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.

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.)

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.)

Calendric Rhythms

The basic problem I had with how I was approaching calendar work originally was its literalism. I was compiling lists of festivals and suggestions of festivals, figuring out which ones coincided and how, trying to track down practices for each one, individually, when they hit my threshhold of reaching more thoroughly.

The effect of this was kind of like sticking thumbtacks into very precise points on a piece of plain cardboard and wondering why I didn’t have any sense of the landscape that I was trying to map.

For my new approach, I want to paint the map.

The Egyptian map of the year was divided into three parts plus the Days Upon The Year. Akhet (flood), Peret (planting, literally “emergence”), Shomu (harvest). And these parts were not only a seasonal cycle, but a life-cycle, something likely familiar from many forms of project, the shape of things being done in a life.

In the first part of Akhet came the flood. And the flood is complicated. If it came too low, there would be a weak harvest come Shomu; if it came too high, it would wash away anything built close to the water, even that which was up above the line commonly thought safe. The earth it carried with it rejuvenated the land, driving back the desert once more, but as water meets hot dryness it produces the sort of muggy atmosphere that certain diseases love to breed in. This is the beginning of the year, the beginning of the cosmos, the beginning of every project: potential and disaster tangled up together, needing to be welcomed and needing to be protected against, the pieces needing to be sorted through, some of the preparation simply surviving until the waters recede and there is a little less flood to brave in order to get somewhere.

This is a metaphor of life made fact, written out for the ancients year after year: Change comes. Change sweeps away everything in its path. Change is a disaster. Change is an opportunity. Change is different every time. Change is fundamentally the same all the time. Change brings things that need to be weathered. After the change, the planting, making concrete the creative power that comes as part of change.

And so, after the flood passed, people went out and they planted, using the rich mud left by the flood. After the chaotic urges of the beginning, the start of things, it is time to go start making concrete progress, putting things under the surface, letting them grow.

The major festival that falls between Akhet and Peret is the Mysteries of Wesir, which just passed. As the transition goes from flood to growth, from Wesir to Heru, and Heru is established at the beginning of the season of Peret.

If Akhet is the season of chaos and creation – of potential and dissolution – the season that ends with the burial of Wesir and the planting of the seeds – then Peret is the season that establishes order. All of the positive potential of the flood that we can get our hands on is now being put into use, organised, set to work. After the inspiration, the laundry. Using that which the flood brings is a steady progression of work, and if the planting is not done, if the weeding is not done, if the work of the fields is not done, it does not matter how good the flood was.

I haven’t, in my research, come across a major festival for the transition between Peret and Shomu; the end of Peret and the beginning of Shomu both have some dates for offerings to all the gods. But, really, the transition from the steady work of making progress with the work to bring each thing to completion is not actually always clear-cut.

And Shomu is the season that gives back to the desert, where the waters sink away, and the harvest comes in – the season that ensures that there will be food for the year, and the season where privation threatens as the waters fade. It is the season where bounties come in, and where the need for bounties to come in is made clear.

It is in the middle of this season that we find the Beautiful Festival of the Western Valley, assuring that the harvest will come in, that there continues to be reciprocation from the land of the unseen, from whence the flood, in its time, will once again emerge. That the harvest will nourish and help people stay strong, until the next one. And the year, eventually, comes to its conclusion, awaiting the flood.

Which leaves, of course, the Days Upon The Year, that time outside of time, governed only by the attention of Djehwty to keep any form of time going. And these dangerous days fall when – in the abstract and ideal world – floodwater meets parched earth, the spent land meets the fertile renewal, the actual place where the opposites meet, the mysterious and dangerous place between completion and starting over.

Perils of Scripturalisation

I read a lot of blogs from a variety of religious perspectives (and a lot that don’t touch on religious subjects at all), as I’ve mentioned. And one of the things I saw recently was talking about prophets, and continuing revelation, and what does it mean for a thing to be scripture.

(It means trouble. With a capital T, and that rhymes with … oh, someone else finish this filk for me, I have systematic theological analysis to write.)

I tend towards the opinion that one of the things that separates pagan religious experience from a lot of mainstream religious experience is this lack of scripture, and everything that comes with it. (Though of course this is one of those places that people get stuck on when converting, because there is no Holy Book to look to for immediate guidance.)

