Building a Household Practice I

I’m labelling this 1 because I’m sure I’m going to come back to the subject, as it’s one of my primary goals.

In my post about how the Beautiful Festival played out in practice, I mentioned that building household-level stuff was important, that having the family involved and engaged was essential to me. So now I’m talking about ways of approaching the material to do that.

First of all, a recon note. I love ancient liturgy. (I wish modern liturgy weren’t so often crap poetry.) But for all that it is beautiful and central to the temple-oriented religion, it cannot be how household-based practice was conducted. Even if one assumes that off-duty priests were doing priesting. Because the simple matter is that ancient liturgy was always read, not memorised – that’s why there’s the term ‘lector priest’ – and most people were not literate. Religious practices that depend on being able to read would not have been practices shared by the overwhelming majority of ancient Egyptians, who nonetheless were well-known for devoutness.

One can look to personal piety as inspiration – that quote I’m fond of and have yet to properly source about how every Egyptian woman doing her eye makeup did so as an act of devotion to (or even manifestation of) Hetharu, for example. These things which are appearances of the gods can sanctify our everyday.

But. Back to building household-oriented practices.

I think I’m actually kind of at a disadvantage in this process, because I grew up in a culture dominated by (largely Protestant) semi-to-mostly secularised Christianity. That world in which religion is for Sundays and maybe grace and bedtime prayers, and maybe if you’re good at it you live the ideals during the week, but aside from that there’s nothing to do outside of presents in December and candy in the spring. This isn’t actually something that’s highly comprehensible to children. (Back when I first started attending church, I had options – I was introduced to formal religion explicitly in a context of comparison shopping – and the Catholic service was so incomprehensible as to be terrifying to me, with all the standing and sitting and kneeling at arbitrary times, and then everyone goes up to the front but YOU STAY HERE and… yeah. I wound up going to the notably more kid-accessible church.)

This means that trying to figure out how to mark festivals I have to go back to first principles. I could do the churchy thing and go lector-priest up some texts and recite them, but that – like all the standing and sitting and kneeling at arbitrary times – doesn’t convey either meaning or understanding. I actually feel that working out something my child can understand encourages me to find a deeper and more integrative understanding of each festival we celebrate.

The other thing I do returns, once again, to Judaism. My housemate is Jewish. This means, among other things, that in addition to my draft Kemetic calendar, I have the Jewish calendar set up in my Google calendar page. And whenever I see a Jewish festival upcoming, I look it up on Wikipedia and go to my housemate and say (as I did last week): “Hey, your parents will be visiting over Shavuot. Let’s get cheesecake.” Or whatever is appropriate.

Judaism has a lot of food-related holidays – not so much “this holiday is about food” as “this holiday is marked by traditional food types”, and I think that is an excellent place to start with kids. One of my defaults for major things I mark is to make bread, and that’s something that kids can help with. (A friend once commented to me “It’s so great you’re teaching her to cook so young”. I’m not sure what else I’d do with her if I wanted to also get dinner on the table!) I would put bread high up especially on festivals of Wesir and the ancestors (given His affiliation with the growing grain). I think for occasional victory and triumph feast days I would go for roast beef by preference, given that meat offerings are symbolic of defeated enemies.

Over time, we can build our own food traditions. This is one of my side projects (someday, the recipes will come), actually. The logic can come from festivals (cook or eat something with onions on the Day of Chewing Onions for Bast!) or their offering lists, from the underlying symbolism of the festival itself, from things appropriate to the Powers being honored (I made a cream-based soup for Aset’s birthday once), and so on.

Rituals can be made comprehensible and accessible to children as well. The Festival of the Lights of Nit has lighting of lamps and telling of a sacred story mentioned as ancient practice. And I can tell you: the older kidlet loves to participate in light kindling rituals. She is vehemently enthused by the shrine that has a huge candle throughput, and loves helping maintain it. She was the one who remembered to light candles for Hanukkah most reliably, and I put together a children’s menorah for her using LED lights. Light a lamp and tell a story? Totally accessible to a two-year-old. (Just need to figure out the story and we are good to go.) The ancient Mysteries of Wesir involved, in part, making a corn dolly and letting it sprout in the dark; does anyone think that a kid can’t be involved with and excited by this sort of thing?

Meshing readings and more generally accessible practices strikes me as a good way to bring up children in awareness of religious traditions – once we have come up with appropriate readings for, say, a particular festal meal. This is, again, pondering Jewish practices, such as the seder; there are readings and songs interspersed with food traditions. A major family meal could be conducted this way, interspersing ancient texts with things that kids would understand.

Some things take a lot more pondering. Opet, for example, is a festival that orbits heavily around the power of the state and maintaining and rejuvenating the king. Superficially, one might say that in the absence of a religious dictatorship we can chuck this. But I’m not comfortable getting rid of something this major, and did some research into the actual practices and fundamentals of the festival. I came to the conclusion that Opet is a time for affirming and re-making vows, reconnecting to and upholding functional communities, and doing charitable works; children can be raised in practices that reflect these values.

