On Not Learning Lessons.

In ancient Egypt, there’s this funny thing called ma’at. Ma’at is a complicated topic. It can be defined as “universal order”, or “balance”; it can be conceived of as “justice” or “right action”; it can even be seen as a kind of law of returns in it’s own way. I admit I’ve never had a consistent grasp on what ma’at means. Whenever I think I really get it, it starts to slip between my fingers, and I have to adjust my perception. Right now, ma’at looks a lot like one of Newton’s laws to me. Everything has a consequence. A real, immediate, tangible consequence will follow any action you take. If you eat, you won’t be hungry anymore. If you put your hand in a fire, you will get burned. If someone stabs you, you’re going to start bleeding. Simple.

Of course it’s not simple. Because life will eternally present us with difficult and unexpected challenges, making us question what we’ve done to deserve them. It’s human nature to wonder what’s making us hurt, I suppose. An example: I have managed to pick up some kind of virus or cold roughly every three weeks for the last five months. My instinct is to shake my fist at the sky and wonder what I did to bring this upon myself. Did the gods decide I needed to learn something by being sick? Did I piss off a doctor in a past life? Did I give some poor old lady the flu by not getting my flu shot? Is this a message that I’m doing something wrong?

First: the gods don’t want to hurt us. I’m using a fairly innocuous example here, so maaaybe the gods are trying to teach me something by guiding me into situations where I’m likely to pick up some kind of fairly benign bug — but this vein of thinking gets dangerous when we start to wonder about deaths, or serious injuries, or chronic illnesses. The gods really don’t want you to go through the world-rending pain that major trauma invokes. Do the gods want you to learn from your experiences and grow? Yes. Did they send an eighteen-wheeler to cut you off so you’d spin out on the highway, break your leg and wind up unable to work for several months? The likelihood is so low it might as well be impossible.

Second: ma’at exists in the present. There’s very little evidence in antiquity for the concept of accountable reincarnation. There is some evidence for reincarnation, I hear (I don’t exactly know the details so don’t quote me) but the general attitude is always that you are held accountable for your accumulated goodness or badness at the time of death. This makes a lot of sense if you consider the complex structure of the soul and its multiple parts; different pieces of the soul do different things after death, so if only part of you is going to reincarnate, how can that piece be held accountable for something that happened while it was just working as a piece of a whole? That’s like punishing someone’s lung for giving them kidney stones.

Third: ma’at is generally direct and straightforward. If you eat, you won’t be hungry. If you drop a vase, it will break. If you curse someone out, they won’t want to spend time with you again and your relationship will deteriorate. If you offer to the gods, they’ll be more present in your life. Ma’at rarely operates in enigmatic ways.

So then why did I get sick so many times? Well, I work with children. I was stressed about planning a wedding, and finishing the winter semester for both work and grad school. I was spending more time with people in general to get ready for my own wedding and to celebrate other weddings. It was also the beginning of cold weather. All those things add up to heightened probability of illness. That’s where ma’at is in all of this; not pulling some invisible strings that I could never hope to understand, but woven through the circumstances that lead to very sniffly results. Is there a lesson to be learned from all my minor illnesses? Maybe, but it probably doesn’t have much to do with the gods.

Sometimes, things just happen. Just because we live in a world that is touched by gods and spirits doesn’t mean we don’t also follow natural laws and processes; it also doesn’t mean that those gods and spirits touch every single thing in the world. When life gets you down and you’re cursing the gods for putting you in a bad position, just remember — ma’at doesn’t punish, it reacts. Take steps to bring goodness into your life, even if it is small, and goodness will come into your life, to be multiplied and cherished.

(NB: ma’at can also be conceived of as the natural order of things (sunrises, seasonal changes, the annual flood, etc). In this case, following the natural order of things, or doing what is right, is also ma’at. The concept of ma’at as right action is interconnected with ma’at as reaction. When you do things “in ma’at” the reaction is a magnification of natural and moral order. And since it is natural for there to be a reaction for every action… ma’at magnifies itself. I could write any number of blog posts on the subject and probably not come close to explaining ma’at in its entirety, but that’s the simplest thorough explanation I can give.)

