“Per favore, call me Platypus,” said the be-spectacled, caftan-clad receptionist in a lilting Italian accent. He pronounced it “Plaah-tee-puuhz.” Charming when he said it but it did not roll off my tongue.
“We have our own currency, so please change your dollars into Damanhurian coins at the machine behind you. You can use your ATM card.”
This Platypus man was very polite while giving me these odd instructions, but before I could collect my room key he exclaimed, “Rapido! Rapido! Set your suitcase behind my desk. You can join the British sidekick ladies’ tour to the museum, but get on that purple bus waiting outside right now.”
Now I was really confused—I think he meant “psychic,” not “sidekick,” and I didn’t know I was supposed to go on a tour. My growling stomach also reminded me I hadn’t eaten yet today. For the first time, I questioned my decision to write a story for my monthly travel column about this tiny but famous Italian commune of Damanhur where people with weird animal names meandered by wearing flowing robes.
Platypus hurriedly shuffled me onto the bus, which was packed full of chatty Brits. I was delegated to a seat in the back next to a rosy-cheeked older woman wearing a robin-egg-blue straw hat. A silk sunflower was tucked in the hatband.
“Why, an American! How very charming,” she announced loudly in a Julia Child accent to the other ladies in the bus, who all swiveled and greeted me in jolly unison. “Hello, we are psychics from England on a spiritual holiday.”
They absolutely adored that I was from San Francisco. “It is a hotbed of psychics and tarot readers. We all want to go there someday. Tell us all about flower power and hippies.”
Pondering what to say about my hometown, the busty little lady next to me in the blue straw hat held out a metal cookie tin and said, “Dearie, have a biscuit.”
The purple bus bumped along through the rocky green foothills of Piedmont in the northernmost province of Italy on a crisp fall day. Chewing on the delectable buttery shortbread biscuits, I marveled that just this morning I’d been on a train from Bologna where I’d taught a dance workshop.
Multi-job-tasking, I had arrived at Damanhur for a three-day stay to research a story about this spiritual eco-community named after an ancient subterranean Egyptian temple meaning “City of Light.”
The psychic Brits were handing me biscuits faster than I could eat them, asking personal questions in chirpy voices, and beaming at me affectionately.
“Oooh, you are a dance teacher and a writer. You will have to join us for the blindfolded goddess dance workshop tomorrow.”
I was being adopted by this gaggle of grandmothers next to whom I was beginning to feel a bit staid compared to their all-embracing enthusiasm for cosmic New Age activities. Still munching on those mouthwatering cookies, and still trying to figure out how I had been swept into their psychic circus, I didn’t notice we had entered the city of Turin and the bus had parked in a cobblestone alley shadowed from the noontime rays.
The bus driver and tour guide explained, “We parked behind the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities so that you can enter the Hall of Memory through the secret door.”
A wave of murmurs rose from the ladies. “Oh, a secret entrance! How perfect,” whispered my seatmate and biscuit provisioner.
We were escorted through two massive oak doors that groaned loudly as if in protest when they were pushed open. I was a half-head taller than my busload of new best friends and could see over their silvery hair into a dimly-lit hall streaked with dancing dust motes.
“I am your curator.” Seeming to appear out of nowhere, a baritone voice boomed from a tall, dignified man wearing a midnight-blue tailored Italian suit. The ladies huddled together; several tittered nervously, and all peered at him attentively.
He arched his silver eyebrows and continued, “You have just entered through the door that is always open. We never lock it. Secret to the public, mostly, but known by others in the occult communities who come here to reflect and walk the Hall of Memory.”
Odd, I didn’t know there was an Egyptian Museum outside of Cairo, except for the collection at the British Museum. I’d been to Egypt twice and I’d never heard of a “Hall of Memory.” This was beginning to have the Masonic tone of a Dan Brown novel with a soupçon of gothic Anne Rice.
With the air of a stylish Oxfordian scholar, our guide rocked on his heels and said, “This museum has the second-largest Egyptian collection in the world. In the 1800s, the Italians were leading the pack in archeological digs in Egypt funded by the Dukes of Savoy, whose residence was Turin. The bounty was brought back to their private collection, which is now housed here.”
We shuffled into a drafty room lined with fingerprint-smudged glass display cases filled with relics. And another room filled with more sooty, indiscernible objects. None were labeled and our guide swept past them, giving them a cursory wave of his hand and mumbled explanations. The smell in the museum was reminiscent of the musty spices of an Egyptian souk, but silent without the insistent vendors and throng of galabia-wearing shoppers.
