Why all the photos of altars?

I had a bit of a run-away train of thought this afternoon while I was buying a set of lenses to enhance my iPhone photography skills. One of the brief stops was to wonder just why it is that during every Kemetic Orthodox group ritual I’ve attended, we pause to take photos of the altar — and not just one or two quick snapshots, either. There’s a good ten minute chunk of time devoted to making sure that each assemblage of candles, offerings, and images of Netjer is properly documented. We very occasionally take pictures of our fellowship before and after, and almost never take any photos during the ritual. It’s become something of a good-natured joke, now, that for every 20 photos of an altar, you’ll find one or two from the rest of the day.

I can see some sense in not taking pictures of each other relaxing and socializing. For one, not everyone is open about being Kemetic, and it can be hard to know who might be concerned about privacy and keeping their identity under wraps. For another, many people just don’t like being photographed, and don’t particularly want to be in front of the camera lens no matter how nice it would be to share photos of the event later.

I can see quite a bit of sense in not taking photos during the ritual. Taking photos during a sacred experience is distracting both to the photographer and the participants. These rituals are meant to be experienced in the moment. Even though having images to share with those who are unable to be physically present could be an asset, it would detract from the overall experience so greatly that we might lose more than we gain.

Still, I think a part of us wants to capture the closeness of community and the beauty of ritual without transgressing either of these boundaries — and what better to capture the spirit and essence of group worship than the altar around which we all gather? The ritual revolves around this focal point, and our fellowship revolves around the ritual. An altar is a carefully constructed place of devotion, and often for group worship we build it as a group. In lieu of photos of each other or of the actual ritual, therefore, we take pictures of the center point that draws us all in.

What we really seek to share, after all, is something intangible. The feeling of grace kneeling before the gods. The closeness in sharing laughter with others who believe as we do. These things can’t be captured on camera. From that perspective, why not take dozens of photos of the same altar? It is the nearest thing that can represent what we truly share when we worship together.

Love of the gods.

I’ll be the first one to admit that my perspective on all things Kemetic is fairly insular. I don’t look too far beyond the Kemetic Orthodox community. I browse Tumblr but don’t really engage much. So anything I speak about is going to come either from what I’ve learned in the House of Netjer, or what I’ve learned through my own interaction with the gods. All this is to say: I’m not the most informed on what other people believe, so I’m speaking purely from ignorance here and nothing more. (It’s possible that, given my ignorance, I should just keep my mouth shut — but where’s the fun in that?)

I’ve noticed huge diversity in how people describe their divine relationships. There’s some who almost give off a sense of distrust for the gods, as though They were so capricious that they might turn and bite their devotees on a whim. There’s some who seem to have a very casual relationship, coining cheeky nicknames and describing drinking matches. There’s god-spousery, which I have such trouble grasping for myself that I can only say “you do you” (and I mean that earnestly, not dismissively). There’s the business relationships, where devotees give offerings and are given heka in return. What I don’t see much is sacred love.

My love for my gods is massive. It swells up inside me so vast that my breath catches, and I want to lay at Their feet and sing Their praises every day. I believe in Their fallibility, and that sometimes They’re going to try to protect me and fail. I believe in Their beneficence, Their positive intent and good will. When They challenge me, I thrill inwardly that I am strong enough to be challenged. When I kneel in Their presence I feel Their brilliance renewing me, and I am overwhelmed with happiness to know Their grace.

I know there’s not a lot of emphasis on this kind of ecstatic love in antiquity. There’s enough, to be sure, in the stelae and inscriptions that carry messages from ancient devotees. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when discussing the distinguishing qualities of ancient Egyptian religious practices, however. The precision, the purity, the constancy with which the priests attended to their gods all get much more attention, and rightfully so. The ancient priests had honoring the gods down to a science.

Maybe it’s just my quirk. Maybe it’s a holdover from my Catholic days (which are soon to be less than half my life, somehow). Or maybe it’s just not a topic of interest to other writers right now. I’d love to see more of it though. I have my casual days too. I sing along to “Back in Black” for the Jackal and offer my Mother the first sips of beer when I’m relaxing. But it’s that love that moves me to Their shrine again and again; it’s the warmth and light They radiate, and the way my heart swells when I am in Their presence.

