Days Upon the Year: My Week In The Tub

My folk magic habits are showing here. When I start pondering what to do in the epagomenal days timeframe, my immediate thought – with the disordered and dangerous spiritual nature of this time – is ritual baths. Lots of ritual baths. Cleansing, purification, and protection in ritual baths.

So what I did was pull out my copy of Draja Mikaharic’s Spiritual Cleansing and look through the chapter about baths, trying to pick things out that were somewhat appropriate to the relevant birthday. I knew going in what I was doing for Wesir’s birthday, just out of basic symbological resonances: a beer bath.

The beer bath is a curative for the evil eye. Now, the evil eye is one of those things that many, many cultures have some form of belief in, and ancient Egypt was not an exception. According to Mikaharic, the best treatment for the evil eye is to take about half a tub of lukewarm water, add a quart of beer and a teaspoonful of table salt, and stir them clockwise until well-mixed. Fully immerse in the tub – and do it nekkid! – several times, rinsing with the water. Upon leaving the tub, it’s acceptable to towel-dry hair, but let the bath dry on the skin so that its effect remains rather than getting wiped off. Mikaharic suggests following this with an earnest prayer for cleansing; this is a common follow-on to any of these baths, and thus I think it appropriate to direct a prayer to the Power of the day.

But that leaves the other four days to consider: Heru-Wr, Set, Aset, and Nebet-Het. I had the notion of doing a bluing bath for Aset early (resonance with the heavenly colour; the bath is for revitalisation, I find when I look it up in Mikaharic, so that is also appropriate); if you go that route and can’t find proper bluing, apparently food colouring is almost as good.

My next notion: a basil bath for Set. Basil in this context is cleansing and protective, particularly against overaggressive people. Somehow, that seemed appropriate (and it doesn’t appear to offend Himself, so, hey). Which left me with Heru-Wr and Nebet-Het.

Mikaharic says that a simple baking soda bath is highly-regarded and reliable, so that seems entirely plausible as a possible way of honoring Heru. Heru strikes me as appropriately approached with the classics.

Nebet-Het was hardest; I have settled on a hazelnut bath, I think. Hazelnut is of course for wisdom, but this bath is also for alleviating depression, lack of focus, and difficulty with communication, which feels appropriate for Nebet-Het. I suspect I will make the house smell odd while doing the preparations for this one (nut baths require boiling the nuts for several hours in advance to prepare the bath additive).

I have no idea if I’m going to actually manage a full week of ritual bathing, but it seems like something worth trying.

Closing of the Year

And so the old year dies.

As all the dead, we bind it together, make it whole, affix its head to its bones, straighten its limbs. The old year goes into the tomb, into the arms of its mother, Nut. The old year shall be numbered among the glorified dead. It shall ascend! It shall be justified!

The old year dies, and the river rises, washing away the old forms, dissolving the land into fertile confusion as Wernes is fertile. We step outside of time, to mourn the passing year, to breathe into the space that Djehwty made that Nut’s children might be born, that we might live. The river rises, and the flood sings of grapes, as the strength of the flood foretells the wealth of the harvest.

We are not washed away. We are washed clean and purified. The water returns to us and enkindles life in the resurrection of the vine. We are transformed, and the old year is transformed.

The old year is becoming a bennu.

Raise a toast!

Take to yourself wine
May you be rejuvenated
May you be divine
May the mouth of your ka be opened by it.

Take to yourself wine
That Green Eye of Heru
Which came from your field
From the vines which flourish in your vineyard.

Take to yourself wine
From your favorite place
The divine efflux
The sweat of Ra.

Take to yourself wine
In order to protect Atum
The Sound Eye is filled
With what emerged from it.

Take to yourself wine
In order to please your heart
May you drink deep of it
May your limbs be purified.

Take to yourself wine
May you be made powerful
May you drink as you wish
Of this pure drink.

Take to yourself wine
May you drink together with your company
May those in your following rejoice
May your hands drink with what you love.

Take to yourself wine
May you taste it
May anger be soothed from your face.
May you be satisfied with this provision.

Take to yourself wine
The inudation rejoices at what is within
Bent down with grapes like Hapy
Tribute of the prosperous land.

Drink. Sing. Be merry. Mourn the old year. Be cleansed.

May the mouth of your ka be opened by it.

Reference material: Mu-Chou Poo, both Wine and Wine Offerings in the Religion of Ancient Egypt and the article titled “Liquids in Temple Ritual”. Poem drawn from many, many various wine offering liturgies from various ancient sources.

Closing of the Year, Days Upon The Year, New Year

I just realised that this month has almost completely gotten away from me, and the Closing of the Year celebration falls on Sunday. Woops!

