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.


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.

Having It Both Ways

So I’m slowly working my way through Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice (edited by Byron Shafer) in odd moments in between being covered in small children. Specifically, I’ve been working on John Baines’s contribution, “Society, Morality, and Religious Practice”, which is primarily focused on one of my primary realms of interest: ordinary-people religion.

Baines notes that there is something of a division in tomb inscriptions between the “career” sections, in which lists of titles, ranks, and the like place an elite tomb-owner in relationship with the king, and the “biography” sections, in which that tomb-owner describes their moral relationship with the less fortunate.

There was therefore tension in Egypt between the inequality of society, which the elite took to be natural while claiming to have mitigated its effects in individual cases, and the equally natural feeling that everyone should have some well-being. The king conformed with this morality in many respects and on occasion proclaimed his concern for the everyday social order. On another level, however, he stood outside human society as the protagonist of the cosmic order. This separate status enabled him to distance himself from normal human morality. Thus the grosser royal or state exploitations involved in building the pyramids and similar undertakings might have been justified peremptorily, by reference to the cosmic needs of the king or of society.

and then

Unlike the title strings, the “biography” hardly relates to the king. It is the part of elite display in which people claimed moral stature. Although members of the elite ascribed success in their careers to royal favor (and their own abilities), they presented their moral actions toward subordinates as separate from the royal sphere. This presentations suggests that they aspired to moral authority in a community that included all but the king.

So there is a tension here. Those lists of titles, all that career stuff, including the reputation gold of temple association and work, those are all affiliated with the king. (Which of course makes a lot of sense, as theologically speaking the king is the only one authorised to perform these transactions. All others are deputies.) It is good to be seen to serve the gods, and so on.

But the moral actions, the care and looking after the well-being of others, are framed as non-royal to Baines’s analysis, divorced from career and prestige and cult practice. This is a more intimate morality, much more akin to the personal judgement in the Hall of Maati, one more tied to a life lived, rather than accomplishments listed.

Why this separation, though? If all of this is bound by ma’at, surely it is seamless and can be traced through the systems one way or another.

But I think one becomes entangled with power systems and their maintenance when one starts dealing with the royal sphere – here distinguished from the cosmic one. I am not an adherent to the “power corrupts” aphorism by a long shot, but I again quote Baines:

The fictitious royal authors of these instructions expound general moral principles, which they shared with the elite, of caring for people and promoting the public good, but they also emphasize the social and moral isolation of their role, into which they thus incorporated some of the cosmic implications of cult and mythology. The king was educated with members of the elite, whom he should not later kill, perhaps in recognition of this solidarity (Merikare, ll. 50-51; compare 139-40). But men who acquired large factions or became as wealthy as the king should be killed or driven into exile (ll. 23-27).

Emphasis mine.

Now, of course this leads me to Merikare, a text of which I appear to have three translations, only one of which is I think as clear-cut as Baines suggests.

Faulkner’s rendition of the critical lines 23-27 in The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry (ed. Simpson, 1973) goes:

A talker is a mischief-maker; suppress him, kill [him], erase his name, [destroy] his kinsfolk, suppress the rememberance of him and his partisans who love him.
A violent man is a confuser of the citizens who always makes partisans of the younger generation. If you now find someone belonging to the citizenry […] and his deeds have passed beyond you, accuse him before the entourage and suppress [him], for he is a rebel indeed; a talker is a mischief-maker.

A footnote clarifies “his deeds have passed beyond you” to mean “have gotten beyond your control”. Here, the passage appears to refer to a rabble-rouser, potentially a treasonous one.

Miriam Lichtheim’s rendition in Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (1975, but on a 1973 copyright) appears to start at line 25 and is:

The hothead is an inciter of citizens,
He creates factions among the young;
If you find that citizens adhere to him,
Denounce him before the councillors,
Suppress [him], he is a rebel,
The talker is a troublemaker for the city.

“Hothead” here (again referring to a footnote) might more literally be rendered inflamed-heart, hnn-ib. (This is the h with the line under it, not the plain or the one with the dot, by the way.)