All this is meant not as criticism, but as a call to share. If you feel the same ecstatic love I feel, wax poetic. If you don’t… well, what do you feel? What keeps you coming back to the gods?

Featured image from https://unsplash.com/grakozy .

Can You hear me now?

Tonight, the shrines are lovely. Kneeling before the gods, the candles are flickering and the shrine is beautiful beyond belief. And yet – I feel nothing. Silence surrounds me. I press my forehead to the floor, as though bowing more deeply before Their altar can recharge my god-phone. Only the echoes of my own prayers fill my head. There is no warm, luminous presence; only the cold eyes of Their Icons, draped in lazy curls of incense and the glow of candlelight. 

I came into Kemetic Orthodoxy with a powerful god-phone (aka god-radio). I had begun to hear the gods in the subtle yet irresistible voice of Sekhmet-Mut, quietly calling me to Her worship. I mistook Her voice for Aphrodite, and made Her the first deity I conversed with. When I came to Kemet, I found Yinepu and Wepwawet more than willing to become near-constant presences in my head. They spoke in warm and velvety voices, singing hymns and embracing me in quiet moments. Sometimes Their voices shook me to the core, and I found myself curled up and weeping from the power of Their words.

But Their voices were the only ones I felt constantly. Mother’s voice was never more than a low hum tugging at the periphery of my senses. The other gods came and went, Their presences a tide that swelled and washed away. And as I grew, the Jackals’ voices gradually ebbed too. I struggled, and lost my way; Their voices became fainter. I was so caught up in each crisis that came that I didn’t realize they were driving wedges between me and my gods. By the time I realized I wasn’t hearing the gods the way I used to, I was in complete radio silence. Dead air.

I’ve been in both places. I’ve been the follower wishing for earplugs because the gods just won’t shut up; I’ve been desperate for connection, shaking down my Tarot cards and staring in to the faces of my Icons hunting for some sign of life. Have I learned anything from being in both places?

If you have a strong connection with the gods:

  • Enjoy it, but be cautious. There’s a word that gets thrown around a lot regarding interactions with spirits: discernment. Don’t take everything you experience at face value. There are spirits who will pretend to be the gods. Be sure to establish means of verifying identity.
  • Sometimes your own head can play tricks on you; sometimes what you think is the gods is actually only a subconscious interpretation of what the gods might be saying, if They were speaking at that moment. Did the gods actually tell you to get that coffee? Well, maybe that’s something They would do, and you are interpreting your knowledge of that as the voice of a deity. Sometimes, They will push you to make a certain offering — other times, you will be making a leap of logic.
  • Set boundaries. If you feel overwhelmed, make it clear to the gods that you need some space. Ignore Them when you have to. Answer Them when you have the time. Like any relationship, if They become too demanding, you have the right to ask for space.

If your connection is weaker:

  • Fake it until you make it. I am completely serious here. Do Senut (or whatever rite makes you feel good). Stand, sit, or kneel before the shrine. Talk to the gods. Don’t give up. You may not get a dramatic answer. You may never notice an answer at all. Don’t make that the focus of your worship. Rest in the stillness of the shrine. Center yourself. Breathe the sweet incense and watch the flames flicker. We get much more than just a connection with the gods from honoring Them. We get Their blessings, the reversion of offerings, purification… we are centered, realigned, cleaned up and sent back into the world a little better for the time we have spent with the gods.
  • Watch for other ways the gods will communicate with you. Other people may bring Their messages, or other events in your life may serve as signs. Don’t over-think these, but don’t second guess your instincts either. If something feels like a sign, it may be one. Be mindful of the influence of anxiety on these interpretations. If you are like me, some things will feel like a sign not because of divine influence, but because you’re frequently afraid of absolutely everything. Don’t let anxiety control your god-phone.
  • Use divination sparingly. Do not run to the Tarot every time you want an answer. Sometimes divination can confirm what we think we are hearing, but sometimes it serves as a crutch. Try to work things out on your own first. Remember that the cards are just a tool. They make life easier sometimes, and sometimes they make it harder.