Today’s quote is from Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt:

The fate decreed by the Seven Hathors might be good or bad. Their dark equivalent, the Seven Arrows of Sekhmet, always brought evil fortune, often in the form of infectious diseases. As well as this specific group of seven arrows, there were ‘the slaughterers of Sekhmet’. The demon messengers of this goddess were particularly dangerous at certain times of year. […] Two baboon forms of the god Khons controlled The Books of the End of the Year. These contained lists of those who were destined to die and those who would live.

When I started investigating Kemetic thought, it was summer. I recall this because everyone was talking about how it was totally normal for everything to go to hell in July. It was cleanup time, and the Eyes of Ra were balancing the books and making sure that all the stuff that needed to be dead was getting dead.

(The levels of disruption to the community that were taken as pretty normal strike me now as indicative of something. What does it say about a religious community when that much needs killin’?)

Of course, the ancient logic of this perilous time comes of the Inundation coming in the peak of the heat of summer. The water so essential to life would boil over the scorched mudflats, and the resulting hot swampiness was a breeding ground for the Seven Arrows. So, yes, the flood approached, bringing with it relief and dread, the ambivalence of so many Powers in Egypt. Without it, there would be no food; with it, there would be plague.

The five days following the Closing of the Year are the days out of time, the Days Upon the Year, the epagomenal days. The birthdays of the Children of Nut, yes, but also intrinsically unordered, placed out of the ordered sequence of the 360-day year – a year which, in theory, would be perfectly regular and ordered, a year which was broken to make space for manifest life, and where danger came in through the resulting cracks. The ancients would have done as little as possible on those days, lest the terrible nature of the Days of the Demons (again citing Pinch for the name) infect what was done.

When order is reestablished with the declaration of the new civil year, Pinch notes that the ancients gave each other gifts – often amulets of Sekhmet or Bast, presumably to pacify the Eye goddesses so that the potential for rampaging doom would stop. So if you’re looking for an excuse to give someone a feline-themed trinket….

Anyway.

A few folks have commented that execration rituals might well be an appropriate way of closing the year. I certainly don’t disagree, but I’m sort of mentally taking a different tack on things.

There is a distinction between death and destruction, and execration is a matter for destruction. But death is a different and more complicated thing: a disruption to the community in which the life had resided, certainly, but those spirits take up residence in the Duat, and there become arbiters of powers of life and death, grantors of magic, protectors. Death is a transformation, as much as it is an ending.

So instead of just thinking what enemies I would destroy for the end of the year, I am pondering what can be transformed. I am also pondering what is left undone that needs to be finished; what debts I might be able to pay; what unresolved business can be laid to rest at last; what loose ends to weave together and tie up. This is a time for the books to be balanced – what lives and what dies, they say – but in that great reckoning-up of things, there is more than just what opposes me. There is much that can be taken and changed so that its magic may rest in my belly.

I have a notion for a ritual, which I will write up in a separate post. Must do more research first; I have until Sunday.

You Get What You Reward

I can find theology anywhere.

Screenshot of a GW2 character from last betaI’m a gamer nerd, and one of the things that happens occasionally is that folks around here take up a computer game. Our current Thing is Guild Wars 2, an MMORPG that is due to come out Real Soon Now (we have been participating in the open beta events and playing around with it, hence my ability to actually talk about it).

There are a number of selling points for GW2 – it is very pretty. It doesn’t do the standard All Fantasy Games Are D&D In Fancy Dress thing where all the available species to play are basically the same, with well-known worn-smooth personalities. It has sufficiently intricate worldbuilding to have generated actually interesting-as-a-species human characters with something going for them other than ‘adaptability’ (though, as I commented when this came up in conversation, if that bar were any lower it would be painted on the ground). There aren’t arbitrary “this species can’t play that character class” things. It is not a pay-per-month game so, for folks with complicated lives who may not be able to spend a lot of consistent time gaming, it’s not a constant ongoing expense to try to get some relaxation in. (It makes its ongoing money from ‘you can throw cash at it to get these impulse transactions’ and expansion modules, as I understand it.)

But the thing that gets my serious attention and leads to this post is the way the game structure encourages ma’at.

I’m going to take a moment and compare this to another MMORPG, World of Warcraft. I’ll throw out a few traits of WoW:

