Patron/Parent Deities

(For the Kemetic Roundtable project.)

First: don’t worry about it. People spend too many cycles on this question and other, similar things.

(If you came to this religion through devotion to a particular Power, then you already have a relationship in mind, and you don’t need to worry about this.)

If you feel a need for a specific focus of devotion, there are a variety of tacks you can take: venerate Powers who are associated with your work in some way (Ptah the craftsman, Amun the patron of laborers, Sekhmet for medical personnel, Djehwty for wordsmiths or people who work with math or computer programmers who are both, and so on). Venerate Powers that feel related to your personality, who share a kinship you perceive, or who has a trait that you feel will help balance something that you need help with. Venerate Powers who seem to have relevance to yourself (as I mentioned setting up a Wesir shrine when dealing with feeling pulled apart, or for another example adding Taweret to household rituals during a pregnancy). If a particular Power’s symbols and resonances strike you as meaningful for reasons that you don’t entirely grasp just yet, it’s fine to pursue that. If your heart tells you “I want to honor Nefertem because I just do”, then honor Nefertem already, what’s holding you back? Your heart holds wisdom.

Your personal devotions are just that: personal. I’ve actually gotten a lot more uncomfortable over time with the pagan habit of god-name-swapping as a form of introduction; I’ve come to feel that it trivialises the gods and makes of personal relationship a sort of public show. (Or, at worst, an excuse for poor behaviour: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly curb my temper, I’m a Set/Sekhmet/Heru/Montu/Pakhet/whoever devotee”.) And any Power deserves their share of honor, deserves to be mentioned in their place, whether that place is as one to whose ways one has pledged one’s life or as one who is relevant in this day, or this month, or for the duration of this festival. And in that, there is another route to finding a god to swear to, by, or at, if you’re so inclined: celebrate the festivals, get to know the rhythms of the year, and find out what inspires you, speaks to you, where the meanings lie. Find the Powers that guide those festivals and give them specific thanks.

My gut response to questions of “What do I need to know about my gods?” is “Enough to have something that works”. I would start with “knowing what is pop culture and what is historically accurate” as a minimum: Bast the loveyfluff kittycat and Anpu the ooky-spook doom and death, for example, lack a certain something, but they’re very common in superficial takes derived more from Hollywood-Egypt than the actual Two Lands. (I have a habit of, when picking up a popular paganism book about Egypt that includes god portfolios, flipping to the section about Set and seeing if it has “GOD OF EVIL!” in it; a depressing number of them do. Other possible checks include “does this mention that Wesir is an agricultural deity, whether the moon is misfiled as an attribute of an Eye of Ra goddess, and similar basic material.)

As you get more familiar with things, you will learn more things. That’s just the way reality works. So again, back to “Don’t worry about it.” And as your understanding of the whole system grows, your private practice will also deepen.

Regarding whether or not you have to form a relationship with any entity that appears to show up to you: just because it doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean it knows what’s best for you. Just because it doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean it’s telling you the truth. Just because it doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean that you have to do what it says. Those who would encourage nonconsensual relationships of any form are doing things that I, personally, would avoid like the plague. You don’t have to be friends with everyone who knocks on your door. You don’t have to have sex with everyone who hits on you. You don’t have to worship everyone who asks. Remember: a relationship with a denizen of the unseen world is still a relationship, and all of your skills and principles for dealing with relationships are going to be pretty good there.

I genuinely fret about the way people get wound up about this subject, actually. It feels to me like a leftover of coming out of Personal Relationship With Jesus territory, more often than not, the sense that one must have Personal Relationship With Deity Of Some Sort in order to be doing religion right. In the worst cases it turns into a substitution of personal inner relationship for social relationship, a sense that so long as we are ‘right with God’ it doesn’t matter what we do to or with others. But ancient sources all confirm: the gods are fed by ma’at. And as ma’at is an ethos of community, heaping loaves upon the altar is not the point. Relationship with the divine is not a substitute for relationship with other people; it is an enhancement.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

This post is in response to the Kemetic roundtable prompt for “Fallow Time”. Since there are so many different ways of interpreting this question, I think I’m going to do a couple of little pieces.