Above all, whether you’re swamped with divine messages or you’re feeling like there’s cotton in your metaphysical ears, remember that this communication is not the total sum of your worth as a Kemetic. The heart of our practice is ma’at – the rest is window dressing.

The King and I

It’s my first time in the Tawy House main shrine room. The wall is lined with comfortable green chairs; I perch awkwardly on one, nervous about meeting new people and still more nervous about meaning the person who calls herself “King”. Before too long she comes into the room. She introduces herself as “Tamara”, and sits next to me. What do I do? I think. I quickly scoot out of my seat onto the floor in front of her. I can’t remember now, seven years later, what her expression was as I did so; I don’t remember what I said when she told me that I really didn’t have to move. I do remember, however, that this was the first moment I thought about our Nisut not in terms of kingship but personhood. 

I am Kemetic Orthodox. Anyone who becomes Kemetic Orthodox will eventually have to confront the issue of the leadership of the faith: the organized priesthood, led by the Nisut. I wonder, sometimes, if this would be less controversial if the word we use didn’t translate to “King”. The logic behind using the word nisut as opposed to any other word makes perfect sense to me; the role our Nisut plays is analogous to that of the Nisut of antiquity (minus the political stuff). That, and she has done the appropriate rituals for coronation, at the appropriate sites in Egypt.

I’m something of a Nisut-agnostic, in a way. The title doesn’t matter to me; the person does. I respect the heck out of Rev. Tamara. I believe she has something incredibly valuable to share with the world, and I believe she is qualified and suited to do so. Do I believe she has special Nisut powers? I don’t really know, and I don’t think I need to to know I can learn from her. Were another person to take up the role of Nisut, I would have to think seriously about whether I was comfortable following them in the same way.

I wanted to write a lengthy post about the role of the Nisut in Kemetic Orthodoxy and how it influences my beliefs, but I just can’t. It doesn’t influence my beliefs. It influences my practices, sure, in that I follow one person’s teachings in how I worship and honor the gods. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s more about having met a person with knowledge, and having felt comfortable in accepting them as a teacher.

I’ve read the other posts in the Kemetic Roundtable on this subject, and I can honestly say that Devo at The Twisted Rope has written a much more objective rundown of the concept of Kingship in Kemetic Orthodoxy. It’s hard for me to be so objective here, so I encourage you to look to the other KRT participants for this one.

Shrine-Building in Four Easy Steps

Shrines are funny. Sometimes they are carefully engineered, with an esoteric architecture that speaks to the builder’s private relationship with the divine– and sometimes, they crop up out of nowhere, clusters of devotional objects gathering with a curious gravitational pull to any flat surface that has open space. Today’s Roundtable post is about the former: the kinds of shrines we create with conscious effort, as a launching point for our conversations with the gods. As always, there is no One True Way to build a shrine, but having a framework to guide you can be helpful. So, here are some steps I take when I decide to put together a shrine.

Step One: Decide the purpose of your shrine.

Shrines have a variety of purposes. Many shrines are designed for performing a specific ritual, such as Senut, a priestly ritual, or another daily devotion. These shrine typically have the tools needed for the ritual, as well as focal points for the gods to whom the ritual will be dedicated and any permanent offerings They have received (e.g. semi-precious stones or jewelry). Some shrines serve as a meditative focus for the god, but do not host any ritual. These often contain a small plate or bowl for offerings and a myriad of objects devoted to the god. Some shrines are meant not for the gods, but for veneration of one’s ancestors, or akhu. These often contain plates, cups, or bowls for offerings, as well as objects meant to represent one’s ancestors. Often there are photographs or mementos of loved ones gone West. Some shrines exist for the purpose of magic(k) or heka workings. These can take various forms, containing tools, ingredients, records and more.

