Offerings.

This is my (very belated) contribution to the last Kemetic Round-table discussion on offerings. Since I’ve been a little bit out of commission, I’m going to try and answer a few old topics, just to get back into the swing of writing. Hopefully I’ll come up with something useful. 

Offerings 101: What do I offer the gods? How do I determine what to offer? Can I offer without a patron? Do I need to revert my offerings? How do I do that? What if I can’t?

I’d argue that offerings are a staple in any pagan or polytheistic practice. We build relationships with the gods we wish to know by giving them gifts; in return, They give us Their attention. Thus we build our relationships. It’s a bit like having someone you’d like to get to know over your place for a while, in a way. Generally, you wouldn’t invite someone over without at least having some kind of refreshment to offer, even if it’s just a glass of water. There’s always argument over what is best to offer; people question the validity of offering things like chocolate or cookies, since those didn’t exist in antiquity. Before I even get into the questions here, I want to make my opinion on what to offer abundantly clear: we live thousands of years after the last ancient temple closed. Since then, we have had tremendous innovations in what we eat and how we eat it. There is no reason that, by this time, Djehuty wouldn’t have a taste for saltines, or Bast wouldn’t enjoy Thin Mints. I can’t find a single compelling argument for why the gods wouldn’t want to try new things, several millenia in the future. Tradition is beautiful, but I think it’s critical to avoid stagnating or getting caught up in putting on ancient airs.

That said: how do you make offerings? Like pretty much everything else in Kemetic worship: it depends. I’m coming from a Kemetic Orthodox perspective, so bear that in mind as I contribute my experiences.

What do I offer the gods? Whatever the hell you want, really. Some things are better than others. Water, bread and incense are pretty good staples if you’re really stumped. Pour a glass of water, get a slice of toast, light a candle and some incense and sit down and say hello. Offer Them your favorite dinner – They often appreciate the gesture. Offer Them your daily cup of tea; as long as you have your morning routine, you have an offering. Offer Them a new recipe you are trying (as long as you haven’t totally messed it up). Offer Them the cookie or sweet you always grab when you walk past the pantry. Really — offer Them whatever makes sense in your life.

How do I determine what to offer? There’s a few ways. If you are the kind of person who can pick up on divine messages pretty well: ask. They’ll nudge you. If you feel lost, ask other people you know who honor the same deity. Heck, ask anyone, even if they don’t. Maybe they know someone who knows someone who can give you more information. Google can be your friend, but be careful: there is always the kind of site that tells you Bast is the goddess of marijuana, which might lead you in really bizarre directions. If it seems really weird, I suggest double checking. Divination is also great. If you know someone who knows fedw (or you know it yourself) you can always ask them to check for you, particularly when you’re concerned about a particularly elaborate offering. If you don’t have access to fedw, try the next best thing – ask Them and then flip a coin.

You can also go the route of research, but that tends to be more difficult these days. The offerings of antiquity were clearly given in a culture where offerings were a daily routine in temples maintained by teams of priests. The offering lists include bread, beer, oxen, geese… bread and beer is one thing, but I’m not going to dig up a whole ox. Maybe a nice steak once in a while, but even then, not daily. We live in a different world, we need to be realistic about what we offer.

Can I offer without a patron? Yes. If you don’t have a patron deity (or Parent deity, or favorite god, or whatever) – you can offer to any god you want. There’s no rules saying you can only make offerings to your one single god. In fact, if you don’t want to offer to any deity in particular, offer to all the gods and goddesses, or the collective Netjer. That’s more a Kemetic Orthodox convention of offering, to be quite honest, but I think it is truly helpful. Sometimes I don’t want to offer to a god, I just want to make a general offering of my meal. So I announce to Netjer–the Divine, or the sacredness that is the different gods, all rolled into one collective noun–that I’m making an offering, and the Divine partakes of the offering.

Reversion of offerings, etc… This is one thing I’ve always felt a little funny about. The reversion of offerings is theoretically the process by which Netjer partakes of the offerings, and then passes their essence back to you. I’ve always believed this is intrinsic to the offering process. You offer the food, and in that process there is an exchange; Netjer takes Its portion, and leaves behind the traces of Its presence. In some rituals, there is a formal declaration that Netjer has taken Its portion. I think that is a little more work than most people really need to put forth; it also strikes me as a little arrogant, that we would say “yup, God is done eating now, my turn”. By that argument I sort of put my own thoughts on offerings in jeopardy, though. We can’t ever really know when Netjer is “done” with the offerings. We just have to kind of go with our gut, be reverent, and assume that Netjer generally understands (which It generally does. Generally).

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.

[KRT] Live and Let Live

Hey, I’m finally jumping back on the wagon for the Kemetic Roundtable! Let’s see what this topic is…

Differences in practices: How do you deal with them? How do we overlook our differences in practice and UPG? What do we do if our experiences don’t line up with others?

In the past, differences in practice have been such a point of contention in the Kemetic community. Kemetic Orthodox Shemsu were cliquish and brainwashed idiots practicing watered down tripe; independent Kemetics were antagonistic anarchists who wanted to steal everyone else’s hard work; Tameran Wiccans were new age, fluff-headed nincompoops… it goes on. I am as guilty of Kemetic xenophobia as anyone else in my community. I have seen the rituals of some other groups and of some solitary Kemetics, in the past, and been baffled or even irritated by them. I have said quietly to myself, “that ninny doesn’t know what s/he is doing”.

I’m human, and at the outset of my Kemetic journey I was barely eighteen. Adolescents are pre-programmed to be cliquey, judgmental brats — aren’t they? It took time, some serious faux pas, and observation of my role models for me to learn how to disagree respectfully. I feel I’ve come a long way since my militant Kemetic days, and I am grateful for that. I am still fiercely proud to be Kemetic Orthodox, and I still feel a bit of a sting whenever I hear people dismissing my faith out of hand for one reason or another. Having the good sense to step down off the soapbox has helped immensely, however.

With that in mind, how do I deal with differences in practices? I don’t. My practices are my own, and I can’t dictate to someone else what they should or should not do. If they want to be Kemetic Orthodox, I will gently guide them toward what is appropriate within the Kemetic Orthodox framework – but even then, I can’t force or judge them. Each person’s path is their own to walk. Unless they start doing things that hurt themselves or other people, it’s not my place to intervene.

To be completely honest, in most cases I’m so excited to meet someone who honors the same gods that I do, that I don’t really care to pick apart the differences in our practices. This is especially true in my daily life. If I meet someone who is honoring the gods in earnest, it makes me giddy. I could liken it to finding someone who goes to your favorite secret coffee shop, or who loves your favorite poet. It’s an intimate connection, something I cherish for what it is. We may not be calling Them the same names or praising Them with the same words — but we share a love of something that feels deeply profound (more so than a coffee shop). I tend to want to honor that shared love as it is, without complicating it with criticism or advice. If they say they do things differently, I want to know why — maybe their reasoning will reveal some aspect of my gods that I have not come to know yet. To say that I have every knowledge of my gods – the vast, enduring gods whose reach spans millennia – would be hopelessly arrogant. I want to hear their perspective, in the hopes that my own will grow.

At the end of the day, if our experiences differ vastly, I can only speculate as to why. Does it hurt me and my practice if they have a wildly different relationship with my gods? Not particularly. Can I really change what they are doing? Not particularly. I can only be vocal about my own experiences, and hope that the people who seek out relationships with my gods will make their own educated decisions on their own journeys. I’d hazard a guess that no two people – even within a Kemetic community, or any religious community to be sure – have exactly the same practices, conceptions of the divine, and divine relationships. Better not to offer unsolicited advice and just enjoy what you have in common than drive unnecessary wedges between one another.

If someone asks for your help it’s a different matter entirely, of course — this all assumes you’re just coexisting. If you’re mentoring or advising someone, you may need to take a more direct approach!)

Coming to Kemet.

How did you get started in Kemeticism? Tips? Stories?

