If I had it on my first-draft calendar, today would be the Festival of Chewing Onions for Bast, as I noted last week. Which is as good a day as any to talk about onions.
One of my sort of catchphrases for a long time has been trying to do religious stuff for the “onion-hoers”. To pick a political catchphrase, religion for the 99%.
We know a lot about high temple religious practices of the ancients. A lot of things written down, carved into walls, and so on. But we also know that only the priesthood went into the temples – and generally only the high priest of a given temple would enter the inner sanctum and see the face of the deity. (Even though the icons would go out in procession during festivals, giving oracles and otherwise interacting with the onion-hoeing populace, they would be inside their shrines and not revealed to ordinary folks.) And even in this, the high priest was acting in the name of the king, who was the only person who theoretically had the legitimacy to perform the rites! And we know that the minimum qualification for priesthood was literacy, which was only available to the elites.
Ordinary people – who did not write all that much down, though many would go to scribes to have letters written for them, including letters to the dead – had minimal parts in any of this. We can guess that, given that most of the priesthood jobs in major temples were part-time, off-duty priests shared some fraction of the knowledge of the temples when they were doing their regular day jobs, but we don’t actually know that for sure. And we can find remnants of shrines, stelae, evidence of ancestor veneration, a mask and tail associated with Bes here, a Taweret icon there, a hand mirror with Hetharu’s face on it… This is not enough to build a practice from.
There are a couple of ways we can go from this when trying to build a practice set. The most common I’ve seen is to go to what we have – liturgies and procedures from the temples – and try to rebuild the temples, outside the context of the state of which they were a functional arm. We are all literate, after all, which makes us – to the ancients – all among the elites, right? But that does not make us among the leisure class, with tons of free time to devote to religious rituals, or even the working wealthy. And certainly most of us don’t have the population density of fellow Kemetics to make a proper phyle of priests, since those highly exclusive high-priesting positions were supported by extensive staffs (and, effectively, local taxes). More power to you if you can make it work, but I have a household to try to keep vaguely functional, two small kids to look after, a small business to start (of a type that would have been pretty recognisable to the ancients, I suspect – small artisan crafter), and I’m lucky enough to have housemates who actually earn a reasonable amount of money so I don’t fucking starve to death or have some catastrophic health care access failure meanwhile.
Basically, most of us aren’t in a position where we can afford to do for free this particular job which used to have official sponsorship. Even part time. And we number among the followers of the gods of Egypt many who are devout and sincere in their devotion, but have no calling to perform priestly rites – who may wish to serve Ma’at by working in the justice system, honor Ptah with their engineering, praise Sekhmet with their medical knowledge, or have the recognition of Amun for their labors. People who might have a small household shrine or two at home, and want to know how best to pour water for their ancestors and what they can do on festivals, rather than how to conduct major daily rituals. People for whom religion deepends and inspires their lives, but for whom it isn’t the sole or even primary focus of life.
It’s possible to have a deep and inspiring religious practice that isn’t exclusively focused on priestly ritual. It’s possible to think about what the principles of the ka mean for how we eat and how we interact with others, or delve the wisdom texts for an understanding of how societies mesh together, or even find in ancient liturgies something that holds extensive meaning now and build a ritual around that without trying to rebuild a temple and everything that comes with that. Temple-building isn’t everyone’s job, after all – and never was.