago, and within the space of a few hours, I discovered that, apparently, not only had this Ankh-af-na-Khonsu’s coffin recently been dug up, but also some graffiti of his had been found on the ceiling of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak.

Alas, it pretty quickly became clear that this coffin-dwelling, Crowley-baiting graffiti-artist Ankh-af-na-Khonsu was really three different guys—whose names we will henceforth write as Ankhef-en-Khonsu, in the style of modern transliteration.

Ankhef-en-Khonsu no. 1 was a reasonably important priest who commissioned the Stela of Revealing. The stela dates to between the 25th and 26th dynasties, and gives Ankhef-en-Khonsu’s father’s name as Ba-sa-en-Mut. (Check the hieroglyphs and translation on Wikipedia.)

Ankhef-en-Khonsu no. 2 was a very important priest whose coffin was recently found. The freshly-excavated coffin dated to the 22nd dynasty.

Ankhef-en-Khonsu no. 3 was an entirely unimportant priest who graffitied the Temple of Khonsu’s ceiling. His graffiti names his father as Shed-s[u]-Khonsu (see below for link).

The name Ankhef-en-Khonsu simply means “he lives for Khonsu.” It was pretty common.

However, my disappointment at this unsatisfying conclusion was short-lived, because Ankhef-en-Khonsu no. 3, the entirely unimportant priest, turned out to be an absolutely fascinating fellow.

In my book I’ll cover the general magical technique that seems to underlie his temple graffiti, but as there were some other interesting aspects to it that probably won’t find a place there, I wanted to cover them on my blog.

If you want to follow along then start by downloading this PDF, provided by the wonderful Oriental Institute of Chicago: it’s their full published report of their investigation into the temple graffiti.

To start with, it wasn’t just Ankhef-en-Khonsu scratching things on the Temple of Khonsu’s ceiling: it is littered with the graffiti of a large number of priests from both the Temple of Khonsu and the nearby Temple of Amun. The graffitiing spans several generations.  The area chosen was the ceiling’s upper side: the side in the ‘attic,’ as it were, not the side you’d see if you were standing in the temple itself.

Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu's feet, on the roof of the Khonsu Temple at Karnak. From plate 37 of OIP vol.123. ©2003 by The University of Chicago.
Ankh-ef-en-Khonsu’s feet, on the roof of the Khonsu Temple at Karnak. From plate 37 of OIP vol.123. ©2003 by The University of Chicago.

The most striking thing about this graffiti is the large number of pairs of feet depicted.  I’ve picked out Ankhef-en-Khonsu’s contribution opposite, but the roof is filled with feet: just have a look at the PDF.

What were these priests up to? The report’s authors give a pretty convincing explanation:

…the titles held by those whose graffiti are present on the roof belong to the ranks of the lesser clergy, the wab-priests and divine fathers. These were generally humble people who probably did not have the means or possibly even the right to place statues of themselves in the sacred precinct, but they did have access to the interior of the temple and to its roof, to which some of their functions may have introduced them. It would seem then that these people seized the opportunity of leaving their names on the roof slabs in lieu of statues, and added their footprints as a kind of substitute for themselves so that they would remain forever, at least as long as the temple lasted, in the presence of their god and under his protection.

—OIP vol. 123, p.5

They were providing their future (dead) selves with a place to stand near their god.  From a magical point of view there’s a bit more going on than this, but it falls outside the scope of this post.

Here I just want to suggest answers to a couple of questions too specific for inclusion in my book: why does Ankhef-en-Khonsu’s graffiti include two pairs of feet rather than the usual one, and why do they appear to have six toes (count them)?

From here things get speculative.  The authors of the study suggest, on p.42, that a child may have drawn the left pair of feet.  They are just about the worst drawn pair of feet on the roof.  The accompanying text reads from right to left, and says, simply:

Made by the god’s father of Khonsu Ankhef-en-Khonsu the son of Shed-s[u]-Khonsu.

Conversion of a DICOM-format X-ray from a patient of en:User:Drgnu23, a ten year old male. This is the patient’s left foot, anterior-posterior view. Identifying tags and such have been stripped. The image is his, released under the GFDL. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

One possible hypothesis for both pairs of feet having six toes is that Ankhef-en-Khonsu may actually have had six toes.  This is an inheritable genetic condition, called polydactyly.

Another hypothesis, a much simpler one, is that both feet were drawn by a child who intended his five toes to be represented by the lines themselves rather than the gaps between them: five lines, five toes.  Perhaps the right pair of feet looks better than the left pair—at least to our eyes, though not necessarily to his—because an adult helped him with the outline.

