The Kemetic Round Table (KRT) is a blogging project aimed at providing practical, useful information for modern Kemetic religious practitioners.
Ritual purity can be a hot button issue for many polytheists, recon-slanted or otherwise. It can also be an easy-breezy topic of conversation between fellow polytheists, but it can get fairly hairy in the Kemetic circles. You have staunch believers that “natron is best.” You have your fellow followers who are all about utilizing modern products like soap, toothpaste, and shampoo. And then you have your in-betweeners who do a little bit of both: let’s get down with our modern tools and be all clean in a modern sense, but let’s also use some salt. It can get very confusing more most practitioners who have been “in this bizz” for longer than a hot minute, never mind anyone freshly starting out.
The case for ritual purity is a strong one from a Kemetic standpoint. We have many, many examples that show that the priests were required to have a standardized level of purity while serving in the temples. As a note, we should also admit that what we would assume to be a form of priesthood based on what we see from a Christian view is not what we can expect to find in ancient Egypt. Priests were usually only priests for a certain allotment of time a year (perhaps a season – four months) and spent the rest of their times being normal human beings, married with children and eating whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. When not being your standard, if a little richer, Average Joe, they were the men and women who tended the temples and maintained a high level of standards in the purity department.
When we discuss ritual purity from a purely historical context, we must take into account just what exactly all of these priests did to remain pure while doing their priestly things. Some of these things include abstaining from sex just prior to serving duties or for days before hand; the shaving off of hair; cleansing the body in a particular way or with a particular substance; and the prohibition of certain activities or the cavorting with various animals. We cannot say, conclusively, if this included the removal from the diet of certain animals. The information here is contradictory with Herodotus (a late century and Greek source) stating that the Egyptians views animals like pigs and fish as impure. However, considering the fact that the nation’s mainstay for millennia in the food industry would have definitely meant fish for a meal or twenty, we cannot possibly say that this is the absolute truth. While it would stand to reason that certain priesthoods, such as those in service to gods with fish-related imagery, would refrain from fish diets prior to doing the priest game, we just cannot be positive.
Just that one small paragraph is not nearly enough to convey all of the various restrictions that could have happened or been forced on the priesthood in ancient Egypt. These are the bits and pieces we can glean, but it’s still a lot. And take into consideration that our society is no longer anything akin to what we would daydream to find in ancient Egypt, you get kind of a little mushy in the brain department if you think about it long enough. As I said earlier, it’s a lot to take in for people who have been doing this Kemeticism thing for longer than a day. If you add into the fact that a neophyte may want to begin to take on this issue before they head into ritual country, well… it’s a long and possibly painful process to figure it all out.
From a practitioner of a recon-slanted practice, I can tell you that ritual purity means just about zip in my personal practice. It has it’s places, of course, and I’ll get to that. But from a daily perspective, it means little to nothing to me. The first thing I do when I wake up could be equated to the Kemetic Orthodox practice of senut. I wake up, making my pot of coffee, and get going on the daily offerings for the netjer that get daily offerings from me. I can tell you that my breath is kicking, my hair is cray-cray, and my eyes are barely focused enough to not drip water all over the counter tops or on my feet. (Quite often, I will end up finding water droplets all up in my socks when I’m getting ready for the day… or I discover it when I take the dogs out for their morning constitutional.)
I don’t do this because I want to dishonor my relationship with my gods or because I’m being a selfish asshole. I can tell you that it goes this way because otherwise, I will forget. I am coming at this from a world where a daily practice of anything is non-existent. I was a born and raised Methodist where a weekly church outing was pretty much all that was required to keep my soul “from burnin’.” In working the daily rite thing into my practice, I had to pretty much make it the most top priority upon waking to make sure it was getting done. And since I do not wake up at the first light of dawn, I want to also achieve my daily rite as close to sunrise as I can. I may as well get it done first thing and get it out of the way. In a nutshell, I decided to sacrifice a little on the purity thing in order to get a daily practice in gear as well as to try and get things done as close to day light hours as possible.
It’s kind of a give and take.
I will admit, though, that while I have a very logical and valid reason, I feel, for what it is that I do and why I do it, or don’t do it, I also feel that in this whole realm of purity is a sticky situation. When we are discussing it in an ancient context, we have to take into account that we’re talking about a priesthood doing these particular items. Can we legitimately call ourselves priests? On the one hand, well, yes. For those of us who do tend to shrines and do daily rites for our gods, we could quite possibly consider ourselves priests. However, and my Christian upbringing may be showing here, I tenfd to view priesthood and its entrapment as something that much be first decided, acted upon, and then sanctified in some rite or another. While I have decided to do X, Y, and Z, and I have acted upon those decisions, I have not sanctified myself in priestly raiment. I am and possibly always will be just a woman who is very close with some gods.
However, when it comes to larger rites than just a daily little thing, I tend to take those things a bit more seriously. Most of those rites are in some way related to heka or maybe towards achieving success in a new festival addition to my growing festival calendar. In those instances, while I am still exploring, I’m more likely to take into consideration when I’m plotting and planning those festivals that ritual purity is a necessity. While natron bathing sounds very exciting, about as exciting as the yeast infection it could incur if you’re not careful enough, I’m a modern day kind of girl. While I may be reconstructing a religion that is thousands of years old, I am reconstructing that religion in today’s world, not yesterday’s. So, I’m going to have to go with some modern day constructs like soap, shampoo, shaving with a razor, and moisturizing.
Now, how do you make these things nice and consecrated before you get rid of the dirty? On this, I have to tout Richard Reidy’s book (linked below). This particular book is excellent for those people looking to reconstruct rituals in a modern world. Specifically, there is a section in there that does talk about ritual purity and does, indeed, offer some helpful suggestions for the modern-minded people who are not so thrilled with the idea of salt or natron bathing. Borrowing heavily from this book before my larger rituals, I’m very clear about what it is I am achieving when I do go about getting cleansed. While Emily Teeter (also linked below) discusses more in-depth about the ancients probably utilizing purity as a frame of mind kind of thing, I use Reidy’s ritual to help get in the frame of mind. It’s not just me thinking about “pure” or anything but also of the big thing that I’m getting ready to get going on: execrations, festivals, feasts, spell working, etc.
In effect, what all of this comes down to is that this is how I practice my ritual purity or lack thereof. The thing is that ritual purity is really just something that one must take into consideration on a personal basis as most of our practices are inherently personal. Outside of a handful of temples, we don’t have a mandate that requires these purity standards. And in some cases, not all of us consider ourselves as priests and priestesses of the gods that we work with, serve, worship, what have you. So, while it is a question that should be asked of yourself at some point, it may not be for you.
Sources for Further Reading
- Magic in Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch
- Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt by Emily Teeter
- The Priests of Ancient Egypt by Serge Sauneron
- Temples of Ancient Egypt by Byron E Shafer
- Eternal Egypt by Richard Reidy