We have ancient texts, but these are not scripture. They are poetry, they are drama, they are magical works, they are written-down oral tradition, and this is an entirely different beast. They are not presented as Words From On High, “god-breathed” – even when those texts are said to be derived from the work of a god, as is the case of some magical texts in Egypt. We have the surviving pieces of the tales people told about themselves and about the Powers and about the cosmos, the surviving evidence for how people interacted with it in practice, and this is not scripture. This is story.

There are times that I have a lot of sympathy for the ancient Celtic belief that writing down the sacred tales and the sacred rites would kill them – that it would pin them in place like a sort of spiritual lepidoptery and let the form overwhelm the function.

I think about that whenever I see someone take the Negative Confessions list from the Papyrus of Ani as some sort of codified, universal scriptural code of behaviour, demonstrating not only unfamiliarity with the Papyrus of Nu and other surviving lists, but of the range and variety of ways in which those lists were personalised, the way they evolved over time, the way that that was a book explicitly and specifically written for an individual who may or may not have said “Just give me the standard text, bub” when ordering their copy at the scribe. (And I still greatly regret not having been able to attend the lecture I heard about – or being able to see the research notes of the lecturer – where the sheer variety of confession lists in those scrolls was discussed. Because I’m pretty sure that someone would eventually try to universalise the one that had something like “I didn’t fail to build my neighbour’s house to code and thus cause the death of his child when the wall fell in” on it.)

I think about it whenever I see someone ask “Which creation myth do you actually believe“, or talk about the Heliopolitan creation myth as if it is canonical, universal, and the only way of imagining the transition from before there were two things to the time of millions of things. Or when I see people noting that ancient threads managed, at some level, to reconcile the Heliopolitan, the Hermepolitan, and the Memphite myths, as if those are the only ones we have. (Honestly, I would love to have more that I could roll around in, but I may be odd like that. The little bits of Nit’s creation story that I’ve found delight me.)

I think about it when I see people want to turn a recommended reading list into a This Is Your Bible list. And then get bogged down in which translator is the holiest one, or which modern writer is truly inspired, truly in possession of the spark of the divine, because clearly a religion needs holy books, that’s what we learned from the Abrahamic revolution, right?

And I understand that it’s hard. That I grew up, too, in a culture of the sacred book, the scriptural thing, the place where people can say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” and not have that come across as some excessively ungrounded mystic system but actually having reference to a Text With Authority.

But I worry about people finding new texts to set up in place of the Powers.

I worry about people closing themselves off to experience of the divine – and the world – as it is, because it has to be brought into accord with texts which were never intended to be exclusive, but rather part of the vast realm of exploration of what the world might look like.

I worry about the death of poetry, because if there is scriptural poetry, particularly special holy poetry that is true and perfected and better, then who will write the new hymns? Who will tell the stories of the gods in new lands? (And one of my first devotional works was a short poem titled “Seth beyond the borders of Egypt”, which was, in part, an exploration of the rending of Wesir in a context in which there is seasonal rain, not the flood. If this is not a part of the corpus of work dealing with and exploring the nature of the gods, then the gods are closed off to me in a fundamental way: Set is not in my thunderstorms, and Osiris is not in my rain.)

I worry that this notion that there must be a holy book is even more exclusionary than the limitation of magical texts to the literate in a population that mostly could not read: because it creates a form of separation between the true magic of language and the power of spoken words, and the language that you can I can use. Because it re-establishes the Fall, in pagan terms, without ever admitting that it is a claim that now is a sinful and degenerate time, incapable of the truest forms of devotion.

Perils of Overintellectualisation

I am at the moment working on a manuscript for work (which I am enjoying immensely, and if I ever get my shit together and make a Recommended Book List For The Stuff I Do I will probably put this on it, because for a book about Shinto it is brilliantly Kemetically-relevant – though I’ve long thought Shinto had a lot to reveal to Kemetics).

One of the things the author keeps talking about is a resistance to theologising, to thinking too much about religious matters, rather than performing the recitations and rituals appropriately.

Which is a thing that I think is worth keeping in mind – that the idea that religious thought must be tightly systematised is likely not entirely native to practices that we are reconstructing, regardless of the culture of origin of those practices.

Too much thinking about it gets in the way of doing it, as I commented before. Too much being bound up in being Right about the way to do things rather than doing them, likewise. “Here are three ways of interpreting this word in context” is not something that sits easily with a lot of theologies, that are all about trying to make things tidy and clean and clear, rather than the ways that three different things layer to create a complicated nuanced thing which is all and one and none of these things.

