Welcome back to W’ab Wednesday

Note: this post contains opinion, not doctrine of any kind, and is intended as thought-provoking contemplation rather than instructional writing.

W’ab Wednesday is a series I started for writing about purity. To recap, in brief: I am a lay priest, or w’ab priest, in Kemetic Orthodoxy. In this context, the word w’ab translates to “pure”, “purity”, or “to be pure”. My job is to be a ritual technician, and a large portion of that means maintaining something called “ritual purity” — meaning, a state of spiritual and physical cleanliness in which the highest rituals may be performed.

Ritual purity isn’t a requirement for worship of the gods. Prayer and offerings made without ritual purity still count. So why bother?

To state the obvious — the gods don’t live where we do. They live in the Duat, while we live in the physical world. When we pray or make offerings, we are trying to communicate from one world into the next. The more ritually pure we are, the more effective our interactions with the gods and the Duat will be. Impurity — things like physical dirt, Unseen dirt, distractions, etc. — is the static that interferes with our communication.

This is partly why I believe so strongly in the concept of purity as a continuum. We will never have 100% effective communication to the Duat as living humans. The more we can shed the dirt of everyday living, the closer we can scoot to operating at full capacity (which will vary from person to person).

When doing State rituals, like the priests’ rite or certain holiday rituals, we want to be sure there is as little “static” as possible — hence the requirement for more purity. There is bigger heka here, so it’s easier for the static to get in the way. Informal offerings and casual candle-lightings are harder to mess up, so the purity requirement is much lower.

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.

W’ab Wednesday: In Defense of Ritual Purity

I’ve written about purity before. I think about purity a lot. I’m a w’ab priest — the word w’ab means pure, or purity. So, I’m a purity priest. I have been presented before my community as pure in the service of the gods. The purity thing is kind of my job, so I feel like it makes sense for me to think and write about it often.

Lately I’ve been poking my head out of my own community bubble. I made an auxiliary tumblr, which carries on the original name of this blog, and through that platform I’ve seen more of what independent Kemetics do with their practices. There’s some really awesome things happening for the gods. I’ve seen some truly beautiful altars, inspired rituals, powerful hekau — it’s good stuff. One thing I do notice is that purity is given far less importance. It’s fascinating, to me, to see how others conceptualize purity and preparedness for ritual. (When I say I think about this stuff a lot, I truly mean a lot.)

I will say this, as a disclaimer: when it comes to personal piety, I don’t know that ritual purity is always necessary. I’m not here to control what anyone does — even more so for those who are not within the community I serve. I can only speak to ritual purity in the context of Kemetic Orthodox state (or formal, standardized) rituals. Those are things like Senut, or the daily priest rite, or certain festival celebrations. Even further, I can only really provide insight into my own experiences, which take place in my own shrine, with my gods, in the particular manifestations They choose to reveal to me. In other words: it’s all context-specific.

That said, here is where I stand. I absolutely believe purity is necessary for state and formal rituals. I absolutely believe that purity is necessary in the presence of an open Icon of the gods. Furthermore: I absolutely believe purity can be helpful and have a positive impact on practicing personal piety.

In ritual contexts, being ritually pure puts you on something like an even playing field with the gods. The gods exist outside of the physical world. They are free from things like dirt, mud, sweat, or blood. They don’t deal with the daily frustration of commuting to work, having restful sleep interrupted by an alarm clock, or coming home to find a stack of bills in the mailbox. They aren’t bombarded by mindless advertisements, terrifying news reports, or anything else the media offers. They exist entirely outside of this paradigm.*

Purification takes all of those things away for a time. Even if I don’t physically feel different after a purification rite, I know I have been set apart from that mundane static. When ritually pure, I am meeting the gods closer to Their level, thereby strengthening our connection and my closeness to Them. In a state rite, that’s kind of the point; we come as close to the gods as we can. The benefit we get from Senut, for example, comes as much from our proximity to Them as it does our offerings and obsequies. In the case of personal piety (meaning any non-standardized, non-formal rite), it’s not a necessity, but the benefit of being closer to Their level still remains.

On the gods side: I think it makes Them a little more comfortable to deal with us when we’re coming from more common ground. It makes it easier for Them to get Their jobs done, because there’s less static getting in the way. They don’t have to use as much force to make Themselves known to us.

