Egyptian/Kemetic Reconstructionist FAQ
1. So what is this "Kemetic" thing all about?
It's the reconstruction of ancient Egyptian religion, combining as much scholarly knowledge and comparative religion as possible with dollops of personal gnosis.
2. Why "Kemetic"? What does the word mean?
Kemet was one of the terms the ancient Egyptians used for their country; it means 'Black Land'. This describes the fertile Nile valley, as opposed to the Red Land, the desert, that surrounded it.
3. So you're an Isis worshipper, then?
Not all Kemetics are devoted to Aset (Isis), though many of the people who came to the religion did so because of interest in Her. (The other two Names who are known for bringing people into the religion are Anpw (Anubis) and Bast.)
4. Anpu? Aset? What are these names?
Most Kemetics prefer to use the ancient Egyptian names for the gods; they have meaning in the Egyptian language and are more accurate. The well-known names for the Egyptian gods are actually in Greek (you can identify them because they tend to end in -is) and date to Greek rule of the country and re-interpretation of the religion.
The House of Netjer (the oldest of the Kemetic temples) has a glossary that includes both the Greek and the Egyptian names and associates them with each other.
5. I thought Isis and Osiris were the primary gods in the Egyptian pantheon.
The myth of Isis and Osiris is probably the best-known of the Egyptian myths. (The short version being that Asar (Osiris) is killed by His brother, Set; His grieving widow finds Him, briefly reanimates His body, and Her son Herw-sa-Aset (Horus, son of Isis) takes His vengeance on His uncle.) That does not mean that it is the most important of the myths to the Egyptians themselves, just the one that has lasted and been most popular over time. (Probably largely because Isis of the Thousand Names was very popular in the ancient world, and because it is the easiest set of myths to fit into a narrative story.)
That particular pair of gods has additionally gained a certain amount of popularity in the modern pagan community because the dying-and-reborn god motif is one that most people familiar with Wiccan theology can relate to.
6. Not Wiccan, then. Are there Kemetic Wiccans?
There is a tradition of Wicca called Tameran Wicca, which interacts with the Netjerw. (Tameran is another word deriving from an Egyptian word for Egypt; this one is from Ta-Mery, which means 'beloved land'.) There is a book on Tameran Wicca called Circle of Isis, by Ellen Cannon Reed; I would recommend it strongly to anyone who is interested in interacting with the Netjerw in a neopagan context. She writes about the gods in a way that sounds like she knows the gods I know.
Tameran Wicca is a Wiccan structure, however; it is not Kemetic. Because the Kemetic ideal is a reconstruction, it uses ritual structures and practices that resemble those of the ancients instead of the modern neopagan structure.
7. So how does a Kemetic ritual structure differ from a Wiccan one?
There is no casting and dismissing of circle or elements; ideally, every practitioner has their own sacred space that is dedicated and established as a stable portion of their household.
Typically, a given ritual will include libations of cool water, offerings of fire and incense, and other offerings depending on the practitioner and the festival. It is important that all things offered be consumed, so most Kemetics don't offer things they will not or cannot eat. The gods consume the spiritual layer of the food, and the offerers consume the material; thus a ritual often contains components of a shared meal.
Most Kemetics prefer to keep their images of the gods in some kind of enclosed area except when they are performing rituals; a shrine cabinet is called a naos. (The images of the gods were kept in cabinets in ancient times; They like Their privacy.)
8. Where do these rituals come from?
They are basically attempts to duplicate what we know of the rituals that were performed daily in ancient Egyptian temples. Some of the pieces were translated and extrapolated from wall inscriptions and surviving papyrus, and others from the continuing practices of modern African Traditional Religions.
We do not know what the private rituals and practices of the ancients were like in their homes, though most homes included some sort of shrine space. However, because we know that the ancients strongly believed in repetition and consistency, and also that the Wab priests (purity priests) typically served three months of the year in the temple and the rest of the time working as regular people, we presume that the home rituals were similar to temple rituals.