The 2001 Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology, John L. Foster’s translation, has the same rough sequence:

If you find a man who is without family–
a man the citizens do not know–
Whose followers are many in the crowd,
who serve him for his wealth,……..
Who sidles into hearts, struts before his underlings
to sow disorder–that man is a traitor!
Destroy him! Kill his children!
Obliterate his name! Wipe out his associates!
Erase the memory of him and those who serve him!
Such an agitator will confuse the citizens–
and he can turn his followers into troops.

Much more like what Baines is suggesting (though the Baines work was completed by 1991 and thus cannot be referencing this particular translation), though, again, it is not merely wealth and power that lead to the death and destruction result, but applying those in a manner deleterious to the power of the crown.

At the same time, the fact that dealings for treasonous behaviour, however defined, encompass the relatives of the person taking the action leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. (Hell, I have profound distaste for the way the families of political candidates are considered actual relevant points in the power struggles of my modern nation, and hardly anyone proposes such violence directed towards them.) Bloodfeud, perhaps, is prevented that way, by destroying anyone who might hold a grudge – but I come back to the concept of ma’at as connective justice, and wonder at the holes that might be ripped through communities of ordinary people by such things.

You know, the ordinary people referenced in the biographies of the elite, the widows and divorcees looked after, the boatless emboatened, the naked clothed and hungry fed. Those people. Merikare’s instruction has a thought on this – that when an enemy is common-born, one should show leniency, so that the transmutation of fear of horrible consequences into joy at reprieve may defang revolution.

Back to Baines:

These instruction texts cannot report fully on royal morality and on the king’s presentation of his role to the elite and the rest of the people. They are, however, suggestive in giving a diverse and complex range of possibilities for royal action. Moral “double standards” would allow the ruler to break “human” rules while remaining largely accountable on human terms. […] It would be inappropriate to look for consistency here. Different conventions applied in different contexts and for different audiences.

He also notes that modern tendencies to pull all sources into the same pot and check them against each other for consistency would not illuminate any ruler well, which is a thing to consider quite strongly.

But still:

In Egypt, official religious practice reinforced the elite’s position in society more or less without qualification, but natural morality highlighted inequality. In addition, natural morality separated elite and people from the king, creating overlapping allegiances that helped to bond groups that otherwise had diverging interests–king and elite, elite and the rest. This ambiguity is emphasized on early elite monuments by the absence of royal, and, especially, divine motifs such as images of gods. The elite give the appearance of having been nearly as much deprived of central religious symbols as their social inferiors.

In this context, “natural morality” is the stuff put forward in biographies and often in wisdom texts – the urge to care for the elderly, the infirm, the deprived, and in general the less fortunate. (As a matter of social pragmatism, the concerns of natural morality have to be incorporated into the functionality of the system, otherwise there is the risk that people sufficiently deprived will decide to establish a new system.)

So here’s where I wind up actually kind of disturbed by this.

The temples were functionally a royal system, not merely as functional arms of the state in many ways, but in the sense that only the king was “officially” doing the rituals, all priests serving were delegates acting in his name. All of the formal religious bits we have are a legacy of the royal-elite system, which (in Baines’s interpretation) was full of the impulse to maintain the elite status of the elites, which includes the royal family.

And the stuff from which we can suss out actual day-to-day livable moralities, from biographies, from wisdom texts, from didactic writings, from the many versions of the Negative Confessions, is cast in a different sphere than the royal one. While the framework of morality was explicitly religious – many of these texts refer to what “the god sees” and what is “beloved of the god”, after all – there is very little reference to formal religion there. (Baines notes Ptahhotep’s instruction as being particularly intimate in the blend of piety into everything including table manners, and in my quick scan of my copy in Lichtheim I saw no reference to priestly work at all.)

So there is a royal-cosmic sphere containing formal ritual which is separated from the concerns of natural morality (and table manners), and there is the spiritually-infused moral mandates of good behaviour, and these are constructed almost as if they were separate buildings? According to Baines at least. Which raises questions of how tightly bound the cosmic is to the … let’s call it the more Machiavellian logic of the levers of power, and how to appropriately separate it from the legacy of those mechanisms and potentially affiliate it with the “natural morality” of ordinary people, out in the plebian world where people’s religious participation was festival-oriented, not cult-oriented.