Some of the pushback against ritual purity comes from the idea that if you are struggling with a chronic condition, you sometimes can’t be pain-free, or anxiety-free, or dismiss the manifestation of your condition entirely. To some degree, being ritually pure requires one to be uninjured and able to focus on the rites at hand. However, purification gives us the opportunity to lessen the amount of physiological and psychological crud that we carry. It’s not something that will cure our anxiety or get rid of our chronic headaches, but I think that it lessens the amount that these things will get in the way when we try to connect with the gods — and it will lessen the amount that the gods notice the chronic conditions we carry with us as a result of living in imperfect bodies.

Ritual purity is often likened to physical cleanliness, and the motivation behind purification is likened to the need for physical cleanliness in the presence of those we respect. I’ve written about it that way before, and that will always be a part of why I think purification is important. It is worthwhile for more than just its face value, however.

And that’s my abbreviated defense of ritual purity. I cannot and I will not ever try to convince others to do things according to what I believe, but as a purity priest who has lots of thoughts about purity, I figured it couldn’t hurt to share.

* = I do believe the gods get annoyed, and frustrated, and have Their own distractions from what They are trying to accomplish. I just think it’s coming from a different place than all of our own frustrations and distractions. I also think the gods will take care of Their own business when They need to come be with us; though, I have had the experience of trying to sit in ritual with Them and being told “not now, We’re busy”. Take that as you will.

W’ab Wednesday: Purity, not Perfection.

However wonderful alliteration may be, it does not connect words any deeper than in sound. Purity is a state of cleanliness, and perfection is a state of being without flaw. Something that is clean may not be without flaws, and something flawless can be dirty. It’s true that sometimes “purity” can refer to a way of living, but most of the time it’s a transient state. We are impure, so we purify; then we are pure, and life renders us impure again. It’s a cycle, one that I’d say we all must go through in the course of our relationships with the gods.

Perfection is something else — something much less helpful. Perfection is the state of being without flaw, and usually that means long-term. Perfection is a constant state of being.  None of us is intrinsically perfect. We have quirks and problems that mark us as human. No matter how grave our flaws, we can still be pure. We can still clean ourselves up and go before the gods. It’s true, in shrine you can make all the right offerings, say all the right words, make all the right motions — but does that add up to perfection? Our shrines are messy sometimes. Our lives are discombobulated. Our thoughts are jumbled. We are not perfect.

Instead of agonizing over not being perfect, let’s strive to be pure in each moment. When I go to ritual next, I will be clean. I will be focused. I will offer what I have with my whole heart. When I kneel before my shrine, I will do so with love for my gods. If I should be distracted? I will refocus. I am human, and I am not perfect. But I can make myself pure for that moment.

W’ab Wednesday: Cleaning Up

So I’ve just moved into my own place for the first time. (Those of you who have been living like this for some time, feel free to read this with some feelings of superiority for having figured this stuff out already.) There’s a funny thing about living on one’s own: you have to clean everything by yourself.

Now, I’m not living entirely on my own; I moved in with my fiancé, who is thankfully adept at housework and generally maintaining a living space. And truthfully, I took keeping my own living space clean seriously when I lived with my family — so the adjustment was really only in the amount of space I have sole responsibility for. I’ve adopted a strict philosophy when cleaning: nothing good will come of trying to clean everything at once. The apartment must be cleaned in installments, one step at a time, with breaks now and then to prevent complete burnout. When I first adopted this approach, still living with my family, I found myself immediately more interested in cleaning. It became manageable first and then: fun.

Purity can be like that too. When I step back and think about all of the changes I want to make in my life, it feels overwhelming. I have old bad habits that die hard, like anyone. Changing them to make my life align more with what I believe to be “pure” is one of my goals – but doing it all at once would probably make me dissolve into a puddle of stress. Luckily, like cleaning my apartment, purifying my life doesn’t have to happen all at once. I can tackle my habits and problem areas one at a time, and eventually I will be living that balanced life I covet so much.

For example, now that I’ve tackled how to keep my apartment clean, my fiancé and I are working together to improve our physical health (eating better, being more active, things like that). After that? Something else will have popped up that needs my attention. Life does that; things that were fine one month can need attention the next. So I purify what I can, one thing at a time, and move on to the next one without making myself miserable.