I favour the second hypothesis for two reasons: firstly because Occam’s Razor prefers it, as it does not require us to assume a six-toed boy, and secondly because it fits well with Marvin Minsky’s observations, published in his excellent book The Society of Mind, about how children represent the world in their drawings:

Marvin Minsky's example of a child's drawing of a person, from p.135 of A Society of Mind. © Marvin Minsky 1986
Marvin Minsky’s example of a child’s drawing of a person, from p.135 of A Society of Mind. © Marvin Minsky 1986

We normally assume that children see the same as we do and only lack our tricky muscle skills. But that doesn’t explain why so many children produce this particular kind of drawing, nor why they seem so satisfied with them. In any case, this phenomenon makes it seem very unlikely that a child has a realistic, picturelike “image” in mind.

Now let’s consider a different idea.  We’ll suppose that the child does not have anything like a picture in mind, but only some network of relationships that various “features” must satisfy.

—Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, p.135

In any case, none of the other feet on the roof seem to have six toes, which in my opinion makes this feature unlikely to be magically significant. If it did something useful, wouldn’t some other priests have copied it?

We still need to answer why, very unusually, there are two pairs of feet in Ankhef-en-Khonsu’s graffiti. And why does the more childlike drawing come below the father’s name, and the more grown-up one below the child’s? One might expect them to be the other way round.

Now I do have an idea about this, but it is complete conjecture.

I can’t help wondering whether Ankhef-en-Khonsu might have been a very ill boy, expected to die shortly, in fact, so that his fellow priests made sure he scratched his feet on the temple roof before it was too late.  Someone, perhaps his father, supervised this act and either gave him an outline to follow or held his hand as he drew.  So the first pair of feet to be drawn were the right-hand pair, and they look good because the boy had help making them.

Later, the boy secretly returned to the roof by himself and scratched, unassisted, and under his father’s name, a second pair of feet. He wanted to make sure that after he died, he would be standing next to his daddy.

Additional reading

The Society of Mind, by Marvin Minsky

This book explains, in great detail, how one could construct a human-like consciousness from a hive of mindless components.  It’s an amazing piece of work by one of the great pioneers in the field of Artificial Intelligence. This book is well worth reading from a mystical and magical perspective for the many interesting avenues of approach it discusses on the topics of hive beings and artificially constructed ones.

(Aside: if you want to know why we don’t yet have human-like artificial intelligences, start by Googling “AI winter.”)

OIP 123: Temple of Khonsu, Volume 3. The Graffiti on the Khonsu Temple Roof at Karnak: A Manifestation of Personal Piety, by Helen Jacquet-Gordon.

The full report on the graffiti on the Khonsu Temple Roof.  Free to download, like a great deal of material on the Oriental Institute’s site.

Author: Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard edits the Quareia course. He is also writing a book on Ancient Egyptian magic.

4 thoughts on “Ankh-af-na-Khonsu’s dancing on the ceiling”

  1. Fascinating article! The magical implications of the reasoning for graffiti thus placed are interesting (perhaps to essentially link themselves into the magic and fate pattern of the temple circuit long term?) and from an archeological standpoint this is reminiscent in a sense of many passages written to petition the gods that the dead are not made to “stand on their heads”. That they were placed to the west, the direction of water, and that the hanged man tarot key is also frequently related to water is also interesting, though that portion may be coincidental.

  2. Hi Harrison,

    Where did you get the western placement of the footprints from? As far as I can tell, they’re scattered all over the roof. Have I missed something?

    Yes, I’ve come across the spells to prevent one standing on one’s head in Duat as well, and I have to confess I haven’t seen a decent explanation of them. There are similar spells that seem to allude to reversals of the digestive process down there too, such as ones to avoid eating excrement.

    In terms of linking Tarot to Egypt, at best I think you’re seeing different Mystery traditions describing the same, or similar, things. I don’t think the Tarot really came from Egypt—though I’d love to be proven wrong on this. If you’re interested in trying to link the Tarot to Egypt, perhaps have a look at the various doorways and gates described in the Book of the Dead. There are some interesting resonances there. Just be wary of trying to jam together things that look kind of similar: it’s called confirmation bias, and it’s so tempting with this sort of work.

    1. Ah I must have misread west for some reason. In any case I am all too aware of the confirmation bias so prevalent in modern magicians that causes them to force lists of correspondences into any system they perceive, which does tend to place some strict limitations upon what may actually be experienced and worked through. In terms of the tarot originating from Egypt I think that it is unlikely and there is certainly no archaeological evidence to support that theory to my knowledge, and as you said only common motifs prevalent throughout various mystery traditions, which many interpret the tarot to represent. The same may be said of the spells concerning preventing one from standing on one’s head, the best interpretation of which I have come across is relating it to the concept of coincidentia oppositorum.

      1. Interestingly enough my latest blog post delves into confirmation bias a bit…the final image is, in my opinion, a particularly spectacular example of what can go wrong. If you feel up to explaining how the spells for standing on one’s head relate to the union of opposites, I’d love to read it. Coffin Text 157 and Book of the Dead 53 are where I’ve come across it; here they are:

        CT 157

        BD 53

Thoughts? Please feel free to leave a comment...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *