There are days when being a Kemetic feels as overwhelming and endless as shaking hands with an octopus.
Octopuses are fascinating creatures, and I’ve been enamored of them since I was a preschooler. Seriously, my grandmother used to show me the pictures of octopuses in the encyclopedia every single day – I’d keep asking until she did. I still love them, and all cephalopods. I visit them at aquaria; I read about them; I watch nature programs dedicated to them. In a word, I’m obsessed. But this is not why I’m comparing half of my religious practice to being entangled in an octopus’ magnificent arms. I’m making the comparison because it works.
Let’s consider for a moment what modern-day people wanting to pick up the religious practices of Ancient Egypt have in store for them. First, there are at least ten defined periods to choose from before the Romans took control, and each has its own nuances and idiosyncrasies. The gods aren’t necessarily the same, and in some instances are quite different (The Aten, anyone?) The creation stories vary; the roles and bailiwicks of the deities vary; the hymns and prayers and rituals vary. The available resources vary – someone trying to practice Pre-Dynastic religion, for example, will not have the same success with resources as someone focusing on the Ramesside period.
Along with time period question, there’s the question of reconstruction. It’s a huge hot-button issue, and I don’t want to get into the debate here, but I’ll just say decided whether to reconstruct or reform is one that takes a lot of consideration and thought.
In addition, location played a key part in religious practice – the gods being placated and honored by the priests at Karnak were likely not identical to the gods being placated and honored in Set Maat. (There was, of course, some overlap, but gods of place are gods of place.) Location also played a key part in how the calendar operated, and if someone thinks trying to follow a combination solar-lunar calendar is difficult, add in a civil one too. (
The debate over location isn’t quite as polarized as it appears to be in other pagan communities, but there is some debate out there, especially about how dates are calculated.)
Even after a modern Kemetic picks a period and a location (or doesn’t – it isn’t mandatory, after all) they still have to figure out what role they want. Choosing to be a layperson is tricky because of the lack of source material; there’s just not a lot out there about what Joe and Jane Hotep of the onion-hoeing Hoteps did religiously each day. There is some interesting information coming out of Set Maat (Deir el Medina) that tracks roughly 400 years of community life, but it isn’t complete.
Choosing to be a priest means more resources, but it’s also tricky because different priests did different things and most of us are solitary practitioners rather than being part of a physical community which makes it difficult to share tasks in the same way the priests in the temple complexes did. Some of the priestly jobs are amazingly time consuming and difficult to keep doing without a physical community – take caring for an open statue as an example. Maintenance of an open statue is maintenance of a god – it requires feeding and cleansing and clothing and care on a daily basis and there is no time off unless someone else is there who knows how to do it and can step in.
(I do not have any open statues because I am not ready for that level of intense work. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready. I know a few people who have open statues and the amount of work they do is amazing and awe-inspiring and I could sit and listen to them all day. It’s incredible. It’s also terrifying and not for someone with commitment issues.)
And then, after determining what to do about all of these things, there are the elements of practice to consider. Will daily ritual be done and if so, which ones? How will the religious holidays and festivals be celebrated? What does ma’at mean in the practitioner’s life and how will it be upheld? Will shrines be constructed and, if so, how? How will ancestor veneration be incorporated? For that matter, how will any religious aspects be integrated into daily life? And so on, and so on, and scooby dooby do.
Now, I’m not trying to scare anyone away from following a Kemetic path, and I’m not trying to harp on about the need to study and the LOOOOOOOORE! And, I apologize if some of that has crept in as I’ve stood on this handsomely painted non-pedagogical soapbox and spouted off about the amount of multitasking required. But, this post started with an octopus, and it ends with an octopus – the many-armed octopus of being Kemetic. I cannot say I know one Kemetic who has successfully been able to sit and believe things without having to figure out how to act upon those beliefs in at least eight directions at once.
And, unlike an octopus, we only have one brain to apply to the problem…which means we’d better engage it fully if we want to come out the other side with something meaningful.