Anna Applegate: Do you feel that polytheism should be incorporated under a broad, encompassing “Paganism,” or should it be its own tradition distinct from Paganism? If distinct, how do you see the communities relating to each other?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: This is a complicated and controversial question. If by “Polytheism” we agree that this refers to all traditions that accept the validity of many gods…that include the worship of many gods as a vital component of their identity…then yes, in these regards we might very well label all Polytheistic traditions as “Pagan”. Academics certainly do, when they are referring to the ancient pre-Christian religions of humankind. Academics almost always refer to all pre-Christian and/ or non-monotheistic beliefs as “pagan”. However, they mean pagan not with a capital p, as is used by modern adherents of Neopaganism, but as in not Christian, before Christianity, or gods and practices falling outside the domain of the Abrahamic faiths.
My personal experience is that many individuals who refer to themselves as Polytheists try to distance what they believe and practice from the labels of Pagan and Paganism, simply because so many people instantly associate these terms with Wicca and Witchcraft, which are in many ways very different paths from, say, Hellenic Reconstructionism or Heathenry. There has also always been a rather negative connotation tacked on- admittedly very unfairly- to the term pagan, as used historically by Christians in order to denote and slander those not belonging to the army of Christ.
This all gets very sticky when you start canvassing today’s spiritual communities for their definition of precisely what Paganism is, and what it means to be Pagan. Is Paganism the practice of Witchcraft? Are Wiccans Pagans? Are all who believe in many gods Pagans, or is Paganism simply another wider term for anyone practicing an earth-centered religion or spirituality? Who, then, has a right to decide who is Pagan and who is not? With a lack of a central authority, as if there could ever be such a thing in today’s spiritual climate, how can we place an absolute division between Paganism and Polytheism?
It seems to me that there are so many grey areas, so many instances where Paganism and Polytheism mesh or intermingle, or at least share some similar components. I honestly feel that this has to be an individual question, left to each practitioner’s discernment and ideals. I know a number of practitioners of various traditions who describe themselves as both Pagan and Polytheist, and plenty of others who like to draw a distinct line between the concepts of Paganism and Polytheism. Each has their own valid argument for the language they use or the terms they invoke.
How about we start with respect? It all comes down to respecting the choices of others to belong or label or identify themselves in the way that is healthy for them as individuals. We may choose a different path or expression from others, but there needs to be a basic respect for the right of others to choose, just as we have our right to choose. This seems to me to be the best way to form healthy spiritual communities; communities that are strong and can accomplish Sacred Work more fully together, as peers and equals.
I think it would be near impossible, and perhaps undesirable, for all who define themselves as Polytheists to be lumped together under one communal umbrella of belief. Even within Reconstructionist communities, such as Kemetic and Hellenic, there is fierce debate concerning use of the term polytheism. Multiply this by the number of groups, communities, and individuals who might identify themselves as Polytheists, then add to that the number of people who subscribe to both Polytheist and Pagan identifications, and the question of one or the other just gets drowned in the hubbub over what Polytheism is; how a belief, group or individual practitioner fits into the dictionary definition of polytheism, as opposed to a less clinical understanding of Polytheism as understood in contemporary spiritual circles.
At the end of the day it all sounds like a bunch of noise to me, truth be told. Once again, I think we can get so caught up in the use of labels, identifications, and definitions of belief that we lose sight of our higher spiritual aims and Sacred Work. In my estimation, both Paganism and Polytheism serve very similar aims, and those are service to the Gods, and service to creation through communion with the Gods, together with our Ancestors. Ultimately the philosophical ramifications and debates must take a back seat to the work of actually engaging and honoring the Sacred Powers. If someone’s idea of spiritual work is sitting in a corner and arguing over “Polytheism” versus “Paganism”, should we or shouldn’t we, then I’ll opt to excuse myself so that I can get busy getting down to the real work of honoring my Gods and Ancestors.