The curator came to an abrupt halt in front of one of the cases and pointed to a small, nondescript artifact. Solemnly he said, “Falco, the founder of Damanhur, came to the museum every Sunday with his father when he was growing up. On one visit, he cast his gaze on this piece. It gripped him in a hypnotic trance where he was swept back in time and shown all of his past lives. From that moment on he knew the reason for mankind’s existence, and the value of lessons learned from our reincarnations. He began to give lectures in the town square about his vision of a society based upon optimism and the fact that human beings could be the masters of their own destiny without having to depend on forces outside of themselves. Before long, he had a large group of followers who helped him form the community of Damanhur in 1977.”
We were elbowing each other to get a good look at this totem object in hopes that we might also be zapped with enlightenment. However none of us were whisked into a hypnotic trance or seemed to gain sudden wisdom, so we trailed off after our guide—the ladies close on his heels waiting for his next mystical pronouncement while I furiously scribbled notes and attempted to keep up on this whirlwind tour of dusty antiquities.
He suddenly spun around and looked sternly at us. Once he had everyone’s attention, he said, “We are about to enter the Hall. No speaking is allowed as it may interrupt others’ communion with their memories. It is recommended that you walk very slowly and follow the arrows around the room. Do not go in the opposite direction of the arrows. Stop in front of each statue by yourself, calm your mind, and gaze into each face for several minutes. It may ignite your own past life memories.”
Arched wooden doors opened onto to a long hall lined with life-size statues. The arrow-marked path painted on the marble floor circumnavigated the room, passing in front of each statue spaced about three feet apart. As my eyes adjusted to the shadowy light, I could see they were all the same regal personage with very similar facial features and adornments.
He continued, “There are twenty-one statues in this room. They are all of Sekhmet—the lion-headed goddess of Egypt.”
His voice faded. Had he really said “lion-headed goddess”?
With a sharp intake of breath, I stepped away from the group and leaned against the doorframe. Just the night before I had had a vivid dream.
Bone-tired but content from teaching a successful dance workshop, I had slipped into a profoundly deep sleep at a student’s house in Bologna. In the dream I was walking alone on a forest path high in alpine mountains. The ground was spongy with rust and taupe-colored leaves and pungent pine needles and the air was crisp and sparkling fresh. Strolling peacefully along I had the sudden disturbing sensation of eyes piercing into my back and whirled around. Fifty feet behind me on the trail stood a lion staring at me with glowing eyes. He was stunningly fit with a glossy golden coat, paws as large as pie plates, and a thick tail that swished slowly behind him like a hypnotizing snake. I considered running but knew the lion could overcome me with ease, so I continued staring into his tourmaline eyes. Instantly, the barrier of fear between us dissolved as I looked into the face of my beloved. He sauntered toward me, our gaze unbroken as my heart swelled. He stood up on his powerful back legs, his mane flowing down his back and opened his arms. I could not resist his invitation and we embraced. I was enveloped in the enticing musky, male aroma that emanated from his tawny fur coat. Our attraction was beyond words. We communicated telepathically and both recognized we were soul mates. I was completely viscerally immersed in this knowledge of fathomless love, yet the logical part of me knew that the union of a woman and a lion would not be accepted in society. I would have to build a castle compound on the top of the mountain where we could live together without the interference, cruelty, and judgment of humans.
Waking, I was absolutely certain this was not a mere dream. Tears trickled down my cheeks as I realized how beautiful yet sad this true love was. Yes, we met in the dream world but we were meant to be together in this physical realm, too. His loving eyes followed me internally as I continued on my train journey the next day to Damanhur.
Now, less than twelve hours later, I was standing in front of a human figure with a lion’s head. Twenty-one of them! This statue was the union of a woman and a lion.
The voice of our tour guide pulled me back into the present moment. Leaning against one of the statues as if they were old friends, he continued his lecture.
“In Egyptian mythology, Sekhmet was originally the warrior goddess as well as the goddess of healing for Upper Egypt. She is depicted as a lioness, the fiercest hunter known to the Egyptians. It was said that her breath created the desert.”
“Why is she called Sekhmet?” I asked.
He answered, “Sekhmet’s name comes from the ancient Egyptian word sekhem, which means ‘powerful one.’”
We spent an hour slowly circling the hall, peering into the faces of Sekhmet. It was relaxing, and a wonderful way to interact with the goddess. Though no past life memories were revealed, I did get an inexplicable overwhelming urge to eat pizza.
