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.