It’s a work in progress; everything is a work in progress. Sometimes it’s a process of making connections – does ‘raising the djed’ connect to ‘raising the teret’? Both are raising wooden objects linked with Wesir. Can that be turned into something like a maypole celebration? And so on. Sometimes it’s a process of finding ways of interlacing liturgy and more hands-on stuff. Sometimes it’s not enough to do with the kidlet, and I go read liturgy by candlelight, but that always parses to me as something of a failure – not because I’m not doing all of the bells and smells and circumambulating altars and asperging and raising and lowering of trays, because I’m not doing temple-oriented procedure in the first place – but because I haven’t found a way of doing something that a child can comprehend.

If we are really reconstructionists, we are building something that the children are a part of. Neglecting them is neglecting the continuity of life from generation to generation, just as neglecting the ancestors would be.

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Becoming Tribal

I was having a discussion about priest roles, reconstruction of ancient ways, and so on, and commented that I think that people coming from a tribal-religion background in many ways have some of this easier. Their historical record doesn’t include entire cities participating in festivals, and stuff that’s built at village and family scale is a lot easier to put together the resources to approximate.

Which of course raises the question of how one might adapt a state-level religious practice to something that is more like a tribal one. And I commented to that, too, noting that I steal ideas from rabbinic Judaism.

And while that may be a hilarious thing to say, especially during Pesach, I actually think it’s a very informative one. Because you really, genuinely could not create modern Judaism from the Torah. Too much has changed in the world, and Talmud, midrash, halacha, all these things have grown up to navigate and comment upon those changes.

In the time of the Temple, Judaism was the religion of a nation. It was governed by people who also carried religious authority. (And the architectural symbology of the Temple itself bears no small resemblance to the architectural symbology of temples as constructed in Egypt!) The understanding of that religion had to evolve – through various periods of exile (“How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”) and the eventual destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans.

I find that evolution profoundly fascinating. The priests could no longer do temple service in the absence of the Temples, and in the end lost power. The religious authorities were no longer priests, but rabbis – a word meaning teacher. Instead of having divinely appointed status and a particular holiness code, a rabbi had put in the word of doing extensive textual study, both of the holy texts themselves and the commentaries of previous rabbis who attempted to make sense of those texts and the changing world, making extrapolations and judgements about them. Schools of thought and consensus of interpretation arose over time, as well as dissenting schools of thought and dissenting consensusesesuses. (Seriously, the heck is the plural of consensus?)

So in modern Judaism, there are rabbis, scholars of the religion, who are not more authoritative by some sacrament (as a Catholic priest might be) but rather because they have dedicated the time and study to learn the ins and outs of these ongoing discussions about the nature of Adonai and Adonai’s Law. They are like lawyers, that way, differing from ordinary folks more by educational focus than anything else. They are, to my understanding, not more qualified to perform religious rituals in any way other than knowledge, as the rituals themselves may actually be performed by any adult (male, in some branches of the argument) Jew of appropriate standing. (However, the sacramental-division assumption-based culture would balk at anyone being able to, say, perform a marriage, for some reason … see also the decline of common-law marriage, which is a moderate peeve of mine.)

But this is actually important: there is survival here, even if there is no nation. There is not only survival, there is flexibility, there is meaning, and there is tradition. And it is built, not on the dictates of holiness, but interpretation and discussion among people who come together on equal terms and wrestle with God. The priest caste may no longer rule the roost by default (though you will run into rather a few Rabbi Cohens), but that didn’t kill Judaism.

This is what I want to do. Rather than having Torah to wrestle with and interpret, I have surviving ritual texts, notes, letters to the dead, and the surviving laundry lists of an ancient empire. I have the interpretations of scholars as grist to the mill. I wrestle with them. I argue with them, and with others. I wrestle, too, with the Powers.

And this is one of the reasons I’m big on my footnoting and trying to make clear where things are coming from. It’s not just a Know Your Mortar thing, but fundamentally that I do not have a superior position of authority. I’m not in on any secrets that you can’t be in on too. If you agree with me, fantastic: we’re building a school of thought and a consensus towards something functional, adaptable, surviving. If you disagree with me, also fantastic: the gods I know are gods not of two things, but of millions. We can fruitfully explore the differences in our interpretations, trade source texts, and work from there, making each of our lines stronger for the exploration.

The point is not settling the argument. The Jewish people have been wrestling with God since Israel won his name. It is continuing, and challenging, and learning more about the ancient ways – and ourselves – and how both persist in this time, transformed. And it is knowing that the way one group of us resolves this puzzle will not be satisfactory to another group, and that this is part of the wealth that we have now, now that we have lost the temples and won the space to build our own tribes out in the vast span of all the world.