Eight.

So it has been eight years since my RPD. I remember back when I became Kemetic Orthodox, and I wondered what it would feel like to have been a part of something for eight years. I submitted my application for the Beginners’ course just before I turned eighteen; at that point, the only thing I’d been doing for eight years was having two digits in my age.

I always find myself reflecting on the changes in my life more at this time of year than any other — even my birthday. I don’t know why, but thinking about my RPD makes me recognize that I’ve become such a drastically different person in the short amount of time between 2007 and today.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from my personal journal, written right after my divination. It makes me cringe a little bit to read it (whose journal doesn’t?) but it is also somewhat incredible to me, reading my impressions of my Parents immediately after divination.

My Father was no surprise, to me, or apparently the entire room watching me be divined. The dancing in my seat evidently gave it away. Papa Jackal is great. He is kind, He is loving, He is understanding, and He loves booze, dicing, and wimmin. My kind of God. Mama Sekhmet-Mut is a little different. I half expected Sekhmet, but was having a hard time connecting with Hethert. The Mut part of Mama makes sense. She is motherly, but fierce and watchful. Hemet described Her as being the Sekhmet who does not fly into a rage OR return to Hethert — She sits on Her throne and watches, quietly taking in Her surroundings and quietly judging, waiting to catch someone red handed. She is regal and fiercely protective. She is mother and queen, but she is the claws of the queen and the rage of the mother against someone who would hurt her children. She is beautiful, in short. Mama is beautiful.

My beloveds were a little surprising to me. EVERYONE around me expected Bast, my boyfriend and mother included. She makes sense, because I am an extremely sensual person, with a temper. I think I have the more creative side of Her though. She is not fluffy for me, and not terribly clawed… She is dancing and singing, and rejoicing. That might just be because I’m finally trying to get to know Her, though. I am very happy to have Her as one of my ka-Moms*. I had sort of expected Nit as a beloved, but got Nut instead — which is not unusual. It’s hard to tell Nit and Nut apart. Nut is absolutely awesome. Nut is an ubermom. She is warm, very warm, and gives THE best hugs. I adore Her and am SO glad to have her as my second ka-Mom. She makes more sense than Nit. I don’t have the bluntness to be a Nit kid.

How things have changed since then. :) It’s been an unbelievable journey, to dive briefly into cliche… and it continues to be even more amazing than I ever could have dreamed. Here’s to the next eight years.

* – at the time of my RPD, the concept of Beloveds as creators of one’s ka was still really popular, and even though I knew it had come from a ritual saq session with Nit I didn’t care, I liked it anyway.

Also, some of you may know that I am also a beloved of Khonsu; He was a later addition, so I had no opinion about Him at the time (other than that He is awesome).

A reminder.

Today is Self Injury Awareness Day. A few years ago, I wrote a long post about my own experiences, which I won’t rehash; you can read that post here. Instead, let me offer a brief meditation on the subject.

The gods don’t want us to be hurting. Sometimes we will feel sore, or pained, as we learn lessons and grow from them; but the depth of pain that comes from depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues is not productive. We may be able to learn something from it, but that is our own doing. The gods do not hand these things to us as challenges, nor do They require us to be completely free from pain to serve Them. The difficulties we face are just that: difficulties. And the gods will stand by us as we meet them head on.

Self-care can be a form of purification; releasing anxiety, fear, grief, guilt, and shame lighten our hearts and allow us to connect better with the gods. Sometimes, the process of letting go is terrifying. Sometimes it is lengthy. Sometimes, we cannot do it on our own. We lean on the gods, our loved ones, or on the help of professionals — and that in no way lessens the worth of the work we do.