Anna Applegate: A lot of Kemetic Goddesses have been adopted by traditions and philosophies outside of historically informed Kemetic practices. Goddesses like Sekhmet have been co-opted by the women’s spirituality movement/Dianic Wicca and related views as a symbol of female emancipation from patriarchal mores. For example, I recently made the acquaintance of a Hermetic teacher here in Chicago who argues that Sekhmet is a “tantric goddess” like Kali and that “desire, ecstasy, and illumination are interrelated and fundamental to understanding Sekhmet and tantra.” What is your take on that?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: Firstly, I think it’s very important for us to acknowledge how vast the Netjeru are, how vast the deities of all pantheons are. Attempts are often made to constrict deities into the roles we humans have assigned to them. We want a goddess of love to play her role with grace, and we somehow expect that she’ll always show up in that capacity. We want a “mother goddess” to remain a mother, to adhere to those foremost qualities we’ve come to expect from our own biological mothers. We feel most comfortable with deities when we can label them…”god of war”, “fertility god”, “goddess of the household”, et cetera.
People are often attracted to a specific goddess or god because that deity manifests traits or qualities they themselves have. For example, I am an iconographer, painter, sculptor and craftsman, and obviously a great part of my attraction to my patron and namesake Ptah is due to the fact that Lord Ptah is the Divine Artisan, historically venerated as the protector of painters and sculptors. So, it goes without saying that it was a very natural relationship to develop between an artisan and the Father of all artisans.
My experience is that most Polytheists and Pagans share this kind of affinity with the gods they’ve chosen as their own. However, something that also happens is that people fall into a comfort zone with their gods, desiring to see and experience only those aspects that first attracted them to their divine patrons in the first place. The gods wind up being stereotyped, put into neat little boxes that fit comfortably into one’s preconceptions and notions. Sometimes, the gods become almost one dimensional in the way their devotees see them…the old “goddess of love”, “god of war”, “goddess of healing” labels that may or may not have the significance to the deity we think they have. People are often threatened by the dynamic nature of the Gods, when the Gods demonstrate that they aren’t going to operate according to the neat and tidy little labels we’ve tried to paste on them.
In the case of the Netjeru of Kemet, these are gods who each have their own unlimited arsenal of names, forms, epithets, iconographic features, and powers or spheres of influence. The Netjeru cannot be pinned down with limited frameworks or labels such as “goddess of love”, “god of war”, “fertility god”, et cetera. Scholars and academics have always attempted to do this to some extent with the Goddesses and Gods of Egypt, and I think it’s quite futile and grossly inappropriate.
Each deity, each netjer has basic qualities or attributes that demonstrate a prominent aspect of its nature, however, these natures are fluid, changing from circumstance to circumstance of the deity’s manifestation. Each geographic location, town, village, temple and shrine in Egypt has localized forms that are particular to that space, and these local forms each have powers, attributes, and iconography specific to that location, and these may or may not be visible in other locations.
If one makes a true and detailed study of the iconography and names or epithets of any given deity in the Kemetic pantheon, one will recognize very quickly the futility of slapping one overall label on any netjer. Literally hundreds, and sometimes thousands of epithets, names or forms of some deities can be found in a single location source. Magnify this by the number of temples, shrines, papyri and artifacts that may exist in reference to that deity, and you are faced not only with an overwhelmingly complex pantheon of deities, but also individual deities who each have vast quantities of forms and names and attributes. So much for “god of war”, “goddess of love” labels!
The reason I’m going into all of this is because your question touches on a sense of framework, a historical framework, for recognizing and accepting the roles the Netjeru of Kemet have to play in our lives. Reconstructionists are faced with the difficult task of trying to piece back together and recreate authenticity in the systems we develop for engaging our gods. We want to be as faithful as we can be to the way in which our Ancestors honored the Netjeru, and our motivation is meeting the Gods on Their own terms, according to the sights, sounds, tastes, gestures, and modes of worship the Gods have responded to for thousands of years.
These are practices that have maintained the presences of the Gods actively in our world for immense stretches of time, and our goal as Reconstructionists is to strive to maintain that presence as strongly as we can, using the time honored and time tested tools handed down to us by the Ancients within the historical record.
What happens if we disregard this? What happens when we remove the Netjeru from Their Kemetic context, and install Them within another cultural, spiritual framework? What happens when we strip that Kemetic framework away…that legacy of sights, sounds, smells, and gestures through which these deities have engaged humankind for thousands of years? Is anything lost or sacrificed in the process? Is something lost in translation, as it were. My first response is yes.
The Netjeru first made Themselves known to human beings in Kemet, in that specific location, and used that land, and all of the attributes it possessed, in order to communicate Their powers to human beings. One can quite accurately say that the Netjeru as we know Them are the spiritual legacy of the ancient Egyptian land and people. Without these people and their land the Netjeru would still exist, of course, however, the system or technology for engaging Them would not have come down to us in the form it has.
