The Problem of Time and Place

I’ve been doing another round of calendar-crunching. (Which is, as before noted, not an easy problem.)

One of the reasons for the lack of easiness is that of the scattered and fragmentary calendars and calendar references we have, most are from different times and places from each other, which means that they come from different periods and different localisations of religious development.

Egyptian religion is not like Hinduism, a set of related practices and beliefs viewed from the outside by a colonising power and declared to be one monolithic entity. There was, at most times through antiquity, some level of unifying force in the state cult practices and the conceptualisation of Egypt itself as a nation.

But it is more like Hinduism than I think most people process. Each city had its own preferred gods, with its own stories and its own essential festivals. Some grand enough to attract national-level attention, others less significant, all wound through with the personal tie each location had to its particular powers.

This is not Greece, with its defined city-states each with its own calendar and politics and different things, giving grounds for declaring – as a local Hellenic group did, much to my delight – that the local civic holidays are clearly the holidays of our civic gods and heroes. Those localities, the nomes, were still part of a unified nation.

But yet. But yet.

When I put together the public version of the lepidopterist’s calendar it was using dates which appeared in more than one calendar, trying to work primarily with stuff that seemed persistent over time and perhaps nation. (Though given that there were a number of calendars surviving at Edfu and essentially nothing from the Old Kingdom, that may be a bit of a stretch, wot?) But the more I work with this, the more I feel the need to build the underlying nature of the flow of the year, to find how it works.

It’s actually easier for me to imagine this with the Egyptian calendar than many others, as my own personal rhythms of the year – perhaps in part set by following an academic schedule through childhood – match it pretty well. But the more I delve into this, the more I need to return to what was actually an ancient practice: each month themed with a particular power, focused around a particular festival (usually one which gave the month its name), making the shape of the year a matter of moving through the mythological universe and being aware of its significances.

Of course, the end result of such an interpretative lens is that I create something that is more specifically tuned to a particular “place”, a particular way of being and interacting with the gods. Which means that it will be less generally useful to all people with an interest, but I think that’s inescapable; as soon as a choice-set starts to include accessibility and living within the context of a religion, the more subjective factors start to become much more relevant.

It’s an interesting ponder, and the hope of getting something that flows out the far side will probably get me through the tedious bits until then, heh.

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Basics: Thoughts about Ancestor Shrines

I am currently in a point of my life at which I am half sick of theory. So I’m writing a nice post about something practical that can be done. Specifically, the basic practice of establishing an ancestor shrine.

I do a lot of things that are rooted in historical practice, and a lot of things that are simply and straightforwardly personal. I also have a lot of ideas that I have not yet successfully implemented, or ideas that I will never implement but am willing to suggest to others in case they find them useful.

First of all, and right up front: I do not only honor bloodkin on my ancestor shrine. My community is larger than that. I do honor not only to the elderly neighbors who adopted me as a bonus grandchild, but to important thinkers and friends – and people who were important to my parents as well, for that is part of my heritage. I have tokens of relationships that have ended, pictures of pets, and so on. All of these are part of the great what-came-before, the pool of life-energy that made me, not merely as a living body, but as the person that I am.

The photographs I have are only of people who have gone to the beautiful West. I consider it bad luck to put a photograph of the living on the ancestor shrine, a sort of implied curse – therefore I cannot put the only photo I have of my great-grandfather there, as it includes myself as a baby! (I had a couple copies of it printed, though; at some point I intend to try to trim one of them down a bit so I can display it safely.) I keep things that include the living near the shrine but in a distinct space to one side.

I have the shrine set up against the western wall of my bedroom. It actually occupies one end of my desk. I have a lot of assorted Stuff there. In addition to the photographs, I have things that belonged to and were loved by my ancestors and others – a plate painted for me by one of those neighbors, a Book of Common Prayer belonging to my grandfather, a glass bottle belonging to my other grandfather, my great-aunt’s Polish-English dictionary, and so on. At some point I will get some shelves or something put up which will help organise the clutter; I suspect some things will go onto the adjoining south wall as well.

The shrine itself is a double-doored antique cabinet that I found a few years ago. It mattered to me to get something with double doors; the gateway between the material world and the unseen world is constantly described as having double doors in ancient material, and even if what’s behind those doors are a few drawers filled with other ancestral knick-knacks, it’s important symbolism for me.

I have been pondering – if a cabinet is too difficult for people to do – the use of the false door. False doors are an old tradition in Egypt, of course, and were often inscribed with prayers and such things. It would be easy enough to paint the nested doorway motif on a piece of wood, if someone wanted to have such a thing as the backplate for their own ancestor space. (I may add it to my own at some point.)

The furniture for it is mostly put together out of other ancestral items – my candleholder is my grandmother’s ashtray, for example. The offering cup I put out routinely was a piece my grandparents bought at Williamsburg. The incense burner is new, but shaped like a boat.

I think the boat is a useful and important tool, and I think I will want to get a dedicated one at some point, rather than just the incense burner one. The relevant boat in Egypt was one of the long flat barges that we see in so much artwork, with the prow and stern bent upwards and ending in lotus flowers. So much of the symbolism we have involving the ancestors has to do with boats, with providing them with boats, starting with the sixth-day festival and moving to other grander things, that I think I’m starting to come down on the side of wanting a model boat on the shrine.

One thing I want to do at some point is get a book. A book to write down the stories in, the memories, to record the names of the people I have loved and lost. This is a means of immortality, to remember the names. To write down each and every one of them, with stories, with understanding, to hold that space. I’m feeling very particular about the book, though, so that’s not happening quickly at all.

Another thing I want to do is get model food for shrine offerings (in general, as well as for this shrine). This is of course an ancient practice – heck, they’d also have stelae with names of offerings written on them and ask people to pour water there to activate them – but I haven’t done it yet. I have done food offerings with my ancestors, but I don’t have dedicated plates for them, I just use the ones we have downstairs. At the very least I think I need bread, beer, meat, and roast duck, since those are the sixth-day offerings explicitly mentioned.

So, core points for ancestor shrine:
* some sort of gateway to the West (double-door, false door, etc.)
* cup, candleholder, incense holder
* material items and representations of the akhu
* boats!
* offerings of various kinds, whether actual or representations

And that should be a good place to start.

By Request: Sixth-Day Festival (snwt)

I mentioned the sixth-day festival in passing recently, and a friend asked me to write about that. And that seemed like a worthwhile thing to write about, especially since I did a bunch of research for it when writing the relevant section of the guide, so I figured I could do that for her, no problem.

This is an akhu festival, held on the sixth day of the lunar month. The Egyptian lunar month counts from the new moon (to a reasonably sane first approximation from ancient practice), so the sixth day festival will typically fall two days before first quarter. In Egyptian, the festival is called “snwt”, which means “sixth”, so Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin.

We see references to the sixth-day festival in the Pyramid Texts. (Utterance 408 names festal meals of the sixth and seventh days along with the Wag-Festival; 458 mentions the new moon, the monthly, the half-monthly, and the sixth-day; 493 has the speaker say that “at the sixth-day festival in Kheraha I eat of the pregnant cow like those who are on On”.) These references continue and elaborate until, in Spell 136A of the Book of Going Forth by Day, there is an extensive description of the spell’s recipient enjoying the festival in the boat of the gods.

It seems to me that this is a night festival, as there are mentions of the starry sky which is in Heliopolis in the first line thereof. (It also mentions Kheraha, which a little side research suggests to me may have been considered a prime site for the Contendings; regardless, two types of holy ground are invoked in affiliation with this festival in several texts: the settled reign as established in the first time at Heliopolis, and the Conflict and presumably its resolution sited at Kheraha.)

The ascended spirit for whom this spell is being worked is declared to be taking control of the divine boat, specifically the one associated with Wesir, with the lotus flowers on either end, whose name has fallen clean out of my head right now. This boat ascends to the sky, also named as Nut herself, with the ascended spirit, Ra, and a crew of apes; Geb and Nut rejoice; Wennefer is praised and his name exalted.

This praise is:

You are abundance, the greatest of the gods, widespread of sweet savour among all those who are not ignorant of you. Your warshout is harsh, O swiftest of the Ennead, you being stronger, more besouled and more effective than the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt and their powers. May you grant that N be great and mighty in the sky just as you are greatest of the gods; may you save him from anything that those who hunt with yonder Adversary may do against him. May his heart be valiant, may you make N mightier than all the gods, the spirits and the dead.

The remainder of the spell goes on to describe the effectiveness of this prayer to Wesir in establishing potency, granting peaceful passage onto Ra’s bark for its new glorified navigator, providing that the so-named can ‘drive off the aggressor against Ra’ and ‘come like Heru into the holy place of the horizon’. The named is identified with the god within the holy of holies of the temple, whose face is hidden, and he is granted the office of prime messenger delivering the words of the other gods to Ra.

The rubric for the spell is as follows:

To be recited over an image of this spirit placed in this bark, you being cleansed, purified, and censed in the presence of Ra, with bread, beer, roast meat and ducks; it means that he will be conveyed in the Bark of Ra. As for any spirit for whom this is done, he will be among the living, and he will never perish. He will be a holy god, and nothing evil shall ever harm him; he will be a potent spirit in the West, and he will not die again. He will eat and drink in the presence of Osiris every day, he will be admitted with the kings of Upper Egypt and the kings of Lower Egypt every day, he will drink water from the stream, he will go out into the day like Horus, he will live and be like a god, and he will be worshipped by the living like Ra every day. A matter a million times true.

So, for the snwt-festival: come before the ancestor shrine having done ritual cleansing and supplied with incense. (I tend to use a frankincense-and-myrrh mixed incense for ancestor workings. There was a logic and reasoning behind this at one point which I have of course at this point entirely forgotten.) The appropriate offerings are pretty obvious: bread, beer, meat, duck. This is a time for the model boat to come out as a conveyance for the ancestors (my incense burner is actually shaped like a bark, so the ancestors are always emboatened).

It seems to me that the critical portion of the spell is the prayer I quoted; the rest is description of the scene involving the boat and recitation of the spell’s effectiveness. A recitation of the entire spell would not be inappropriate, of course, but the critical part is the invocation of Wesir and the petitioning of his strength and protection for the ascended spirits of the ancestors.

So that’s what I’ve got for ya, I’m sure you can work with that.

Relevant references: The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts and The Egyptian Book of the Dead, both translated by Faulkner; Royal Annals Of Ancient Egypt, Wilkinson.

Back to the Beginning, Again: Embodiment

Okay, I fell off the blog wagon again, but let’s take the new year as it goes and get back to it, and start at the beginning again, again.

Consider the structure of ritual, the practice of being. The real basics, not the fancier things, the tools we apply to resonate with the souls.

We light fire: we kindle sight.
We burn incense: we bring life to the nose.
We speak prayers: our ears are opened.
We make offerings: we taste of the Eye of Heru.
We perform gestures: our bodies answer the call.

Religion is an embodied act. This is not an accident, a happenstance, because the point is not just what we do before the shrines, but what we take with us into the world, which is full of substance.

I am as prone as anyone else to wander off into the abstract and the transcendental (honestly, I am perhaps more so than many, for various reasons), but the truth of the matter remains: religion is embodied. And there is a lot out there that would teach us to de-body ourselves, or deny our bodies, or to try to escape them like a Houdini’s performance.

But if we come back to ritual, we come back to sight, to scent, to sound, to taste, to touch. And, if the ritual is well-constructed, these bring us to spiritual awareness, to presence, to a full grasp of being.

One of the reasons I have always preferred to do my Kemetic rituals at night is this: when I strike the light in the darkness, when I kindle Zep Tepi, it feels like it means more. There is a deeper resonance for me to bring the light out of the darkness. Perhaps – were I a morning person at all – I could get the same effect kindling the light in the pre-dawn, letting the lamp rise with the sun. (But the twilight of dawn is still light, so that is a large maybe.)

It is presence in the moment.

It is worth cultivating.

(It is also hard. At least for me.)