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#mypolytheism: Purity and Cleansing

The My Polytheism project is collecting posts and thoughts on the topic of purification and cleansing, and since both primary halves of my practice have a fairly purification-heavy basis, I figured I would write about it. Especially since it’s good to have some basic theological stuff hashed out generally, really.

I have added #mypolytheism to my category tags on the blog portion of the site; I am not sure if I will do more than that for making sure that these posts remain accessible resources.

From a Kemetic Recon viewpoint

When I first converted to Kemeticism I spent a lot of time wrestling with the concept of purity. It was far too easy to identify with the concept of sin, of some sort of flaw or fallen nature. I hadn’t grown up with a background that put a heavy weight on these sorts of topics, and they were alien to my understanding of the world.

Eventually I figured out that’s not how it worked Kemetically; the fundamental state of everything is one of purity. There are things which are, by their fundamental nature, pure: water (as a cleansing agent), incense (as a censing agent), food (which has nutritive properties and thus promotes life), water (both cleansing and essential to life). There are other things which may be in various states of the necessity of restoration, but the fundamental underlying nature of everything is one which is pure.

That purity does not mean safety, mind. Water is dangerous, it can destroy everything, it can take a life; that does not mean that it is not pure. It means that the flood will wash everything flat. Wesir (Osiris) drowned; allegorisation with that eventually led to immediate local god status for anyone who drowned in the Nile. It may be a particularly power-imbued way to die, but it’s still, y’know, dead.

The Egyptian world was one of fundamental order. Everything was made to suit its place in the cosmos, keyed to its function. Everything was also subject to entropy, to wearing down – even the sun sets and needs to be restored, after all. Everything goes down to the waters and comes back clean. The process of purification is a process of perpetual restoration, cleaning the soot off the artwork, winding the clock, waiting for the flood to come and provide new earth that would sustain the crops and promote life.

All offerings to the gods are said to be ma’at; ma’at is the sustenance of the gods. The word is translated many ways: truth, balance, order, justice, law. Egyptologist Jan Assmann said “ma’at is the force which gathers people together into communities”. I would submit that ma’at is the essence of purity, and that purity itself is what is offered to the gods.

The symbol to which all offerings were assimilated in the process of becoming ma’at is the Eye of Heru (Horus). The most essential thing about the Eye of Heru is that it is restored. (I wrote about this in my Patheos column a few months ago.) It is not the pure-from-origin, undamaged thing that is the archetypical offering; it is the thing which was wounded and healed. Restoration is what promotes life.

I have commented occasionally on the Japanese artform called “kintsugi”, which is repairing broken items with a form of lacquer which is full of precious metal, so rather than making the cracks invisible, the broken edges are limned in gold. That which is broken and restored is thus made greater.

The process of cleansing, of purification, is the process of striving towards the heart, towards revealing what has been there all the time. It is an act of mending.

If it does not heal, it is not purification.

In my actual practice

I do very little formal ritual; I am not a priest, serving in a temple, or attending to a formal shrine.

I go to some effort to obtain shrine components that are of reasonable quality. Most particularly, I am concerned about consumables such as incense, as a lot of the cheap stuff has urea (which as something derived from urine I consider a bit tacky to include as an offering at best, and likely damaging the intrinsic purity of the incense) and other contaminants in it.

When I do formal ritual, including non-Kemetic village ritual, I do formal bathing with recitations as part of my preparation, and wash my mouth out with a mixture of natron and water. Certain festivals include washing icons and shrine kipple.

Menstruation

This is of course the part where someone will come up with the “What about the menstrual taboo?” and that is worth noting explicitly.

There is no evidence that the ancient Egyptian world considered menstruation to be of itself an unclean process. However, contact with menstruating women rendered men unfit to work on the preparation of tombs for the duration.

In Egyptian representational art, the processes of sex, birth, and death were deliberately obscured; they were too dangerous to portray openly. Conception was portrayed allegorically at best, as in the conception of Hatshepsut, in which Hatshepsut’s mother is offered an ankh (life symbol) while playing footsie with Amun. These liminal acts appear to have been considered very delicate, and upsetting their balance with a magical act such as direct portrayal could have upset the balance of the process and interfered with them, with disastrous results.

Human generation (sex and birth) and divine regeneration (the temple and the tomb) were both delicate processes, and ones which could interfere with each other. As the process of pregnancy and birth was bringing forth life in the seen world, the function of the tomb was to bring forth life in the unseen world; these essential processes were both good and part of the cycles of creation, but aimed in different directions. A woman in a vulnerable time (such as menstruation, which was an indicator of a delicate fertility status) could be rendered sterile by the otherworld-focused draw of the tomb; a tomb could stop functioning as a womb for the dead if strong material-world powers of fertility were introduced to it. Thus, the ‘menstruation taboo’ was not a matter of uncleanness of women, but of separating incompatible creative processes from each other.

