Back before I became Nisut, when I was mostly teaching people Kemetic religion face to face, I experimented with taking some students via a combination of mail correspondence and occasional telephone calls. This was before we had video chats and reliable email and a permanent streaming Internet, and it worked fairly well despite sounding like the slowest thing ever to our modern tech minds.
I had a student who came to me from a personal practice of Kemetic religion, one we’d probably label now as “Kemetic reconstructionism.” He was serious about making sure that his religion matched the ancient religion as closely as possible, down to teaching himself how to cook ancient foods, create his own ritual clothing out of the proper kind of linen, and teaching himself the ancient language as best he could. He was intelligent and very well educated, eager to know everything and sincere in his practice. He worked very hard at getting his rituals just so, from the proper timing to the proper gestures and offerings. I had a great deal of respect for the amount of effort he put into the craft of his religion, even if I did not always agree with his methods, or think that the gods would punish him if he used six figs for his Sweet-is-the-Truth offering instead of seven, because one fell on the floor when he was moving the platter into the shrine room.
For years, I simply indulged his obsession with “getting it right,” offering him academic sources to find out more about the fuzzy areas he wasn’t sure about, divining when he felt that something wasn’t correct and needed correcting, or reassuring him that his best efforts really were not ruined by one tiny mistake. During our time together, my own practice took on more of a form, from being strictly devotional to growing into its own temple and its own, living form of that ancient religion he wanted to reconstruct. At some point, I introduced the Rite of the Senut, the central daily ritual that every member of the Kemetic Orthodoxy shares in, and I remember him being very excited about it. He couldn’t wait to try it out, and several of our phone calls were involved with his describing to me how he’d tracked down the proper sort of libation jar, and how he was working on the proper sorts of offerings to match up with the sources I’d provided for the ancient part of the rite. He understood that Senut wasn’t entirely ancient, but for his part, he wanted to make sure the ancient part was “authentic,” so he was putting much effort into getting it all into place before he would try Senut for the first time.
We went back and forth over offering bread. I mentioned that the standard daily offering loaf was either a small, unleavened loaf like a modern lavash or pita, or a cone-like cake baked in a terra-cotta pot. He researched everything he could get his hands on about ancient breads, trying out various recipes, but ultimately being upset that he couldn’t re-create the shape of a particular loaf of bread he’d seen depicted in a tomb painting. I provided the archaeological context and even showed him how he could make a terra-cotta bread mold to duplicate THAT loaf of bread, if it was that important to him. I pointed out that there are modern cookies and biscuits that have the exact same shapes, if he was worried about his baking skills. Nothing seemed to satisfy.
One day I got a message from him asking if he could call. The conversation went something like this:
“You won’t believe what happened! I got the bread right and I did the Senut! But I have a question.”
“Congratulations! I’m really glad. I know you’ve been working at it for a long time. What’s the question?”
“Remember how I was having trouble with the bread loaf?”
“Well, I was at Michael’s looking for some paint so I could retouch the hieroglyphs on the offering table, and I noticed that in the floral section, they had these styrofoam cones that were exactly the same shape and size as the bread loaf in the Petosiris painting….so I bought one and painted it so it looks just like the loaf there, and I used it in my offering! But now I don’t know what to do with it now that I offered it.”
“You eat it.”
“It’s an offering loaf. The bread is an offering of life to the gods, and once it’s reverted to you, then you eat it.”
“But I can’t eat it! It’s made out of styrofoam!”
I tell this story as a funny anecdote, but it illustrates something very important at the heart of Kemetic “reconstructionism,” or any reconstructionism or revival or whatever you want to label a modern polytheism based on an ancient one. There’s an important difference between what an ancient polytheism does — or how one acts in that religion — and why one acts in that way. Is the importance of the offering bread that it is shaped or colored a certain way, or offered on a certain kind of plate, or made with a certain kind or number of ingredients? Or is it important because it’s bread? Or is it simply that the gods are given a food item?
The Shinto poet Matsuo Basho, who also lived during a period of thoughtful, intense polytheist reconstructionism, wrote: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old. Seek what they sought.” When I came to my work with Kemetic Orthodoxy, despite that Basho never worshipped the same gods that I do, I took his advice to heart, and it has remained with me since. It is just as important to know the how of one’s polytheism, as it is to know the why. Rituals are important to us as polytheists, often to the exclusion of creed or belief, whether we are the polytheists of today or five thousand years ago. Going through the motions of a ritual with neither a purpose nor an understanding of the meanings of those motions is pointless. Especially for post-Enlightenment polytheists, for whom the cult of Reason has been given its own, large altar by the secular world we also live within, the idea of doing rituals just to make them look like someone else’s rituals is absurd. If we do not believe in commandment or creed, why should we then demand such requirements of the way our polytheistic practices are done? We must be wary not to replace the gospels of the “book religions” with new gospels by archaeologists, ethnographers, ancient writers, or even the paintings of bread in a tomb. If we are to succeed at living religion, we must live it, not merely copy it from a model.
Even the psychological and other benefits of making our rituals to resemble those of the religions from which they are derived must be balanced against their purposes and intentions. Our offerings need to be offerings, not pictures (or styrofoam models!) of offerings, if they are to be offerings and not simulacra. For as serious as we take ourselves, we need to be careful to avoid false equation, or only a surface rendering, of the important subjects of cultic practice we seek to study or to engage in. Knowing the why of our religion just as well as the what of it becomes a crucial balance, and the way in which we breathe life into our practices. It is how we create living religion instead of spiritual theatre, and how we approach the real gods who exist outside our minds in an equally real way.