There was a time I thought my world was falling apart. I felt ripped to pieces, emotionally drained. Things were, in short, very hard.

And I said, “I know who to talk to.”

I am pretty sure it was a full moon in August I went out and just talked to him about it. About the pain, about the despair, about the fighting to keep things working in my life, about the needing to relinquish my hold on things that I was losing anyway. I talked for a long time.

And I said something like, “Okay. I’m going to go out and I’m going to get a plant. I will tend it as your shrine. I will trust that I will get through this.”

I bought the plant; I tended it. There was no answer from the god, except survival through being torn apart, unless the sweet smell of the jasmine blooms counts as an answer.

I am willing to trust that I was heard, is all.

Sometimes when people talk about their dark times, it sounds like they’re talking about quiet times.

And I’m … being a mystic means talking to the Powers and sometimes they talk back.

But that doesn’t mean they have anything to say to me right now. Sometimes, getting wound up about it is a sign that I’m getting too self-absorbed, too caught up in ‘what is being done for me’ and ‘am I getting reassurance that it’s all okay’ and all these things that aren’t actually things that everyone gets, certainly not all the time.

Sometimes there’s nothing to say because I have things I need to do and I ought to get doing them. So I do that.

I think the power of “you know what you need to be doing, so get off your butt and do it already” is underrated. And it’s a lesson I keep tripping over in my Craft training, particularly lately, so it seems fresh in my mind.

Sometimes the gods stop talking because it’s our turn to contribute.

Amongst my medical concerns is a tendency towards clinical depression. (Chronic, moderately severe, et cetera.) And one of the effects of depression is that it cuts me off from joy; the technical term is anhedonia, I believe.

And even if one has established patterns of being aware of divinity in ongoing life, anhedonia can leave one feeling actively severed from the divine. At least if “one” is “me”.

For a long time, I had a commitment: new moons and full moons, I would do formal ritual. And one of the things that I discovered was interesting to me: ritual alleviates my depression. Showing up, doing the prayers, pouring the libations, it actually made a difference.

I actually experimented with this on and off. I spent a week taking care of my father after he had surgery on his knee, and did that formal ritual every day. That didn’t work out so well; I burned out about midway through the week and wound up with a sense of doing it out of duty rather than because it worked, rather than because it upheld me. When I went back home, I went back to my every two weeks schedule, because that worked out pretty well. (It also worked out that if I went more than about three weeks between rituals, the effects really wore off, so two weeks was a good safe space to be in.)

Sometimes what matters is showing up.

It seems to me now that I’ve written it that what bridges these gaps, whatever flavor they might be, is made of trust and patterns, and actually following through.

So that’s what I would offer to someone dealing with these times: find something or someone or a Power or a practice to place trust in, show up, be there, let the cycles move.

Teach Yourself How To Have A Mystical Practice

Just a few ideas to get you started.

Start training your brain to respond. If you smudge or burn juniper as a purification, do it every time, let your spirit learn that this is a cue; like the dog drools when Pavlov rings the bell, let the smoke teach your soul that this is a cleansing time. Use ritual baths or ritual clothing to train yourself to think of the divine in a ritual-appropriate way when you do that bathing, wear that outfit. Associate ways of doing your hair or pieces of jewelry with particular magical tasks or particular relationships to Powers, so that when you put it up or put it on you are already halfway to completing that alignment.

Steep yourself in symbolism like a good cup of tea. Know a hundred names for your gods so that you can call on the right path at the right time. Learn how to see runes in arrangements of fallen twigs. Stop looking up correspondences and live them: blue is heaven, gold is eternal, black is the fertile earth. Do things four times if you’re Kemetic and three times if you’re a Celt, and know why those numbers matter. Read relevant art books for the pictures. Learn the language of pose and gesture. Draw as a devotional practice (or sculpt, or dance, or…) and use what you know. Stop thinking about this stuff and know it.