Bezenwepwy of Per-Sabu quoted some bits of the paper on which I base these conclusions. I recommend those interested read the paper themselves, it’s not long, and it includes some aspects that weren’t quoted (obviously).

Within my Craft

Folk magic comes with a lot of cleansings, and a whole lot of tools to work them. Salt and water, smoke cleansing, sound cleansing, Florida water, energy shenanigans, scents. I’ve used them all, on and off. (I use Florida water to wipe down my shrines, actually.)

One of the things about attempting to move into a place of enchantment is adopting a model and a worldview in which there are outside influences, where the self is in some way permeable. (I have gotten a fair amount from the Experimental Theology blog posts on re-enchantment, by the way; check the sidebar for The Theology of Faërie.) If there are ethereal influences in the world – spirits and vapours and entities – then there are tools to keep the unfriendly ones out and encourage the politer ones to maintain a residence. That, fundamentally, has a lot to do with my understanding of cleansing in the Craft.

Which means that that portion of it is not about purity at all; it is about hospitality. Granted a world of invisible influences, which ones are allowed to stay, which ones are driven out? Cleansings here are not all that different from the deal struck with the domovoi for his continued residence and protection; different mode of hospitality, but about hospitality.

(And I’ll note again that hospitality is always political: who is included and who is not, who is made welcome, who is driven off, and who is surreptitiously expelled by an unwelcoming environment, these are all decisions about the fundamentals of social dynamics. I am absolutely certain there will be writing out there on this topic that touches on the nature of what is considered clean and what – and who – is considered not; the note on “menstrual taboo” above is merely one tiny bit.)

And Alignment

Then there is the more esoteric sort of purification.

My Craft operates within a theological structure of the inner divine. One of my primary responsibilities is to develop a relationship with that portion of myself.

It is a known fact that it is genuinely hard to live in true communion with one’s divine nature at all times. The synergistic effects make it complicated – I find that doing housework does not predispose me to connection with the divine, so much as it leaves me feeling detached and agitated. It is hard to feel holy when the children have been screaming for the last half hour about something entirely incomprehensible (today it was who got which arbitrarily designated identical hot dog). Grace is fleeting.

But grace exists. The divine self is constantly there, waiting, present. The separation is not on the end of the god, here, but in the ways things move out of true, the way the moment catches and snags.

The stuff that gets in the way isn’t dirty, really. It’s just life. But that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t try to put it back where it goes, deal with the screaming kids, the dirty dishes, and the not enough hours in the day, breathe a bit, and say ‘Let’s get it a little closer to right tomorrow’.

Which is what the purifications are, at heart. And I do them – a minimum of twice a day – with that constant and earnest striving to more fully embody the divine. Some days it works better than others. I have a whole lot less shit in the way than I used to. But the fact is, there’s a lot of shit, and some of it may be cleaned up more or less permanently, and there’s backsliding, and some days, well, there’s a lot of screeching, or a lot of poo, or one of the kids is throwing up (also today), and that’s pushing out of the groove.

And there are also times that are made of grace. And it’s important to remember that too, that no matter how much of a mess things are at the moment, I can still reach for grace. It might take months, years to clean up whatever’s between me and it, but I will keep doing that thing. It may take days to accomplish something that needs to happen – or write a blog post, or whatever – but there are always steps towards it to be taken.

It’s always possible to be more full of god.

Risks

There are purifications that I’ve done in various bits of this work that have been bad for me. Things that didn’t clear away dross but cut into flesh.

I don’t do those things. They’re not healthy, they’re not safe, and they don’t fill me up with divinity or bring me into a state of grace.

They may be brilliant for someone else. I hope those someone elses find those things.

So, Generally

Purity and cleansing are relational and restorative.

It is difficult for me to talk about these concepts without dragging in things that other people would think are unrelated. (It reminds me, actually, of my Shopping Cart Theology. Summary of which is: where I live, you can take your grocery cart to your car. Some people leave the grocery cart abandoned in the parking lot in other people’s way. Don’t do that; it’s what some theologians refer to, using technical language, as “assholery”. Do your best to put your shopping cart back where it goes, instead. Maybe pick up the shopping cart of someone who has committed assholery along the way.)

(People argued with me about this. Because how dare I call them assholes. Some things one just has to shrug and say ‘I don’t even know’ about.)

