Circle Sanctuary’s 35th annual Pagan Spirit Gathering gets underway this weekend, and I’ll be presenting two Kemetic-themed workshops/leading group rituals there for the second consecutive year. In my preparations for one of the workshops, a Kemetic Reconstructionism 101 primer aimed at an adult audience of mostly eclectic Pagans and perhaps (hopefully!) a smattering of Reconstructionists from other traditions (Hellenismos and Heathenry, for the most part), I thought it would be useful to fully articulate not just what Kemetic Reconstructionism is, but what it most decidedly is not: Tameran Wicca, which, I suspect, many people in the audience will be coming from as a frame of reference. After delineating what strike me as the most crucial distinctions between the two Egyptian-oriented traditions, I devised what I’m calling a Ninefold Kemetic Worldview; it appears below.
The number nine is a sacred one in many spiritual traditions and cultures, and ancient Egypt was no exception: the city of Heliopolis was the center for veneration of the Ennead, the Nine Holy Powers that unfold the energies of Creation, the First Time (Zep-Tepi): Atum (the “Hidden One”), who begat, from His own ejaculation (talk about scattering seed!) Shu (Air) and Tefnut (Moisture), Who, in turn, begat the powers of Sky (Mother Nut) and Earth (Father Geb), Who, in turn, became parents of the mighty pairs of children Aset (Isis) and Asar (Osiris), Nephthys (Nebet-Het), and Set the Doubly Strong.
Any polytheist who serves her Holy Powers does so with a spirit of love, reverence, and humility. It is with this attitude and the intention of fostering dialogue and respect–especially because I know I’ll be encountering vastly dissimilar theological attitudes and ritual perspectives from mine–that I present my definitions and my Ninefold Kemetic Worldview.
Kemetic Reconstructionism vs. Tameran Wicca and Other Forms of Eclectic Paganism
Reconstructionists attempt to “reconstruct” the religions of the ancient world and practice them as closely as is possible in a modern context. Individuals or groups center on a specific time and place in ancient times – Kemetic Reconstructionists try to preserve the original framework of Egyptian liturgy and festival calendars as much as can be allowed. Other kinds of Reconstructionists may focus on the historical periods and places of Hellenic Greece, republican Rome, the pre-Roman Celts, and pre-Christian Scandinavia. (Respectively, those particular traditions tend to be referred to as Hellenismos, Religio Romana, Celtic Reconstructionism, and Heathenry.)
The term “Kemetic” in Kemetic Reconstructionism comes from what the ancient Egyptians called their own land: Kemet, which means “the black land,” a reference to the richness of the soil deposits thanks to the annual flooding of the Nile River, a sacred occasion that had profound religious significance for the ancient Egyptians. (As an aside, after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in 611 CE, medieval Arabs translated Kemet into Al Khem, still “the black land,” which becomes the root of our word “alchemy.” So the association of magic with the country of Egypt is a longstanding one, as I’ll discuss in subsequent blog posts.)
Another term for Egyptian spiritual practices that has come into vogue by some modern Pagans is the adjective “Tameran,” which allegedly stems from ta meri, the “beloved land” as a reference for ancient Egypt. Whether this is historically accurate or not, it arose in popularity due to the writings of a Wiccan priestess (the late Ellen Canon Reed) and popularized in her book Circle of Isis, which provides Wiccan rituals for a tradition she coined as Tameran Wicca.
Kemetic Reconstructionism is not Tameran—or any other variety of Wicca—nor is it eclectic Paganism. Let’s look at some major differences:
Tameran Wiccans make use of existing Wiccan framework and apply Egyptian material toward it. There’s a plug-and-play mentality with Deities: the Lord and Lady adopt the names and forms of Osiris and Isis, typically. Why? Because theologically speaking, Wiccans tend to be strongly duotheistic or pantheistic, reducing all historical goddesses and gods down to aspects of a divine duality (a Lord and a Lady).
Reconstructionists, when adapting rituals for the modern world, try to do so minimally, keeping in consideration, among other things, the time of year the ritual would have been performed in the Egyptian calendar and in what particular context. Tameran Wiccans, in contrast, adapt rituals liberally–extrapolating the celebration of events from their original contexts and grafting them onto the Sabbats of the eightfold Wiccan Wheel of the Year (as an example, the celebration of the union of Horus of Edfu and Hathor of Dendera gets associated with Beltane rituals) .