Self-care is the antithesis of self-harm. Self-harm devalues the body and the self; the body becomes a tool for offering relief, rather than a part of oneself to be valued. Self-care includes self-soothing and relaxation, but also taking action to better ourselves and our lives. Self-harm allows us to sink deeper into the grief and shame that we feel; self-care helps us rise above it and become stronger.

Take good care of yourself. Know that it does not make you any less to seek help from a friend, loved one, or professional. If you are struggling with self-harm, there are resources out there to help. Above all else — be well.

W’ab Wednesday: Ritual purity or ridiculous purity?

AKA “Yes, Netjer wants you to wear deodorant.”

When I first became Kemetic, I was obsessed with ritual purity. I was dedicated to being as ritually pure in all things as possible. I was more than a little misguided. I read somewhere that the processed chemicals present in my body washes and shampoos were technically ritually impure. I ditched my cheap grocery store products and sprung for goat’s milk soap and all-natural shampoos and conditioners. I entirely changed my daily bathing routine and offered it to the gods. I felt wonderful; I felt as though I carried some kind of purity with me wherever I went. And in the event that I had to put something on my body that included something deemed ritually impure (read: synthetic or derived from a waste product), I waited until after all rituals were finished.

This unfortunately included deodorant.

Thanks to the magic of air conditioning and cold winter climate, I never had a problem going without deodorant in shrine. Senut isn’t a particularly lengthy ritual, and my shrine never got particularly hot. I found myself feeling not-so-fresh during a few online ritual simulcasts, but since those were attended at a distance, I didn’t mind. Then I went to the House of Netjer’s annual Wep Ronpet Retreat for the first time. In August. Where many rituals took place without air conditioning.

Let me just apologize now to anyone who sat next to me during those rituals.

Eventually I took up the priesthood as a full-time w’ab priest, which meant I spent more time in shrine, more frequently. I started working full time, and also enrolled in graduate school. The time I had to spend washing up for shrine, doing the rites, and then attending to my own physical self-care, became limited. I started to skip moisturizing because I couldn’t fit it into my routine. I ignored my skincare routines. Effectively, I was avoiding anything that I would have to postpone until after shrine, because my time and energy were more limited.

I started feeling stressed out and neglected, and I wondered whether the gods really cared if I put body lotion on in between finishing my purification in the shower, and starting Their rituals. It would keep my legs from itching, and being distracted by constant dry skin sounded like a detriment to purity to me. I tried it out. When the gods didn’t come screaming from Their shrines, I wondered out loud at Them whether They would mind if I fit my missing self-care in between purification and ritual. Their answer surprised me.

To summarize what They said: attending to oneself is a kind of purification too. It doesn’t do the gods any good if you walk around feeling crappy because you spent so much time in shrine that you didn’t get to pluck your eyebrows, or if your skin dries out and you spend so much time scratching your shins furiously that you start bleeding. Sometimes sacrifice is necessary. Sometimes, giving something up or making serious changes to our routine can bring us closer to the gods. And sometimes, it’s just a roadblock to doing real, important work. Or it makes us smelly and our neighbors uncomfortable.

The moral of the story is that the point of ritual purity is to avoid carrying unnecessary dirt and ickiness into the presence of the gods, both physically and metaphysically. Obsessing over ritual purity to the point where you start directly bringing these things into the presence of the gods is entirely counterproductive. Wash up before shrine, but don’t let it get in the way of living or being presentable for the ritual. Learn from my mistakes.

KRT: The Road Less Travelled (and Red Jellybeans)

When your practice leaves the beaten path: what happens when the gods throw you for a loop? What do you do when the gods present you with a situation that doesn’t seem “normal” for a Kemetic? How do you handle things when your practice wanders off the map?

