Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community by Malidoma Patrice Somé

This slender little book – Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community was one of the first books I read after becoming Kemetic. It was on the required reading list for the introductory course offered by the first temple that I studied with, and I read it, I recall, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room in one great gulp of contemplation.

I am doing an evening workshop with the author, Malidoma Somé, this week, and because of that I once again have brought out the slender little book, and am steadily swallowing it in a great gulp.

I recall, the first time I read it, being torn: that, well, yes, this was a point, but could the rest of it really be so? Truly? I fought it even as I read it, trying to come up with ways of denying. It is a difficult book to face, in so many ways, as someone born white and Western with all that comes of those things, in what Somé refers to as a machine world, a world regulated, hurried, compelled to acquisition, raising the seen world as paramount, constantly making displays of power.

It is some nine years since I read it the first time, if I do my estimates correctly.

And it is easier, now, to not fight, though I recognise that I do not live up to the lessons that I already know. I do better than I did, once; everything is a process of raising up.

We are not always raised with the expectation that ritual matters; that this symbolic translation is the cry of our spirit to be heard in the world of spirits. And so I see people who mock rituals and ceremonies, but who build a little world of their own traditions and superstitions to scratch that same itch, to have some sense of internal order. (My favorite baseball player, for a time, was one well-known for having an immense catalogue of routines and rhythms, for whom every part of the game was a ritual. I think of this now and wonder if I was recognising that grasping for sanctity. It’s a thing.) We do not think that someone else might die if we do not properly grieve, that our errors might have consequences, that there is something to do to not only correct what we have done wrong in this moment, but the underlying thing which created that situation.

We hurry, all the time, without taking the moments for ceremonialising our actions. Somé mentions it being safe to talk to someone on the road – because one knows that that someone has done the rituals of leaving the house and taking a journey. But we in the West do not consistently have such rituals, or if we do, we call them superstition and laugh them off, awkwardly. (And, these days, I have built a minor ritual for going out. Not one from Dagara culture, of course, but from my own, and perhaps that too is a thing. Perhaps I will keep it beyond its original purpose.) Without the deliberation that ritual brings, we become superficial, unpresent, almost disembodied, not actually living so much as going through the motions of the machine.

But to accept that is to become countercultural, subversive: rather than living to work and working to live, keeping our nine-to-fives, there is something else there, and it is an urgent, deep need. Not only is it a hunger that we are ill-equipped to feed, but it is one that, culturally speaking, we are encouraged to deny, because it would mean less pursuit of More Stuff or less diligent loyalty to The Company or whatever else. The rituals that make our lives sacred pull us away from common values, which do not want sanctity in our profanity, which – if they recognise the holy at all – want it neatly compartmentalised, a thing to do on Sunday at most.

And at the same time as attempts to bring holiness forward make us different, make us remarkable, make us a quiet insurrection, Somé says that the power of ritual is secrecy, is silence, is concealment. That ritual creates a sealed capsule, that breaking that space is bursting the bubble, inviting an explosive decompression. Here is that Witch’s Pyramid line: to keep silent. Or, Kemetically speaking, I put it once: silence is a crocodile. We – like the crocodile – do not want to go about displaying our power, revealing it, draping it across our fancy sports cars like an advertisement. The protective power – and the threat – of the crocodile lie as much in stealth as in the strength of his jaws. We do not often speak of taboos, and the concept of “oathbound” knowledge is mocked by even many pagans, but yet I made a prayer today and knew I could not call my God by His name when I wrote it. I know why in the place behind words, but if you do not know I cannot tell you.

And at the same time as he speaks of secrets, he speaks of communities, of the necessity of the support of the many to be oneself. No cult of the deified individual here, so common to the Western mind. No bootstraps to be had. (And here is a place that it is hard to face a Kemetic theology of kings: where Somé says “What one acknowledges in the formation of the community is the possibility of doing together what is impossible to do alone” (p. 49), he speaks to me of Heru – but I fear that the machine world has poisoned our ability to relate to Heru, unless we first effectively raise “an objection against the isolation of individuals and individualism by a society in service of the Machine” (again, 49).)

He writes “A functioning community is one that is its own protection (p. 51),” and it catches my attention. Many people build intentional community – networks of family (by blood or choice), friends, others who can be counted upon, to provide the protection and security that we need as people, to support ourselves and to grow. Some find this within religious communities – and religious communities, being concerned with the holy, have need of being or becoming that. Some find it other ways. But I am caught, again, with not knowing how to even begin to address the question of how to make the communities I know beyond those little bubbles meet that basic standard of functionality. I want to become political, at times, but I cannot know where to begin, so I return to what I know: a healthy priest makes all things sound. It is only a beginning, but at least it begins something.