A message I can take from what I’ve read so far goes something like, “Out there, there is the world; relate to it with clean senses and a pure heart. That is the natural and divine way of being.”

Not bad, for Kemetic ponders, is it?

Bone Stories

Teo Bishop is leaving ADF, which is likely not a matter of great importance to the primarily-Kemetic audience of my work.

And yet.

He writes:

The things that cut deeply for me, that are real and sometimes really difficult for me — things like compassion, despair, forgiveness, hope, kindness, patience, honesty — I don’t feel like we spend any time talking about these things. I think we experience these things, but they always feel secondary to “right relationship.”

It was some years ago that I was at a gathering at PantheaCon. I don’t remember what the explicit topic of the conversation was, but we wound up talking about the response of the pagan community to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia on 11 September, 2001.

Or rather, the complete lack of any such response. The fact that, when pagans wanted to find community and support in response to tragedy, they went to ecumenical gatherings, interfaith gatherings, churches, and other places that were not pagan because there were no pagan groups able to support them, help them find context within something akin to their religious context.

Dozens of times I have seen people asking for help designing their perfect pagan wedding, but I have never seen someone ask for help designing their perfect pagan funeral.

Oh, there’s talking a good line at times about accepting that the world is not divided up into good and evil, about accepting the necessity and place of death, and so on, but in the end, we have, as the Biblical phrase goes, whited sepulchres.

A while back I developed the habit of offering a Kemetic prayer for the dead to deaths I saw mentioned in community. Sometimes I posted it: A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of every good thing. May they ascend!

Now I see other people – not Kemetic – doing the same thing, the same words, the same ritual offering to the mourning and the departed. Because having a prayer for the dead to offer matters in the end, and it matters in a deep and human way. To offer proper mourning is an obligation and a gift of the living, and it is a way that we become human, in community, that we acknowledge each other’s wounds and in that acknowledgement act to heal them.

Teo writes:

I can try to do well and I often fall short, but — amazingly enough — when that happens I experience a deep, profound, spiritual understanding that, in spite of what any ancient person said…

I am not at the center of the cosmos.

I cannot will things into happening exactly as I would like. My life, at times, feels really broken, and I don’t know how to proceed, and I need to own up to that.

Religion must answer grief. Religion must answer the broken places. Religion must answer pain, must answer failure, must answer inadequacy, must answer insufficiency, because even in a world so abundant and glorious as this one, these things will come, and in the end they will go.

When our religions do not hold this space for us, they will fail us in the end, and no amount of feeling obligated to them will hold that place. We may not, as polytheists, have the Problem Of Evil, in which a supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent power still allows for great and horrible suffering, but we still have suffering, and we allow for the likelihood that the gods do not have the power, the knowledge, or the desire to prevent it.

It was under a full moon in August of 2005 that I threw furious prayers out, I cried “Wesir, Wesir, I feel I have been pulled to pieces, I do not know how to survive this, but you do.” And I did the devotional work, and I survived this.

It was in a February in 2007 that I stood before the seidhkona with tears streaming down my cheeks and asked my grandfather, twenty years gone to the West, for his blessing, and asked him how to honor him; I got the answer that I must live well and strong, with courage. And the devotional work is in the living, not in the candles lit in shrines.

Sometimes I know that candles lit in shrines are cowardice, for me, and do not give him enough honor: because this is a world of doing, and I am still one with hands to do. I can say “Oh, grandfather, I love you, I pour water, I light incense”, but if I have not built anything I am hollow, all pretty words and no doing. There are reasons I make a point of doing charitable donations for Opet, of putting up a sample of bread for the domovoi when I bake which requires that sometimes I bake, of all the things that require action that moves in the world. I make a prayer, I write a poem, and these are all fine things to do, but I am not at the center of the cosmos and if I have not done more than make a devotional tie between myself and the Powers then I have done nothing.

I am not good at grand gestures and displays, at running for office or indeed anything that requires that I talk to a lot of people and encourage them to like me, at Causes and Activisms and all these things. But I will pray for your dead. I will offer people resources they need to fix their boat, or their roof, or buy lunch, or some other things, as I can, because if ma’at is the force that gathers people into communities, it is at least as present at a barn-raising as it is in solitary prayer.

There has to be an answer to the questions posed by humanness, and if that answer is not that we are all human together, each wrestling with questions of pain and reaching for glory, then the answer is not good enough to satisfy me. We are good at the glory, sometimes, but we are so very bad at pain.