For the third question for the Kemetic Roundtable: The Egyptian Gods and You!
Do I need a main deity to practice Kemeticism?
No, I don’t think you do. However, many people want to find a main deity for several reasons. For one, it’s a default position for monotheistic religions. There’s one Big Guy, and that’s who you get. I think to some degree, many of us have absorbed the idea that we should still be dealing with one god from our culture, even if we didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing. Many neo-pagan groups have a strong ‘you should have a single patron’ attitude too. If you feel like you need one, consider if it’s something you really need or want, or if it’s an attitude you’ve picked up from other people.
When starting out, faced with tens or hundreds of deities, there’s a natural impulse to simplify, to find one or two to get started. If you want to set up a shrine around an icon, you have to know which icon to buy or make. That’s probably one of the main driving factors.
There is certainly precedent for the ancients not limiting themselves. In Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt, by Lynn Meskell, she mentions that “praying to a range of deities was seen as more effective than to a single god.” When people traveled, they took the time to visit the shrines of the local deities. She quotes several letters sent home by the scribe Thutmose, who worked during the reigns of Ramesses 9 through 11: “Every single day I am calling upon every god and every goddess by whom I pass to keep you alive, to keep you healthy, and to let me see you when I return and fill my eyes with the sight of you.” He advises his relatives to “Call upon Amun of the Thrones of the Two Lands, Meretseger, Amenophis, Nofretari, Amon of the Beautiful Encounter, Hathor, Mistress of the West, Amun, Holy of Place, and the great and august Ogdoad to bring me back prospering and let me arrive back home down in Egypt from the far off land.”
I’ve seen complaints that some people are following a “Pokemon” religion, collecting as many deities as they can get their hands on. (As we’ve seen with the scribe Thutmose, there’s certainly precedent for that!) But in practice today it seems to be more about jumping from one pantheon to another in a haphazard way. Some of them seem to have the attitude that all the gods are one anyway, so they’ll pick a single aspect- like “mean, angry goddess” and find them in every culture.
To me, the “main deity” question seems like asking “Do I need to have one main friend? How many friends is too many?” Most of us went through that phase when we were children, but as adults we have friends in many contexts and for many reasons. You might have friends at work, helping each other out and commiserating about the boss or customers. Old friends from school, people who share the same interests online, and friends who will go to the yarn store with you. You don’t expect one person to fulfill all those roles.
The same thing is true for the netjeru. They have different strengths and interests. If you’re gardening, Min or Wesir (Osiris) might be your go-to netjeru. For music or dance, Hethert (Hathor), Bast, Bes, or Ihy. Deep personal transformation? Perhaps Set or Nut? And these aren’t one-dimensional gods – Hethert, Bast, and Bes are fierce protectors as well. Some may appeal to you for no clear reason.
Thankfully, the attitude that men should only work with a god, and women only with a goddess, is pretty much absent from Kemeticism.
If so, how do I get a main deity?
If you decide you want one, there are several possibilities. If you’re a member of a group that divines deities for members, like Kemetic Orthodoxy, you’re all set. You follow the procedure they’ve set down. I don’t know how other groups might do this, but the Rite of Parent Divination is a method from Kemetic Orthodoxy.
In ancient Egypt, a young person would have been most familiar with the Gods of their city, or Nome Gods. We don’t have Nome Gods for our cities, and beginners are most likely to pick a popular god they’ve heard of, which usually turns out to be Bast, Anubis (Yinepu), or possibly Isis. The Rite of Parent Divination or RPD is a modern, optional Kemetic Orthodox rite created to assign a participant one or two “parent” deities, and ‘beloved’ deities. The parent deities don’t need to be one male and one female. The divination is carried out by the use of cowrie shells, and you can read a description of it here.
“Sit around and see who shows up” is another possibility, which Devo mentions in her Kemetic Starter Guide. This can work well for some people, but not for others. If you don’t have a strong ‘god radio’ it may not do you much good. You could also watch for signs- things you see in your daily life, or even in dreams. Of course, you’ll have to use your judgment on if the ‘signs’ are common things you’d see anyway, but you’re noticing them now. For instance, when I started working with divination, I saw scorpions depicted on a lot of different things, and they’re not a common sight otherwise. Could it be Selket waving a hand, saying she’s interested in helping? Possibly. However, red-tailed hawks are very common here, sitting on power lines, watching the road, flying around. Just seeing some hawks probably wouldn’t be much of an indicator for me.
It might be possible to divine your own deities, or find someone else to do it. I’m not aware of anyone doing this, outside of the Kemetic Orthodox RPD, but it’s a possibility.