  • The playerbase is split between two factions, which are not only at best suspicious of each other and at worst in active conflict, but have no means of communication between them.
  • The first person to land an attack on a given monster “tags” it, such that – regardless of how much other people might contribute to killing the monster – they and their group get sole credit for and rewards for killing the monster.
  • Resource competition can be very harsh in other ways as well, as, for example, if someone collects all the copper lumps in a particular area, there are no copper lumps available for anyone else.
  • Advancement and gear acquisition is heavily dungeon-oriented, and one has to run dungeons many times over in order to collect all of one’s desired equipment through randomised drops. At high levels, the opportunity to do these dungeons is also highly competetive, as groups of people capable of running these dungeons can get very strict and demanding.
  • Various classes are limited in what they are able to do in groups with others. Some have the ability to provide assists to other characters; some can heal other characters; some can bring downed players back from the dead; some can help move folks around. In general, people are locked into roles: the big guy who holds monsters in place, the person who hits monsters hard, the person who keeps everyone else from dying or brings them back when they’ve fallen down. (Some classes can perform more than one of these roles, but they need to pick one to specialise in and tend not to be as good at the other options once they’ve done so.)
  • Questing sometimes comes across as fundamentally pointless. Not long after a new release came out that opened a new continent (after I had stopped playing WoW) I saw a cartoon in which a character talked about the beautiful vistas and new sights in the new continent, and how wonderful it is to meet new people: he then approached an “NPC” to ask what glorious things one could do to help, and got the answer, “I need you to kill five yetis.” Because two-fifths of quests are ‘I need you to kill [number] [nouns]’ or ‘I need you to kill [nouns] until you get [number] items from them’.
  • Further, in order to get those quests, you have to actively find and talk to the quest-giver. If that character had killed two yetis before he got to the guy who wanted him to kill yetis, the guy would have still said “I want you to kill five yetis”, not “I want you to kill three yetis.”

Some of the things that result from this include: a lot of competition and hostility around game resources in areas that currently have a lot of players, which can include some amazing passive-aggressive moves; inter-faction rivalry and hostility that can include significantly powerful characters killing support NPCs and lower-level players for sport and preventing them from being able to complete their missions; complicated politics within guilds that do dungeoncrawls; “grinding”, in other words performing relentless, tedious slaughter of random critters in order to achieve character advancement.

I’m sure you can see how the structure of the game leads to these kinds of results. Which – you know, I played WoW for years and I had a lot of fun with it, before a variety of factors led to my quitting. There’s nothing wrong with the way this universe is set up so long as it’s fun for the people involved, and a lot of people really enjoy a lot of that stuff. It’s okay.

But it’s interesting to see how different structures for setting up a world can create different results.

In Guild Wars 2, there is no tagging of monsters. If there is a pack of rabid wolverines tearing across the countryside slaughtering farm animals and sending villagers fleeing in terror, and you join in the impromptu gathering of heroes who are vanquishing rabid wolverines and saving the cows, then you get experience commensurate with your contribution and have an appropriate shot at getting trophies and useful loot off whatever rabid wolverines you contribute to killing. Which means that, rather than spotting a rampaging monster, noticing its tag, and going, “Eh, someone else is killing that,” the response is the more socially valuable “Rampaging monster! I can join in and help save the farm!”

While there are quest chains, they are primarily personal: you had a dream involving doing this thing, and so, while you may have other people helping you fulfill your goals, there is the illusion that they are yours alone. You are pursuing rumors that your sister may still be alive. You were the only one of your squad who made it through the enemy lines to the confrontation with the big bad. Because the personal quests go through instances (private mini-dungeons) that intimate material remains personal and private, and even though one knows that a huge chunk of the playerbase is at some point going through the same illusory process, it’s still conducted as something that you accomplish as an individual.

Further, while it is possible to do PVP type gaming if you’re into that sort of thing, it isn’t possible to go charging into the home villages of some other species, kill off their mentors, and mow down the low-level characters. Within the default game world, everyone – including species formerly at war – is more or less united against a shared threat, and so there isn’t even a mechanic for slaughtering “the other side’s” farmers. Even if there were such a mechanic, it would be a lot more complicated than it is in WoW, because when you enter a low-level zone, your level is adjusted to match it – so instead of a high-level character being basically immune to the mosquito stings of lowbies, people wind up on about the same level (though a high-level character still has all the skills and powers that they’ve learned, and will thus be more versatile and effective). Among other things, this creates an illusion of comparative equality: like in the real world, as you gain skills and knowledge you don’t suddenly become hugely more resilient, harder to hit, and competent at all other things than folks who haven’t had as much life experience. There isn’t a vast transformation from “level 1” to “level 30” or “level 80” or whatever else in which you become godlike to others. People are still people wherever you go. If you go to help out your younger friends, you don’t overwhelm their petty little problems with your amazing competence and brush aside all opposition with a casual wave – regardless of whether those are people you know in meatspace or in this particular pixel universe.

There isn’t a lot of “questing” in the sense of “go there and do this thing”, and certainly not “killing five yetis” material. In various areas, there are people with various concerns. This farm has problems with bandits, runaway chickens, grubs in the fields, and getting the crops harvested; this spirit shrine needs the graffiti cleaned off it, the young animals fed, the potential enemies flushed out and stomped on; this outpost needs the heraldry and boundary markings freshened up and someone to come through and take out some zombies; the spy outside the enemy camp would love someone to sneak in, free some prisoners, sabotage their defenses, suborn their guard dogs, and demoralise their fighters. If you do things that help them out with their problems, they start to like you more. If you do enough, they decide you’re good folks, they become willing to trade with you, and you get a credit towards completing everything on the local map.

