Drink the Good Intoxicating Drink

A very common expression in the liturgies of wine offering is “may you be powerful through it (wine)”. This could have been a pun on the name of Sekhmet if viewed through the Hathor-Sekhmet myths. It may also have been simply a description of the condition after wine-drinking. This condition of being “powerful”, however, is perhaps more than a state of mind or physical prowess after the stimulation of alcohol. Rather, it refers to a rejuvenating power that was embodied in wine. Thus a text read:

The wine you like is offered to your divine ka; its vineyards flourish in Edfu, the Eye of Horus (i.e. wine) of Imet which rejuvenates (snrp) your heart, together with inmt (wine) which came from Bahria — may you be powerful through it; may you eat (i.e. taste) it; may you drink it. It is pure.

Similarly, another text reads:

May you be dignified through wine (š3); may you be rejuvenated through wine.

Wine and Wine Offering In The Religion of Ancient Egypt, Mu-Chou Poo

Reconstruction is a Lie

I’ve been going around and around again on whether or not I can call myself a “reconstructionist”. Whether my standards of truth allow for the sort of truthiness that is required to use that concept at all.

The illusion of reconstruction is that the process results in something that is “what the ancients/the ancestors practiced”. That’s the inner mythology. And that’s the lie. The big one. The imaginary comfortable place that lets people believe that they’re digging in to finding something secretly More True than what they had before.

It’s comforting. It’s comfortable. It’s complacent.

And it’s wrong.

I started out early on sort of acknowledging this, the fact that all I’ve got is my own research, my own interpretation, and what I pick up from other people.

And I write about the problems. I’ve written about knowing the mortar that is used to line the broken blocks that are used to build new traditions (and I am not going to say rebuild traditions because we are not doing that and we need to stop lying to ourselves and each other); one of my side projects with a friend is compiling something that we refer to as The List, which is a giant heap of things we’ve noticed people carrying over unconsciously into pagan religions which owe more to a largely-Christianised enculturation than where they may want to be going. I’ve written about the question of the unrecoverability of ancient Mystery religion. I wrote, a bit whimsically, on the difference between ‘reconstructed’ worldviews and the actual organic evolutions of those worldviews. I’ve written about applying information from scattered times and places without really addressing the fact that the most widely scattered time and place in play is here, now. I’ve written about the intrinsic social context of religious practice. I’ve written about making a fucking decision about ambiguous material and acknowledging the odds that 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 too.

I’ve written about all these things, and I’m wondering, not for the first time, if the collection of all these things means that the thing called “reconstruction” is a will o’wisp, something that leads people into bogs and has them sink and die.

It’s construction. It has to be. There is no option otherwise, and perhaps the idea there might be is poisonous. It creates the idea that there is a true cultus, a true way of worship, that one group’s interpretation of the facts that have been recovered is the true way, that others are failures; at its worst, it unthinkingly copies the Christian notion of the fall from Eden: our ancestors had paradise (a “true” relationship with the gods) and fucked it up by changing traditions, whether by choice or force, and we must live with the terrible consequences of their sinful choice.

I am not any form of Christian; I have no interest in reconciling with a Fallen creation. I believe that a Fallen creation is actively antithetical to core principles of Kemetic theology, in fact, with its ethos centreing rebirth, renewal, and restoration.

But the healed Eye is not the uninjured one. If it were the same thing, it would not have the value it gains by the process. The myth would be null and meaningless.

I cannot reconstruct. I do not have the pieces of ancient religion like a Lego set, complete with instructions of which bit to click in where. If what I have is a Lego set, it is maybe an almost entirety of a set that isn’t large enough to do anything useful with with the instructions lost, supplemented with a third of that set, a fifth of that set, a fraction of the other set, six blocks I know came from that set there but I don’t know where any of the rest are, a double handful of other blocks which may or may not be from related sets, a bucket of Duplos from my childhood, and a plush snake toy that the kids insist on keeping with it all.

I have to decide what to build with that. I have to figure out what makes sense to build with that.