But purification is like that. It’s putting the cart away. Not because there’s something unclean about the carts, or because one’s a bad person, or any of that. But because everything works better when it’s properly aligned. When the carts aren’t in the way, and are accessible to people who need them, things just flow better. But the carts are there to be used; they’ll be taken out of the return racks. They aren’t to be kept pristine and untouched. Use them. But put them back afterwards.

I saw a few people I know reblogging this post about shopping carts on tumblr. I know from the tags that some of them were thinking of me.

On Miasma

Part of why this topic is kicking around is, of course, the vehement polytheist bloggers who are banging a drum on about miasma and insisting that of course everyone needs to be deeply invested in this theological concept and profoundly concerned about dealing with it. And a lot of people have been very, “Oh yes, of course we should be caring about this concept.”

Many of these people appear to consider miasma to simply mean “stuff that needs cleansing” or something like it. I don’t know if this is out of ignorance of the substance of the word in its theological context or because they believe that that context is irrelevant and can be dismissed as a legitimate concern.

I want to be absolutely clear: I do not give a shit about miasma. It is irrelevant to my theologies, and in fact actively antithetical to the theologies of the gods with whom I interact, on multiple levels. The concept of miasma, in Hellenic religion, is intrinsically bound up with the idea of the Deathless Ones. It is fundamentally about the human obligation to, out of respect for the sanctity of that unchanging immortality, keep interactions with those gods who don’t have special psychopomp clearance as clean of things that fall into the mortal sphere as possible. It is predicated upon a sharp division between the immortal gods and mortal man (doomed to die), a difference of kind. Those people who are concerned about miasma need to take responsibility for it themselves, rather than expect that they have grand permission to impose a single theology on others.

My gods are not Deathless. Wesir is actually dead, and governs the Westerners not as an outside god looking after the dead, but as the greatest among them; to become a part of the company of this god, to bear his name as a title, is the goal of every decedent. (In the Roman period, the female dead sought to assimilate to Hetharu (Hathor) instead, while the male dead sought to be Wesir.) There is mythology about Ra being a drooling, senile fool; this is not the realm of the forever youthful and unchanging. Imhotep, a mortal man, was adopted and apotheosised as the son of Ptah and Sekhmet. Humanity is made of the tears of Ra, as the gods are composed of his sweat; I am pretty sure (without doing the research) that the ancients would not consider one of these salty fluids cleaner than the other, but to the modern Western mind there is a fascinating difference, yes? There is even an obscure bit of eschatology about the only powers to survive the end of the created world will be Atum (I think) and Wesir, who will take the form of serpents and become dormant in the Nun once more. My gods are mortal. Further, rather than having a category of specially set out psychopomps, it is actively difficult to find an Egyptian god who is not involved with the care and feeding of the dead, their progression and their restoration. Further, many of the company of the gods are among the crew of the sun barque, and thus involved with the midnight Mystery of the union of Ra and Wesir and the restoration of the cosmos, a Mystery that is intrinsically bound up with both death and the necessity of shielding the world from the vulnerabilities of the mooring.

Setting aside the mythologies for a moment, the Egyptian magical tradition and the various texts are full of the notion of the permeable boundary between humanity and divinity. This is not merely the case for the kings who instantiate the corporeal form of Heru; the process of divinisation of the dead got broader and broader over time, a trend of ever-increasing accessibility. Further, magicians – which were a substantial fraction of the literate class, in one way or another, which has interesting cosmological and theological implications in the modern day which I will get to at some point – included in their spell repertoires claims of being delegated by or actually being various gods; doctors would identify child patients with Heru-sa-Aset (Horus, son of Isis, the child Horus) in seeking their healing, and all over the place the divine world was heavily intertwined with and associated with the mortal.

If I take my reconstructionist hat off and put on my witchy hat, meanwhile, I have an obligation to the company of the gods not as a servant or a separate category of being, but as a member of that company. The presumption of separation is not present. I do not have to do special cleansing to clear away the effects of my mortality to be worthy of my own place; I have to do the work of fully expressing that mortality, for it is divine.

I find that a theological concept of miasma is fundamentally disrespectful to my gods, cutting them away from their deep engagement with the perilous and liminal times, and ignoring the prevalence of apotheosis for more than the direct scions of the powers. I will neither adopt it nor cater to it; I find it both offensive and ahistorical that other people presume that I should. I have no responsibility to other people’s theologies, and attempts to make me bow down to them are exactly as welcome from other polytheists as they are from Christians.

(And, bluntly, I’ve gotten a fucking great lot more of it from pagans, heathens, and polytheists than I have from practitioners of mainstream monotheistic religions. This is partly a factor of where I have lived, but it is also facts on the ground. If you want to say you’re better than a mainstream monotheist, try actually doing better.)

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