The Gods chose the land of Kemet for a reason, and They chose the people of Kemet as the custodians of that framework, that technology or tradition, through which They could be engaged. A near five-thousand year track record exists that shows us exactly how we can maintain these gods in our world, commune with Them, co-create with Them, maintain creation with Them.
The ancient Egyptians believed that their system of writing, rites, rituals and temple traditions were handed down by the Gods during Zep Tepy, the First Time of the Gods, and that the proper maintenance of creation, Ma’at, depended on these things being continued and preserved. The original names of the Netjeru, the means of invoking Them, and the tools for accomplishing Their work in our world have all been preserved in the historical record. This is the record we have for direct access to these goddesses and gods, and I think we would be quite foolish not to use it.
So, you have Kemetic deities being removed from Their native system of engagement and dropped into another. Do I think that works? Yes and no. I think it works for those who are doing it, otherwise they probably wouldn’t do it, if they felt no response at all…if they could not achieve anything in the spiritual work they were trying to accomplish. Kemetic deities have always been borrowed by non-Kemetic spiritualities, including Wicca, Witchcraft, New Thought/ New Age circles, Golden Dawn…and the list could go on and on.
I think people have always been attracted to certain Kemetic deities, especially Auset/ Isis and Sekhmet. We know the track record of the Goddess Auset throughout history, and have seen how this Goddess transcended geographical and cultural boundaries, language barriers and religions, and became one of the most celebrated cults of the Mediterranean world. This went far beyond the borders of Egypt, speaking to the hearts of people who had never heard of or experienced the ancient rites of Isis in Her native land. Isis became as much a goddess of the Roman world as She had been a goddess of the Egyptian world, in Her name of Auset.
I suppose this brings us to one of the fundamental issues being debated today within the Reconstructionist, Heathen, and Neopagan communities, and that is cultural appropriation. Does a deity or religious, spiritual system belong to its culture of origination? Can deities be taken completely out of their original cultural context without dishonoring their integrity, their essence as recognized by their homegrown tradition? Can a culture take ownership of a deity, a tradition, a ritual…a spiritual framework?
This is a hotly debated issue, and I’m not going to approach all the ramifications it provokes, but it is worth taking a look at how deities of various cultures have been adopted by foreigners, who have taken a deity out of its original cultural context, and have found in it something that speaks completely to their own culture. One sees this in so many religions throughout history. What do we make of the ancient Egyptians adopting West Semitic deities such as Baal, Anat, Astarte, and Reshep? These deities had their own identities, cults, and iconography firmly established before they were absorbed into the Egyptian religion, and yet they were adopted and honored by the Egyptians, had holy places and cults established for them, and were mingled freely with native Egyptian gods, without any apparent worry over their foreign origination.
I think our ancient Ancestors were a lot more flexible than we are today in regards to cultural appropriation or adoption of gods from one pantheon into another. The ancient Mediterranean world especially became a hybrid of Egyptian-Hellenic, Hellenic-Roman, Egyptian-Hellenic-Roman culture and spirituality, beginning after the founding of Alexandria at the time of Alexander.
This part of the Mediterranean transformed the ancient world through its free exchange of ideas, cultures, spiritualities, and customs. In the Greco-Roman period, we find this fascinating hybrid of deities…the fusion of traditional Egyptian deities with those of Greece and Rome. There is evidence to suggest that native Egyptians may not have been entirely keen on adopting such hybrids as readily as their Greek and Roman counterparts; but still, you have all these pantheons and cults striving to coexist and intermingle at the same time, and people seemed to do it without too much of a fuss.
Religious ideas tend to travel and get adopted by other cultures. This has happened in practically every culture and country in regards to monotheism…the Abrahamic religions, which have been spread very far from their original geographic and cultural context, and have, each time they’ve been introduced into a new culture, become ingrained in their new setting via the language and modes of expression of that individual culture. Some traits of the original religious culture have been carried over, but many are changed or added to or blended with outside ideas. This has happened to Islam and Judaism, but it is seen in other religions, too, like Hinduism and Buddhism.
