This post is the first of many I intend to make as part of the Kemetic Round Table, a loose organization of various Kemetic bloggers. Our aim is to answer some of the most common beginner questions with our diverse opinions and different levels of experience, providing a wealth of good options for the Kemetic novice to explore. For more information on the Kemetic Round Table, please take a look over here!
As many other Kemetics have noticed, ritual purity – and what exactly one does to purify oneself – is rife with personal interpretations and has an immense variety of possibilities. To each their own, says I, but that statement alone would make for an awfully short post! So I would like to share my own practices and takes on purity, with a respectful nod to the fact that what was done in antiquity by a dedicated priest-force may not be feasible or necessary for a singular domestic Kemetic. One of the lovely things about being a soft reconstructionist is being able to choose what still works from antiquity, adapt what else might work, and leave the rest lie with the old ones. And ultimately, there are two primary components to purification to consider: physical cleansing, and mental-emotional-spiritual clearing and focusing.
While ancient Egyptians purified themselves a variety of strictly regulated ways, including avoiding certain foods, shaving all hair, wearing only plant products, and extensive purification with water and/or natron, modern Kemetics enjoy a very sanitized lifestyle within finely controlled environments. In most cases, our modern hygiene products are perfectly sufficient for the physical requirements of cleanliness, and our food and water are sanitary and safe for consumption with minimal effort. To be sure, natron or salt has historical, as well as spiritual, properties that make it a wonderful addition to purifications, especially for the more reconstructionist-oriented Kemetics. And, of course, if participating in group or temple rites that have specific requirements for purity, one should do one’s best to observe those. Still, for most solitary work, we find that our standard hygiene will take care of the physical needs of purification.
However, for the purposes of purifying one’s mind and spirit and focusing for the ritual… The best thing I can say is to find what works for you and go with it. Some Kemetics avoid certain foods; many avoid animal products; many also avoid being in shrine or touching their altar while sick, injured, menstruating, or deeply distraught. Some strive to emulate the high standards for priest purifications from ancient Egypt; others are content if they don’t have fresh oil stains on their jeans. Wear only linen, or wear clean white clothes, or wear clean clothes, or wear what you’re wearing and have worn all day. Bathe first, shower first, or just dust off. It’s between you and your gods in the end; you enter shrine to be with Them, and if you and They are fine with grass stains and cat hairs, then there’s no reason not to go with that! (Note the emphasis on you being happy with your level of cleanliness/purity; if it doesn’t work for you, don’t settle for it. Likewise, some gods seem to be more attentive to purifying than others and may have higher standards.)
For myself, I am Kemetic Orthodox, and I do perform and attend rituals and celebrations that require a minimum purity. In brief, this entails blessing natron and water and rinsing oneself with it, full-body at best and mouth/orifices at least, and being in a generally high state of physical and mental health. The state rite of senut, in particular, has detailed purification at the beginning, invoking both heka and literal washing to cleanse the body and spirit to prepare for ritual.
While I deeply admire the meanings and depth behind the heka and symbolism employed in senut, I do not perform full-on senut very often. That level of structure and precision is something I personally reserve for Big Things; I can’t maintain it on a daily basis without stressing unduly or developing an avoidance. I am a working-overtime polymath with finite energy and time, and I do my best to both perform with quality and to keep my practices efficient and effective… so I optimize!
I have developed a comfortable form of on-the-fly quick purification, inspired by some of senut’s guidelines. In particular, before going into shrine at all or before creating (painting, in particular) for or with Netjer/u, I will wash my hands with soap. I repeat “I am pure” four times as I do so, once while rubbing my palms together, once with one palm over the back of the opposite hand, again with the bottom hand on top, and once more with palms together again. It takes less than thirty seconds and helps get me in the mindset of being clean-handed and ready to touch important objects… as well as takes care of the practical, mundane parts of purification. In addition, depending on what I’m doing, I’ll also brush my teeth or use mouthwash beforehand, to make sure my mouth is clean and prepared to speak heka.
For taboos or common impurities, as briefly mentioned at the beginning of this post, my own background in eclectic paganism has created a certain lenience. In particular, I see nothing “unclean” or impure about menstruation, provided it is not a physical or mental distraction in shrine, and I don’t consider it a bad thing to show up in shrine if one is deeply upset, provided one has enough presence of mind to remain safe with candles. Many folks struggle with purity standards being a measuring stick of worthiness to come before the gods, and those in particular are two areas where one’s self-esteem can nosedive all too easily. Women who are menstruating are not impure in my eyes; people who are depressed, anxious, or grieving are not impure. While I certainly understand and respect the attitude of bringing one’s best into shrine, before the gods, I am of the viewpoint that the gods already know us at our best and at our worst. If I am sick and sneezing and coughing and wretched, I am unlikely to sit in shrine, but that’s mostly for practical reasons – I’d rather not clean snot off the offering plate! If I am deeply sad, I find comfort and peace, and often release, in the presence of Netjer at my altar.
As I mentioned earlier: to each their own. Rise to the standards that ring right to you and to your gods; respect the requirements of the rite or the temple, if any. Kemeticism is a living practice, and it is not all written on the walls; we can adapt and grow while honoring what was as our foundation and inspiration.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out the other takes on ritual purity by my fellow Round Table bloggers!