Kemeticism: Esoteric or Exoteric? ( Kemetic Roundtable #02 )


Hawkodile – Kelsey Museum, Ann Arbor, MI USA

Question: How do you survive fallow time?

Last year I wrote about “fallow times,” a period when nothing is working for us, in my Dry Spells post, so I’d like to look at this question from a different direction. You’re probably familiar with the term Esoteric:

Esotericism or Esoterism signifies the holding of esoteric opinions or beliefs, that is, ideas preserved or understood by a small group or those specially initiated, or of rare or unusual interest. The term derives from the Greek ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos), a compound of ἔσω (esô): “within”, thus “pertaining to the more inward”, mystic. Its antonym is “exoteric”…. Examples of esoteric religious movements and philosophies include Alchemy, Astrology, Anthroposophy, early Christian mysticism, Gnosticism, Magic, Mesmerism, Rosicrucianism, Taoism, Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, the Alawites, the Christian Theosophy of Jacob Böhme and his followers, and the Theosophical currents associated with Helena Blavatsky and her followers. Wikipedia: Esoteric.

But less familiar with Exoteric:

The term exoteric is mostly used in conjunction with religions and spirituality… in which the teachings shift the believer’s focus away from the exploration of the inner self and towards the adherence to rules, laws and an individual God. The term exoteric may also reflect the notion of a divine identity outside and different from the identity of a human, whereas the esoteric notion claims that the divine is to be discovered within the human identity. One step further, the pantheistic notion suggests that the divine and the material world are one and the same. Wikipedia: Exoteric.

The Esoteric side:

So, which is Kemeticism? As we’ve seen, esoteric can have many meanings. We could certainly say that modern Kemeticism is esoteric, in that it’s a rare or unusual interest. There just aren’t that many Kemetics out there! From the sense of a secret tradition revealed through initiation, a few contemporary groups do this. For example, some Kemetic Orthodox members participate in a Weshem-ib (“testing of the heart” ) Ordeal to become Shemsu-Ankh.

Historically, priests must have received some sort of special training and knowledge not available to the public, but we don’t have anything like a course of study. Training for a singer or someone who managed the clothing of the god could have been quite different from for someone who read the ritual texts. Literacy rates were extremely low, and most of the population probably picked up most of their religious knowledge through a process of folk-osmosis. We’re also not sure how much of the Mystery Cult tradition actually came from Egypt. It’s possible that parts of the Ancestor Ritual or the Twelve Hours of the Night were performed by living people, as suggested in My Heart My Mother by Alison Roberts.

But the definition of esoteric I have in mind is a focus on exploration of the inner self. This has been one of the mainstays of neo-paganism. Tess Dawson identifies it with the neo-romantic movement, and has contrasted the philosophy in Two Winding Rivers: The Changing Face of the Pagan Movement:

The majority of the Pagan movement, whether they realize it or not, tend to support a neo-romanticist philosophy. Romanticism is “a movement in literature, philosophy, and art which developed in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th cc. Starting from the ideas and attitudes of Rousseau in France and from the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany, it held that classicism, dominant since 16th c., denied expression to [hu]man’s emotional nature and overlooked [her/]his profound inner forces. Romanticism is above all an exaltation of individual values and aspirations above those of society. […] Through its concern with the hidden forces in man, Romanticism exerted a profound influence on modern thought, and opened the way e.g. to psychoanalysis” (from New Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus of the English Language). Neo-romanticism, of course, means “new Romanticist” and follows in the footsteps of its predecessor. Neo-romanticists often focus on self, self expression, individuality, self enrichment, imagination, rebellion against the establishment, and love/worship of nature. In addition, they adopt philosophies from such thinkers as Freud, Jung, James G. Frazer, and Joseph Campbell. Often theories, or ideas based upon those theories, are considered truisms to the majority Pagans. I see this neo-romanticism is a natural reaction when people are fleeing the religion of their birth—usually Christianity, and sometimes Judaism—often a dogmatic monotheism. As refugees of one of these monotheistic religions, people have a natural desire to rebel against authority, to embrace nature since their previous religions may have shunned it, and to see deities as archetypes or facets of one overarching divine force. Instead of submitting to church authority, for the first time a Pagan has the opportunity to free expression and deciding what is spiritual to her or him.

The focus on the inner self can run the gamut from seriously working through problems in your life and gaining new perspectives to self-indulgent navel-gazing. It is widespread in modern paganism, so it’s easy to assume that it’s the norm and should be the core of everything. In many of the esoteric traditions, deities aren’t truly “real.” They’re symbols, archetypes, or a construct to focus your mind.

Another way of looking at this is that on the esoteric side, things are being done for you, either by your deities(s), yourself, or other people. All those actions focus on you.

The Exoteric dimension:

Historically-Informed religions have another dimension, an outward-focused or exoteric one. Again, to quote Tess’s article:

Reconstruction, revivalism, and polytheism often focus on deities and community and/or kinship, and their religious structure and beliefs have their foundations in history. People who practice a historic-rooted religion tend to see religion less as personal development or therapy for the individual, and more as being in the service of the deities and the community.

The focus is on things outside yourself: Service to the deities and the community. Worship, honoring, helping, building. Living in Ma’at, in the way you interact with others (what Jan Assmann calls connective justice). It also means treating the netjeru as real beings instead of archetypes or tricks to focus our minds.

There’s certainly a lot of evidence for the exoteric side of ancient Egyptian religion: Building huge temples, creating icons of the netjeru, giving them offerings, celebrating their festivals, the focus on community.

The Fallow Times / Dry Spells / Desert-Dwelling:

If the dry spells or living in a perpetual desert are times when nothing is working for us, we don’t need to sit around waiting for something to happen. Perhaps it’s an indication that our work is elsewhere- outside ourselves! Worshiping or honoring the netjeru, without expecting an immediate return, doing heka for others, adding your prayers to theirs, strengthening and improving the Kemetic community (or the world in general) are all ways we can develop the exoteric side of our practice.

Even when the esoteric side is working well, it’s probably worth balancing it with exoteric work.


Esoteric work with a purpose: The Cycle: 1-The Pit, 2- The River, 3- Making the Halves Whole

Book reference: My Heart My Mother: Death and Rebirth in Ancient Egypt  by Alison Roberts (Book Depository) or (Amazon)