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The priestess Imertnebes
The goddess Renenwetet
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Photo's: National Museum of Antiquities Leiden

The priestess Imertnebes

Hans Brockhuis

Translation: Helen Maijenburg

The Nada Chronicles, part 39

Running Fox Home


Imertnebes, the hemet-Netjer or servant of god, slowly shove aside the beautiful embroidered veil and stepped thoughtful over the threshold of the sanctuary. Then she knelt down in one fluent move before her goddess Renenwetet. Whilst the goddess with her serpent head looked down in compassion to the young woman who looked like a big white bird in her pure linen almost transparent robe, she muttered her morning prayer:

“O Renenwetet feared by the gods, o idolatress of the woven garb. How happy those are who see you, decorated with your headdress from Re’s forehead. Your king’s apron on you is Hathor and your feather is a falcon’s feather and with that you ascend to heaven amongst your brethren, the gods […]”.

After the prayer Imertnebes (Nibi to close friends) hastened to put the sacrifices ready which would be offered to the goddess within a short while when it still was cool. A moment later the rattler arrived as did the chanters, who would accompany her behind the veil during the offering ceremony.

As usual in Upper Egypt the temple complex of the city was situated near the river Nile. The settlement of the common people was a bit further beyond and it seldom occurred that common mortals would knock on the gate with a plea or another mission. Still there was much contact with the people. Every day a number of young priests proceeded to the market and mingle with the people. There they were largely provided with food meant for the offerings and the chosen ones of the goddess Renenwetet.

Soon a festival was to take place in the city. On 29th Hathyr each year was the day Renenwetet would precede a large procession in the Mesektet-boat. The preparations were in full swing and preceding that Imertnebes would held an audience. Brought into trance on the rhythm of the rattlers and the drums she would have her soul travel to the upper world to meet the goddess and to invite her to mediate to the questions asked. If necessary she would thereafter descend to the underworld to accompany the souls that passed on or to bring back the souls of the sick back to the here and now.

-2 –

While putting make up on her almond-shaped eyes and thinking about what was asked of her, someone tapped with a staff against one of the pillars at the entrance. Her loyal servant Nubhotp – who was from Negada - asked permission to enter. She made the prescribed obeisance after which Imertnebes with a gesture made clear she could talk. The servant stammered: “Mistress, just now a servant arrived from the scribe Meranchef. He carried a papyrus.”

This was highly unusual and Imertnebes had never experienced such a thing before. She frowned. “Did the man say something?” “No mistress” was the answer, “that was all”. With her head down she handed over the scroll and after her servant was gone, she read the message.

“I am the scribe Meranchef and governmental official to the Pharaoh. On behalf of the Pharaoh I handle the tax collection and the jurisdiction in this district. I am a very important person and owing to my function and as a son of this state I very much honour Renenwetet, feared by the gods. To the same extend I respect You, servant of the Goddess and let you know that I will ask you a question during the audience of which I expect a beneficial answer. Furthermore, I request of you to immediately destroy this letter.”

That was all, but Imertnebes was shocked for this papyrus carried many consequences. Meranchef was an important man. Ignoring his word could have extreme consequences. Moreover, when the question would be such she would not be able to give any other answer than an unfavourable one, she would affront the wrath of the goddess. During her initiation she had sworn loyalty to Renenwetet and it was unthinkable she would ignore her words. In short, she was put in a very difficult position and - as she could not consult anybody with this difficult situation for she herself was the personification of the goddess – a heavy load was laid upon her. Her earlier sunny mood gave way to a head full of doubts and the only thing she could think of was to go to the temple to consult the goddess herself.

A few moments later she kneeled down before the goddess and asked for answers. During the audiences the drummers and rattlers helped her to get in trance by their monotone rhythm. In fact she didn’t need it at all; communication came and went depending on her asking. But it was tradition and while It also didn’t annoy her, she let it be that way.

There was also no need to formulate her question to the goddess. Renenwetet knew what was at hand and came with the following advice:

“Imertnebes, my dear friend, do not be scared. The question Meranchef will ask you will embarrass you and all who are present. But it will not harm you. Aren’t you the servant of the goddess feared by the gods? Will that be different to mortals? Give your answer freely. When you incarnated into this life you gave your word you would always be linked with me; the same counts vice versa. Do trust that, dearest friend. We will meet very soon and as well as for you as it is for me, that is going to become a magnificent day”.

