This is the first in a series of posts that is part of a new Kemetic blogging project called the Kemetic Round Table that aims to provide practical, useful information for Kemetic practitioners of any stripe from beginners to more experienced practitioners. Check the link here for more information about the project, and click here to see responses to this topic from the other bloggers taking part in this project.
Ritual purity is a common thing in many religious traditions. Indeed, many Pagan ritual formats include pre-ritual purifications, and modern Kemetic practices are no different. It’s something I got used to when I became Wiccan over a decade ago, and continued doing as I wandered around as an eclectic Kemetic Pagan for a while, and then as a Kemetic Orthodox shemsu for six years. I’ve done it in many ways, using oils in bath water to herbal rinses to incense and water and salt, to the Senut purifications that are part of the Kemetic Orthodox tradition.
Ritual purity is important, and being physically and mentally clean before approaching shrine is a good thing to do regularly. It’s something I’ve had drilled into me since I became Kemetic Orthodox, and I’ve brought that with me when I left the House a couple of years ago.
There were many ancient prohibitions and purity rules that we know of today, mainly from the Temple cults. These included rules about body hair, physical cleanliness, blood, dietary, and sexual rules, as well as what to not wear, and how to dress and prepare yourself. Shadows of the Sun has done an excellent overview of historical purity rules, so I’ll point you over there, rather than repeat them here.
For those new to this blog, while I am mostly Kemetic in my practices, I practice a Graeco-Roman-Kemetic polytheistic syncetism, and what I do will not always be strictly Kemetic, nor particularly reconstructionist. Any non-Kemetic aspects to my practice will be stated as such, so no one’s confused. Not everyone wants to do syncretism like I do, but I still think it’s important to talk about how I do things, because I think even fewer syncretists talk about this sort of thing than Kemetics do.
Y’see, I actually like ritual purifications as a process. Ritual purifications are an awesome thing. I like taking that time to clean myself and dress before approaching shrine. I can’t tell you if there’s actually some magical woo-woo going on, or if it’s just a highly effective psychological thingo, but it works, no matter how I do it.
That said, I am really quite lazy about ritual purifications. It may be a result of not being much of a ritualist. Don’t get me wrong, I like doing ritual, and long ritual to mark festivals and High Days and Sabbats and Other Important Things is really great, and for those kind of things, a properly done purification rite is needed to complete the process. But for my daily devotions, I really don’t do much in the way of purifications. That the rites get done is more important than faffing about with purifications beforehand. I’d never get the rites done if I spent all my time worrying about whether I’d done the ritual purifications properly; that’s not the most important part of the rite, for me. Now maybe that’s not a problem for other people, but it is for me. It was part of what stopped me doing Senut as a Kemetic Orthodox shemsu: I worried too much about making sure the purifications were done properly and that I had food to offer every day, and thus, Senut rarely got done.
So because of that, I don’t really incorporate most of the traditional Temple purity rules in my own practice. Partly because it hasn’t been asked of me, and also because I don’t tend to open statues. My priestly role, such as it is and can be referred to in that manner, is not really about statue tending, and more about writing and reciting, and while these are just as important, they require a different focus, and a different way to approach purity. I am not being a High Priest in an ancient temple. I am a modern solitary practitioner in a world without the State cult. I tend to my shrines in my bedroom, and worship very much in a highly personal and domestic way. That’s why my daily rites honour Hestia as a household god first, and that domestic focus changes how I see ritual purity as part of daily practice. (That, and because, hey, syncretism is grand, and She owns our hearth, so.)
Like I said above, I don’t do proper ritual purifications for my daily devotions. I find those are much more effective for me in the context of a formal rite. For daily devotional rites, I don’t really find it as important. The minimum I do before my daily rites is to wash my hands and face, and brush my teeth. Mouth has to be clean if I am to recite the heka in the rite. If I’m showering instead, I have some special body wash that’s been mixed with purification oils that does the job. Then I brush my teeth, and then dress and prepare for ritual. I don’t have a bath, so that changes how I do my purifications. It’s simple, and it fits seamlessly into my normal routine. It’s easier to keep to that, particularly when I’m working, and I might only have ten minutes to do rites before I leave for the day. Taking even that short amount of time to do it is better than not doing it at all.
As far as Kemetic purity rules go, I keep to the blood taboo, and I wait at least an hour after any sexual activity before I go to shrine. I make sure I am clean, or at least have done basic purifications before daily rites. I dress in white linen, or clean clothes at the very least, and cover my hair as is the custom in both Greek and Roman religions because it was asked of me by both Hekate and by Aset/Isis. I don’t go to shrine if I’m too tired or have a migraine, or if I’m otherwise unwell. It may not be the traditional way of doing things, but it suits me and my practices.
