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Kemetic Round Table – Deconstructing UPG

The Kemetic Round Table works to connect Kemetic bloggers of various practices and paths in order to provide helpful information for those new to Kemeticism. More information about the project can be found here.

This week, members of the Round Table were given the following prompt: “UPG, or Unverified Personal Gnosis, and doxa are a large part of many modern Kemetic practices. For this round, we discuss the nuances of UPG and doxa. What do these terms mean? Are there rules regarding these terms? How important is UPG and doxa in your practice, and how important should others’ UPG and doxa be in my practice?”

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My issue with the acronym UPG (used for “Unverified Personal Gnosis”)  largely resides in the first word of the three.

Personal is fine. UPG does relate to a personal idea or belief. It is a term which refers to something that happened in your life, or perhaps something that you alone experienced.

Gnosis is a little more complicated, if only in that it’s a complex, multi-faceted concept being shoved into three word phrase. But for now, let’s call it — extremely roughly, mind — knowledge, or insight.

Back to Unverified. Unverified, by virtue of that lovely prefix at the beginning, seems to suggest that it exists as part of a binary. Something is verified, proven to be true, proven to be real, proven to be authentic, or, quite simply, it is not.

And that’s about as gross an oversimplification of the matter as my awful two word definition for gnosis a few lines back.

Now here’s why:

Language is a tricky little git. It gives the illusion of presenting an honest to gods replica of that which it describes, but it never completely encompasses the genuine essence of the experience. Events do occur in time, bodies move, interact, live, breathe, and die — but as soon as any given moment has passed, it can never fully be experienced again save through representations that attempt to revitalize that moment in art, in text, in speech. But none of these ever truly allow the moment to be as it was again: it will be always be bounded by someone’s choices in how to create that representation. The colors, voices, words that are used to encompass some portion of the moment affect how others interpret it in turn, constructing new interpretations of the moment in variations upon variations.

So it goes for our concepts of history.

When I talk with some of the war re-enactors involved in my research, to a man they all contrast the re-enactment history of their group with the “history history,” placing the unverified traditions of their organization in stark opposition to textbook-verified traditions. The re-enactment history: a modern bugle song, anachronistic to the war they seek to portray, yet used for the past 20 years because that’s the way they’ve always done it, becomes a sort of… UPG to these men. A meaningful experience, and yet viewed as a personal choice, something they’ve brought into their own monthly ritual of the re-created war camp without backing it up with proof. In contrast, a brass arrangement of a mid-19th century broadside ballad provides something from the “verified” history — never mind that the primary source was pulled from an edited collection, and that the performance practice is based on a modern-day scholar’s argument of how it might have once been played.

And that’s the issue here: even the “history history” has a touch of “unverifiability” to it. Historians make choices when they decide what goes into their book and what doesn’t. They present us with certain ideas —  some backing these ideas up with sound logic and sources, others not — but these ideas still shape how the history is conveyed. No one writing about ancient Egypt today lived there to tell us how things truly were, we only have the writings of academics, mediated by background and belief and schooling, to give us possible interpretations. And granted, even in considering the history we have lived? That’s mediated too, by emotion, by memory, by nostalgia.

The question raised at the end of all of this: what is the authentic, real, verifiable “history”?

My response:  There isn’t one.

You’re nuts, Saryt. You might say to this.  Why the heck are you involved in a reconstructionist faith if you don’t think there’s a history to be re-created!?

Well here’s the thing. You’re right in saying I don’t believe there’s a history to be re-created. I believe there are histories: personal, communal, national… and each and every one of them valid to the beholder.

And indeed, the way to deal with this plurality of histories and memories is to shift the questions around. I offer the following:

In her seminal work  In Search of Authenticity, folklorist Regina Bendix wrote this critique of research projects devoted to seeking out the history or tradition which was purportedly “authentic” or “real.”

The crucial questions to be answered are not ‘what is authenticity?’ but ‘who needs authenticity and why?’ and ‘how has authenticity been used?’ (Bendix 1997: 21).