Pray often. Add prayers to your cleansing, to your cooking, to your awareness of the world. Cultivate wonder. Yell at the gods when that’s what matters. Sit and sink roots deep into the earth, sometimes, and hold the stars with your hands. Use perfumes to cultivate particular states of mind. Collect music that reminds you of your gods, or which puts you in particular frames of mind, and use that music to go deeper into your knowledge. Meditate. Don’t fall into the trap where the only form of meditation you will accept or acknowledge is the no-mind stillness kind; learn to meditate when you’re washing the dishes. If you listen to Enya or something when you’re meditating, don’t play that when you’re driving, it’s not safe.

Get to know yourself. Figure out how long you can go between meals without turning into an asshole before you do a fasting ritual with company over. Figure out how long you can go between meals without making yourself sick before you do a fasting ritual at all. Learn what kinds of foods open you up and what kinds of foods snuggle you down, and eat appropriately for the work you want to do. Try having a glass of wine at dinner if you can safely and see what it does for how your mind works and your energy flows. If you can’t eat a pasta dish without becoming ravenously, crankily hungry an hour or two later, don’t eat pasta before a major ritual. Get enough sleep. Record your dreams in a notebook by the bed, or in private Livejournal entries, or somewhere. Get to know the recurring cast members of your personal inner drama and how many different faces each of them typically has. Find what brings you joy and get to know it better.

Cultivate a regular space for spirit. Burn incense for the dead. Give the first slice of bread to the domovoi. Give presents to your landwights. Pour milk on white stones. Light candles. Sing. Watch the children play, and smile. Make a quiet space when you take your evening medication and be sure to spend some time there every day. Build cairns out of fieldstone. Watch the stars. Dedicate your houseplants as shrines and make watering them a devotional. Paint your entire face with your eyeliner. Be creative.

Ritual Purity

So some folks have started up a thing called the Kemetic Roundtable, to discuss some basic ideas and give people a sense of the breadth of the religious community that actually exists out there and let new folks orient themselves accordingly. And this is a fantastic idea, so I am joining in, though – as usual – I’m running late. The first topic for the roundtable is ritual purity, and that link should take you back to the compilation with everyone’s contributions.

Ritual purity is hard to talk about, actually, in significant part because a lot of people don’t have a context for the concept of purity that is actually healthy. (I think it was a post on the Slacktivist blog I read recently for my time-addled value of “recently” that noted that in common discourse, just about the only thing people mean when they say “purity” is some value of “sex, abstinence from”.) The use of purity as a bludgeon is pretty widespread – along with the treatment of various aspects of humanness as a contagion or innately broken. It’s easy to beat ourselves up with purity.

Which means the first thing, and the most important thing, that I would say boils down to: purity is not about self-abuse, about sinfulness, or about shame.

(As I was getting ready to do some work this evening, whether it was writing this post or prepping my talks for Paganicon, I found a pile of cat vomit in my bedroom in one of the less pleasant ways one can make such a discovery. And when I shoved my leg into the shower to hose down my foot, it was not about self-abuse, sinfulness, or shame; it was about cleaning off my foot. You know?)

When I was fairly new to Kemeticism, I was a lot more formal and literalistic about purity than I am currently, in part because I was much more likely to be doing formal rituals. (I made a commitment to do formal ritual at new and full moons and kept it up for several years, in fact.) I spent time wrangling with questions of menstrual taboo and what I could do within that context (my eventual decision was to do my formal ritual without “opening” the space, since the concern about blood taboo was primarily focused on ritual actions in front of “open” statues, and while I didn’t have that responsibility, I felt that the opened space carried some of the same weight).