I do not know how to deal with the vampiric construct that is that which is out of ma’at. I can only work ma’at as best I can, build something that is strong enough and secure enough to establish ma’at in Her shrine. I can only do the rituals that I am required to do – and the Beautiful Festival was one such, very clearly to me, in a way that I have not felt before, and I am glad of it, because it means that I am more than I was.

Somé writes of humility and of inspiration. Of admitting to weakness in order to seek strength. Of prayer and honesty and involvement. Of giving credit to the Powers rather than seeking to display it as our own prowess. Of alignment. Of being the hands of the divine in the world, and acknowledging that place.

I look forward to reading this book again in another nine years.

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Ascend and Descend

I stumbled across an old livejournal post written by my first Craft teacher, which said, among other things, not to believe a thing until one has incorporated it into one’s practice. Until it is lived.

I read old texts.

It’s a hazard of the profession.

I read old texts, and I can talk to you about the nature of two-ness, of the way three-ness emerges of inevitability from pairs of things, and what that means about three-ness and one-ness and many-ness.

I read old texts, and I can talk to you about animal symbolism and common threads that appear in varieties of different cultures.

I read old texts, and I can talk to you about the terrestrial and celestial.

I read old texts, and you can too.

That is not the challenge.

Here is the challenge:

If I die, my double will have power, for I am the third of those two gods who ascend to the sky as a pair of falcons, and I ascend on their wings; who descend to the earth as a pair of serpents, and I descend on their coils […].

Pyramid Text 491, trans. R. O. Faulkner.

I am the third of those two gods.

Go, and do likewise.

Building a Household Practice I

I’m labelling this 1 because I’m sure I’m going to come back to the subject, as it’s one of my primary goals.

In my post about how the Beautiful Festival played out in practice, I mentioned that building household-level stuff was important, that having the family involved and engaged was essential to me. So now I’m talking about ways of approaching the material to do that.

First of all, a recon note. I love ancient liturgy. (I wish modern liturgy weren’t so often crap poetry.) But for all that it is beautiful and central to the temple-oriented religion, it cannot be how household-based practice was conducted. Even if one assumes that off-duty priests were doing priesting. Because the simple matter is that ancient liturgy was always read, not memorised – that’s why there’s the term ‘lector priest’ – and most people were not literate. Religious practices that depend on being able to read would not have been practices shared by the overwhelming majority of ancient Egyptians, who nonetheless were well-known for devoutness.

One can look to personal piety as inspiration – that quote I’m fond of and have yet to properly source about how every Egyptian woman doing her eye makeup did so as an act of devotion to (or even manifestation of) Hetharu, for example. These things which are appearances of the gods can sanctify our everyday.

But. Back to building household-oriented practices.

I think I’m actually kind of at a disadvantage in this process, because I grew up in a culture dominated by (largely Protestant) semi-to-mostly secularised Christianity. That world in which religion is for Sundays and maybe grace and bedtime prayers, and maybe if you’re good at it you live the ideals during the week, but aside from that there’s nothing to do outside of presents in December and candy in the spring. This isn’t actually something that’s highly comprehensible to children. (Back when I first started attending church, I had options – I was introduced to formal religion explicitly in a context of comparison shopping – and the Catholic service was so incomprehensible as to be terrifying to me, with all the standing and sitting and kneeling at arbitrary times, and then everyone goes up to the front but YOU STAY HERE and… yeah. I wound up going to the notably more kid-accessible church.)

This means that trying to figure out how to mark festivals I have to go back to first principles. I could do the churchy thing and go lector-priest up some texts and recite them, but that – like all the standing and sitting and kneeling at arbitrary times – doesn’t convey either meaning or understanding. I actually feel that working out something my child can understand encourages me to find a deeper and more integrative understanding of each festival we celebrate.

The other thing I do returns, once again, to Judaism. My housemate is Jewish. This means, among other things, that in addition to my draft Kemetic calendar, I have the Jewish calendar set up in my Google calendar page. And whenever I see a Jewish festival upcoming, I look it up on Wikipedia and go to my housemate and say (as I did last week): “Hey, your parents will be visiting over Shavuot. Let’s get cheesecake.” Or whatever is appropriate.