The well known voice that always spoke to her on a subconscious level, kept silent. It was good as it was. She would await the audience in confidence and she would answer the questions put to her. What happened next was indefinite but it did not harm her anymore.


The audience went on without shocking events. The usual questions were asked about property of land, quarrels between neighbours and money problems. Although she was not the judge of the region – for that was Meranchef – on religious holy days the citizens liked to put their questions before Imertnebes, because going to the civil court judge would cost quite a lot of money. On the other hand, questions put to the priestess were accompanied only by a small offering for the goddess and as her answers always bore witness of great wisdom, the civilians came in great numbers to the temple on those occasions. Imertnebes tended to hold audience seated in a big seat on a high terrace in front of the temple separated by nine steps from the big forecourt where the crowd had gathered.

One by one the young priests accompanied the questioners and their possible opponents on the stairs. The affair was already pending before one of the priests who set forth the question and circumstances in brief terms. Imertnebes – in trance – thereafter passed on Renenwetet answer, after which the next questioner was escorted to the terrace.

At the end of the afternoon when most questioners had had their turn, suddenly there was commotion on the forecourt. Sitting in a sedan, carried by four Nubian slaves, Meranchef was placed before the nine steps. The guardians that had come along extruded everyone from the terrace except Imertnebes and Sanchensi, her most important priest. Without waiting his turn the scribe strode the steps. Despite the priest’s protests the scrivener bend his head in a creeping way and although he did not kneel – what was usual – Imertnebes informed him with a nod he could speak. In the meantime Sanchesi raised his hands in desperation into the air.

“Mistress” the man said in a somewhat threatening way, “I have an important question for the goddess. I expect a well-advised answer from her”. He looked directly into Imertnebes’ eyes. “Because your king’s apron is Hathor, goddess, I do not think you will embarrass me.”
“Push off at last, Meranchef”.
“Alright I will keep it short”, the scribe/judge nearly whispered. But nevertheless he succeeded in befalling very arrogantly. “As the goddess knows, I strive for the highest office. Not only in this district but even more so of the one in the capitol. I do not have to explain my intentions further. My question is if the time is ripe and will the goddess give me her blessing. That is all”.

Sanchesi’s mouth fell open in amazement, for he was the only one who heard this question. Pale as a cloth he wanted to exclaim that such a question was inappropriate, unheard of and utterly condemnable. The priest however was struck dumb and wasn’t able to utter a word.

Imertnebes however stayed as calm as ice and said worthily: “Renenwetet will lovingly answer the scribe’s question. Have patience for a moment”.

After a few moments Imertnebes started to speak again:

“Meranchef good man I thank you for taking the effort to consult me. In spite of your attitude of tenacity I feel and know that your soul is tormented by fear and doubt. You endured so many misfortunes in your youth, but you nevertheless succeeded in obtaining a high function in this district. Deep inside you know that this office you so very proficiently occupy, will be the highest attainable for you. So do not ask more Meranchef; you achieved your life’s goal and you fulfil it besides your outer appearance, with honour and consciousness.”

Whilst the priestess was talking, Meranchef’s face became scarlet. It was clear he had hoped to hear something else. Without saying a word and with clenched fists he rushed down the stairs and didn’t take time to step into his sedan and walked almost at a run from the forecourt, lacking his preceding haughty behaviour, and leaving all present in paramount astonishment. Sanchesi who had regained his dignity after a while announced that the audience was finished and together with Imertnebes and the other priests they retreated into the temple complex.


Imertnebes knew it wouldn’t take long before she was called to account. After all she had not met up with the expectations of an important man such as the scribe. She wondered if she would be able to execute the procession with the Mesektet-boat, tomorrow. She sighed: thus it was. Sanchesi had to do it. It was impossible to postpone or not execute the procession. You couldn’t afford the goddess to wait.