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I am sitting at my computer desk, writing in my LiveJournal when something deep in my gut starts to hum, like all the A-keys on a piano going off at once. I ignore it. Laying in bed later, I grow restless. A voice just beyond my hearing is whispering in my ear. Frustration builds; I cannot hear what She is saying. The Goddess calls me, nameless. I see Her in the clouds, the stars, the moon. I walk Her beaches, feel Her breath against my face — but I do not know Her. Months pass; I clothe her in various names, but they do not fit. Each time She shrugs them off. All I know is Her fierce presence. I feel Her strength wrapping around me with each call. I am frightened and excited that Her power has reached out to me.

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I’ve written about finding my way to Kemetic Orthodoxy before. It’s easy for me to re-tell that story, since it is one full of joy and the loud, infectious satisfaction of finding a resonant spiritual practice. It’s been told before, and it will not change. The step-by-step details bear no repeating. Instead, I am writing down my experiences from before I knew how to write about them. Some of the details are really hazy to me at this point — I am writing about events 8 years in the past now, and my memory is not that good. I hope that in writing these down, someone can read them and find common ground.

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The Goddess who calls is no quieter, and I am no closer to finding Her. In the absence of a goddess, a god has begun stealing my M&Ms, I begin to fear. I grow closer to Yinepu each day, and each time I eat a handful of candy I acknowledge His presence. Some days I don’t walk by the bowl of pastel chocolates without grabbing a few in His honor. He follows me in all that I do: racing alongside my car in traffic, bounding through the auditorium as I see musicals at the community theater. I question my own sanity. My boyfriend (my summer fling before college) encourages me, and gives me a tiny glass bottle to keep perfumes on my altar.

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The most important thing I’ve learned about being new to a religion is that it’s much like being in a new romantic relationship. There’s a breathless courtship, in which the new devotee rushes to learn as much as she can about this new practice. She builds an altar, prays to the gods, makes offerings — it is all new, all exciting, all an uncharted territory to be explored. In relationships, this is sometimes called “new relationship energy” or NRE. It is what happens when the NRE fades that is important in both relationships and religions. In a relationship, when the NRE fades it can take all the attraction — and thus the stability of the relationship — with it. When “new religious energy” fades, it can leave the devotee feeling abandoned by the gods, or like her practices are suddenly failing. If you are new to a practice and you suddenly find yourself feeling in a rut, it may be that your own NRE is wearing off. Variety helps, as does routine. Find your own rhythm of devotion.

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I kneel before a shrine cobbled out of hand-me-down trinkets and an old folding tray table. The myrrh cone incense I picked up specially for this first Senut rite won’t stay lit and when it does, it makes me cough. My libation jar– a shot glass from the dollar store– won’t pour without spilling. I stagger through the Senut ritual until I reach the section set aside for quiet reflection and personal prayers. I close my eyes, and the gods are there immediately. Later, at a shrine with better tools and finer incense, I will wonder whether They were in my imagination as I struggle to find any connection with the gods.

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May 2007: Statues of my Parents arrive, shrine is reorganized.
One of my earliest shrines, post Rite of Parent Divination.

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Late at night, I scour pagan forums for opinions on Kemetic Orthodoxy. Everyone is polarized. Half my research says I’m making a terrible mistake; the other half says I have nothing to lose, and everything to learn. I trust myself to know whether to run. With adolescent resolve and more than a little anxiety, I download the application for the House of Netjer beginners’ course. Eight months later, I find myself sitting in the Truth and the Mother temple, declaring myself a Shemsu after cowry shells revealed my gods. My heart nestles firmly in the bed of this community, this faith; I never look back.

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Coming to a faith does not always feel immediately like coming home. Sometimes you back into a faith in the night, and it startles you and you yelp. Sometimes the gods sneak in through your cat door while you’re busy in the shower, and when you come out to eat your breakfast they yell “SURPRISE!” and leave you stunned. Sometimes you come in spite of criticism from your peers, from your family, or even from your self-conscious inner monologue. Does it matter? No. Come with anxiety, come with joy, come knowingly or not. The gods don’t care and neither should anyone else.

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This has been a part of the Kemetic Roundtable.

Previous posts about my journey to Kemetic Orthodoxy:
Episode 1: Why Kemetic Orthodoxy?
Episode 9: How I Got Involved in Kemetic Orthodoxy.
Finding the Way Home

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.