Not just for the onion-hoers of the world, but for those people who wish to pursue the formal rites, too. The cosmic rites have to connect with the world in which the hungry need food, and there is no longer an apparatus of the state with its granaries and redistributions to do the practical heavy lifting on that front. If that connection is broken, then there is no relationship, no connection, and I am extremely fond of Assman’s description of ma’at as connective justice.

Know Your Mortar

There is a basic, fundamental problem with reconstruction.

At best, we have a pile of cracked bricks.

We don’t know what the bricks originally built, really. We have some ideas, scraps of plans here and there, stories about how it was done Back Then, and a whole lot of theories, but fundamentally we have a pile of bricks.

And a pile of bricks is not a terribly satisfying or useful edifice, so of course we want to build something with that pile of bricks. So we sketch out a notion of what the construction project is, we pack up our bricks, we mix up a bucket of mortar, and …

… well, where did we get the mortar from?

There are times I feel that reconstruction is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster process. All these sewn-together dead bits, looking for the spark of life to make it sit up again and praying that it doesn’t spin out of control because it’s a bit of a misshapen mess.

So of course we try to pick our mortar carefully. We want to match its tones and qualities to what’s being built, to make something beautiful as well as powerful. We explore the edges of an eclecticism that denies that it’s eclectic, snagging bibs and bobs to hold our poor broken bricks in place and seal the gaps between them.

Different people pick different things, depending on what they want to build, depending on what they want to be able to do. For example, I’ve known a lot of people who did cross-training in African Diaspora Religion, for example, because they wanted knowledge and skills for working with spirits and Powers in possessory ritual. (Not just Kemetics, those, either.) Sometimes this led to syncretic work; other times the skills could be pulled a bit loose of framework and something built around them that was actually oriented in the existing lore and knowledge of the original reconstruction, and thus provided a solid framework to build something. Even if that something might not be precisely what the ancients did.

Then there’s the stuff that people pick up that they’re not necessarily aware they’re snagging. The most obvious pagan-specific thing would of course be the people who come in with assumptions rooted in the popular forms of Wicca, wanting to know who ‘the god’ and ‘the goddess’ are in a polytheistic situation, or what to do for sabbat-of-the-season. (At least the northern European reconstructions occasionally have suggestions for those holidays, as they often mark a couple of them.) But there’s other stuff that people don’t necessarily notice, because they’re not aware of how much of their assumption about “religion” is leavened with Christianity – whether it’s a base presumption of universality, or a congregational model, or even just wanting to have a religious marriage ritual.

I try to track my mortar, and have reasons for all of it. Some of it I have poked at in greater depth than others. Some of it is on my “when you get to this part, study here” plate. It’s a wide-ranging collection of stuff, from the historical development of rabbinic Judaism to the ritual logic of tribal animism from Burkina Faso to the nature of kami in Shinto to the effects of diversified theology including a tension between one power and many on the living religious traditions of India. Further, as I am not only a reconstructionist, I find that my interpretations, though not my facts, are heavily influenced by the nature of my Craft studies.

Which puts me in a different interpretive position than, say, a reconstructionist who wants to patch with a different set of things, or has a different set of dual-trad things to deal with. (I’m not the only person who has noted parallels between Kemetic theology and Shinto, for example, and some people go way more in depth than I have.) I haven’t snagged anything from African Diaspora religion, for example, and I suspect I’ve got a lot more Judaism in my logic than many would have considered….

The Kemetic Diaspora As Told By Finches

In an ideal world, I would have a graphic designer on hand to provide me with handy-dandy blog artwork, in this case of a variety of marginally different (differently crowned, likely) bennu birds each perching on its own benben. Since I do not, kindly manifest that image in your own mind.