You don’t have to just kill bandits at the farm, though. You can dig up grubs with shovels and then smack them, you can find the runaway chickens, you can bring in the harvest. You don’t have to talk to the farmer first. If you find a chicken hiding in a bush, you can walk up to the nearest farmhouse and say, “Is this your chicken?” I was puttering around on one character recently and found – emerging from the dirt on the side of the road – a hand. I said, “The heck?”, pulled on the hand – because what else would one do? – and it turned into a zombie. I killed the zombie, and someone I’d never met liked me a bit more, because they had a zombie problem. Random acts of investigation and follow-up good deeds (by local standards, at least) are actually effective and rewarded. I didn’t have to stick around and kill twenty zombies in order to get the next quest – I could wander off to the next area and come back to there and kill zombies and stomp on invasive poisonous mushrooms to make friends later.

In and among these fixed-point places with their ongoing problems, there are also special events. Someone is trying to make pie and needs people to bring her apples (be careful, there are giant spiders in the orchard). That pack of rampaging wolverines is tearing through town. The local criminals are trying to poison the well. Termites are attacking a sacred tree. The local spirit is having a riddle-answering contest. A caravan is looking for guards to escort it to its destination. The centaurs are trying to take a particular fortification (or we’re trying to take it back from the centaurs). People can participate, or not, and they get credit based on how much they helped. (I have several times gotten minor credit for helping with events that I was simply near, because I did something marginally useful like kill a centaur that never made it to the grand melee because he was distracted by finding me in the field.)

As far as I can tell, the collecting resources from around the world is also made personal. I’ve seen people go to mine copper lumps at spots where I just got “all” the copper available, so it’s apparent that whether or not something has resources available on it is a personal thing. So people don’t feel a need to lurk around hard-to-find materials and jump on them when they pop before someone takes it away: it is an abundant universe, and there is enough to go around. Similarly, I’m given to understand (I have not gotten this far in my poking about) that when one completes a dungeon, one gets a token for completing it, and can trade that token in for gear of one’s choosing, rather than depending on random luck to get the drop (and competing with others to get it, and having to repeat this for every single piece of desired gear).

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the reviving mechanic. Basically, everyone is competent to perform basic first aid, crack out the smelling salts, or pop on a magic healing poultice. If someone is down, there is nothing to prevent you from waking ’em up other than the pack of rabid wolverines. (WoW has different resurrection mechanics for “in combat” and “out of combat”.) In fact, waking them up is to everyone’s benefit – because rather than increasing competition for kills, that’s someone else who is contributing to being able to actually solve the problem, and the mechanics are optimised for solving the problem rather than committing the most mayhem.

A friend who was in a previous beta weekend commented that at one point she went down under a pack of rabid wolverines, and the local chat conversations turned to, “We have to save her!” and people drove back the wolverines so people could come in and revive her and get her back into the fight. This was not an organised group of people she knew or was hanging out with, it was just the emergent dynamic of a crowd that gets rewarded for the capacity to help others. When people benefit from helping others more than from leaving them behind, more people get helped.

The fact that there are also effects dependent on interactions between characters – like “someone casts a wall of fire, and if you shoot arrows through it they become flaming arrows” – encourages additional layers of teamwork, just like in the real world different sets of skills can combine to produce more powerful results. But that’s almost minor, in its encouragement of eusocial cartoon mayhem.

It is a silly comparison, for sure: a universe in which there are hostile bands of centaurs, swarms of zombies on the prowl, and flashy magic is not the one we live in. But the way people in a given universe are likely to behave is defined by what is possible in that universe, first of all, and then heavily influenced by what behaviour is rewarded. (If WoW changed its code so that killing cross-faction NPCs gave no experience and no loot, it would be a less popular hobby, even though the behaviour was still possible.) If you can’t do something that you’d like to do – if you’re playing the wrong character class to resurrect the guy you just saw go down under the pack of rabid wolverines – you obviously won’t do it. (It was reasonably common in WoW for people who could do ‘buff spells’ that enhance the capacity of others to just randomly cast them on people they went by, after all; people tend to like to help each other out.)

Not all the rules out there in meatspace are ones laid down by the laws of physics. Some of them are laws created by governments. Some of them are social standards and institutions. It’s worth thinking about what we’re rewarding with things we build, because that’s what we’ll wind up seeing more often.