When darkness fell Imertnebes was in her chambers studying a holy papyrus roll when a well known tap from Nubhotp’s staff sounded on the pillar at the entrance. She sighed. This is it and on her servant’s question she joined the watchmen Meranchef had sent. Not long afterwards she was in the room where Meanchef used to interrogate his prisoners. He sat on a kind of throne and a female slave wafted cool air towards him by means of an enormous fan, made of peacock feathers.

Seemingly nonchalant he sat in his chair pressing his fingertips against one another and looked affably through his half closed eyes down on Imertnebes who stood a few paces away from him.

“Young lady, I can not subtract myself from the impression that you ignored an ‘urgent request’ of mine. His former obliging attitude for the priestess of the goddess had totally disappeared. “Such cannot stay unpunished”. A sadistic smile lay around his mouth. “Do you have anything to say?”

Imertnebes saw not fit to answer and waited in resignation of what was going to happen. Strokes with a stick? The shadowless raft on the Nile? Stoning after being buried in the desert? She would know it soon. But she knew Renenwetet would protect her and that luxury kept her totally astir.

“No answers eh? No defence either. Now you know nothing to say. Your pretty words are gone. The indictment is hereby proven.” He almost frothed with rage. “Executive” he addressed one of his servants, “write down”:

“Today the 28th Hathyr et cetera, et cetera, I condemn Imertnebes, calling herself priestess, because of being careless in the extreme while practicing the office that is laid upon her whereby she brought others in unnecessary life hazard, to death to be executed by immuring her miserable body in the nearest cave. During her stay in the cave, it will others not be permitted to support her, to feed her or to provide her with water. I have spoken”.

- 5 –

From the moment the masons had closed the last hole in the partition Imertnebes knew she would soon reach the state of ‘Ba’ and that her soul would fly into the hereafter as a white bird. She looked forward to that moment. The scribe had hoped she would collapse after the verdict and that she would throw herself before him whining and begging for mercy. But Imertnebes did not grant the heartless man that satisfaction. Completely calm and knowing that Renenwetet was close by, she had awaited her destiny.

And now she was alone with her goddess. She felt more One than she ever had felt in the temple. Right now a feeling of achievement had come to it. A knowing she would soon be home to be taken up in the community of souls who watched from the underworld how the people of the Nile lived their lives. It felt like entering a new dimension from where she could observe everything from an apparent high position. She also noticed she could identify herself with the souls of all those people. She felt Sanchesi being at his wits end and Meranchef in vain trying not to think of his remorse about Imertnebes’s execution. Her servant Nubhotp was thinking of returning to Negada. Apparently the great dedication shown to her had been more professional than she had ever realized.

Suddenly Imertnebes noticed she was high above the Nile. She flew as a white bird higher and higher. Her look singled out the Red Sea, the hot desert, the band of cities alongside the Nile and in the distance Memphis, the capitol. Sanctuaries, pyramids, the sphinx all could be seen in one glance. She realized she had died and she would soon enter the underworld which was apparently not located under the feet of humanity but high up in the clouds. It was so high there were no more clouds nor any air. But that wasn’t necessary for what should her soul do with air. She didn’t need to breathe. BE’ing there wherever that was, was the only thing that counted.

After a while she noticed she completely had conceded all limitations of Earthly existence. Another bird flew beside her. Another one joined and yet another. Some moments later a group of birds flew in from another side and together they flew on. More and more birds joined and the whole flock finally settled on green meadows of an immense oasis. She noticed that like the others, she wasn’t a bird after all. Everyone wore simple linen robes. At the top of a hill more people shrouded in white robes appeared. One of them was her late mother, or was it Renenwetet? She ran towards her and while crying, both women fell into each others arms. Welcome dear Nibi. Your journey has ended. Come with me to my dwelling …

Your powerful wings
Embrace me
With so much Love,
Your power at my side. Your wings
Catch me.
Me, with the whole of my BE-ing
You carry me to the top.
Your wings
They won’t let me go
They won’t drop me
They will never let me go
Your wings, my wings
Entwined within each other
Here and in the hereafter.
It is by you that I gather wisdom.

- - - - - - -


Dr. J. Broekhuis: The goddess Renenwetet.
Willem M. van Haarlem: Egypt
National Museum of Antiquities Leiden
Poem ‘Strong Wings’ by ©Izabje 6 June 2003