Ancient temples evolved out of something called the “fortress of the gods”, which were apparently the fortifications and gathering points of the companies of deities and spirits known as the Followers of Heru. (See Shafer et al., Temples of Ancient Egypt.) The fortresses of the gods were not simply religious structures as we conceive it today; they also appear to have been focal points of tax collection and the ritual executions of war captives and the sacrifices of desert animals. (An Egyptian pagan familiar with such symbolism will recognise the prisoners and animals as common symbols of the minions of disorder and opposers of ma’at. Treating enemies of the state such as foreign prisoners as having this sort of theological significance, along with the image of processions of icons coming in from all over the region along with the tax money, makes it quite clear how tightly bound the theological and political functions of the government actually were.) A fortress of the gods may also have been the site of the celebration of the sed-festival, the king’s rejuvenating jubilee.

Each temple served as a fixed point of stability that served to hold the relationships in the cosmos in their proper place and time. They were built from the First Time at their hearts out to the edge of the universe, their undulating outer walls which represented the boundary holding back the Nun. (Kings loved to build onto temple complexes, perhaps to enlarge the cosmos by expanding its microcosm.) Each temple was also the body of a god, and housed at least one living image, imbued and infused with divine power and presence. The layers of reflection from larger to smaller and back again are, again, kind of like an onion….

Each of these temples, while a complete universe in itself by theological axiom, also existed in relationship with the other cosmic microcosms in Egypt. The icons went on pilgrimages to visit each other, or on processions to lesser shrines in their vicinities. A festival at one temple might draw attendees from the entire country, who would then take their experience of the cosmos as focused around that one place back home, spreading it in a more diffuse fashion across the nation. While each temple, with the god at its heart placed on the hill of primal creation, might have served as a factionalising point, with partisans of its own vision of cosmogenesis expressing dislike for those who hewed to a different theory, in practice divinity as much as finances flowed back and forth between the various temples, blending the visions of the universe into a multifaceted whole. People left graffiti at sacred sites: I came here to see the god. My name is….

While the idea of Egypt as one functional nation ebbed and flowed over time – breaking up into the islands of the nomes in times when the central government failed, then being reassembled as the cosmic order was once again reflected by the national one – ancient Egyptians maintained a national identity, a cultural identity, and a religious identity, and in fact did not separate them into these categories.

This is not the case for modern Kemetics.

We are from different nations. Even those of us from the same nation are likely to be from different cultures of origin. We do not speak the same birth tongue. We are not a cohesive or collective people, who can, after the turmoils of a particularly long Intermediate Period, rejoin our scattered temples and shrines and uphold the world as it was. There are oceans between us, rather than the easy flow of connection wrought by the Nile’s flow and the wind’s countering gusts. The internet is not a modern Nile, allowing icons to travel from fixed point of creation to fixed point of creation to affirm fundamental sameness and unity.

The price of diaspora is differentiation.

It is a heavy price, particularly from an ancient perspective. Our starting point of normal is beyond things they spoke of in stories with atavistic horror: the shipwrecked sailor who feared never seeing Egypt again, the courtier who abandoned family and post in a foreign land for the hope of seeing himself buried on the banks of the Nile. Many of us have never seen the river or the line that separates red land from black with our own eyes; fewer still could claim Egypt as a home where we could sleep in the company of our ancestors, confident in the continuity of our communities. In fact, that form of community is pretty hard to come by around here at all, in the suburban commuter world where we may be hundreds of miles from our blood kin or have friends we have never touched.

But still the souls search for the anchor point, for the temple, in some form. Here is a place built in ma’at. Here are the places that touch it, and spread that connection. Here is a place fit into the world and a way of being that supports the world.

These places are small, compared to Egypt. They are specialised, built to fit a niche. Their unity is not sufficient to bind together a great nation, but they may be enough to make an island. And perhaps one can see a finch from another island as a cousin, a sibling, a kinsman, as eventually Darwin did the birds of the Galapagos – though they did, in fact, differ notably, because their needs were different.

Our temples and shrines must hold the cosmos in healthy condition, and encourage right relationship. They are no longer the circulatory pulse of a nation, a people, and a culture; they must be something else, an island of a particular nature of being, that nurtures and supports those who live within that way.

I draw a line from my training in a completely different religious background, now, to leave you with. This is Francesca De Grandis:

“A healthy priest makes all things sound.”