As I’ve gotten to be a more competent mystic, and as I’ve gained training in a Craft tradition, my sense of purity has gotten a lot more internal. (“Endless purification!” as my teacher is wont to quote.) Purity of heart, of mind, of the souls, those are the things that occupy me, and they are a perpetual quest. Purity is a matter of aspiration, of transformative work.

Consider the First Time, Zep Tepi, the holy spark of being at the center of time and space. Here, ma’at was established: all things came forth from ma’at. The Powers are the sweat of creation, as humans are the tears of the eye of creation, and this is as it should be. The central core, the essential nature of all being is by definition pure, for the simple fact that it exists at all. This is your true self, your inner holiness, that resonance that brings you closer to divinity and in communion with all things. So many of the ancient texts say “I am pure, I am pure, I am pure”: the fundamental cry of beingness, of existence drawn out of chaos.

And at the same time that the heart is the seat of ma’at, other things can interfere. I don’t know about you all, but I have places where I’m folded around pain and old wounds, and these are matters of impurity. (I’m currently in the process of going through therapy for active PTSD, and this is as much a purification ritual as any washing with natron could ever be.) I seek health, I seek the capacity to act, the actions that support the holiness of my inner nature, and these are acts that seek purity.

There have been times when I have been full of turmoil or pain, when trying to heal myself has left me feeling covered in filth of some kind, as if I was sweating out the last of a disease. In those times, I go to the ritual bath, I cleanse myself with soap and water, or if I’m feeling really formal and wanting to go deep into the symbolism, with natron and water. The act of cleaning the physical can also act to purify the souls, and it is a comfort.

When I do formal ritual, I do formal bathing, formal cleansing: this is part of the symbol-set that I have chosen to work with, and it not only serves the function of creating the mental difference, but doing the spiritual work of cleansing.

In the past, when I had an ecumenical ritual group, one of our shared practices involved washing the mouth with natron and water as we entered the ritual space, and I prepared that. I do not know if my new ritual group will wind up doing something similar, but it will be the case that before major rituals, I will do cleansings, because that is what I do when I act formally. It’s important to me to follow correct procedures when correct procedures exist, y’know?

But most of my practice is not formal. And most of my cleansing is with Craft techniques, these days, working at cleansing away the pains and troubles that lie between myself and my heart.

The Ritual Bath

The doors of the sky are opened
The doors for the firmament are thrown open at dawn….

As people who might recall my marking of the Days Upon the Year with a fiveday of ritual bathing might guess, I am kind of a fan of the ritual bath.

This isn’t for ritual purity reasons, particularly (though the priests performing temple rituals would bathe in the temple’s sacred pools beforehand); it can serve that function, of course, but that isn’t why I find them a useful tool or technique.

A ritual bath is a consciousness-altering tool. If used to prepare for other forms of ritual, it can soothe and center the mind in order to create a useful ritual mindset, cultivate openness to sanctity and/or the Powers, or create a breathing space between the day-job mindset and everything else. The idea of washing up may be a fairly mundane task, but accompanying it with intention, with a set of ritual actions, with deliberate additions of particular substances, with prayers or recitations, transforms it into something else, a meditation perhaps, or a work of magic.

This kind of thing can be done with many other tasks, but I think that the bath is pretty much ideally suited for it. Culturally speaking, after all, there is an expectation of separateness for Bathroom Activities, which can make it easier to construct and maintain the sort of structure that lends itself well to changes of state of mind. The use of water, itself, provides multiple layers of transformative properties, whether the magical associations of transformation, emotion, or the primordial, the mental constructions of cleanliness that are thereby evoked, the use of temperature to construct emotional responses or soothe physical discomforts, and so on.

(And all of this can be done in the shower, too, though I’ve found that it takes a little more effort to construct the transformative mental state. It’s a bit more brisk and businesslike, which also has its uses.)

I don’t actually do the ritual bathing thing all that often. (I have need of it now, so it’s on my mind.) It would probably do me some good, really.

I go up into the Field of Rushes,
I bathe in the Field of Rushes.

– quotations adapted from Pyramid Text 325

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.