With this in mind, let’s ask the following: (a) Who needs a verifiable, authentic Kemetic faith and why? (b) How have verifiable, authentic concepts of Kemeticism been used?

(a) Who needs a verifiable, authentic Kemetic faith?

In my humble opinion, this applies anyone who wants to be a part of the Kemetic community and claim a Kemetic religious identity. There are certain aspects of an identity that can only be stretched so far before it ceases to serve as a marker of a group. There is room for flexibility here: no two people claiming any sort of identity are going to be exactly alike (as a self-proclaimed Irish-American who barely drinks, boy howdy do I know that!) But certain points, certain tenets, must be mutually valued amongst those claiming the title, why else have a title at all.

Chances are good that if you claim to be Kemetic, you’re going to worship certain gods and not others, but the hard versus soft polytheism may vary. Chances are also good that you’re going to find value in the concept of ma’at, but whether or not that becomes a historically informed interpretation of ethics or a more immediate experience of “balancing” in your interactions with gods will different from person to person.

(b) How have verifiable, authentic concepts of Kemeticism been used?

I would argue that verifiable, authentic ideas in Kemeticism, much like any form of historical re-construction (be it other recon-oriented faiths, re-enactment, or even Early Music Performance), are often — but not always! — viewed as a form of what I’ll call subcultural capital. Sarah Thornton defines subcultural capital as that which:

 ..confers status on its owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder. … Subcultural capital can be objectified or embodied. Just as books and paintings display cultural capital in the family home, so subcultural capital is objectified in the form of fashionable haircuts and well-assembled record collection … Just as cultural capital is personified in ‘good’ manners and urbane conversation, so subcultural capital is embodied in the form of being ‘in the know’, using (but not over-using) current slang and looking as if you were born to perform the latest dance styles. (11)

Many of the individuals  that have garnered a fair amount of esteem in the virtual Kemetic community, be they bloggers or spiritual leaders, have objectified subcultural capital: impressive libraries and even degrees. For example, while Hemet balances her academic background with spiritual and community-service based reasons for leadership, people outside of Kemetic Orthodoxy mainly recognize and respect her work courtesy of the several advanced degrees she holds in topically-relevant fields. These individuals also have embodied subcultural capital: they site academic sources, they know the feast days and esoteric information, they write lengthy, academic blog posts. It has arguably become a point of status in the community, certainly a point of recognition, to be well versed in the academic history of Ancient Egypt.

And don’t get me wrong: all of these folks definitively deserve our respect. They’ve worked hard to know what they know, to produce their extensive writings and share their expansive projects. We need folks like them to continue to share what we know of the past, to maintain representations of what was in as close and accurate a replica, mediated though it must be, as words or art can convey. They maintain the community I discussed in point (a) — if newcomers to the faith don’t have access to the vital ideas that allows us to mutually define ourselves as Kemetic, if we lose sight of the agreed upon essentials, we aren’t going to have a community.

But it’s worth it to remember that in the end, both the verifiable “history history” and the unverifiable experiences that we bring to our own interpretations of history are, in their own ways, constructed. Better to be aware of why you need a particular spiritual idea, what it contributes to your religious experience, and to be aware of where that idea came from, be it a textbook, the gods, or your own creative mind, than to beat yourself up over whether or not you can verify it as genuine. That knowledge, that awareness of how the idea was constructed, will serve you well in adding to our community, keeping the debate going as to how we define ourselves now and in the future, and keeping the Kemetic tradition vibrant, changing, and alive.

 

Kemetic Round Table – When a Main Deity “Gets” You

The Kemetic Round Table works to connect Kemetic bloggers of various practices and paths in order to provide helpful information for those new to Kemeticism. More information about the project can be found here.

This week, members of the Round Table chose to ponder the following questions: “Do I need a main deity to practice Kemeticism? If so, how do I get a main deity? Am I obligated to learn everything I can about my main deity? Am I able to say no to a deity that shows up at my shrine?”

Many of the other posts  on this topic have done a very thorough job of exploring each of the above questions, offering suggestions to the fledgling Kemetic on how they might begin a relationship with a particular Name of Netjer. I’m going to offer a more generic example — hopefully not too anecdotal for the goals of the group — in the form of a reversal.