I feel like “off the beaten path” is where I live my religious life. So what if I’m a priest in an organized group of Kemetics — my gods spend an awful lot of time insisting that interacting with Them is more important than reading about Them, which means I get most of my information from personal experiences. If you have faith in the system and believe that the rituals I’ve been taught safeguard against the presence of other spirits hijacking the spotlight (which I do believe), then the only thing to be careful of when interpreting what the gods have to say is my own subconscious influence — which is admittedly tough. When in doubt I Think, Divine, and Talk about it.

Think about it: Question what’s being said. Does it sound like wish-fulfillment? Are there any red flags?

Wish-fulfillment would be something that meets our exact wants and needs; it may therefore be coming from our subconscious, rather than from the gods Themselves.

Red flags would be suspicious requests — ones that ask us to harm ourselves or others. Sekhmet does not want you to offer alcohol if it is a trigger for you; if you feel She is asking you to give Her beer and you have a history with alcoholism, it may not really be Her asking.

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference; the gods can ask us to inconvenience ourselves, or to take actions that may feel like they will hurt us but will lead to growth in the end. If you’ve thought it over and you still feel uncertain — that’s okay! There are other ways to confirm or validate experiences.

Divine about it: Use Tarot cards. Use fedw. Use some mode of non-verbal, deity-to-person communication to see what the bigger picture is. Be direct and specific when you divine. Ask, “Am I right in hearing You say you want me to offer You pumpkin pie?” Using a binary form of divination is really helpful here. Tarot can be really broad, and sometimes you just want a yes or a no. (Disclaimer: many binary forms of divination are more complicated than they appear at first glance — you may not actually get a clear answer here. It can help, however, and if you feel too conflicted about trusting your own instincts, it is worth a try.)

Talk about it: Never underestimate the power of a good conversation. Talk to someone else who honors the same gods, or who is trying the same things as you. They may be going through a similar situation. They may be able to tell you whether it sounds like you’re doing something dangerous or inappropriate. Even if they can’t confirm whether your experience holds any legitimacy, they can at very least let you know whether you are about to hurt yourself or someone else. And sometimes, just voicing concerns can help sort them out.

When all else fails: If you think about it, divine about it, and talk about it, and you’re just not sure what to do — go with your gut, but proceed with caution.

In most things we do, it isn’t going to matter whether what we are doing is 100% historically informed. I don’t believe the gods are going to be violently offended if we create beautiful rites to honor Them that deviate from antiquity. I don’t believe there’s much we can do to screw up the balance of ma’at, if our heka is a little bit funky; it might not be as effective, is all.

I do, however, believe that the power of our religion comes from our connection with the gods.

If offering red jellybeans to Sekhmet connects you both — do it. The gods have many forms and many manifestations. They have more kau and bau than we can imagine. Perhaps the form of Sekhmet Who manifests to you prefers red jellybeans; perhaps She will use them later on to help you learn or figure something out. But if we spend all our time trying to decide whether that’s what She really wants, we are missing out on the chance to build a connection with Her. Even if that connection begins with offering red jellybeans and finding out that She really hates them.

Once upon a time, when I was a wee baby Kemetic making my first offerings, Tumblr was a gleam in someone’s eye and LiveJournal reigned supreme. I offered Sekhmet orange juice, based on my own gut feelings. It seemed to make sense – She’s a solar goddess, oranges and citrus fruit are associated with the sun, so obviously She would want orange juice. I went with my gut. She hated it. I could feel the Divine side-eye bearing down on me from my dorm room altar. Next time, make it something stronger, She mused loudly in my head. Did I die? Did She smite me? Nope. She helped me. And after that, I did not offer Her orange juice.

Obviously that wasn’t very far off the beaten path — in fact, since I wasn’t even really on a path at the time, I don’t think it really counts as off the path at all. The point I want to make is that it isn’t deadly to make mistakes. Going off of our own instinct can lead to some really beautiful experiences. Some of the best religious experiences I have ever had have come from nothing else besides trust in the messages from the gods. We are, after all, only human. Being wrong once in a while won’t kill us, but missing out on something great because we are afraid to be wrong can make us miserable.