Mythical Fiction – Khnum Speaks by Susie Hennessy

Mythical Fiction - Khnum Speaks by Susie Hennessy

My corkscrew horns weigh heavily upon my brow, as I loom over my muddy wheel. I am reluctant to complain of fatigue, but the enthusiasm I once had for my work is waning, and I will never be granted leave to abandon my post. Apparently, I am peerless, which means there is no other creative in my field who can relieve me of my duties; I am therefore locked into this contract for eternity. They call me The Great Potter (though my work is often flawed), and they seldom challenge my authority, or question my suitability for the role, even as they pour scorn on my creations. In the beginning, of course, there was chaos, until we, The Universal One known as Ra, willed ourselves to be born as the rising sun from the undifferentiated, watery mass. The earthbound praise us for the simple fact of their existence as, without us, there would be no matter for them to perceive and no minds with which they could perceive it; even so, the more discerning amongst them often muse that they might have been better protected in the formless invulnerability of the shadows.

I am Khnum. I am one of the deities charged with the realisation of Ra’s vision of creation. I am an aspect and a principle of Ra: I am Ra. We that constitute the wholeness of Ra, first brought order to the sunless chaos through words: we spoke the secret names that created the forms, the objects, and the living creatures of this realm. These words issued from our mouthpiece, the ibis-headed Thoth, whose black beak gave birth to a world. From me, the rivers flowed. I poured the abundance of the Nile from a jar, so that it might animate the arid lands, and the people worshipped me as its protector and source. When the Nile flooded, coaxing saplings from the seed, and bringing forth its divine clay, I began to mould and sculpt the treasures of the riverbed into mortal beings on my potter’s wheel. I shaped humanity in its myriad forms, and it is for this profession that I am most widely revered, even where I am most thoroughly vilified.

It is important to remember that, when I began this work, I had nothing to compare the fruits of my labours to. I sat in the darkness of the void, willing being to be born from nothingness, with only the light of my own fledgling form to guide me. My wheel was a whirlpool, which I conjured from the energy of the abyss, but as I channelled the light of the moon into its spiralling vortex, I became magnetised by the mercurial liquid that seemed to excite its motion. Soon it gathered a momentum of its own, and a fiery core developed at its root: an engine that ensured its cycle was continuous, that my work would be endless, and my craft never fully complete. I sometimes wonder if the whole apparatus might, after all, go on without me, such is the impetus of the machine. I have been accused, I know, of taking my eyes and mind off the production line, of letting the wheel turn and bear its offspring unattended but, in truth, I am always present; my tale is cyclical, and I remain steadfast at its centre, serving the cause unwaveringly, in spite of my misgivings.

I cannot claim the design as mine alone. The first mud from the waters seemed to know the shape that I would give it, even as I placed it down onto the wheel. As my earliest creatures bore themselves up from the quicksilver, they raised their fragile arms out to me, and I pitied them for the fates that might befall them in the finite sphere. I would soften and define them, using my own tears to nourish the clay, and gently pressing my fingertips into crevices that would give each a character uniquely its own. No two of my pieces have ever been entirely the same: I can fashion a work that, to the naked eye, is identical to its neighbour, but there will always be a hidden key, nestled somewhere in the finished piece, that will unlock the door to its sacred individuality. These experiments I conduct as a test of my own skill. Most of my works are more readily identifiable as distinctly separate compositions; I think of my paired pieces as artistic flourishes, and so I gift them as sparingly as I would my own signature.

My detractors could argue that there has been no real development in my style over the millennia, and it is true that my process has changed little since I first started producing work. I repeat much the same sequence of manipulations, moment upon moment, year upon year; although my technique has evolved subtly, as I have been obliged to respond to changes in the original design that we could not have predicted. Adaptability is crucial in this role, as is the ability to accept that, sometimes, regardless of the effort one puts into each and every groove, curve, and line, the outcome can be at odds with the image one fosters in the mind’s eye. The margin for error is limited in my art, and I cannot deny that I frequently traverse it. In a sense, each piece is only ever a first draft. I do not have the resources it would take to reach a state of absolute fulfilment with every new idea. Often, in fact, I begin a creation only to find I must abandon it, due to some fault of my own. At such times, the emptiness that we sought to harness as a canvas for our dreams draws a little closer, and that deadening remembrance of the vacuum hovers just far enough above me that I sense its threat, without succumbing to its lure.