The Nut Cycle: Introductory Thoughts

In the names of the days of the lunar month recorded in Parker’s The Calendars of Ancient Egypt, the twenty-eighth day of the month is named “Heb-Sed Nut”, Jubilee Festival of Nut. Thus, there are twelve Nut festivals, each falling at the end of the lunar month, in most years (great years have thirteen such festivals). The Egyptians thought of “thirty” as the number of years from one generation to the next, and marked the pharaonic jubilee at thirty years, more or less, in order to restore the king to might, and thus each month is a generation governed by the moon’s lifespan, and presided over by the regenerative power of Nut. On the twenty-eighth day of the lunar month, the last light of the moon falls, and perhaps there in the darkness of the mother Nut’s restoration rekindles its light so that Her grandson’s Eye may once again shine whole, twelve or so times a year.

There are also twelve hours of the night. Interestingly – and of course not coincidentally – the character of each of those twelve hours of the night has certain similarities to major festivals celebrated in the same-numbered month of the year. Each hour of the night concludes with a Gate, a passageway into the next hour, much as the gate into the next month might be thought to fall at Nut’s jubilee, such that each lunar month is a preparation for the challenge at the gate.

This is an obvious source for ritual devotion and dedication, to say the least. Here is a place where regular ordinary practice has a chance to go mystical, in the horizon realm of the body of Nut, the hours her months. The Nut cycle is a transformative one, a process of disintegration, reintegration, and rebirth.

It is interesting, of course, to draw the parallels between the Nut cycle and the solar cycle as recorded in the Amduat – that other initiation path, the descent and ascent, which might well be the same set of experiences framed in terms of the Father rather than the Mother. Considering the interlacing of the mysteries of the midnight sun and the generation and rebirth of the solar child is something I thought well worth the effort when I started to compile great heaps of notes, which are, as of yet, unfinished.

So this is one of my little projects: to put together work that marks the Nut cycle. Since I don’t have a functioning lunar calendar, I’ll be using the moons within the civil one that I designed. My personal goal is to have each month’s moon written up around the full moon, so there’s a week and a half or so before the actual Jubilee to work through the process. We’ll see how that turns out.

Next month, the first month of the year, we place ourselves in the hands of the Mother of the Manifest.

Research: The Bootstrapping

So You Want To Do Some Research.

Maybe you’re doing a lot of work with the Kemetic calendar, say. Maybe you have a personal devotion to Nut, and thus are doing a lot of poking at various Egyptian thoughts about the night sky. (Maybe you have other interests as well, which also tie into that wee star obsession.) Maybe some time with Hetharu has gotten you interested in Dendera zodiac. Maybe you were digging through some Duat-related texts and saw ranks of figures crowned with stars and wanted to know who they were.

Maybe something like all of these. Certainly, all of these are part of my deal.

But anyway: a research topic has been picked! Let us research the decans stars. A bit of poking around on websearches makes it clear that we’re not 100% certain what actual stars they were, though of course we know Sopdet.

Well, maybe at least we can get a list of names, right?

After a bunch of poking fruitlessly at websearches (I actually am genuinely bad at finding things on the web; for critical stuff I have some friends that I ask ‘Can you find this thing?’, but mostly I just faff around with mild variants of searches until I find something that points me in a useful direction and lets me get at a better source – a page with a bibliography, say), it occurred to me that I had some books that were there for my calendar research, and one of them might have something useful in it for this sub-project.

So I hauled out Marshall Clagett’s big yellow Ancient Egyptian Science Volume II: Calendars, Clocks, and Astronomy. Now, I will readily admit that I have yet to successfully read this book; I find the prose stultifyingly opaque. I wonder sometimes if it’s because it was published by the American Philosophical Society, since I find a lot of philosophy stultifyingly opaque. Every so often I take a running start and make a go at it and crash painfully into the first twenty pages.

But the book does have a lot of endnotes, and in those endnotes I found “A comparative listing of the two families of decans in the zodiac of Esna A” and “The decans of the zodiac of Hephaestion compared with the decans of the families designated Seti I B and Tanis”. Which was something to start with; I copied the four lists of Egyptian names into a chart.

marked-up list of decansOf course, two of the lists turned out to be identical, and two were very similar, and there was a lot of irritation at getting a program that would let me at least fake the transcriptions so I could get things like the s-hacek and something that was close to most of the other characters involved in writing out transliterated Egyptian.

But in the end, I got a list, and I printed it out, and I attacked it with highlighters. Yellow for things that existed in all four columns! That one blue line for things that might be the same (different spelling, very similar sound)! Pink for stuff like the one that’s one two-word decans in lists one and three, and two one-word decans in two and four! Purple for things that only appeared in two sets, green for things that only appeared in the other two! Which includes … “spdt”. Fuck. Orange for things that were clearly related in lists…. Okay.

Well, that didn’t really leave me feeling closer to anything productive, though I picked out a few patterns with the markup, and that was good to know. I don’t really know how solid this book is as a resource – whether or not the American Philosophical Society does peer review or anything else – but it at least gives me something to point at and think about.

