Death On Trial

Every death is to be traced back to the influence of something evil. This evil is personified by Seth, who is held accountable. The Egyptian myth, however, goes one step further. It not only portrays the violent character of death but also its injustice. It constructs its image of death on the basis of the distinction between right and wrong, thus providing an opening for ritual action. Every death is an offense against what is right, the truth/justice/order that the Egyptians called maat. It was thus possible for them to call it to account, to denounce it, to bring it to justice. They could do something about it and restore the order that had been destroyed. Because death was not natural, because it did not lie in the nature of things, they could not accept it, they could and had to do something to counter it. And so they initiated a legal proceeding against death, with Seth as the accused and Osiris as the complainant.

Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, Jan Assmann

I am being topical. I do not have functional words beyond these borrowed ones.

Loops and Transitions

During the first six days of the lunar month, the six parts of Horus’ injured eye were collected. The sixth day was a festival day. Since the wall on which the Horus cycle is inscribed has six panels, this numbering may be significant. However, there does not appear to be any more compelling reason to relate this particular cycle with a sequence of lunar festival days. Symbolism relating to natural cycles–the daily solar cycle, the monthly lunar cycle, the yearly seasonal cycle, etc.–often appears in rituals celebrating one of the others. When one natural cycle was at an important transition point (eg. the moon was blacked out), references to natural cycles not currently in a critical transition (eg. the sun shining in the sky) could lend stability to the transition. Thus, the presence of a focus on lunar symbolism does not indicate that a cycle was for a lunar festival.

Katherine Eaton, Ancient Egyptian Temple Ritual.

This strikes me as relating to both last week’s quote of the week and my post about the underlying logic of the Great Festival of Djehwty.

Back to Work

I had a doctor’s appointment and thus wound up sitting and reading on my tablet while waiting for her to show up, which meant I found this glorious tidbit:

The burial of the king and the burial of Osiris employed the same symbolic motifs and the same types of ritual actors. after all, a primary goal of the king’s mortuary ritual was to facilitate his transformation into Osiris. Thus, these features do not set the DRP apart from other ancient Egyptian ritual cycles. Both the veneration of kings, living and deceased, and the manipulation of the Horus and Seth motif are ubiquitous in ancient Egyptian ritual as it was performed every day. Moreover, the fact that these features were part of the fabric of everyday life, and therefore familiar and perhaps even comforting, gave this special application of the rites the power to reduce the anxiety of the fraught transition of royal power (if that was indeed its purpose). As with mortuary ritual, the desire was not to celebrate, or even mark the potentially dangerous change, but rather to incorporate it into the fabric of everyday life as much as possible, thereby conquering the potential for chaos.

Katherine Eaton, Ancient Egyptian Temple Ritual.

One of the things I’ve said on and off is that Set’s role in the cosmos may be as an antagonist, but he is ultimately the antagonist that becomes part of the system. I tend to approach this as an outsider – a system which is large enough to contain and encompass Set is large enough for people like me. However, this is an establishment perspective on the same thing, that even the form of Set which is the usurper and murderer is part of the system, because by ritually wrestling with his presence in the cosmos, we become prepared to deal with the inevitable disruptions that fall within his domains. Basically, it’s ritual PTSD/grief therapy which can be done in advance of loss, into which the experience of actual non-ritualized loss can be sorted, normalized, and accepted.

Holy shit, guys. This is brill.

I’ma sit with this for a bit now.

A publication announcement…

My latest publication is out: a story in Les Cabinets des Polytheists, a book from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, edited by Rebecca Buchanan. The book is a collection of polytheistic fairy tales of various sorts.

So, a summary of the setup for my contribution, “Spine of the World”:

Three brothers, out on the sacred hunt according to the customs of their land, manage to offend an apparent witch in the vicinity of a mighty tree, who lays a curse upon them. When the oldest brother dies and the middle brother goes mad, it is upon the shoulders of the youngest to venture forth in search of a cure for the affliction… or perhaps he is simply caught in the throes of his own form of the doom.

His quest will take him through the halls of several Powers, and he will get guidance along the way from a number of interesting beings, such as a blue-skinned androgyne named Flood, a mysterious black dog with a golden collar and a tendency to stare, and a giant snake….

(My first readers had fun playing Guess Which God That Is.)

Timing On This Was Funny

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II must have been very willing to allow himself to be depicted in an ancestral ritual, thus demonstrating his legitimacy as king and, perhaps more importantly, the legitimacy of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, reaffirming its right to govern Egypt. By worshipping his Ancestors he established a link between himself and those who had been kings of Egypt since time immemorial. From the point of view of the priesthood, this was a desirable thing. It did not matter to them that the king whose legitimacy was being proclaimed on the Naos of Edfu Temple was a Macedonian, a foreigner, a fact that is made abundantly clear in the scenes in which Euergetes II is depicted wearing Greek dress. To the priests of Egypt, especially those devoted to Horus, the royal god par excellence, it was Kingship itself and not any individual king that was all-important.

The House of Horus at Edfu: Ritual in an Ancient Egyptian Temple, Barbara Watterson

I found this hilarious because I happened to read that chunk a couple of days after my latest Hills of the Horizon column was posted: A Defense of Sacred Kingship. Which approaches a similar point from a catastrophically different angle.

(The passage in the Watterson goes on to note that the priesthood was interested in preserving the customs of Egyptian ritual kingship until they could get rid of the %$*&# Greeks, mind, which is oblique of the thing I found funny.)

(… please excuse weird errors in my transcription, there’s some damn autocorrect on and it changed the author name and introduced other errors and WTF.)

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.