9. So do you have a Pharaoh?
The question of the Nisut-Bity (the Egyptian term for Pharaoh -- which derives from per-a'a, 'great house'; the word was used for the king and royal family in much the same way 'The White House' is used for the administration of the US or '10 Downing Street' for the Prime Minister of the UK) is a very tricky one for Kemetics. The ancients believed that the Nisut was the Living Horus, the linchpin between the seen world and the unseen world, the one who kept the people and the gods in contact by his work. (I say 'his', because although there were several female Pharaohs, all of them adopted male social portrayals as part of their role.)
Different temples have taken different approaches to this question. The Kemetic Orthodox have a Nisut, Rev. Tamara Siuda. Other temples have noted that the senior priesthood in ancient times existed as those who could act in the name of the Nisut, and have established priesthoods but not named a Nisut. Other organisations and individuals may have established other answers to the question of Nisut, but no Kemetic organisation can really afford not to think about it.
10. Different temples? How many temples are there?
I know of four: the House of Netjer (Kemetic Orthodox), Per Ankh (Kemetic Traditional Religion), Per Heh (Veridical Kemetic Faith), and Akhet Hwt-Hrw. There are also a number of people who are not affiliated with any temple or with several.
The temples each have their issues and their differences in theology. If you want to join a temple, have a look at all of them and see what seems to suit your needs. Most offer some sort of free introductory course to introduce you to the religion.
11. I've heard people objecting to the word "Kemeticism". Why is that?
"Kemeticism" was first coined by an African ethnically based movement, I believe sometime in the sixties. Some people object to having Kemetic reconstruction called "Kemeticism" because of that.
Other people sort of go, "Kemetic really needs a noun form and 'Kemetic reconstruction' takes forever to say and I don't mean one of the specific variants but the whole shebang" and don't worry so much about it.
"Kemetism" is also used, though not as often, and does not seem to raise the same objections as a noun form.
12. So . . . was [historical Egypt-related figure] black?
While the ancients recognised that other peoples tended towards having different physical appearances, they did not have the same obsession with race/ethnicity that many modern people do. Evidence from studying remains and records suggests that they tended to intermarry across ethnicities without significant thought for most of their history, which suggests that there were probably many Nubian-appearing Egyptians in the south near Nubia, shading smoothly to more Semitic, North African, or Mediterranean appearance in the Delta region.
The artistic canon was very strict; anyone who was classified as "Egyptian" would be portrated in a particular way, whether or not that actually described their physical appearance at all. (The sole exception to the images of young, slim, attractive, golden-skinned, black-haired figures would be accomplished elder men, who could be portrayed grey-haired and with hints of belly, indicating wealth.) This appears to be a matter of nationality more than ethnicity, again, from the records; other nations also had canonical representations.
The exception to this tendency towards intermarriage and nationality over ethnicity is the Greek occupation late in Egypt's history; the Greeks tended to stick to enclaves and mostly married among themselves, especially in the upper classes.
The short answer is: we don't know, unless the question's about one of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs, who were all Greek.
13. Is Kemeticism pagan?
Most Kemetic organisations would say that they are not pagan, but rather an African Traditional Religion. A number object to being categorised by what they either consider a Christian term or a term that is younger than their religion is.
On the other hand, many individual Kemetics refer to themselves as pagan. Reconstruction in general and Kemetic reconstruction in specific both came about as part of the modern pagan movement and revival, and several of the Kemetic temples are active participants in various pan-pagan gatherings.
14. I want to study Egyptology. What sort of background should I have?
Most of the cutting-edge Egyptology research is being originally published in French and German; in order to make progress in Egyptology studies you'll need to have some ability with those languages. (I don't know off the top of my head if these languages are prerequisites for Egyptology degrees, or whether the courses include training in them.)
If you're interested in being an educated layman on the subject, a large number of these good books are available in translation.
15. So what books should I look for?
Faulkner is the translator I've heard most generally spoken well of; his Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian is recommended. James Hoch wrote a grammar titled Middle Egyptian Grammar that is used for some language courses.
Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods (Meeks) is a good general overview, as is The One and the Many: Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt (Hornung). For people who have serious dedication, the work of Jan Assman is very good but also remarkably dense, and Morenz's Egyptian Religion is detailed but somewhat dry.