And after a bit of letting that sit, I got the brilliant idea of doing some websearches on decans names that were consistent across the board. I picked out some of the ones that didn’t have complex transcriptions (searching on s-hacek or k-with-a-dot-under-it might make it more likely I’ll get useful hits, but I don’t know if everyone’s doing their transcriptions right!), so I picked stuff like ‘ipsd’ and ‘knmw’ and got a lot of company acronyms until I added ‘decans’ to the search.

And then I found this article, which was a big score, aside from needing to do more lists and cross-comparisons of decans. Which I haven’t done yet, because I’m still digesting information from the article, but that is at least doing stuff that is relevant to me, and is also talking about previous work and refining it and doing all that fussy and warm-fuzzy theory-building stuff that is very, very, tasty. So I look up the research that it’s building on, and find the book, and find …

… the cheap copies are around $2000.

The sound you hear is my head hitting the table.

But! Librarian friend points me at a search site that will see what libraries have it! I may be able to look at it through Inter-Library Loan! Hooray! So … that can get added to my list of things to do…

Comfort Zone

Reconstruction is, of course, right in the middle of my comfort zone. The process, I mean. The collection of data, the cross-connections, the synthesis, a nice dollop of reasonable and intuitive extrapolation, and it’s all good. Everything can be triple-checked against the information, and if it aligns with the way the ancients did it, it’s safe, it’s secure, it’s reliable.

Right?

I’m pretty sure this impulse is one of the reasons that I’ve had conversations with religious witches that basically boiled down to “Your religion is boring and dead.” And why so many reconstructionists drop into that familiar failure mode: I can’t find it in The Lore, so it’s not legitimate! I want three references for anything I do!

Because it’s safe.

Religion – done devoutly – is not actually a safe thing. Oh, it has its comforts and securities, as anyone who has fallen back into the familiar rhythms of shrine ritual can certainly attest; it has its touchstones and its affirmations and its reassurances. It can offer structure, it can build a framework for meaning, it can do all kinds of things.

It can leave one tremblingly angry with the Powers. It can force one to face one’s inner monsters. It can challenge ethics, demand accountability, or otherwise command action. It can demand commitment beyond the easy. It can compel growth. (And, in its shadow forms, it can do the inverses of all these things – in which case the danger is inflicted upon others.)

I’m pondering a lot of comfort zone issues at the moment, really – hence this post. For reasons too complicated and personal to go into, I’m trying to parse out how to build a relationship with a god who isn’t one of the big names around town, who’s present in The Lore (tee em) but usually as more of a casual name-drop than a central figure. I’ve been puttering through my books, doing internet searches, I dig up his entry on archaeowiki (using the archive.org files, since archaeowiki itself appears to be down) and find two book references – one I already own, one I can get for under twenty bucks.

I’m going to get that second reference book when it arrives in a week, and read that article, and after that …

… it’s just me and the god, and me having to ask, “What do you want? What do you have to teach me?”

And I’m betting I won’t really have a better idea of what to expect after reading that section of book than before. But the book is a blankie, that last hint of edging out to the end of the limb on the comfortable parts, before the leaves start to dip under the weight.

Before the leap of faith.

Of Religion And The Spirit

(Rumination and navel-gazing.)

There are times when it seems it comes down to the question “But what do you mean when you say ‘religion’?” Which is a thing I poke at occasionally.

And it’s a bit of a muddle. At its best.

Most of what I post here is intended to be focused on the most general, exoteric, and accessible forms of religion. Religion of the ordinary, the mainstream, the straightforward; this is why I keep going back to the onion-hoers as a touchstone. It’s why I post about ways of causing religion to function within a family unit and performing formal execration rituals with the enthusiastic assistance of a nearly three-year-old. In many ways this is an attempt to return to an understanding of ancient – or at least tribal – modes of religion: “religion” is not something that needs a word, religion is what we do in the context of the holy, and the holy is not hidden away and separated by axiom from all things.

(Malidoma Somé wrote in one of his books about the women of the village gathering to make pots, a prosaic activity perhaps, but there were rituals to begin the process, songs to initiate it, and thus the crafting of new vessels is a thing made holy by the chosen, deliberate action of the community.)

I happen to think that this is really important. And I also think that its comparative rarity is one of the most profound failures of what might laughably be called “the pagan movement” (at least in the US), which remains, in so many ways, so very Protestant, and where it’s not Protestant, so often isolationist. (But back to knowing your mortar.) “Kemeticism for the Solitary Practitioner” is laughable – but it is also what a lot of people seem to want. Either sign up with a temple, or do it alone, right?