Judaism has a lot of food-related holidays – not so much “this holiday is about food” as “this holiday is marked by traditional food types”, and I think that is an excellent place to start with kids. One of my defaults for major things I mark is to make bread, and that’s something that kids can help with. (A friend once commented to me “It’s so great you’re teaching her to cook so young”. I’m not sure what else I’d do with her if I wanted to also get dinner on the table!) I would put bread high up especially on festivals of Wesir and the ancestors (given His affiliation with the growing grain). I think for occasional victory and triumph feast days I would go for roast beef by preference, given that meat offerings are symbolic of defeated enemies.

Over time, we can build our own food traditions. This is one of my side projects (someday, the recipes will come), actually. The logic can come from festivals (cook or eat something with onions on the Day of Chewing Onions for Bast!) or their offering lists, from the underlying symbolism of the festival itself, from things appropriate to the Powers being honored (I made a cream-based soup for Aset’s birthday once), and so on.

Rituals can be made comprehensible and accessible to children as well. The Festival of the Lights of Nit has lighting of lamps and telling of a sacred story mentioned as ancient practice. And I can tell you: the older kidlet loves to participate in light kindling rituals. She is vehemently enthused by the shrine that has a huge candle throughput, and loves helping maintain it. She was the one who remembered to light candles for Hanukkah most reliably, and I put together a children’s menorah for her using LED lights. Light a lamp and tell a story? Totally accessible to a two-year-old. (Just need to figure out the story and we are good to go.) The ancient Mysteries of Wesir involved, in part, making a corn dolly and letting it sprout in the dark; does anyone think that a kid can’t be involved with and excited by this sort of thing?

Meshing readings and more generally accessible practices strikes me as a good way to bring up children in awareness of religious traditions – once we have come up with appropriate readings for, say, a particular festal meal. This is, again, pondering Jewish practices, such as the seder; there are readings and songs interspersed with food traditions. A major family meal could be conducted this way, interspersing ancient texts with things that kids would understand.

Some things take a lot more pondering. Opet, for example, is a festival that orbits heavily around the power of the state and maintaining and rejuvenating the king. Superficially, one might say that in the absence of a religious dictatorship we can chuck this. But I’m not comfortable getting rid of something this major, and did some research into the actual practices and fundamentals of the festival. I came to the conclusion that Opet is a time for affirming and re-making vows, reconnecting to and upholding functional communities, and doing charitable works; children can be raised in practices that reflect these values.

It’s a work in progress; everything is a work in progress. Sometimes it’s a process of making connections – does ‘raising the djed’ connect to ‘raising the teret’? Both are raising wooden objects linked with Wesir. Can that be turned into something like a maypole celebration? And so on. Sometimes it’s a process of finding ways of interlacing liturgy and more hands-on stuff. Sometimes it’s not enough to do with the kidlet, and I go read liturgy by candlelight, but that always parses to me as something of a failure – not because I’m not doing all of the bells and smells and circumambulating altars and asperging and raising and lowering of trays, because I’m not doing temple-oriented procedure in the first place – but because I haven’t found a way of doing something that a child can comprehend.

If we are really reconstructionists, we are building something that the children are a part of. Neglecting them is neglecting the continuity of life from generation to generation, just as neglecting the ancestors would be.

Beautiful Festival: The Morning After

I am not hung over! Though I only had the beer. Possibly because I also had the milk and thus hydration and stuff (though one beer is just one beer).

Older kidlet and I split the last piece of cake at breakfast. Housemate said, “Ooh, your bread is done!” and grabbed a piece; after I was done with a bit of kid-wrangling, I cut three pieces for offerings. (One for the domovoi, who always gets the first piece I cut of any bread I bake; one for the front yard spirits; one for the back yard spirits.)

The front yard spirits wanted honey on the bread, which is normal and expected. I left it on their usual stump, with one of the sprays of rosebuds from the bouquet. I brought another rose and another piece to the back and left it; the back yard spirits and I have not yet worked out a formal relationship, but as I was leaving I got the distinct impression that they might like some alcohol. Okay then, progress on making friends!

After I came back in from leaving the gifts, I cut a piece of bread for the older kidlet and for myself. I buttered mine; she wanted hers straight up.

I put the remaining roses in a vase.

The liminality of the festival, which got very intense for me overnight, is fading, but even as it fades there is the simple presence of the bread, so intensely symbolic in the way it is of the Duat and of here in the daylit lands.

It’s good bread.

The Beautiful Festival of the Western Valley In Actual Practice

Everything is a work in progress, always. It seems worthwhile to talk about this one, because I’m finding the Beautiful Festival to be very essential, but that doesn’t mean I actually am clear on implementation in practice! I am obsessed with exploring this so that I can know it and build something to improve upon in the future.