There is very little out there from the modern Kemetic's perspective; look for works by Kerry Wisner and Tamara Siuda.
16. The one and the many? What does that mean?
Like many African religions to this day, the ancient Egyptians believed in one ultimate divine force, incomprehensible to humans because of its vastness and potency, that manifested a variety of other forms partially in order to become accessible to humans. The one is called Netjer, which means something loosely like 'divine power'; the word for the gods of the pantheon is also netjer, but not generally capitalised, and its plural is netjerw.
Strictly speaking, Kemetic theology is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic; the word generally used is "monolatry". Individual Kemetics fall on a broad spectrum of heavily syncretic to nearly (but not quite) hard-polytheistic.
The netjerw in general tend to diffuse roles; it seems to be in the nature of Netjer to defy ready categorisation. A good rule of thumb is that any claim that an Egyptian god is "the god of X" will be inaccurate at best, actively misleading at worst. Several Names are interpreted by some to be forms, guises, or aspects of other Names; others share duties in a complicated way that does not quite overlap; many will syncretise readily with other forms in order to address some specific function.
Some people find this tricky.
17. Why are you capitalising the word "names"? What's so special about names?
Names are the foundation of the universe; one of the components of the soul is the true name. "Names", capitalised, is short for "Names of Netjer". Most of the names of the Names have a literal meaning that is evocative of some portion of Their function; some of those names are even used as titles of other gods.
One of the myths of creation has the creator netjer speaking the world into existence, naming all of its parts and making them manifest. Kemetics, as a general rule, take language very seriously; it is inherently magical, containing the essence of creation.
18. Magical? So you cast spells?
Not quite. The Kemetic word for magic is "heka", which means "authoritative speech" (going back to words). All language has the capacity to shape and define the world.
Kemetic magic is almost always set down in writing or spoken. It may have other components to it, such as physical components or ritual acts, but the spoken portion is usually the most essential. Heka is not something separate from everyday life; it is a tool the gods gave humans so they could have the strength to deal with the world on their own, to deal with nefarious influences and the forces of isfet.
19. What's isfet?
Isfet is a form of destructive chaos, uncreation, un-naming. It is personified in Apep (Apophis), the great serpent that tries to devour the sunboat while it is travelling in the underworld at night. It is imbalance or impurity. How isfet manifests in each person's life will be different, but many people can identify the sort of turmoil that leaves them feeling undone, as if their selfness is being stripped away and destroyed, their sense of identity: that is isfet. Isfet acts counter to ma'at.
Apep can only be slain by Set, though most all of the netjerw are involved in the process in some way.
20. So what's ma'at?
Ma'at is the force that binds people together into communities. It demands health within the self, within the interactions with family and community, and with the cosmos as a whole. Ma'at is the ideal, the universe still in the perfection that was creation, before it started to accumulate dust: it is also personified as the netjert (goddess) Ma'at, whose symbol is the ostrich feather. The balances of the afterlife are weighing the heart -- the seat of the Kemetic soul -- to judge whether it has acted in accord with the balance of ma'at.
We believe that our hearts are created true, that ma'at lives within them. The difficult part is figuring out how to listen to our hearts and to allow that ma'at that emanates from them to suffuse our actions. This is one of the primary purposes of our rituals: to bring ourselves back into alignment with our hearts and the essential beauty of creation.
21. Wait a moment. Only Set can kill Apep? I thought Set was the god of evil or something.
There is no "god of evil". Set governs chaos, conflict, (male) sexuality, the desert, storms, and becoming strong through overcoming difficulties. His role in the cosmos is to destroy that which needs to be broken down, to test people and gods alike so that they can become strong, and to turn chaos against chaos and destroy that would go beyond mere destruction to uncreating.
Set's got a bad rap, really. That whole killing-his-older-brother thing causes him inordinate amounts of bad press -- but had Asar not died and taken up kingship of the underworld, there would be no afterlife, and souls when they left life would simply cease to be, as they would have nowhere to persist.
The popular conception of Set as some kind of big bad guy owes a fair amount to the fact that the Hyksos seem to have identified Him with their supreme god during the period when they ruled Egypt; this association with unwelcome invaders dented His mythos significantly. He regained popularity with the Ramesside Pharaohs of the 19th Dynasty in the New Kingdom (who seem to have considered Him their family patron; many of them were reputed to be redheads, a trait associated with Set, and names such as 'Seti' were common). By the Greek period, however, He was associated and syncretised with Typhon, who is a significantly less ambiguous character; His myths were changed to cast Him in a more universally hostile and antagonistic role.
22. So are you a death-worshipper or death-obsessed or something? The ancient Egyptians were.
Actually, no, they weren't.
The ancient Egyptians were a vivacious and life-fixated people, for the most part. They enjoyed food and wine and what items of luxury they could find; they were the perfumery center of the ancient world, and were renowned for both their enthusiastic festivals (some of which had people travelling hundreds of miles along the Nile so they could attend) and their comparatively unconservative sexuality.
There were two major threads in the Egyptian attitudes towards death. One of these was mostly positive: a belief that life persisted after death, powered in part by the immortality of the name as remembered by family members and written on tomb walls, and that that life was much the same as it is among the living. For this purpose, tombs were made to serve as homes for the dead, their names were written many times on the walls to ensure immortality, goods were provided so that the dead would have wealth to bring with them, and they were also supplied with spells and charms to guide them on the transition between corporeal life and the afterlife (The Book of Coming Forth By Day, popularly known as the Book of the Dead) and magical items (ushabti) which were expected to animate in the afterlife and take care of the chores that otherwise the dead would have to perform for themselves. It could be said that the massive funereal housing that was created for the dead was a sign of such a great love of life that it was expected to be needful to provide for its persistence after death, so that the joy would continue.
The process of mummification and the belief in the need for the preservation of the body probably grew out of the way a desert environment produced natural mummification. People learned how to duplicate this process and embellished it with magical ritual in order to facilitate that immortality that preserved even facial features after death. In addition, they recognised the possibility that bodies might be damaged or destroyed, and included statues and images of the deceased wherever possible. (The ancients were strong believers in backups.)
Further, there was no belief that the dead could necessarily reach the afterlife on their own. The Book of Coming Forth By Day was one form of aid that people received to make the transition; proper funerary treatment, mourning, and prayer were considered essential to providing the necessary resources to the spirit in transition to aid their ascent. A spirit which does not ascend is not merely a lost soul, but a dangerous one, likely to wreak havoc in the world of the living.
At the same time, there was an underlying doubt that this was sufficient, and a profound terror that the preparations for death were all for naught. At the same time people would write letters to their akhu -- their glorified dead -- they expressed doubt that they could survive the transition. The belief that death was a form of uncreation, of the destruction of self, was also extensive. Even when it was not quite nonexistence, the conceptions of the afterlife sometimes included hosts of various demonic figures that would not seem excessively strange to those familiar with the hells of other religions.
The tensions between the celebration of life and its persistence into the beyond and the terror of it as an ultimate manifestation of isfet are all through the imagery and writings of the ancients. The multiplicity of visions of the afterlife and of the Duat, home of the dead, is quite extensive, ranging from the Field of Reeds to an eternity of sleep perhaps broken daily by the passage of the sun barque on through the intervention of demonic forces and dissolution of the self.
23. Aren't the animal heads sort of weird? Doesn't that make it difficult to take your gods seriously?
No, not especially.
Most of the gods have several canonical forms; individual Kemetics have had experiences that go outside the canon as well. The Netjer are not bound to a particular shape, even those who are not especially known for their shapeshifting capability; They appear as pleases Them and as is evocative of Their power.
Consider Herw (Horus): He is typically represented as a hawk or a hawk-headed man. His name means 'The Distant One' and one of His resonances is the sky; the ancients recognised Him in the distant, wheeling hawks that circled at the edge of vision.
Many animals and plants are recognised as potential vessels for Netjer, especially those Names that are affiliated with them. The way in which Netjer exists all through the natural world is enhanced by their iconography.