But Mama, Where Do Baby Mysteries Come From?

(By popular demand.)

Mysticism is hard in reconstructions. It’s the first thing we lose to the historical record. (Well, that and what ordinary non-elites do. So what am I chasing? Mysticism and ordinary people. I am so boned.) A lot of reconstructionists are kind of opposed to the idea of doing the mysteries, just because they are so deeply lost, and because the prospect of doing something holy wrong is profoundly alarming.

The moderate school on this, to which I tend to subscribe, is that the Powers brought the mysteries to people in ancient times, and if They want us to have mysteries now, They’ll do it again. If They don’t, not worrying about it.

But that’s always the problem. It’s all fun and games until someone loses a veil.

It doesn’t have to be much. A hint of something, the sudden edge of illumination, a sudden awareness of depth and profundity, a —

— and have you ever fallen in love?

Hell, have you ever fallen in profound lust?

That tantalising hint of a touch, that inviting smile, that suggestive come-hither look, and then there is the choice: follow, or regret. Because it is impossible to ever, ever forget. It will haunt dreams. It will lurk on the edges of awareness. It will consume your life – it will either smoulder forever as a thing unchosen, a loss, a permanent case of spiritual blue balls, or it will be pursued, found, experienced, and work its transformational power.

That’s what it is to find a mystery.

It’s a genuine pain in the ass. (*shakes a fist at the Mighty Ass-Painer*)

The thing about Mysteries is of course that you can learn all kinds of things about a Mystery. And if it’s something rooted in ancient Stuff, you’ll keep stumbling across things that read as if they could have been a reference to the Mystery when you read about ancient Stuff, whether or not the Mystery was actually there back then. It makes sense, after all; ya probably got that hot sexy tantalising glimpse of the Mystery through being familiar enough with that material that one day, just the right angle and ….

You can build a whole giant edifice of stuff around that mystery (and its related mysteries) entirely out of those ancient scraps, in fact, if you have enough scraps. And probably, if you’re chasing it down, you do so, building rituals, meditations, structures of practice, all in the hope of ensnaring it in just the right net of understandings so that you can actually experience it.

You might even build up – perhaps from those scraps, or from bits of understanding how initiatory rituals are built around the world, or from other things – a sense of how you might do it. Perhaps you have some training from a modern mystery tradition to shore up your sense of practicality, or friends who can help with that end of things.

And in the end …

… well, in the end, you have to do it.

Or not.

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Authenticity

One of the things that I’ve been known to say on occasion is that ma’at is about establishing right relationship – with the cosmos, with other people, and with oneself.

“Oneself” is, I sincerely believe, the hardest part.

Even if one doesn’t have a perspective of oneself as many aspects or components that function as a whole, and thus can think of those relationships as between individual entities and establish them appropriately, it’s hard. (That sort of interrelationship has some basis in ancient perspectives, both in the multiplicity of the souls and the diversity of the members of the body; I’m not just pulling it out of my ass.)

And one of the reasons that it’s hard is that the surrounding culture will often actively get in the way, at least in circumstances with which I am familiar.

Not that this is all a bad thing. If you read the wisdom texts and didactic literature, there’s a great deal in there that talks about how people are born to a place, fit in the place, and for the most part live and die in that place. While there was social mobility in ancient Egypt, it wasn’t precisely a common thing. The theoretical access we have to choice in the modern world is much larger – choice in everything from what we eat to, indeed, what religion(s) we may follow, including no religion at all.

(The practical access we have to choice is much narrower, however, depending on where we live, what our backgrounds are, and similar things. Suffice to say that I’m aware that I have access to a lot of options because of the consequences of my race and class background, and meanwhile lose some on the basis of my health. And, of course, that it’s more complicated than that, and fundamentally this is a thing about Right Relationship within a society, and is a place where the one I live in fails grievously.)

So, yes. A lot fewer pre-defined forms and constrictions on Who We Are Permitted To Be is a good thing, making space for a more genuine – and aligned with ma’at – Way We Are. But it also leaves us unformed and drifting until we get our shit together and speak ourselves into being, because – and here’s the problem – ain’t nobody gonna help us with that part.

Well, that’s unkind of me. Families try to help, but they don’t always know how. Other people try to help, and sometimes their methodologies of helping stink on ice.

I mean: I got a couple different flavors of “you will go to college” from my family, but I didn’t have a clue about what I might do when I got there or what I wanted to pursue if I did, so, frankly, when offered the chance to drop out … I did. I couldn’t get anything from staying there except approval, because I had no idea what I was doing aside from what I was supposed to. Fifteen or so years later, I have finally sorted that shit out, but it’s hard to imagine going back to school in current circumstances (whether ‘current circumstances’ refers to the whole student debt crisis which I would rather not dip a toe into or the fact that there are now small children in my life I leave up to the discretion of the reader).

