How do you prepare for doing a ritual? What is “ritual purity“? To understand it, we need to understand W’ab.
What is W’ab?
“W’ab” is a term that is translated as “pure” or “clean.” ( If I understand correctly, the ‘ simply means the “a” has an “ah” sound, so it rhymes with “Bob” or “Mob.”) There’s a problem with this translation for us. Our interpretation and cultural baggage sends us in the wrong direction. A similar situation exists with the word “Ma’at,” which is sometimes translated as “order” or “truth.” A definition that’s good enough for an exhibit card in a museum or an “all about ancient Egypt” book will probably not be good enough for practicing Kemeticism as a living religion.
When we think “pure,” we think of something in its original, untouched state. Pure water, pure snow- they’re completely clean and fresh, with nothing else in them. Virginal. You’re either pure, or you’re not.
I’ve talked to people who can’t do a ritual because they think they can’t say the words “I am pure.” They say “It would be a lie.” That’s a completely wrong notion, caused by our misunderstanding of “pure” in this context.
The glyph for w’ab is a jar with a stream of water coming out of it, on legs. The legs give it the sense of “to bring,” making it a process, not a fixed state! It means making pure, not being pure.
When we state “I am pure!” we are performing heka, a magical act. Our statement, and whatever other preparations we do makes it true.
I wrote a post about the process last year, called “bathtime,” which gave a few basics about “ritual purity” and preparation.
Most of what we know about Kemetic ritual comes from the walls and papyri of the huge state temples of Egypt. The temple at Karnak was said to employ 81,000 people! We do have some clues to the religion of the skilled workers at Deir el-Medina, and know that they kept shrines in their homes. From what I’ve read, they didn’t have big pools to bathe in, and the standards must have been very different from those followed by the professional priests.
In a historical context, I suspect that many of the rules and prohibitions were rooted in “no stinks in the shrine.” The netjeru were said to have a particular incense-like scent, and incense was burned to purify and “make divine.” Thorough bathing was necessary in that hot climate to avoid competing with the incense, flowers, and other sweet-smelling offerings.
Many of the temple rituals took hours to perform. It would make sense to avoid any food or drink that might have a diuretic or laxative effect to avoid interrupting a ritual. Foods that could cause flatulence would also be bad in the ‘competing smells’ category.
A temple with a huge staff of priests can afford to be choosy about who is performing a particular ritual. If one priest had the sniffles, there were plenty of others standing by…
Most of us have working plumbing available, so the ‘clean’ part is relatively easy. No more worrying about crocodiles getting into the sacred lake. One of the main functions I see for the bathing-and-preparing ritual is making a mental break between your daily life and “ritual time.” It’s an extra boost that helps you align yourself for communicating with the Netjeru.
To beginners, I’d say to remember that many of these requirements came from practical concerns. If natron makes your skin break out, use something else to clean. Natron was what the Egyptians used as soap. If you want to use it ritually, a tiny pinch in a bowl of water is plenty. The same is true for having a special ritual garment. It’s a nice item to have, but you shouldn’t let a lack of one keep you from getting started.
The other Kemetic Roundtable answers to this question are linked here!
(Thanks to the Rev. Tamara Siuda for pointing out the w’ab jar has legs in one of her teaching chats!)
This is my first post for The Kemetic RoundTable, a cooperative blog project. Every two weeks we’ll give our answers to a different question to help people to get started. The links for each question will be given in a post on the KRT website, building a beginner-friendly resource.
We hope that the variety of answers and approaches to each question will help dispel some of the fear and anxiety that newbies often feel, and help promote a more harmonious Kemetic community. If you’re interested in helping, you can learn more here.