Nome is where the <3 is…
One of the ideas I’ve had recently is to look more closely at the gods of the Egyptian Nomes. If you’re trying to find a deity, I’d suggest investigating them. For one thing, most of the famous Egyptian gods are closely tied to the royal funerary cult, and to kingship in general. A lot of that may not be relevant to your life. By contrast, the Nome gods were city and regional gods who were instrumental in the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and historically they worked with a wide range of concerns. There are sometimes a group of them for a given nome, sometimes arranged in a triad of mother, father, child.
If you want to start researching deities, looking at the different nomes, one-by-one, and researching the groups of gods associated with them might be a good way to get started. The groups are usually connected in some way, so their mythology or functions may interact.
There are fewer people (sometimes none!) pestering the nome deities, so you may find that they’re not as busy (maybe you won’t get a busy signal or be stuck talking to one of their netjeri), and they might be very appreciative of your offerings and dedication.
Am I obligated to learn everything I can about my main deity?
No, you’re not obligated, but it would be extremely smart of you to do so. Otherwise you have no idea who you are dealing with, for good or ill.
I’ll give Djehuty (Thoth) as an example. Everyone knows him as the ibis-headed god of wisdom and writing. A nerdy guy. Likes chai tea. Harmless. Well, mostly harmless anyway.
In Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods by Dimitri and Christine Favard-Meeks (p 44 & 45) they tell of a dispute between the god Babi and Thoth, judged by the two Enneads. “… (Babi) accused Thoth of pilfering offerings intended for Re. One of Thoth’s responsibilities was to apportion offerings among the gods: the accusation was, consequently, a serious one, bearing as it did on a matter of vital importance. … The injustice involved here was the most flagrant in that the accusation Babi had brought against Thoth was perfectly well founded- we know this from other sources, and that the members of the two Enneads were aware of this matter.” Babi loses and Thoth manages to talk himself out of trouble, even though the gods know he’s guilty.
Meeks gives another source of a well-informed dead man who blackmailed Thoth by threatening to reveal how he stole offerings. “Thoth, god of the moon, had in fact manipulated time so as to cut the lunar month back to less than the ideal thirty days. He was this able to divert all unattributed offerings to his own use in the time that elapsed between the shortened and thirty-day month. We learn, moreover that the affair was more serious than it appears. Thoth was alleged to have served as Seth’s accomplice in the stealing of certain parts of Osiris’s dismembered body, doubtless with an eye to putting off the day when it would be reconstituted, thus disturbing, precisely, the flow of time.” There’s also the story of him gambling with Khonsu to help the goddess Nut give birth to her children. Certainly it was for a good cause, but Khonsu was permanently damaged by that trick.
In the stories about the Book of Thoth, the Magician Naneferkaptah learns the location of the book of heka formulae, and retrieves it from the bottom of the Nile. As punishment, Djehuty causes his young son and wife to fall off the boat and drown. When their bodies are found and temporarily brought back to life, they tell him that they’ve been killed because he has Djehuty’s book. At least in this instance, he doesn’t seem to have been very supportive of the desire to learn.
If there’s a “Trickster God” in the Kemetic pantheon, Djehuty would probably be at the top of the list. In the stories of the gods, he’s Ra’s “fixer.” He gets the job done by any means necessary, and nobody wants to look too closely at his methods. There are also the Lord of Terror and Great of Heka, and Baboon aspects, which I won’t go into here, other than to suggest you take a look at a shrieking baboon.
With that knowledge, I’d think that Djehuty would not be a god you’d promise things to, then back out or fail to deliver. From the other direction, maybe you desperately need help with something, perhaps Djehuty’s “get out the sledgehammer and get it done” approach is exactly what you need.
I’m not writing this to discourage you from working with Djehuty. My point is that even the most innocuous-looking of the netjeru have functions and aspects that don’t show up on the wikipedia entry or “Dummies Guide to the Netjeru,” and it might be well worth your while to find out who they are and what they do!
Am I able to say no to a deity that shows up at my shrine?
Certainly! I’d suggest learning everything I could about them before telling them to take a hike, because your impression of them may be limited (see above!) I’d also be respectful and tell them why.
I think personality and learning style also figures into this. Thinking back to when I was a serious music student, there were some teachers who were a perfect fit for other students, but a miserable failure for me to work with. And the converse was true as well. You’d think by now the netjeru would know by now that not every person responds the same way, but who knows? Maybe some just don’t care. If you’ve got free will, you should be able to choose what path you take. And there are certainly a lot of paths.
In Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods by Dimitri and Christine Favard-Meeks, available from Amazon.