(Because the only real community is one built up of co-religionists, because teaching religion to children is some form of abuse, because because because. I don’t care about the reasons for the nonsense: I just wish people would notice that it’s nonsense. My close religious community includes, among others, a UU seminarian, a Celtic demi-recon, and an esoteric troubleshooter. With a mythology that starts out with “Before there were two things” and the recognition of diversification into millions being a part of the basic creative nature of the universe, we are damned fond of monocultural enclaves even though there is no practical way of living in a world where that’s functional. Not just Kemetics, either; I run into hippie-dippy happy pagans who totally want to Found Paganville And Bring Together All The Earth-Centred People In Peace And Harmony every so often.)

So there’s that framework of religion. The broadest, most available, and really most fundamental one: not just in “how do I mark this festival”, but the more important and more neglected questions of “how do I live”.

Within that context, there are more esoteric threads. Personalised devotions to one or more of the Powers, for example, can shape and guide a life. I’m working on building some kind of mystery school, gods help me, and maybe I’ll have it done enough to think of as substantial before I’m fifty. But those have to have a context, a shared set of understandings, and a population to draw from, I tend to think, or they can start to curdle a bit, or other things happen. (I tend to ascribe a large chunk of the growth of Wiccish exoteric religion as being an obvious thing that happens if one tries to do a mystery path without an extended community.)

And there are different kinds of stuff within this category. Building a mystery path is a very different thing from studying, training, or initiating within a mystery path that exists, for example. Dedicating service to a Power as a priest is a different road from a lay mystic, from a person who recognises the will of a patron within their work, or any of a number of other pathways of devotion.

The difference between this and the exoteric category is fundamentally that it is not entirely open. These roads are not available to everyone, for a variety of reasons: not everyone wants to put in the work to train those skills; not everyone is dedicated to that particular and specific Power; not everyone is willing to commit to doing shrine ritual every day. These things are genuinely okay, and it’s a good thing that we are all called to different things or there would be no onions. (Think of the oatmeal shortage!)

But I write some about that sort of thing here, too, though rarely directly. These things are more oblique, and when spoken of in public tend to get wound up in code so that only those people who know enough to Get It will be in a position to think that they Got It. They, too, are things of communities: the community of devotees of this Power, the community of keepers of this mystery, the community of people who do the work of the priest, and so on. Just smaller communities, ones where you don’t get welcomed simply for showing up and saying you want in.

The stuff that’s been occupying me, personally, of late, goes in a third category: the intimate. The personal. Which is a category that is not hidden from the other two – I have written about heka I did to support the conception of a child, in my published book even; I talk about personal interactions with Powers with those who have similar interactions. But there is no group entitled to sharing in these things. In the end, it is between me and the cosmos.

There are ways in which that is a lonely place. And ways in which it is amazing seeing the way a community can make something so intimate, so personal, and so secret possible. Because if I were truly alone, I could not do it.

I am very tired, though.

Holidays of the State

(Since Canada Day was Sunday-observed-Monday, and Independence Day is today, some thoughts….)

Here in Massachusetts (and in Maine, which as formerly Massachusetts shares a few historical quirks), there is a holiday called Patriots’ Day on the third Monday in April. The original observance was 19 April, the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were the first in the American Revolutionary War. It is a day off for a lot of people; the Red Sox always play at home, and there has at least been an attempt to time the baseball game to get out around when the Boston Marathon – also held that day – is going through Kenmore Square.

There is (or was, I haven’t heard anything from them for a while but I hope they still exist) a Greek reconstructionist group who considered Patriots’ Day a holy day, and would thus process, garlanded, from the State House down to the Public Garden and pour libations at the feet of the statue of George Washington, honoring the heroes of the Battle of Marathon, the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy, and the victorious athletes of the marathon race (and occasionally, when appropriate, the Red Sox). Sure, this isn’t a date on the Athenian calendar so often used by Hellenic reconstructionists – but Boston was the polis that they lived in, and this was clearly the day that the entire polis of Boston was celebrating its hero cult, in traditional Greek fashion with contests of athleticism, even.

I think about them a fair amount. It’s such an easy, obvious thing to do, when one is actually thinking in a way that the ancients would have recognised. Of course one pours to the heroes of the city on the day the city celebrates its heroes.

It is certainly the case that the Egyptians blended their “civic” and “religious” holidays extensively. After all, the execration ritual that I documented performing during the Festival of the Beautiful Reunion had very little to do with the marriage rites of Hetharu and Heru, and a whole lot to do with the business of ritually cursing the enemies of the king, in order to maintain confidence in the security of the state. Some of the work that gets done in terms of reconstruction is figuring out which things attached to those days can make sense in a modern situation where not only are we not operating with the more or less unified population of a nation, but where we are a tiny, fringe minority.