You see, for me? The desire to practice Kemeticism didn’t lead me to seek out a main deity. In my case, a primary deity grabbed me by the metaphorical scruff and dragged me, kicking and screaming, into Kemeticism.

If I were to tell you how I “got” my main deity, the honest answer would be, I sat in a swivel chair staring blearily at an excel spreadsheet, pondering various waking dreams about some sort of anthropomorphic canine (I initially thought one of the Jackals) I’d had the week prior.

No reaching out, no research, just sitting in the aforementioned swivel chair when a firm mental voice did the imagined equivalent of a Gibbs slap: “Do not doubt me.”

 Alright, I think to myself, I’m officially losing my mind. Best course of action? Go to wikipedia to distract myself from the fact that I am hearing voices until they go away.

I click random: “Mozart operas” — in which I have performed and dearly loved.

Click again: “Rajasthan musicians” — the ethnic group my advisor studied.

Click again: “French pop” — what was playing on Pandora at that moment.

Click again: A Canadian comedy show my Newfie friend had shared with me the night before.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, Wikipedia doesn’t do “random” based on any sense of your interests (a la Facebook) so I was well and duly boggled. The mental voice turned into mental laughter as I closed out of the Firefox window, and attempt to “think at” the entity.

“Who are you?”
“Meet me.”
 ”Please, who are you?”
 ”You won’t trust my words. Meet me.”
“When?”
“Now. Ten minutes ago. When you saw me before.”
Time: apparently not such a big deal to a god.

So I awkwardly took my 10 minute break and scurried to the bathroom, where we had a less-than-pleasant chat about my lack of personal boundaries, not living up to my potential, and a host of issues related to my ex. Some folks wrote about seeking a god through a ritual? Welp, that’s perfectly fine and more than likely a bit more respectful, but I’m afraid I met my future Parent deity standing in the largest, accessible stall in the loo.

 What’s the point of my recounting my first experience with Set?  

Yes, of course you have personal agency in terms of the gods you worship. You can always reach out yourself, or politely decline a god that approaches you. You can perform a ritual to seek someOne out, you can read books until you find a Name that seems best, or perhaps you can choose to worship Netjer more generally, without specifically devoting yourself to a few unique gods.

But sometimes it’s worth it to just let a god in. What began as an awkward, doubtful, “have I lost my bloody mind” conversation in the ladies’ room developed into something I never could have predicted. Chats over coffee, hikes in the woods, martial arts practice, even practicing electric guitar: all of it has enriched my life in my efforts to honor the one Name Who wouldn’t take “No” for answer. In return, I try to understand His role in history, to balance the personal belief and experience with a solid grounding in how He is represented in various texts, to recite the old prayers even as I create new music in His name.

He claimed me, after all. The least I can do is claim Him as one of my main deities in kind, through my actions, my efforts, and my faith.

Your mileage may vary.

Kemetic Round Table – Facing the Prospect of Fallow Times

The Kemetic Round Table works to connect Kemetic bloggers of various practices and paths in order to provide helpful information for those new to Kemeticism. More information about the project can be found here. 

I genuinely struggled with writing this. In part, because I think the prospect of a spiritually “fallow” time — a time when, for whatever reason, we cannot hear our gods and lack the energy to complete our usual rituals — can be particularly frightening for those of us who have yet to really experience one.

I am new to faith. I sat in church throughout childhood, but never felt comforted by it, never felt like I needed it, should one day my father decide he no longer wished to go. I have meditated and journeyed, gained much from both, but even this was different from what I would call “faith.” My teachers in that part of the unseen generally only came to me if I reached out first. It was very much a matter of my asking for their help from the start, and spiritual entities of various shapes and sizes offered assistance only after deeming me worthy. I knew, from the get go, how things worked. If I didn’t close my eyes and journey to visit them, I should not expect a response.

