Ancestor veneration was a regular part of ancient Kemetic religion. Maintaining tombs, remembering the dead, making offerings to their kau – all of this was vital not only for the happiness of the living, but for the dead in the afterlife. Modern Kemetic-based religions often include some form of ancestor devotions. In Kemetic Orthodoxy, having a strong relationship with one’s akhu is strongly recommended. But it can get complicated.

Most of us come to Kemetic Orthodoxy as converts. Very few people have been born into the religion. Therefore our ancestors are usually Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim – one of the “big three” Abrahamic religions of the modern world. I have often questioned whether my many Catholic akhu can appreciate my strange prayers and communication with the dead. Others have even been told directly by their akhu that an akh disapproves of being venerated. Sometimes there’s a culture clash when we introduce them to our practices.

People often have complicated relationships with their ancestors. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone refuse to honor their akhu because of an abusive or otherwise unsavory relative, I’d have… a lot of nickels. To be clear — there should never be a requirement or obligation to honor ancestors who hurt you deeply in life. The choice to reconcile, in both life and death, is personal.

And then there’s a cultural piece that gets even more complex. Our ancestors may not match the cultural context we’re honoring them in. Or, they may have done things that are problematic or ethically questionable. It’s a concern for many.

Our ancestors, however, are many. We have more ancestors than we can count. The number of generations that span the gap between us and prehistory is astonishing. I may lament an akh‘s bad behavior or problematic history and still connect with the vast crowd of unknown akhu whose actions unwittingly lead to my life. They feel infinite — and in a sense, they are.

My advice for those new to Kemetic religion, or those struggling to connect with their akhu because it’s complicated for them, is to start without names. Thank the ones who loved one another and through that love created part of your life. Even if you never met, they gave you life; surely among that crowd you will find a connection and a place to start.

When you talk to your ancestors…

…you’d better be prepared for them to talk back!

For Monday’s Sixth Day festival, I went to my ancestor shrine and spent some time giving them attention. While I was offering, I rearranged their space a little bit – dusted off some things, replaced the candles, and put out different offering dishes. I poured a substantial amount of water for them. Then, I just sat. I pulled a chair up in front of their shrine and watched the candles burn silently, feeling the comfort of their presence. After 10 or so minutes, I left.

The next day, I got a phone call. Someone in my family managed to trace my family back to a Hessian soldier who defected in exchange for American land during the Revolutionary War! I now know the name of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who lived in Prussia in the mid-1700s. I find this way too convenient of a coincidence to be coincidence at all.

We have branches of my family tree shrouded in far more mystery than this. I am going to make a point of spending more time with my ancestors in hopes that they will tell me more about themselves!

Episode 4: Death and the Afterlife

I think death is an interesting subject, because it’s incredibly complex, and it’s one of the things in my life that I really can’t say I have full faith in. I don’t 100% believe in an Afterlife – more like 85%. 85% is enough to keep me saying I believe in it, though, and keep talking like I do.

Here’s what I believe happens.
Step one: the physical body dies. Upon dying, all of the souls exit the body, and are greeted by a psychopomp (guide for the dead) – I personally believe that I would be met by Wepwawet, and that He would meet many people, being Opener of the Ways, but I do believe it’s possible that any number of deities or spirits could take this role. This spirit or deity will sit with the deceased for a time and give them a ‘Your Life In Review’ tour, allowing them to understand things they couldn’t in life, and to get a wider perspective on what they did and what was done to them than mortal vision allows. This is a part of a 70-day ‘journey’, culminating in the trial of the Weighing of the Heart.

In the Weighing of the Heart, the deceased’s life is judged and weighed against the feather of Ma’at. That phrase is kind of ambiguous, in my opinion. Ma’at is a principle of universal justice and accountability, which I’ll get to in a few episodes – but what would it mean to have your life weighed against it? In my understanding, it means to have your life measured for what you did, but also for your intent in all actions, and for remorse for the hurtful things. It’s far more complicated than a simple checklist of pros and cons. It isn’t the “Weighing of the Laundry List of Things Person X Has Done”, but the Weighing of the Heart. I firmly believe that even the most wicked living person can pass this judgment and be justified if, during that 70-day period, they found remorse or understanding that was not available in life.

It’s hard to say exactly what things will cause one to fail the Weighing of the Heart. Keeping with Ma’at, however, and living a just life are pretty good ways to pass. How to keep with Ma’at is another kind of complicated topic but effectively: being kind, compassionate, merciful and just, while taking responsibility for your own actions and the consequences thereof will bring you to a pleasant judgment. There’s a set of 42 purifications that get tossed around as the precursor to the 10 commandments, though while they’re similar in nature they’re intended for a different audience – but they DO give a good picture of what was believed to be just and right in antiquity.

Upon passing judgment, the many parts of the soul disband, I believe. (This is where literature gets really weird, since different things were believed in antiquity – here’s a heavy dose of What Sobeq Believes.) The Ka – the soul that carries our actions, our personality, our family, everything about this life – separates, and becomes an Akh, residing in the Beautiful West with the rest of the dead. It’s a lot like this world, only without a physical body. You work, you rest, you watch out for your living relatives. The Akhu (plural of Akh) hear us honoring them, and do help us out when they can. We can pray to them, and they’ll either personally help us, or get another Akh to help. The Ba – the fundamental part of who we are, which carries most of our power and the very deepest parts of our identity – goes forth into the Unseen, to dwell with the gods, to reincarnate, to hang out in the Beautiful West – who knows. The Ba is the part I’m a little shaky on – it’s in that 15% that I’m really not so certain about, heh.

But what if the deceased fails judgment? They are given over to Ammit, the Soul-Swallower, and they cease to exist. All that they were is devoured, purged from existence. Personally, I believe this means that even the memories of their existence are erased – that any trace of their life is taken away from reality. This is because I believe that the only way to really fail the Weighing of the Heart is to have absolutely no remorse for anything. To rape, kill, steal and believe it is honestly a just and right thing – without finding any remorse on the 70-day journey. People like this  are people the Universe can be purged of. Think of the worst person you can think of. THAT person would probably have passed the Weighing of the Heart (or they’re hanging around as an angry muuet [ghost] but hey, that’s fairly unusual) – because in dying, a lot of things change.

It is the Akhu that we honor when venerating our ancestors; the parts of our beloved dead that live on in the Beautiful West. In a way, I believe that these acts of veneration are food for our ancestors. We give them love, small amounts of food and cool water, and they in return are nourished by our attention and are well in the afterlife. I don’t think that ancestor veneration always needs to be done specifically; I think that respecting your dead and speaking about family who are no longer living with living family members is how most people will participate in ancestor veneration, having not been raised in a tradition where it is considered appropriate. Sharing stories and family history brings the names and lives of the dead in to the hearts of the living, and speaking their names will feed them too. To completely ignore one’s ancestors and one’s history is to starve them, though. Respect and love will keep them well-fed in the Beautiful West.

That’s kind of a really quick glossing over of death, but it’s a good start. The Ancient Egyptians did a lot with death, I think – they weren’t DEATH OBSESSED like some people think, but they did have a pretty good perspective, so there’s a lot to say about it. I’ll save it for later, though, since this episode has become a bit of a wall o’ text.