Yesterday my daughter climbed up on her footstool in the bathroom and pointed at the stack of little containers of eyeshadow. “You paint eyes purple, green?!” she demanded. I told her, “Tomorrow.”

I don’t do much in the way of cosmetics, but I keep eyeshadow around for religious ritual. This is not without ancient precedent, though I’m almost as likely to paint my face with the stuff as do just the eyes, really. In any case, I did my eyes in black and green – colours of life and death and regeneration – though a bit sloppily. (The problem with eyeshadow is of course that I must take my glasses off to apply it, and thus I can’t see what the hell I’m doing.)

Sacred Luxuries (Manniche) comments about the perfumes of the Beautiful Festival. I don’t have a frankincense and myrrh perfume, so instead (in keeping with the resonance of ‘perfume’ and the word ‘engender’) I put on a perfume that has erotic undertones, and lit frankincense and myrrh incense at my ancestor shrine.

I sit down with Reidy’s Eternal Egypt and flip through the formal ritual for the Beautiful Festival. And mostly I’m left with a whole lot of “Yes, this liturgy is beautiful” and “Yeah, this is not my work, at least not now.” There’s so much stuff that partakes of the formal ritual nature that I love, and it’s not my job – though I know what sort of setup I would want to do more of this, at least. Pipe dreams for future construction, as the family works on establishing more ritual space, I suspect.

The consumable offerings for the Beautiful Festival, according to Reidy, are bread, beer, “water from the inundation”, wine, milk, incense, and cool water. I run through what I have in the house in my mind, and make a note that I want to run to the store and see if I can get a sweet wine and a bouquet of flowers when I have a chance. I also have some cake, which is axiomatically an ancestor offering (it is a recipe that came down from my grandmother, for whom my daughter is named), though there is only one slender piece remaining – one husband put it up on top of the fridge to protect it from the kidlet. I find myself pondering how to rearrange my ancestor shrine space, and file that among the plans that I will want to return to someday.

“Water from the inundation” is an interesting puzzle. This is the water that rejuvenates Egypt, and thus it makes sense that it is particularly associated with this festival. However, that’s not functional either for me here or appropriate to local conditions; retrospectively, it occurs to me that I should have caught some rain from the storms earlier in the month that finally gave the trees enough water to decide to leaf out. There’s a useful thought to file for next year: spring rainwater is a temperate-climate equivalent to water from the Inundation. (And of course I wrote a poem about this in 2003, which startles me with a sort of ‘Wait, I’ve actually been working on these things for a while, haven’t I?’ kind of way. I’m often perplexed by why people are listening to me, but apparently I’ve been doing this for longer than I think I have.)

Hm, water, wine, and milk libations. Noted for the evening. I want to do some formal presentations, even if I am not the sort of priest with the full rituals in place, so I take mental notes for abbreviated consideration.

Of course, life is always more complicated than that, so after lunch we took the older kid to a craft fair that included, among other things, pony rides. These things matter, after all, and I spent odd moments contemplating the nature of spring and festivals. These fairs are how we mark the turning of the seasons here: booths on the common selling jewelry and tchotchkes and pottery, fried food under tents, occasional moments of livestock. (“Sheep and goats!” demanded the kidlet from the back of the car. At least when she wasn’t declaring, “You put colour? on your eye browns? Is greeeeeen?”)

We stopped at the store on the way home, and I picked up a small bouquet of multi-hued roses, primarily gold, which (as I recall Wilkinson) is the colour of the eternal. I also, slightly on a whim, snagged some figs, and then we went across the way and got a bottle of a dessert wine, which I put in the fridge to chill.

Bread. I like to bake bread for major festivals. So I spend the late afternoon dithering about that. Of course, I didn’t pick up yeast when I was at the store, and we have no yeast. Look at my pre-planning skills in action! I spend a while picking out a recipe and get ready to pack up the kids and go back to the store, but wind up starting the bread way too late to get it done at a reasonable hour.

Have dinner. Crack a beer. Wish my sister a beautiful day and an intoxicating drink, for her ka. Schlep offerings up to the ancestor shrine (six instead of the seven Reidy cites, with the note about the Inundation water as a plan for next year; substituting the ancestral cake for the bread which is still in progress).

I get the bread into loaf pans for the final rise, and then go upstairs to get my lector priest on, reading selections from Reidy. I get to the presentation of the flowers and sort of choke up, feeling the sense of things, and only whisper the words at the end.

After a little bit, I put the milk on my side table (I always take milk to bed at night) and reclaim the beer and the wine. In a moment of whimsy, holding one bottle by the neck in each hand, I raise both in the air and proclaim, “For your ka! Drink of the intoxicating drink! It is a beautiful day.” It is a beautiful day.