I don’t bother with shaving body hair, though. I keep to the ‘no animal products’ thingo, mostly, though that’s because I don’t actually have any to accidentally take into shrine, so I’m kind of keeping to it by default. We’re still negotiating about leather, though, because the existence of crocodile skin for use in ritual is a Thing I discovered existed in Roman Egypt times, and I’m curious about how you’d use that kind of thing today. Like the idea that Egyptian priests wore masks to ‘become’ the God in question. That kind of thing. I’m still looking into that, and we may need to negotiate around the leather prohibition if I end up with something like that to experiment with.
I don’t have any dietary restrictions, though. I know they existed for the priesthood in ancient times, but none of my Gods have really insisted on it for me. I am not going to say no if it is ever asked of me, though, but for now, I generally just try to eat as healthily as I can. I try not to feed it junk, though I am not always so good with this.
For festivals, I have my own formal purification rites in Kemetic and Roman style that I adhere to. I will say, though, that I do not use natron in my Kemetic purifications. This is mostly because, well, I have no skill at making the stuff, and I’d rather just use salt. Salt has its own purification properties, and I find it does the job. No, it’s not natron, but that’s never really been an issue. The words are more important, I’ve found. That act of reciting the heka stating that I am pure is more important than the fact I have used salt instead of natron. It may not be so for other people, but that’s how it is for me.
Keeping the blood taboo is a bit more complicated than I’ve made it seem, though. Because while I am female-bodied, and I bleed once a month, I don’t actually identify as female. I’m more transmasculine genderqueer, and I do see myself as kind of transgendered in the sense that my sex and gender do not match. I have no plans to transition (to what, I don’t know, but you get the idea), but that should not diminish my gender and how I feel about it. It hasn’t caused me much distress over the years (thank Gods), but it is enough that it causes problems with menstruation taboos.
Because of that, and my discomfort at having to not do ritual because my body bleeds, it’s required some negotiation surrounding the menstruation issue. I’ve always struggled to deal with it in the context of ritual purity. I adhered to the Kemetic Orthodox rules while I was part of that religion, but after I left the House two years ago, I was free to figure out a better way to organise it. I’m not female, so I don’t feel like I should have to be forced not to do ritual during this time for a female thing I can’t really do much about.
That time of menstruation is probably the most significant period of impurity for me. I don’t do purifications, or use my ritual body wash, because I’m still in an impure state. So I just wait til it’s over, and then I like doing a ritual purification for its own sake, similar to how Orthodox Jewish women go to the mikvah after that time to repurify themselves again. This is probably the most recent addition to my ritual purity practices, and that also feels really good, to have the time to scrub away that week’s worth of ritual impurities and feel clean again. Normally, I live by the rule that if I do my purifications, I do my rites, but this is the exception, because it’s just for the sake of cleansing after that period of impurity.
Amun has been the only god who has not wanted me in shrine when menstruating, and because of this, I would never approach Him at all while I’m menstruating. I discovered His aversion to blood in shrine early on in our relationship, and I’ve stuck to it out of respect for Him and His wishes. I also got the sense that He likes me resting during that time, too, so I can focus on myself, rather than on the Gods. I never feel His presence during menstruation, too, even though other gods are around.
I will put off major festival rites too, if they happen to fall during that time, because I know I can’t be ritually pure, nor can I touch things. I don’t touch God icons while I’m bleeding out of respect, and I don’t speak the ritual heka in my daily devotions, either. When I’m menstruating, it’s a different state, and while I usually only refrain from doing my daily rituals for the first day or so out of discomfort, I still want to do my daily rites, so I came up with a silent gestured version to do during that time until I can speak the rites again. The silent rite doesn’t require purifications, so I can still do it when I can’t be ritually pure, and not miss being in shrine.
All in all, I feel quite happy with how I handle ritual purity, actually, now that I look back on this entry. It isn’t strict with tradition, but it suits me and my needs, and I don’t feel like I’m suffering because of it. It works for me, and that’s my general gauge as to whether to keep something or not. If I can get into a ritual mindset with even the simple act of washing my hands and face, and brushing my teeth, I’m alright with that. I can still make an effort to be pure, even if it’s not to the exacting standards of the Temple priesthood. I don’t live in their world, so I’d rather do things my way. Now, maybe this won’t work for every Kemetic out there, and some of you may hate the idea of not doing proper purifications before daily rites, but that’s up to you, and I only present to you my way of doing things. It’s not the right way, or the only way. It’s just my way. That’s all I can really offer.