I cannot allow myself any pause for self-indulgence. The wheel turns indiscriminately, without hesitation. It is a call to action. I harbour grief as a voiceless fugitive whose appearance would herald my downfall. I am not devoid of emotion but, if I were to reflect too deeply on my losses, the disruption in my output could derail my career altogether. This I have learnt through experience. I have, for instance, been guilty of overinvesting in my work; of casting a form so beguiling that I have longed to keep it with me forever. Occasionally I have tried to suspend such pieces on the wheel a little longer than I should, and I have feared, afterwards, that this over-working of the material has weakened them for their entry into the world outside. It is also possible to destroy a creation entirely by holding onto it in this way, as I have discovered to my detriment. Selfishness is a weakness that I must regularly check, and my fear of letting go requires constant rebuke if I am to avoid an isolated infinity, engaged in the invention of artworks for the appreciation of myself alone.

Certain sculptures pay me no regard; they fly from the wheel, desperate to escape my sight and throw themselves into life, so that they might, at last, be beheld by their intended audience. Others there are that lie in the silt and weep, begging me not to forsake them, and reasoning with me that I would be better off recycling their clay. These unborn souls reach out from their still-hollow eyes, to remind me that they did not ask to enter this life, and to assure me that they will consider themselves abandoned once our bond is severed. For my defence, I can do no more than to tell them that the dark water brought them to me in its wisdom, and that I cannot choose but to rise to its calling. To bolster my resolve, I have devised a mantra: ‘They are not mine to keep.’ As I cast them off into the wilderness, one by one, I persuade myself that I am not a father to humanity; I am an artist. I do not watch over my children, and they cannot hope to return to their source once I have let them go. Under these unwavering conditions, I have created joy and misery. At times, I have created monsters.

Once they are released, my creations are deeply affected by each other, and by their interaction with the environment we visualised as their home. They are fallible, and prone to positing themselves as the very centre of existence, and yet they have found diverse means of endangering and, ultimately, destroying the forms I bestow upon them. Now and then, I become anxious that there is a grievous omission in their blueprint; they seem to be so ill-suited to working in harmony with the scheme, that I cannot help but question the rationale that led us to render them fit for purpose, without first pre-programming them to recognise the paths they each must tread in order to access its full benefits. Such admissions of self-doubt are detrimental to the cause, however. Whilst so much of the appearance and placement of each new perspective, each fresh spark of consciousness in the world is predetermined prior to their entry to it, their actions once they get there are born of their own wills, and we gave them autonomy that they might be free to better our initial design. Naturally I realise now, albeit too late, that their freedom depends on circumstances beyond the scope of their divided wills, as they have, for all their differences, created for themselves a conglomerate of inequality, pain, and suffering, that they are unable to take ownership of as individuals.

As I work the wheel, I ask myself if my occupation will reach its natural conclusion; if it will grind to a halt; if I will ever exhaust the possibilities that the raw material has to offer; or if it will reach its climax when I complete a masterpiece so perfectly at one with itself that all future efforts will be rendered futile. I imagine all life dematerialising and returning to its liquid source, as I unveil my magnum opus to an astounded cosmos. Then I am reminded that the perfection we continually strive towards is always standing just beyond our reach, indifferent to our desires. Such is the forward motion we recognise as time. To collide with that fixed point in time, that final realisation of the ideal, would be to inhabit it indefinitely, and to put an end to all seeking. Without this projection towards an ever-shifting goal, this perpetual cycle of lack, we that are Ra, and they that have imperfectly materialised as our vision, would return to unlimited undifferentiation.