The purpose of your shrine will determine what you need. As an example, let’s imagine you want to create a shrine for your daily devotional rite, such as Senut. You first need to know what tools that rite requires. Most daily devotional rites include lighting of candles and incense and the making of offerings, so at very least you will need candles, an incense burner, and any offering vessels. If you make libations separate from your daily offerings, as in Senut, you will need a bowl and water vessel dedicated to those libations, and plates or bowls for any additional offerings you wish to make. You may want a cloth to lay underneath everything.

You may also want an image of the deity we are honoring in this rite, or an object that will represent Them. For this example, let’s say you are honoring Bast. You may seek a traditional image of Bast, or use an object that represents Her – or simply leave the shrine blank as you prefer.

How these objects are arranged depends on your comfort in performing the ritual. Try not to put candles and incense where you are likely to reach over them and set your arm on fire. Try not to put flammable things where they are likely to fall into fire. Use common sense and your own personal sense of aesthetics here.

Step Two: Decide the level of purity of your shrine.

Purity is important for some people, and less so for others. If you are creating a shrine for a ritual with a strict purity requirement, such as a priestly rite, consider using a cabinet or an enclosed surface for your shrine. If you are creating a simple meditative focus for a deity, any surface will do. The purity requirement often depends on the purpose the shrine will serve. For me, my personal shrine is a cabinet – but the actual surface I use is the uncovered top of the cabinet, while the inside stores various items I use in rituals, and objects that I have offered to the gods over the last several years. My State shrine, however, is a cabinet I had specially made, with compartments to house the ritually consecrated Icons, and a covering over the surface I use for the ritual. I use my personal shrine for Senut and any other personal prayers I make, and I do not touch my State shrine unless I have made certain ritual preparations.

My personal shrine, as of this post.
My personal shrine, as of this post.

Purity will also help you decide what you will and will not allow in your shrine. Even in my personal shrine, I do not allow plastic unless it is present in an offering a god has specifically requested (e.g. dice for Wepwawet). In my State shrine, I avoid plastics or other synthetics as carefully as possible. Some exceptions are required, but I divine for permission first and try to be as careful as possible.

For this example shrine, let’s say you are going to keep a moderate purity restriction – avoiding things that are outright impure, but not requiring special purification to pray at or perform rites at the shrine. For that, you will probably be fine with any flat surface that has enough room for your shrine, and you may or may not want a covering for it. Again, all of these things depend on your comfort, and your relationship with the gods.

Step Three: Get the shrine materials.

This is the fun part – shopping! For a first shrine, you do not need to empty your wallet or travel miles to find a metaphysical shop. There are plenty of ordinary places to find excellent materials for one’s shrine. Many of my tools have come from the supermarket, retail stores, or department stores. For my personal shrine, I often shop at Target, Pier 1, Michael’s and A.C. Moore – retail, a home goods store, and two craft stores. Each of these has bowls, candle holders, and candles – all the basics. I particularly like Pier 1 for buying shrine cloths. I find their decorative napkins or placemats to be the perfect size and quality for my personal shrine. I also recommend kitchen supply stores, as they often have tiny bowls and pitchers, which can serve wonderfully in a shrine for holding offerings or libations. Be creative and open-minded – you and your gods set the limits for what you can and cannot do.

Step Four: Profit — I mean, get your ritual on!

The final step for building a shrine is to build it, and then use it. What primarily makes a shrine is its use. You may assemble a shrine, but if no devotion takes place there, it is nothing more than a collection of neat stuff. That use may be as elaborate as an hour of high ritual, or as simple as a quick morning prayer before you dash out the door. What matters is that the shrine becomes a place for you to connect with the gods. Shrines are the small spaces at which we “plug in” to our divine connection. They are the telephone jacks that connect us to communicating with the gods.

What you need and what the rules are depends on your gods and your practices. If you are Kemetic Orthodox, there are specific tools and rules you will follow. If you practice any other path, those rules and needs are different. What you do at your shrine, however, is what makes it real and what makes it important.