But the gods of Kemet found me. Bast during my early adolescence, Set about two years ago. They offered Their comfort, Their strength, without my seeking it out. They have loved me and aided me at my worst, pushed me to try again when I needed a good solid kick in the arse to get moving. They’ve challenged me to do what I didn’t think I could, celebrated my successes, picked me up when I failed. They shoved past my cynical disbelief, gave me the proof my academic’s mind needed to permit myself to believe in something beyond the secular. The prospect of losing that connection, that contact, is horrifying.

My sibling said something to me the other day that I’d like to record here:

“With Set and others in your life full-force, you’re no longer just dealing with embers. You’ve fanned the fire back up to a healthy blaze.”

For the first time in my life, the fire within is fully lit. My fields are vibrant and alive, filled to the brim with healthy crops from my labors. When the seasons of my life shift and the appropriate time comes to take action, I will be ready for a tremendous harvest. I will pick the fluffy ideas off the stalk, shuck the ears off the creative endeavors I’ve grown and start them cooking into fully fledged projects for change and growth, ready to nourish me and my community.

And then, when the work is done, I will stare across a vast, empty field, and I will wonder: what now?

There are other members of the Round Table who have written of the usefulness of a fallow time. The good that can come of letting yourself rest and rejuvenate. They’ve suggested putting your energy into other aspects of your life while you wait for the spiritual field to be ready again, dedicating these new efforts to your gods to stay connected during the time apart.

Yet it can be so difficult to predict what that time will be like. Painful, to imagine what will happen when, for the first time, you hear only silence on your end of the “god-phone” after seemingly having a direct line that got you through so many trials. For me, it’s tantamount to thinking too long on the future of any relationship. Some day, the way things are now will come to an end. Such is the way of things in a world of transience and mortality.

How do I accept this?

For one: Be present. When I am in shrine, when I speak with my gods, I cherish those moments. I try to give Them my full attention. I thank Them when ritual concludes. I fully live in the time with Them that I have.

Two: Trust. They showed up when I needed them. Chances are, if and when They eventually grow distant, my gods are doing so for a reason. Perhaps depression or grief needs my full attention for recovery. Perhaps there is another project that merits greater focus. The gods don’t abandon, but They do give space, if space is needed.

Three: Take heart in cycles. Kemetic faith is a faith of constant return. Consider the concept of Zep Tepi, the first time, which comes with the rising of the sun each morning, bringing new opportunities, new chances. Consider the changing of the year and the seasons, if our spiritual life has dried out, eventually the flood waters will come again. Nothing is static, for good or ill.

Four: Reach out. Talk with your gods and the other members of the Kemetic community about your fears. As you can see from the other posts in this week’s Round Table, plenty of other more experienced Kemetic practitioners have gone through this before, and come out the other end. Perhaps they were changed, but as mentioned above, this is a natural thing, and can often lead to insight.

I hope this proves helpful to you, from one neophyte Kemetic to another. When the fallow time comes, we may not be ready, but we will be okay.

Kemetic Round Table – Ritual Purity

The Kemetic Round Table (KRT) is a blogging project aimed at providing practical, useful information for modern Kemetic religious practitioners. We noticed that many beginners in the Kemetic community have a lot of the same questions, and that there is currently no solid (and newbie safe) resource for newcomers to gain knowledge about the faith and practice. So we decided that every few weeks, a group of Kemetic bloggers would tackle a common new comer question and answer it as it obtains to their own personal practice. We’d then post our responses where others could read and learn about how other Kemetics are practicing. –  What is the Kemetic Round Table?

As many of us take our first steps into this exciting new blogging project, it seems fitting that we begin with a discussion of the preparations we make before stepping into sacred space, participating in Kemetic ritual. A number of contributors have already written excellent posts on the matter. I highly recommend Sarduriur’s post at Shadows of the Sun for a discussion of the history behind matters of ritual purity, Helmsman of Yinepu’s post at Kemetic Reconnaissance for a definition of “w’ab” or “clean,” and Qednofretaset’s post at Seven Scorpions which provides a clear-cut explanation of ritual purity requirements for the Kemetic Orthodox practice of senut, which I will touch on below.

