Kemetic Rationalism

Egyptian Sacred Sculptures British Museum - Kemetic RationalismThe view to which my experiences (and intuitions) lead me is something for which the world in general seems to have no handy word or phrase.  I have felt the necessity to coin my own term: Kemetic Rationalism.

Kemetic stems from the ancient Egyptians’ name for their country Kemet.  I take the adjective Kemetic from a group of people (based in America) who describe their religion as Kemetic Orthodox.  By this they mean that they have adopted – as nearly as it is possible to do so – the religion of ancient Egypt.  I add the qualification as nearly as it is possible to do so because Kemetic religion was destroyed by the rise of the aggressive and intolerant cult of Christianity.  And (obviously) there are no ancient Egyptians left to consult on religious matters (or on anything else, if it comes to that).

In the year 1800, no one knew very much about Kemetic religion.  Nobody was able to read the scripts of ancient Egypt.  The only evidences for Kemetic religion were the writings of Hellenes and Romans – and what could be inferred from Egyptian art and other physical remains.

It is evidently true that some Hellenic and Roman writers spoke with Egyptian priests, but what they tell us should not be accepted uncritically.  One problem is that what they have to tell us does not reflect Egyptian civilisation at its zenith, but comes from a period of decline and increasing foreign influence.  In fact, followers of the Kemetic Orthodoxy specifically discount late Egyptian writings, feeling that the religion of the time had been debased by foreign influences.

A further problem with the accounts of Hellenes and Romans is that they viewed late Kemetic religion through the filters of their own assumptions.  Were we able to speak directly to those late Kemetic priests, our impressions of their religion would undoubtedly be significantly different from the impressions of Hellenic and Roman authors.  Nor do we know for how long or in what depth the Hellenic and Roman writers spoke to the Egyptian priests.  For the most part, I suspect, the conversations were brief and superficial.  The conversations, moreover, are likely to have been conducted through interpreters – giving plenty of scope for misunderstanding.  It is also doubtful whether they asked the questions we would wish to ask.

If the accounts of Hellenic and Roman writers are heavy with misinterpretation, how much more so were early attempts to interpret artistic and other physical remains of the vanished civilisation?  There are numerous false impressions about Kemetic religion that one might draw from physical remains.  For example, Kemetic iconography often depicts deities as animal-headed people.

It might be supposed that deities are actually imagined to have such an appearance.  In fact, of course, we cannot directly see divinities at all – and they do not, as such, have any appearance.  Depicting goddesses or gods with human bodies allows them, without difficulty, to be shown as performing actions.  It is, for this reason, a useful convention.  (The actions they are shown as undertaking are – in the nature of things – generally symbolic.  For example, a divinity may be shown presenting an ankh – the hieroglyph for life – to a person.  This represents the deity giving life.)  The animal heads make some kind of statement about the goddess or god depicted.  They have to do with the association of the deity with the animal and with shared qualities between animal and divinity.  Since these images can act as a body for the deity, giving the goddess or god a continued presence in a specific place, the images need to be harmonious to be effective – and to be pleasing to the divinity in question.

In the year 1900, we still knew too little about Kemetic religion for anyone – in a meaningful sense – to adopt it.  Over the last eighty years or so, there had been enormous gains in our knowledge of the ancient cultures of the Nile.  Scholars could now translate ancient Egyptian texts, albeit sometimes with renditions that are now no longer acceptable.

There was a second block to the understanding of scholars in 1900 – a general inability to place preconceptions to one side.  Hellenic and Roman writers had spoken with Egyptian priests, filtering what they heard through the assumptions of the classical world.  Too many of the scholars of 1900 filtered their findings through a set of assumptions further removed from those of the Egyptian priests – assumptions blended from Christianity and nineteenth century science (a pair of uneasy bed fellows).

By the year 2000, we had started to know enough about Kemetic religion for someone – in a meaningful sense – to adopt it.  Most certainly, the bulk of what we knew about ancient Egypt and its religion had been discovered in the last hundred years.  Arguably, most of it had been discovered in the last fifty years.  Although there have been new archaeological discoveries in Egypt – some of them important – they are not the major factor in the advance of our knowledge.  More significantly, scholars have re-evaluated the existing evidence.  An important part of this has been philological work – gaining a better understanding of the ancient Egyptian language.  Just as significant as the linguistic work, I think, is the way in which many scholars have actively attempted to put to one side their preconceptions.  A more phenomenological approach (of which more later) has yielded a much better understanding of things that (in theory) we already knew.

It would be wrong to say that we are entirely familiar with the religion – or, indeed, that we will ever know it completely.  However, we do now know it sufficiently well for someone (in a meaningful sense) to adopt it.

Actually, I doubt whether it is possible for anyone to be completely familiar with any religion.  Religion is about the unknowable.  To know it fully would be to turn it into something other than religion.

So – for the first time in almost two millennia, Kemetic religion is – in its essence – available to those who would seek it…  Or those whom the Kemetic deities would seek…  So much for the Kemetic part of Kemetic rationalism, what of the rationalism?  At first sight, rationalism might seem to sit uneasily with the religion of ancient Egypt.

My first thought on this is that it would be more uneasy for a follower of the Kemetic religion to adopt a point of view that denied or opposed rationalism.  Unlike religions with an unbroken history since their inception, Kemetic religion depends on rationalism to reveal it.  The decipherment of hieroglyphs belongs to the age of reason – and every extension in our knowledge since then has depended upon the exercise of reason.

A further thought is that our reason is a gift from the gods – and, if the gods did not wish us to use it, they surely would not have given it to us.

Beyond this, it seems to me that Kemetic religion sits more easily with rationalism than any other set of religious ideas of which I am aware.  The absolutism characteristic of most religions is alien to the Kemetic outlook.  The religion functions on a multi-value logic that can embrace both the rational and irrational.  It did so in ancient times and it can do so now.  I hope that this will become clear in the explorations that follow – explorations of abstract ideas, of my personal history, and of the way I perceive the world to be.