When we had all gathered outside the hall with the curator, I asked him why the museum had been collecting this particular Egyptian deity—the lion-headed Sekhmet.
He paused, looked at me with his eyebrows pasted high on his forehead, and replied in a semi-snooty tone, “Because we believe she holds the memory of past lives.”
He continued, “We wanted her so much that we traded the Rosetta Stone to the British Museum for thirteen statues of Sekhmet.”
I whistled and said, “No way. The Rosetta Stone was the key to understanding the hieroglyphs and one of the most important pieces in Egyptian history.”
He smiled benignly at me and continued, “We also traded with Egypt a life-size gold statue of Horus, one of the top most important gods in the pantheon of Egyptian deities, for more Sekhmets.”
As I jotted details in my Moleskine pocket notebook, my journalistic training took over and I asked in my best reporter voice, “Isn’t it unusual for museum directors to be into the esoteric arts and rituals?”
He tugged on his goatee and answered, “Yes, normally, but not in Turin. Considered one of the top black arts capitals in Europe along with London and Prague, there are more tarot readers, palmists, and alchemists here than in any other region in Italy.”
He added, “From a magician’s point of view, Turin is a magic reference point in the world. White and black magic are both strong here. It is a chessboard crossed by synchronic lines that also pass through Stonehenge and Giza and are linked to Tibet and Easter Island. Four lines directly cross Damanhur. They converge at the Temple of Humankind.”
“A temple of what?” I asked.
One of the Brits standing behind me chimed in, “The temple at Damanhur is why our group came to Italy. You are welcome to join us but you will have to participate in the entire three-day program. Walking the Hall of Memory is the first part of our initiation process.”
As we left the museum, the curator closed the large doors behind us, then reopened them a crack and said in his deep and splendid voice, “There is an exceptional pizza restaurant around the corner.”
Hmm. I had not mentioned craving pizza…
The entire drive back to Damanhur I was haunted by my dream. Aware of being in both worlds at once, I sat in the bus with my new Brit gal pals and simultaneously walked with my lion lover on the forest path.
Back at the retreat, I hurried to the reception desk, anxious to check in, get my suitcase, and have a quick supper at the cafeteria before turning in for the night and hopefully rendezvousing with my lion lover in the dream world. Platypus looked at me over his round spectacles from his perch behind the counter. “How was your museum visit with the sidekicks?”
“I enjoyed their company and they fed me lots of biscuits.” I added playfully, “Platypus, it is ‘psychics’—not ‘sidekicks.’”
He laughed heartily and said, “Bravissimo! You will join those sidekicks for the rest of your stay.”
With no visitations from my feline lover, I was awakened the next morning by a knock on my door and a cheery British voice. “Dearie, rise and shine—it is time to dance!”
I grabbed my notebook and knocked back an espresso at the cafeteria before joining my adopted tour group. We entered a large, darkened room with a low ceiling. A short, jolly man handed us blindfolds and greeted us. “Buongiorno, my name is Giraffa. You will dance in the dark for two hours. Don’t worry about bumping into anyone. Your other senses will guide you.”
I whispered to one of my pudgy, lavender-leotard-wearing dance buddies, “Why does everyone here have such weird names?”
She laughed and then explained, “The citizens of Damanhur choose an animal name in order to affirm their brotherhood with all life forms.”
Over the next two days, the lion dream receded as I was swept up in a flurry of occult rituals with my Brits. We danced, we chanted, we walked a stone labyrinth to “align our energies.” We witnessed a ceremony where dozens of Damanhurians dressed in long, pastel-colored robes moved in a snail-slow, solemn dance among Ionic columns under the full moon. Despite my Brits’ enthusiasm for the experience, it all had the lighthearted air of cosmic children playing at mystic games. I didn’t feel particularly altered or evolved—just happy to be in such an aesthetic environment. And it certainly provided fodder for an interesting travel story.
On the third day, we walked the stone labyrinth in silence one last time and then headed up the hillside to the entrance of the Temple of Humankind.
All ten of us were nervous, not knowing what the final initiation ceremony might be—what awaited behind the plain wooden door on the hillside where we gathered, the setting evocative of Bilbo Baggins’ beloved Bag End Shire home. This simple door, entrance to the most sacred place in Damanhur, opened without fanfare and our new guide, named Elefante, invited us into a small foyer that housed an elevator.