I do identify as a member of the Kemetic Orthodox faith, having recently taken Shemsu vows to my gods and my community. Many who have found this particular flavor of Kemetic worship to fulfill their spiritual needs will complete the state rite of senut daily, effectively connecting themselves to the the rest of our community through very specific designated recitations, actions, and prayers. Before senut, practitioners are asked to wash their external body and orifices with a combination of natron and water, over which a particular blessing has been given. Once clean, they wear white clothing used solely for ritual made of neither synthetic materials nor animal skin. They are also asked to obstain from senut if they are bleeding (this includes menstruation) or are feeling particularly ill.

I very much enjoy and respect the process of preparing for senut. It provides a sense of connection to other members of my community to go through the steps, to know that many others have gone through these same processes, and may, somewhere, simultaneously be experiencing something similar to what I am experiencing in those moments of bathing, cleaning myself physically and emotionally, speaking sacred words aloud. It counters the loneliness of having no local Kemetic community, builds unseen bonds across the miles to friends and acquaintances.

This said, I generally only do the full state rite of senut once a month.

This is not for lack of faith or loyalty to my community! I sit in shrine several times a week to provide offerings to my gods, to play music for them, to simply sit in the presence of their icons and find comfort in a candle’s glow and the shadows of my Parents and Beloveds as they dance upon the wall. In preparation for all of these varieties of ritual I do purify. However, due to circumstances related to both my reproductive health and my schedule as a graduate student, I can only meet the full requirements of purity for senut on very rare occasions. Through much deliberation, both individually and with my gods, I decided that the best way to honor my commitment to Kemetic Orthodoxy is to make sure that when I prepare myself to purify for senut, I prepare myself for senut as the community proscribed. When I cannot meet those standards, I simply do something other than senut while in shrine, using none of the prayers associated with the rite, and feel neither guilt nor shame for the necessity.

And what does “something else” entail? Showering if I have time, often incorporating a bit of energy work. It’s an old trick I used long before my Kemetic days, where I envision the water rushing through me as well as over me in a stream of silver, breaking up the darkened bits, revitalizing connections between chakras. It takes tremendous focus, and even on days when I’m having a hell of a time pulling myself out the maelstrom of worries whirling around in my skull, if I’m going to be successful at the visualizaton, I must let go of the day-to-day concerns. I generally feel fantastic, inside and out, when I step out and begin the walk down the hall to the room with my shrine.

If I don’t have time, I will at least make an effort to wash my hands, my face, brush my teeth. I think there’s something about the deliberate choice to engage in the process of making myself clean, no matter to what degree, that helps me separate the sacred experiences to come from the secular experiences earlier in the day.

And personally I acknowledge that purity is on a gradient. The instant I step from the shower, whether this was a moment when I spoke the words of senut and washed with natron, or instead completed a visualization exercise, I’m going to need to use the towel I likely used the day before, my cat is going to rub up against my ankles and “share” her fuzz with me while I walk down the hall. As I dry and sweat in the heat of a small apartment mid-winter, I will lose the physical sense of purity gained a minute earlier. Whether I put on ritual whites or another clean outfit, there will be fuzz from the sweater that was hanging next to it, a bit of dust from that closet shelf I’ve been putting off wiping down with a damp cloth.

This doesn’t matter. What matters was the effort, the process of purifying, the deliberate choice to make myself ready — in mind, in body, in emotion — to sit with my gods, to separate myself from that paper that needs to be written, that phone call that needs to be made.

I call Set “Father,” Bast “Mother.” If I were to travel to visit my biological parents, I know that they would want my full attention and love during the period of time I stayed with them. I see the purifying process as a similar display of respect and affection.

For you see, in my acts of purification I am both traveling from a profane state to a numinous one and readying myself to focus solely on my gods for however long I am in shrine. If I intend to do senut, I complete the act through the methods required for senut, and I do so whole-heartedly with great attention to detail. If I am unable to meet those standards, or choose to worship in a way outside of senut, I purify in my own unique way. Out of respect to the community of Kemetic Orthodox to which I belong, I do not mix the two, but I certainly do not see one as more or less valuable and effective than the other.

The purpose, the shift, will happen either way. That, to me, is what counts. Your mileage may vary.