We will almost certainly never have massive city-wide festivals of people celebrating Opet again. But … and here’s an interesting thing … can we do something like those Hellenics did? Can we join massive city-wide festivals and make of them something meaningful to us in a theological sense?

Is Flag Day a day of a processional standard? Does Inauguration Day establish Heru upon His throne? Is the Queen’s Birthday a festival of the royal ka – that symbolic place of pomp and ritual that demonstrates the world working as it should be? Is Guy Fawkes Day a celebration of a defeat of the Confederacy of Set or, even more dramatically, a smiting of Apep? Might Unification Day in Germany celebrate the Reconciliation? Obviously, these questions will differ depending on the nation in which one resides, and the comfort one has with affiliating one concept with the other. (For example, National Foundation Day in Japan has, at some level, an invocation of Amaterasu as royal ancestor; one might not want to potentially offend Her by adding on an udjat-Eye of Ra as royal protectress festival. On the other hand, She might be perfectly happy with the return of the sun to nationalistic imagery – and it’s the people who know Her and Her nation who will have to think about that.)

I could keep looking for new holidays to theorise about – so many post-colonial nations have some form of Independence Day, is that Heru declaring Himself against His usurping uncle? – commemorations of military victories can be marked as Festivals of Victory – commemorations of war dead are clearly days to honor the Westerners – but I’d rather, for the moment, leave it more open, and raise this as a theoretical ponder.

When celebrating a religion which blended the understanding of the state and the understanding of the divine, and while coming up with ways of celebrating holidays with state aspects despite no longer having an equivalent position, how can we sacralise and divinise our national holidays, and bring our understanding of the holy back into alignment with the nations in which we do, actually, live?

This has other consequences, but that is too deep a post for a holiday morning. I would rather just ask: how can we use our theology to become better members of our local, regional, and national communities, rather than to feel ourselves set apart from them, different, and alien?

Execration Via Small Child

I commented upon this subject when I wrote The Festival of the Beautiful Reunion. But it seems worth chronicling actually performing these rites.

I will begin by quoting Barbara Watterson’s The House of Horus in Edfu: Ritual in an Ancient Egyptian Temple, specifically a part of the chapter entitled “The Feast of the Joyous Union”:

The subsequent rites were of a prophylactic nature. A red wax model of a hippopotamus, with the names of the King’s enemies inscribed on it, was brought in. The names of these enemies were then written on a sheet of new papyrus; and a hippopotamus was modelled in sand. And then, according to the texts, ‘every harmful thing that you can think of was done to them.’

Now, we don’t have a whole lot of enemies of the state kicking around here, but that’s not saying that we don’t have enemies. So I wrote them down on the piece of paper: “stress”, “lack of sleep” (of course we have lack of sleep, there’s a baby), “unexpected house repairs”, and a few other things. On, of course, a sheet of new paper.

And then I drew a good Egyptian knife through each of them. And I drew a red hippo, and drew some knives through that. (I didn’t have a handy source of red wax or sand, but I figured a big red hippo in crayon was not a bad start.) And a big snake, and knives! And an antelope for good measure. I think that one only got one knife.

And, of course, the older kid did her own scratchings-out of these enemies. In a variety of colours. It took a little encouragement to get her going, but we got some good thorough scribbles on there between the two of us.

Then, of course, taking a page from the additional ritual of ‘treading the fish’, we stomped on our enemies. I must say that jumping is one of the kid’s favorite things – one of her regular nicknames around here is Stompy – and this is probably one of my favorite photographs of her ever. It’s not every day that Mama says “Here, let’s jump on this!”

We did a lot of rounds of her jumping on it. Then I did a round of jumping on it. We jumped on it together, as well, doing a little stompy circle dance around and around on that little piece of increasingly crinkled paper. (Unfortunately, the photographs of us together didn’t have a whole lot of awesome in them, because I was stomping pretty slowly so as not to bowl her over in our stompdance upon the inscriptions of our enemies.)

Those enemies took a lot of stomping, but we were up for the task. Stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp.

Of course, after that we had to rip up the piece of paper, and really I wound up doing most of that because we’ve gone to some effort to teach her not to rip up pieces of paper, because we have a lot of books around here.

Though I did start a few tears, and she finished them off, and eventually we had a little heap of crayon-scrawled, mashed scraps of irregular paper, all ready to take outside and burn.

Which is what we did.

I wound up setting up the heap of paper on a pile of cinderblocks we have sitting in front of the house, and of course she wanted to watch so she climbed up to perch on the wall and I had to warn her not to play with the fire. But we set it on fire, and she declared that it was, indeed fire, and I kept poking at the scraps to make sure that all those bits got burned, all those dangerous symbolic animals and lurkers around the fringes, all those bits of angst and issues that were causing us trouble.

And then there was the satisfaction of victory, our enemies obliterated. The safety and security of the state of us is preserved for another year, thus: