The same but different

Ritual acts recorded in temples and on papyri surviving from ancient Egypt often have very similar utterances, with closer parallels being encountered both regionally and over time. However, variation in the arrangement of ritual episodes was the norm. Variability in the order of ritual episodes is particularly well established for mortuary rituals, such as the Book of the Dead, prior to the Ptolemaic period[…]. This situation has led to confusion in reading ritual cycles, particularly those depicted in three-dimensional space on temple walls. The two ritual cycles that formed the core of day-to-day ancient Egyptian ritual–the Daily Ritual and the Ritual of the Royal Ancestors–were neither read nor performed as a series of step-by-step instructions. Rather depictions of these cycles each represent a particular view of a web of interconnections between a large staff of priests and temple servants, deities and divine images, and more abstract ideas. Taking this view eliminates many of the conflicts and contradictions encountered in earlier studies of Egyptian temple ritual. Moreover, understanding the ways in which these daily cycles can be read and the ways in which they may have been performed is also essential to study of festivals because many festival celebrations included special versions of regular daily episodes as well as episodes only performed for festivals. However, it raises other sets of problems.

– Katherine Eaton, Ancient Egyptian Temple Ritual: Performance, Patterns, and Practice

One of the things that I occasionally harp on in terms of reconstructionist theory is the fact that the nature of the past is unrecoverable. This idea, though, that there’s a constellation of meaning and relationship that is evoked in the structural underpinnings of ancient ritual – that’s important. That’s why one does this thing.

Because if there wasn’t some sort of thing that can be pointed at as special and distinct about the ancient stuff, there wouldn’t be a point, would there? One might as well make up one’s own rituals. But this idea that there are things the ancients did that arranged things in certain ways, to create a certain impression and a certain state of the cosmos, and that we can take some of those things and some new things that apply to us in the here and now and arrange them, too, in the hope of gaining something important (we cannot know if it is the same impression, the same state of the cosmos), that’s worthwhile.

One of the things I love in ancient texts is the poetry of them. The depth and gravitas. And modern poets can have that, but a lot of them… don’t. (I got a Kemetic ritual book at one point and was rolling around in the texts, enjoying the patterns and the feel of the prose, and then there was this needle-screech-on-the-record effect when suddenly it dropped into Modern Pagan Rhymed Couplets.)

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One thought on “The same but different

  1. […] it is probably just plain “wrong”, but who cares if it works. I’ve written about the unrecoverability of the past. I’ve written about other things […]

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