And even if I decide to set aside the plush snake, and declare that the Duplo blocks, while compatible with the Legos, aren’t the same thing, and separate the Lego Star Wars from the Lego Elves and the Lego Minecraft and the Lego Whatever Else Is In There and just do one thing, and even if I have enough blocks after I do that to do the one thing, and even if I somehow were to manage to do the One True Thing that the blocks were intended for (and thereby buy into the villain motif from The Lego Movie, which I just re-watched with the kids recently and is probably to blame for some of my metaphor here)…

… well, the metaphor falls apart there, because the inescapable fact is that I don’t live in the same world that the people who originally had those blocks did.

And this isn’t a statement about Oh We Know More Science or Oh I Live In A Different Country or Oh Cultural Exchange Looks Different Now or Oh Politics Looks Different Now. Or not just a statement about these things.

It’s a statement that if it were rebuilt exactly the way it was, it would fail. If “reconstruction” were a perfect success, the results would die, leaving the relationships it claimed to be resurrecting unhonored, because they do not have meaningful connection with the real world in which people live.

I have a theology that has many things to say about power. And that theology grew up in a world that had no banks, let alone corporations. I have a theology that has many things to say about abundance. And that theology grew up in a world in which much of the infrastructure was fundamentally focused on food access and preventing starvation in hard times, while I live in a world where people devote infrastructure to making sure that people suffering hard times are having a time hard enough to be fed from the plenty that exists. I have a theology that has many things to say about the moral rightness of the state, and a state that fails on most of those points, and where many people attempt to paint those failures as virtues.

The ways of the people who originally had those building blocks are not our ways, and never can be. The thing we build has to be responsive to the world as it is, not an age in which kings could be believed to be devoted to upholding ma’at and the storehouses of the temples were stocked in case the Flood failed to come. The traditions that assume those to be the case will fail us, betray us, and betray the gods; the world in which they were functional is long gone.

How can I call myself a reconstructionist? I don’t know. Today, I don’t think I can.

I don’t have any better words, though. I do the research. I find the things, I try to put them together into coherent wholes, this is a thing that is called reconstruction.

But the whole “reconstruction” thing, the illusion that I am returning to the old ways in some fashion, is too big a lie for me these days. The old ways are gone for reasons, and many of those reasons have nothing to do with compulsion.

Maybe I’m reconstructing Ipuwer. Whether or not it’s true, the thought makes me chuckle, which is… probably for the best, right now. I’m very tired.

Maybe I don’t want to say reconstruction.

Maybe I want to say recommitment.

Recommit, and construct from there.

Face the Music

In the annual Opet Festival, during which Amun traveled from the Karnak temple to the Luxor temple, the procession was greeted by the queen who shook two sistra. Behind her was a group of seven women, labeled “Singers of Amun,” who hold menats and shake sistra before the boat that carried the god. As the boat carrying the god returned to Karnak, temple singers with sistra and menats performed near a man with a large double-ended drum slung around his neck and a group of Libyans with clap sticks. In another scene from the festival, three temple musicians “of the khener of the temple,” with their sistra and menats, performed in conjunction with a larger group composed of a harpist, three men who clap their hands to keep the beat, male dancers, and a group of acrobatic female dancers who do back flips and throw their hair over their faces.

The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt, edited by Emily Teeter and Janet H. Johnson

Human Responsibility

Assmann argues that the ancient Egyptian gods were thought to be absent from everyday life (as opposed to the Greek gods, for example), creating a particular human responsibility that was required to draw them into the earthly realm. Whether we accept Assmann’s bold statement that the Egyptians doubted the “real” existence of their gods in their temple space, it does seem to be the case that the state, the community, and the household took on the responsibility of pulling divinity into their lives through means of complex and symbolic rituals, all of them charged with magical power.

– “The Daily Offering Meal in the Ritual of Amenhotep I: An Instance of the Local Adaptation of Cult Liturgy”, Kathlyn M. Cooney and J. Brett McClain

Models of Authority

Every so often I come across someone referring to something I wrote – sometimes attached to me, sometimes broken loose and wandering free across the wild internet – and tagged with “of course, a priest would say that” or “this person is a priest” or some other thing.

Other times I encounter people taking some of my work as some sort of scriptural revealed text, a The Right Thing To Do, some sort of authoritarian declaration of correct practice.

These things make me want to ragequit and stop putting my research on the internet. They make me tired.

Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.

– Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

I am not a priest.

To the extent that I am training to be a priest, it is not Kemetic, and I am for damn sure not your priest.

I am a researcher. I am a scribe. I am a writer. I am – occasionally – a mystic. I have aspirations to being a rekhyt and a sau.

I am putting out ideas and information in the hopes that some people find it useful, while I work it out for my own usage and systematisation. Take what you find useful. Ignore what you don’t find useful.

Do I think I’m right in some abstract sense? No. That would be stupid. I don’t think it is possible to be right in some abstract sense. There is no perfect reconstruction, and no way of making one. Everything is adaptation from limited information, and tweaked to work for the people building it.

Do I think I’m making something that works? Well, that’s the goal. If it works for you too, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t. Your personal practice, your involvement with your gods, your responsibilities, those are certainly not my business. I neither desire nor value your ritual compliance. Your piety is a problem for you, your ancestors, and the Powers.

Put the shopping carts away or don’t.

And come up with a word for someone who says things other than “priest”, damnit.

(Nothing active is making me feel the need to say this right now, mind, it’s just something that’s been stewing for months.)

And now something practical

The remainder of the verso is occupied with magical spells of considerable interest, unfortunately marred by numerous lacunae. The first of these is directed against a complaint called by the Egyptians gs-tp ‘half-head’, which Goodwin long ago recog nized as the origin of the Greek [hemicrania], our ‘migraine’ or ‘megrim’. There could be no more eloquent testimony to the dependence of Greek upon Egyptian medicine.

i) A CHARM FOR EXORCIZING HEADACHE. 0 Rë, 0 Atüm, 0 Shu, 0 Tefënet, 0 GEb, 0 Nut, O Anubis in front of the divine shrine, 0 Horus, 0 Seth, 0 [Isis], 0 Nephthys, 0 Great Ennead, O Little Ennead, come and see your father entering girt with radiance to see the horn(?) of Sakhmet. Come ye (?) to remove that enemy, dead man or dead woman, adversary male or female which is in the face of N, born of M. TO BE RECITED over a crocodile of clay with grain in its mouth, and its eye of faience set [in] its head. One shall tie (?) (it) and inscribe a drawing of the gods upon a strip of fine linen to be placed upon his head. TO BE RECITED an image of Rë, Atüm, Shu, Meliyt, Gab, Nut, Anubis, Horus, Seth, Isis, Nephthys, and an oryx on whose back stands a figure’ carrying his lance.

from Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, Third Series, Chester Beatty Gift, edited by Alan H. Gardiner

An old book, but, you know, even a seventy-year-old translation of a spell against migraine is worth knowing. At least I assume that other migraine sufferers will agree with me on that one. ;)

And now, flowers!

Corresponding to the length of the papyrus stalk, gaily colored blossoms or petals, especially blue Nymphaeae, cornflowers, and red poppies, are grouped by stages around this trunk so that the bouquet as a whole looks as though it consisted of many members nested one inside another. One is strongly reminded of certain Egyptian faience necklaces of the Empire, the individual members of which consist of blossoms thrust into one another, of the same sort as are still much worn in Indian today, and among us, too, are prepared by children out of elder blossoms.

– Ludwig Keimer, “Egyptian Formal Bouquets”, The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 41.3 (1925)

One of the interesting things about doing research is the rabbitholes that one goes down. I started from the book on temple ritual that I’ve been quoting on and off, which has a mention of the Ritual of the Royal Ancestors having variations for particular holidays. Which included a mention of something about bouquet presentation for the sixth-day festival, so I tried to chase that down, and my attempt to chase down the papyrus the author there was quoting came up with something that does not appear to actually contain the information I want, but which is too long and dry to actually plow through all at once. So I went looking for information about ancient bouquets, and came across this old analysis of their structure.

Which is really a long way of saying, “Man, getting anything done is hard. There are so many ideas to chase around….”

But anyway, according to this paper, a typical ancient Egyptian bouquet started with a sheaf of papyrus or other reed stems bound together (which reminds me of some of the djed pillar representations) with symmetrical arrangements of flowers using that as a base. Often flared at one end, though some of them were basically columns of stuff that went on and on and on. In case anyone wants to shoot for floral authenticity here.