Or I mean: when sex education consists entirely of “And these are circumstances in which you say no”, it both leads to people not asking in the hope that if they don’t ask, “no” will not happen, and to people not knowing how to say “yes”. And sorting out who to love, how to love, and how to express that love is not a minor part of living as a fully realised human being. (Am I being excessively political? Perhaps to some. But looking at how people can become fully people is a political question.)

I came into being of myself
In the Nun
In this my name of Khepri…

It’s hard to come out of chaos and become fully-formed. “Before there were two things” is not just a statement of happenstance – it understands that existence is a matter of reflection and differentiation. Me and not-me. (I am once again watching an infant start to learn these basics, and recognising that it is a difficult and painful process.)

And it is easy to fall into negative definitions: I am not this. I am not that. I do not like this. I am not like that. And that is a beginning, but for that to be the ending is not creation – it is, in fact, explicitly not-creation, which is a treacherous thing to invoke.

We must know who we are. “I did not put in their hearts to do evil”, Ra is quoted as saying, but do we know how to hear what is in our hearts? Have we learned to differentiate the impulses of all of our occasionally discordant members, to balance one against the other, to master the art of controlled falling that is walking in our personal service as who we are?

We carry the ka of the Creator. That is a fundamental thing. We are each Khepri, coming into being of ourselves in the Nun.

Have we done that appropriate honor?

We wrestle with contradictory social laws. On the one hand, the True and Important Thing is to Get What We Want; on the other hand, the True and Important Thing is to Sacrifice To Support Others. Desire is portrayed as overriding all consideration, and compromise as a weakness that undermines who we truly are; simultaneously, altruism is portrayed as an ultimate fulfillment, in which a good person will release all hope of achieving their dreams in order to allow others to succeed.

Ma’at, as always, lies in the balance. Because the heart holds care for the well-being of others as well as individual personal desires, and it is needful and valuable to achieve both. It is not a wholeness that discards one in favor of the other. We each have multiple members in our bodies and learn to reconcile and coordinate them; likewise, we have multiple desires in our hearts.

We need to know what we wish to bring into being, and we need to bring it into being whole and sound – which includes allowing for the space for things others are trying to bring into being.

And that includes ourselves.

Gatekeeping the Way

There are a couple of interesting fault lines in the broader pagan community. One of them – in many ways one of the most acrimonious – is that between the reconstructionist religions and religious witchcraft. The reconstructionists regularly accuse the witches of being all airy-fairy feel-good without any basis in the reality of how pagan religions were historically conducted; the witches meanwhile frequently find the reconstructionists to be kind of dreary and trapped by a worship of scholarly tomes rather than actually capable of involvement with the Powers and, for that matter, with life.

Obviously, both of these stereotypes are wrong – and just as obviously, both of these stereotypes have some basis in reality.

Like most pagans of my rough age group, I found paganism through books on Wicca. (I sometimes say that I went through my pop-Wiccan period back when the books were mostly still pretty good.) Wicca didn’t stick on me very well – while it was a much better fit than anything else I’d come across, it wasn’t a very good fit at all, so I kept the trappings because they were all I knew about how to be pagan and mostly did nothing for a long time.

Eventually, I worked my way around to reconstruction, and things were good there, and it was comfortable and secure to be able to say, “No, I am not a witch. Not all pagan religions are religious witchcraft.” Because that shoe hadn’t fit me very well, it was a relief to shuck it off and delve into things that did suit me better.

Of course, having a personal devotion to the God of “What Comfort Zone? Hah! You Don’t Need A Comfort Zone!” throws a spanner into this kind of thing, and eventually my mystical practice stalled out around being directed to go back to religious witchcraft. (Though not Wicca.) Not because of too much dusty books, but because of too much damage to me that needed fixed before I could be any good to anyone else. And for a while, it was simply that: I was studying these tools so that I could go back and do my reconstruction as a more competent person.

Until it wasn’t anymore. And then I was orbiting around this concept of “witch”. It was clear that I wasn’t a witch in the line of my first teacher, so I sought out another teacher, because there was something there that was more than just mending my head. There was, in the spirit of what I was studying, something that was the Holy Twin of the reconstruction from which I had come, and I would be a lousy Kemetic if I didn’t go chasing down those Holy Twins.

So myself as a reconstructionist was, in many ways, before there were two things. I need to be careful of my own sacred stories, don’t I? They throw all kinds of spanners into things.

But there’s a deeper thing in there. The process of reconstruction itself is weirdly akin to witchcraft. A recon doing the work is walking the knife edge between what is Known and what is Unknowable – in this case, the history, anthropology, and archaeology and theories based upon them, and everything that is lost to time, as well as all the things that are useful for filling in the gaps. The witch, as I understand the role, is one who keeps that edge and dips from one side to the other as need be.