Now that I’ve made my definitions and noted distinctions from other traditions, I now present, in honor of the Holy Ennead of Heliopolis, my ninefold Kemetic Worldview:
- Belief in the objective existences of every single Deity or Neter. They are not theoretical archetypes, empty energetic personifications, or aspects of the human psyche. The Neteru have their own lives, personalities, and agendas when we are not interacting with Them, and yes, They are more powerful than we are. The Holy Powers of ancient Egypt are wonderful, awe-inspiring, dangerous, and necessary. God/desses are worthy of awe and worship. They can see bigger and further than we can, and They understand things that our meat brains are not capable of comprehending. These admissions comprise the tenets of a polytheistic worldview; to quote the religious scholar Henri Frankfort (if you can pardon his gender exclusivist language): “Polytheism is sustained by man’s experience of a universe alive from end to end. Powers confront man wherever he moves, and in the immediacy of these confrontations the question of their ultimate unity does not arise.” (Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 4)
- Kemetic Polytheism is typically “hard”: Not only do Deities exist, but They do so individually; They are not reduceable to “aspects” of One Big Deity, or even the same sort of Deities. Going back to Hathor of Dendera as an example, She’s the goddess of love and beauty. She loves music, dancing, and sex. She is not Aphrodite or Freya or Oshun, even if those Goddesses are also associated with or enjoy those things. Similarly, the ram-headed Creator God, Khnum of Elephantine (modern Aswan), is not Cernunnos or Zeus or Frey, and so forth. Deities are different entities with different abilities, preferences, and standards for Their worshipers, and to understand and attempt to fulfill these standards is a mark of respect for Them. Conversely, to address one as another or to ignore what we know of Their standards and preferences is severe disrespect, and may possibly create offenses.
- The Kemetic emphasis is on religious worship—so that means cultic practices, group or private devotional rituals to the Gods and to one’s ancestors. There is a spirit of piety and humility when approaching these Powers. Magical workings, which were definitely a part of the ancient Egyptian religious praxis repertoire, do not trump worship. This is in sharp contradistinction to other modern traditions where the focal point of a gathering is to effect magical workings.
- As a living religion, Kemeticism is the lens through which you filter your perception of the world. It affects your actions. It’s a part of how you do things. The point is not that we all have the exact same values and ethics; we don’t. Traditions vary. The point is that whatever they may be, these values are not just theorized about when convenient. They are lived, fiercely and thoroughly and daily, even when they are terribly inconvenient, even when they make our lives that much more difficult.
- Non-exclusivity: Kemetic belief does not in any way claim to be “the” absolute right way nor its Gods the “only” ones. To once again quote from Frankfort’s Ancient Egyptian Religion: “Egyptian religion was not exclusive. It recognized an unlimited number of gods. It possessed neither a central dogma nor a holy book. It could flourish without postulating one basic truth (p.4).” I’ll write more on this in subsequent posts with the multiplicity of Egyptian creation myths.
- Multiple vessels: a Deity can inhabit more than one vessel–be it a statue or other image–simultaneously. The ba or manifestation of a Deity, Its essence or sekhem (power) was literally thought to descend in the form of a golden hawk into a given statue or other image and thus animate it. The ba was united with the ka, the form; similarly, the human dead aspired to have such a union of these same two animating principles in the post-death state. In state cults, regular daily temple service for a given Deity was comprised of honoring Its ba through purification and literal feeding and clothing of the statue (Teeter 55).
- Deity is immanent, not transcendent. Some religions, like the African Traditional Religion of Ifa, imagine the Creator to be remote or beyond the concerns of Its creation. Other divine intermediaries (e.g., the Orisha) are needed to interact with the world of humans. This is not the case in Kemetic belief, where the Neteru are accessible to the average worshiper and greatly involved in devotees’ lives.
- Importance is given to cyclical versus linear time: The ancient Egyptian word neheh means “eternally renewing.” That’s the condition humans and Gods alike find themselves in, of understanding the dynamic interrelation of permanence and change. The fact is, we are constantly re-living the first moment, Zep Tepi. Creation wasn’t a one-time event; it is an ongoing occurrence. And the participation in that cyclical reality doesn’t end with death; indeed, one’s participation in it becomes even more pronounced, as the dead were either identified with Osiris and His annual rising with the grain and the floodwaters of the Nile or they hoped to join Ra in his solar boat, which descended into the Underworld and was reborn from the loins of Nut on a daily basis. “Whether the dead man’s aim is the solar circuit, or that of the circumpolar stars, or the life of Osiris, the essential wish is the same: to be absorbed in the great rhythm of the universe” (Frankfort 106).
- Emphasis on ethics: the concept of ma’at (divine order) places human beings as co-creators with the Gods in helping maintain cosmic order against the forces of chaos and loss (izfet). And Kemetics draw ethical guidance from Spell 125 of the Book of the Dead with its famous “42 Negative Confessions.” While mainstream Pagans/Wiccans typically do not believe in a final judgment of the soul, Kemetics do. However, the emphasis is not on life in the Hereafter but on the cultivation of one’s moral character and using it to live well here and now.
Finding comfort in faith and growing in understanding through one’s symbiotic relationship with the Gods–that’s the telos of Kemetic Reconstructionism.
Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications (reprint of 1948 unabridged original): 2000.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2011.