Perhaps Reconstructionists are not so keen on the blending of pantheons or religious systems because we are keen on trying to piece back together a single religious system in a coherent and authentic way, which is far challenge enough without throwing other traditions into the mix. When pantheons and traditions are freely blended together, you do tend to lose sight of or water down the original elements that gave one system its framework…its flavor, if you will. Each religion or spiritual system is like a recipe; it has its own seasoning, flavor, and aroma. It speaks to the tastes of its practitioners in a very specific way. It engages the human heart and mind using very specific tools, and it engages its deity or deities in the same manner.
When you start borrowing a little here, taking a little there, then mixing it all together in the same stew, you may create something unique or appealing to the senses, but you’ve lost the unique flavor of the original ingredients in the mix. The flavors have gotten all mixed up, and they no longer speak to the taste buds in the same way. That can be a shame, not only for us, but for the deities, too. They want to speak to us, know us, and engage with us, but they want to do it on their terms, not through some process of dismemberment and re-articulation, so that they can look and taste like whatever we want them to be at any given moment.
It’s something I think Pagans and Neopagans in general need to take more seriously, that these ancient goddesses and gods have their own identities and terms of manifestation that have existed intact for enormous spans of time, and they need to be honored, reverenced, and respected, not simply disregarded because these aren’t convenient or easy to approach from outside their original cultural context. I think we have to look at how long the Netjeru have maintained a dialogue with human beings through the language, prayers, texts, practices, and trappings of Kemetic culture. Far longer than America or the West has existed; and we’re coming along and saying, oh well, that was then, this is now, let’s do it another way.
What we’re really doing when we disregard the original cultural context of the Netjeru is cutting ourselves off from the potency of the Ancestral Powers, who handed down and maintained these practices for thousands of years. We’re also cutting ourselves off from that vital power, that essential ingredient that came into being during Zep Tepy, which is continuity, Ma’at. So many individuals and groups are throwing that term around like it’s going out of style…Ma’at this and Ma’at that.
What Ma’at really means is continuity, the original way of maintaining creation bestowed by the Netjeru. The Kemetic rites, rituals, and prayers are precisely that technology given to us by the Gods during Zep Tepy; the spiritual technology for maintaining the created world. Then we want to come along and change all of that, sweep it aside because we think we know better than Them? I don’t think so. This is outright hubris, and it is the worst kind of violation of what Ma’at really means.
But religion is an organic entity, it grows and develops and changes over time. This includes the Gods, Who are dynamic beings, fluid and ever changing, ever expanding. If we accept that the Netjeru are living gods, gods that still exist throughout creation, continuing creation, able and capable of demonstrating Their powers, then we must accept that They are not fixed in time and space, nor are They rooted to a single geographic location. This must be the case, otherwise, how are devotees of the Netjeru in Chicago or London experiencing powerful and authentic relationships with Them? People today are engaging these very ancient gods, and are taking part in a profound dialogue with the Sacred Powers that transforms lives, and provokes tremendous constructive change.
The Netjeru are obviously still very active in our world today, even though that world and human societies are no longer comparable with what once existed in Kemet, in ancient Egypt. We have to acknowledge- if we acknowledge that our Gods still have something to offer to humankind in its present condition- that the Netjeru are reaching out to devotees in ways that devotees in the current era can understand and relate to personally. I do acknowledge these things, so I tend to be accepting of the fact that groups and individuals are connecting with the Netjeru outside the historically informed framework Kemeticism or Kemetic Reconstructionism provides.
In these regards, we’re seeing Goddesses like Auset (Isis) and Sekhmet being provided with roles that fill a spiritual vacuum profoundly felt by women in many parts of the world. Are we really that surprised that Auset, Isis, is continuing Her travels through the known world, appearing here as a Goddess of women, and there as a source of ecstatic awakening or personal empowerment? Should it come as such a surprise that a Goddess like Sekhmet…a truly fierce Goddess, Who represented to the ancient Egyptians a source of both destruction and magical healing…should be associated with other dynamic Goddesses like Durga or Kali?
Can the Seven Arrows or fiery khamsin winds of Sekhmet be experienced in a new way; as the powers of provocation, dismantling the ego and the rampant thirst for self-satisfaction…replacing these with a kundalini-like awakening, a truly divine and impersonal, mystical awareness? I’d say yes, because it’s obvious to me based on my many years of experience in the Goddess community that both women and men are having these kinds of experiences with Auset and Sekhmet; and, I’ve seen people’s lives radically changed by brushes with these Goddesses in contexts completely outside historically informed Kemeticism.
As I mentioned before, one of my notes of caution concerning Kemetic Reconstructionism is that it can be all too easy to fall into an inflexible mind frame or intellectualism; where the demand for academic evidence or historical verification overrides and replaces one’s ability to have immensely personal spiritual experiences with the Netjeru that may at times fall outside of what is self-evident in the historical record. This has been my very frustrating experience over the years in my Kemetic work, where individuals will actually express the belief that the Netjeru do not operate outside of what can be academically verified by source texts! Again and again, these kind of attitudes crop up, and what is left over is something very dry, very devoid of spiritual vitality and sacred power; in short, historical reenactment, a “religion” crafted from the script of Egyptology.
This kind of “religion” will never survive or fill people’s lives with joy and meaning. One cannot take a scholastic thesis or academic volume and make that a source of spiritual nourishment on its own. One needs a firm relationship with the Sacred Powers in order to do this; the kind of relationship opened by way of an animated, sincere and continuous dialogue with living gods!
The enormous legacy of academics and Egyptologists is only a springboard for an even richer legacy of authentic spiritual experience to be gathered from Egypt’s most ancient religion. And how do we really access that legacy? Not through books. Not through a thesis or Egyptology symposium. Not from the most well argued scholastic endeavor. The only way we can really reawaken or restore the ancient Egyptian religion is by having an immediate and intimate engagement with its Netjeru, its Goddesses and Gods, Who will never, never be limited by an academic script or intellectual framework, no matter how masterful it may be.
So, even though I consider myself a Kemetic Reconstructionist, I am certainly not placing restrictions on my experiences with the Netjeru I serve, limiting my understanding of Them and Their sacred rites to what has been academically verified. The Netjeru do not operate that way! As I spoke about earlier, the Netjeru are much more vast in Their manifestations than human beings are capable of comprehending…of that I’m certain!
The Gods will not be shoved into neat little boxes that fit tidily on a book shelf, to be accessed when and how it is convenient for us. The Netjeru are dynamic, alive, vibrant and expansive. They fill this creation with Their powers and manifestations, each of which is legion on its own. Who am I to say that Sekhmet cannot choose to associate Herself with Kali if that is how She feels She can engage with one of Her devotees?
We are no longer accessing these gods in a Nilotic context. Gone are the days when the Netjeru were maintained in vast temple estates sustained by the royal largesse. The unlimited stream of offerings the Netjeru once enjoyed on a daily basis are gone. Our world has drastically changed, and is no longer a wholly polytheistic society aimed at serving and honoring the Gods. My personal view is that the Netjeru of Kemet, together with all the ancient pantheons, are starving for our offerings, our reverence, and participation with us in the continued maintenance of Their creation.
I believe that all the Gods are, at this late stage, open and ready to receive whatever offerings and attention humankind has to offer, even if that engagement comes through sources beyond the original cultural context of Their native worship. I feel it’s most important that the Gods be honored, that people approach Them sincerely and with true respect. Be generous. Be honest in your intentions, and bring the very best you have to offer, however humble or seemingly inconsequential it may be.
Even if your prayers are not taken directly from the ancient temples or spoken in their original tongue, let your words come directly from the heart, and invite the Gods to receive your adoration at Their table of offerings. Let whatever you do be done in a spirit of true veneration, not haphazardly or halfheartedly. Do not make demands of the Gods and then banish Them. Once you invite Them, offer Them a place to stay, and be as hospitable to Them as you would be to your most cherished friend, family member, spouse or lover.
So, personally, my concerns regarding Goddesses like Sekhmet being adopted by groups and individuals outside a Kemetic context are a matter of intentions and respect. If you’re inviting Sekhmet to take part in your Circle or Coven, or you’re asking the Goddess for Her ability to awaken your latent Tantric power…if you’re using Her in conjunction with traditions and practices not historically associated with Her, then make sure your motivations and modes of operation are sincere, and include giving the Goddess the reverence and respect due to Her greatness.
Do not exclude the rite of offering, however you perform it! Feed Her your prayers and your material offerings, as these will establish a direct energetic link between yourself and the Goddess, which is vital for the accomplishment of all Sacred Work. Give to the Goddess if you are asking Her to give; otherwise, do not invoke Her, for all Sacred Work is an act of interdependence between ourselves and our Gods and Ancestors. They give because we give, and we should give because They give. It is the law of reciprocity, which is also the foundation for the maintenance of creation the Ancients called Ma’at.
All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa, Rev. Anna Applegate