When you look at an ancient Egyptian object, it is easy to see it suspended in time, its story beginning and ending in Ancient Egypt. In reality that is far from the truth. The life of an artefact continues right to the present day in the way it has been collected, researched, displayed and viewed by visitors like you!
One of the more unusual reasons visitors have given for coming to see Macclesfield’s Egyptian Collection is to see the little wooden statuette of Ankhefenkhonsu. People have come from as far afield as the USA to see this tiny, unassuming object. But why?
Aleister meets Ankhefenkhonsu
The story begins in 1904 when a newly married couple are roaming around Cairo, the capital of Egypt. These are the Crowleys, Aleister and Rose. Aleister Crowley has been fascinated by and actively involved in the occult for years but Rose is not so interested. While in Egypt they spend their time conducting rituals which have a surprising effect on Rose. She keeps going into a trance and telling Aleister that the Ancient Egyptian god Horus is waiting for him.
Aleister later wrote that he then tested Rose, asking her questions about Horus. Rose’s answers proved to Aleister that she was telling the truth (although an Egyptologist might have been less convinced).
The ultimate test, however, was when Aleister took Rose to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities just around the corner from where they were living, and asked her to lead him to an image of Horus. Horus was a fairly common god in Ancient Egypt so the museum was filled with statues and paintings of him. Rose walked past them all and led Aleister straight to a stela: the stela of Ankhefenkhonsu.
The Stele of Revealing
A stele or stela is a usually gravestone-shaped object that had a number of possible purposes however, the most common form of stela was a funerary stela. These would help a deceased person in the afterlife through magically providing them with food and provisions in the afterlife or through the recording of other useful spells.
The funerary stela that Rose walked up to belonged to a man named Ankhefenkhonsu, whose statuette is in Macclesfield. On the stela he is shown standing before the god Re-Horakhty. Re-Horakhty, was a combination of the sun god Re and Horus. Re, Horus and Re-Horakhty were all falcon headed gods so when Aleister found himself stood in front of the falcon headed deity he was ready to believe Rose’s prophesies.
The thing that he found most convincing was the inventory number of the stela: 666. 666 is known as the Number of the Beast or the Devil’s Number however, it also had a personal resonance for Aleister. In his youth, Aleister’s mother had taken to calling him the Great Beast 666, a name that he himself adopted in his later life and works. Because of this, the stela seemed to be a personal sign.
The Book of the Law
Aleister found out all he could about the stela, speaking to the assistant curator of the museum and having the text upon the stela translated.
Rose then told Aleister that he was going to be visited by a spirit named Aiwass. Aiwass would speak to him and Aleister needed to write down everything he said. The result of this visitation was The Book of the Law, the founding text of his new religion, Thelema, which famously professed that ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’.
Ankhefenkhonsu remained a central figure in the development and practice of Thelema. He was repeatedly mentioned by name in The Book of the Law and the translations of his stela were poeticised and added to the book. Aleister Crowley came to believe that he was the reincarnation of Ankhefenkhonsu and even wore a seal ring bearing Ankhefenkhonsu’s name in hieroglyphs.
The stela itself also maintained an essential role in the religion and to this day replicas of the stela, now known to Thelemites as The Stele of Revealing, are placed on the high altar at Gnostic Mass.
‘The Wickedest Man in the World’
In 1920 Aleister Crowley set up an Abbey of Thelema in Sicily where a small community could live and practice Thelema. In February 1923 a man died at the Abbey, apparently due to drinking water from a mountain spring, however his widow blamed a ritual where he drank cat’s blood when she told her story to the papers. This incident gave Crowley the reputation in the press of being ‘the wickedest man in the world’.
Over the years, Aleister Crowley became something of a cult figure. He is depicted on the album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and was often referenced in pop culture during the 1960s and 1970s, when his mantra of ‘Do what thou wilt’ and advocacy of drugs and free love were fashionable.
In 2002 the BBC ran a poll to discover The Greatest Briton. Surprisingly to many, at number 73 was the controversial figure of Aleister Crowley, whose previous incarnation, if he is to be believed at least, is depicted as an ancient wooden statuette in Macclesfield’s Silk Museum.