If I were not building, reconstructionism would not be witchcraft. It would be all done already, there would be liturgies and rituals in place for the having, not this threading the horizon between known/hidden, fluid/formed, lost/defined, shadowed/revealed. But the building is like the Craft, walking that secret edge and finding the poetry that cuts between the worlds.

The gatekeepers, now, who stand comfortably in the built and say that the witches do not belong in reconstruction, they are too comfortable in their place for me, because I am still in twilight, a creature of Akhet, taking the knowledge from night into day, and the knowledge from day into night.

Offering to the Akhu

Today on my calendar I have marked a festival for Offering to the Akhu. (Normally this would fall on the 25th in the civil calendar, but this is a leap year in the mainstream calendar and thus we bump a day.) This is based on the day in the Cairo calendar in which it is noted that one offers to the spirits at Abydos, which corresponds to a mention in the Medinet Habu calendar for offerings at Abydos.

I just finished writing a post elsewhere about ancestors, which is what reminded me to check the calendar for today. I find the concept of ancestry actually quite complicated, especially in terms of questions like “Do you try to follow in the path of your ancestors” or related things. The paths of my ancestors are many and complex, and it is not as simple as “They came from this nation and….”

But I have lit candles on my akhu shrine. The candleholders I use for the shrine are heavy glass ashtrays that had belonged to my grandmother. I never knew what they were for as a child – I rolled marbles down the slots in the corners and fancied them part of some significant marble-catching apparatus. I poured a water offering into a pewter cup that my grandparents had gotten in colonial Williamsburg, which, while I did not have Revolutionary-era ancestors that far south that I’m aware of, still touched on the most current and relevant part of my cultural heritage. I lit kyphi incense – which was reputed to be the night incense in ancient temples, and thus the incense that would be burning as the night-boat travelled into the unseen world.

My ancestor shrine is full of little items. My grandparents’ prayerbooks. An English-Polish dictionary belonging to my great-aunt. A small cross-stitch of my old cat. A token of a relationship now dead. A ceramic dish painted for me by the woman I adopted as my third grandmother, who lived across the street from me when I was a small child. Some photographs, as well. All these little items, tokens and remembrances.

My father gave me a book recently. He had been going through my grandmother’s old papers and the like, and found it, and thought that I might like it “as an ancestral thing”. It’s a lightly scuffed hardcover, perhaps a hundred years old, which she had bought from the auction house where she worked (there was a folded paper tucked into it certifying it for sale, which she had signed).

The book was about the kings of ancient Egypt. Because – and this I had not known – my grandmother had a lasting fascination with Egypt, and collected such items.

I lit my candles and my incense, I poured my water, and I set – for this festival of Offerings to the Akhu, the spirits in Abdju, in Abydos – a copy of my book. Ironic, perhaps, to share it with those already established and justified in the Duat? But yet … I am sure she would like to read it.

What Dark Time is Here

I really need to finish reading Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, because the sections I’ve been working through have been talking about how ordinary people may have wrestled with adversity.

One of the problems with the surviving stuff that’s most obvious to archaeological study is what Baines was referring to, if I’m remembering right (I don’t have the book right by me at the moment), as the propriety of iconography. We know a lot about this – that what we see painted, engraved, written in stone and on scrolls, is victory, is the cosmic circuit upheld, is recovery, is regeneration. We do not see the death of Wesir; we see Him restored, we see Him as king. We do not even speak of it directly, lest the permanency of writing lend permanency to adversity.

It would be improper to speak of such things in formal edifices, to enshrine them in formal ritual.

But religion is not just about the celebratory and the achieved.

Last night, when I groped for spiritual practice to soothe a wounded heart, I did not grasp anything from the ancients. I have no prayers that bring me comfort, for all that my response to basic formal Egyptian ritual is “that was the best damn ground-and-center I’ve ever encountered”. I have no setpiece recitations such as a Christian finds in Matthew 6, though I think I will prioritise finding things that might be usable as such.

First, I reached for things that I have been taught in the Craft, to pour out the cool waters upon my heart. Because I know these things forwards and backwards, these prayers, this magic, this heka. It is not that they are not parallel with ancient things – one of the reasons they work so well for me is that the essence of the practice is quite commensurable – but that I know no ancient things that do the same thing. I know little of despair in ancient Egypt, because to write of despair would not suit propriety.

But people … still feel despair.

And religion … is still one of the tools that people have for this. In theory.

In practice, I crack out my witchcraft. In practice, I bring out my personal devotionals to my Mother, which are, truly, very modern. In practice, I put on “Dark Time” by October Project and my prayer is song, allelu–. The fear has no heart. The fear has no name. In practice, I have answers, that serve for me.

But those answers are not the dusty-books answers of reconstruction. And perhaps there are dusty-books answers that can be brushed off and polished until they gleam, that pour out cool water upon the inflamed. I have not found them yet.

I need them.

We need them.

We are left standing together alone.