I take the booze back downstairs to finish baking the bread. Sequencing off, I think, but the theory is quite sound. I feel full of everything, even with my formal ritual kind of half-assed and my bread unbaked. I needed to do as much as I did, reading the prayers by the light of a lava lamp because the candle was not enough to see by.

I will not eat the cake tonight. I suspect the kid would really like me to split it with her, so we will probably have it for breakfast tomorrow, though without grapefruit juice.

Penumbra

This is a horizon time, an edge time.

We do not cross into the lands inhabited by the true of voice, but we hear them, those who have come to their final mooring place upon the western shores. The gates open – perhaps just a little – and we the living can give our good regard to our blessed dead, much as they look over us.

Do we bring food and drink, life-in-death, transformed for use for our ka and the ka of our ancestors? We step into that space between spaces, the edge of the world, where we can, once more, touch.

Do we anoint ourselves with perfume, and go about like the gods themselves, from whose every pore comes sweet scent to announce their comings and their goings? Then, too, we step into the horizon of the world, the shadow place between the daylit and the hidden.

Do we drink, as the custom is, pouring out our wine and our beer and raising them high before partaking of their richness? We bring ourselves into a different place than is the sober day, because we cannot reach across the boundaries between worlds when our own edges are entirely unblurred. This wine is what the gods drink; when we join the ancestors at their table, we will drink as they do when they feast in the halls of the gods, where they live on figs and drink wine. [1]

Do we bring flowers, that sharp spark of sudden, colored life that lasts for the time that worlds embrace and then fades once more as the Duat becomes the Duat and the seen and daylit world fades back into simple actuality? Is its scent the same thread that sews the worlds together with a weave-work of perfume?

This is a time when the seen brings its wealth to the unseen, a simple step in the regular dance of seasons of the world. Only as we give can those on the other side continue to give; only as we love are the worlds held close.

“For your ka! Drink the good intoxicating drink, celebrate a beautiful day.” [2]

[1] Mu-Chou Poo, Wine and Wine Offering in the Religion of Ancient Egypt

[2] Richard Reidy, Eternal Egypt, noted as a traditional toast for the Beautiful Festival.

Verses Out of Rhythm; Couplets Out of Rhyme

My father is here visiting at the moment. Since he reads this blog, a few of our conversations have orbited around what I write here, as well as the concept of reconstructionism and so on, and from there into discussions of what the point is in religion anyway.

His comment was that religion was a conversation about ourselves; mine that religion is about relationships and meaning. (His response was that that was probably the same thing he was saying.) And that reconstruction is interesting because it’s a process of picking up a line of conversation that’s been dropped for, well, a while. (What’s a couple thousand years between friends?)

I don’t often talk directly about gods. I mean, I will refer to the Powers, I will talk about the Powers, and hell, anything tagged ‘lessons’ is actually directly referential to a very specific Power whether or not you can put a name to ’em or even notice that I’m doing it that way. I’ve got more than a few strong opinions about appropriate ways of looking at the gods.

But when I’m talking religion, I’m not typically talking about gods. The Powers are numbered among the sorts of things that we can have relationships with, and the important thing is right relationship. Solving the problem of right relationship as a general case is more important than specific personal relationships with the Powers. When you have the right relationship problem solved, right relationship with the Powers will follow. (That being said, I will probably write about right relationship with the Powers eventually … when I’ve written enough groundwork for it.)

In the general sense, the Powers are part of our framework for observing the world. This is not that Jungian archetype thing unless you take it that way; it is simple recognition of what it means to be an immanent deity with complex interrelationships not only with other immanent deities, but natural events, psychological phenomena, social concepts, and various other things. To start out with, a sound relationship with the world is a necessary foundation to a relationship with the Powers.

This is meaning: to look at the interlacings of, say, life and death as revealed in the Mysteries of Wesir and take that out into the relationship with the world. The establishment of the king of the Duat is the same as the planting of the grain; the great destruction of the hacking up of the earth by the Rivals is the plowing and harrowing. There’s a lot of stuff that we can pull from this, as a handy for-example, and that’s part of the conversation that we have about ourselves, about the world: the way that to eat is to kill, and the way that life emerges from death. That means things, and it means things to us on a human level – something that we can understand about the Powers involved, yes, but something that has important human significance.

I am not going to have a personal relationship with each of the three thousand or so entities whose names or titles we have recovered from monuments (if I’m remembering that number correctly). But I can learn to look at the world in a way that is amenable to the dialogue that is opened by these names.