He elaborated on the history of the temple in a hypnotic, sonorous tone. “It was built in secret by hand until 1991, when the local government was tipped off that the residents of Damanhur were building an enormous underground structure. The government officials did not know where it was,” Elefante told us, “but they knew it was in this hill, so they threatened to just start bulldozing and dynamiting. We had to give in and let them see it. They then ordered us to destroy the temple because we had built it without their approval. Damanhur alerted the newspapers and the television and the Italian arts community sprang into action. How could Italy, a country that celebrated and worshipped art, halt the construction of the eighth wonder of the world?” he asked.
With a sweeping arm gesture, he invited us to step into the elevator. We all managed to squeeze in, stuffed to overflowing as it slowly creaked one hundred feet downward. The doors opened into a chamber with elaborate murals and sculpted tree roots symbolizing the first chakra and the beginning of mankind. Elefante explained, “Each level of this temple is an artistic masterpiece and reproduction of the inner rooms of every human being. On one level is the largest Tiffany stained glass domed ceiling in the world.”
As we were guided through the labyrinth of opulently carved and painted temple chambers, robed figures glided silently by us without a glance in our direction in the richly decorated, narrow passageways. They all donned Orson Welles copper-wire hats with antennas and other gizmos sticking out. Our guide explained, “These skull caps enhance our ability to receive the river of energies that emanate from the synchronic lines intersecting the temple.”
Four hours later, the elevator doors opened to the fading afternoon light on the surface. The usually talkative Brits were nonplussed by the magnitude of art and ritual blended together in the heart of this mountain. We could only shake our heads, speechless—the temple was the most magnificent human structure I’d ever seen. It made the Great Pyramid of Giza seem lifeless, the Golden Gate Bridge ordinary, the art at the Louvre two-dimensional (well, not quite).
That evening, after taking a nap to recharge before leaving Turin, I waved goodbye to my sidekick friends, who chorused, “You must come stay with us in England. Perhaps you could change your travel plans and continue on with us?”
Tempting, yes, but it was time to go back home to my reality of family and work. Platypus gave me a lift in his tiny Fiat to the train station in Ivrea near Damanhur. We hugged goodbye as I asked, “Why did you choose the name Platypus?”
He giggled and said, “I like the way they wiggle when they walk.”
He looked at me whimsically. “What name would you choose?”
That was easy. “Leona…the Lioness.”
A few days later, after arriving home in California, I was hiking a forested trail with my friend Jeff, a fellow travel writer who was curious about my trip to Italy. We climbed up the green serpentine spine of Mount Tamalpais along Rocky Ridge Trail. In a redwood glen, we found a small pond and lay on the cool, moist needle carpet. A spring bubbled up near us, filling the air with soft gurgling sounds and a sweet scent.
I recounted the peculiar yet magical artistic nature of Damanhur and its thousand citizens. I also shared the intensity of my soul mate lion dream and encountering the twenty-one lion-headed goddesses at the Egyptian museum in Turin.
We napped, lulled to sleep by the tranquility of tall, gently swaying trees, warm shafts of autumn sunlight, flitting birds high in the canopy, and the song of the softly splashing spring.
Suddenly waking, the sun low and the air bracing, we sat up, yawned, and blinked. Both of us were surprised by how deeply and long we had slept. Jeff stretched his arms above his head and then winced. He shifted to the side and felt around on the ground where he had been lying. “Ouch. What’s this?” he said.
He held up something about five inches long that I couldn’t quite distinguish in the waning light and brushed off the needles and dirt.
I looked, amused at his pained facial expression, but then froze. I had been expecting to see him holding up a pointy pinecone or a shale shard, not her.
Sekhmet stared back at me from the palm of his hand. An exact plastic replica of the lion-headed goddess seated on a throne.
“Did you bring this with you?” he asked, clearly confused.
Mystified, I said, “No, I don’t know where she came from.”
As I shook my head, the lines around Jeff shimmered and blurred and my lion dream began to reappear right there in the hills of Marin.
He looked at me, flabbergasted, and said, “Was I really sleeping on Sekhmet? I can’t believe you told me about a goddess I had never heard about before and then she shows up under my ass!”
When I started writing this story in December of 2012, I was also looking to book an apartment in Paris for a future trip. I found a perfect one in the Marais and made a reservation through an agency. A week later, the owner sent a confirmation email with the name of the apartment: The Sleeping Lion also explaining that it is in a building that housed the lions for King Charles V’s menagerie during the 14th century. My lover is still with me. Where will he appear next?
Read my other story about Damanhur to get the scoop on how to visit, accommodations, transportation, and other travel details.
Sleeping on Sekhmet is included in Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman.