Knowing the Names of Ancient Egyptian Religion
There seems to be no end of either fascination or speculation about ancient Egypt, either from a popular standpoint or an occult one. From the day when Napoleon's savants began recording their trek across the sandy wastes from Alexandria to Abu Simbel, to the "wonderful things" of Tutankhamen's unplundered burial chamber, to Kent Weeks's recent discovery of a tomb with more rooms than a standard apartment building, our love affair with ancient Egypt seems to know no limit.
While the culture, language, and art of ancient Egypt ("Kemet" to its own people) attract much attention, we are also strangely drawn to her religion: a religion which lasted uninterrupted for more years than have passed since the onset of Christianity, a spiritual legacy of more than four thousand years, locked away in thousands of writings and passed through later religions and philosophies, manifesting in some of their beliefs and practices. Kemet gave her name to the "magical" practice of "Al-Kemi"; her insistence upon ritual purity and structure was carried into everything from the Orthodox Mass to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Thousands of years after Kemet's last scribe lay down his reed pen, people continents and millennia away would attempt to revive parts of the religion in forms as varied as Rosicrucianism and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn to Theosophy, Egyptian Pagan traditions and the Ausar-Auset Society. Everyone from New Agers to Afrocentrics, from Neopagans to mystic Christians, wanted to know just what it was that held this faith together, and if it could still be accessed. Somewhere along the line, unfortunately for us, the idea was perpetuated that Kemetic religion in its original form was dead and unsalvageable, either due to loss of the language or the irrelevance of a cultural milieu so different from one's own; a corollary of this relegated Kemetic religion to the realm of "savages" and unenlightened superstition. Either conclusion metaphorically put the ancient scrolls back into the tomb for another discoverer to find, while the groups scrambled much like the earliest modern plunderers of ancient Egypt, to find whatever gold they could before someone else stole it, and claim it as their own.
Late in the twentieth century, scholars and occultists alike are finally having to face up to the damage which was done by this earliest strip-mining of Kemetic history, religion, and culture, both on an archaeological and a philosophical level. It is finally being acknowledged that Kemet was much more complex than originally assumed, on many levels, not the least of which was her religion. Advances in the understanding of Kemetic language have revealed that it is capable of expressing metaphorical, allegorical, and abstract thought, long thought to be the invention and sole provenance of the Greeks and Western culture. A Kemetic creation story, retranslated with this new knowledge, draws strong parallels with that given in Genesis 1; and an ethical text dated prior to 2000 BCE, the oldest in existence, echoes "King Solomon's" Proverbs. These texts indicate a pious, unified society, well versed in ethics and concerned with the welfare of both God and all earthly creations. During the last two decades, it has finally been accepted that not only is Kemetic religion not polytheist, totemist, or superstition-based, but that its strong tenets influenced a number of later religions, including Judaism and Christianity, to an incredible extent.1
Kemetic religion is a great deal more complicated than early writers like E. A. Wallis Budge would have had us believe. It is also much less similar to Christianity than Budge tried to posit later in his life, when he realized his first image of animists worshipping animals wasn't quite on the mark. The religion, as witnessed by the sheer length of time in which it reigned unchallenged in the Nile Valley, has been revealed to us through mounds of papyri and tombs and temple ruins dictating its rites and mythology, as a very complex system unlike anything we in the West have ever experienced. In fact, Kemetic religion seems to us to embody a number of confusing and contradictory elements, which resolve themselves only if one "walks like an Egyptian" and tries to understand from the Kemetic mindset. The first and foremost of the problems in moderns understanding Kemetic religion revolves around the understanding of Divinity itself. In Kemetic religion, "God" is referred to using the word Netjer. Drawn with the hieroglyph of a flag on a standard, the same flag which rode proudly on temple and shrine walls throughout Kemetic history, Netjer is a word which unfortunately loses something in its translation simply as "god." Netjer is a term denoting the entire spectrum of the sacred, embodied in specific forms known as Names, or in the abstract whole as a Self-Created One, That Which Is.
Volumes have been written on the Names and Forms of Netjer. Most fall short by pigeonholing each as a "local god," small and contradictory in nature to all others, in a bewildering array Budge ridiculed as "the time when the Egyptian savage filled earth, air, sea and sky with hostile evil spirits and lived in terror of the Evil Eye, and relied upon every branch of magic for help and deliverance from them."2 Sadly, this emphasis on so-called "Egyptian magic" seems also to be the only part of the Kemetic legacy that most occultists are interested in, attributing to the "occult powers" of ancient Egypt everything from immortality to the ability to travel in alternate dimensions. Quite to the contrary, Kemetic religion is not a hodgepodge of gibberish rituals for ultimate cosmic power, material gain or protection from demons. It is a living, simple faith, with no "magic" other than the power of prayer, which seeks to give humans an opportunity to live in harmony with the Creator and all of Its Creation.
Who is this Creator? In the ancient texts, we learn that Netjer is inherently beyond our comprehension:
God is a master craftsman,
While there is a valid (and human) need to define Deity in terms we can grasp, at the same time, such definition is by its own admission only part of a great Whole-and therefore subject to interpretation, change and possible error. This condition only applies to definitions-it does not apply to Netjer itself. Netjer (singular, not plural) exists eternally in the metaphorical First Time,4 and therefore transcends human concepts and limitations like change. The Greeks were the first Western culture to anthropomorphize deities to such extent that they seem caricatures of human beings. Some people have taken this idea to extremes, in two pronouncements that would be heresy to the Kemetic: either that Deity is completely subject to human interpretation since we "invent" it; or that Deity can be completely denied outside of the self in a sort of nihilist egotism. To attempt a "new" Kemetic religion on the basis that because culture has changed since Kemet, so has Netjer, or to deny that the faith can be reconstructed at all but only metamorphosed into something new or superimposed on a modern system shows a misunderstanding of the central tenets of Kemetic faithand is where the dividing line can be drawn between caretakers of the ancient faith and syncretists in the "Hermetic" tradition of later ages.5
This is a sample of Repeating Births from issue No. 4 of Obsidian.
The Reverend Tamara Siuda (aus) is the founder and Nisut of the House of Netjer, a Kemetic Orthodox temple based in Chicago, Illinois. She is a graduate student in Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and a member of both the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) and the Ancient Egyptian Studies Association (AESA). Reverend Siuda is also assistant director of America Online's Spirituality Forums (keyword SPIRITUALITY). Her first book, The Neteru of Kemet: An Introduction, was published in 1994 and a second book on Kemetic Orthodoxy is in process. Information on Kemetic Orthodoxy is available via the House website at www.kemet.org, or via direct mail at POB 11188, Chicago, IL 60611-0188.
All material ©1999 Obsidian Magazine. All rights reserved.